The Tennyson twins, Flora Mae and Mary Beth, have always had a reputation for being eccentric.
They’re not in Carding very often so the greater Tennyson family was surprised when the sisters showed up for Thanksgiving with a peacock in the back seat of their van.
Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont.
Details about the novels are at the end of this story. And may I encourage you to subscribe to my website so you won’t miss out on anything Carding.
Later on, when they had a chance to talk about their “Tennyson mission,” Ruth Goodwin and Edie Wolfe agreed that the word “stunned” was the best way to describe the sensation they shared when they walked through the front door of the old Victorian house that Flora Mae and Mary Beth had called home for so many years.
“I don’t think they unpacked from any of their trips,” Ruth said. “They just dumped their suitcases on the floor, bought new ones, and went off to visit some place else.”
Edie agreed. “I wonder if they even know what they’ve got.”
Edie and Ruth had been friends for long enough to understand that each of them approached the issue of organization from very different perspectives. For Edie, clutter was a form of static, a jumble of harsh noises that was both aggravating and tiresome. While not strict about it, she was someone who was more comfortable when everything was in its place.
Ruth, on the other hand, could never find anything if she put it away. Her whole house was a series of piles of stuff.
“We just need different atmospheres in order to create,” Ruth once told her exasperated friend.
“But you say yourself that you waste a lot of time looking for your tools or the right fabric or stamps for your envelopes,” Edie pointed out.
“Ah, yes, but I always find something interesting while I’m looking for something else,” Ruth said.
So you can understand how each woman reacted to the lawlessness apparent in room after room of the rambling old Tennyson house. Ruth’s eyes widened with the thrill of discoveries yet-to-come while Edie wondered how to find the refrigerator in order to determine whether Flora Mae had food in the house.
Speaking of Flora Mae, she was no help at all. After she opened the front door, she simply slumped into a large chair, lapsing into immobility.
“Mary Beth is going to be so angry with me,” she mumbled. “But what was I supposed to do?”
Edie discovered a stool under a mound of colorful shawls, liberated it, and pulled it close to Flora Mae so that they’d be at eye level. “What happened to Mary Beth?” Edie asked.
Flora Mae pointed to the floor near her feet. “She fell down, right there, and I thought she’d stopped breathing. I tried to revive her just like I’ve done in the past but it didn’t work. All I could think to do was call the fire department.” When she looked up at Edie, Flora Mae’s face was wet with tears. “That’s what we did when father fell for the last time. We called the fire department.”
The bereft twin sister looked around the room, her long thin fingers weaving in and around one another. “Mary Beth always said we should not have called the fire department because they took father away and we never saw him again. Is that what’s going to happen to her? I’ll never see her again?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Edie saw Ruth pull out her phone and walk into the next room, closing the door behind her. “We’re going to find out for you, Flora Mae,” she said as she wrapped her hands around the other woman’s fingers. They were very cold.
“In the meantime, we need to get you warmed up.” Edie reached for one of the shawls. It was beautifully made of soft wool and she guessed it was alpaca.
“Oh, isn’t this a pretty one,” Flora Mae said as Edie swaddled her in the colorful wrap. “We found this in a market in Peru.”
Edie picked up another shawl to spread over the other woman’s legs.
“And this one came from the Shetland Islands,” Flora Mae said as she stroked its subtle gray and silver pattern.
“I’ve never been to the Shetlands,” Edie said. “What did you think of them?” Just then, Ruth returned, and Edie looked up with a question in her eyes. Ruth’s small shake of the head was answer enough.
“Flora Mae, have you had anything to eat this morning?” she asked.
“Eat? No, no, Mary Beth told me there was no more money for food,” Flora Mae said. “I’ve been trying to take care of her, you see.” She gazed around the room. “I was lucky to get her home.”
Ruth came up to stand beside Flora Mae, resting her hand lightly on the woman’s shoulder. “I have my car outside and I know that Edie just baked cookies. Why don’t I go get them and we’ll make tea.”
Flora Mae raised her head and smiled. “Edie lives just down the street, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she does.” Ruth picked up her keys. “I’ll call Lee,” she whispered to Edie as she headed toward the door.
