Copyright© 2006, 2007
The following story is a sequel to the very first one that I wrote, "Remembrance". It is possible to read and understand "Renewal" without reading the earlier work. If you could do so, however, it might enhance your enjoyment of this story.
Thank you for choosing my work for your reading pleasure. Whichever you decide, I hope that you like it.
George glanced at Helen as she dozed next to him, her sweater draped around her shoulders. He envied the way she could fit comfortably in the space provided by a seat on an airliner. He was on the aisle, she sat near the window. Even in First Class, his long legs were constantly searching for the right place to be. He refolded them as best he could. He was glad to be on vacation with Helen, but getting there was not 'half the fun'. The flight attendant refilled his coffee cup as he shifted in his seat.
"Can I get a blanket for your wife, sir?" she asked with a smile.
"Thanks, no," George answered. "She looks comfortable enough and I don't want to wake her." The flight attendant nodded and moved on.
George asked himself how many times in the past thirty years he had watched Helen as she slept. The answer was that there had been too many to count. He wondered how many times the roles had been reversed—same answer. It had been a lifetime of providing for and watching over one another. Of course, it was more than providing food, clothing and shelter. They were at a stage in their lives when they no longer had to worry about those basic things. The higher needs they filled for one another could never be taken for granted.
George wasn't a man who often spoke about sentimental subjects. He thought about them often. It was a habit that he picked up during his service in the Pacific during the War. When he was lonely or in fear, he learned how an inner vision could comfort him. Old habits are hard to break. Sitting next to his dozing wife he had good reason to indulge himself in dredging up old memories. All of George's and Helen's vacations were special—there hadn't been many. This one was the most momentous. It started the previous day.
"George, zip me up, please!" Helen called out.
George disengaged from struggling with his tie and stepped over to Helen standing in front of her mirror. As he took the tab of the zipper between his fingers he heard the sound of a glass bottle falling over on the dresser.
"Oh, wait, George, I knocked over my bottle of cologne!" Helen scolded herself.
George knew that Helen seldom spilled anything unless she was nervous. He waited while she righted the offending bottle and blotted up the small amount of spilled cologne. As the scent filled the space it reminded George of Helen's frugality. Even on an important day she would forego the expense of perfume and settle for the weaker substitute. It was a trait born of their beginnings. They could afford perfume; Helen was used to cologne. A breath of it evoked one of George's memories.
She finished blotting up the spill with a handkerchief and he grasped the tiny zipper tab once again and slowly lifted it up the channel and fastened the little hook at its top. It was perched under Helen's shoulder blades, and nice shoulder blades they were. She wore a dress that was unusually daring for her—but it was a special day. Helen had taken great pains to pick out the special ivory-colored dress with the scooped back and neckline.
"Why don't you relax?" George suggested. "There's no need to be nervous."
"I'm not nervous!" Helen insisted. "You are—and you're starting to make me nervous, too."
Her answer was vintage Helen: denial and counterattack. George expected it and took it without offense. He silently congratulated his ability to accurately predict her. He wasn't nervous. It was true that he had reluctantly agreed to the ritual planned for that day. This kind of affair wasn't his cup of tea at all. He agreed, after a coordinated assault by Helen and their daughter, Katherine, that made his Pacific travails seem like a Boy Scout camporee.
George knew better than to move away from her. Helen picked up each end of her strand of pearls in her narrow fingers and drew them to her delicate collarbone. Without being asked, George fastened the clasp at the back of her neck.
"Sorry," George offered gently, "I just thought that you looked nervous." He held her gently around the waist as he teased her. "Anyway, I think that you look as beautiful as the first time."
"Then you need better glasses!" she shot back as they looked at each other's reflection in the mirror. "It's nice of you to say so, though," she added with a hint of sparkle in her eyes.
George remembered the Christmas Eve that he gave her the set of pearls. They were sitting next to the tree on the old sofa. It was eleven o'clock. The children were finally asleep. Outside, snow was accumulating and the prairie winds howled. Inside, the colored lights twinkled in the darkness and George and Helen relaxed with a well-earned brandy.
The year was 1961, their fifteenth together. It had been a successful year for George's road building company. The Company debt was finally erased. The children were all doing well. They were easing out of their struggling years. It was a time when things were good.
"I want to give you your present now," George whispered.
"Oh, George, you didn't have to get me a present," she protested. It was easy for her to say that. She knew that George would never be empty-handed on Christmas.
