“Come along children. Nana Anna will be waiting.”
“Whatever,”. Becky moaned, “These visits are always so boring.”
“Okay! That’s it!. Stop right there all of you.” Michelle turned to face her three kids and waited until she met each of their eyes and knew she had their attention. “I want to be crystal clear on this. Nana is old. She might not be high on your agenda for today but she loves you, is ill and and wants to see you. Since she can’t get out much, we don’t get to see her unless we come to her and I’ll not have any of you, ANY — of — you, insulting her with a crummy attitude. Becky, as the oldest, I expect you to be your most charming self — period! If I once hear you say the word ‘whatever‘ without more non-insulting words around it, you will lose your phone for a week, yes — a full week young lady!. Do I make myself clear?”
Becky, surprised to have her mom’s face almost directly in her own, backed down immediately. “Yes mom. Sorry.”
“Scott; Andrew? You both understand?” Her wide-eyed seven year old surprise twin boys nodded in silent agreement, almost too frightened to speak.
“Good.” Lowering her tone, Michelle continued. “Becky, you’re going to be fourteen next month and are old enough to know how to respect your elders. It’s Saturday and I know you want to be downtown with your friends but understand, you have lots of Saturdays ahead of you. Nana Anna may have only a few and I expect you to understand that and show her how valuable her remaining time is.”
“Boys, I know you like visiting Nana Anna and I’m sorry for getting angry. You two are fine. You would have been fine with just visiting her as you always do. Just let her know you love her. Listen to whatever she wants to tell you. Ask her questions and give her your best big-boy hugs — okay?”
Again the boys nodded, relieved but unsure of what just happened.
“Can I still get Nana Anna’s mail for her mom?” Scott carefully asked.
“Yes — thank you Scott,” she answered, now sorry for upsetting the twins when it was only Becky that had stepped out of line. She took a deep breath to help collect her composure and took the few mail items from him as he returned. She glanced through them briefly because she was helping Anna with her bill management then smiled at him. Scott gave her a huge smile back, happy that whatever was wrong had passed.
– – = = ( * ) = = – –
Anna was nested in her couch with her books and glasses and pills on the lamp table beside her. The window next to her was open to let both the fresh air and the welcome Saturday sunshine into the room. Her overgrown garden just outside smelled of lilacs, roses, rosemary and bay wood trees. Anna herself was beaming, thrilled to have her three grandchildren here with her.
“Can I make you all some tea? Children, I have some of your favorite cherry green tea?”
Both boys quietly exploded with jumbled words that roughly translated to, yes, please, anything with cherry would be great.
“Mom, don’t get up. I’ll make it,” Michelle said. I told the kids you had something to show them. Let me start the water then watch too?”
“Certainly dear. I’ll wait.”
“Nana Anna, can I sit next to you?” Scott asked.
“I would welcome your company good sir,” she answered while patting the seat next to her, allowing Scott to pop up from the floor where he had been sitting to jump into his favorite seat, next to his Nana Anna.
They made small talk until Michelle returned with their tea, then Nana Anna began. “You have all noticed my Bible.”
“You always have it there on the table next to you Nana,” said Andrew.
“We could hardly miss it Nana,” added Becky which caused Michelle to quietly catch Becky’s attention and give her a stern glare of warning.
“Well, I wanted to tell you something that we Beaker women don’t talk about much but we’ve done for four generations now. I’m the fourth owner of this Bible. Have you noticed my ribbon book marks ?”
“I have Nana,” interrupted Scott. “You told me mine is the small green one.”
“I did, didn’t I. I forgot doing that.”
“I was just a baby Nana, but I remember you holding me on your lap and I was playing with your bible ribbons.”
“You have a wonderful memory Scott. Even if I don’t recall things I know you will. Have I told the others about the ribbons yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, it’s time we did that. You can help me where I forget, okay?”
Scott beamed as he answered, “Yes.”
“As our family grows and new children arrive, we Beaker women add bookmarks into this old bible for each of them. We start with simple ribbons. Your Grandpa Walt’s mom, Coralyn Beaker handed it down to me when she got too ill to do it. Scott, can you remind me which one is Andrew’s?”
“The dark blue one.”
