THROUGH MISTY EYES I stared at the casket in front of me, on braces that would soon lower my mother’s remains into the ground. It reminded me of another coffin, one that had been draped in the American flag. Two years ago I stood in this same cemetery -- crushed by grief -- my sobs unstoppable. The memory of that day remains imprinted in my mind forever.
The pungent, wet-earth smell of freshly upturned soil was like it had been the day Sean had been honored by a twenty-one gun salute. That June morning the sun had shone through the clouds for a brief minute, mocking my inconsolable sorrow. Today a fine mist hung heavy in the air around me. Beneath my high heels, wet grass brushed my ankles from the morning’s rain.
People headed to their cars parked along the curb of the cemetery drive. Church women wearing rain scarves stepped into the vehicles with their dark-suited husbands. Many had been busy the night before with pies and hot dishes, soon to partake of their labors in the church basement.
“We’ll see you at the church, dear,” called my mother’s cousin Phyllis, who dabbed at her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief. Her gray, wiry hair was stuffed into a black felt hat that matched her dress.
Neighbors and relatives murmured words of sympathy or placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. Tears did not stream from my eyes like they had at Sean’s funeral. My mother’s death had been a welcome relief from suffering.
“How are you holding up?” The man’s voice from behind caused me to turn around. Mike Rollins stood there, dressed in his black trench coat, his short black hair ruffled from the wind. Specks of rain stuck to the lenses of his thick-framed glasses. There was a telltale red dot on his neck from a razor nick.
Mike’s tall presence was a welcome shield against the sudden emotions that seized me. His hazel eyes with the thick brows usually carried a certain formality in his expression, but now his voice softened as he leaned toward me. “Juniper, it’s time to go back to the church. Let me take you.”
As if I didn’t have any say, Mike took my arm and walked me past the slowly moving vehicles to his parked minivan. At least for the moment, I was relieved that somebody else was taking charge. I’d had to carry the reins for quite a while, and when Mother had died close to a week ago, a flood of decisions had come down on my head.
At least now the funeral was over. I had held up okay until the memory of Sean’s coffin had unleashed my emotions. I really didn’t want to go back to the social gathering the church women had arranged. I just wanted to go home, to be alone and unwind.
In the car, Mike turned on the windshield wipers and let out a sigh. “Well,” he said as he pulled out into the stream of traffic, “what now, Juniper?”
I could only stare at him. This evoked the slightest twinge of a smile in him, causing his chin to look as square as his head.
“You’re the one with all the answers,” I said, and turned to gaze out the window. I didn’t want him to notice my trembling lip.
“If you mean the will ...” Mike began.
I swallowed my pain, then took a breath to compose myself. At least Mike had the decency in this moment not to bring up Sean. “My mother obviously did not believe I am capable of handling her affairs,” I said in a stronger voice than I felt I possessed. “So she named you as executor.”
“Look ... Juniper ... I’m not pleased with how this turned out any more than you are.” Mike signaled to change lanes. “Why Margaret named me personal representative of her estate is beyond me.”
“You have to understand,” I told Mike, “my mother was not an easy person to live with these last two years. In fact, she was downright hateful toward the end. She kept threatening to throw me out of her will and it looks like she has succeeded.”
“No, Juniper,” argued Mike. “She did not throw you out of her will. You’re very much a part of the estate. And if I’ve got anything to say about it, you’re going to come out of this just fine.” He sighed, then added, “But it’s not like Margaret had a ton of money stashed away, or investments -- or even real estate of any value.”
Yes, I thought to myself as we drove downtown toward the church, it all hinges on what Mike is going to say about my mother’s estate and what I get out of it. I knew she didn’t have a lot -- just the house, which wasn’t much --and a heap of medical bills that would have to be paid before I, as her sole beneficiary, would ever see a penny of it.
“There shouldn’t be a problem with keeping the house,” said Mike as if he were reading my mind. “I think once we ...”
“Mike, please, I don’t want to discuss Mother’s will right now, if you don’t mind.” I did not feel like dwelling on business matters at a time like this. I hadn’t expected this rush of grief over Sean to surface like it had. Soon we would arrive at the Presbyterian church annex and I’d have to face all those friends and relatives who were going to smother me with sentimentalities. Oh, what a wonderful woman Margaret Sutton was ... oh, your mother this ... your mother that ... and I would have to smile and pretend that I agreed with them.
