Was this what forty looked like? Really? In the past year Meredith had gone from Miss to Ma’am. Just like that, with no transition. Even worse, her skin had begun to lose its elasticity. There were tiny pleats in places that used to be smooth. Her neck was fuller, there was no doubt about it. She hadn’t gone gray yet; that was the one saving grace. Her chestnut-colored hair, cut in a no-nonsense shoulder-length bob, was still full and shiny. But her eyes gave her away. She looked tired. And not only at six in the morning.
She turned away from the mirror and stripped out of her old T-shirt and into a pair of black sweats, anklet socks, and a long-sleeved black shirt. Pulling her hair into a stumpy ponytail, she left the bathroom and walked into her darkened bedroom, where the soft strains of her husband’s snoring made her almost want to crawl back into bed. In the old days, she would have done just that, would have snuggled up against him.
Leaving the room, she clicked the door shut behind her and headed down the hallway toward the stairs.
In the pale glow of a pair of long-outdated night-lights, she passed the closed doors of her children’s bedrooms. Not that they were children anymore. Jillian was nineteen now, a sophomore at UCLA who dreamed of being a doctor, and Maddy—Meredith’s baby—was eighteen and a freshman at Vanderbilt. Without them, this house—and Meredith’s life—felt emptier and quieter than she’d expected. For nearly twenty years, she had devoted herself to being the kind of mother she hadn’t had, and it had worked. She and her daughters had become the best of friends. Their absence left her feeling adrift , a little purposeless. She knew it was silly. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have plenty to do. She just missed the girls; that was all.
She kept moving. Lately that seemed to be the best way to handle things.
Downstairs, she stopped in the living room just long enough to plug in the Christmas tree lights. In the mudroom, the dogs leaped up at her, yapping and wagging their tails.
“Luke, Leia, no jumping,” she scolded the huskies, scratching their ears as she led them to the back door. When she opened it, cold air rushed in. Snow had fallen again last night, and though it was still dark on this mid-December morning, she could make out the pale pearlescence of road and field. Her breath turned into vapory plumes.
By the time they were all outside and on their way, it was 6:10 and the sky was a deep purplish gray.
Right on time.
Meredith ran slowly at first, acclimating herself to the cold. As she did every weekday morning, she ran along the gravel road that led from her house, down past her parents’ house, and out to the old single-lane road that ended about a mile up the hill. From there, she followed the loop out to the golf course and back. Four miles exactly. It was a routine she rarely missed; she had no choice, really. Everything about Meredith was big by nature. She was tall, with broad shoulders, curvy hips, and big feet. Even her features seemed just a little too much for her pale, oval face—she had a big Julia Roberts– type mouth, huge brown eyes, full eyebrows, and thick hair. Only constant exercise, a vigilant diet, good hair products, and an industrial-sized pair of tweezers could keep her looking good.
As she turned back onto her road, the rising sun illuminated the mountains, turned their snowcapped peaks lavender and pink.
On either side of her, thousands of bare, spindly apple trees showed through the snow like brown stitches on white fabric. This fertile cleft of land had belonged to their family for fifty years, and there, in the center of it all, tall and proud, was the home in which she’d grown up. Belye Nochi. Even in the half-light it looked ridiculously out of place and ostentatious.
Meredith kept running up the hill, faster and faster, until she could barely breathe and there was a stitch in her side.
She came to a stop at her own front porch as the valley filled with bright golden light. She fed the dogs and then hurried upstairs. She was just going into the bathroom as Jeff was coming out. Wearing only a towel, with his graying blond hair still dripping wet, he turned sideways to let her pass, and she did the same. Neither one of them spoke.
By 7:20, she was drying her hair, and by 7:30—right on time—she was dressed for work in a pair of black jeans and a fitted green blouse. A little eyeliner, some blush and mascara, a coat of lipstick, and she was ready to go.
Downstairs, she found Jeff at the kitchen table, sitting in his regular chair, reading The New York Times. The dogs were asleep at his feet.
She went to the coffeepot and poured herself a cup. “You need a refill?”
“I’m good,” he said without looking up.
