Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins resided on Lincoln Street at the corner of State Street in Savannah, Georgia. There she had a cozy little brick apartment that the tourists found attractive in the summer months with the thick vines and other foliage that covered the exterior wildly. It was one of many homes that the horse-drawn carriages passed by daily with the camera-toting sightseers.
The red bricks from the civil war and the trees from the days of early slavery paled in comparison to the lady that lived in the second apartment on the corner of Lincoln and State. And although the tourist made their rounds daily noticing the historical points of interest my treasure was inside the apartment.
Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins was eighty-three years old when last I saw her, and she was as beautiful then as she remains in my memory today. I have carried her in my heart from the first day I met her.
The day we met…
It was during my time in college that I saw her first. She waved me down as I road my bike from my dorm on Lincoln Street to my first class of the day. I thought at first, she was hurt or maybe needed help getting a cat down from a tree. She just started talking, just started conversing about her day’s activities. I hadn’t the heart to tell her I didn’t know her and that she had mistaken me for someone else. She was clearly convinced that she knew me.
I talked with her almost daily from the fall of 1987 until I graduated. I was habitually late for class from stopping and enjoying my daily fellowship with her. She was continually impressed at the little things in her world. Like the number of cars that passed by her apartment or why the kids today had blue hair and grumpy attitudes. And there was once that she mentioned how bicycles had changed from when she was a child to now. She seemed to have a fascination with bicycles as I would later find out why.
She would make mention of my bicycle constantly and she talked about her first two-wheeler. Her eyes grew large and her hands became overly active as if she were touching its frame in front of her. She described it so perfectly, orange with white stripes and a wicker basket on the front. A thick shiny metal frame, both sturdy and heavy. The seat was crafted of Italian leather and it was large with heavy support springs underneath, and shiny brass rivets around the edge. She recalled thoroughly how she rode with her brother and her sister through the local park on Saturday afternoons. She would stop and smile, her eyes drifting to another place and another time. The wrinkles on her face became dancing men as she became excited from days gone by. It was obvious that she came from a wealthy family; she was well versed and spoke of experiences that only money would allow her to experience. It wasn’t every teenage girl that had a fancy bicycle to ride jovially through the park in the 1940s, no, she was truly special.
The present-day city of Savannah, Georgia was easily navigated with the use of a modern-day mountain bike and I took full advantage of this daily. I saved on gas by riding my bike everywhere. Being a college student, every dime was important to me. I saved my change and cashed it in at the local grocery store money machine. It was a fair exchange rate and I used the cash for groceries or textbooks. I could have rolled my change and taken it to the bank, but that took away from my time and I was very dedicated to my studies.
The quickest route anywhere for me was always down Lincoln Street, directly beside Mrs. Jenkins apartment. She seemed to know I was coming, and she always made a point to be somewhere in the area of her apartment. The strangest thing about her was that she always called me Jack, I could never understand why. My name isn’t Jack its James and no matter how much I corrected her she always called me Jack. After a while I gave up and just became Jack, at least it started with the same two letters.
“Jack, last night those damn dogs were out back again, and they were chasing some damn cat. I couldn’t sleep at all; I’m going to need to take two naps this afternoon to get caught up on my sleep.” She said with a pointing finger fully energized in my direction.
She then directed my attention to the narrow alley behind her apartment. The alleyways in Savannah were narrow one and a half car roads that sometimes-held trashcans or dumpsters and rear entrances to homes or business’ as well as restrooms for drunken college students.
She was regularly engaged in her morning ritual of sweeping off any debris from her front steps and sidewalk as I made my way to my first class of the day. She usually swept the leaves and paper over to her neighbor’s side with no concern for their entrance’s appearance. As I approached, she waved and started in on her conversation without any greeting or acknowledgement that our previous days conversation had ever even ended.
“Now Jack last night there were some of your friends out front drinking and being vulgar. I will not tolerate that. You need to talk to them! In my day you didn’t stand out front carrying on at the wee hours of the morning unless a neighbor’s house was on fire or some atrocious crime had occurred that couldn’t wait for the morning to come.” Her every sentence ending in the stomp of her broom against the ancient brick sidewalk.
“Yes mam, I am so sorry. I will do all I can to find out who it was and make sure that they apologize.” I was trying to ease her mind, but she saw through this easily.
According to Mrs. Jenkins every young person in Savannah was my friend or so she thought. In truth I knew very few students at the college. I was very busy with my studies in art history and literature as well as my part time job at a bar on River Street. Mrs. Jenkins reminded me of my own grandmother back home and I opened myself to her easily. I felt a connection to her, so I tolerated the yelling and occasional scolding. I was entertained by her outlandish theories on the nightly activities and the seedy history of Savannah. She had astounding stories and I longed to spend more time with her, she was far more educational than my history professor. But the way she drifted in and out of her stories, I knew that she probably was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and that she lived in another frame of mind at times. But then again with Mrs. Jenkins, she may have just been more eccentric than other people I had met.
