Shade producing canopies of old-growth oak- and maple trees sheltered Yellow Birch Retirement Community. Yellow Birch offered single-occupancy assisted living in multi-unit buildings and detached one- and two-bedroom bungalows. Medical personnel were on call twenty-four seven. Residents could choose to cook their own meals, or they could sign up for the meals-on-wheels catering program. Yellow Birch enjoyed a quiet existence away from downtown’s noisy hustle and bustle but remained close enough to make outings convenient for residents. Claire Fraser, Odera’s grandmother, had downsized her house and moved into a single bedroom retirement bungalow following their return from Scotland.
Odera drove through the black iron-wrought gates and slid into visitor parking. Expectant pensioners peaked through curtains at the sound of the car engine wondering what relative had surprised them with an unscheduled visit. All were disappointed. Some smiled anyway. During holiday weekends, all too few family members visited, all too many retirees stayed home and all too many wishes went unheard. The lack of visits from family and insufficient storage space for personal property due to downsizing was the chief cause of stress and worry among residents. Odera renewed the promise to herself that she’d visit Grams regularly, especially on holidays.
Birch trees, with the thin, curling white bark that children loved to peel off, lined the sidewalk connecting the bungalows. Autumn’s birch leaves rustled in the wind and crackled underfoot. Henry R. Jackson, a stoop-shouldered and jovial retired General Motors worker, corn-broomed his walkway. A brown cane leaned against the bungalow. The energetic ninety-one-year-old shuffled down the walkway using the yellow corn broom for balance. He looked up from his brooming at the approaching figure with a familiar gate.
“Good morning, Henry. Gorgeous weather isn’t it?”
“Right back atcha young lady.”
What’s her name? Visits ’Ol blue eyes down the way. Dearly? No. No. Odera. That’s the one. Nice pins. Maybe she’s a bowler. Hee, hee, hee.
“You’re looking well. How’s the heart?”
“Like a Timex that keeps on tickin’. I feel ten years younger, but that’s still fifteen years older than I want to be.”
“Did your leaf blower break down?”
“Nope, she went to the beauty parlour. Hee, hee, hee. S’pect she’ll be back in time to fix lunch or maybe I’ll order up a little mealie on wheelie and take all the credit. Watcha doin’ drivin’ Jap crap? These rheumy old blinkers took you for Mustang material. How come some lucky guy ain’t lassoed you?”
“All the best men are taken, Henry.”
“You betcha. Been married sixty-seven years. Never regretted a single day. Can’t speak for the missus, though.”
“I’m pretty sure Betty rued every day since she said, ‘I do,’” Odera laughed.
“S’pect she does. A man ought to have goals; keeps us young n’ vigorous.”
Odera reached for the door handle.
“Got me this far didn’t it?”
Lovely gal. What’s her name? Ophelia? No. No. Odera. Nice buns. Her dad must be a baker. Hee, hee, hee.
“Say hello to Claire for Betty and me and thank her for the bouquet she sent over.”
Odera waved at Henry and entered the quaint little bungalow with blue gables next door.
“Grams? Where are you?” The living room and hallway were empty. “Grams?”
“Aye, lass. Out back, Luv.”
Wrap-around terraced gardens framed an olive-green lawn cut neat as a golf course fairway. The nearest garden bed was home to hibiscus plants with juicy ruby spines that infused the air with perfume. The flowery scents were those Odera had forever linked to Claire. Claire Fraser’s stature was once that of a proud lady with flame-red hair and piercing iron-blue eyes. No less proud, the years had bowed her spine and turned her hair white, unless the sun shone through it just so. Those instances reminded Odera of a younger woman whose fiery mane matched an indomitable spirit everyone said Odera had inherited. Bright and merry eyes brimming familial joy greeted Odera.
“Sorry for being late Grams.”
Odera hugged her grandmother.
“That’s all right dear. I wanted to put another row of bulbs into the ground before we go out.”
“Are those freshly flowering pansies?”
Odera took her grandmother’s earth-stained hand through her arm.
“Aye, one day hence. Were you with your man?” she probed and fondly stroked the string of pearls around her granddaughter’s throat.
“He’s no a man. He’s no smarter than a field boulder! Sure it is I’m going to strangle ’im quicker than a supper chicken, with no an evil thought to plague me at dessert,” Odera complained, giving herself over to the Highlands.
“He did no let you have your ain way?”
“Aye. No,” laughed Odera. “Whose side are you on?”
“I thought as much. Do you wish to speak of it, lass?”
“Bruce has a week’s holidays coming. I suggested that we take the week together. He refused, claiming Daddy would be suspicious. Who cares what Dad thinks!?”
