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Sarah, a 10-year-old wide-eyed child loves her grandmother, Frances. Why not? Grandma is a car racer, newly established pilot and she captures a wanted felon all during a fun-filled summer in 1947 on an Apple Farm in Iowa.
The most fascinating woman you've never met jumps off the pages of this novel. Once you encounter Francesca, thrill to her distinctive voice, embrace her adventurous nature and rejoice at her boundless spirit, she will be part and parcel of your heart and soul forever.
y name is Sarah, which is a Hebrew name and translates to the word “princess.” Of course, my German-American family was actually Presbyterian.
As a young girl, and throughout much of my life, I had the honor and privilege of knowing and loving a most remarkable, graceful, vigorous, resilient, eccentric, stubborn and fascinating woman.
She was never petty. She was never dull.
This is our story.
write of a morning in Eden … or, more precisely, in Lost Nation, Iowa in June of l947.
A pale melon of sun peeked over a strand of rolling hills and, safe and sleepy in my bed, I could hear our red-shouldered hawk calling to its mate.
It was another sunrise, a heavenly first-of-summer dawn of the most memorable year of my childhood. Adventure awaited me. The ancient oak down the hill beyond the weathered split-rail fence begged a climbing. I could also hear the cool depths of the fishing pond whisper my name. But first, the aroma of sweet cornbread, just done, tickled my nose. All other plans would have to wait.
In the glory of my nine soft years, I loved the unfolding of this new day. I could already hear my father’s off-key hum as he shaved himself. My mother, I knew, had been awake one whole hour, making magic in the kitchen on her vast black stove. She cooed to it and wooed it like a lover and in return, it always delivered up to her fine hands a golden bounty: Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with cornbread dressing, sourdough griddle cakes and Sunday chicken dinner with au gratin potatoes. Better than a pirate’s treasure. Better than a king’s ransom.
My room was white-washed pine. The wood floor was covered with a rug woven by my Grandmother Francesca’s graceful hands. I remember the many months she worried over it. On my eighth birthday, when she presented me with her prize, I received it with a proper reverence. No queen ever got more on coronation day, so delicate were the stitches, so fine and pearly the threads.
I never called her anything but Francesca, for that was her name to me. Not Grandmother, not Nanny, or Gran, not even Frances ... but Francesca. Especially Francesca when the giggling got to us. My grandmother was regal. She was leggy and gracious and full of life.
Since it seemed that Francesca must be awake on this fine day, I slipped from underneath an ancient coverlet that was light as air. It had belonged to Great-Great Grandmother Mendenhall, and I loved its worn softness. I tiptoed down the hallway to Francesca’s boudoir.
Of course, it was really just a bedroom, but Francesca’s spirit made it seem much grander. Armfuls of summer blossoms cascaded out of old wine decanters. I can still remember the faintly odd scents which filled the air: Witch hazel; rose sachet and spice oranges, all capped by the aroma of lilac powder.
In the same way I did each morning, I tapped lightly on her door, once, twice, three times. I heard her stretch lazily, rustling under her often-washed sheets. A low voice called out softly. “Who is it?”
And I answered, in as stately a voice as possible, “Madam, your chariot awaits!” With the tingling anticipation that I felt every morning at Francesca’s private chambers, I listened for the invitation. Heart beating, toes curled under, I finally heard the words that never failed to delight me: “Come in, Sarah. I have missed you all night long.”
As I opened the cracked walnut door, which smelled of lemon oil, I was blinded by the sunlight that streamed in through open-weave curtains. Francesca never pulled drapes against the outside world.
She didn’t “put any faith” in drapes. Sunlight and moonlight were made welcome to fill her boudoir however they pleased.
“It’s going to be hot today; I can already tell,” said Francesca with a sigh.
My grandmother thrilled to the spring rain, to the winter sleet and snowdrifts, but she disdained the humid, baking days of the Iowa summer.
“Well, we’d better begin what we’re about while I still have a breath left in me,” she said and then sighed again.
That’s when I kissed her, right on the top of her gray-brown head.
“I’ll bring café au lait,” I promised, already skipping to the narrow rear stairway to the kitchen.
My mother was standing in front of the black stove, whispering encouragement.
“I need you to be just a little hotter now. Yeeesss ... my, my, that’s perfect.”
Without interrupting her flow of praise, Mother pointed to a rosewood tray in the center of a long trestle table. Covered with a fine lace cloth and set with see-through porcelain cups, the tray looked like an outsider. It was a touch too exotic, a touch too elegant for a farmhouse … much like Francesca.
The dining set was a part of the honeymoon treasure Francesca and my grandfather Cox had brought back from New York City.
Cox and Francesca were married for many years. High school sweethearts they had been, different from one another and from everyone else in Lost Nation. They argued and danced and high-kicked their way through life like a pair of matched grays. Francesca was always the wood nymph, cool and moon-covered; Cox was the imp gambler, reckless and roguish. They lived honestly together, yet there was a separation, too, if that’s possible ... each respecting above all else the right of the other to grow. Their marriage wasn’t a match made in heaven by any stretch, but it was lively and full of surprise.
