Sunday, September 17, 2006

Mrs. P, Not Paula - McAryeh

Editor's Note: McAryeh gives us our latest addition to Storytellers - and it is quite a new, and most welcome, addition to our armory.

Once again -- if your name is Jameel or Bellany, get cracking on the stories you owe me. Furthermore, we are now open to new bloggers who want to giving telling a story a crack and we are also asking for seconds from our previous contributors. On with the show:

Mrs. P. Langstrom was nothing if not orderly, so her current agitation was especially troubling. Her clothes - a pale blue dress and scarf, low-heeled pumps - were laid out neatly on the chair by her bed, with a note instructing Gabriel, her oldest, that this was the outfit she was to be dressed in tomorrow morning. She had briefly considered wearing the clothes to bed, to avoid the entire issue of someone having to dress her, but decided against it when she thought they might have to remove the clothes to iron them. That would hardly be dignified.

At 82, she walked with a cane, and had a hip replaced a year prior, but was otherwise as sharp and healthy as could be expected of a woman her age. She had outlived two husbands and a child, saw her other 2 children – a son and a daughter – marry and have children of their own, retired with full tenure as a professor of literature and letters at the University of Illinois at Champlain, and volunteered in her 70s with underprivileged youth in Chicago. A full life, she thought. Some of the others had not even reached half her age.

Sitting at her writing desk, she once again flipped through her papers, licking her fingers to wet them as she turned the pages. So much paper in a lifetime. She traced the name she had signed so many times over the past 55 years…Mrs. P. Langstrom. Never Paula, always P. Paula was a stationary name, a variation on Paul. P., on the other hand, could be anything; it was ripe with mystery and possibility. She gave no thought to what name would be on her tombstone. It would be P. Just a given. Had she remembered to tell Gabriel? Wouldn't he already know? Leaning on the desk for support as she rose, Mrs. P. Langstrom retrieved her cane from the back of her chair, and made her way to the chair by the bed. In her clear, looped writing, she added a coda to her note to Gabriel, "P. on stone, not Paula, please." Gabriel did not need more. He was sensible like that, very matter-of-fact.

It was Gabriel's daughter, Sue, who was her favorite grandchild, and the source of her current agitation. She knew that grandmothers were not supposed to have favorites, at least outwardly, but she did, and she expected everyone knew it, too. That could not be helped. The girl was everything Mrs. P. Langstrom could not be, would have been had times been different. Bold and free-spirited, a sparkplug of a girl. She was now 16, and the freedom of that age was embodied in the mound of random curls going every which way on top of her head.

But the agitation! Mrs. P. Langstrom had a card she needed to fill out for Sue before the morning, a date to commit to paper for her granddaughter's viewing only, but the date was not coming to her. The entire family knew of the card. It had been tradition in the Higgins family for generations. Each grandmother would write a date on a card for her eldest granddaughter, seal it, and leave it for her to open. They all knew of the card, but only Sue would read it and hold it, until it was her turn to do the same for her own first granddaughter.

Mrs. P. Langstrom let out a sigh as her hip gave her momentary pain. She ambled back to her writing desk and took out a stack of cards in envelopes from the top right drawer. Tied with twine, they were of varying colors, shapes, sizes and stages of decay, but all were addressed to first-born Higgins granddaughters from Higgins grandmothers. At the top of the pile was the card Mrs. P. Langstrom's own grandmother had prepared for her. In very straight penmanship, her grandmother had written: "for Paula, my heart" on the outside of the envelope. Mrs. P. Langstrom had put a faint line through the "aula" at some point in her young adulthood, and so though "Paula" was still visible, a discerning eye would see that it now read "for P, my heart". Inside, on the card, it read simply September 18, 2006. Mrs. P. Langstrom had seen the card many times over the years since it was first written on January 17, 1954. Sometimes she would trace the lines of her grandmother's handwriting, imagining her sitting in her favorite seat in her kitchen, near the bay window, as she wrote the date. Sometimes she would go for months or even years without looking at the card, but it was always there in the back of her mind.

Mrs. P. Langstrom reached into the top right drawer again and took out the card and envelope she had bought in Wickson's card store the week before. It was a simple card, plain white with a subtle border of interlocking squares. She had already addressed the envelope, "Sue, fire and spirit", but the card remained blank. She stared hard at it, bent the corners a bit, then bent them back, hoping a date would come to her. She closed her eyes, breathed in deeply, thought of her grandmother, imagined her writing at the bay window; thought of her daughter, dead now for two years, as she wrote a date for a granddaughter she would never know; thought of her granddaughter, running through a field of wheat as a child, mop of curls the only thing visible over the high stalks. There was nothing, though. No inkling of a date.