Now as for Mrs. Jenkins appearance, she was a quaint 4’10” and had salt and pepper colored hair that dared not go past her collar least it be punished. She was fair skinned and as for the wrinkles, let’s just say she held well for a woman of her age. She most often wore little gold glasses that sat on the lower part of her petite nose. She had thick brushy eyebrows that were slightly arched and gave her a look of elegance. She was the perfect weight for her height, I never saw her as overweight or underweight. She had a decent figure for her age, and she walked every day. One of the distinctive things about her was the way she spoke. She had a slight Irish accent that came out when she got excited, but it was mostly southern and very lazy. She took her time telling you what she wanted to say. If you were in a hurry, go on! She would see you later. It was a very proper tone of speech, and I told her once that if I were to pick anyone to read Gone with the Wind on tape, it would be her.
She always wore green, and although I never saw her in anything but slacks and blouses, she was dressed in cultivated clothing that she ordered from the television shopping network. The UPS driver dropped off the boxes regularly. Mrs. Jenkins stayed up late watching the television as she read and ordered clothing from QVC. Out of all the things I remember the most about her appearance was that she carried with her a beautiful cane that she used as a walking aid, although she didn’t physically need it. She claimed that it was for protection against the stray dogs and strange men.
It was a rose wood cane with a silver handle in the shape of a swan’s head. There was never a scratch on it; she cared for it passionately as it was her late husbands. It had been cut down to make it easier for her to lean on.
It was rumored that the piece that was cut off had been burn and the ashes scattered over the grave of Mr. Jenkins. He had been buried at the local cemetery and she visited his grave every Wednesday afternoon.
On Tuesday’s and Thursday’s Mrs. Jenkins invited me to an evening meal. At the first invitation I was reluctant but after a while the meals were something that became very important to each of us.
My first visit was very awkward, but Mrs. Jenkins always treated me like family and her outgoing personality helped make the walls between us disappear.
On my first visit when I arrived at her apartment, I was greeted by the sound of a phonograph recording of Dean Martin being played on a Victrola, Dino’s voice filled the apartment with soft ambiance that flickered the candles on the mantle. The thick smell of hot vegetables and hash lingered around the ivory colored sitting room furnishings. Everything was very proper and elegant. I felt so out of place, but she kept talking, asking me questions about my day. The Victrola gave off a scratchy sound that was so timely. It was like hearing the songs as they were heard before. She kept her record collection neat and in order and her player was clean and dust free. Everything always remained so tidy and in order.
She kept her home presentable with the sofa and chairs placed properly around an antique oak coffee table. Her flooring was a plush carpet of burgundy accent with a hunter green border.
I made my way into the dining area and took note of the paintings and photos on the wall. There were no copies or cheap lithographs, only original works by what appeared to be local artist. The photos were worn and aged black and whites of family’s past.
I stopped and studied the pictures in their gold leaf frames hanging from the wall. Mrs. Jenkins talked about each person in those photos, naming names and guessing dates. She recited these details as if they were memorized for all her company.
“What is that delicious smell? I swear it was calling me from down the road!”
I put my arm around her and walked toward her dining room.
“Why that’s your favorite Jack!”
She looked at me as if we had eaten together a thousand times before.
“Can’t you smell it? Its cabbage and hash with new potatoes and chives.”
“How about the broccoli and cheese casserole you love so much?”
She was getting so excited just describing it to me.
“Did I miss something? Is it my birthday?”
I asked quickly as she slipped into the kitchen.
I made my way around the first floor of the apartment, admiring all the trinkets and collectibles that old women seem to gather throughout the years on their shelves and mantles.
There were two old high-backed chairs in either corner with throws decorating them. On the custom bookshelves were hundreds of aged books, but not an inch of dust on the spines or jackets. I gazed over the titles and found a childhood favorite. Pulling it out I noted that pages had been marked with strips of paper. Opening the book, I saw that it was personalized by the author.
“Thank you for the prayers and flowers during my sickness. You are the sweetest lady I know.” I was impressed by the fact she had a personalized book that nearly every child in America had read in school at one time or another.
I looked at more and more books realizing that the majority were signed by the author and given that personal touch. Elizabeth obviously had many friends in the art world, and Savannah was the place to be with those people if you were going to do such.
The paintings as I said, were all the local surroundings and sites, done by local artist. From our conversations I knew that she was a large supporter of the arts. I knew also that she had been seen at several dinners by a friend of mine who was a busboy at the Hyatt. The dinners were pricey affairs for funding of the arts and from what I heard the plates ranged from $500 to $1000 to get in.
Her walls were covered in the finest wallpapers, very ornate patterns that complimented the furniture that she had collected over her years. I myself have never had an interest in fine furniture, mainly because of my age and generation, happiness to me was a comfy sofa and a coffee table that collected my junk and gave me a place to work on my projects.
Being a full-time student, I rarely had time to watch television and I had yet to see one in Mrs. Jenkins home. I later discovered that she kept a small television in her bedroom for the local news channel and QVC. Her life was centered around her surroundings and her surroundings were her home and its adornments. She didn’t sit around watching television all day like the other women her age, she was very busy, and it showed by her sharpness.
