“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. ~Oscar Wilde
“Hold your horses. Sara.” Listlessly, Ed Riddle shuffled to the door, slid back the deadbolt and stood aside so that his granddaughter could enter the kitchen. After a night of tossing and turning, he was as disheveled and disgruntled as a camper returning to civilization after being lost in the backwoods for two weeks. He was in no mood to be reproached for his choice of apparel, or to listen to a lecture that he’d heard a half dozen times. As much as he loved his granddaughter, he was becoming weary of her fault finding. He didn’t want and didn’t need reminders that his life was less than perfect. He wasn’t becoming reclusive. He was protecting himself against a well-intentioned busybody.
She needed to accept that people grieved in different ways and on their own time table. Why couldn’t she get it through her thick skull that he just needed time? He’d lost his wife and his job for cripes sake. When you struggle to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning, the days seem endless. Sure, he had to fight the negativity that crept in, but he was doing a fair job. From his perspective, he was doing okay.
There was a time, when he was sure that he could handle anything, even grief. Fifteen years had passed since the day he and Ella received the news that their daughter and son-in-law had been killed in a plane crash in Africa. There were still moments when the emotional pain crept in to monopolize his thoughts and dreams, to steal his peace of mind. The deep wounds of pain had been reopened when his beloved wife Ella was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. That was the day that the sunshine went out of his life.
He opened the door to a frowning Sara. As she brushed past him, she quipped, “Are you locking people out or locking yourself in? Honestly, Pops, for a guy who used to be the life of the party, you’re becoming a troglodyte. It’s time to get out and about. Have some fun. Do something unexpected and exhilarating. If you aren’t up for adventure, you could make the first step by signing up for a cooking class.”
He made an effort to remain calm. “If troglodyte is insulting as it sounds, then I’m in real trouble. Since when did I need to get a hobby? If I had an interest in passing the time with a mindless activity, I’d take up golf.”
“You hate golf.”
“I’m not crazy about the game, but better golf than cooking. For crying out loud Sara, imagine the ribbing I’d get from my police buddies if I toddled off to Williams & Sonoma to take cooking lessons with a bunch of giggly women who have too much time on their hands. I already have one female telling me how to live my life. I certainly don’t need another one.”
“Now you sound like a pig-headed chauvinist.”
His biting tone had been a topic for discussion more than once. In fact, she claimed that his irritability was becoming the rule rather than the exception. He suspected that he was damaging his relationship with his granddaughter, and yet he seemed unable to manage his tongue.
Sara’s voice trembled. “Here we go again. Cooking was a suggestion, Pops, not a demand. I was thinking about the young, eligible females you might meet. Who knows, maybe you would be partnered with a drop dead gorgeous woman. The women in your circle of friends are all sixty or older. And, they are married. It’s time to break out of your safe cocoon, spread your wings, stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Her syrupy tone didn’t hide her frustration. “If you won’t consider cooking lessons, what about coming to one of the pool parties at my condo complex.”
“With my luck, I’d be called a dirty old man for leering at the young ladies in bikinis.”
“News flash, Pops. Women who wear bikinis are inviting looks.”
Ed’s brow furrowed. “What’s gotten into you? Last time you were here you went on and on about missing your grandma, and now you’re trying to find a replacement for her.
“Look kiddo, as much as I appreciate your concern— if that’s what it is— I know what I want and need. I have every intention of rebuilding my life, but my future doesn’t include a wife. Your grandma was my soul mate. If I had the good fortune to meet another woman who was willing to put up with my faults, it would be like winning the lottery twice. What are the odds of that? So-o, I’m giving you fair warning. Don’t start setting me up with blind dates. I’m not interested.”
“Wouldn’t think of it, but if you change your mind, Grandma Ella would approve. She wouldn’t want you to be lonesome for the rest of your life. I understand your reservations, but if a beautiful and charming woman walks into your life, I hope that you will at least be open to a new relationship.”
“I promise you this; if a woman who is smart, compassionate and beautiful walks into my life, I’ll reconsider. I think I’m safe because women with those attributes aren’t going to give me a second glance.”
Sara teased, “As long as you’re looking for Ms. Perfect, why don’t you add great cook to the list of traits a candidate must have? You know what they say; the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but I don’t need to add two inches to my waist. I’m already trying to lose five pounds. I’ll enjoy the smells and forego the calories.”
“Maybe you should surround yourself with a smell that sweetens your disposition. I’ve read that smells ignite memories and influences a person’s mood.”
Instead of a snappish reply, his voice softened. “Maybe so. What about you, are you sensitive to smells?”
She took a moment to consider his question. “As a matter of fact, the smell of baking bread reminds me of Grandma and this kitchen. That’s also true of the pungent aroma of Italian dishes. I get all teary eyed when I remember the fabulous Friday dinners that you and Grandma Ella whipped up.” She paused briefly. “Which reminds me . . . Alex and I want to enter Granite Cove’s chili cook-off this year. Do you know which cookbook Grandma Ella’s recipe is in?”
“Her favorites are in the recipe box in the cabinet over her desk.”
“No wonder I didn’t have any luck finding the recipe. I’ll make a copy before I leave.”
