She gave her friend a probing look, though what she wanted to do was demand what gave Bear the right to be such a sourpuss. And Edith enabled it, too—she acted like Bear’s chief apologist. They had a curious relationship, those two. Marlene had known the Bailey family for decades, and she suspected more happened behind closed doors than people knew. Bear acted, well, like a bear, but she guessed it was really Edith who called the shots in her quiet way.
Edith must’ve sensed Marlene’s opinion, because she added, “He lives to get those letters.”
“It’s true.” Sorrow sat in the window seat, balancing her plate on her knees. “He’s practically memorized this one.”
“Well, I just think it’s the strangest thing,” Ruby said, trundling over to the buffet.
Pearl was right behind her. “If he misses the boy so much, he certainly has a strange way of showing it.”
Judgment was thick in the women’s voices, but nobody took issue. Disapproval was a downright hobby for the Kidd sisters, and everyone was used to it.
Marlene eyed her aunts as they assembled their food, wondering how different their lives might’ve been if they’d married, had children, and gotten a taste of how difficult the whole business was. She wagered they wouldn’t have so much spare time in which to pass judgment.
Edith sighed. “Bear Senior is just…frustrated. He wishes he could do more—we all do. He hates that we’re not in more contact with our boy.”
“Nah,” Sorrow said with a shake of her head. “Dad just wishes he could put on a uniform and go fight with him.”
“Action?” Laura blew on her tea, stirring in three packets of Sweet’N Low. “A man of temper is more like it.”
“Well, he should just say a little prayer when he feels his temper coming on,” Ruby said definitively, though she was mostly focused on assembling her selection of goodies.
Laura eyed the older woman’s plate. “How on earth do you stay so thin?” She caught Sorrow’s eye and muttered, “Maybe I should start praying more.”
“It’s genes, dear.” Pearl settled herself in the armchair and upped her voice a notch to address her ailing sister. “Isn’t that right, Emerald? We Kidd girls have good genes.”
Marlene went to the table to make a plate of food for her mother. She saw that Laura still had only a cup of tea. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
Laura pulled an apple from her bag. “I’m eating. I’m good.”
“An apple’s not eating,” Sorrow said. “Though it does look good.” She picked at her cucumber sandwich. “I cannot wait till winter’s over—produce has really been sucking lately.”
“Berries will be in season soon,” Ruby said cheerfully.
Marlene pulled a table over to her mother’s chair and put a plate of sandwiches and cookies before her. Patting her shoulder, she prompted in a clear voice, “Time to eat, Ma. I’ve got your favorites.”
Emerald looked at the plate, and Marlene peered hard, anxious to see something flicker in the woman’s eyes. But still, there was just that horrible, devastating blankness.
Laura glanced at the clock on her cell phone, looking impatient. “We should get this show on the road.” She pulled a manila folder from her bag. “So, for the festival, I went ahead and created a marketing plan. Nothing major, just some milestones that we’ll need to meet in the next few weeks, a tentative schedule of events, and a list of tasks and who they should be delegated to.”
Everyone looked at her, shell-shocked expressions all around.
Sorrow held up a finger as she finished chewing, and the room seemed to hold its breath. “We need to learn more about her relationship with Buck Larsen before we finish planning. Like, did he ever return to Sierra Falls? That sort of thing.”
Laura crunched her apple. “I still think we need a list of tasks and owners. There’s so much more to do than just arranging the annual bake sale. Like, we should compile a program. We could pull together some good Sorrow Crabtree quotes, add some old-timey photos. It’s easy to get a book like that printed up these days, and then we could sell it at the festival.”
Sorrow gaped at her sister, and Marlene braced. Laura was taking charge, and it was only a matter of time before the tension ignited between the two. But Sorrow surprised the room when she said, “Laura, that is an awesome idea.”
“It is,” Marlene agreed quickly. Anxious to keep the meeting so pleasantly civil, she steered them in a safe direction—one that didn’t involve words like publicity or strategies. “But Edith tells me you haven’t finished reading the letters yet.”