That night we laughed over dinner as she told me of her favorite pet from her teenage years.
“My dog was a pedigree miniature Doberman Pinscher. I had a fit to have a Doberman, but my father felt that they were too viscous for his little angel, so he found a miniature Doberman. My father called them Hell Hounds. He never told me that the poor dear was a miniature, I thought it was sick and that it was not growing like it should. I fed it steaks and rice, that poor dog was so fat.”
I could picture it in my head, it was one of many memories that never left me.
“I had gone to a few social affairs with my parents to very pristine mansions and they always bored me. I would sneak outside and see what I could get into. That’s where I first fell in love with those hellacious dogs. I had gotten around back where the blacks slept, you know the servant’s quarters. There were two of the meanest Dobermans you ever seen chained up to the tree. The started growling and barking at me, but I was not going to be intimidated by those bastards. I started growling and barking back, they just laid down and let me play with them. My daddy came outside and when he tried to pick me up those dogs nearly tore his arm off. He looked at me like I was the devil’s daughter and I had cast a spell over those dogs.”
“The truth was I knew that they were all rough and tough on the outside but inside they were just sweet little puppies who loved to have their backsides rubbed and scratched.”
We laughed at her childhood memories and then we cleaned the dishes and made our way to the den where we played the first game of what would be our weekly game of chess.
Mrs. Jenkins among other things was a damn fine chess player. She had more moves and skill than anyone I had ever played. It was pure genius at times the way she moved on the board.
“Are you sure you never competed on an international chess team, Mrs. Jenkins?”
“Lord no! I can barely remember the moves. Mr. Jenkins and I spent many of our nights playing, and he taught the kids how to play.”
“You execute well, I have yet to play anyone with quite your style or moves.”
“Remind me Jack, where did you learn to play chess?”
“My grandfather had an old board and some hand carved pieces that his grandfather gave him. We played a lot when I was a kid, at first, I just moved the pieces any which way. He was good at teaching me, he took time and showed me the correct move for each piece and one day I was able to hold my own.”
She smiled and looked at me with a loving glance.
“You felt closer to him for that, didn’t you?”
“Yes, he opened up to me when we played and the pieces, they were such a part of the family. I could almost feel my grandfathers, grandfathers playing threw them.”
“This board here is over a hundred years old and the pieces are made of pure jade. It’s worth a great deal of money, but the real value always comes from the time you spend with the people you love. I love you Jack. Thank you for this evening.”
Then she got up and took her coffee cup in the kitchen. We ended the night with a hug, and I was on my way.
I spent many evenings with Mrs. Jenkins, just lounging at her apartment working on school projects. A few of the nights I fell asleep on the couch only to find myself waking to the smells of breakfast cooking. I was always covered in a soft fleece blanket and my shoes had been tucked neatly to the side of the couch with the laces tucked into the shoes. I would make my way to the kitchen where the smells of bacon, eggs, grits and biscuits saturated the air. Mrs. Jenkins had the best coffee, always freshly ground in her quaint kitchen and made strong and dark.
One of my favorite conversations with her was about my career. I was nearing my graduation and had yet to decide on my destination in life, so I went to her for counselling.
“It’s almost time for me to graduate, you know that don’t you?”
“Yes Jack, it’s been on my mind. Are you hitting me up for a present?”
“No mam, I would love some advice though.”
She stopped what she was doing and put her hand on her hip.
“Jack, never limit yourself. If God were to only give you thirty years, make them worth it. You are here to live, not just exist. My friends who are all my age are just hanging around to die, not me. I have traveled, been to Egypt, Africa, and Alaska. I have felt life, not just waking up every day and going to bed every night.”
“So, what should I do? Are you saying I should travel? Should I just stay here and get a job that pays good and see if I can make it until I find a cute girl to marry?”
“Hell, if I know honey, it’s your life. You have got to be happy with yourself Jack.”
And time went by in the Irish City. Seasons changed and the air went from warm to cool, and then from cool to cold. Winters were never bitter in Savannah although being near water during the cold windy months was a different kind of cold.
On occasion we ran in to each other and one evening I recall seeing her exiting the cemetery after visiting the grave of her late husband. This time she must have stayed longer and paid by missing the city bus back to her apartment. I knew she would be forced to wait a half hour or suffer the forty-five-minute walk alone, so I hurried to offer my company.
As I approached her, I must have startled her. She reacted quickly, as did I by meeting the end of her deadly cane landing inches from my face. Drawing back she put her cane at ease and held her chest.
“Jack! My lord you needn’t be sneaking up on an old woman like that.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Jenkins I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I saw you from across the road and thought you might like some company.”
I offered to walk with her, and she accepted like a little girl who had been asked to the royal ball. That late afternoon in the fall I walked her home and shared in but one of many highly memorable conversations.
She told me so much about Savannah and its strange but fascinating history. She recounted tales of neighbors and friends and strangers who passed through her city on the river.