“Take the box if you want it. I’m not going to use the recipes.”
“That’s terrific. Thanks, Pops. The winning recipes in the competition are going to be published. Wouldn’t it be cool if Alex and I won, and Grandma Ella’s recipe appeared on the food pages of the Granite Cove News?”
A smirk replaced Ed’s look of irritation. “Claire Mattox has been trying to get that recipe for years. She was adamant that she wouldn’t share the recipe with anyone else, but your grandma refused to give it to her.”
“All the more reason I’d like to win. Claire enters the contest every year. She usually wins, and then she brags about her prowess in the kitchen until the next contest rolls around.”
“For your grandma, cooking was as much about setting goals as it was about the actual cooking. Sometimes her determination could be frustrating, but I always admired her fervor. Believe it or not, she was a so-so cook when we met, but she had already set her sights set on becoming a master chef. I’ll never forget her first attempt at making an apple pie. I came home one beautiful spring evening to find a fire truck parked in the driveway of our duplex.
“Later, when our apartment had been aired and your grandma’s hysteria was under control, she tearfully admitted that is was her negligence that incited the incident. In the process of making the pie, she managed to get flour all over herself, the floor and the cabinets. Even so, she was feeling extremely proud of her efforts. She was sliding the pie into the oven when she heard a loud crash outside. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten how easy it was for your grandma to get distracted.”
“How could I forget?”
“Without a second thought, she scurried outside to investigate. Unfortunately, the pie was soon forgotten.”
“Oh, no. What happened?”
“Our neighbor, Mary Kaye Burchett, accidentally backed into the trash cans at the corner of her house. The cans were rolling down the driveway, spewing out tin cans, cardboard boxes and other refuse. Your grandma and Mary Kaye charged after it picking up the garbage. They were inspecting the car for damage when smoke began billowing out of our kitchen window. The pie had bubbled over and the syrup was burned to a black crisp. Your grandma panicked and called the fire department.”
“Didn’t you have a smoke alarm?”
“The smoke episode occurred years before smoke alarms were mandatory.”
Sara grinned. “I can see it now. A flour covered woman chasing runaway tin cans. That would make a hilarious home movie. Why have I never heard that story?”
“Orders from your grandma. Do you remember how she used to wink at me when we used the term double-trouble?”
“Mary Kaye and Ella wanted to put the incident behind them, but Mary Kaye’s husband Chester repeated the story so many times that our friends and neighbors tired of hearing it. Chester deleted the trash can story from his repertoire in order to pacify his wife, but he began referring to Mary Kaye and your grandma as the double-trouble gals. The nickname stuck. When we moved to Granite Cove, your grandma was determined to leave the story behind. She threatened to divorce me if I mentioned the incident to any of our new friends.”
Sara grinned. “Threatened you, did she?”
“You bet. It seemed prudent to respect her wishes. When your mom’s teenage rebellion began, your grandma shook her head and said, ‘I think we’re headed for double-trouble.’ As soon as the words were out of her mouth, her eyes widened and she put her hand over her mouth. From that day on, it was our inside joke.”
“Was there smoke damage to your apartment?”
“Unfortunately, yes. We spend three days washing down and repainting the walls in the kitchen and den. Your grandma had recently made new curtains for both rooms. Even though we laundered them, the curtains never had that crisp new look again. Worse yet. Despite repeated shampooing’s, the sofa cushions smelled like stale smoke for months. If we could have afforded to buy a new sofa, we would have.”
Sara shrugged. “Kitchen disasters happen to all of us, but hers was a tad extreme.”
“Ella wasn’t sensitive about most things, but for some reason, she agonized over her failures in the kitchen. Luckily, she didn’t let her fiasco affect her love of cooking. Several years after the apple pie incident, she took lessons from a French chef named Maurice Gambrel. That man’s ego was as big as his belly, but with his culinary skills, he’d earned the right to be a braggart.”
Sara said. “Grandma’s French pastries were amazing. Remember the time she agreed to make eight dozen pastries for Becca Williams’ wedding reception? The kitchen smelled like a bakery for days.”
Ed nodded. “She became so accomplished that our friends began referring to her as the Julia Child of Granite Cove. Regrettably, Steak au Poivre and Cassoulette were a little too rich for the tastes of most of our guests, so Ella’s fascination for French Gourmet was short-lived. She eventually settled for perfecting Southern favorites like her famous chili recipe, fried chicken—my personal favorite—and the pound cake that was a perennial favorite at church dinners.”
“So, when did the two of you become a cooking team?”
“Not until your mom was a teenager. Your grandma and I were busy with our jobs and outside commitments. Our only time for a private conversation was during dinner preparation. I’d shove a stool to the breakfast bar and we’d chat while she cooked. Before you know it, I was making the salad or chopping vegetables. I learned by watching her.”
“But, you gave up cooking altogether when I moved out six years ago. These days your skills are limited to microwaving TV dinners and opening a can of soup.” Sara opened the pantry door and studied the contents. “This is disgraceful, Pops. Your pantry looks like an advertisement for the Campbell Soup Company, and you know as well as I do that canned soup is loaded with sodium.”
