2753 words (11 minute read)

Chapter Three:  Mrs. Henderson

The moment I step from my bedroom into the kitchen, the hearty aroma of slow-cooking beef wraps itself around me like the arms of an old friend. I close my eyes and take in the scent.

“Do you know what this smells like, Louie?” The dog looks up at me with his soulful brown eyes and I half-expect him to answer. “Freedom,” I say. Louie trots over to his usual spot under the red and white dinette while I continue our chat. “When Charles and I moved to Bartlesville, it was the first time I was free to cook for my family and run my own kitchen. My mother thought a society woman’s place was at a committee meeting, not in the kitchen.” Louie listens patiently. “I had to move four hundred miles away to get out from under her thumb. Imagine if she was still alive and knew I was running a boarding house!” The dog shakes his collar. “I agree. She would have been mortified!”

I never understood why people called dogs “man’s best friend” until Louie came into my life four years ago. He was a gift for my fiftieth birthday. My grandchildren named him St. Louis after my hometown, but he was Louie before the day was out. He’s a fine-looking beagle with long brown ears, a white snout, soft black markings on his back, and a fluff of unruly white fur on the tip of his tail.

“Well, this seems like a mighty fancy supper for a Monday night,” Edna comments as she enters from the dining room. She gestures to the mound of fresh peas and an open bag of potatoes on the counter. “Is something on your mind, Mrs. H.? I know how you like to cook up a storm when you’re trying to work something out.” Edna ties her red gingham apron on over her white housekeeper’s uniform. “You still chewing on that letter you got from your boy Robert begging you to move east?”

“I’m not trying to work something out,” I reply. “I’m making a nice welcome dinner for our new lodger, that’s all.” I start peeling potatoes. “Besides, it’s just a pot roast.”

“Hmm,” Edna grunts under her breath. “This is way more than just a pot roast. Looks like we’re making peas and mashed potatoes and do I smell fresh rolls?” She takes her place next to me at the counter.

“Baked them this afternoon. I was hoping you’d cream the peas. Johnny sure loves your creamed peas.”

“A nice welcome dinner,” she says. “So, this is about Mr. Davis. I bet you have a feeling about him.” She shakes a pea pod at me.

Edna is more than my housekeeper, she’s also my closest friend. She was nothing more than an eighteen-year-old, skinny country girl with strawberry blonde hair, freckles, and a single letter of reference when she first showed up at my kitchen door. She’s small in stature, but her personality fills a room the moment she enters. Edna and I have been dancing around each other in this kitchen for more than twenty years.

“Oh, Edna, you know I have a feeling about everybody.” I say, picking up another potato.

“Well, what are you feeling about Mr. Davis?” Edna starts shelling peas.

“He’s going to be a good fit at Henderson House, that’s all.”

“No, that’s not all, Mrs. H. I can tell when that’s not all. Come on, spill the beans. What happened during the interview?”

“First off, the house perked up the minute he walked through the door,” I say. “Then he introduced himself to Louie and bent down to pet him. Not only did Louie wag his tail, but he pressed his muzzle up into Mr. Davis’s hand.”

“That is a strong opening.” Edna deftly unzips another pod and deposits the peas into the small pot in front of her.

“Oh, Louie, you sure have helped me find some dandy people and avoid some-not-so dandy ones.”

“We could have used you in the early days of the boarding house, Louie,” Edna says. “I’ll never forget that underhanded Laura Lawson.”

“Oh, Miss Lawson! She was always trying to sneak something into her room—whiskey, kittens, even a man!” I recall. “You wouldn’t have wagged your tail if she’d tried to pet you. I should have known better than to rent to someone with such a dark orange color.”

Edna is the only person alive who knows I see auras. When I was little, I thought everyone saw colors like I did. It wasn’t until I was nine I learned it was something special—a gift. My mother made me promise not to tell anyone. She told me people wouldn’t understand and it might frighten them. I never spoke about the colors to anyone—not until the day my husband, Charles, died. When news arrived of his collapse, I was in the kitchen with Edna. I was distraught not only because I had lost my beloved husband, but also because I felt like my gift had failed me. I had seen no indication that Charles was not well, had no idea something terrible would happen to him that day. I sat in the kitchen and bared my soul to Edna. I told her everything about how the colors spoke to me and helped me understand people. In the midst of such utter sadness, a weight was lifted. Someone knew. Someone I trusted knew my secret. Edna wasn’t scared or nervous or uncomfortable. As I recall, her response was, “That sure explains a lot.” My wonderful Edna.

“What color did you see around Mr. Davis?” She steers the conversation back to our new lodger.