She talked of her life and her times; she remembered every detail. She told me of how her parents came to North America from Ireland with their family.
“My mother was an Irish lady and my father an English lawyer. They married in Ireland at a beautiful Catholic church in County Cork. My father persuaded my mother to come to the States. He was convinced it was the land of opportunity, and he was right. He made a fortune on the stock market and properties down South. He was a very smart man as was my late husband.”
I learned more in our brief walk than in the two years I had lived in the small Georgia town. She was full of intriguing stories and legends of the local homes. She pointed out house after house and told of who had lived where and who had died and who was born in what house.
When I asked about her family, she was hesitant to reply. I wondered if it was that she was embarrassed or mad, but I think it was mostly anger and regret. She carried an enormous amount of baggage with her when it came to her family.
“I have two sons, two daughters and ten grandchildren. They only come to see me when it’s comfortable and convenient for them.” She said bitterly.
“My oldest son lives here in Savannah, William is his name, after his father. He has three children with his wife. Sarah, she drinks too damn much.” She pointed with that energized finger at an invisible point that could only have been the drunken Daughter-in-Law.
“Last time William came to see me was the week past and he could have cared less how I was doing. I asked him to bring me some of the pecan pie from the café on the corner of Bull Street. He took over his Fathers accounting business and he spends his days and nights with the numbers like his father did.”
She stopped for a moment to adjust her necklaces making sure they were all present and accounted for. She wore two gold Catholic saint medals, one of St. Peter and the other of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She also had a beautiful gold crucifix that was larger; it was delicate on the edges and very ornate. Her necklaces were smooth from years of wear.
“In my day I had some numbers, 34–26–34.”
“But my husband didn’t care enough to spend time at home so that’s why three of the four kids never even looked like my late husband. I loved him deeply, but a woman needs some company.”
She talked fast and walked at a heavy pace; I was having trouble keeping up at times.
“Why are you telling me all this, this is fairly personal stuff. Aren’t you concerned that your family might find out about this?”
I offered a soft laugh, but she knew she was making me very uncomfortable talking about her previous sex life. After all she was in her eighties and the last thing, I wanted in my head was images of an eighty-year-old woman being intimate.
To this day I picture Mrs. Jenkins as a wholesome grandmother figure who had a heart of gold, but I knew that she had been young once and I had to accept this.
“You just admitted to me that you committed adultery. You know that I would never judge anyone, but it’s really none of my business.”
I looked her in the eye and let her know that my feelings about her were on the line, it was about her reputation.
“ I really hope that you are just kidding about your kids.”
I was more afraid of hurting her feelings than sounding ungrateful, if that’s even possible.
She was delicate like a flower…
At times Mrs. Jenkins was like a Sherman tank and other times she was as delicate as a flower. If you consider it, I think a lot of elderly women are this way. The years can make them rough and coarse to people around them. They can handle many challenges because of their past years through the depression and wars. Or they can absorb and reflect the caring good nature of people in their lives, Mrs. Jenkins was a combination of both, she could cuss like a sailor or cry like a little girl. I could relate to this bi-polar shift that she gave off. I was a lot like her; therefore, we got along so well. Of course, she would never admit that she had mood shifts, that was something she gave up when she went through the change, as she called it.
After saying what I said about the adultery issue she stopped dead in her tracks and grabbed my arm. She looked me straight in the eyes and glared with a look that told me to put it all aside, listen and learn.
“Jack, you buffoon, don’t you see that an affair isn’t worth having if you can’t talk about it later. We live our lives to gather as many experiences in our bucket as we can before God jerks us off the face of the earth. What good does it do me to have done the things I’ve done if I can’t learn from them and in turn tell you, so you don’t make mistakes like me?”
I looked over her face weathered with age; her eyebrows furrowed as she stared me down. She meant what she said, and her convictions were true. It had nothing to do with having an affair, it was about life.
She held my arm the entire time we walked, dragging me along the bricked streets and the concrete pathways in the squares. She used her cane to pull herself faster.
“Okay, I will agree with you.” I said.
“But there’s a huge difference between making mistakes and learning from them and going out and fooling around just because you can.”
I tried to remain polite, but her idea sounded a little far-fetched with her mixed-up morals. She reminded me more of the girls I had met at college than a lady the same age as my grandmother.
“Jack you have a lot to learn. Enjoy life while it’s here to enjoy. I’m sorry you are offended by what I did; I must pay for my sins. Every time I go visit my husband at his grave, I must ask him to forgive me for being unfaithful. I must plead with him to forgive me for all those times that he went off to work and stayed late and I complained. He worked so hard for us, Jack and we never really appreciated him, did we?”
She dropped her head in a moment of recollection. She pulled close to me and I put my arm around her to offer comfort.
“No Jack, it’s not about right or wrong. I was wrong and I know that now, but if I kept it quit and hid it away then it never happened, and it was important enough then, so I keep it alive by telling you. That way you see the pain that it causes and how long it last. Take it with you Jack, take the sin and hold it just for a moment. Its weight is unbearable at time.”