Meredith stirred soy milk into her coffee, watching the color change. It occurred to her that she and Jeff only talked at a distance lately, like strangers—or disillusioned partners—and only about work or the kids. She tried idly to remember the last time they’d made love, and couldn’t.
Maybe that was normal. Certainly it was. When you’d been married as long as they had, there were bound to be quiet times. Still, it saddened her sometimes to remember how passionate they used to be. She’d been fourteen on their first date (they’d gone to see Young Frankenstein; it was still one of their favorites), and to be honest, that was the last time she’d ever really looked at another guy. It was strange when she thought about that now; she didn’t consider herself a romantic woman, but she’d fallen in love practically at first sight. He’d been a part of her for as long as she could remember.
They’d married early—too early, really—and she’d followed him to college in Seattle, working nights and weekends in smoky bars to pay tuition. She’d been happy in their cramped, tiny U District apartment. Then, when they were seniors, she’d gotten pregnant. It had terrified her at first. She’d worried that she was like her mother, and that parenthood wouldn’t be a good thing. But she discovered, to her profound relief, that she was the complete opposite of her own mother. Perhaps her youth had helped in that. God knew Mom had not been young when Meredith was born.
Jeff shook his head. It was a minute gesture, barely even a movement, but she saw it. She had always been attuned to him, and lately their mutual disappointments seemed to create sound, like a high-pitched whistle that only she could hear.
“What?” she said.
“You didn’t shake your head over nothing. What’s the matter?”
“I just asked you something.”
“I didn’t hear you. Ask me again.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Fine.” She took her coffee and headed toward the dining room.
It was something she’d done a hundred times, and yet just then, as she passed under the old-fashioned ceiling light with its useless bit of plastic mistletoe, her view changed.
She saw herself as if from a distance: a forty-year-old woman, holding a cup of coffee, looking at two empty places at the table, and at the husband who was still here, and for a split second she wondered what other life that woman could have lived. What if she hadn’t come home to run the orchard and raise her children? What if she hadn’t gotten married so young? What kind of woman could she have become?
And then it was gone like a soap bubble, and she was back where she belonged.
“Will you be home for dinner?”
“Aren’t I always?”
“Seven o’clock,” she said.
“By all means,” he said, turning the page. “Let’s set a time.”
Meredith was at her desk by eight o’clock. As usual, she was the first to arrive and went about the cubicle-divided space on the ware house’s second floor flipping on lights. She passed by her dad’s office—empty now—pausing only long enough to glance at the plaques by his door. Thirteen times he’d been voted Grower of the Year and his advice was still sought out by competitors on a regular basis. It didn’t matter that he only occasionally came into the office, or that he’d been semi-retired for ten years. He was still the face of the Belye Nochi orchard, the man who had pioneered Golden Delicious apples in the early sixties, Granny Smiths in the seventies, and championed the Braeburn and Fuji in the nineties. His designs for cold storage had revolutionized the business and helped make it possible to export the very best apples to world markets.
She had had a part to play in the company’s growth and success, to be sure. Under her leadership, the cold storage ware house had been expanded and a big part of their business was now storing fruit for other growers. She’d turned the old roadside apple stand into a gift shop that sold hundreds of locally made craft items, specialty foods, and Belye Nochi memorabilia. At this time of year—the holidays—when train-loads of tourists arrived in Leavenworth for the world-famous tree-lighting ceremony, more than a few found their way to the gift shop.
The first thing she did was pick up the phone to call her youngest daughter. It was just past ten in Tennessee.
“Hello?” Maddy grumbled.
“Good morning,” Meredith said brightly. “It sounds like someone slept in.”
“Oh. Mom. Hi. I was up late last night. Studying.”
“Madison Elizabeth,” was all Meredith had to say to make her point.
Maddy sighed. “Okay. So it was a Lambda Chi party.”
“I know how fun it all is, and how much you want to experience every moment of college, but your first final is next week. Tuesday morning, right?”
“You have to learn to balance schoolwork and fun. So get your lily-white ass out of bed and get to class. It’s a life skill—partying all night and still getting up on time.”
