Sitting in her usual chair at the dinette, Mrs. Henderson appears lost in thought. Louie sleeps soundly at her feet. Given the tilt of her head, my guess is she’s in the middle of a daydream. I hate to disturb her, but Frank is out of the house and now is the perfect time for us to check on my latest adventure in cooking.
“Mrs. Henderson?” I whisper. She swivels around on her chair to greet me.
“Bessie, dear. Oh, it must be time to check on the pie.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt. You looked as though you were somewhere far, far away.”
“Oh, I will be soon enough,” she says, walking from the dinette to the icebox. “Just think, in a few days this will be your kitchen.” Mrs. H opens the door to the icebox.
I slide the coconut cream pie out and place it on the counter. “I’m not ready to start a countdown. Besides, this will always be the Henderson House kitchen. It’s not like we’re changing the name of the house.”
A slight buzzing skips through the air. I look at Mrs. Henderson to see if she felt it, too. Sensing the house is new to me, if it’s real at all. It started the day Frank and I got engaged and announced our intention to buy Henderson House. Frank and I plan to transform the boarding house into a bed-and-breakfast. The minute the house knew we’d be the new owners, I heard the strangest sound. It sounded like the house was humming in approval. Mrs. H has always talked about this house needing people and responding to its occupants, but I thought it was nonsense, merely part of her eccentric personality. That evening when I heard the house purring like a cat, I had to think again.
“Well, the house is happy about that,” she says matter-of-factly before examining the pie.
“I’m still not sure how to interpret what I sense or hear from the house,” I say.
“Understanding is something you have to develop and tend to in a relationship,” she says, jiggling the pie plate. “It doesn’t happen overnight. Not with people and certainly not with houses.” She jiggles the pie a second time. “Oh, Bessie.” She nods in approval. “I think it set up fine, just fine.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Third time’s the charm.” I jiggle the pie plate for myself. The filling hardly moves. Success at last. “Thanks for the tip about whisking the eggs and cornstarch together.”
Since returning from my honeymoon on Monday, I’ve tried to follow the recipe Frank’s mother gave me, twice, with no luck. I couldn’t wait to return from my honeymoon and add the card to the old wooden recipe box above the stove. Mrs. Henderson turned her recipes over to me when she began teaching me how to cook earlier this summer. I’m living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The recipe card from Gladys is the first I’ve added to the collection. When I flipped through the cards to the dog-eared “Dessert” tab and inserted her recipe for coconut cream pie alphabetically after chocolate cake, it was the first time the box felt like it was rightly mine. I need to remember when I write to thank Gladys for the recipe, I need to start the note “Dear Mom” per her request.
“The pie will keep fine in the icebox today while we’re down in Tulsa,” Mrs. Henderson says, covering the pie plate loosely with tin foil. “We’ll wait to make the whipped cream until we get home tonight. It’s better to top it right before serving.”
“Frank will be so surprised,” I say. “My first solo fancy dessert.” I slide the pie back into the refrigerator next to the enormous platter of fried chicken we made to take to the house-warming picnic today.
“It’s only the first of many fancy desserts, I’m sure.” Mrs. Henderson smiles at me in her all-knowing way. “You haven’t told me much about meeting Frank’s family when you were in Joplin. What was Frank’s sister, Helen, like?”
I wipe up the condensation the pie plate left on the counter and decide to wipe down the whole peninsula rather than answer Mrs. Henderson’s question. She pulls the dishtowel out of my hand, and I look up at her in surprise.
“I take it things didn’t go according to plan?” she asks.
“How do you always know what I’m thinking?”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Mrs. H says, “but I’m here to help if I can.”
“I appreciate that. It’s just, I’m not sure it really matters.” I sigh and take a seat at the dinette. Mrs. H follows and sits across from me. Her silence encourages me to continue. “Helen hosted a Fourth of July picnic for Frank’s whole family on Friday,” I begin. “Frank’s terribly fond of his sister, but I have to say she wasn’t very,” I pause, “welcoming. In fact, I got the sense she didn’t think much of me. Especially once she found out I was part Cherokee.”
“How on earth did that come up?” Mrs. H asks.