“That’s the thing.” Sorrow flipped through them thoughtfully. “I’ve tried. But there are a bunch of passages I can’t make sense of.”
“That old-timey handwriting is a…”—Laura cut herself off, seeing Sorrow’s glance that silently warned language—“it’s a real pain in the tuckus.”
“That’s where you ladies come in,” Edith said, addressing the older women.
Ruby pulled a lap blanket from the arm of her chair and draped it over her legs. “We’re not that old-timey, dear.”
Pearl poo-pooed her. “You know what they mean.” She turned to Sorrow. “Why don’t you read them, dear, then we can help make out the handwriting when you get stuck.”
They spent the next hour enthralled, as Sorrow read her thrice-great-grandmother’s letters. It was impossible for Marlene to hear the woman’s words and not feel their universal truth. Sorrow Crabtree had been a woman who dreamed of greater things, stuck in a situation with no escape.
“Just a minute.” Sorrow flipped the pages back and forth. “These are out of order.”
Sorrow shuffled through some more, then just dropped on her knees to the floor, spreading out all the pages. “Okay, remember this gem? ‘My Mama told me to live life for me. To follow my heart and love my kin and my God. And I’m going to do that, Buck. Just me and our boy. With or without you.’ That was dated 1851.” She set it aside.
“Now check this out. We read this one first—remember? Where she went on and on about the dance hall and making a life for herself? At the end, she wrote, ‘I’ve got a babe in my belly.’ We’d thought it was from that same time period. But it’s not.” Sorrow flipped through, matching page numbers and connecting sentences. “This one is dated 1853.”
“She had another baby,” Edith said, marveling.
Pearl clucked. “That woman’s luck was poor from the day she was born.”
Marlene frowned at her. “Some see a baby as a blessing, Aunt Pearl.”
Laura plopped onto the floor next to Sorrow, holding out her hand. “Let me see that.” For once, Sorrow didn’t hesitate and just handed over the pages without question, and Laura read for a moment. “Wow. You’re right. Check this out, ‘He moves in my belly. A boy, like your beautiful son. I’ll raise them both to be good men.’”
Edith tilted her head, peering at the pages scattered across the floor. “Was Buck the father?”
“No,” Sorrow said, “Buck Larsen never returned. There must’ve been another man.”
“She was a fast woman,” Ruby said, shaking her head.
“A life of toil and fatherless babies,” Ruby said. “That’s what being a fast woman brings you.”
“That’s enough,” Marlene said. She was tired of this conversation. Tired of what they implied about her very own mother.
But Pearl wasn’t done. She pursed her lips. “I wonder if it runs in the blood?”
Laura rolled her eyes. “That’s us. We Baileys of the spoiled blood.”
Sorrow shot Pearl an impatient look. “Who says she was fast? If she had another baby, maybe it means it got better for her. Maybe it wasn’t a fatherless baby, but a secret love affair.”
“Shush,” Laura said, trying to concentrate. She grumbled, “How did you read this, Sorrow?”
“Give me a second,” Laura said. “Handsome…first sight…blah blah. Okay, here it is. This must be the baby’s father: ‘My Silas is an angel. As dependable as God’s love, he comes to town once a month, with letters in his bag and love in his heart.’”
“Oh my God!” Sorrow shrieked. “She was in love with the mailman!”
“Those guys were actually pretty macho,” Laura said. “Snowshoeing all over the wilderness. Think about it.”
Edith’s eyes went wide. “First sight…angel…When we read it before, I didn’t really get it. I’d thought it had something to do with the baby.”
Marlene leaned forward in her seat. “And you’re sure the date is correct? 1853?”
“Read more, read more.” Sorrow waved her sister on.
Laura found her place on the page. “Okay, here we go. ‘All’s I need is a simple man. I thought I needed a man like you. But your promises are just as empty as that fancy suit you wear.’”
Laura read on, but Marlene stopped paying attention. Those words had stuck in her craw.
She thought about her own situation—had she been wasting time on the wrong things? Had she been chasing men in suits with their meaningless boats and convertibles, when what she really needed was a man whose humble exterior held a heart filled with love?