Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 12: Renée Pellerin

Elise: -September 1861-

Elise stared at her two beloved friends with a suspicious expression. Camille and Peter sat across from her at the small kitchen table, quietly sipping their coffee and acting like nothing was out of the ordinary. The sound of the cups clinking on the saucers was too much for her.

Well?” she asked, drawing out the word as much as possible. They looked at each other.

“As you know,” Peter began, glancing between the two women uncomfortably. “Camille and I have been courting for five months…” Peter continued, letting out a small cough. His discomfort was apparent and Elise reveled in it. She saw the pink rise to his cheeks and smiled as it did.

Mhm,” she said, eyeing them both, drawing out the word into a hum. She already knew the news they were planning to share with her. They’d desperately tried to hide their feelings for one another from her, displaying proper etiquette and acting the part, but they were unquestionably falling in love. For months Elise had watched Camille give Peter loving glances and giggle as his cheeks turned to a light shade of pink. They were similar in personality, though Camille’s fierceness meshed with Peter’s exuberant and kind natured heart. They were both lovely people, and in Elise’s opinion, they belonged together.

“We’d like you to be the first to know of our engagement,” he said, grabbing Camille’s hand. Though it was the first time he’d done it in her presence, it was not the first time she’d seen it.

I knew it!” She yanked Camille’s hand from Peter’s to examine the engagement ring. His expression changed from happy to stunned at her words.

“How would you have known that Elise?” he asked, combing his beard with his fingers.

“Please, Peter. I am surprised your faces are not permanently stained pink,” she said, admiring Camille’s ring. “Either way, I am so very happy for you both.”

Their heads turned in unison at the sound of the postmaster dropping mail through the letterbox. As Peter stood from his chair to retrieve the mail, Elise felt her hands encompass her stomach. Camille’s eyebrows rose.

“Kicking again?” she asked.

Elise smiled. “Yes. He’s kicking so much these days.” She rubbed her stomach as she said the words.

“He?”

But before Elise answered, Peter came stomping back into the room.

“Elise, two letters for you,” Peter said, handing her the post. Elise shrunk in her seat after looking at the letters. A roughly handled envelope was in her hand, addressed to her parents with “return to sender” stamped over their address. She was momentarily filled with anger, feeling betrayed by their silence. But she knew that they probably had no method of contacting her. She and René had left the hotel in a hurry, and though she’d checked the hotel for letters since then there was nothing for her each time. She felt herself grow tired as she stared at the stamped words, fearful that she would never see her parents again. The other letter, from Caroline, sent a rush of heat through her face.

As she looked over the contents she shrank in her seat again.

My parents have fled the South, though they did not include your parents’ whereabouts in their letter and for that, I humbly apologize. I will send you word immediately if I receive any news on the matter. Apart from this small update, I am afraid I have no other words of encouragement.

Camille, aware of Elise’s narrowed brow, asked her about her puzzled expression.

“Elise, what is the matter? Bad news? Any news of René?” Camille asked. Her friend’s concern for her husband warmed her heart.

“This letter is dated May 25,” she said, handing it to Camille and pointing toward the date. “It is now September.”

Camille examined the letter, disappointment spreading across her face. The war had disrupted everything. She grew into a panic as she imagined letters from her parents and Caroline getting lost in the mail, or worse, a long-forgotten letter from René telling her of his whereabouts. Though, despite the troubling reality, it gave Elise hope that maybe René was trying to reach her and couldn’t.

