by Stan Dryer
Childhood memories come and go. An image on television, a friend’s joke or a single word can trigger an explosion of memories, a chain of remembrance plucked out of the past. When, years after the fact, those ancient events run through the projector of your mind, you may suddenly see, only then, what really happened.
Such a moment came for me last summer when my sister, Nancy, and I managed to make our visits to our parents’ vacation cottage coincide. She and her husband and their two younger kids flew in from California; I drove over to Maine from Syracuse with my wife, Natalie, and the kids. We caught the ferry over to the Island and drove the old familiar road towards South Point with the ocean on the left and the steep rocky hillside to the right. Our cottage was there as always, perched on its short driveway above the road. The house looked the same, perhaps a bit grayer and more weather beaten. My parents were sitting on our old porch swing waiting to greet us. They too looked much the same if a bit more weather worn.
A couple of hours later Nancy and family arrived and everything dissolved into the chaos of our family reunions. But after dinner, Nancy grabbed me and took me aside. Nancy is three years older than I am. Although I think I have proved that I can get along in the world without her help, she still feels that I need some straightening out whenever she gets the chance.
“You and I,” she said, “need to get away by ourselves for a good long chit-chat.”
“Sure,” I said. That was fine by me. Over the years, Nancy has mellowed a lot. Her critiques of my lifestyle now tend to be more in the realm of suggestions rather than her former edicts. And I guess I have mellowed a bit myself as I may sometimes admit that her suggestions have merit.
The next day was clear and bright with a light Maine coast breeze bringing cool air off the water. We decided to drive up to North Point and sit on the rocks and talk.
Halfway up the coast road I slowed and stopped the car at a once familiar driveway. “Isn’t this the house where old Mr. Henshaw used to live?” I said.
“Sure, Cookiemeister,” said Nancy with a laugh.
Cookiemeister! With that, the whole business with Edith and the cookies came flooding back to me. Except, this time, clear and bright, I understood what had really happened. “Oh shit.” I said.
“Why oh shit?” said Nancy.
“I just figured it out.”
“No way. You must have figured it out years ago.”
“Well I don’t think I’ve thought about it for years. You remind me of the Cookiemeister bit and I suddenly understand what it was all about.”
“You just figured it out. That is really funny.” Nancy started to laugh, that same old laugh that used to drive me up the wall when I was a kid.
“I don’t think this is funny at all. Here I have this epiphany where a great mystery of my youth is solved and you think it is some kind of a joke.”
“Epiphany, nonsense. You just now figured out what everyone else knew twenty-five years ago.” Nancy started to laugh again. Then she looked over at me and sensed my touch of anger. “You’re probably right,” she said, “Someone should have clued you in. At first Mother and Dad were worried that you’d blame yourself. And we just all thought it was so obvious that we’d wait and watch when the light bulb in your brain went on. Apparently it never did.”
It started the summer at the cottage when I was twelve and Nancy a super sophisticated fifteen. It was a warm Sunday afternoon. Nancy and I were reading the funnies on the front porch steps and Dad was lying on the porch swing reading the Sunday business page. Then my mother stepped out onto the porch drying the last luncheon dish. “Let’s go over and visit Mr. Henshaw this afternoon,” she said.
It was a hot day for the island and I had plans when I finished the funnies to head down to the ballfield and see if there was a scratch game going. None of us even answered.
“I said,” Mother spoke a little louder, “we should go and see Mr. Henshaw.”
Dad peeped up over the edge of the paper. “No,” he said.
Mother moved over to the swing and looked down at Dad with her don’t-mess-with-me look. “Give me three good reasons why not.”
“One, we came out here to get away from it all; two, Mr. Henshaw is a dirty old man; and three, when I get supine, I like to stay supine.”
“What does ‘supine’ mean?” I asked.
“Look it up in the dictionary,” Mother said. This was back in the eighties, before the internet. We still had a giant dictionary on a stand in the living room. Words Nancy and I didn’t understand we got to look up. I got to do most of the looking up as at smartass fifteen, my sister knew most of the words already.
“For Pete’s sake, Clara,” said Dad, “Why don’t you lay off the dictionary routine? This is a vacation, remember?” I could tell he was definitely trying to change the subject.
