Chapter 13 – Heritage Project
"So you'll need to research your own family tree and find a worthy subject for the project..." Trent Patrick, our substitute history teacher, was explaining our newest assignment in the final minutes of class. It was a rookie mistake – everyone was already attempting to discreetly pack up their stuff so they could be the first out of the door.
Everyone except the girls anyway. Trent had been a long term sub in my AP English class earlier in the year and was well worth being a couple seconds later getting out the door.
"At least two generations back – so grandparents or earlier. Though I'd think the farther back you went, the more interesting things could get," now he was musing out loud, reading over the assignment sheet our normal teacher had probably prepared weeks ago. With less than a minute to spare, he started handing out the sheets so that by the time he reached the front of the room the bell had rung and the stampede had begun.
I took my time tucking the paper into my backpack and waved at Trent on the way out. He awarded me with a perfect, toothpaste commercial quality, smile.
Having traveled the Carson High hallways for nearly four years, I often slipped into auto-pilot mode, artfully dodging students and obstacles while allowing my mind to wander. I was quickly eliminating potential family members to do my project on this time and was so engrossed in the thought process, I almost collided with a freshman coming out of the stairwell.
The near miss ought to have woken me from my daze but, unfortunately, I put the girl out of my mind almost before I'd finished apologizing and was back to recalling what little I knew about my Great Aunt Gladys. As a result, I didn't hear the tell-tale whispering or notice the foot as it was stuck out at the last moment. My backpack fell off my shoulder as I threw out my arms to catch myself on the railing. I watched, in dismay, as it tumbled down the stairs before landing with a thud and a general dispersal of some of the contents.
"Oops. Did I do that?" Though the words came from one of the minions, I saw Chrissy standing a step above her smiling approvingly. Torture, as endorsed by the Queen Bee. The girl didn't look the least bit apologetic and was actually struggling not to laugh outright.
"Oh Ginny, I hope you're not hurt!" Chrissy feigned concern for half a second and then threw off the pretense and laughed. Her minions joined in.
Though my knee was throbbing from the pain, I kept that to myself to face the trio. "I'm just fine Chrissy – as if you actually cared."
"Oh, I'm glad to see you've learned my name – it's always best to know who beats you. Do send my love to Todd," she winked and motioned toward to her followers. They jumped into positions beside her, like puppies called to heel.
They were at the top of the landing when I spoke up, "Chrissy – afraid I can't do that. You see Todd likes girls with a soul, human beings if you will. You're neither." I smiled sweetly as she spun around and growled at me.
She looked like she was prepared to pounce, and she probably would have if the door below had clanked open. We all heard as someone stopped, discovering my backpack. "You watch yourself Genevieve!" she hissed and spun away, storming out of the stairwell.
"Gin?" To my great relief, Erik rounded the bend in the stairs with my backpack and books in hand. "You alright?" He looked past me, toward the double doors the mean girls had just left through. What had he heard?
I slumped against the railing, which I'd been using to support myself all through the encounter. "Girl drama," I said with a shrug.
"Anything I can do?" He leaned forward, kissing me gently and then put my backpack back on my shoulder. He seemed to notice how pale my face was and the fact that I wasn't putting weight on my leg and looked back up toward the doors again. "Come on, I'll walk you to your next class."
"Don't be silly, you'll be late to your class," I said it quickly and regretted it instantly. He looked hurt for a second. "I'm really fine Erik, I swear. My knee is just sore today – as it has been every day really." That was a lie. My knee usually felt fine – except when I was tripped and fell down a couple steps.
"Okay," he said, reluctantly agreeing. "I'll see you later then?"
"Sure," I said, plastering a smile on my face. Before he could leave, I pulled him in for a long kiss to help him forget the hurt he'd felt a moment ago. Thankfully it seemed to do the trick and I was left to wobble my way down the rest of the stairs in peace. I was late for my class too, gaining a written tardy and stern look from my teacher.
