Now, every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: What darkness did you conquer? Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.
The house was tidy, but there was a thin layer of dust over everything, like place hadn’t been cleaned in a few weeks.
Collin walked from the foyer into the living room taking in the dated furnishings of his youth. As he entered the kitchen, he noticed the sun faded paint on the walls, as well as the faded wood floors.
The kitchen was also seriously dated. The appliances has been old when he was a kid, now they were antiques. He noted a few of the cabinets were missing doors, but everything was clean.
“Nothing has changed, and yet, this house feels empty and cold inside without you, Mom,” he whispered.
Collin back tracked to the living room through the hallway off the kitchen noting the buckets on the dining room table and in the office along the way.
He went upstairs and saw the water stains on the ceiling every where. He walked into his room.
Nothing had changed, except for the buckets, there were still sports posters on the wall and his Hardy Boy collection on his bookcase.
Trophies lined the various shelves around his room. The bedding was even freshly cleaned. Like his mother had anticipated his arrival.
“I could have bought you a million new roofs. Why didn’t you ask?”
Scrubbing his face with his hand, he let out sigh and went back downstairs. He looked around one last time before locking up and heading to Willie’s ranch next door.
Collin and Willie sat around the dinning room table surrounded by various home cooked dishes. As Collin watched the housekeeper place the roast beef on the table, his mouth began to water. It had been too many years since he had had a true home cooked meal.
Willie picked up the carving knife, sliced up the juicy roast, and placed a few pieces on Collin’s plate before doing the same to his. Once the two men had loaded up on green beans, mashed potatoes with sausage gravy, and fresh buttermilk biscuits, Willie broke the silence.
“So, how does the inside of the house look?”
“It looks just like I remember it. And you were right, mom kept it tidy,” Collin said.
Willie carved off a bite of his steak while Collin took a long drag off his beer. The pair ate in a comfortable silence for a few minutes.
“Margret was never one to put up with a dirty house. Was there any water damage? She’s needed a new roof on that place for at least five years,” Willie asked
Collin nodded as he swallowed.
“Mostly to the upstairs ceiling. I also saw buckets in the study, but didn’t look in the downstairs guest rooms. The whole house needs to be remodeled.”
Willie laughed at the last part.
“That house needed to be remodeled even when you were growing up. You’re going to keep the stove in the kitchen though right?”
Collin looked up from his plate to find Willie staring expectantly at him. The stove had been his great-grandmother’s and was from the 1930s. It had lasted three generations, and was now on the fourth, but Collin was willing to lay odds that it too was on it’s last legs.
“Yeah, I’m keeping the stove. I have no idea who on earth restores them or even how much that will cost, but I’m keeping it,” Collin announced. “Are you happy?”
The old man nodded. “Just because something’s old, doesn’t mean it needs to be replaced with something new.”
Collin thought about what Willie said as he continued to eat his dinner. He actually couldn’t imagine the kitchen without that stove. From his great-grandma to his mother, three generations of women had prepared food on that stove.
He remembered baking and cooking with each of them at that stove in that kitchen. Collin was glad Willie had mentioned it. Actually, he was glad to be talking about the house and not his mother.
“I called a contractor I use out here whenever I need things done, and he said he’d stop by your ranch tomorrow to get you a quote on the new roofs for everything, as well as fixing the front porch.”
“Thanks, Willie. I think focusing on the house will help me as I navigate the grief process,” Collin said.
Willie looked up from his plate. “What is this? An episode of Dr. Phil? Navigate the grief process? What kind of new age, hippy hogwash is that?”
The horrified look on Willie’s face was priceless, and suddenly Collin felt himself laughing. It started as a low chuckle before quickly evolving into a full blown fit of hysteria. Soon Willie was joining in. After several minutes, both men settled down.
“Well, I’m glad you’re taking an interest in the house again. I think new roofs will go a long way to helping save those buildings,” Willie stated.
“I hope so. I can only be away from the firm a few weeks at most, so I was hoping to get all the big projects underway before I left,” Collin said.
“That sounds ambitious, but I believe if anyone can do it, it would be you.”
Willie pushed his plate away and wiped is face with his napkin. He then picked up his beer.
“Once the work is done, what are you planning on doing with the ranch?”
“I want to hire a foreman, and turn it back into a working cattle ranch. Do you know anyone?”
Willie chuckled. “I hope you don’t expect me to teach you how to rebuild your family’s cattle ranch in two weeks?”
“Well, yeah. I mean once I have the basics, and an experienced foreman, everything should come together,” Collin joked.
“I just wanted to double check. Grief hits us all in different ways, and sometimes setting unrealistic expectations falls into it.”
Collin nodded. “I understand. And yeah, I would like to rebuild the ranch, but I know it will take time. Right now, I just want to focus on saving everything, and of course, Mom’s funeral.”
Collin pushed his plate away and reached for his beer. Both he and Willie sat in silence, each one with their thoughts.
“I know I don’t have time to run a cattle ranch and be a lawyer. I realize that if I tried to do both, it would be a disaster, but I want to try,” Collin confessed.
