Lewis gritted his teeth and growled as he reached the end of Red Mill Road. He gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white as he waited for an old truck puttering down Harpeth Turnpike to pass by. He accelerated into a U-turn, spinning his wheels, and headed westward once again, his heart racing and his breathing short and shallow. Nothing looked the same to him after so many years. He could count the time from his last visit in decades, and he feared he had waited too long.
He cruised the winding country road a third time looking for anything familiar. In his childhood memory the landscape was vivid as he peered over the backseat of his parents’ car, eager to spot the huge red oak, the forsythia hedge, and his grandmother’s house on a small hill overlooking the old road. A flash of movement ahead caught Lewis’s attention, and as he slowed, he finally saw the two stone columns that flanked the driveway to Nanna’s house, now camouflaged by privet and honeysuckle and wild grapevine. Whatever had moved was gone.
Lewis eased the rental car through the screen of foliage, cringing as the shrubs clawed at the sides of the vehicle. Nanna’s house lay ahead on the knoll, and though his sight line was obscured by rambling foliage, it appeared to be in poor condition. He peered through the living screen and was sure that he saw shutters hanging askew, shingles missing, and possibly some broken windows. Was no one taking care of Nanna? Lewis had always lived too far away. He was nearly one thousand miles away while he was in college, though he hadn’t bothered to visit when he was home on breaks. A new job had taken him too far for frequent visits, but he never made even the infrequent ones. Lewis supposed he had not kept the promise he had made to his grandmother so many years ago.
“I’ll never leave you alone, Nanna,” the eight year old Lewis had promised. “I’ll visit and help you out and keep you company.” Now a half-century old himself, Lewis didn’t think he could be held to his childhood pledge. Still he regretted his long absence and was well aware that this visit was out of his need and not his grandmother’s welfare.
Lewis crept the car up the looping driveway, past the unkempt azaleas and rose bushes that appeared to be dead, or was it just not the right season for roses. Even the huge oak tree appeared to have lost a large limb, and if his eyes didn’t deceive him, that limb had fallen on the roof right over Nanna’s parlor. “Parlor” was Nanna’s word, but Lewis’s mother referred to it as the “delicate room” because of the many fragile items displayed there.
Lewis slid from the car and removed his sunglasses, temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness, then rubbed the wetness from his eyes. The front door opened and Nanna stepped out. She beamed at him, and he ran to embrace his grandmother.
“Oh, Nanna,” Lewis said, “I’m so sorry it’s been this long. What’s happened to your house?”
“What do you mean, dear,” his grandmother said, offering him a tissue from her apron pocket.
Lewis stepped back and dried his eyes. He looked at the house and saw to his relief that his vision had just been clouded by the tears. There was never anything wrong with the house. It looked as it always had, neat and trim. The shutters were hung true, every shingle was in place, and the red oak stood strong as it always had.
Lewis’s grandmother led him into the house, and he paused to look into the delicate room. Porcelain figures were arrayed on display stands, all meticulously dusted, while fragments of colored light refracted through a crystal vase dusted the room with rainbow shards. Nanna hurried Lewis to the kitchen which had always been the heart of the house. The fragrance of fresh-baked bread and cinnamon and fruit filled his senses. His grandmother had just finished canning a batch of homemade strawberry jam, and the jars formed a regiment of delicious fruit filled soldiers along the kitchen counter. She sat him down at the table and put a kettle on the stove.
“Nanna,” he said in a creaking voice, “I’m sorry that it’s taken me this long…”
“Don’t you fret now, dear,” she interrupted. “You’ve had your own life to live and a family to care for. You can’t take time to write to your doddering old grandmother every day.”
“But I should have taken the time,” Lewis said. “I should have listened to you; I should have taken your advice, then things might be different.”
“Oh, Lewis,” Nanna said, “are things not right with your wife.”
Few in the family had ever liked Charmaigne. Not her unusual name, her “hippie” parents, her brusque manners, or her insistence on living far away from Lewis’s family and seldom visiting. Lewis had an equally good job offer only twenty miles from the rural middle Tennessee community where he had grown up, but Charmaigne had insisted that he accept a job in a larger city where the schools would be better, and her own opportunities would be greater.
These, he supposed, included the opportunities to have two affairs during their marriage. Opportunities to frequent night clubs and find dealers for the myriad pills she kept hidden in the bedside table next to an old silver broach, a family heirloom that his grandmother had promised to Lewis for his wife. It was a promise made long before Lewis had met Charmaigne and a promise that Nanna was loathe to keep. His wife had disdained the trinket, never once wearing it.