***


Elise: -January 1862-

Through the candlelight, Elise struggled to look at the photograph of her two esteemed friends on their wedding day, one she’d forever cherish. The sun was still beyond the horizon, and the night sky lingered with the promise of morning. Though she’d already been living alone in the shop for nearly four months she was overcome with a sense of loneliness. Her friends were just down the street, but she felt more alone than ever on cold mornings such as this one. She’d arranged the upstairs room for her baby and lived at the bottom, organizing the apartment as her own as Peter suggested. Camille and Peter’s happiness filled her with joy, though it was tinged with sadness and jealousy. The war had already begun to rip apart the foundations of the United States and Elise feared for her baby and their livelihood. How could she bring a child into such a chaotic and uncertain world? As she looked at the photograph her gaze moved to Caroline’s letter, the only one she’d received from her dear friend. Though she had written several times more, no response came to her again. Closed off from the rest of the world in an unfamiliar place, she often felt the sting of solitude, despite her two wonderful friends. They’d married amid a war, with precious hope that their lives would continue after the conflict had ended. The chilled January air blew gently through the kitchen window as she prepared breakfast for herself. She was heavy and swollen and waddled around the table in the small kitchen. Though she tried to ignore the snarky remarks from her neighbors about her pregnancy, she couldn’t. At first, women judged her ruthlessly because they assumed she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock. It didn’t help her reputation that she’d been living with Peter since her arrival in New York. As the war raged around them, though, their snickers disappeared as their husbands and sons disappeared into the horrors of war and they finally understood Elise’s pain.

She cracked an egg into the bowl and began to whisk when she felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. It stabbed her several more times and she stood in the kitchen holding her stomach, cringing at each contraction. The ache subsided and she continued to whisk the egg until a trickle of water fell down her leg. By the time she set the whisk down, her dress was soaking and the water was pooling beneath her feet. Elise walked toward the front door but the discomfort in her lower stomach grew intense quickly. She let out a soft grown before grasping the sewing tables for support. She ripped off the outer layer of her dress, desperate for relief. She felt the contractions, hoping they would stop or lessen but they grew more overpowering each minute and came more frequently. The physical pain manifested into heartache as she anticipated the birth of her child alone without a doctor’s care or anyone to smile down at her as she delivered her baby. She was early, several weeks, she was certain. She didn’t know how much time passed before the contractions came every few minutes. She was dizzy and alone. The floor was saturated and her dress was pooled in the corner of the room, the fabric wilting. Finally, after what felt like hours of isolated agony, the door chimed.

At the sight of Elise, Camille screeched and rushed into the room. Peter followed quickly behind her, setting his keys on the table.

“Peter, please, call for the doctor,” Camille ordered, running to grab towels and water from the kitchen. Elise let out a breath of relief at their timely arrival. I won’t be alone, she thought. She was supposed to be surrounded by her family and imagined Rene’s hand clutching hers to welcome their child into the world. Everything was wrong. Camille took her hand but Elise felt herself fall in and out of consciousness until the doctor arrived. She was terrified. The tears pushed through her closed eyes as Camille helped her through the labor. It was impossible to know how much time passed because it stopped when she heard crying.

“Are you okay, Elise?” Peter asked. The questions were useless, and their voices faded as Elise slipped out of consciousness.

***


Elise opened her eyes and felt the warm comfort of her bed around her. In a daze she saw Camille, sitting in a rocking chair near the window holding her baby.

“Camille.”

At the sound of her name, she turned to see Elise who was struggling to sit up in bed.

“There, there,” Camille said, “You left us for a little while. Lost a lot of blood.” Elise sighed. Her body was stiff and sore, and she felt weak and frail. But she survived.

“You gave birth to a healthy baby girl,” Camille informed her, placing the newborn in her hands.

"What's her name?" Camille asked, gently stroking the baby's cheek.

“I’ll name her Renée,” Elise said, smiling at Camille. “Renée Pellerin. After her father.”

***


Clara: -October -1906-

I turned the page in my diary, eager to write down everything that was on my mind. I drenched each page in ink, explaining everything that had happened. I desperately wanted to speak to Elise, the distant memory of my grandmother whom I wished was my friend. I’d read so many of her letters and diaries and I felt like she was my long-lost sister, telling me her secrets and the most important events in her life. As I wrote I wondered if my granddaughter would read my diaries and letters one day and feel the same. My pen scratched against the parchment until I had several pages filled with my thoughts. Taking my grandmother’s diaries from the trunk, I opened the next one I had not yet read. My eyes scanned the words, and I was eager to read more.