“Bruce forbade you?”
“Even he wouldn’t be that dim-witted. He gave me a choice. We can see each other on the weekend and evenings or not at all. The stubborn goat’s unyielding enough to keep his oath no matter how much he’d miss me. He’d do it just to prove that he could!”
“Had he forbade you, he knew you’d take yours just to prove that you could,” Claire decided and stopped to straighten a stack-block wall buttressing a flowerbed. “He understands you fair well.”
“He makes me so furious that I feel like shaking the silliness off his face.” Odera knelt to help. “I could just scream. Inflexible man.”
“Your father would not approve, dear. Bruce has the right of it. Your mother would be a strong ally. Perhaps if you told her together, the three of you might soften the news to your Da.”
“It’s not Dad’s decision.”
“Oh, aye, it’s nowt. But he cannot help but be concerned. Though, in truth, I doubt he’d react as poorly as Bruce assumes.” She rose to her feet. “Bruce is acting ultra-cautious. I suspect he’s harbouring other concerns.”
“Then you agree with me?”
“You are both right, and wrong, and neither one all at the once.” Claire patted Odera’s arm. “What else is on your mind? Trundled in thought you are. Out with it now; I’ve heard it all before, dear one. You’ll no shock me. Be a rare treat at my age though, it would. Go ahead and give it a go.”
“Bruce can be so warm, his eyes full of tenderness, but then he shuts me out. He forever denies what he feels. I’ve used Dr. Brinkman’s suggestions, but he’s backed away again, yet his thoughts and feelings are clearer than ever.”
“And you? Have you sought his embrace?”
“Many times, but not like at the lake. I’m afraid my nightmares will return if we pass a certain point.” Odera pushed her hair behind her ear. “It’s intense. There are times when his guard drops and I see he longs for me with utter honesty. Those days tear me in two. On the one hand, I don’t feel threatened by him, but when I imagine us together, horrible fear springs up. Seconds later, I’ll be flooded with longing. I’m going crazy Grams.”
Claire squeezed Odera’s arm reassuringly.
“’Tis no wonder Bruce is acting cautiously. He’s riding the swells of your hesitancy. Surrender yourself, child. Your attraction feeds fearful memory and uncertainty keeps him at bay. A man who meant nothing to you cannot wake your pain. Give it to Bruce. I suspect he’s seen one or two versions of hell himself. He’ll no back away, but you have to trust him to bring it out where it can fade in the light.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“Do you no challenge him? and him, you? Do you no see similar struggles in him? Look to your heart, lass,” Claire admonished and bored into her granddaughter’s eyes, sapphire flames burning bright. “Like peas in the same pod, the pair of you are. He fears your love as much as you fear to let him love you. You don’t have to be a doctor to see that, dear one. Discover what brings you joy and meaning and then have the courage to take it by the throat. If you can do that, you’ll be too busy to be sad.”
“Michael couldn’t face me afterwards. He felt me less than a woman, less than human.” Her voice dropped low and her chin slumped. “I couldn’t endure that again. The hesitant touches, as if I carried a disease. Always wondering if I...”
“Bloody hell!” Fervency in that exclamation froze Odera’s legs. Claire’s ancient blue eyes cauterized Odera’s morose feelings. “Bruce no be Michael. It is nowt the Highland way to live in the past, but to take everything life throws at you and then make haggis with it,” Claire said more calmly, allowing Odera to steer her indoors. “He fears surrender as much as you do, Luv.”
“How can that be? You should have seen him at the lake. I thought he was going to attack that bear with his bare hands.”
“Love and fear lent him courage. Some men find action, regardless of the risk, easier to embrace than to speak their feelings. Look beneath actions for the truth. Actions define who we are. Trust what you feel. He sounds very much a young version of your grandfather.” Claire lowered herself into a chair while Odera filled the kettle. “He was a rogue and a whisky bootlegger in the old country.”
“Grandfather? Dear, sweet, grandfather!” Odera set her grief aside at the extraordinary news. “Go on, you can’t leave me hanging.”
“Barely a soul lives who know the truth, including your mother. When I met him, Gregory cut a dashing profile, tall and handsome with a wild aspect in his eye. He loved the almighty dollar but nowt taxes, you ken?” A faraway look captured her expression. “He pursued me in secret, for Da would no have me in the company of men of ill repute. For nearly six months we escaped detection and he remained a gentleman. I wanted him to make me a woman, but he refused my advances, fearing to discredit ma honour. Finally, when I could no longer endure Gregory’s foolish morals, I told Da that I intended to marry him, even before your grandfather was aware, I dare say.”