Then there would be those who -- behind my back -- would whisper among themselves, It’s such a shame ... after losing the man she was going to marry ... the poor, poor girl ...
The truth was, my mother and I had been in a struggle for years, and yes, her Alzheimer’s had been the enemy -- not her, per se -- but even before the Alzheimer’s grew worse, Mother and I had our differences. I had agreed to come live with her -- and take care of her -- because she had asked me. At the time, I needed the distraction.
By late afternoon I was back home. Mike had dropped me off after I assured him I was all right and did not need his companionship. It had been a long day. I was tired and turned the telephone’s ringer off. I couldn’t deal with any more well-meaning relatives.
The evening descended on me and I felt the weight of it as though the walls were closing in around me. I had no interest in television. I picked up a magazine or two of my mother’s, but nothing grabbed my attention. Stacks of Mother’s magazines lay all around that she had received and never read. Toward the end she’d forgotten how.
I dreaded going to bed too soon. Being mid June, the days were long and it didn’t seem right to retire before dark. Outside I heard the neighbor’s lawn mower running. Mostly I didn’t want to lie in bed, thinking. I didn’t want to face what was ahead ... my future. I had put it off for two years, and now -- sooner or later -- I would have to make some decisions about what I was going to do with my life.
I was single and had not finished college. What did I have to offer the world? And what was out there for me? Even though I had spent the better part of my life right in this house in Great Bend, Kansas, I knew I didn’t want to stay here. I didn’t know what it was that nagged at me, but I knew eventually I wanted a life. I wanted to discover Juniper Sutton.
Two full years of my life had been devoted to taking care of a dying woman who didn’t even know I was her daughter the last weeks of her life. As hard as it had been, I hadn’t wavered from my self-imposed duty. She was my mother, after all, and it didn’t matter if she had treated me like dirt. I kept telling myself she was not responsible.
The next morning, after a halfway sleepless night, I fixed a grapefruit for breakfast and downed a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll, one left over from the funeral. The sun was out today. I peeked out the kitchen curtains and saw the heavy flow of traffic in the work rush. Perhaps soon I would be in that rat race again, commuting to some office job, or perhaps working in a retail shop like before. My job at the book store had been all right, and although it hadn’t paid much, I had enjoyed the people I met and especially liked browsing through the aisles of books.
At the book store is where I had met Sean Kimble. He had come in several times and seemed to linger around the organic farming books. About the third time he was there, we began talking, and I found out he worked as a salesman for the farm supply store in Great Bend. He was interested in agriculture and wanted to have his own farm and raise organic food. Sean was lean and somewhat tall, with a narrow nose, and hair so blond it was white. It wasn’t long before he found out I was available and we began dating.
I was living in my own apartment at the time. After high school, I tried attending college. I had always been interested in plants and animals, and wanted to major in wildlife biology. I hoped to one day get a job working outdoors. I had never had the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors really, but somehow it appealed to me. But I found the science classes too challenging, and instead of applying myself and studying harder to make it, I quit school and went to work in the office of the Division of Wildlife. I worked about a year, and then budget cuts occurred and I had to find another job. The book store hired me right away.
Sean asked me to marry him after we’d been dating a few months. It was shortly after that when Sean had an argument with his boss and quit his job at the farm store. I was shocked when he told me he had signed up to join the Marine Corps. His argument was that he needed money to buy the farm and fulfill his life-long dream. He was willing to sacrifice a few years of his life for his country in exchange for getting something in return.
I pleaded with him not to go. We’d find another way to raise the money. But he wouldn’t listen. Shortly after he went to boot camp, Sean was deployed and sent to the Middle East to fight. He was there a total of seven months, and then he lost his life in Iraq.
I was devastated. It was right at that time when my mother asked me to come home and take care of her. Rather than go to a nursing home, she wanted me to stay with her. I know my mother was frightened to death of what would happen to her, and I was in such turmoil over Sean’s death that I would grasp at anything. The diversion seemed to be a reprieve.
Mike Rollins had been a family friend for many years. His parents were prominent members of the community and had been good friends to my mother. She and Mike’s mother had become close during their volunteer work at the hospital. Mamie Rollins was active in the League of Women Voters, and always tried to get Mother to come to the meet-the-candidate nights. Mike’s father was Mother’s physician. Dr. Rollins had always been gentle and patient, coaching me on what to expect next with Mother’s condition. They had sent Mike off to college to be an accountant, and now he had his own business and was doing very well for himself.