George ignored the admonishment and produced an oblong box that he had hidden under the couch. He had tried to wrap the box, but gave up and settled for binding it with a ribbon.
Helen's eyes widened, betraying her excited expectation. Women always love to be given any kind of jewelry. She slowly untied the ribbon. She paused before opening the box, in a quandary over enjoying the anticipation and the satisfaction of her curiosity. She surrendered and slowly lifted the lid.
She gasped. "George, how beautiful!" Her eyes were glistening. "How could you afford these?" Her fingers caressed the smooth, white orbs.
"It was a good year," George replied. "You, more than anyone, deserve a taste of the fruits."
"We decided that we need to save the profits for reserves," she reminded him. He nodded. She knew that he wouldn't have, nor shouldn't have traded reserves for pearls. Her bookkeeper's mind was sharp. She glanced at him with a suspicious eye. "What happened to the money that you were saving for your new set of golf clubs?"
"What do golf clubs have to do with it?" George asked back.
"George... ?" she demanded.
"I decided that I still like the old ones."
A tear trickled from the corner of her eye.
"I want you to have these more than I want the golf clubs." he assured her after a pause. "Please keep them."
Helen looked at him in silence in the semi darkness, absorbing what he had done, what he had just told her. She placed the pearls on the coffee table and abruptly stood and turned to the stairway.
"I'll be right back," she whispered as she hurried up the stairs.
George sipped his brandy and waited for her return. He assumed that she had gone to fetch her gift for him. He realized that the words 'right back' meant that he had at least several minutes to wait. There was no denying that she liked the pearls. He savored his satisfaction in sacrifice along with his drink.
The scent of her cologne preceded her into the living room. The lights of the Christmas tree cast a heavenly glow on her. She wore a sheer, floor-length negligee and carried a down comforter from their bedroom. George watched her walk slowly to the coffee table where her unfinished brandy sat. She lifted it to her lips and downed it in one gulp.
"Help me put the pearls on," she whispered to him, "and then make love to me."
He stood as ordered and clasped the string at the back of her neck. She turned and they kissed. It was tender and slow, conveying what they felt in that moment. It was a kiss that overrode one's sense of time. It was not just of soft, yielding lips, but also of arms and hands and bodies pressed and held against one another.
Helen spread the comforter on the couch and then turned to strip him of his clothes. George knew to follow her lead. When she was done she embraced him and they felt the hardness and softness of their bodies. She stepped back slightly. George pushed the top the nightgown down until it pooled around her waist. He stopped for a moment to savor her naked shoulders and breasts. The hard points of her shoulders and collarbone etched the half-light emanating from the Christmas tree. The softer areas became inviting shadows. Her chest rose and fell with her excitement, a little more with each breath. Her lips were parted slightly; her eyes wide and glistening.
George pushed the gown down again and they were both naked, save the pearls. A musky aroma mixed with her cologne. They disappeared beneath the comforter on the sofa. They made love for hours, and then slept until the new morning's sun shot a beam of brightness at them, augmented by the fresh snow. They hurried to their bedroom, lest the children find them.
George used the old set of clubs for the entire season. He finally purchased a new set the following year. He put the old set away in a safe place, unwilling to part with them.
George snapped out of his reverie, overcoming the distraction of the aroma of Helen's cologne.
"Want to elope?" he asked facetiously.
Helen leaned back into George, enjoying the contact.
"Mmmm—that's an interesting idea." she purred. "The children would never forgive us."
"They would just have the party without us." George reasoned and bent to kiss the base of neck at the juncture of a bare shoulder.
"Well, the boys might, but Katherine would be crushed." Helen partly conceded. "And, if you mess up my makeup we'll be late." she added with a chuckle. Helen knew how George hated lateness and he released her on cue.
"I'll save some for later," she consoled him.
George finished with his tie and they were ready to go. They poured themselves into the Ford Country Squire wagon and made their way to their church where family and friends waited for them. There was a banquet hall prepared for afterward. It was a Sunday afternoon in March 1976. George and Helen had been married thirty years. The occasion was their renewal of their thirty year-old marriage vows.
Helen started stirring when the plane encountered some turbulence as the jetliner passed over Dallas. She had fallen asleep shortly after turning down lunch offered upon rising out of O'Hare. Air travel was an infrequent adventure for the couple. George, of course, had his share of it during the War. To Helen, there was no reason to risk an unfortunate mix of airline food with a jumpy stomach. She passed her portions to George, who greedily devoured them.