March 7, 1866

I can hardly contain my excitement, for the first time in five years I am returning home at last. Though I am sad to leave my dear friends Camille and Peter, I am overjoyed to finally return to the South. I pray every day that I will be reunited with my dear husband René. Our daughter is growing so quickly. She is beautiful. I cannot wait to see the shop that Peter has so generously sold to me. I will name it “The Painted Ribbon.” The small store is on Royal Street, not far from my childhood home. Oh, how I look forward to setting my eyes upon it! I fear that the war has torn my city apart, and I am praying it is not so. If my darling René is no longer with us, I know he is looking down on me and our child with pride and admiration. I am counting my blessings each day, and I trust in God’s plan to lead me on the right path.

Elise

Mama, I gingerly thought.

“Clara?” I heard a knock. My mother opened the door gently and stepped in, stern like a soldier. “Your brother’s just arrived.”

I looked at her, puzzled. As if reading my mind, she continued.

“William. He is here.”

She turned on her heel and walked away before I could ask her more questions. It was the most we had spoken in weeks, and I had not even said a word. I set the diary back into the trunk and pushed it under my bed with too many questions flooding my mind. The Painted Ribbon? I asked myself, looking back at the trunk. I’d never heard of it. My thoughts got the better of me as I wandered down the stairs to the parlor. Though I did not think that my mother was lying to me, I was still surprised to hear of my eldest brother coming back so soon. My thoughts of the shop in New Orleans were distracted when I saw him.

“Clara,” he exclaimed, hugging me. I sat down next to him, expecting to see my other siblings too. They each walked into the room separately, hugging William as they entered. We all looked at him bewildered and were surprised by his unexpected and unannounced visit.

“I apologize for the abrupt visit. I was on my way home from Houston and thought I’d tell you in person that Adeline’s pregnancy has had several complications. The doctor has recommended bed rest for the remainder of it. I would’ve written, but by the time the letter would have reached you I would have already been here.” He lowered his eyes.

“Oh William,” my mother said, her tight face softening into one of worry. They discussed the possible complications, and I heard my mother complain about her absence for the pregnancy, and how it saddened her that she would not be there to help. The news was disheartening and my thoughts drifted to the shop on Royal Street. It was then that I remembered that William and his family lived in The Crescent City.

“William,” I said, interrupting his conversation with my mother. She shot me a look of disapproval but I immediately dismissed it. As much as I wanted to forgive my mother, every time I looked into her sour face my emotions controlled my actions.

“Yes, Clara?”

“Perhaps I can be of some assistance in New Orleans? I finished school quite some time ago and I feel awfully stuck in this house. It would be my pleasure to offer my help to you and your wife as you prepare for her birth. It will also be a terrific experience for me, for when I begin my own family.” He glanced at my mother for approval.

She slightly hesitated before giving him a nod. “I do not think your father will have a problem with it,” she answered sternly.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Clara,” William said. “How selfless you are to offer your help and support. You are aware that she is not due for two months, and we will need your help for several weeks after the birth? She needs help while on bedrest to look after Alex while I am working.”

“Absolutely. How about until Christmas? If I might, I can travel back here with you.”

His face lit up and a smile formed across his face, displaying a set of cigar-stained teeth.

“Then it’s settled!” he excitedly said. “I will be leaving tomorrow.” I smiled back at him, eager to travel to the big city. In my life, I’d never traveled far outside of our small town of St. Martinville, and I yearned to see more of the world. Though if I was being honest with myself my curiosity had grown significantly since I’d learned of my grandmother’s life there.

“Clara, please excuse us. I will discuss the details with William and your father,” my mother demanded with a stony expression. It was impossible to know exactly how she felt toward me because her expression rarely changed. Never did she smile or laugh, but she also refused to frown or allow any deeper emotions to seep through her expression. She called my father into the room and he bounced in, happy to see his eldest son, though he paid little attention to me. As my parents began discussing the plans with William I excused myself and ran to my bedroom.

I took a seat at my desk, uncapped my pen, and after finding a blank sheet of paper I wrote until my fingers were sore. After I finished writing, I crept through the house, outside through the field and when I approached the barn I heard Ezra conversing with our horses. I watched him pet the horses’ noses and brushed their manes, treating them with the utmost respect. He was gentle, and I found myself wanting to know everything about him. It was easy for me to admit my feelings for him, though I was still unsure why he bothered to take a second glance at me. I was not particularly pretty, according to my brothers I was gloomy, and I never hesitated to tell him how I felt about things. Such qualities were usually not smiled upon in a woman.