“The world won’t end if I miss one Spanish class.”
Maddy laughed. “Okay, okay. I’m getting up. Spanish 101, here I come. Hasta la vista . . . ba-by.”
Meredith smiled. “I’ll call on Thursday and find out how your speech went. And call your sister. She’s stressed out about her organic chemistry test.”
“Okay, Mom. I love you.”
“Love you, too, princess.”
Meredith hung up the phone feeling better. For the next three hours, she threw herself into work. She was rereading the latest crop report when her intercom buzzed.
“Meredith? Your dad is on line one.”
“Thanks, Daisy.” She picked up the call. “Hi, Dad.”
“Mom and I were wondering if you could come to the house for lunch today.”
“I’m swamped here, Dad—”
Meredith had never been able to deny her father. “Okay. But I have to be back by one.”
“Excellent,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice.
She hung up and went back to work. Lately, with production up and demand down, and costs for both export and transportation skyrocketing, she oft en spent her days putting out one fire after another, and today was no exception. By noon, a low-grade stress headache had crawled into the space at the base of her skull and begun to growl. Still, she smiled at her employees as she left her office and walked through the cold warehouse.
In less than ten minutes, she pulled up in front of her parents’ garage.
The house was like something out of a Russian fairy tale, with its turretlike two-story veranda and elaborate fretwork trim, especially this time of year, when the eaves and railings glittered with Christmas lights. The hammered copper roof was dulled today by the gray winter weather, but on a bright day it shone like liquid gold. Surrounded by tall, elegant poplar trees and situated on a gentle rise that overlooked their valley, this house was so famous that tourists oft en stopped to photograph it.
Leave it to her mother to build something so absurdly out of place. A Russian dacha, or summer house, in Western Washington State. Even the orchard’s name was absurd. Belye Nochi.
White Nights indeed. The nights here were as dark as new asphalt.
Not that Mom cared about what was around her. She got her way, that was all. Whatever Anya Whitson wanted, her husband gave to her, and apparently she’d wanted a fairy-tale castle and an orchard with an unpronounceable Russian name.
Meredith knocked and went inside. The kitchen was empty; a big pot of soup simmered on the stove.
In the living room, light spilled through the two-story rounded wall of windows at the north end of the room—the famous Belye Nochi turret. Wood floors gleamed with the golden beeswax that Mom insisted on using, even though it turned the floors into a skating rink if you dared to walk in stockinged feet. A huge stone fireplace dominated the center wall; clustered around it was a grouping of richly upholstered antique sofas and chairs. Above the fireplace hung an oil painting of a Russian troika—a romantic-looking carriage drawn by matching horses—sailing through a field of snow. Pure Doctor Zhivago. To her left were dozens of pictures of Russian churches, and below them was her mother’s “Holy Corner,” where a table held a display of antique icons and a single candle that burned year-round.
She found her father in the back of the room, alongside the heavily decorated Christmas tree, in his favorite spot. He lay stretched out on the burgundy mohair cushions of the ottoman bed, reading. His hair, what he had left of it at eighty-five, stuck out from his pink scalp in white tuft s. Too many de cades in the sun had blotched and pleated his skin and he had a basset-hound look even when he was smiling, but the sad countenance fooled no one. Everyone loved Evan Whitson. It was impossible not to.
At her entrance, his face lit up. He reached out and squeezed her hand tightly, then let go. “Your mom will be so glad to see you.”
Meredith smiled. It was the game they’d played for years. Dad pretended that Mom loved Meredith and Meredith pretended to believe him. “Great. Is she upstairs?”
“I couldn’t keep her out of the garden this morning.”
Meredith wasn’t surprised. “I’ll get her.”
She left her father in the living room and walked through the kitchen to the formal dining room. Through the French doors, she saw an expanse of snow-covered ground, with acres of dormant apple trees in the distance. Closer, beneath the icicle-draped branches of a fifty-year-old magnolia tree, was a small rectangular garden defined by antique wrought-iron fencing. Its ornate gate was twined with brown vines; come summer, that gate would be a profusion of green leaves and white flowers. Now it glittered with frost.