“Yellow,” I report. “Yellow glows all around him. It’s not a sunshine yellow. I’d say it’s more the shade of a ripe summer squash.” I continuing peeling potatoes. “I didn’t sense anything in Mr. Davis’s color except good health and a pleasant disposition.”

Once I become familiar with someone’s color, I can tell when it’s a little off. Changes in the shade might mean someone is lying, a topic of conversation is difficult, or they’re feeling a bit under the weather.

“Did he take a cookie with his tea?” Edna asks.

“Yes, he took two,” I reply. I’m hesitant to rent a room to someone who won’t accept a cookie over tea.

“Hmm. A solid four out of four—house, dog, color, and cookie,” she says. “Is Mr. Davis originally from California?”

“No, he’s from Joplin, Missouri.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere. He’s from your home state—a mid-westerner at heart. What else did you learn about him? Married, widowed, divorced?”

“We didn’t discuss his marital status, but he’s not wearing a wedding ring.” I grab another potato.

Edna pushes a rpile of empty pods to the side and pulls another pile toward her to shell. “What brings him to Bartlesville?”

“He said he’s wanted to work for Phillips for a long time and was ready to move a little closer to family. I’m telling you, Edna, he’s nothing like the other engineers who’ve stayed with us. He was simply a delight to chat with over tea.”

“Remember, Mr. Little? He could hardly ask me about his laundry. I can’t imagine him ever being delightful!” Edna laughs.

“Well, Mr. Davis is different. Wait until you meet him. He’s quite charming.” I move on to slicing the peeled potatoes and toss the chunks into a large pot of water.

“So charming he deserves a Sunday dinner on a Monday night?” She stops shucking peas and looks at me. “What are you up to, Mrs. H.?”

“Nothing.” I protest. Edna wipes her hands on her apron, puts them on her hips, and stares me down. “Oh, alright. This afternoon, I was in my suite and had the windows open. When Bessie got home from work, she met Mr. Davis out in the front yard. He was playing catch with Johnny. I overheard them talking so I walked to the window to have a look,” I pause.

“And…” Edna encourages.

“And, when I saw Bessie’s rosy color next to Mr. Davis’s yellow, I had an overwhelming sense of compatibility between them.”

“Compatibility between Mr. Davis and Bessie...well, I’ll be darned, you’re matchmaking!” she exclaims.

“Hush now, Edna, I’m doing no such thing. I’m just cooking a nice welcome dinner for our new lodger.” I light the burner and put the potatoes on the stove to boil.

“Yup, you said that before and I’m not buying it. Give me the whole story, Mrs. H.” she presses.

“I don’t have the whole story, yet.” I sigh. “Compatible. That’s the word that keeps popping into my head. A nice big supper might encourage folks to linger around the table telling stories. There’s nothing like a good meal to help people open—”

“Howdy, Edna. Mrs. Henderson,” Johnny interrupts our conversation as he and Mr. Davis enter the kitchen. “We’re just passing through on our way to the garden.”

“And am I sure glad. It smells incredible in here,” Mr. Davis says, looking around at the activity on the counters. “This is quite a well-designed kitchen, Mrs. Henderson.”

“Thank you, Mr. Davis. When I updated the appliances a few years ago, I installed new cabinets and this peninsula. The continuous counter space makes such a difference—especially with two cooks in the kitchen most evenings.” I glance at the cheerful red linoleum countertops and smile as I make eye contact with Edna. She raises her eyebrows. “Goodness me, you two haven’t been introduced, yet,” I say. “Mr. Davis, I’d like you to meet our housekeeper and my dear friend, Edna Anderson.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Anderson. My room was in perfect condition when I moved in today. Thank you,” he says directly to Edna, who beams at the compliment.

“Please call me, Edna, Mr. Davis. Everyone does. Welcome to Henderson House. I hope you’ll be happy here.”

“The house is certainly pleased with your arrival,” I say.

“Mrs. Henderson talks about the house like it has feelings,” Johnny says to Mr. Davis.

“Mmm-mmm, she sure does,” Edna murmurs.

“Well, I have a theory about houses,” I admit.

“I’d love to hear it,” Mr. Davis responds.

“Oh, I’m sure Johnny and Edna are tired of hearing my theories after all these years.”

“Not really, Mrs. H. I love it when you talk about the house,” Johnny says as he takes a seat on one of the stools under the peninsula.

“Oh, me, too,” Edna says, chuckling as she turns around and begins collecting the necessary ingredients to make the sauce for the peas.

“Well, I have a special sense about houses,” I say. “I believe some houses need people more than others.”