"How'd you sleep?" George asked as she opened her eyes.
"Not bad!" she answered. "I needed it. That was some party last night."
The layover at O'Hare was tiresome, too," George added.
Helen had promised George to 'save some for later', but it hadn't worked out. She never meant to break her pledge, but the champagne was flowing at the reception after the ceremony. Helen usually limited herself to two at such affairs. After all, she had a deserved reputation for getting woozy after sniffing the cork. On such a special occasion she had indulged herself to four. As she finished the third one, George gave up on any carnal expectations. He didn't mind, though. To see her as excited and happy as she was at the reception was well worth postponing his other plans.
"Thirty rears!" Helen mused. "I guess that we finally made it after all."
"Your father didn't think that we would," George reminded her in his sarcastic tone.
"He just wanted us to wait a little while," Helen corrected. "You wanted Katherine to wait. I think that it's a test for us women. When we're able to stand up our fathers it's a sign that we're ready to go."
George shrugged and thought back to the hot afternoon in July 1946 when he and Helen presented themselves in the front room of the old farmhouse. Just home from the Navy, George wore his summer khakis. He hadn't had a chance to buy any civilian clothes. The old man wasn't impressed—never released his scowl. He could match George hardship for hardship. He fought the battle of the Dustbowl on his Iowa farm long before George went to the Pacific. George was unused to the treatment. He had gold oak leaves on his collar. He was used to salutes, not scowls. He stood his ground. He didn't need 'permission' to marry Helen. He was only showing respect.
"He warmed up later," George admitted.
"He told me, before he passed on, that he changed his mind about you when you stood up to him in the parlor," Helen informed him.
"You never told me that!" George exclaimed in surprise. "Well, I'll be..."
"I was waiting to tell you until I could be sure that you wouldn't get a swelled head," Helen teased. She felt comfortable in the little barb because she knew that George had never suffered from that condition.
George remembered how the old man wasn't so gruff once a person spent some time with him. He would let down his formidable exterior after he had a chance to size up a man. If you passed, he was your friend and nothing could ever change that. He turned out to be a model grandfather. He died in 1965. He lived through hard times and good ones. He had run the good race, and was tired. His son still worked the farm.
They were silent for a while. Each turned over pages of past memories of their choosing from their mind's eye albums.
"Everything turned out so well yesterday," Helen said. "Thank you for going through with it, George. I know that you don't really like those things, but you never showed it through the whole ceremony."
It wasn't his favorite thing to do, but George wouldn't ruin the day for any reason. It was over before one knew it and it was on to the reception.
"It was a far cry from our wedding thirty years ago," George observed.
"Times were different then," Helen reminded him.
It was July 1946; they had license in hand and a small group at Rev. MacDonald's parsonage. George wore his dress white uniform. His old, pre-war clothes didn't fit him and he had no money for a new civilian set of clothes. His mustering out pay was reserved for the honeymoon. Even his 'whites' were in doubt until the last minute while the navy scrambled to find his sea bag. Helen had a mid-calf white dress with a makeshift veil. There could be no long, white trains and organ music if they wanted to get married right away. Helen made her choice.
George's friends were scattered far and wide. Some of them had met their fates in Bastogne, Okinawa and faraway places in-between. George had Purple Hearts from Tinian and Iwo Jima. Helen's younger brother stepped in as Best Man. Her best friend was the Matron of Honor. There were George's parents, proud of their veteran son, Helen's father, and a single white rose standing in for Helen's mother who went to her reward in'39.
Rev. MacDonald recited the words from the book. Helen wished that he could have set aside his taciturn manner. It wasn't the Reverend's way to do that. Probably, they reasoned later, he had performed the ceremony for so many returning servicemen and their brides it was hard to get excited about it any more. Nevertheless, Rev. MacDonald had baptized her and laid her mother to rest. She wouldn't be married by anyone else.
Helen's father sprang for an after-wedding dinner at the Davenport Hotel. George's father loaned him his car for their honeymoon trip to Chicago. George and Helen were bursting to talk about their plans and their trip to Chicago. The fathers talked shop across the table, about farm implements, price supports and Truman. It was aggravating, but they were the patriarchs.