Mother kept on target. “Seeing Mr. Henshaw is not going to stop you from getting away from it all. You ought to get up and get some exercise. And Mr. Henshaw is not a dirty old man. He’s been lonely all his life. He was an only child and never married. You’re just mad about the auction last year.”
“I am not mad about the auction. If that old coot wanted to pay four times what that sun dial was worth, it’s his bad luck, not mine.”
“I might note that you bid that sun dial up to three times what it was worth. “Now come on.” Mother grabbed hold of the top of the business page and yanked. Dad saw this coming and was holding tight to the bottom. The page tore in half.
Mother rolled her half up into a stick and poked Dad in the ribs. “You children would like to go, wouldn’t you?”
“We’d love to,” said Nancy. It was just like her to back Mother and include me in on the deal.
I wasn’t going to take sides in this kind of a setup. “How to you spell ‘supine’,” I said.
“That boy will be a great diplomat someday,” said Dad. “S-U-P-I-N-E”
I headed for the big dictionary and looked it up. Supine meant lying flat on your back. Why Dad couldn’t have just told me, I’ll never know.
When I got back out on the porch everything was settled as I knew it would be. Dad was grumbling and pulling the tarp off of Hector, the old Model A he kept on the Island. Mother and Nancy climbed in back and I got in front with Dad.
Mother and Nancy chattered like a couple of blue jays all the way. Dad didn’t say anything but hunched over the wheel and glared at the road till we reached Henshaw’s long driveway.
“Are you sure this is the turn-off?” said Mother.
“Well of course I’m sure,” said Dad.
“Well I didn’t see his sign. He usually puts out a sign with his name on it when he comes up for the summer.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t want people coming to visit him on Sunday afternoons this year,” said Dad.
Halfway up the long hill before Mr. Henshaw’s house there was a big sign someone had painted and nailed up on a tree. “PLEASE BLOW HORN,” it read.
“Now that’s something new,” said Dad.
“Yes,” said Mother. “I wonder what that’s about.”
“Well give them a blast, Bub,” said Dad. I reached over to the bulb horn on the edge of the windshield and squeezed for all it was worth about twenty times.
“Stop him!” Nancy shouted.
I gave one final blast and quit. “Honestly Mother,” said Nancy, “they’ll think a cavalcade is arriving.” ‘Cavalcade’ was a new word she had just learned and was using at every opportunity.
We came up over the hill and there was Henshaw’s big weatherworn house sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Mr. Henshaw was sitting out in front in his director’s chair wearing only a pair of worn brown swimming trunks. He was a short man, thin and wiry with his hair starting to grey. On a lawn chair next to him sat a lovely blonde girl. Remembering back, I would guess her age to have been about thirty. She was wearing nothing but a large bath towel wrapped around her. There was another towel on the ground. Even as clueless as I was at that age, I instantly figured out she had been taking a stark naked sunbath, and probably supine.
“Well, well,” Dad said under his breath. “Well, well, well, well.”
Mother said nothing.
Mr. Henshaw got up and came over to the car. “Good to see you,” he said.
Dad jumped out of the car. “Good to see you again, Fred. It’s been a long time. Just thought we’d drop by and see how things were going. We didn’t want you to get lonely out here all alone.”
Mother did not get out of the car but glared at Dad.
“No chance of getting lonesome this summer, “said Mr. Henshaw. “I’ve got my niece up here to keep me company.” He motioned to the blonde girl. “Edith, come over and meet the Crawfords.”
The girl got up slowly holding the towel around her with one hand behind her back. She came over to the car. She walked with a grace that would inspire a poet.
“This is my niece, Edith Morrows,” said Mr. Henshaw.
She shook hands with Mother and Dad. Mother reluctantly, Dad with unsuppressed enthusiasm. “I hope you will excuse the dress,” she said, “but we weren’t expecting company.” Her voice was silk smooth.
“Hey,” said Dad, grinning. “No need to dress up here on the island.”
Edith turned to me and Nancy. “How would you like some cookies?”
Nancy took a quick look at Mother whose steely look said it all. “Thank you very much, but no,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. No steely look from a mere mortal was going to keep me from getting cookies from a goddess.