As Ruth headed for her yellow Jeep, Flora Mae suddenly turned to look at Edie with a surprisingly focused gaze. “Who said, ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in?’”
“Robert Frost,” Edie said softly.
“Yes, yes, it must be. I always liked him. That’s why I wanted to come back to Carding. It’s always been my home.”
It didn’t take long for Lee Tennyson and his wife Christine to show up. Flora Mae was delighted to see them. They had already called the hospital to learn that Mary Beth had died on her way there, and reluctantly told her twin sister.
But Flora Mae seemed resigned and accepting. “Mary Beth knew it was her time. She’d run as fast and as far as she could,” she told Lee.
“What do you mean by ‘run?’” Lee asked. “Had Mary Beth broken some sort of law? Were you in trouble?”
“Oh no, no, nothing like that,” Flora Mae said as she settled into a chair closer to the front window of the old Victorian so she could watch her relatives arrive. “We never got into any real trouble.”
Lee felt a hand on his shoulder just then and knew his younger sister Elaine had arrived. “What is it you’re trying to tell us about Mary Beth?” she asked as she crouched down by Flora Mae’s chair.
“Well, she was different, you know. When we were little, she couldn’t read like the other children in school and she didn’t see the world the way you and I do. I had to protect her, you see, so that no one would put her away, cage her up. Mary Beth was always scared of being shut up,” Flora Mae said. She smiled as Christine handed her a sandwich.
“Did Mary Beth see things that weren’t there at all?” Christine asked.
“Oh no, I don’t think my sister had the imagination to see things that weren’t there. She tried to explain it to me once. She said it was like seeing the world with all its colors turned up as high as they could go. That’s why she liked peacocks so much. The colors of their feathers are turned up as high as they can go,” Flora Mae said.
She looked down at her now-empty plate. More members of the Tennyson family swirled around her now, pacing slowly through the rooms of the old Victorian house, alternately awed and discouraged by its condition.
“Could I have another sandwich please?” Flora Mae asked. “This time with mustard. Mary Beth didn’t like mustard but I love it.”
“I’ll get it for you,” Elaine said as she picked up her aunt’s plate. “Do you think you could help me, Christine?”
In the kitchen, the Tennyson cousins and assorted spouses closed in around Christine.
“You’re a nurse, Chris, what do you think is going on?” Elaine asked.
“I don’t know for sure but I think it’s safe to say that Mary Beth had an undiagnosed form of dyslexia. That would explain her difficulty reading,” Christine said. “As for the visual distortions, she may have had a slow-growing tumor that pressed on a nerve or there may have been a form of macular degeneration. There’s simply no way of knowing for sure.”
The gathered Tennyson cousins shook their heads in unison. “I get the impression that Aunt Flo spent her whole life protecting her sister,” Elaine said as she slathered a slice of bread with mustard.
“And she almost died because of it,” Christine said. “I don’t think she’s stopped eating since Ruth and Edie got here this morning.”
“The question is, what do we do now?” one of the other cousins asked.
Elaine stopped moving, her butter knife poised over the table as she looked from one familiar face to another. “We’re Tennysons, a practical people as my father used to say. So why don’t we start with what we know we can do? I’ve been prowling around the house since I got here, and unless I’ve missed something major, it’s still very sound. It needs a good deep cleaning and a lot of paint but it’s not falling apart.”
“Well, it was built by a Tennyson,” Christine said. “You folks always build to last.”
Elaine clapped her hands. “Okay, who wants to go to Coopers store? We need paper towels and dust rags and buckets and probably some totes…” The cousin brigade began to troupe out the back door.
As they watched them go, Elaine turned to his favorite sister-in-law. “So Chris, what do you think about having Thanksgiving dinner here? Maybe by then, we’ll have figured out what needs to happen next for Aunt Flo. She shouldn’t have to sacrifice any more of her life.”
Christine picked up the sandwich, and added a pickle. “That sounds just about right to me.”
You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, has just been published! You can find them all on Amazon or you can order them through your local independent book store.
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