“Hello, Ezra,” I said as I presented myself. He stumbled when I did and the moment his eyes met mine I felt my face flush. I felt like a schoolgirl, it was ridiculous.

“Clara.”

He set the brush down and walked toward me, stopping before getting too close. If his breathing was any indication of his feelings, I knew he felt the same as I did while in his presence. He kept his hands in his pockets. If my parents found us in any fashion other than friendly or professional I was certain they’d never let us see each other again.

“I have news.”

We walked in silence to the tree near the coolie, and he sat first, offering his hand to help me down. The wood logs were hard on my skin as I leaned back. Unfortunately, he let go of my hand. I told him of my trip to New Orleans.

“That’s great, Clara! What a good sister you are.”

Though I heard the dejection in his voice his praise was sincere. In a way it filled me with contentment, knowing that my absence saddened him, though I didn’t enjoy the thought of him being unhappy. I hesitated to tell him the entire truth and he sensed it. From the first day we met, he had always been able to read my thoughts and pry information from me.

“What else?” His bluntness no longer surprised me.

“I discovered something,” I said, my tone growing serious. “In 1866 my grandmother wrote an entry in her diary describing a small shop on Royal Street named “The Painted Ribbon.” It was her shop, Ezra. I want to see it. I’m dying to see it. I wasn’t aware of this until now. My mother never told me.” I could not disguise the disappointment in my voice when speaking of my mother.

He pondered my words. “But how do you know it’s still there? You said your parents never mentioned it to you, right? I thought your grandmother lived in the house far down the street? When did she own a shop?” he asked, puzzled. He was asking the same questions I’d been asking myself.

“I know only as much as you. And I intend to find out.”

He let out a small laugh.

“What?” I asked, taken aback by his laughter.

His eyes met mine. “Here I was thinking you were just being a decent sister.”

He noticed my hesitation.

“And?”

“I’ve been wanting to leave this house for weeks. I’m sorry to be dramatic but I’m suffocating here. And, I’ve never seen New Orleans. I always dreamed of visiting the big city, I’ve just never had the opportunity. My parents are wealthy, but they never take us anywhere. It might surprise you how sheltered my life has been.”

He took my hands, seemingly remembering our conversation from the night at his house. I recalled his hands in my hair and his lips on mine and my face grew hot.

“It makes sense that you love the tree so much. It’s your escape,” he said. I had always considered the tree to be exactly that; my escape. But I had never heard anyone else say it aloud before. He read my mind and looked past the gloomy, reclusive person I was and into my heart and soul. What was happening to me?

“Are you nearly finished with your work? I’d enjoy a walk with you.”

“I can afford a break,” he answered with a smile. We walked the road to his house together, admiring the shadows on the ground from the large trees that towered above us. A mixture of entwining pecan and oak branches and leaves created a natural ceiling above the road. We walked for what felt like hours talking, though he couldn’t afford to spend hours with me. His company pulled me farther away from everything else and I was sad to leave him.

We turned back to walk toward my house. “I must admit that I wish you were coming with me,” I confessed.

Our feet created dust clouds in the dirt and when we stopped I watched as it floated between us, creating an imaginary barrier. He let out a small chuckle at my words.

“I am not sure if you know exactly how much I agree with you about that. But Clara,” he said, bringing my hand to his face. “I hope you find the shop.”

I reluctantly removed my hand from his warm, flushed cheek and reached into my boot, pulling out the small letter I’d written him. The letter not only expressed my feelings for him, but I provided my brother’s address in hopes that he would write to me. I was too scared to tell him in person. I handed it to him, but as he took it he touched my hand and pulled me closer. His confidence was enthralling. He kissed me deeply, and the shy, timid nature of our closeness at his house was lost. I savored the touch of his lips on mine and I kissed him back, wrapping my arms around his shoulders, allowing my body to fill with contentment. Before getting lost in each other we reluctantly separated to avoid being seen. I let my eyes meet with his and let out a sigh of disappointment.

“I have to go now.”

We parted ways, and as I looked back, I saw him opening the letter.

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