By Clara Blair
“I’m more worried about those journals and papers,” Emma replied. “If anyone asks about the ring…”
“Anyone asks about the ring, I’ll just say I ordered it from one of those TV shopping channels – or got lucky at an online auction. Or just be coy and mysterious.”
Jim grinned. “You’ve never been the mysterious type, Emma. But I guess if you did start collecting jewelry, you’d go for something out of the ordinary, like this.”
“It’s just a ring,” she said. “Those journals and all those papers – those are mysterious.”
Especially one, she thought. A birth certificate. She thought at first it might be in Latin, but the word Vilnius stood out. That was the capital of Lithuania and sent her to her parents’ shelves of dictionaries. It was a birth certificate, for one Emeraude-Marie Tatiana von Willensky, born to Amanda and Robert Josef von Willensky on 16/05/84, her birthday. Her birth certificate. Emeraude-Marie Tatiana von Willensky? This carried a lot more baggage than Emma Marie Walters was used to.
But she wasn’t ready to share this with Jim just yet. She felt that it was a mystery her parents had intended her to solve by herself. She must read the old journal first. It must hold the key to all the rest. She was good with puzzles, she had a gift for languages, and she loved stories. This was part of her own story, she knew.
Emma placed the little box – now empty – back into the old envelope along with the journals and the stack of papers.
“I’ve got to get a bigger envelope, Uncle Jim. I’m going to take this stuff to Lawrence with me,” she said. “All those years of studying French are going to come in handy. I may minor in German. As for the Russian, who knows? KU is a big school.”
Jim shook his head and smiled. “Keep in touch, Emma. Trish will be in Wichita and I’ll keep an eye on things here. Your home will be here for you as long as you want it. Your folks left enough in trust for anything reasonable. Send me the bills and let me know how you’re doing.
“Hell of a lot of changes all at once for anybody, and you’re just eighteen. If you need me for anything, you know how to reach me. I’m glad there’s e-mail. Remember you have lots of friends here, people who watched you grow up….”
Emma walked him to the door, kissed him on the cheek and watched him drive away. There was a lot to be done in the next two weeks before she left for the University of Kansas and began a new chapter in her life. She had always thought she would be sharing this experience with her parents. Now, as Uncle Jim had noted, a hell of a lot had changed.
Too tired to be excited, she gazed wearily out the window until she saw the KU bell tower rising above the trees on the hill. She remembered how lovely the campus was and again felt eager to get there. She also felt a pang of loneliness and wished she could say, “Look, Mom, Dad, there it is!” But there were only strangers on the bus.
Finally in Lawrence, Emma took a cab to the boarding house where she and her parents had reserved a room the summer before. The old white clapboard house looked welcoming under the canopy of elms – survivors of the terrible blight that had decimated the majestic trees several decades earlier – and the landlady, wearing a calico apron over blue jeans, showed her to her room and assured her there was time for a nap before dinner.
It was almost 9 a.m. when she found Julie, the landlady, in the kitchen.
“Sorry I overslept,” Emma said. “Any chance of some late breakfast?”
“No problem,” Julie replied. “I just put on a fresh pot of coffee, there’s juice in the fridge, and I’ll be glad to whip up an omelet we can share.”
While Julie worked, Emma noticed that she was much younger than she’d expected. Julie didn’t look more than twenty-five, at most, and moved quickly and gracefully around the large kitchen. She was slender under her calico apron, and about Emma’s height – five three perhaps. She had sandy hair pulled back in a ponytail, and friendly blue eyes. She wore no makeup and had just a hint of freckles over her short, straight nose. She reminded Emma of Trish.
“So, what are you planning to study at KU?” Julie asked as she placed a plate of eggs and toast in front of Emma and sat down to join her.
“I’m going to major in French, and perhaps minor in German,” Emma replied between bites. “My folks were language professors at Fahs College in Iowa, and just living with them was a pretty broad liberal education. I’m looking forward to being part of a big university, where everyone doesn’t know my parents. These eggs are great!”
“I majored in English here, then dropped out of grad school to get my ‘Mrs.’ degree,” Julie said, a little subdued. “I think about going back someday to finish, but I’m not sure I ever will. My husband was in the reserves and died in one of those ‘training accidents.’ The whole grad school thing is too full of him.”
“God, that’s awful,” Emma blurted out through her eggs and toast. “I mean, I’m really sorry. Both my parents were killed in a plane crash this summer and I don’t think that it’s really sunk in yet. I’ve never been in a serious relationship, but this must have been terrible for you. Why do you stay here?”
“This is home,” Julie answered. “I grew up here and inherited this big old house. It’s been good therapy to turn it into a self-supporting business. I’m not pining, really – I’m readjusting in a familiar environment with simple day-to-day demands. Physical work keeps me from brooding, and I enjoy the company of the people who pass through here. If I do go back to the U, I’ll probably pursue a degree in Sociology or Counseling. Meanwhile, there’s my B, B & SH.”
“B, B & SH?” Emma inquired, spreading some preserves on her toast.
“Be careful, that’s made with local persimmons,” Julie cautioned her. “They can be a bit puckery – not everyone likes them. Bed, Breakfast and Study Hall. I’ll be glad to make you some more toast if you don’t like the ’simmons.”
“Oh, the preserves are fine. It must have taken a lot of sugar to make them set up. You should try the durian fruit candy an exchange student gave my parents one Chinese New Year! Talk about an acquired taste – even my dad couldn’t get that down….” Emma began to cough and cry at the same time.
The young women were both quiet for a while. “Damn,” said Julie softly. “Have you had any grief counseling, if you don’t mind my asking? I’m still going to weekly support meetings – sort of AA for people who’ve had loved ones die on them. You could come with me. There’s no paperwork, no big deal.”
“You know, that may be a good idea,” Emma sniffled. “Thanks, Julie. As soon as I get my class schedule settled, I’d like to go to a meeting with you.”
“We meet on Wednesday evenings at the Unitarian church,” Julie added.
“That was my next question,” Emma said. “And I got a twofer – I was raised Unitarian and want to check out the local congregation.”
“I didn’t know anyone was ever born into that denomination – all the folks I’ve met there had wandered in from other churches, like I did. I don’t go to regular services very often – they’re not like anything I grew up with. But the people are a fascinating and diverse lot. Somebody’s always finding something to argue about….” Julie blushed. “Sorry. Really, I mean….”
“You’re right, though,” Emma laughed. “Arguing, discussing, pushing our own envelopes and each other’s buttons – that’s how we are. Sometimes I’ve felt as if I’d materialized at some kind of Quaker dinner theater, but it’s a good way for lots of people. It’s a good way for me. Lots of questions and no easy answers – guaranteed.”