Mom gave me Mr. Cobb’s card a few years ago and said to call him when ‘her time comes.’ As we’re reviewing her will this morning, he asked about the trust.
“Trust? What do you mean?”
“The money Carol left you; how would you like to handle the transfer?”
“But…we helped her pay her bills. She was on a fixed income.”
“I didn’t know, Mrs. -”
“Ms. Mansfield. Carol received an inheritance five years ago, which is when she hired me to write her will and manage the funds. “
“Who left her the money?”
He flipped through the papers in mom’s file, “here it is, Mr. Robert Mansfield.”
“Robert. Mansfield.” The man who abandoned us with nothing left mom an inheritance.
I sat in my car holding the two envelopes Mr. Cobb had given me. A legal-sized envelope with mom’s paperwork and a letter written in mom’s thin handwriting.
Jane – I know you have questions, but any answers I could give would only lead to more questions. Although life has been painful for you, I understand why you haven’t left. Women want security, and despite his flaws, Jerry has given you that. I hope you will use this money to find some happiness. Love, Mom
“Despite his flaws,” —the words taste bitter in my mouth and fall flat in the empty car— “she only knew the ones he allowed her to see.”
I’m parked in front of the grocery, needing to pick up a few ingredients for the Parker Family spaghetti sauce. Jerry begged his mother for two years to give me the recipe.
“Jerry, sweetie, she didn’t even take your last name when you got married. Why would I give her the family recipe?” Joan knew I hadn’t been allowed to take their name.
“Mom, we’re not having this conversation again. Give her the recipe already.”
On our third anniversary, Joan relented. She would teach me how to make the sauce as an anniversary present for Jerry. The afternoon was uncomfortable, intensified by her continuous narrative. ‘I’m only doing this for Jerry.’ ‘No one outside the family has this recipe.’ ‘You have to promise to keep it a secret.’ ‘Can you keep a secret, Jane?’
After Joan died, I found a recipe card for the Parker Family Sauce. She left out two ingredients when she taught me, a tablespoon of white sugar and a cup of red table wine.
A blonde ponytail swishes past my window and pulls me out of my memory. The young woman exudes happiness. When was the last time I looked like her? In college, before I met Jerry – those were the years I had control, I knew happiness, I felt beautiful.
“Mrs. Leary, what would you think of all this mess?” She had died a decade ago, and I missed her more than my mom, who had only died a month ago.
Mrs. Leary was the librarian at Sunset High. She was also the smartest adult I knew. She helped with my project on imaginary numbers and helped me study for the SATs. Mrs. Leary told me I could be anything I set my mind to, and I wanted to be just like her.
She beamed when I told her I wanted to become a librarian. She helped me pick out a school, a major, and secure financial aid since mom couldn’t afford to send me to college. Mrs. Leary told me she believed in me, and I flourished under her attention.
My mom didn’t cry when I left for college, but Mrs. Leary did. She made me promise to work hard, have fun, and to write her monthly.
I smile at the memory of the naïve girl who escaped to Heritage College. My freshman year was overwhelming – college classes, my first job, and dealing with homesickness. It was much easier to settle into a rhythm when I returned for my sophomore year.
I worked at the reference desk in the library as part of my financial aid package. It gave me an insider’s look at what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I loved it. Then on an average Tuesday afternoon, Jerry came to my desk desperate for help with his paper on the Korean War. I calmed him down and stationed him with the books he needed to complete his project. He came back every day with a different research topic and would leave if I wasn’t at the desk. A month after his first appearance, he asked me out.
“Jane, get out of the car. You need tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and a bell pepper.” The sharpness in my voice did nothing to get me moving. The longer I sat here, the longer I could avoid the decision of what to tell Jerry about my appointment with Mr. Cobb.
Friday dates moved to weekend dates within a few months. A few months after that, weekend dates turned to studying and dinner four times a week. Our relationship could never be described as passionate, but we were comfortable. He did small things that made me uncomfortable. Made comments on my weight. He downplayed my good grades and accomplishments in my classes and explained a degree in literature was ‘a degree for reading’ with an eye roll. But he brought me flowers once a month, put money in my commissary account, and reminded me to call my mom. We never exchanged ‘I love yous.’ I wasn’t sure if I loved him, but the good seemed to outweigh the bad, and a break-up didn’t seem warranted.
Jerry came home with me over Christmas break our junior year. My mom was nervous to meet him, and I was nervous to introduce him to Mrs. Leary. Jerry treated mom like a queen, bringing her presents and taking us all out to dinner. Mom, in turn, hung on his every word and whispered to me over and over, “Marry. Him.”
When we went to Mrs. Leary’s house for coffee, the mood shifted from happy to tense with a single question. “Jane, are you still thinking about UCLA for grad school?”
“Janie’s not going to grad school. We’re getting married right after graduation, and babies will come soon after. She won’t have time for school, and I won’t have a wife with more education than me.” He chose another cookie from the tray in front of us, oblivious to the stunned silence.
Jerry proposed on Christmas morning, and mom answered for me, “Of course she will!” He had never uttered ‘I love you,’ but he wanted to make me his wife.
My silence chose my path.
“If I buy canned tomatoes, I could sit here for a few more minutes.” With a whisper, I gave myself permission to sit for a little while longer. My car was a respite from everything I had to think about – mom’s death, this sudden windfall of money, and if I could gather the courage to leave Jerry. My gaze lands on Emerald Lane Jewelers, the storefront to the left of the grocery. I twirl the ring on my finger and think about the first time I considered leaving.
“This ring was made in the early 1900s, 14k gold band, but the ‘stone’ is glass.”
“Glass? Are you sure?”
“Quite. If you’d like to sell it, I’ll give you a hundred and fifty for the gold.”
I thought a two-carat diamond would give me enough to get out and start over. A hundred dollars wouldn’t get me out of the city. “Thank you for the offer, but I’ll keep it for now. I appreciate your help.”
I look down at the two envelopes in my lap. The trust offered me a way out. She had never acknowledged it, but mom saw my suffering and created a path of redemption.
I’ve spent six months planning my escape, and today is the day. Jerry left for work, and I left divorce papers and his mother’s sauce recipe on the kitchen table. The weight of thirty years fell off as I walked out the front door. I drove saying silent goodbyes to my hometown, ready for the next adventure. Passing the grocery to turn onto the highway, my laughter fills the empty car.
Featured image by renateko courtesy of Pixabay.