Monday, February 16, 1987: Late afternoon
In the news today...
1. The Big Chill: How Heterosexuals Are Coping with AIDS (Time) 2. Higher Rate of Retardation Is Expected From Chernobyl: Scientists Given Updated Estimate of Impact (Washington Post) 3. Who Will Bury Apartheid? (Washington Post)
They came back; they all came back to the Homeplace. Jennifer Bevins couldn’t believe they had all come back. Her father's brother and two sisters with their families were all now back on the farm in hopes of getting a piece of it for themselves.
At her grandmother’s funeral, and again later, at the reading of the will last fall, Jennifer had watched each of them. She could see their frustrations and disappointment in not having the ownership of the farm resolved then and there. Her father had been especially concerned. He was currently making a living for his family by operating the farm. Now it was up for grabs. And no one knew the actual ground rules for a determination. They would not find out until after they each had made the commitment to come back and be a part of it or not.
Jennifer had not guessed that all four of them would make the decision to participate. To return, they each had to give up their other lives, each out of state, for two years. All this just for a chance at a part of the farm her father thought would be his. Could it possibly be worth this much to each of them?
Adjusting a brown leather covered pillow on the couch, Jennifer cast her gaze around the living room of the only home she had ever known. Her fingers ran over the smooth surface. The aroma of the wood fire in the natural stone fireplace smelled especially good tonight.
Standing near the spot where the Christmas tree had been just a couple months ago, Jennifer wondered if that would be their last Christmas here? Would she have to move? Bart and Diane had built this house across the lane from the old house when Jennifer was little. Now, at sixteen, she could feel her roots trembling and loosening a little as all these people arrived. Are they really here to steal my home?
Glancing out the side window, Jennifer saw her Uncle Peter coming toward the house. Though not a big man, his stride was that of an outdoorsman, she noticed, accustomed to covering a lot of ground on foot. He had set up a tent on the side lawn near the big oak tree. Peter was the one Jennifer had least expected to see.
She opened the door for him. His sandy hair was ruffled from walking in the cold wind. His fair complexion even had a ruddy glow. "Come on in, Peter, enjoy the fire. Supper will be ready in just a few minutes."
"It was awfully nice of your folks to invite me tonight. I wasn't sure how they would feel about me even being here?
"You are family. Tonight is a chance to just be family before the meeting tomorrow. Besides, we really haven't gotten a chance to get to know you." She turned from hanging his coat in the closet. "Come sit by the fire. Isn't it cold out in that tent?"
"February in the Missouri Ozarks is pretty mild compared to the forest in Oregon where I live. Uh, that is, where I lived before I came back here." Peter took a seat on the leather couch in front of the warm fire. "Being here for some time is going to take a little getting used to."
Jennifer picked up the poker and adjusted the logs in the hearth. "My folks told me we have to take one day at a time. Now more than ever."
"We should all keep that in mind, Jennifer. We're going to be here, very close together, for two years...maybe longer." His voice trailed off.
Jennifer reminded herself how happy she was for the chance to get to know her uncle, Peter Bevins, better. He had left for college when she was very young. He never returned. She had not seen him until last fall at the funeral service for her grandmother Bevins. He had not even come back when they buried her grandfather nine years ago. Why had Peter stayed away then, but come back now?
Her mother had told Jennifer that Peter was a loner. He had gone off to the Pacific Northwest all those years ago doing who knows what. Bart had said his brother was an individualist who wanted no part of small town togetherness. Why would he now come back to the farm in the Ozarks region of Missouri to spend two years?
"Come help your mother, Jen. You can set the table." Bart's voice shook Jennifer back to the moment. "The rest of the family will be coming in to supper any minute now."
The teenager responded to her father's 'suggestion' immediately. She left Peter staring into the newly stoked blaze in the fireplace. He appeared to have retreated into a world of his own.
Jennifer began to get the ‘company’ dishes out of the hutch and set them on the table in the dining room. "The family will all be coming" her father had said. Only a few months ago that meant Grandma was coming over. Also, brother Donnie would be at home rather than in Oak Springs with Melanie, his girlfriend. Tonight would be a much larger 'family.' Now it included her aunt Beverly and her family, aunt Karen and her husband, Jason, and Peter, of course.
Beverly, the younger of the two aunts, had insisted on staying in Grandma Bevins’ old house across the lane, the Homeplace. She brought her husband, Paul Gates, their two children and his nineteen-year-old daughter, Sheila. They did make a houseful. Jennifer knew her mother really was not happy with the situation. Beverly had never meshed well with the rest of the family. How could she now?
The doorbell chimed, announcing the arrival of Beverly and Paul Gates, Scott, Heather and Sheila. Bart held the door open. A cold gale entered the room with the guests. "Paul, Bev, come warm yourselves by the fire. Supper will be ready in just a few minutes."
"Thanks for inviting us over tonight, Bart," Paul responded with a firm handshake. "I see Peter is already enjoying the fire." Paul moved quietly into the living room and took a seat beside Peter.
Beverly helped the children off with their coats. "Sheila, you help Jennifer set out the dishes there in the dining room." Hanging up the last coat she pointed Scott toward the fireplace, "Take your sister over by the fireplace. She can color in her coloring book until supper is ready." Looking up at Bart, Beverly continued, "Could Diane use some help in the kitchen?"
"Let's go see." Bart led the way toward the kitchen. "Are you getting settled in over at Mom's place, Bev?"
"She's dead, Bart. Has been for five months. It's our house now. It will take some time to get a lot of stuff cleared out, but we'll make it livable."