“Come on let’s get you home.”
I directed her toward her home, holding her against my side.
“ Jack, I want to go home I need my nap now.”
She had fallen into a state of depression and was shaking ever so slightly. I felt so guilty for what I had done, for dueling with her over these topics. I tried to apologize but she was lost in her thoughts. She didn’t even hear me talk, or maybe she did, and her guilt had finally rendered her helpless. We neared her apartment as the sun began to set and the light faded into the moss-covered treetops.
When we reached her apartment door, she got out her keys and leaned over and kissed my cheek. She whispered a thank you in my ear so soft that I might have imagined it.
“Where is your bicycle Jack?” She scanned the area for it as if she was genuinely concerned about its security.
“It’s back at the dorm, it’s locked up. I had to walk today.”
“I would like to think it was fate. I guess the angels knew you were going to miss your bus.”
“Be careful on your bike Jack, traffic is heavy at night.”
“Thank you, Jack, it’s nice to have you around again.” She smiled and hugged me and then went inside.
I saw Elizabeth almost every day for the next few years before I left Savannah and she never faltered from her eccentric ways. I was constantly amused by her antics. She always had something to tell me about, something to blame on the current society, or young people.
Over that period, she became louder and some of the stories she told I wrote down in my journals. I still look back and laugh at how she would turn a simple loud stereo going down the road into a national disaster that required the assistance of the Savannah City Police and the National Guard. She was very demanding and at times I think if I had not been around the police might have arrested her for making some of the most incredible complaints I had ever heard.
I found out one morning from a neighbor, Mr. Raja that she had a gun and was out in the early morning hours trying to shoot a squirrel with it. Mrs. Jenkins was not fond of Mr. Raja because of his Pakistan nationality and the fact that he had called the police on her once for trying to attack him with her broom.
After he told me about the gun, I grew very worried and felt that my attention was needed.
“Elizabeth, I was wondering….do you by chance own a gun?”
“Why yes Hun, did you need to use it?”
I had not expected it to be that easy. I figured if she gave it to me, I could hold on to it until she just forgot.
“Yes, I do, I was going camping with some friends and I was wondering if you had a handgun that I could take with me for protection, you can never be too safe.”
“Oh yes honey that’s why I have my guns, come up stairs and pick one out.”
I had not expected this, she said “guns” and “pick one out”. I was really beginning to fret, and I had just started to consider that she had been shooting in the city limits which was illegal. As we entered the bedroom, she made her way over to a chifferobe that was over seven feet tall and very large. She opened the doors and inside was a small armory of weapons. In the back were rifles, shotguns and a few canes lined up and held in place. On the mid-section were about fifteen pistols lying on a rich blue felt. There were small Derringer type guns and several revolvers that appeared to be from the 1800’s as well as a very large .44 caliber revolver that had pearl grips and unlike the rest was not as polished. I inquired about this one.
“Oh yes, that’s my Colt .44. I had it out the other night trying to get those damn squirrels, but the kick is so bad I just ended up blowing down tree limbs. Go ahead and pick it up it won’t bite.”
“Mrs. Jenkins, can I ask, why do you have all these guns?”
“My husband and my daddy had guns and I just inherited all these from them, all but that .44, now I bought that because Agnes Gladsky has one and she is always bragging at our tea parties about how her son, the lawyer takes her to the shooting range once a month and lets her shoot. she says it relieves the tension.”
“Is there a range around here.”
“Why yes…. would you like to go?”
“I thought you would never ask, but please don’t shoot me.”
“Honey I took a safety course years ago, don’t worry about me.”
During some of our later talks I noticed that she was always two weeks behind on the current world events, so I had to really pay attention to the news, or I would miss everything. I felt as though I was a being from the future that knew the outcome to the present and I wasn’t allowed to say anything.
We often walked to the park on Sundays after we attended Mass together and I learned about her childhood and she learned about mine. I considered her my friend and I would like to think that she considered me hers. I never met her family during the time we shared. I always missed her son coming or going and she never mentioned the others.
Part Two – Return to Savannah
Elizabeth Jenkins was on my mind every day for the next several years as I finished up school and then traveled to Europe. I was taking her advice and doing the most with what I could. I took her advice and visited the Pyramids and then moved on to Europe where I got a glimpse of people and places that no school could show me. I met many strange and interesting people, but no-one compared to Mrs. Jenkins.
Later I traveled back to America and around the country. I was looking for a spot to call home. I went from job to job and although I excelled at my career, I just wasn’t happy in any city other than Savannah. I visited New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston but I just wasn’t happy without my Savannah. I could never find anywhere that felt like that place, so I decided that even though the locals despised newcomers I was going to plant my roots in Savannah, Georgia. I was a returning veteran, coming back to my second home anyway so I felt comfortable. Of course, the first thing I had to do after getting settled in was to look up Mrs. Jenkins. She had missed my graduation before I left due to a death in the family, but we kept in touch for a while with post cards, I stopped receiving replies because I never stayed anywhere long enough to establish an address.
