Joanna considered herself in top physical condition until after her first day on the job at Crow’s Nest. Jogging and working out at the gym had not prepared her for the repetitive lifting, reaching squatting pushing and pulling. Her muscles were screaming in retaliation by the end of each day. She was comforted by the knowledge that the challenging experience would make setting up her classroom a breeze. If the three brawny young men Ed hired had not handled the heaviest lifting, she would have walked away from the job the first day.
The positive part of the job was that the tired and forlorn interior of the building was quickly being transformed into a cozy and welcoming haven for future customers. Betty and Ed’s pleased expressions tempered the exhaustion the crew experienced by the end of each day. To Joanna’s delight, the assignment sheet Ed handed her on her fourth day included creating an opening day sign for the window, a chalkboard menu for the coffee bar, a flyer for Betty’s photography seminar and signs to identify the different sections of the shop. She breathed a sigh of relief. She was finally in her element.
By the end of the day the window sign was hung, and she was creating layouts for Betty’s flyer. She was so engrossed in her work, that Ed had to raise his voice to get her attention.
“Joanna! Quitting time was forty minutes ago.”
Joanna glanced at the clock. “Sorry, Ed. I hate to walk away when I’m in the middle of a project.”
He shrugged. “I know the feeling, but I don’t want you to burn out before the shop opens.”
“Give me five minutes to clean up my workspace, and I will head out.”
When she opened her car door a burst of steamy hot air caused her to take a step back. She reached in the car and turned on the ignition, then the car’s air conditioner. While the car was cooling, she pulled up Fairview’s web site on her smartphone and scanned the restaurant list. She was not in the mood for pizza, white table clothes or loud music. She mentally vetoed every restaurant until she came to Hill’s. Hill’s was commonly referred to as the farmer’s market restaurant. The vegetables, fruits, beef, and chicken the restaurant served were purchased from local farmers. For the past three days her diet had been a combination of snacks and fast food, so for the sake of her energy level and basic good health she needed an infusion of vitamins.
In the late 1900’s most of the local farmers supplemented their income by selling produce at roadside stands. In 2000, Trace Rogers donated 10 acres of land to the city with the understanding the land would be used to establish a county farmer’s market. One shelter was built the same year. As the market became more popular, a second shelter was built. By 2010 a third shelter had been built and Richard Hilliard had built and opened Hill’s Restaurant. The naysayers predicted the restaurant would not last a year, but ten years later it remained a favorite of many Fairview residents.
The hostess, a lovely young girl with twinkling blue eyes and a smattering of freckles, welcomed Joanna warmly. “If you are into sunsets, there is a window table available. The sunsets the last two evening were spectacular.”
“Thanks. I’m definitely into sunsets.”
When she was seated, she let her eyes drift lazily over the landscape. The first rosy hues of the sun were turning the sky rich shades of pink, apricot, lavender, and orange. The beauty was a reminder that no matter how busy she was, she needed to pause long enough to acknowledge the simple but extraordinary gifts of nature.
“Would you mind if I join you?”
Startled, she turned to see Alex standing by her table.
“Please do. I am surprised to see you here. I would have pegged you as a fine dining kind of guy.”
“I enjoy all kinds of food, from food truck specialties to Premium Angus Beef. I don’t do a lot of cooking at home and vegetable choices at most restaurants are limited. My mom calls regularly to ask about my diet. I don’t like to lie.”
“Keeping track of children’s vitamin intake is what caring moms do. Even Moms of children who are no longer kids. I’m glad you are here. I was sitting here wondering how your meeting with the Briarwood folks turned out.”
“I planned to call you later to give you a report. When I saw you arrive, it seemed like one of those serendipitous moments.”
He took a chair across from her. “I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention the charms of your Aunt Polly. She is a wonderful hostess and a lovely lady. Everybody should have an Aunt Polly.”
Joanna laughed. “You will get no argument from me. There is nothing Aunt Polly loves more than entertaining friends and neighbors. She has at times been a mom, aunt, mentor and friend to me.”
“I picked up on that. The afternoon was reminiscent of a weekend I spent at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee two years ago. Not only was I entertained, I was inspired. I plan to talk to a historian I know about conducting an oral history study. The stories the elderly residents of our state have to tell should be recorded for prosperity.”
“Jenny Snipes, a librarian at the Graham County Library, is an excellent researcher, and she is particularly interested in state history. If you don’t know her, you should.”
“Can I mention your name?”
“Of course. Did any of the residents have any useful information about tobacco barns.”
“Lots of stories about working in tobacco. I was given several names of higher ups in the industry. If I can dig up enough information, and find enough photographs, I might consider compiling a Coffee Table Book.”
The server interrupted the conversation to take their order. As soon as she turned away, Alex asked, “Do you mind if I ask a couple of personal questions?”
“You can ask. I won’t promise that I will answer.”
