Saturday, December 15, 2012
“Mother, we have to read these letters,” said Belinda after she forced open the trunk that had been in the attic for as long as anyone could remember. “They are obviously from our grandmother.”
“I'm not sure what to do. They are addressed to your father and he should be the one to open them. On the other hand, I don't want to upset him even more than he was this evening.”
“Who was upset?” said Walter as he walked into the living room.
“Walter, what are you doing up?”
“You three are making such a racket down here. Who could sleep through that? What are you doing with that old trunk? thought we got rid of that thing long ago.”
“You'd better sit down, dear. You have some reading to do.”
Walter looked in the trunk and discovered dozens of letters addressed to him. They were dated from 1932 to 1943. His hand shook as he looked at the unopened envelopes. “These are from my mother. I wonder why my father didn't give them to me when they were delivered.”
“Father, would you like us to leave you alone while you read them?” asked Jamie.
“No dear, I'm not going to read them. My mother left me and if she thought a few letters would make up for that she was very wrong. My father was right to keep them from me. The woman was no good. He told me that often enough.”
Belinda picked up a newspaper article that had fallen on the floor. “Look Jamie, our grandmother was an actress. Here is a write-up on one of her performance. It says she lit up the stage with her portrayal of Anna. She was on Broadway. That is where you get your talent from.”
“According to my father, your grandmother was a strumpet, a trollop, a hussy and those were just some of the names he had for her. She hurt him very deeply when she left us. It was the call of those bright lights that took her away. I'll never forgive her and I want this junk burned. I'm too tired to take care of it tonight. Good night to all of you. We won't discuss your grandmother again.”
After Walter left the room, Belinda said, “He didn't tell us not to read these letters. I think we have a duty to see what Grandmother wrote to her only child.”
“I have to agree with you Belinda,” said Grace. “Your father hid the fact that his mother left him for all these years. I need to know what the letters say. If he chooses to burn them without reading them, that will be his choice. I love my husband enough to invade his privacy if it will help me understand him better.”
From the first letter in the trunk dated 1932 when Walter was barely four years old to the last on his fifteenth birthday, it was obvious Lily Henderson, known professionally as Lily Lamont, loved her son very much.
She told of her own mother who had small parts in plays for years. Lily had been around theater people for her entire life. Her mother left her with the wardrobe mistress during her performances and when Lily was old enough, she would sit backstage and watch the show. She was a very observant child and began to mimic the performers. As a teenager, she was given walk-on parts and one or two lines. She knew every line in every play by heart. At seventeen she was given a small role and eventually large roles.
George Henderson was visiting New York City for the first time. He attended a Broadway play and his life would never be the same. George was a handsome 25 year old. He had lived in London with his grandmother for several years and knew all the social graces. He took one look at Lily Lamont on stage and fell in love with the young ingenue. He made his way backstage after the performance. It was love at first sight for Lily too. Against her mother's wishes, she and George were married two weeks later. George swept her off to Camden Corners where they settled into George's home and George's life as a professor at the university.
After a couple of months living quietly, Lily began to miss the excitement of the theater and New York City. It was around that time she discovered she was expecting a baby. Walter George Henderson was born a few months later. Lily loved being a mother. Walter was her pride and joy. She only thought of her former life during the evenings after Walter was down for the night and George had his nose buried in the papers he'd brought home from school.
Lily's mother visited whenever she could get away for a few days. She encouraged Lily to visit her in New York but George wouldn't hear of it. Her place was with her husband and not off gallivanting on the streets of New York.
After five years of marriage, Lily felt as though she was going mad. She didn't have any friends because George wanted her to stay in the house when he was not at home. She wouldn't have minded that so much if only they had a social life together. “George, I received a phone call from a friend of my mother's. I must leave for New York tomorrow. My mother is quite ill. The doctor's don't expect her to live until the weekend.”
“What do doctor's know?” he said. “I'm sure your mother will be fine. There is no need for you to travel all the way to New York.”
“George, I always do what you ask of me. This time I must insist. I need to see my mother. I will take Walter with me and return just as soon as Mother is feeling better.”
“You may leave if you feel you must, but I insist you leave Walter with me. I will not have him subjected to the riffraff your mother calls her friends.”
Lily was torn. She hadn't been away from Walter since the day he was born, but she felt she must visit her mother for what could be the last time.