They stayed in the Hotel that night and started out on the road the morning after their wedding. It would be Helen's first visit to a city bigger than Des Moines. It was all so daunting. It became their first adventure. And, of course, there was their first night.
The plane rumbled on, putting miles between them and their home each minute.
"Helen," George asked without warning, "do I talk 'shop' very often when no one else is interested?'
A startled look etched on Helen's face. "No, George, not very often." she fibbed. "Just every Sunday at dinner when the boys come over." she added silently.
The 747 soldiered on. They felt it turn and Helen looked out her window at the Texas coastline below fading away. There was another two hours left in their trip. The stewardess was bringing dinner.
"Davy and Jim better get that bid for the Ames Connector job ready this week," George said out of the blue, between mouthfuls of dinner roll.
"They'll do just fine. Stop worrying," Helen gave her predictable reply.
It was hard to not worry about something that had been George's job to worry about for twenty-eight years. A few years after they were married he founded the road building company that bore his name. It was a risky move. Recession fears were in the air and inflation was out of control. George was long on experience and know-how and short on strategic contacts. His company survived by accepting subcontracts from larger firms. Helen was expecting for the first time. She never wavered or showed her fears. George and Helen sunk what little they had in the venture. George's and Helen's fathers put money in. too. George still had his confidence from his Navy service. "Building roads was just like the airstrips in the Pacific, except longer and easier," he would often say. Usually, Helen believed. Other times she wondered if he was whistling in the dark.
Helen, pregnant with George, Jr., kept the books while he supervised the jobs. It was hard work and success was often in doubt. The big break came when the government built the Interstate System. There was work for all. By the time the building boom was over, George's company was the best in the state and won contracts with ease. He repaid his parents and father-in-law. He intended to repay them with interest, but they refused all but the original amount.
His sons were in the business. Jim, twenty-seven, had just taken charge of Engineering. Davy was two years younger. He backed up Lloyd Kingsley, the company Controller. The younger son was still young and needed experience. He would take over that job when his mentor retired in a few years. Davy did a lot of estimating of the jobs with his brother. George supervised the jobs and kept an eye on the two young tigers. He would pass the Company on to them one day, but he wasn't ready yet, nor were they. Construction season was still a month away. It was one reason they chose the month of March for this vacation, even though their true anniversary was in July.
"It's a straight-forward job to estimate." George asserted. "I can always fix it up when we get back, if I have to."
"They'll do fine," Helen repeated. "If they don't, Lloyd will get them back on track."
George knew that Helen was right, but he considered it his privilege to fret over the Company whether it needed it or not. He decided that he had given the concern its due. He stopped worrying about it—until later.
"Did you buy a new bikini for the beach?" George asked her as a friendly joke. He knew that she would never appear in public wearing any such thing. Helen retained a good figure from her younger years, but her reticence wasn't about looking good enough.
"I did buy two new bathing suits," she answered, sensing his ribbing, "but not those European Style suits." She assured him
"Why not?" George countered. "I'd bet that you'd look good in one!"
"Oh be quiet!" she scolded in mocked irritation. "I'm too old for such things and you're just teasing me." Secretly, she loved hearing him say it.
"You're not too old." George insisted, but received no answer in return. "I wouldn't mind seeing you in one," he asserted, pressing harder for a response.
"Ohhh, I knew that I shouldn't have fallen asleep on you last night! Now you'll be impossible." It was the answer George was hoping for.
Their banter about the bathing suits took George back to 1946. They were driving home from their honeymoon in Chicago. They bought some sandwiches and lemonade for lunch at a little diner in a small Illinois town.
"There's a nice place for a picnic a few miles out on Route 34," the waitress told them. "It's right on your way. You just have to be sure to find the cutoff road."
They decided to have the sandwiches wrapped to go. The waitress smiled after them as they headed for the car. They found the dirt road with ease and spotted a grove of trees in the distance where the creek cut through the prairie.
Once, it might have been a nice picnic area, but it hadn't been used or attended to for years. The tall grass had overgrown the several old tables. At first they were going to just sit in the car and eat, but the creek running through the glade looked so inviting. They decided to mat down some of the grass and make a place for themselves beside the creek.
The sandwiches went down fast, but they decided to spend some extra time in the relaxing place. They discussed their impending move to Des Moines where George had a job in the State Highway Department waiting. Helen would seek a job in the Public Library until they had their family started. George mentioned that he thought that he could start his own company one day. Helen shrugged and said 'maybe'. George asked if they could name their first 'George, Jr.'