“Oh, Frank’s nephews wanted to hear the story about how about how Daddy started the Pack and Run. Leo and Andy were impressed with me. Helen, on the other hand, made it very clear that I was a disappointment.”
“Did Frank notice his sister’s reaction?”
“He was focused on catching up with his brother, Pete,” I mutter, recalling how uncomfortable Helen made me feel. “Hmm.”
“What is it?”
“The person who made me feel the most welcome was Annie,” I say.
“Frank’s first wife?”
“Yes. Annie was the saving grace of the entire afternoon. She’s sweet and funny. I immediately felt like we’d been friends forever. It’s a lot the way I felt when I met Frank. I never expected to like Frank’s ex-wife more than his sister.”
“Expectations are curious things,” Mrs. H says. “When they’re too high, we’re almost always disappointed. When they’re low, we’re often pleasantly surprised.”
Louie wakes from his nap under the table and stands at attention. He barks three times.
“Someone must be at the door,” Mrs. Henderson says.
“Oh, my goodness, I forgot to tell you Wahya telephoned to say he has business in Bartlesville today. He thought he and Daddy could swing by and we could all caravan down to Tulsa for the housewarming party.”
“Would you like to greet them? You’re almost the lady of the house.” Mrs. H smiles.
“No countdowns.” I wag a finger at her. “But you’re right. Off I go.” Sure enough, when I open the front door Cousin Wahya and Daddy are standing there grinning and Wahya’s enormous brown dog, Yona, sits regally, cocking his big fluffy head at me. I see the white seeping into the fur around his muzzle. He’s getting older, just like the rest of us. “Good morning,” I say.
“Well, hey there, married lady.” Daddy winks at me. I motion for them to enter.
As they cross the threshold, the air in the foyer swirls around me. I feel it fizzle on my arms and my neck in a happy, excited way. Is this what Mrs. Henderson means when she talks about the house responding to people? If so, I’d have to say the house enjoys having Daddy, Wahya, and Yona here. Fascinating.
Daddy glances around, “Whoa, it’s easier to appreciate Henderson House when it’s not full of people. Bessie, this is a lovely home. It’s hard to believe it’s going to belong to you Frank.”
Another one of Daddy’s backhanded compliments.
Dear Lord, please grant me an extra dose of patience today. Help me handle my father with kindness and help me not take everything he says as a personal criticism. Amen.
“Thank you, Daddy. May I take your hats?” Daddy hands me his frayed felt fedora and Wahya his well-worn cowboy hat. I hang them on the coat tree in the foyer.
“How was the honeymoon? Still madly in love?” Wahya asks.
“Even more so,” I say. “You all are mighty early. Did you finish your business in town already?”
“Welcome back,” Mrs. Henderson joins us in the foyer.
“Actually,” Wahya says, shuffling his feet, “my business in Bartlesville is with you.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got any coffee left in that kitchen, Mrs. Henderson?” Daddy asks.
“Right this way, Mr. Blackwell. Though I’ve heard plenty of stories about the delicious Cowboy Coffee you used to brew at your store.”
Daddy laughs. “Well, imagine you knowing about that. I bet I’ve got a few stories you haven’t heard yet,” he says as the two of them disappear through the dining room.
“Shall we sit here?” I gesture to the front room. Wahya takes a seat on the sofa, and I settle across from him in Mrs. Henderson’s favorite floral print chair. I don’t think she’s planning on taking this chair with her to New Jersey. I suppose it might become my favorite chair once she’s gone. “What’s on your mind?” I ask.
Wahya’s shoulders rise and fall. “Is anyone else at home?”
“No. Frank and the professor went into town to run some errands and gas up the car. Is something wrong?”
“No, no. This is perfect. I was hoping to speak to you alone.”
“I’m all yours.”
“Right. So, at your wedding reception, Johnny pulled me aside,” Wahya pauses and shifts his position on the sofa, “actually, he lured me out to the garage and then he told me—” he shifts again, “he told me he is Rachel’s child.”
“Oh, my.” I lean back, sinking deeper into the thick cushions.
“Is it true?” he asks.
“Yes, it is true.”