I noticed that Mike made himself available to us quite often in the past year. If we ever needed anything, he was quick to come over and help solve the problem, whether it was fixing a leaky faucet or changing a yard light. During the big snowstorm that hit us in November, Mike had arrived with his snow blower and cleared our walks.
Mother doted on him and I often got the feeling she treated him as though he was the son she’d never had. He was the one who discussed her finances and helped get her affairs in order before her mental state deteriorated. She would get into fights with me and then call Mike the next day to rewrite her will. I always assumed he came over just to humor her, and he assured me nothing was changed. But at some point they had managed to name Mike as Mother’s executor.
I finished my coffee and cleared the dishes into the sink. After I got dressed, I walked into the room in which my mother had spent her last weeks. It had been too difficult for her to climb stairs, so we had fixed up a small room off the living area with a hospital bed and television. I cleared some of the reading material from her bedside tray, then decided to go through the desk. The roll-top oak piece of furniture had been one of her favorites, where she used to sit and write her bills and correspondence.
I rifled through one of the drawers and found stationery, blank envelopes, a set of felt tip pens and a small address book. There was a collection of bank statements, receipts and postcards she had saved over the years. In the next drawer I found a bundle of old letters tied together with a piece of blue yarn. A small box with a lid contained a stash of old photographs. I lifted the box out of the drawer and sat in her rocker to see what it contained.
There were some old pictures of relatives. I recognized my mother in a couple of them. She had kept a picture of this house as it was when she had first bought it twenty-two years ago. That had been right after my father died. I smiled at the cute snapshot of our dog, Porgy, a cream-colored cockerpoo we had when I was young. When Porgy ran out in the street one afternoon and got hit by a car, Mother put her foot down and said we would have no more pets.
I sighed, sad now that she had been so stubborn and not let me have an animal to raise. I had always envied my school friends who had dogs and cats. Even a caged bird would have been a companion to a lonely girl without siblings or a dad.
Then my eyes fell on a photograph of two men standing over a deer. They were dressed in outdoor clothes, heavy jackets, boots and stocking caps. One of the men cradled a rifle in his arms as he admired a beautiful buck that had been propped up to make it look as though it was still alive. I immediately turned the picture over and saw the writing on the back side, which read, “Fred and Nathaniel, Majestic Mountain, Colorado.”
Flipping the picture over again, I studied the faces of the two men. The one holding the rifle was my father, Nathaniel Sutton, and the other man had to be his brother, my Uncle Fred. I knew that Dad had a brother who lived in Colorado. I didn’t know much about him because Mother refused to talk about any of the relatives on my father’s side. I also knew that something tragic had happened, resulting in my father’s death twenty-two years ago. I had been only five at the time. There had been some kind of hunting accident, and Mother had told me Uncle Fred was to blame. Whenever I would bring up the subject, she would dismiss it immediately and scold me.
“Juniper, some things are just better left alone,” she would say. She had brought me up with the idea that hunting was a shameful pastime and all hunters were ruthless killers. This prejudice had been instilled in me, and yet my views had been challenged when Sean confessed to me that he enjoyed hunting and always looked forward to deer season in the fall.
Studying the faces closely, I saw the resemblance of the brothers. My father had been a man of medium height, with reddish-brown hair and a mustache, green eyes and a cheery face that was round and flushed much of the time. My early memories of him included a happy-go-lucky man who laughed a lot and enjoyed life. He had always loved the outdoors. Uncle Fred looked older, with a stern face and a beard. I could tell he was proud of my father’s trophy in this photo.
I set the photograph on my lap and stared at the mirror on the wall beside me. My own long hair was light-colored with a tinge of red, kind of frizzy and thick, which I usually kept pulled back, ponytail fashion. My bangs were parted to one side, emphasizing my slender face. My eyebrows were naturally light and finely arched. My green eyes had the same sparkle in them as my father’s had, and my high cheek bones had long ago lost the faint freckles I had detested in my childhood.
I went through the rest of the photographs, and then started to replace the box. Before I set it back in the drawer, I pulled out the picture of my father, my uncle and the deer, and decided to hold onto it. I knew that my parents had lived during their first years of marriage in Colorado Springs where I had been born. So, naturally, I was interested in Colorado. I knew they had chosen the name Juniper for me because of my father’s favorite tree, which grew in the high country near one of the places he liked to hunt.