Claire smiled, eyes glassy with remembrance.
“Da craved to shoot Gregory Jonathan Fraser. Likely would have to if the authorities hadn’t arrested him first with a dozen barrels.”
Love’s soft expression lifted her years as she regaled Odera.
“Convinced that your grandfather was my one n’ only, I stowed a revolver beneath my petticoat and went visiting wearing a ring my great granny passed down. The jailer did nowt want to let me in, but when I showed him my ring-fasted finger, he could no refuse. You ken, lass?”
A mercurial visage came under Odera’s scrutiny.
“Grams, you didn’t! That’s the most wonderful story I’ve ever heard.”
“What choice did I have? The man I loved was going to jail or worse, and I was nowt even his wife proper. The jailer led me into the back, but when he turned to lead me down the hallway to Gregory, I pressed a gun against his back and told him I’d blast his spine in half if n’ he did no release my gentle husband. Gregory’s mouth bloody near hit the floor when he discovered what I come to do.
“We fled down the coast, stole into England and boarded a ship for Canada. There were but three telephones in the whole district and no computers for decades to come. I suspect the jailer was a mite shamed a wee lass bested him and never told the complete truth to anyone. I turned seventeen the day after. A ripe age for marriage, ye ken? We conceived your Aunt Margaret at sea. The ship’s Captain wed us first, mind you. Your grandfather was no fool. He knew my temperament well enough. Gregory enlisted in the army not long after we arrived in Canada and went proudly to fight in the Great War. Five years later, he returned a quieter and more thoughtful man. Now a true Canadian, I liked to tease him. Da never forgave me, but your great-grandmother did. Mama forgave me, especially after your mother was born.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Your Aunt Margaret and your mother were raised proper. What right did I own to spoil that? Gregory and I started anew. Nary again did he loiter beyond the law. Fifty-eight years he kept his vows. A fine man he was, but in need of a woman’s touch to trim back the heather.”
“I just have to tell Bruce. Tell me you won’t mind.”
“You may tell him, but I want to meet him,” she said and urged Odera with her eyes to find her own solution. “And you tell him I said so. My point for this story: you cannot judge men solely by words or lack of words. They tend to hide the best of themselves behind the most ridiculous walls or they exaggerate the facts to catch a woman’s eye. It has ever been our bane to bring the truth into the light. The stubborn ones require a rather more direct approach, but they also be the ones who’ll bind themselves to you the strongest. Bruce’ll no look upon you as Michael did. He sees what he will and nothing and nobody can change that, no even you. He’s your match, I’d hazard. You’ll nowt bend his will by force but only fuel his resolve. Best you employ your wits instead. Pour the tea before it cools too much, lass.”
“You believe that I should act more directly?”
“We each have to uncover our ain way. I can only say what worked for me and that when the time comes to face the Almighty, I loved Gregory enough to plead ma heart without regret. Whatever you do, I’m sure you’ll choose wisely and give the matter as much thought as I did,” Claire laughed. “One thing be certain; no regret ever came from embracing your heart’s desire. Life compensates those who have the courage to live free of ‘what if’ and ‘if I had only.’”
* * * * * * *
Unopened letters, pamphlets and fliers crammed my mailbox. I flipped through them for something important. Which there never was but I could not resist. While my computer booted up, I made coffee and grabbed a bag of cookies from the cupboard while my mind wandered from one random thought to the next, unable to focus on the task before me.
Hours later, coffee was cold and cookies were now crumbs at the bag’s bottom. Concentration and focus refused to form. Challenges between Odera and I dammed any creativity I might have summoned. Complications swirled in my mind. Fifty percent of relationships soured. How many times had I witnessed men returned to jail because a girlfriend said she felt unsafe; because she reported an implied threat; because an argument ended in harsh words and the parole officer classified the situation as unstable?Five minutes after a wife or a girlfriend logged a complaint an arrest warrant would be issued. To a parolee, a Mel Gibson recording was an irrefutable return ticket. Without a recording an accusation casted suspicion. Suspicion cannot be proven false. Without facts suspicion remained suspiciously suspicious. Accusations against long-term parolees resulted in prison. The ease with which parole could be suspended rested on a whim. Upon a whim of suspected wrongdoing or an unproven fancy, if one possessed a deteriorating attitude, if the parolee was judged unmanageable or deemed a potential risk, they could be booted back behind bars. The price of the ink in Beck’s Bic pen was my judge, jury and executioner. Thus, the sound of Odera’s voice coming from my front door snapped Robert and Beck’s faces into focus. In a single racing heartbeat, I pictured myself whimmed behind bars of cold grey steel.