Cox died in 1943, and I’m not sure that Francesca wasn’t still mad at him for leaving. Her father had warned her forty years earlier that would happen, and it galled Francesca that Cox had eventually proved the old man right, even if it took untimely death to do it. Francesca was no fan of “untimely death.”
Mother was at the stove, cooking, and I heard her humming the words to one of my father’s favorite tunes: “Cool Water.”
Her voice, unlike Daddyboys’ raspy, wrong-noted instrument, was low and firm.
She poured coffee from the spotted-metal pot into the two cups on the tray and added warm milk still smelling of hay and cow. From the tin breadbox, I snuck two crumbly squares of cornbread and topped the feast off with a crock of butter. I kissed my mother then and hugged her.
She hugged me back in the sweet but dismissive way mothers do when their minds are occupied. That’s when it struck me that something wasn’t quite right in the house this morning. But for the life of me, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I took up the tray — swept it up, really — and with a great flourish and a curtsy, I took the meal Mother had prepared for Francesca and carried it carefully up the back stairs. Then, with one foot in front of the other, I made my way down the center of the hallway. It was important, staying to the center. I never wanted to offend one side by showing too much attention to the other. For the same reason, I sat on all the chairs in the parlor, even the scratchy horsehair sofa, in rotation and never wore a shirt more than one day at a time.
I set the tray on the floor by Francesca’s door and knocked again.
“Madam, your morning sustenance.”
“Do come in,” said Francesca as she opened the door for me, taking the heavy tray and setting it on the delicate walnut dressing table by the window.
There were thirteen antique silver frames on that table, each one containing a photograph of members of our family. The only one not represented in the collection was Francesca’s own sister, Maude. My grandmother had a prejudice where Maude was concerned, and it didn’t do to ask about it. All you’d get for your trouble was a frosty stare. No, it didn’t do at all.
As we nibbled and sipped, I watched Francesca finish her morning toilette. She was wonderfully long-limbed. As a girl, her legs had been judged the best in the county by the group of boys she’d grown up with. But she would have preferred to have had the beautiful face of her sister Maude and often said so. (I would have traded mine for Maude’s too, for that matter.)
But even in her workaday outfit of any old shirt and patched cotton trousers cut off at the knees for coolness, you couldn’t get around Francesca’s lithe shape and queenly bearing. I’d seen pictures in LIFE magazine of Princess Elizabeth, the future monarch of England. But I thought Francesca was much better suited to the job, both in appearance and personality.
I sat on the bed and watched as Francesca brushed her bobbed hair in her usual off-hand manner, despairing of the wisps that formed around her forehead in the humidity.
Francesca had taken to wearing her wedding ring around her neck on a gold chain. She fingered it contemplatively as it caught the light from the window. She sighed and turned abruptly to face me.
“Is there something odd going on in the house this morning?” she asked.
“Yes,” I whispered.
So she’d noticed it, too. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because Francesca was as canny as Sherlock Holmes.
“Listen,” she said.
We could hear my father’s scratchy baritone struggling:
“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas… hmm hmm la da da di…
La vie en rose …”
Now that was certainly odd, since Daddyboys — that was my father’s nickname and how I referred to him — was a true-blue Country Western music fan. His all-time favorite was Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
“I don't get it,” I said.
“It must be a mystery,” said my grandmother, teasing me, because she knew I didn’t like to be in suspense. I always wanted to find out right away what was going on. I thought my mother had been acting occupied while cooking breakfast. Now my father was singing strange songs. It was all too puzzling.
“Let’s talk to Daddyboys right this minute,” I said.
Patience was a quality I possessed only in dribs and drabs. Francesca, on the other hand, was a great one for the proper thing in its proper time, and she had the patience of a stone carving.
Christmas presents on Christmas morning, never Christmas Eve. Lunch after noon, never before, no matter how much your stomach growled. Resolutions harvested when the moment was ripe, never until. So it was with mysteries.
But suspense in our own household was more than I could endure and I wanted to know everything now. Whining, however, would get me nowhere. My father was not to be questioned, and that was final.
“Stop sniveling, Sarah,” Francesca warned. “He’ll tell us when he’s good and ready. I’m perfectly content with that.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I continued to persist.
“Then you can ask him,” was all Francesca offered as a response.
Impasses like these were a frequent pitfall in my conversations with my grandmother. She had many of the qualities of a fairy-tale princess, not the least of which was imperiousness. I got my pig-headedness from her, make no mistake. We might easily have gone on this way for an hour without either one of us giving in. We’d done it often enough in the past.
But, like the Indians say, “Those who fight and run away, live to fight another day.”
So I threw my hands in the air and turned the conversation around a corner.
“What chore shall we do first?” I asked.
Francesca lifted her pug nose toward heaven.
“Why, whatever you like, Sarah,” she purred, magnanimous on the field of battle, victorious.