A loud knock on the door jarred me from my reminiscence. I placed the photo on top of the desk as I went to answer it. Mike stood outside, dressed in black slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt with a paisley tie.
“You didn’t answer your phone,” he told me. I couldn’t tell if he sounded annoyed with me or was just mocking.
“Come on in, Mike. I turned the ringer down last night. I guess I forgot to turn it back on.” I immediately went to the telephone in the hallway and turned the ringer back on.
Mike followed me in. “I was just on my way over to pick up a set of books and thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.”
I sighed. “I was just going through some of my mother’s things.”
He turned toward the den. “Oh? Anything of interest?”
I folded my arms. “Not really. Just some old photographs.”
“Want to get a bite of supper with me later?” he asked. “We can discuss what’s in the will.”
My resistance flared up again. I rolled my eyes. “Well ...”
Mike started toward the door. “I’ve gotta go. I’ll come by after work ... sometime around six. How does Wild Bill’s Buffet sound?”
I stared at him with my mouth open. “But ...”
“See you at six, Juniper.” Mike was already out the door, headed toward his car. I stood there with my arms still folded, thinking ... Wild Bill’s Buffet? How were we going to discuss Mother’s will in a place like that?
Later on, I heard the mailman drop the mail off and went to the door to get it. There was the usual selection of bills, advertisements and a couple of letters addressed to me that appeared to be sympathy cards. One was from the Petersons, some friends of the family that lived over in the next county. The other one was in a pink envelope with a rainbow printed across the back of it. A white return address label had been stuck over the rainbow that said it was from Rosalee Sutton. There was a post office box number and then Wade City, Colorado.
Who was Rosalee Sutton? And where was Wade City? I carried the mail to the kitchen, where I had been in the middle of preparing myself a salad for lunch. I quickly opened the envelope from the Petersons, and sure enough, it was a card expressing their deepest sympathy. Then I sat down and stared once again at the pink envelope with the rainbow on the back. The slanted handwriting, very legible, piqued my interest. It was addressed to Miss Juniper Sutton. I carefully slit it open and pulled out a letter on white linen stationery that had been imprinted with a huge rainbow across the front. The same handwriting from the outside of the envelope filled the page.
My condolences to you upon the recent loss of your mother. Although Margaret drifted away from us, I remember she was a kind woman and carried a lot of love and devotion for her family. Both her memory and that of your father will live on in my heart forever.
Of course, none of us really dies, and I perceive a warm reception for Margaret in the hereafter, and a happy reunion with Nathaniel. I hope you will be able to get past this difficult period of sorrow. A year ago, your uncle made his transition, so I have also shared a loss.
I have a request. I would like you to come to Majestic Mountain as soon as you can. I need someone to work in my gift shop at the lodge. You are welcome to stay here as long as you’d like. I believe this will be a good opportunity for us to get to know one another, and it will certainly be a chance for you to get a fresh perspective on your life.
There is also a matter of urgency I need to discuss with you. Forgive me for not being able to disclose any details at this time.
Looking forward to your arrival.
Love and Light,
I vaguely recalled that Uncle Fred had been married, but I was quite sure Mother had mentioned that his wife had left him. So who was Rosalee? This woman had signed her name as my aunt. She had obviously known my mother, whom she had mentioned by name. And what was this matter of urgency that Rosalee needed to discuss with me?
I read through the letter a second time, then folded it back up and returned it to its envelope. How could someone I didn’t even know expect me to drop everything and go to Colorado? True, there really wasn’t anything holding me here in Kansas.
For a moment, I toyed with the temptation of taking the car and driving to Colorado. My own little compact car that I’d driven in college was no longer trustworthy. I wouldn’t dare take it outside Great Bend with the transmission in such poor shape. I had used my mother’s Grand Marquis to run errands and go places over the past two years. It might make a trip to the mountains, but it was a gas hog and needed new tires.
“What am I doing even considering this?” I chided myself.
Placing the pink envelope on the desk beside the photo of my father and Uncle Fred, I hesitated, then reached for the picture and studied it again. The letter had mentioned that my uncle had died a year ago. How sad that I would never meet him. Perhaps Aunt Rosalee could tell me about him and about my father. Perhaps it would help fill the void in my mind and my heart.
There had to be a reason why Mother kept the truth from me. Maybe finding out about the past would help me find my future.
Finalist in the Eric Hoffer Awards (2015)