I followed Edith through a side door which led into a giant old kitchen. She pulled forward a cookie jar that sat on the counter with one hand, still holding the towel up with the other. “I made these myself,” she said, “but no one ever eats them. I have to watch my diet and Fred eats maybe two a week.”
“Fred?” I said.
“Uncle Fred.” She handed me a cookie. I took a bite. I remember it as being incredibly delicious. On the other hand, she could have handed me a dog biscuit and I would have swallowed it in ecstasy.
“Take another,” she said. “They’ll go stale anyway.”
I took another cookie. “Isn’t there anyone ever out here except you and your uncle?” I asked.
She gave me a funny look. “No. Sometimes people come by, but not very often.”
“Don’t you get lonesome?”
“Yeah. I thought women your age liked to have dates and stuff.”
She smiled at me. “No I’m not lonely. My uncle is plenty good company.”
“Well,” I said, “I think anyone who makes good cookies like these should get married and have kids so there would be someone to eat lots of cookies.” I remember at the time thinking I had just said something incredibly stupid and wishing I could take back the words and bury them in the nearest trash can.
But Edith didn’t think what I said was stupid. She kind of froze for a moment as if thinking it over. Then she said, “You may be right. Why don’t we go back outside.”
Outside Mother and Nancy were still sitting in the car. Dad had gone off with Mr. Henshaw to inspect a mount he was making for the sun dial.
“Won’t you two come and sit inside where it’s cooler,” Edith said to Mother and Nancy.
“No thank you,” Mother said. “We’re got to be running along as soon as Mr. Crawford gets back.” I remember being puzzled at the time as she only referred to Dad as “Mr. Crawford” when she’s was ticked at him and it was, after all, her idea we’d come for a visit.
Dad and Mr. Henshaw reappeared from the work shed next to the house. “You did a real nice job on that mount,” Dad said.
Mr. Henshaw smiled. “Why don’t you folks all come in for a drink?”
“I’m afraid we can’t,” said Mother. “We have to get back by three-thirty.”
Dad started to say something, but caught the look in Mother’s eye. “Got to get back,” he said. “But maybe I’ll be back for a longer visit sometime.”
“Do that,” said Mr. Henshaw.
Dad climbed back into the driver’s seat. “Goodbye Fred,” he said. “Goodbye Edith.”
Edith held onto her towel with one hand and waved with the other.
Goodbye Edith,” I waved. “Thanks for the cookies.”
“Come have some more sometime,” she called after us.
“Honestly,” said Mother when we were out of sight of the house, “you didn’t have to act that way.”
“You know what way.”
“I was just being friendly, that’s all.” Dad grinned. “Henshaw’s a lonely old man who was an only child and who never married and we’ve got to be kind to him and visit him and his niece often. And you were right about one thing.”
“Mr. Henshaw is definitely not a dirty old man.”
“That’s enough.” From Mother’s tone I knew it was time to change the subject.
“Well, she bakes pretty nice cookies anyhow,” I said. “I think Mr. Henshaw is lucky to have such a nice niece.”
Nancy burst out with her crazy laugh in the back seat. “What’s the matter with you?” I said.
“You imbecile,” she said, “you total imbecile.” She isn’t his niece. She’s his mistress.”
“Mistress?” I said. “What’s a mistress?”
“Oh no,” said Nancy, “how could I be related to a total ignoramus.” Ignoramus was another word she had just learned and was busy using at every opportunity mostly when talking about me. Imbecile was a word she had known for way too long a time.
“Mistress,” said Dad, “A new word for the boy’s vocabulary. Look it up in the big dictionary when we get home. In fact, we’ll both look it up together. I think a boy and his dad should do things together.”
“That’s enough of your alleged humor,” said Mother.
Dad said nothing more but all the way home he smiled happily to himself.
Dad and I did look up ”mistress” in the dictionary and I was glad he helped. “Mistress” it turns out had about thirty-five meanings but he pointed me at the right one and then came up with some rather boring advice about not having one.
Three days later when Dad drove down to the post office for the mail he came back with a puzzled expression on his face. “Clara,” he said, “guess who I saw at the ferry dock. Edith.”
“Well that certainly must have brightened your day,” said Mother.