The next morning she packed her bag, hugged Walter goodbye and left on the train for New York City. It turned out to be the last time she saw her mother and the last time she saw Walter. When she returned home, George was standing outside the door. He handed her a few items of clothing and told her Walter was not there. He was in a safe place. She had made her choice and would never see Walter again.
Lily couldn't believe what George was saying. She had defied him only one time in their marriage and it was to say goodbye to her dying mother. For this, George would keep her precious son from her?
Lily had nowhere to go. She didn't know anyone in Camden Corners. The only people she knew were theater people. She boarded the train going to New York City where her mother's best friend put her up until she could decide what to do. She was cast in a few plays and before long she was a sought after actress. She never reached star status but because of her work ethic and talent she was considered a success.
She wrote a letter to her son every day. She told him how much she loved him and missed him. She never spoke unkindly of George, but did make it clear that she had no choice but to stay away. When the letters started arriving, George would throw them unopened into the fire. After awhile, his housekeeper, Mrs. Hadley, stopped giving the letters to him and put them in a trunk she had hidden under her bed. George assumed Lily had given up writing the boy after she received no response.
George had lied to Lily when he told her Walter was not in the house. He was playing in his room. He looked out the window when he saw his mother at the front door. He ran downstairs to greet her but she was gone. His father told him she had come home only to collect her clothes. “Your mother doesn't love us anymore,” he said. She wants to be an actress and paint her face up like a trollop.” Walter cried until there were no tears left. Mrs. Hadley was the only one there to comfort the sobbing little boy who couldn't understand what he had done to make his mama stop loving him.
Mrs. Hadley suspected the letters were reassuring Walter that his mama did indeed still love him. That was when she began going through the mail before Mr. Henderson saw it. Through the years she collected newspaper clippings written about Lily Lamont.
Jamie picked up one of the articles that had been folded over. There was a picture of a smiling, pretty woman with a headline that read: Actress in critical condition after being struck by auto.
“Oh no,” cried Jamie, our grandmother was seriously hurt in 1943. There were no letters dated after that. Here's one more article dated two months after the accident. It says she has been transferred to a long term care facility in Greensboro, New York. Poor Father, his mother loved him very much and he never knew it. I always thought Grandfather was a very stern and cold man, but who knew he was so cruel.”
“I knew he was cruel,” George said from the stairway. “What do the letters say?”
“George, I'm sorry we are reading them. We thought they might tell a story of your mother. Do you remember a housekeeper named Mrs. Hadley? She wrote that your mother was kept in isolation throughout her marriage to your father. She left you to visit her dying mother and was banished from the house forever after that. She did love you George.”
“I'm glad you are reading them. I know I threatened to burn them but I think I've always known in my heart that my mother did love me. My father could be a tyrant. I was around fifteen years old when he finally let me go off with friends. Before that I was kept in the house most of the time. I had a driver to and from school and was never allowed to have a friend visit. I was lonely and blamed my mother for my misery.”
George read some of the letters. He knew he would read each and every one of them, but he would do so in solitude. His concern was the article about the accident. “Grace, my father established a trust to a care facility in Greensboro years ago. Do you suppose he was paying for my mother's care?”
George went to his desk and pulled out the last accounting of his father's holdings. He read Greensboro Care Facility with a monthly amount recorded.
“Grace, is it possible my mother is still alive? It's been thirty years since she was injured.”
Belinda was already on the telephone asking the operator for the telephone number of the Greensboro facility. She handed it to her father. “Would you like me to make the call for you Father?”
“No dear, I will take it from here.”
He dialed the number. It was after midnight and the night nurse answered the phone.
“Yes sir, we have a Lily Henderson here. Lily is one of our favorite residents. She came to us in 1943. I remember the date because I had just graduated from nursing school and Lily was my first case. She and I are both growing old together,” the nurse laughed.
“Why is she still in your facility after all these years?”
“Mr. Henderson, I know I shouldn't be discussing a resident with you, but Lily is also my friend. She suffered a severe head injury in the auto accident. Her brain will never fully recover from the injury although she has made progress through the years. When she first came to us, she couldn't speak or communicate in any way. Through her hard work and years of physical therapy, she is able to walk and carry on a conversation. She holds a doll and calls him Walter. Apparently, she had a son, we assume he is deceased.”