She turned the cans around so that she could scan the labels. “Hm-m. Let’s see what we have here. You can dine on microwaved chicken noodle soup today and vegetable beef soup on Sunday. Monday you can switch to bean soup or a bowl of smooth and creamy clam chowder.” She shook her head in disgust.
Ed’s sense of humor kicked in, as he choked down laughter. Laughter was better than sarcasm any day. Besides, if he gave the slightest hint that her badgering was getting to him, she’d double down on her Saturday morning tirades. “Hey, I take advantage of Sam’s, so sue me. And . . . I dare say that I consume more vitamins and minerals in the course of a day than you do.”
“Calories? Yes. Vitamins? No. You’d lose those pesky five extra pounds you keep complaining about if you’d give up country-style steak and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy.” She glanced around the spotless kitchen and peeked in the dishwasher. “There’s nothing in your dishwasher except cups and bowls, and that’s proof positive that you’re not preparing meals. I realize that Mama’s Kitchen, your chosen breakfast place, is more about socializing than the food. But, you have to admit that every item on the cafe's menu is a nutritionist’s nightmare.”
“That’s an exaggeration, but what does my diet have to do with taking a cooking class?”
“Not just any class. The hospital is sponsoring a heart healthy cooking class. I want you around for another twenty-five years.”
Sara’s words touched his heart. Her mask was off, and the pain in her eyes was gut-wrenching. Fear, he suspected, was the reason she was so concerned about his well-being. Why wouldn’t the thought of losing her only living relative terrify her? She didn’t remember her biological parents and she’d lost her adoptive parents—Ed’s daughter and son-in-law—in a plane crash less than a year after her adoption. Her beloved grandma Ella, who had been her rock through the turbulent teen years, tragically succumbed to cancer almost eighteen months ago. He was touched that despite all of his faults, Sara still wanted him in her life.
Ed’s voice softened. “Listen, kiddo. I’m hale and hardy. I’m not going anywhere. If it makes you happy, I’ll take cooking lessons, but I damn well won’t wear a frilly apron. I didn’t when your grandma was alive, and I’m not going to do it for you. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet a gorgeous redhead. Then, I’ll have two bossy redheads running my life.”
She laughed through the tears. “I’m on-board with any woman who can convince you that it’s time to get rid of the sweats and Dockers that have seen better days. This redhead hasn’t been successful. I remember a time when you wouldn’t leave the house unless you were wearing a tie and your shoes were spit shined. My friends swooned. They claimed that you looked like George Clooney’s brother.”
“Ten years ago, I would have been flattered.”
“You’re still the dashing hero in my book. Sorry I came on strong this morning. When I get out of sorts, I’m not fit company. The really depressing thing is that when I woke up this morning, I was convinced that the day was going to be a good one. I snuggled in my cozy bed and listened to the birds chirping as I watched the dust particles dancing in the sun rays. For the first time in weeks, I felt a deep sense of peace and calm. Since Grandma died, I haven’t had a lot of peace. This morning was a welcomed relief.
“In fact, I was in such a good mood that I was humming Oh What a Beautiful Morning when I reached out to knock on your kitchen door. Suddenly . . . I heard it. Grandma Ella’s laugh. Don’t look at me like that! I heard what I heard. If it wasn’t her laugh, then I’m losing my mind. I was so startled that I almost dropped the take-out bag. The scary thing is that it’s not the first time I’ve heard her laughter and felt her presence.”
Ed’s first thought was that death of a loved one wreaked havoc with the lives of those left behind. There were times when the silence in his own home was deafening, and there were other times when he could almost feel Ella’s presence. Smell her perfume. Hear her voice.
He reached out and touched Sara’s cheek. “Believe me, Sara . . . I’m not disputing your word. There have been days when I’ve heard footsteps in the front hall. Not just any footsteps, your grandma’s footsteps. The mind can play tricks on you, sweetie. Maybe her laughter is a phenomenon like phantom pain.”
“Either that or we have the ghost of Ella in our midst” She laughed. “Remember how Grandma used to get bent out of shape when you mentioned your midnight conversations with the police station’s ghosts. Weren’t their names Caleb and Josephine?”
“The lovely Josephine and her hen-pecked husband Caleb.
Grandma would look at me, roll her eyes and say, ‘There he goes again. Filling your head with a lot of ghost nonsense.’ But the truth of it is, that it would be like her to come back to check up on us.”
“As long as we are alive, she’s alive in our memories.”
“I miss her, Pops.” Her hand trembled as she reached out to place the to-go cups in the microwave. When the microwave dinged, she handed him the morning newspaper and a piping hot cup of coffee. “One teeny, tiny favor. Before you disappear behind the sports page, will you please read the highlighted articles on page five? I value your professional opinion.”
Ed wished that he could find the healing words that Sara needed to hear, but too often words intensified the pain. Ella’s death had created a deep chasm between the two of them that had been difficult to bridge. Ed was determined to do whatever it took to rebuild his relationship with his granddaughter. He had already lost a wife and daughter. He couldn’t lose Sara. He kissed her forehead. “Time’s a great healer, Sara. The worst is over.”
She wiped a tear from her eye, and nodded.