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The Gardens of Covington

Chapter One: The Ladies of Covington Take Tea on the Porch

Carrying a silver platter brimming with dainty tea sandwiches, and another piled high with her famous, especially thin sugar cookies, Grace Singleton shoved open the screen door with her hip and stepped out onto the front porch of the farmhouse. "Hannah, Amelia," she called lightly over her shoulder, "the ladybugs are back in droves." Orange ladybugs with black dots hugged the porch wall and had begun to stipple the ceiling. Grace set the platters on a low wicker table in front of three rocking chairs.

The door swung wide again. Nearly six feet tall with short, thick, salt-and-pepper hair, Hannah steadied the heavy silver tea tray and service against her middle. She paused as Amelia stepped ahead of her to hold open the door.

"Ugh! ladybugs. Je les deteste." Amelia grimaced as she helped set the tea tray on the table. "They leave such a foul smell on my hands."

"Amelia Declose, don't be so squeamish. Just don't touch them. Harmless creatures. They come for warmth. Few weeks they'll be gone. Good example of a sound environmental concept gone sour." Hannah settled into her rocking chair. "Now, let's have tea."

Every afternoon at four-thirty, weather and schedules permitting, Hannah, Grace, and Amelia came together to sit in their white wicker rockers on the front porch of their farmhouse at 70 Cove Road, to enjoy a genuine old-fashioned English tea, and to share the happenings of their day.

This was their second summer in Covington, and September of 1998 was delivering a record punch of high temperatures. This afternoon, the sunblasted blacktop of Cove Road shimmered with waves of translucent heat. Across the road, lining the long driveway into Maxwell's Dairy Farm, the leaves on the dogwoods were beginning to tinge a color that Hannah termed maroon, Amelia described as burgundy, and Grace regarded as plum. Whatever the color, it signaled autumn.

Grace's round, smooth face and warm, brown eyes were serene as she poured their tea. As was their wont, other than the clink of a spoon, and the light touch of a cup returned to its saucer, they finished their first cup in companionable silence. "You know the old Masterson place off of Elk Road that we pass every day?" Grace said. "Well, Lurina Masterson, she's eighty-one, fell in her parlor, and Wayne Reynolds and his grandfather, Old Man, found her lying on the floor when they stopped there this morning to visit her. Wayne came dashing over, and asked me to go back with him to check her out. I went, of course."

"Is she all right?" Hannah asked.

"A bit shaken, but nothing broken."

"What's she like?" Ameba asked, leaning forward. Earlier in the summer, Amelia had cut her snow white hair, having decided that she no longer wanted to wear it pulled back in a bun or French twist. Now, soft waves curled about her pale face, setting off her amazingly blue eyes, and she brushed back her hair and reached for yet another cucumber sandwich.

"Well, she's short and thin, and has lots of wrinkles. When I got there, she was lying on her couch propped up by pillows. Her hair's white, and she braids it and winds it about her head like a crown." Grace laughed lightly. "She looked as if she were holding court with Old Man in attendance, bringing her tea, adjusting pillows. She's quite a character. She'd been canning beans in the kitchen, thought she heard a noise out front, and in her haste to get to the front door, she fell over what must be the oldest, most threadbare Oriental rug I've ever seen. In fact everything in that farmhouse is old."

"Antiques?" Amelia asked.

"Some of it, probably. She was born in that house. Never married, took care of her father. Wayne told me that her father, Grover Masterson, left all that property to the state for a park, after Lurina dies, that is." Grace gave her rocking chair a shove. "Oh, and you'll never guess what Old Man's real name is. Go ahead, guess." Her eyes danced. Guessing was a game Amelia had devised for fun.

"Ebenezer," Amelia said.

"Nope. You guess, Hannah."

"Abraham? No, Ezekiel."

Grace shook her head. "Joseph Elisha Reynolds. What do you think of that?"

"See why they call him Old Man." Hannah chuckled.

Grace continued. "Lurina's as concerned about what's happened to Loring Valley, as we are." Grace's brow furrowed. "She sat there and watched it all happen. I think she's lonely. I'm going to take her over some sugar cookies."