“Maybe it will be worth something when the price of silver goes up,” Charmaigne said, tossing the jewelry into the drawer.
“I’ve tried for years to hold things together, Nanna.” Lewis said, and tears were beginning to form in his eyes again. “We’ve stayed together for the children, but now that they’re in college I don’t know if I can go on.”
The kettle began to whistle, and Nanna poured them each a steaming cup of tea. She pushed the blue-patterned porcelain toward her grandson, and he inhaled the herbal-scented steam.
“Drink that, dear,” she said. “It’s my special herbal blend that I guarantee will soothe your jangled nerves.”
Lewis continued to inhale the vapors while he waited for the tea to cool.
“She won’t go to counseling, Nanna.” He wouldn’t say his wife’s name in his grandmother’s house, knowing how she felt about the younger woman. Nanna had seen through her. Nanna had known best. He blew into the cup and sipped at the tea.
The taste lay somewhere between sassafras and licorice with a molasses sweetness and a mineral tinge. It was at once nostalgic and medicinal. It was the lilac-scented night breeze that blew through the open windows of Nanna’s house when he spent the night. It was the sting of mercurochrome that she daubed on his scrapes and scratches and the tang of ginger in her Christmas cookies. Lewis took a deep breath and looked his grandmother in her time-wizened eyes, deep and calm.
“I wish that I could go back to a time when you gave me sound advice and take with me the wisdom to listen to it, Nanna,” Lewis said in a steady, calm voice.
“Nanna always makes everything better, dear,” she said. She pushed a small jar across the table toward him. “Nanna has a tea for your wife, too. Have her drink this, and she will see what a wonderful boy you are. You are Nanna’s special boy.”
“I doubt that she will even take a sip,” Lewis said. “I think the marriage is just doomed.”
“Once she smells it she will come to the table, dear,” Nanna said, “and this is the same tea that saved my own marriage.”
Lewis’s eyes grew wide, and his grandmother’s smile was wider.
“Yes,” she said, “you probably don’t remember much about your grandfather. He died when you were very young, but even we had our problems.”
“I never knew,” Lewis said.
“That’s because of the tea,” Nanna said, tapping the jar. “He got into the habit of drinking a bit too much liquor and playing cards with his friends. He would come home staggering and usually angry because he had lost, and a time or two he forgot himself and gave me the back of his hand.”
Lewis’s expression had now turned to one of shock, but before he could speak, his grandmother went on.
“I knew we needed a solution, and the preacher’s advice was no help, but his wife sent me to Mrs. Hinshaw, and elderly widow who lived a ways down the Harpeth Turnpike. It was her herbal tea that solved our problems. The tea saved us.” Nanna again tapped the jar.
Lewis hugged his grandmother, and said goodbye. She clipped a newly bloomed red rose from the ordered bushes in front of the house for Lewis to give to his wife. He questioned whether it would last long enough to get it home, but Nanna overruled his objections. He drove away knowing that everything would be all right. Nanna always made things better. As he drove away he could smell the faint floral scent of the rose, and he touched the dried, decaying petals. He turned back to look at the house in time to see a rotted shutter fall off.
He returned just one month later. When Nanna didn’t answer his knock, he let himself in. She wasn’t in the kitchen, but he had an idea of where he might find her. From the back door a dirt pathway meandered up the hill and past the old orchard, where few of the long-neglected peach and plum trees still stood. The old stone wall around the cemetery was overgrown with Virginia Creeper, and the rusted iron gate had fallen from its pintils.
Lewis found the two tall stones in the center of the graveyard and brushed away the lichen to read the names. John Robert Haskin was born just before the First World War and lived until 1973, when Lewis was four years old. He had few memories of his grandfather. Lewis ran his fingers through the engraved lettering of the other stone. Edna Grace Haskin, born on the 3rd day of November in the year 1919, departed this life on New Year’s Day 2001.
“I should have visited more often, Nanna,” Lewis whispered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his grandmother’s silver broach. He rubbed it with his thumb then placed it on the tombstone. Charmaigne would never touch it again, or anything else for that matter. Nanna’s tea had solved their problems.
Lewis stood and brushed the dirt and leaves from his knees. The broach glinted in a shaft of sunlight as if winking at him.
“I’ll go make us some tea, Nanna. I’ll make us some tea, and I’ll never leave you.”
B. C. Nance is a writer who still hasn’t given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist. After wandering the neighborhood in the evening, he writes fiction and poetry and stays up too late reading.
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