“You don’t have to explain it or even justify it to me. When are you planning on visiting your Aunt Lilly?”
Collin sighed. “Tomorrow morning. I’ll check in with my associates at the law firm, and then pay her a visit.”
“Good. Don’t forget, she’s the only family you have left that you’re close to, so you be sure to spend as much time with her as you can. With Margret gone, Lilly will be awfully lonely, so it wouldn’t kill you to call her once a week, and drop by for visits.”
Collin chuckled. “I know. I will make an effort to be there for Aunt Lilly.”
Willie nodded his head before getting up from the table.
“Well I don’t know about you, but I’m going to catch up on some paperwork, and then head to bed. I have a long day tomorrow, I’ll bet you do too.”
Collin also stood up and nodded affirmatively. “Do you need me to help clear the table?”
“No, the staff has it. Have a goodnight and I’ll see you at breakfast.”
With that said, Willie strode from the room. Collin sighed before heading upstairs. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Collin pulled up to his Aunt Lilly’s house late morning. He had been trying to make it over earlier, but as usual, that asshat Billy couldn’t manage anything. Fortunately, Veronica in all of her brilliance, had figured out a way to get Billy off of his team.
He ordered three dozen red roses and had them sent to her. He knew she would love them, and she would adore the dinner surprise tonight when it was delivered.
Sitting in his car, Collin looked at his aunt’s house. Her flower garden was neat and tidy, full of vibrant color. Her small cottage was freshly painted. She loved the peach color with the mint trim, and of course, her picket fence was white.
Nothing was out of place. Both she and his mother had always made sure everything had looked the very best. The deferred maintenance at the ranch spoke volumes about his mother’s health at the end of her life.
Collin pulled himself from the car. He apprehensively approached the door. He wasn’t sure what kind of welcome awaited him.
Collin knocked lightly. A few seconds later he heard soft footfalls headed towards the door.
Aunt Lilly was wearing a house dress like always. Her red hair was streaked with more gray and she had more lines on her face, but other than that, she hadn’t changed.
Collin could smell cinnamon, vanilla, and peppermint – a big indication she had been cooking up a storm.
“Hi, Aunt Lilly.”
“Collin!” Aunt Lilly pulled him down into a fierce hug, which was surprising given her small stature.
After a few shocked seconds, Collin hugged Aunt Lilly back.
“How have you been?” Collin asked when the older woman pulled back from him.
“I’ve been good aside from everything with Margaret,” Aunt Lilly replied. “Come. I made us tea.”
Collin smiled to himself, of course she had made tea. Aunt Lilly had been a nanny to a British family shortly after she had turned 18. It was how she had traveled and met his Uncle Hugh.
She had been devastated to learn her had been cheating on her with an old college friend. The pair had been divorced for almost a decade now, but the routine of their life together was still deeply ingrained in the older woman.
Aunt Lilly escorted Collin to the living room. On the coffee table was an assortment of tea sandwiches, cookies, and petite cakes on a tiered tray. In the middle was the tea service given to her by his mother on her wedding day.
As the duo sat down, Aunt Lilly began preparing tea. From the smell, Collin surmised his aunt has made Earl Grey. She added cream to both cups and then set Collin’s cup in front of him while she added sugar to hers.
“It’s good to see you, Collin. I can’t remember the last time you were home, and here at the house,” Aunt Lilly said.
Collin took a sip of his tea before putting it back on the saucer. He fiddled with his napkin for a moment and accepted the plate of goodies his aunt handed him.
“I believe the last time I was home was around 12 years ago. But everything is exactly how I remember it,” Collin said.
Aunt Lilly nodded. “Nothing has really changed. That’s the nice thing about small towns. Change is usually gradual, not all at once.”
“In the city, change is a constant, but here, everything pretty much stays the same,” Collin said. “Well, I mean things have changed, but for the most part there are constants that never change. I’ve missed that.”
Aunt Lilly smiled. Her gaze far off as she stared out the window.
“I missed the town too, that’s why I moved back here to start my family,” Aunt Lilly said. “Then we moved to England for Hugh, but I kept the house. I wasn’t going to move back until your mother called. She said she needed help. I knew it must be bad, so I came back.”
Collin’s face crumpled. Guilt came crashing into him like ocean waves pounding the beach during a storm. His entire mood shifted and took a darker tone.
“She never said a word to me, Aunt Lily. I would’ve been here helping her, and taking care of things if I had know. I missed all the signs, and -,” Collin stopped abruptly as his throat tightened.
Aunt Lilly reached over and grabbed his hand. She reached for her handkerchief as her eyes began to glisten.
“I know you would’ve been here, and she knew that too. I think that’s why she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to drag you into a world filled with uncertainty. You would’ve had to leave the law firm, and that wasn’t acceptable to her.”
Collin reached up and brushed the tears from his eyes. He could have come home to care for her. He would have quit for her. What good was being partner if he was all alone?
“But she was my mother! And I missed all the signs,” Collin cried. “Even in the end, I was too focused on my job and what needed to be done than take her call.”