“Ma'am, I'm Walter Henderson and I'm very much alive. I thought my mother was dead all these years. When may I see her?”
“I'll have to check with her doctor, but I'm sure he will okay a visit as soon as possible.”
“I'll call back in the morning. I would like to speak with her doctor myself.”
Walter hung up and turned to Grace. “My mother is alive. She has a doll she calls Walter. She loves me, Grace and she always did.”
“Girls, will you be able to miss school tomorrow? I want us to go to Greensboro together. I want you to meet my mother and I want her to meet you.”
“Walter, of course we will go with you. Let's get some sleep. We have an exciting day tomorrow. I might be the only person in the world who can't wait to meet her mother-in-law.”
Walter didn't get much sleep. He called the nurse just after seven o'clock the next day. The doctor was due in around ten. The nurse had left a message with his service telling him about Walter's call. “I'm sure he will call soon with an answer. I'll let him know you are on your way.”
The other attendants had heard the news about Lily's son. They didn't mention it to her but were fixing her hair and putting a little blush on her cheeks and lightly painting her lips.
“I feel like a Broadway star with all this fussing,” Lily said while holding little Walter in her arms.
“You look like a Broadway star, Lily. I'll bet Walter thinks you are very pretty.”
“Walter likes when I spray my neck with lavender.”
“I think I have some lavender cologne in my locker. Let me run down the hall to get it.”
Doctor Howard greeted Walter at the door. “I'm so happy to meet you sir. In all the years your mother has been here, she has never had a visitor. We didn't think she had any living relatives.”
“I believe my father made certain she would be alone. I had no idea she was here. The last time I saw her I was only four years old. My father made sure we would never see each other again.”
“I haven't spoken to your mother about your visit. If you don't mind waiting here, I will tell her now. I didn't want to disappoint her if you decided not to come. Your mother suffered a very serious injury years ago. She is a strong willed lady, she was determined to recover and she has done a remarkable job. I think she understands more than she lets on. Excuse me for just a few minutes.”
Walter and his family were sitting in the waiting room. They were all nervous. After just a few minutes, they heard a woman's voice, “Walter is here, my boy came to see me? Walter, where are you?” A pretty older woman walked into the waiting area. She walked directly to Walter with tears streaming down her cheeks. She dropped the doll on the way as she threw her frail arms around Walter's neck.
There wasn't a dry eye as the nurses and attendants watched the reunion. Even Doctor Howard had to wipe a tear away.
“Mama, you smell like lavender. I always loved the smell of lavender.”
Walter didn't want to leave his mother. He and Grace stayed in a hotel in Greensboro while the girls went back to Camden Corners.
“Doctor Howard, I want to take my mother home to live with us. I will hire a full time nurse if I have to. We have missed too many years together already.”
“I can't think of a better place for Lily to be. I don't think she will need a nurse. She is thriving now that she has a family around her. Your mother will always need a little extra attention, but I think she will do just fine in your household. Mrs. Henderson, I can see there is real affection between you and Lily. Are you willing to accept the burden of being her caregiver?”
“Doctor, I look forward to having the dear lady in our home. She has changed our lives for the better already. My husband is happier than he has ever been and that is thanks to Lily.”
Lily was settled in her son's home. She showed few signs of her head injury. She and Grace became the best of friends. Grace enjoyed having another woman around and Lily loved being with family. They talked about Walter as a child. Lily remembered every detail of their short time together. Grace took Lily to the lunchtime fashion shows at The Merryweather. Lily was asked to model some dresses suitable for the stylish older woman. She looked like a natural. They shopped in all the shops and stopped by the Theater so Lily could look around.
“Walter George Henderson! What is this I hear about you not allowing your daughter to act in a play?” Lily asked when Walter entered the house one evening.
“Mother, I was wrong! You won't hear me say those words very often, but it is the truth. Jamie, you go on down to the theater and see if they are still holding the part open for you.”
“Thank you Daddy, thank you Grandma,” she said as she kissed them both on the cheek. She couldn't get to the theater fast enough. She was hoping the part of April was still available. She was looking forward to rehearsing with Mike again.
“Did you hear that Mama, I don't think my girls have ever called me anything but father. I think daddy sounds a lot friendlier, don't you?”
“Yes, I do. I certainly do,” she winked at a smiling Grace.