A quick glance at the clock, and Mrs. P. Langstrom knew she must retire to bed. She had already received visits and calls from family and close friends, tidied her papers, prepared her clothes, and she was tired. Just this one thing left to do. Perhaps, she thought, it will come in a dream. She brought the card and envelope to the night table by her bed.


It was an unusually warm September evening, but as usual she was cold. She pulled a thick comforter over her nightgown, and set her head in the indentation on her pillow. As she settled in to sleep, she began to recall the other grandmothers. Her great-grandmother, Betty, who had died when Mrs. P. Langstrom was only a child, was but a wisp of a memory – a woman with long gray hair, braided and pinned to her head in a bun. Sarah, her grandmother, was a tall woman with busy hands, always baking, mending, washing. The night of January 16th, 1954, however, her grandmother had seemed especially small and still. She imagined her again at the bay window, and wondered if it had been hard for her to write the date on the card. Mrs. P. Langstrom had never thought to ask. Mrs. P. Langstrom's mother had died very young, and she remembered her only as a shadow over her bed. When her own daughter, Evelyn, wrote her card, she reported that it came surprisingly quickly. Mrs. P. Langstrom didn't like to think of Evelyn. When she thought of Evelyn, she always started to question.

And now, Sue. Once Sue turned 11, the family had begun to tell her about the card and the date. Of course, the girl had cried at first, as they all had. But as with all things you are told over and again, with time, it soon becomes accepted. Mrs. P. Langstrom had been 30 when Sarah died, and was well prepared for receiving her envelope. Still, it came as a shock when she first saw it, first opened the card, and saw her date in indelible ink. Sue was only 16, of course. She wondered if that were better somehow. She hoped it wouldn't change her carefree spirit.

She tried again to concentrate, quiet her mind of all thoughts, wait for a date to come to her mind. When still there was nothing, she began to have other thoughts, frightening thoughts, rebellious thoughts. What if she picked the wrong date? What if she chose not to write down a date at all? What if she stopped the tradition right here and now?

And then in an instant, it came to her. Without thinking, she reached for the pen, and with a mad flourish, condemned her granddaughter to the date she would die.


Blogger Sara said...

Wow-- well done. The suspense was great, and as I got toward the end I began to worry that you would leave us hanging. Even then, I didn't expect that shock at the last moment.


7:18 AM  
Blogger Scraps said...

Oh my goodness, this story's ending came as a total shock. Gave me a serious case of the chills. It reminds me a little bit of "The Lottery".

I'll echo Sara's "well done".

7:56 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

Great little story (though I have to say I did see it coming). No fault of the writer though, it's just that we MC and I seem to think similarly.

Sara and Scraps, funny that you are bith here. I wil be looking for the 2 of you to write more stories.

9:36 AM  
Blogger SS said...

I also saw it coming. But, I also still think that we were left hanging. What did she really write on the paper? Did she perhaps leave a PS on the outside saying not to open it? I had hoped that she was going to stop the tradition then and there, but I guess there is only so much that can be expected...

3:33 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

In some aspects, this story shares a certain feel with Ayala's Wave Dancer, found below. If you liked this one, you might like that one as well.

8:39 AM  
Blogger SS said...

True, I hadn't thought of that.

10:45 AM  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

Sara - Thanks. This is my first time writing this kind of story and in this format. Glad it worked for you!

Scraps - Funny, I had in mind to write a story in the vein of "The Lottery" and "A Rose For Emily." Thanks for the kind words.

Elster - Great minds think alike. So do not so great minds, I imagine, but let's go with the former...

ss- Hmmm...what do you think I could have done differently to provide the buildup while still leaving the end as a shock? Thanks for the comment.

11:27 PM  
Blogger SS said...

As I said, I saw the end coming, so for me, the shock wasn't such a shock. It was a great story, though... Maybe you could have ended it, "with a mad flourish, she tore up the card and decided not to condemn her granddaughter to her date of death." Or something...

12:20 PM  
Blogger ~ Sarah ~ said...

shivers.... good story.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Elster said...

ss - the point is, she could no more break the chain by tearng up the envelope than you can hold ur breath until you die. Somethings just cannot be changed no mater how much we want to change them.

1:42 PM  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

ss- Thanks for your comments, but I don't think that would have worked. I will try to think of how I could make it more surprising while remaining true to the story. Still open to other suggestions...

Sarah- Thanks!

Elster - I agree completely. I think it would not have rang true had she decided not to write down the date. Even for those who did see it coming, I think it would have been a letdown not to end it that way.

11:02 PM  
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