“Oh, sweet Rachel,” he says, shaking his head. “That kid never got a break. After Florence ran off to get married and you took Eddie to live in Claremore, she and I spent every day together, running that crazy little store. Your daddy was never the same after you all left. And then when your mom and little Mae died, well, he was a mess. Rachel and I somehow kept the store going while your dad slowly pulled himself out of his grief. I knew your sister like the back of my hand. It’s hard to believe she could end up pregnant and not tell me.” Wahya hangs his head. “I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’m a little hurt.”
“Yeah, I’m hurt that she didn’t confide in me or come to me for help. She must have felt so alone. I would’ve done anything for that girl.”
“I know you would have, honey. I’m so, so, sorry it took all this time for the truth to come out.” My stomach aches when I think of the years I lied on Florence’s behalf. My sister desperately wanted a child and when Rachel died the night after Johnny was born, well, I let Florence convince me it made sense for her to raise the baby as her own. She and little Johnny were so happy together and, at that point, I would have done just about anything to make my only surviving sister happy.
Wahya sits up straighter on the couch. “Johnny asked me if I would help him find his father. Maybe I couldn’t help Rachel, but now I have a chance to help her son and I don’t want to let him down. I’ve been racking my brain, but for the life of me I can’t remember anyone special from that summer before she left. I figured you might have some information from Rachel. Did she give you any clue as to who Johnny’s father might be?”
“Will you wait here while I pop up to my room and get something?” I ask.
“Sure, if you think it’s important,” Wahya says.
“It’s very important. I’ll be right back.” It takes a good deal of self-control not to race out of the room and fly up the stairs as fast as I can. Finally, the faded blue letter I’ve saved all these years might make a difference. I enter my room and walk to my dressing table. Frank moved in with me after we got married. It’s only temporary since we’ll relocate to Mrs. Henderson’s suite on the first floor when she leaves for New Jersey. It’s strange to see Frank’s books on my nightstand and his cardigan over the chair next to mine. Some mornings, when I wake up in his arms, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.
I open the left-hand drawer of my dressing table and lift out my Bible and prayer book. I pull out a stack of letters tied with an old pink grosgrain ribbon and all that remains at the bottom of the drawer is a single piece of pale blue stationery folded in half. The paper carries the faded veins of having once been crumpled and later smoothed flat. I clutch the letter to my chest and hurry back to Wahya. When I return to the living room, I sit next to him on the sofa.
“Before I give this to you, I need you to understand that when Rachel died, Florence fell madly in love with that baby. She desperately wanted her husband, John, to think the baby was his. I know it was wrong to go along with her scheme, but Florence was sure having a child would bring John back to his sense. You remember how distraught and unsettled John was when he returned from the war in Europe. And Florence was right. Little Johnny helped him get back on track. They were a happy family, for a while at least.”
“What happened to me them unhappy?” Wahya asks.
“The summer after Johnny was born, Florence’s husband ran into a young man on the road to Aunt Maud’s one evening.” I begin. “The young man said he was looking for the three Blackwell sisters, and a baby. John told him Rachel, one of the sisters, had died unexpectedly last winter. He told the young man there was no baby. John said he gave the man directions back to the train station. John told me he never asked the man for his name. After that encounter, I’m sure John put the pieces together a realized Johnny wasn’t his son.” I hand the letter to Wahya. “I found this wadded up on the ground next the road the same day as the young man’s visit.”
Wahya presses the paper between his palms for a moment. “We sold this stationery at the Pack and Run,” he says. He opens the letter and runs his fingers over the perfectly slanted lettering of my sister’s script. “Rachel,” he whispers. A faint smile crosses his face as he reads the letter silently.
I’ve read this letter so many times, I could recite it from memory. I watch the expression in Wahya’s eyes turn to sadness as he reads my sister’s sweet words inviting her lover to come and make a life with her and their soon-to-be-born baby in Wichita. When Wahya finishes, he wipes a teardrop from his cheek. His gaze returns to the letter. He squints, focusing on something toward the bottom of the page.
“You said the young man didn’t show up until the summer after Johnny was born, right?"
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I think,” Wahya says, tilting his head to one side and then the other, “we have our first clue.”