“And which was Becky’s?”
“It’s this one, the labader one.”
“Right, but it’s pronounced, la-ven-der little man.”
“La-ven-der; lavender. . .?” he offered.
“Correct. Becky, this ribbon has been yours since the day you told me it was your favorite color, but today I’m replacing it.”
Becky looked confused, and worried that she might have crossed some line and was being punished so did not know what to say. She glanced up at her mom who only shrugged back at her, not knowing what Nana was talking about.
“Today, my girl, you’re getting a new ribbon in the bible because this is also what the current owner of the Bible does. As we realize the life interest and maybe direction a family member is going, we give them a ribbon that somehow reflects who they are becoming. See how many of the ribbons have charms?”
“Yes Nana, I was looking at them the last time we were here. I saw you playing with them and wanted to see them up close.”
“I remember that Andrew, but I wasn’t playing with them. I was praying through them. They all remind me of the most important people in my life, so I use the ribbons to remember to pray for each them. So, Becky you want to do something with your life, what is it?”
“I want to be a mathematician,” she answered meekly, almost as if she were embarrassed by it.
“And I think that is wonderful. You must have noticed how unique and unusual that is. Most of us are terrible at math but you’re one of the few who are really good at it and the world needs people who are good at math, so here is your new ribbon for my bible.” At this point, Anna held up a wider lavender ribbon with a small calculator charm attached at one end and held it out for Becky to take. She smiled as she examined it.
“There’s a second charm Nana, You added a dancer.”
“That’s because you also love dancing. Your mom showed me the videos of some of your performances and I think you are so gifted, so smart and so beautiful as you dance.
“Let me tell you about the other bookmarks and who they are for. This one is for your mom. See how much wider it is than your ribbon. This means she has settled into a life and is daily doing what she does. She’s been a teacher her whole professional life and so she has both this teacher’s charm and one for being a mom. Each of these beads represent each of her children. Here is the charm for your dad. He started as a soldier and now drives a huge truck each day. It’s hard work and sometimes dangerous due to weather or traffic, so I pray for his safety. Here, pass this one around because it’s hard to see.
“Your uncle Terrance is the only doctor in our family and that charm is the Caduceus symbol. It has a weird history, but has come to represent the practice of caring for people’s medical needs. This tractor is for your uncle George the family farmer.”
“But,” she said, obviously changing the topic, “effective immediately, the family bible is passing from me to my daughter.” Anna closed the bible and gave it to Michelle who took it carefully – not sure what to say.
“Mom, I didn’t expect . . . I – I don’t think you ever told me all this.”.
“Well, we didn’t exactly have a normal quiet family life and I should have years ago but, for many years, I couldn’t say much. There were — family issues.”
“I think I can guess most of them. Mom, yours must be the nurse, the RN charm, right, but what does the slide rule mean?”
Anna nodded. “I’ll get to that slide rule in a moment.”
“Okay, but this ribbon, with the guy in the space suit also has a slide rule charm. Who is that for?”
Anna looked down and quietly paused, thinking, clearly sad about something, but decided it was time that the truth be told. “That is the reason I’ve not talked about this with, well, with anyone really, because I’m embarrassed and never found the way to share it. Also, for many years, Walt forbid me from telling anyone.
“First, you already know that I was not your father’s first wife. Her name was Joyce and she was . . . .” Anna paused, closed her eyes and slowly shook off some demon trying to stop her from talking.
“Mom? What is it? I knew about Joyce, but she died only a few years after marrying Dad.”
“It was almost five years and she was sick for much of that time, but before she died,” Anna looked up and firmly looked her daughter in the face, “Michelle, she had three children, you, Terrance and George.”
Michelle’s eyes got huge as her head tilted back and her mouth began to form a question but she paused, unsure where to start. Becky leaned into the conversation, focusing on whatever Nana was going to say. The boys looked back and forth between Nana and their mom, not sure what was going on.
“I’m sorry to have held this for so long. Let me explain. Walt Beaker, your dad and I were friends in high school, good friends. He was the hard working, stable, honest and smartest guy in my world, but the rest of my world was a mess. My parents were people I could not get away from fast enough. My siblings and I hated each other and we all had our issues with either booze, drugs or the cops. After high school, Walt, my good friend, married Joyce, a wonderful gal who deserved to live a long full life but didn’t. He was left with one toddler and two babies. He wanted a wife and needed a mother for his children.”