"Speaking of Loring Valley," Amelia said. "Brenda Tate called. There's a meeting tonight about that. She insisted we come to the church hall by seven this evening."

Loring Valley was on everyone's mind these days. It lay but a fiveminute drive from their farmhouse, off of Elk Road. It had been a lovely valley. People had picnicked there, men and boys had hunted rabbits there, and some had even foraged, illegally, for ginseng on its forested hillsides. No more. Developers from Georgia had moved in on the pristine river valley. Even before the snow melted on the high mountains, construction had begun. All through spring and into summer trucks roared along Elk Road, until the floodplain of Little River, which ran through the valley, had been gobbled up by villas. Hastily constructed condominiums scrambled up mountainsides stripped of vegetation. It had happened so fast, while the people of Covington stood helpless, stunned, and heavyhearted.

Grace slowed her rocker with the toes of her shoes and leaned forward. Distracted, she pinched a dead bloom off of a purple verbena plant that trailed from one of the planter boxes secured to the porch railing. In June, she and Hannah prepared and planted the flower boxes with Day-Glo orange zinnias and bright purple verbenas. "Thank God we live on Cove Road," Grace said. "It's so peaceful here, and so beautiful."

Amelia set her rocker moving. "Indeed, and how lucky we are that Cousin Arthur left me this property, and we had the gumption to move here together. It seems as if we've always lived in Covington, doesn't it? And here it is only a year and five months since we came."

"Indeed it does," Hannah said.

"You'd hardly think that at sixty-nine I'd consider this past year the best year of my life, but I do," Grace said. "I've had more energy than I've had in years. I feel younger. It's been great."

Grace looked across the road at the Maxwell's well-kept, traditional two-story farmhouse, and beyond their hay barn, their red dairy barn, their weathered tobacco barn, and past the windmill and rolling acres of pastureland to the hills, some as round as loaves of bread, and others, mountains, towers of stone cloaked in moss, stretched and thrust upward to crest at the four-thousand-foot peak known as Snowman's Cap. Grace could count eight ridges of mountains this afternoon. Then she said, "Every day, I thank God for good health, for your friendship, for Bob." She waved her hand to indicate the sky and land. "And this incredible view."

But for the creak of their chairs, and the intermittent warbling of a bird and its mate, they rocked in silence.

Grace then spoke. "I've been thinking, let's have a buffet luncheon, perhaps on a Sunday and invite the six other families on Cove Road, and Pastor Johnson."

"Why?" Ameba asked.

"It seems the neighborly thing to do," Grace replied.

"If they'll come," Amelia said.

"Why wouldn't they come?"

"Everyone's friendly, but haven't you noticed they keep you at a distance?" Ameba asked.

Hannah agreed. "They don't take to newcomers easily."

"They visited when you had your hip replacement surgery just after we moved here," Grace reminded Hannah.

"Ever occur to you that courtesy or maybe curiosity prompted an initial visit?"

"You really think that's why they came?" Grace asked.

"Certainly. It was the right thing to do."

"The neighborly thing," Grace said as if suddenly understanding. "They're cautious about newcomers. But we're not newcomers any longer. The Tates are our friends. We've been to their home; they've come here."

"Want to be everybody's bosom buddy?" Hannah asked.

"No, just neighborly." You catch more flies with honey had been a favorite saying of her mother's. It applied now, Grace thought.

"Think about it, Grace," Amelia said. "Harold and Brenda Tate were Cousin Arthur's friends. Remember when we first came to inspect the place, Harold told us how he missed Arthur, how they used to go fishing together, and they'd sit on the porch and swap stories?" Her chin tilted up. "Well, I think, with me being Arthur's cousin and inheriting the place, they simply took us in."

They were unanimous in their gratitude to the Tates. The old farmhouse had seemed hostile in its weatherworn, dilapidated condition, and their hearts hung low that morning when Harold Tate met them on Cove Road and welcomed them to Covington. Ushering them across buckling floorboards, he identified the odd rustling noises as intruding possums, and cautioned them about the broken fifth step on the staircase. He had supplied them with the names of reliable carpenters, painters, plumbers, and electricians; introduced them to his wife, Brenda; and generally watched over them like a protective relative. Grace and Hannah now volunteered at the elementary school where Brenda was the principal.