“Oh, Collin. If you had known she was dying, you would’ve been with her. I blame my sister for not telling you. She cost you both the opportunity to say goodbye because of her stubbornness,” Aunt Lilly said.
She pulled out another handkerchief from her house dress and handed it to Collin. He took it, wiped his eyes, and then took a few deep breathes to help compose himself.
“It wasn’t entirely her fault,” Collin confessed.
Aunt Lilly wiped her eyes.
“No, but in the end, when she knew she only had weeks to live, she should’ve told you and let you be the adult that you are, and figure out what you were going to do,” Aunt Lilly explained as she consoled him.
Collin shook his head and ran a hand through his hair.
“In her way, Aunt Lily, Mom did tell me she was dying. I was just busy and distracted by work to notice her subtle hints,” Collin lamented.
Aunt Lilly’s smile was watery as looked over at the mantle to pictures of her and her sister.
“That’s my point though, dear,” Aunt Lilly said with a sigh. “She needed to pony up to the table and tell you straight forward her time was limited and that she had cancer. Instead, I think she truly felt that the doctors were wrong and she could beat it.”
She stood up and grabbed a photo off the fireplace, tracing his mother’s face.
“Then when she realized she couldn’t, I don’t think she knew how to face you with the fact the cancer had come back and she had known for years, but said nothing. Stubborn Margret.”
“I should have been a better son.”
“No, in the end, she should have been a better mother,” Aunt Lilly consoled. “The fact is, mistakes were made, and there’s left to do except move forward. You need to forgive yourself and her.”
Collin snorted. “I don’t need to forgive her.”
Aunt Lilly walked over and sat down on the couch with Collin. She took his hands in hers.
“Yes, you do, you just don’t realize it yet. Now, her service will be Saturday. She wanted to be cremated, she had her obituary ready, so everything’s in place. You won’t have to stay past the weekend.”
Collin let out a breath and squeezed his aunt’s hands.
“I’ll be here for the rest of this week, and the weekend, as well as next week. I’m hiring a contractor to help save the ranch,” Collin explained.
“You know there isn’t any cattle right? If I were you, I’d fix up the main house and outbuildings and sell the ranch. Your life and career are in the city,” Aunt Lilly reasoned.
Collin looked his aunt in the eyes as he violently shook his head back and forth.
“The Good Knight Ranch has been in the family for close to a century. I can’t sell it. I can’t be the one who destroys the legacy I can damn well afford to restore,” Collin explained.
“And I know there isn’t any cattle. I’m taking it one step at a time. Save the buildings, then figure out the ranch.”
“That’s going to take a lot of time and money. Not just a weekend here and there, you realize that right?” Aunt Lilly’s concerned look reminded Collin of his mother.
She would get the same frown lines around her mouth and eyes whenever he told her something she disagreed with him on. The realization his mother was never going to look at him like that again was a sudden punch to the gut.
Collin cleared his throat. “I’ll find out a way to make it work. I can’t just sell off my family’s legacy because I’m too busy for it.”
But if you don’t have the time for it, then it’s nothing but an expensive hobby. All I’m saying is that it’s going to be more work than you think,” Aunt Lilly cautioned.
Collin shot her a lopsided grin as he took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“And I thank you for your concern, but I know I can handle it.”
Aunt Lilly chuckled. She then looked at him and shook her head.
“You are just as stubborn as your mother,” Aunt Lilly smirked.
“I’m going to take that as a compliment. In the meantime, what can I do aside from call into work ever couple of hours to make sure my associates haven’t driven away my clients?”
“Well, someone needs to go through your mother’s things. I’m sure there are many things that can be donated to folks who can use them, but I’m also sure there are many things there you’d like to hold onto too.”
If Collin was going to renovate the house, then he was going to need to go through the house and his mom’s belongings. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for that, but it was something that needed doing.
“I can do that this weekend, and over the course of next week. I’m sure it’ll only take a few days at most.”
The cuckoo clock on the wall tolled the time. Collin looked down at his watch to double check the time.
“Willie reached out to a contractor regarding the roofs, and we’re supposed to meet up shortly,” Collin explained.
“Well, don’t let me keep you,” Aunt Lilly said.
“I’m hoping to find out how much the repairs are going to be, as well as when everything can be started and completed.”
Collin stood up and his Aunt Lilly reached out to give him another one of her fierce hugs. He carefully squeezed her back.
“Let me pack up these leftovers for you to take with you. You both could be out there a while and I’m sure having some snacks on hand will be nice.”
Aunt Lilly quickly grabbed the tiered platter and shot off down the hall into the kitchen. After a few minutes, she came back with all of the leftovers neatly placed in a plastic container.
Collin took the container and then leaned down to give his aunt a kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks, Aunt Lilly.”
“You take care, my boy. If you need anything or have questions, stop by or give me a ring. I’m pretty easy to track down.”
“I will. I promise to visit a ton while I’m in town,” Collin told her.
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
Aunt Lilly walked him to the door and then waved him off, like his mother used to do when he was a boy taking the bus to school.
Collin closed his eyes briefly as he let the warmth of the memories wash over him. What he wouldn’t give to have his mother wave him off just one more time.
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