“Mom! How could you keep all this . . . .”
“Please, Michelle, I want you to know the full story before you start asking questions.
“By the time Walt found himself alone with you three, I was in jail serving a six month sentence for, well, for something I’d prefer not to talk about in front of the children. He contacted me, and then visited me in jail months before my release and met me on the day I walked out. He wanted me, his next best friend after Joyce, to consider taking her place, but I had so much baggage. I had done things that could never be undone and did not deserve the chance Walt offered me.
“When I left my parents and family, I had money problems and was struggling to find work because I was too well known as a crook and shoplifter. One day I heard about a man who was willing to pay good money for a healthy girl to help his family and I applied and was chosen. His wife was unable to conceive, so I became their surrogate womb for a price and agreed to certain terms about the resulting child. I did my part and gave them the child as agreed, but we didn’t know at the time that there were problems with my delivery and I was left unable to have any more children. Walt was sad to hear this, but was okay with the three of you.”
“Mom . . . !”
“Wow — Nana !” said Becky, her eyes huge.
“I don’t understand,” said Scott looking at Nana Anna.
Andrew kept looking back and forth at whoever was talking, hoping someone would say something that made sense.
“It was a different time and there were concerns from Walt’s extended family mostly because they did not know or trust me as Walt did. It was his idea to keep the whole story about me non-discussed. His family was already struggling to accept me. Even Walt struggled to accept the fact that I had been a surrogate and that we were going to get unusual mail a couple times a year. “
“Yes, from the parents I worked for. Along with my fee, I wanted to know bits and pieces of how the child was doing. I was not allowed any direct contact nor would they allow any Q&A back and forth. Twice a year they sent me a few paragraphs and sometimes a photo. I always sent back a brief thank you note. So, I always knew the briefest of details about the child.
Michelle, picked up the bookmark ribbon with the spacesuit charm and held it up. “So, all these years you’ve been praying for this child and these are his charms?”
“Yes, but he was a she, and you asked about my slide rule charm. It is the same as hers. When I was in high school, I wanted to be an engineer. Becky, like you I was good at math and wanted to engineer things, but they didn’t have calculators in those days and they didn’t have women engineers either, so I turned to nursing. It was okay. I was a pretty good nurse.”
“And your other child, ugh — your only real child?”
At this, Nana Anna smiled awkwardly and answered Michelle, “Well, because I adopted all three of you soon after marrying your father, I think you and her are step-sisters. Children, she would be your step-aunt. Her name is Katie Petola, and she is some kind of rocket engineer. She works for SpaceX. I chose the slide rule for her because I like to think she got her engineering talent from me. She also wants to be an astronaut, so I added the astronaut charm.”
Michelle, almost overwhelmed with surprises, suddenly realized something and interrupted, “Wait. Mom, did you say ‘Petola as in Frank and Marie Petola, from, um . . ,” she reached over at the mail basket and pulled one letter out then finished, “Huston. They’re from Huston.”
Michelle pulled the letter opener from the mail basket, slit the top and said, “Andrew, please give this to Nana.”
“Why, yes, they’re Katie’s legal parents but their letter is very early” She smiled. “Well, let’s see what your adopted aunt and sister is up to. Their last letter mentioned that she was applying for a very special job she’s wanted for years. Maybe she’ll be part of the first team to set foot on Mars. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Nana Anna, opened the envelop and pulled out two folded pages and a photo. She read the first page, then quickly opened and read the second. She gasped, then began to fight back tears.
“Mom. What happened?”
“Oh Michelle. It’s wonderful — so wonderful. Her parents wrote to tell me that they told Katie about me. And Katie included a second page herself. I’ve never had a letter from her. She wasn’t told about me until last week and . . . ” She covered her mouth with her hand as her voice failed. She paused, took a deep breath and continued as the tears broke free and streamed down both sides of her face. “She says she was shocked to find out about me, but understood and now — she would like to meet me — me and my family.”