"I think our neighbors will come, most of them, anyway," Grace responded. "Let's at least ask them."

"Okay." Amelia nodded. "I like a party. How about you, Hannah?"

"What's to lose? They come, fine. They don't come, fine," Hannah said. "We'll freeze leftovers. What date did you have in mind?"

"October eleventh after church."

"You're a cool one asking us," Hannah teased. "You were going to do it anyway no matter what we said."

"I, well." Grace's face flushed. "It just seems right, that's all."

"We'll help." Amelia stopped rocking long enough to reach for another cucumber finger sandwich.

Grace was off and running. "I'll make things I think they'll like: a big pot of pumpkin soup, ham, fried chicken, collard greens, squash casserole, and my special Vienna cake for dessert." Grace ticked off each item on her fingers.

"The one with the colored layers? Oh, that's good cake," Hannah said.

"It'll keep you busy cooking for a week. Mon Dieu," Amelia quipped. "I'd simply die if I had to be in the kitchen that long."

"Given a choice, Amelia, you wouldn't go into the kitchen at all," Hannah said with good humor.

"Bob will help me clean up."

Hannah tapped the arm of Grace's chair. "We'll all help."

A cooling wind stirred. Leaves skittered across the front lawn and halted, caught in the thorny stems of rosebushes planted by Hannah along the driveway from their house to Cove Road. Yesterday, Hannah had filled a vase with fragrant, tall-stemmed Chrysler Imperial red roses snipped from those bushes-the last roses before winter. In the stillness, they could hear the muffled sound of a car going by on Elk Road.

"What are you thinking, Hannah Parrish? You look so pensive all of a sudden," Grace asked.

"About how I fretted and worried that you'd marry Bob Richardson and move out of our farmhouse."

Grace chuckled. Bob Richardson had indeed wanted marriage. Back in Dentry, Ohio, her hometown, she had been surrogate grandmother to neighbors' and friends' children, supplying them with cookies and cakes and generally being cautious, conventional, compliant, and eager to satisfy the expectations of others. Without exposure to the more worldly Hannah and Amelia, she would never have envisioned an alternative to remarriage. Having discovered the pleasure and ease of sharing a home with friends, Grace had vacillated for months before deciding against it-not easy, given her background. Expecting a traditional response to his proposal, Bob had been flabbergasted when she said no. "Remember the night I told you we'd done it?" Grace asked her friends.

"And I asked you, when's the wedding?" Hannah said. "And you said, `No wedding. We don't have to be married or live together to have a relationship.' I never expected that."

Grace brought her rocker to a halt and reached for her teacup. "It's worked out well, hasn't it? I mean with Bob and me." She sipped her tea, then set the cup down and started the rocker.

"Bob loves you, and he's wonderfully helpful and kind to all of us," Hannah said.

"I love the way we live together," Amelia said, "coming and going with our own lives, yet being supportive of one another. There's always a listening ear, a helping hand."

The low autumn sun ceased splashing the front porch of the farmhouse with its fierce dazzle and slipped behind the hills. The ladies rocked in comfortable silence and watched the heavens turn flame and gold above a line of pale green sky that reminded Grace of lime sherbet. She licked her lips, tasting the sweetness, feeling the coolness, thinking how the brilliance excited and the green soothed. Bay tiptoed into evening, and dusk shuffled across the mountains and slid down into the valley. Finally, Amelia said, "Something smells great in the kitchen."

Grace nodded. "An old recipe I forgot I had. Baked chicken smothered in apricot sauce."

"Sounds marvelous!"

"Think you still have room for dinner before we go to the meeting?"

"Just try us," Hannah said.

Excerpted from The Gardens of Covington © Copyright 2002 by Joan Medlicott. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

The Gardens of Covington
by by Joan Medlicott

  • Mass Market Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0312980124
  • ISBN-13: 9780312980122