I parked in front of Elizabeth’s apartment. It had changed; I could tell that someone else was living there. There was very little foliage and colors had been changed, it wasn’t clear, but I just felt that it was different from what I had remembered. My first thought was that she had grown too old to care for herself and her son had found her a live-in nurse. The grounds were cleaner and instead of being overrun with the vines and ivy they were accented by the most beautiful flowers and sculptures.
Maybe he had seen the error of his ways and cleaned up the property for her. Nervously I walked up the brick steps to the large glass front door, I rang the bell. Moments later a stunning young lady opened the pane glass door. I couldn’t tell at first from the curtain covered door who was coming but nothing had prepared me for her. I was so taken by her fragility and her beautiful skin. I almost fell backward.
“Can I help you?”
She asked with a slight southern accent. This young lady was beyond beautiful, I couldn’t believe how taken I was at her looks. I was hoping that my staring wasn’t as obvious as it felt. She held my eye with her thick red hair, falling lightly on her neck. Her eyes were green, and she was the same height as Elizabeth probably had been at that age, 5’ 2” and very fit. She wore a light blue sweater over a white blouse, and a pair of khaki pants. I noticed that she wore a gold crucifix hanging from a gold chain. It seemed familiar.
“Yes, I was looking for Elizabeth. Is she here, does she still live here?”
I was fumbling with my words distracted by the thick eyelashes that surrounded those emerald green eyes. I felt like an idiot rambling on and on.
“I’m Elizabeth, have we met?”
She put out her hand to shake, and of course I jumped at the chance to touch such exquisite skin. I carefully took her hand and shook it softly as I introduced myself. I think I held it too long, it was so soft and warm I did not want to let it go.
“No, we haven’t until now. I was looking for Elizabeth, Elizabeth Jenkins; she would be about 90 now. I don’t think you are she. I was friends with her when I was in college.”
I stepped back off the steps as if to leave, knowing that I must have had the right address but wrong person. I thought the worst; I felt a sick feeling rise in me.
“Wait please, you knew my grandmother?”
A million thoughts went through my head. Why had I never met this person before? Does she know anything about me? Is she visiting her grandmother from out of town? Is her mother the drunk? I must have set some sort of record for most thoughts in a thirty second period.
“Oh my, you know she hated everybody in our family, I can’t imagine that she would befriend anyone other than some old lady from the church. Listen to me going on and on.”
“So, she does live here? Can I see her?”
“ I am so sorry, but my Grandmother passed away.” She stepped out of the house and down the steps to me.
“It was last year. She was 92 when she died.”
She had been honestly intrigued that I knew her grandmother, but I was stuck getting past this lump in my chest and throat.
I sat down on the step and thought for a moment about how long ago it had really been since I last seen her. I went to a place in my mind where time just stopped for me. I wasn’t concerned about this person standing beside me I just started remembering. I could feel the couch in her living room, I could smell the food cooking and see her laughing. I smelt her perfume and I could hear her voice saying my name. I saw pictures in my mind of what I thought Mrs. Jenkins would have been wearing at the viewing. Did they even know what she liked the most? I didn’t even get to send her flowers. I needed to get over to the cemetery to see her sight. And did she have her cane buried with her? All these things just flooded my head. There was too much for me to handle, I felt the lump in my chest, then in my throat. I felt myself start to cry, at first moistness filled my eyes then I buried my face in my hands and cried for her soul, that poor woman. I couldn’t believe she was really gone. She felt left out by her family, distanced by her own family. I was her friend and I wasn’t even here for her when she was dying.
I pulled myself together and stood up. I was embarrassed by my actions in front of a stranger, a beautiful stranger that was the spitting image of Elizabeth Jenkins when she was in her twenties.
“I, I am so, so sorry. I should not have come here.”
“ I can’t believe she’s gone. I’m sorry about being so emotional here.”
I was trying to back away, but she was rushing down the steps and pulling me back.
“Please come inside, I want to know all the details, it’s okay.”
She was touched that I was crying, and she was trying to comfort me.
“ I was never close to my grandmother, and I would give anything to know what you know about her.”
She was holding my hand and consoling me. Her grandmother would have been proud.
The next thing I knew I was drinking coffee in an overstuffed chair and telling Ms. Elizabeth Jenkins about her grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins.
We spoke for almost two hours and noticing the time I asked Beth, as she called herself, if we could continue this conversation over dinner on River Street. She was taken by my offer and accepted, we agreed that I would pick her up later in the evening.
“One thing before I go. I want to speak with William Jenkins, your father.”
She gave me her father’s address and promised to call him to alert him that I was coming over to visit.
Meeting the family…
I wanted to find out more about Mrs. Jenkins and how she passed away, but I really wanted to meet William Jenkins. I needed to see Mary’s only son by Mr. Jenkins. A thought had entered my head earlier and now it was evolving from a thought to an obsession, should I tell Mr. Jenkins about his mother’s affairs or let it rest six feet under.