And there she was: her eighty-something-year-old mother, bundled up in blankets, sitting on the black bench in her so-called winter garden. A light snow began to fall; tiny flakes blurred the scene into an impressionistic painting where nothing looked solid enough to touch. Sculpted bushes and a single birdbath were covered in snow, giving the garden a strange, otherworldly look. Not surprisingly, her mother sat in the middle of it all, motionless, her hands clasped in her lap.
As a child it had scared Meredith—all that solitude in her mother—but as she got older it had begun to embarrass, then irritate her. A woman of her mother’s age had no business sitting alone in the cold. Her mother claimed it was because of her ruined vision, but Meredith didn’t believe that. It was true that her mother’s eyes didn’t process color—she saw only white and black and shades of gray—but that had never struck Meredith, even as a girl, as a reason for staring at nothing.
She opened the door and went out into the cold. Her boots sank in the ankle-deep snow; here and there, crusty patches crunched underneath and more than once she almost slipped. “You shouldn’t be out here, Mom,” she said, coming up beside her. “You’ll catch pneumonia.”
“It takes more cold than this to give me pneumonia. This is barely below freezing.”
Meredith rolled her eyes. It was the sort of ridiculous comment her mother always made. “I’ve only got an hour for lunch, so you’d better come in now.” Her voice sounded sharp in the soft ness of the falling snow, and she winced, wishing she had rounded her vowels more, tempered her voice. What was it about her mother that brought out the worst in her? “Did you know he invited me for lunch?”
“Of course,” her mother said, but Meredith heard the lie in it.
Her mother rose from the bench in a single fluid motion, like some ancient goddess used to being revered and adored. Her face was remarkably smooth and wrinkle-free, her skin flawless and almost translucent. She had the kind of bone structure that made other women envious. But it was her eyes that defined her beauty. Deep-set and fringed by thick lashes, they were a remarkable shade of aqua flecked with bits of gold. Meredith was sure that no one who had seen those eyes ever forgot them. How ironic it was that eyes of such remarkable hue were unable to see color.
Meredith took her mother’s elbow and led her away from the bench; only then, when they were walking, did she notice that her mother’s hands were bare, and turning blue.
“Good God. Your hands are blue. You should have on gloves in this cold—”
“You do not know cold.”
“Whatever, Mom.” Meredith bustled her mother up the back steps and into the warmth of the house. “Maybe you should take a bath to warm up.”
“I do not want to be warm, thank you. It is December fourteenth.”
“Fine,” Meredith said, watching her shivering mother go to the stove to stir the soup. The ragged gray wool blanket fell to the floor in a heap around her.
Meredith set the table, and for a few precious moments there was noise in the room, an approximation of a relationship, at least.
“My girls,” Dad said, coming into the kitchen. He looked pale and slight, his once-wide shoulders whittled down to nothing by weight loss. Moving forward, he put a hand on each woman’s shoulder, bringing Meredith and Mom in close. “I love it when we’re together for lunch.”
Mom smiled tightly. “As do I,” she said in that clipped, accented voice of hers.
“And me,” Meredith said.
“Good. Good.” Dad nodded and went to the table.
Mom brought a tray of still-warm feta cheese corn bread slices, drizzled with butter, put a piece on each plate, and then brought over bowls of soup.
“I walked the orchard this morning,” Dad said.
Meredith nodded and took a seat beside him. “I guess you noticed the back of Field A?”
“Yep. That hillside’s been giving us some trouble.”
“I’ve got Ed and Amanda on it. Don’t worry about the harvest.”
“I wasn’t, actually. I was thinking of something else.”
She sipped her soup; it was rich and delicious. Homemade lamb meatballs in a savory saffron broth with silken egg noodles. If she didn’t exercise extreme caution, she’d eat it all and have to run another mile this afternoon. “Oh, yeah?”
“I want to change that field to grapes.”
Meredith slowly lowered her spoon. “Grapes?”
Excerpted from Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.
Copyright © 2010 by Kristin Hannah.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.