"What if it's a girl?" Helen protested. George was stunned at the suggestion. He hadn't thought of it as a possibility.
The midday sun was hot. It was almost time to get back on the road. The creek beside them slowed in the flat countryside and pooled to a slow-draining pond under the trees.
"Great spot!" George thought out loud. Helen nodded in agreement.
"I'll bet that water's nice and cool," he hinted.
"It probably is," Helen agreed, unsuspecting.
"Let's go for a swim." George suggested.
"It would be nice, George, but our suits are packed and..." She spied his evil grin and slowly discerned the meaning. "No—not a chance!" she declared, incredulous and on defense, but George had already stripped off his shirt.
"C'mon!" he urged "No one has been here in years." He was at her, unbuttoning her cotton dress. She raised her arms to her chest to stop him, but he had his hands under the skirt, stroking the flesh of her thighs.
"Stop, George!" she whimpered, but the seeds of excitement were already sewn and he detected the hint of a naughty laugh. She protested to the end, but somehow their clothing lay in a heap in the grass as they waded out into the pond.
He had seen her nude many times during their honeymoon, but always in the safe space of their hotel room. It was different out in nature, in the sunlight. To him, she was even firmer and more beautiful than before. They took temporary ownership of the deserted pond, like Adam and Eve. The sun kissed her skin. Once nude, she lost her shyness. She was risking with him; unashamed to be naked with him; relishing his desire for her. She would give it all to him.
They made love in the grass after cooling themselves in the water. They lay there nude, unafraid.
He was lying on his back. She came along side and hovered over him, propped on her elbow.
"I think I might have just become pregnant," she told him, finishing her rhythm-method calculations. She waited for his response.
"I hope that you are," he answered immediately and then kissed her.
She was mistaken; she wouldn't conceive for over a year. It didn't matter. What took place at that little pond in the countryside in Illinois answered many questions.
"I wonder if that grove of trees with the creek and pond are still there." George wondered to himself.
They finished their dinners and were having coffee. They would be landing in forty-five minutes. Helen fumbled through her purse checking for passports and hotel information. In a way, she was still keeping the books. It was the third time she had checked them. It was her first trip outside of the United States.
Katherine did a nice job arranging the reception, didn't she?" George changed the subject to take Helen's mind off her worries.
"Yes, especially doing it long-distance from Ames." she answered.
Katherine was their youngest, now twenty-three and an Assistant Librarian on the Iowa State campus. As her brothers had followed their father into the road construction business, she had emulated her mother in studying Library Science in college. She looked more like her father than her mother, tall and slender.
She married soon after college graduation. Her groom was a grad student in Agriculture. Her parents urged her to wait; she wouldn't. In the end George and Helen accepted her marriage and her husband. It all seemed to be working out.
Katherine had been a 'Daddy's Girl' until she went off to college. After that, she and her mother became closer. She used up her vacation to arrange all the details of the big day. Davy and Jim had larger salaries and paid for it. Katherine could only contribute hard work. She had done well.
"Everything went off perfectly," George attested.
"It would have been completely perfect if George, Jr. had been there," Helen sighed.
George, Jr. was the couple's first born and lived three years. Meningitis took him. The lost child was never far from their thoughts. It was a bitter blow that many families faced. The toddler died as Helen was expecting Katherine and caring for Davy and Jim. The grieving parents buttressed one another in sorrow. George's parents helped. The shared suffering made Helen and George's mother very close. The death hit Helen hardest because she was quarantined from the sick child because of her condition. The boy died one night in the hospital in George's arms. It was impossible to go through a Christmas or major family event without evoking Helen's recollections.
"If he could be here he would tell us not to be sad—life goes on," George reminded her.
"I know, George. I don't think that I will ever get completely over it," she admitted.
"I don't expect you to," George soothed. "I won't either. Everything in its place" He took her hand in his own.
George was actually glad that the subject had come up. He knew that it would sooner or later—better sooner. He didn't try to talk to her more. She needed some time to silently sort her way through it once again. He picked up a magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and started to thumb through it. She would come around soon enough after she dealt with her feelings.
The plane started its descent. The stewardess started stowing things away and picking up cups. The seatbelt sign lit. They were almost there. The captain announced their imminent arrival in Cancun. It had been a long trip; it was almost over.