Riding to the firm I traveled through the historic squares of Savannah and recalled my college days. I could almost see myself wandering around with my dorm buddies late at night looking for the next keg party.
How many nights had I sat on a wooden bench under a moss-covered tree and made out with a girl I had just met at a party in someone’s house that I didn’t know? That was the greatest part of Savannah is that nobody was really a stranger.
I could see the very squares where Hollywood had come and went filming such films as “Forest Gump” and “Midnight in The Garden Of Good And Evil”.
There were just so many layers to this city and everyone who had visited or lived here had experienced these layers just as I had.
I found the families CPA firm in downtown Savannah. It wasn’t anything fancy. Located on the outside more toward the business district than the historic. Inside a lot of dark oak furniture and green paint kept things very serious.
I introduced myself to the lady at the front desk and she paged Mr. Jenkins. Mr. William Jenkins agreed to see me right away, Beth had called and told him the minute I left about the crying man who was there asking about her grandmother. He of course was a little concerned and was being cautious.
“I assure you sir, I am not here to cause any trouble or bring up hurtful memories but I was very close to your mother for a number of years and I would just like to know how she died” I said in the most professional voice I could manage.
William Jenkins explained that his mother had passed away about a year ago from a stroke. She was 92 when she left us, and I still couldn’t believe that it had been nine years since I had last seen her.
She had made an impact on my life and I felt it my duty to meet the people behind her stories.
“My daughter Beth moved into the apartment last year, she carries the namesake of my mother.” Mr. Jenkins said.
“We named her after my mother in hopes that she would be remembered. Mother and I were very close when I was young.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a scrapbook. It was worn and dusty. The edges of the leather were burgundy and cracked from age. It was held together by a black ribbon. He handed me the book; I began looking through it. The pictures of the younger Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins were very beautiful. She was the stuff dreams are made of.
“I wanted to give her something and a child with your name is like a legacy of your life.” He shuffled around his desk, moving his papers and pens.
“My brother Jack died when he was 22 years old. It was very hard on our mother, she adored him. Jack was the youngest and he and mother were very close. He was riding his bicycle; he didn’t have his car yet. He rode around town every day. One day he was riding home from work and a drunk driver hit him. He hit him from behind, didn’t even see Jack. The bastard said he thought he had just run over some trash on the road. Jack would ride all over town, he had a Schwinn, and I remember it. It was orange and had a lot of chrome on it. He kept it in pretty good shape; to him it was his car. Poor kid, never even saw it coming.” He had opened his scrapbook and found a picture.
I sat in shock I could say nothing. The moment he said the name Jack it all came back to me. I felt sick, as if I had seen the ghost of her dead son, but more than that I was the ghost. All those years I was her son come back to her. A sweat came over me, she saw me as him and every time we talked it was a mother talking to her son.
“Did you say your brother’s name was Jack?” I asked him quickly, moving closer to the desk as if to hear him better.
“Yes sir, Jack, of course his name was John Alexander Jenkins. Did she speak about him often?” He asked with the curiosity of a Scotland Yard Inspector.
“Sir, your mother called me Jack from the day we first met. She was constantly telling me to be careful on my bicycle and now that I think about it, she would always refer to me as if I was part of the picture, the family. She would say we or us as if I had been there. I always thought that she was just suffering from the wear and tear of life.”
“She said Jack, you’re sure of it?” Mr. Jenkins asked.
“Yes, it never occurred to me that she thought I was her son.” I shook my head; this was the strangest journey I had ever taken.
William shuffled through his drawers and found a picture. He slid it my way it was old and faded.
There were three people in the picture, the tallest was obviously William as a teenager and the female was Elizabeth Jenkins in her thirties, but the third person was different. He looked out of place; there was something about him that I had seen before. I was staring at myself. This must have been Jack. I looked so much like him; we shared the same features and the same hairstyle. His height was the only major difference. I was really becoming uncomfortable with this.
Elizabeth was speaking to me now through all these years and I heard her loudly. She was reliving a mistake or maybe it was a pleasureful moment but regardless she loved her son and she had enriched my life.
I had to let Mr. Jenkins know what his mother had said. I knew he could appreciate it for what it was worth. I knew at this point that the legal repercussions were only a small part of a bigger picture that involved someone’s life.
I sat there in that office and went back to a day when the leaves were green, and the flowers were bright. I went back to a more innocent time in my life when I didn’t worry about life so much and I told this man about a woman who gave me something so precious that no one could take away. He had somehow known in his heart that his mother treated him differently, he was alright with it.
I watched as he teared up. He was being touched by something that took place in my life, between his mother and me. I felt honored but at the same time I was sad for him that he missed so much time with a beautiful lady.
“Mother went to her attorney and had her will changed to include Jack as the recipient of all her possessions and her home. She was talking about you. When she died the courts ruled that the next of kin be the recipient, that was me. I divided things the way that they were supposed to be done but it wasn’t mothers’ way. I feel terrible.”
“You had no way of knowing, it was not like she ever introduced me to any of the family.”