“Fair enough. Several of the folks referred to the time you lived with your Aunt Polly, and they also mentioned your dad. Did you lose your dad, or is he incapacitated in some way?”
She chuckled. “My dad is very much alive. It isn’t that people don’t like Dad, they just don’t know what to make of him. He doesn’t like chit chat, so he’s not the kind of guy you invite to dinner. He is the guy you call if you need someone to fix your car or a broken piece of equipment. Give him a puzzle and he solves it. Ask him a question and he will give you a concise answer. I remember him as always being stoic, but Aunt Polly claims that he was more sociable when Mom was alive.
“When did your mom die?”
“When I was in elementary school. I was small for my age, and I was shy. After her death, I lost what little self-confidence I possessed. Dad hired a live-in housekeeper because his job as a trouble-shooter for a manufacturing company took him out of town two or three days out of the week. Mrs. Simms was efficient, but she was not a nurturer. I was desperately lonely, so I created my own fantasy world. Aunt Polly realized that my social skills were declining. She suggested that I move in with her, and Dad agreed. Dad and I had already established a pattern of silence. Unfortunately, our relationship didn’t improve when I moved in with her.”
“Didn’t you visit him?”
“Dad sold our home in Brighton Heights and bought a condo. When he was in town, he worked at the condo, but he spent weekends and holidays at Aunt Polly’s.”
“Were your dad and Aunt Polly close?”
“Close is not a word I use in connection with Dad. I’m sure they talked when I wasn’t around. He was like a shadow; he was there but easily overlooked. Although, I must say that Aunt Polly held him in high esteem. When I matured, I learned to appreciate his strengths.”
“When did your relationship with him change?”
“Gradually. When he retired five years ago, he consulted me before he finalized his future plans. I was shocked to learn that for years he had used his free time on the road to whittle and carve duck decoys and small animals. He is a very gifted artist, Alex, and I was too self-involved to notice. It was a teachable moment. Since then, I have tried to be a more observant and caring daughter.”
“Children rarely think about their parents as individuals with good traits and bad traits or hopes and dreams.”
“Does he sell his carvings?”
“He didn’t, but he does now. I introduced him to Kathleen Kelly who owns the Village Crafts on Greenwood Ave. She sells his work almost as soon as he completes a piece. If you decide to check out her shop, tell her that I sent you.
“These days Dad and I find that we have quite a lot in common. Looking back, I realize that my early lack of communication skills mirrored his. Aunt Polly is a complete opposite of my dad. She shines at social gatherings. She set up play dates immediately after I moved in with her. She took me to church and enrolled me in a gymnastics class. As I grew into myself, as she liked to say, my small world expanded.”
“Even I understand that a positive self-image is important if a child is to thrive.”
She reached in her purse, took out a tiny carved rabbit, and handed it to Alex. “Dad carved this for me. Since I was a child, I have adored cuddly bunnies. One of his nicknames for me was Mopsy. If you remember, she was one of Peter Rabbit’s sisters.”
“Oh, I remember. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. I could identify with Peter. I was something of a scamp when I was younger.”
“I have a copy of the book that I treasure.”
Alex carefully examined the small carving. “There is an amazing amount of detail for a carving as small as your bunny. I would like to see more of your dad’s work. Does he still live in town? If so, does he have a studio. I will check the craft shop, but what I would really like to see is his studio.”
“Yes, but not at the condo. When he retired, he bought a cabin on the lake. There is a studio on the property. One of these day when we both have free time; I will take you to meet him.”
“One more question before our server returns. Who is Matthew?”
His out of the blue question sent shock waves through her. She opened her mouth to tell him Matthew was off-limits, but she surprised herself by saying, “Matthew and I dated during college. He proposed at Christmas of our senior year. During spring break, I came home, and he stayed on campus. I have heard variations of what happened after an evening of drinking with his buddies, but a girl he barely knew ended up pregnant. He did what he believed was the honorable thing. He married her.”
“I am so sorry. It must have been devastating. I’m surprised your aunt’s friends still speak highly of him.”
“That’s the thing about Matthew, Alex, he was and is a personable guy. Matthew was one of those people who is multi-talented. When we dated he was an excellent athlete, excellent musician, and an excellent student. I never saw him drink more than one beer during an evening. He claimed that he didn’t remember anything after his third beer. He appeared to be as torn up about our break-up as I was, but he said he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he walked away from a girl in trouble.”
“But it was okay to walk away from his fiancé? I don’t buy it, Joanna. Are Matthew and the woman still together?”
“As far as I know. I have not heard from either of them in years.”
“What would you do if they divorced, and he wanted to get back together?”
“I have asked myself that question dozens of times.” She paused before adding, “There are always small things to forgive in a relationship, but when you can no longer trust your partner, I don’t think you can have a strong marriage. Matt has qualities I admire, but he no longer has a place in my life or heart.”