“Houses need people?” Mr. Davis asks as he takes a seat next to Johnny.

“Yes, while some houses would be quite satisfied with a single owner or perhaps an old couple puttering about, others crave a variety of human stories playing out against their walls and windows.” I continue speaking as I check on the potatoes. “When I was a little girl, my mother took me with her to her board meetings and afternoon teas so I could play with the daughters of her friends.” I add some salt to the water and turn back to face Johnny and Mr. Davis. “At an early age, I became aware that some houses responded when we entered while others didn’t notice our presence at all.”

“Did Henderson House respond when I entered today?” Mr. Davis asks, turning his eyes upward and looking around the ceiling.

“Yes, it did. Houses that need people celebrate your entrance,” I say. “They are hungry for a cast of characters to pass through every day in order to feel satisfied. I guess that’s why I was so excited to move to Oklahoma. I was determined to build a house that needs people.”

“You moved from St. Louis to Bartlesville because you wanted to build a house?” Mr. Davis shakes his head in disbelief.

“No, I moved because my husband, Charles, became the chief surgeon at Memorial Hospital. I was pleased about the move because it meant I got to build a house from the ground up. There was no way to be sure while we were building Henderson House if it would need people or not. We designed, we built, we decorated. The first evening we had dinner here as a family, I heard it.”

“Heard what?” he asks.

“I heard the house humming.” I wipe my hands on a dishtowel next to the sink. Mr. Davis looks intrigued by my story, not frightened. I have scared away a few people over the years with my talk about the house. Can you imagine if everyone knew I saw colors around them, too? Thank heavens Edna is such a good secret keeper.

I continue, “From the beginning, Henderson House was happiest with a full crew—the more the merrier. While I could have hired a full-time cook in addition to Edna, I preferred to do most of the cooking myself.” I lean across the counter and whisper, “A fact that annoyed my mother until the day she died.”

Frank laughs.

“I smile with deep satisfaction every time the dining table overflows with food and friends. And this house smiles back,” I pause.

“Then Dr. Charles died in 1929,” Edna says over her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Davis says. “Was it an accident?”

“Not really. He went out for a walk, had a heart attack, and died. They said it happened in an instant.” I snap my fingers.

“It must have been quite a shock,” Mr. Davis says.

“Yes, it was,” I reply. “All four of my boys traveled home for their father’s funeral. Walter, the oldest, began immediately nudging me to sell the house and move to New Jersey.”

“But you didn’t want to?” he asks.

“No. The more they sold me on a new life back east, the more I realized I couldn’t leave Bartlesville, not yet. I told them I wanted to stay and turn Henderson House into a boarding house.”

“Because the house needs people?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Exactly! I knew I couldn’t stay here if the house was empty.”

“And what did your children think of your idea?”

“To say they were not supportive would be an understatement!” Edna exclaims.

I chuckle as I remember. “My youngest, Robert, in particular, was horrified by the thought of his mother working as a lowly landlady!”

“How did you win them over?” Mr. Davis asks.

“I made my case to them point by point, with the alternative being if it didn’t work out, I would sell the house and move. In the end, I think they agreed because they were tired of trying to convince me otherwise. They were ready to return to their work and studies. As I waved goodbye to their train at the station, I dried my tears and began planning the reinvention of Henderson House as a boarding house.”

“Did you make many structural modifications to the building?” he asks, sounding like an engineer for the first time.

“Edna’s husband, Douglas, helped me convert the first-floor parlor into my private suite. We didn’t need to do much to the boys’ four bedrooms or the hall bath. The biggest job was turning my original master suite upstairs into two private bedrooms with a shared bath,” I say.

“That’s where my mom and I live in the room next to Aunt Bessie,” Johnny says. “Speaking of Aunt Bessie, she’s gonna be down any minute, let’s get outside and check on the flower project,” Johnny hops off his stool and heads to the kitchen door. Mr. Davis stands.

“Thanks for telling me about the house,” he says to me. Then he raises his face to the ceiling, “And thanks for celebrating my entrance.” We all laugh.

After Johnny and Mr. Davis head out back, Edna and I work in silence for a moment.

“Okay, so, he’s not your typical engineer,” she says. “He wasn’t uncomfortable with your house feelings at all. And he’s kind of cute.” She adds flour to the melted butter. “Do you really think there’s the possibility of a romance between Mr. Davis and our Bessie?” Edna stirs the sauce briskly.

“I don’t know, Edna, but I will say this, if anyone on God’s green earth deserves to find true love, it’s Bessie Blackwell.”

Next Chapter: Chapter Four:  Bessie