“Well that’s where it gets strange. She did, she did it on more than one occasion. She called everybody up and said that Jack was home and that she wanted everyone to come over for supper with Jack. We all agreed to just let it go and not show up.”
“So, what happens now? What do we do?”
“You my friend took care of my mother and you were her closest relative for over three years and you will be taken care of.”
“That’s not what I meant; I don’t want anything — she gave me her love.”
“I will tell them; they will know that mother wasn’t crazy.”
“Thank you, thank you so much.”
“Oh James, the house on State Street. It’s yours as of next week.”
She was giving me her home, without ever knowing my real name and now thanks to her I had a place to live, I had a home.
“And one last thing James.”
He reached into his filing cabinet and pulled out a maroon colored box, gift wrapped with a gold ribbon. It was dusty and had a tag on it.
CONGRATULATIONS ON GRADUATION JACK
“You want me to open this here?”
“Sure, it’s been in my filing cabinet forever, I just never got up the courage to open it. I thought it may be too much for me to handle.”
I unwrapped the package and inside was a emerald green box with the words ROLEX printed in gold. I opened the box and inside was a beautiful stainless-steel diving watch with a black face. A little note was rolled up inside. I pulled it out and read it.
“It says, Jack I am proud of you. Thank you for our time together, time is a beautiful thing. Signed, mother.”
I had expected my meeting with Mr. Jenkins to be dramatic and tearful, Mr. Jenkins just thanked me and asked me to look after his daughter that night. We shook hands that day for the second time, in a part of my life that has given me so much to be thankful for.
Shortly after moving in I started seeing Beth on a regular basis. We became very close and I could tell she was a lot like her grandmother, but she was her own woman. If there was anything, I had learned it was that you had to be yourself to be happy, unfortunately I wasn’t myself to Mrs. Jenkins but who knows maybe she just liked the name Jack.
After living in the house for a few months I ventured into the attic where I found a treasure of trunks and boxes. I called Mr. Jenkins and he said that whatever I found was mine, all he wanted were things that pertained to family history. I had no problem with that, those were beyond my interest. After day and night of searching I had uncovered so many wonderful artifacts from her youth but then I found an envelope. It was a large envelope with an attorney’s name stamped on the outside and inside were five smaller envelopes. I opened each one carefully, I realized that after I read the documents that what I had found were the deeds to five properties in the local area. I spent the next few days researching the properties and found out that four of them were for Tybee Island properties and the last was an old house in the city of Savannah. The attorneys name on the outside of the envelope had been paying the taxes for years on the property and had not been informed of the death. He had been unaware of the situation and after some small fees and phone calls I was the proud owner of a home on Tybee Island with three surrounding property lots, a large home in the city of Savannah and a beautiful apartment where I was currently residing.
As the days went by Beth and I grew closer, we spent more and more time together. She was very special to me, filling the void that existed in my life when I lost her grandmother. We were friends, but then love developed and as most relationships do we turned from friends to lovers. I saw Beth more as a lady now, not merely the gorgeous girl who answered the door at the apartment that day. She was also quite the detective and she suggested we inspect the home in downtown Savannah the same as I had done at the apartment. Instead of finding property deeds we found artwork, stashed in room after room. Apparently, Mrs. Jenkins was very obsessive compulsive and could not resist buying artwork, and instead of hanging it in her home she stored it here.
The home itself was beautiful and in livable condition. What Beth’s father had failed to realize was that his mother had numerous bank accounts and that her net worth was very large and went much farther than her minuscule will. She had invested thousands in the arts, and her property’s alone were worth over two million dollars. She had never let him do her accounting although he was one of the city’s best accountants. She preferred a non-family member do it.
But none of this wealth or property compared to the time I spent with her before I left for Europe. If I had known when she was going to die, I guess I would have never left. But this is a statement many people make regularly about loved ones. She was so strong; it just never crossed my mind that she could pass.
This past August, Beth and I had our first child, a beautiful little girl. We were married in a little ceremony at her sister’s house and I am now officially part of the family that I had once been so jealous of. I only wish that Mrs. Jenkins could have been here to see the wedding and much more than that, to see our daughter. She has her mother’s red hair and green eyes. We named her Mary Elizabeth after Beth’s grandmother and my very good friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins. We all live in a little apartment on State Street at the corner of Lincoln Street where we watch the camera toting tourist ride by daily on the horse driven carriages. And on the weekends Beth and I ride our bicycles in the park with our daughter in tow. Sometimes Mary and I ride the bike and baby seat through town to go see her mother at the Elizabeth Jenkins Museum and Gallery. We decided that if the apartment ever gets too small, we can always move into the house. But for now we like to show off all the works of the local artist that we found in the attic and second floor, and help them sale their works to little old ladies who probably buy them and then store them in large houses that no-one knows about.
Elizabeth Jenkins transformed my life in ways I never thought possible. I opened my heart to her and in time I became family. The kindness of strangers is a very powerful force, I speak from experience.
Copyright 2002, 2020 All Right Reserved James Heaton