"How can you talk like that?" Bart stopped, stared at her a moment, then headed for the kitchen shaking his head. "It really is hard to believe you are my sister..." Jennifer could no longer make out the words, but she knew her father was hurt by the crass remarks made by Beverly. Bart and Diane had said Beverly was a city girl. Does that mean she has no feelings for others, Jennifer wondered. They said even growing up in Oak Springs Beverly had never fit in. As soon as she got her high school diploma, she headed for the city in the South.
Jennifer remembered Diane saying that Beverly had returned only rarely for very brief visits on holidays. She would always be upset by something while she was here and leave in a huff.
Yet, here she was, committed to two years with the rest. Here, back on the Homeplace, near Oak Springs in the Missouri Ozarks, far from the city.
"How many places are we setting?" Sheila had a stack of large dinner plates in her hands and was headed for the table.
What a sight she is, Jennifer observed: Short skirt and knee-high white boots; dark ponytail swaying from side to side as she walked. She'd be right at home waiting tables in a honky-tonk bar, Jennifer mentally noted. "There are thirteen, I think. Mom said that Donnie asked Melanie over. Beverly and Paul, Scott and Heather, Karen and Jason, and Peter. Also, there are Mom and Dad and the two of us, of course. That should be thirteen."
"We'll need another plate then. There are only twelve here. Who is Melanie?"
"Melanie Ogden. She and Donnie are inseparable. They talk all the time about getting married and farming with Dad...or they did. This whole will thing has everyone confused."
"Ogden. Isn't that the name of the lawyer?"
"Yes. Carter Ogden. He is Melanie's father. He was Grandpa and Grandma's lawyer. Also has been lawyer for Mom and Dad. And close friends. Mom and Dad and Melanie's mother, Linda, were in the same class in school."
"That's not fair. How can he decide who gets the farm when he is friends with some and hardly knows others? That's not fair!" Sheila stared at Jennifer. "I suppose you and your brother get to be at the meeting tomorrow, too."
Jennifer took a deep breath to control her own anger. "No, as I understand it, only the four children and their current spouse, if any, are allowed at the meeting. They supposedly are to be told the ground-rules of the trust. Mr. Ogden is the Trustee. He just does what Grandpa and Grandma told him to do."
"You seem to know a lot about it." Sheila stuck her nose in the air, Jennifer noticed, but began putting the plates on the table.
"Mom and Dad said Donnie and I were old enough to know what was going on, so we've talked about it. Besides, I was at the reading of the will. Grandma named me in her will to take care of her mare and its foal."
"Oh!" Sheila put down the last plate from her stack. "Where do I get the thirteenth plate and where do I put it. The table seems to be full." She stared directly at Jennifer, "You seem to have all the answers."
"Heather can use the Garfield plate. We'll put her on that far end. She can sit on the stool from the kitchen. I'll get them." Jennifer tried to ignore the catty tone in everything Sheila said. After all, Sheila wasn't even a blood relative, Jennifer reminded herself. It was hardly any of her business to be asking all these questions.
As Jennifer entered the kitchen, she realized that Jason and Karen had arrived via the kitchen door. Their RV was parked on that side of the house. "Hi Karen, Jason, I didn't hear you sneak in."
Jason waved. He, Bart and Beverly were engaged in an intense discussion at the far end of the kitchen around the table. Karen came up and gave Jennifer a hug.
"Sorry!" Mock shock could not cover the big smile that seemed a permanent part of Karen's face. "I forgot we were supposed to check in with you upon our arrival. I'll remember next time."
She will, too, Jennifer thought. Karen always seemed so in control. Perhaps being a nurse and raising four children brought that on, she reminded herself.
Jennifer was happy that Jason and Karen had come. They had a very good life in Arizona. All four of their children grew up there. Jennifer was afraid they would not be able to leave their responsibilities there to come back here. They had, however, dropped hints, over the years, that they might come back some day.
"It's hard to believe you're really here, Karen. I couldn't believe you and Jason would be able to get away."
"Well, we really do like the RV, but your mother did invite us in to eat..."
"You know what I mean," Jennifer replied, mocking exasperation. "I wasn't talking about coming to supper. I was talking about coming to Missouri… all the way from Arizona. And in February!"
"I know, dear." Suddenly serious, Karen continued slowly. "It was not an easy decision, even as much as we wanted to come. I guess the time would never be right. But it was hard to leave just now. Your smiling face, however, makes it worthwhile."
"Thanks. I'll try to keep it smiling. It has been a little hard lately, though. Better finish the table." Jennifer flashed her biggest smile and headed back to the dining room with Garfield in one hand and the stool in the other.
Jennifer recalled how frequently she had used Karen's nursing training on some of their past visits. A cut or bruise was always worth several minutes of special attention. Karen would take care of it and make Jennifer feel better. And smile a lot.
As she placed the stool and plate for Heather, Jennifer wondered what Karen meant by her comment 'it was hard to leave just now.' There was an obvious emphasis on 'now.' Maybe everything wasn't as rosy as Karen made it sound.
Jennifer noticed that Sheila had finished setting the table and left. She was now talking to Donnie and Melanie near the front door. Jennifer observed that Sheila, ever the ‘Southern Belle,’ was giving Donnie her undivided attention. It also appeared, even from a distance, the grip Melanie had on Donnie's arm was tightening with each exchange.
"Take your places in the dining room, please. It is time to eat." Diane announced.
When everyone had gathered around the table and found their place to sit, Diane looked to Karen. "Karen, would you lead us in grace before we eat?"
"Thank you, Diane. Let's just say Grandma Bevins’ favorite little prayer and remember her for a moment." A hush fell over the table as heads bowed.
"God is Great, God is Good, and we thank him for our food. Amen."
The quiet lasted just a moment longer; then the chatter of a family dinner began. It would not be the same again.