“No, seriously, it was Edith with two big suitcases getting on the ferry.”
Mother did not speak for a long moment, a rare occasion. Then she said, “That poor man. Get the kids in Hector and we’ll go check up on him.”
Which we did. The first thing different we noticed was that the PLEASE BLOW YOUR HORN sign was missing from the driveway. We found Mr. Henshaw sitting by himself in his old brown shorts looking sadly out over the ocean. We all got out and walked over to where he was sitting. “I saw Edith getting on the ferry,” Dad said.
“Well nice of you to come,” said Mr. Henshaw with a thin smile. He looked at me. “And in particular the cookiemeister.” None of us quite knew what that meant. “What I really want to say is that you, young man, should go and help yourself to a couple of cookies. In fact, take the whole jar. I’m kind of done with cookies. You know where the jar is.”
Even though I saw I was in the middle of the all-time greatest emotional scene, I knew a deal that I could not pass up and I headed for the kitchen. As I left, I heard Mother say to Mr. Henshaw in her firmest voice, “Now just where is that sign that you put down on the highway when you’re here for the summer?”
When I got back, my parents were still talking to Mr. Henshaw. As I approached I heard Mother say something like “and you’re saying that Bub…..” Then she saw me coming and stopped talking. Mr. Henshaw looked at Mother and nodded his head just slightly.
Then everyone in my family turned and looked at me strangely. If they hadn’t been my family, I would have said it was kind of a look of awe, a “no way is it possible Bud could do that” look. Nancy, I knew, was dying to tell me something but had probably been ordered to keep her mouth shut. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Mother and Dad in chorus. I’d learned long ago that when I got that chorus, something definitely was going on.
Mr. Henshaw broke the silence. “I was just telling your parents that my niece had a family emergency and had to leave suddenly,” he said. “Did you find all the cookies?”
“I’m so sorry to hear about your niece, Sir,” I said. “She seemed such a nice person.” I thought it would not have been smart to explain to him I knew about her being his mistress and that I knew which kind of a mistress she was.
In any case, we saw a lot of Mr. Henshaw that summer. He came over for dinner at least once a week. He and Dad went to the annual auction together and, as Mother said, came back with twice the usual amount of junk seeing as they agreed not to bid against each other. Dad persuaded Mr. Henshaw to take us out on his boat a couple of times. The change was amazing. Once out on the water, Mr. Henshaw became a different person. Laughing. Bad sailor jokes. But on water or on land he still called me the Cookiemeister.
The next summer we saw less of Mr. Henshaw. When he was in Florida a smart, attractive widow got him in her sights and Mr. and Mrs. Henshaw occupied the big old house on the bluff for the next fifteen or so summers.
Later that next summer I overheard my parents talking one afternoon when they thought I was down at the ballfield. I had come back to pick up my glove and was in the back hall when I heard them in the kitchen.
“I heard that Edith got married,” Dad said.
“Edith who?” said Mother.
“You know, Henshaw’s niece.”
Mother laughed. “Oh, that Edith. Hope you weren’t too heartbroken.”
Dad ignored her. “As it looks like it all turned out okay,” he said. “Do you think we should finally tell Bub?”
“No. It would only go to his head. He might even decide to become a marriage counselor.”
Both of them laughed.
I should have busted in and demanded to know what they were talking about, but the guys were about to pick sides and I didn’t want to end up on a team with a bunch of losers. So I took off.
Now, sitting at the end of Henshaw’s driveway, the whole business had come back to me clear and complete. I had, quite by chance, changed the paths of a couple of human lives, hopefully all for the good.
“Well,” said Nancy, “are you going to sit there all day dreaming about how you singlehandedly changed the course of Western Civilization?”
“Sorry,” I said. I put the car in gear and pulled out on the road. “Let’s head out to North Point and you can straighten out my future life.”
About the Author:
Frank Bequaert has been writing and publishing fiction under the pen name Stan Dryer for over 60 years. From 1960 to 1990 he published 17 short stories in a number of magazines including Playboy, Cosmopolitan and Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. A number of these stories were reprinted in anthologies. Most of his writing is humorous. After a hiatus of about 25 years, Frank is again writing fiction.