"I told you to stay away from her Ginny!" Veronica's reprimand was harsh, even over the phone.
"It's not like a went looking for her V! I was at school, she was at school...annoying but I think it's bound to happen," I said, pressing an ice pack to my knee. The pain had subsided quite a bit by the time I drove home after school but it was still aching.
"And you just had to antagonize her, bait her with your witty retort. Just...ignore her, seriously Ginny, you need to ignore her."
"That's rich coming from you, of all people V. I can't just ignore someone who is attacking and insulting me. And the fact that she has her eyes on Todd...he's too dense and absorbed in his own pain to see her for what she is really like," I argued. "Look V, thanks for the suggestion – I will try not to antagonize the nut job but if she comes after me, I'm not gonna lay down like a wounded dog and take it. Anyway, I have to go – I need to try and find an ancestor to research for history." Veronica tried, again, to impress upon me how hostile Chrissy could be – as if I hadn't figured that part out – before I hung up the phone.
Before I could even return to my history project, Dad knocked at the door and poked his head in. "Hey kiddo..." He spied the ice pack and was immediately concerned, "are you okay? The knee bothering you today?"
"I just tripped on the stairs today. It's just sore – more from the impact of catching myself than anything else," I said, omitting a few elements of the story. "Hey Dad, I have this history project that involves ancestry...what do you know of your grand parents, or great grandparents?"
"Not much I'm afraid, they had all passed while I was young. But you should call your Gran, she has albums and albums of newspaper clippings about that side." By "that side", he was referring to my mom's family. Before mom's death, I'd spent a couple weeks every summer with Gran – a tradition we'd kept up until just before high school.
I called her as soon as Dad left and after twenty minutes of small talk and chat, she invited me over to look through the albums my dad had mentioned. She lived a little out of town, on a couple acres of farmland, but I hadn't been out to see her in awhile so I readily agreed. Tossing the melted ice pack aside, I grabbed my backpack and went in search of Dad.
After eliminating the living room, the kitchen and the office, I knocked on the door to my dad's bedroom once before opening it. Dad fumbled with a small box as I entered and turned toward me looking flushed. "Dad, I'm going to...." My eyes fell on the box and my mouth stopped moving. "Is that...? Are you going to...?"
"Ginny." Though he was clearly startled, the warning in his tone was clear. 'Do not have a teenage tantrum young lady.' Yep, crystal clear.
Clamping my mouth shut, I took a deep breath. "I just...I wanted to tell you I'm going to Gran's for dinner. I might be back a little late."
"Ginny," he motioned to the little velvet box, "I wanted to talk to you about this tonight."
I nodded, trying to muster support and good thoughts I knew were hiding somewhere inside. It's not that I didn't want my dad to be happy, I do! The actual experience was proving to be a difficult adjustment though. Instead of saying something dumb or hurtful, I just smiled. "Later?"
Before he could really response, I darted from his room and fled the house. Suddenly I was very thankful I'd already made those plans with Gran.
The drive out to my Gran's farm gave me time to calm down and think. Although, maybe it was a little too much time to think. I went around and around about my dad and Ms. Moore, trying to come to the place where I could be happy and supportive. Instinctively, one hand went to the locket hanging around my neck.
By the time I'd pulled into the long driveway that wound up toward the house, I'd gone full circle. I pushed the little box and the ring it held out of my mind and got out of the car. Gran was already on the porch waiting for me. She enveloped me in a warm hug. My frayed emotions evaporated as I took in her familiar scent of vanilla and rose water. "Well come on girl, I've had Mr. Wil pulling out those albums for you..."
"Oh please tell me you didn't make that poor old man go up into the attic! I would have gone up to get them Gran..." I protested, thinking about Gran's neighbor climbing up and down the rickety ladder to retrieve boxes of photo albums. Wilfred Allen was a widower from the next farm over. He'd been tending to my Gran's handy man needs for as long as I could remember even though he had to be in his seventies by now.
"Never you mind, he was here already – fixin' a leak in the guest bathroom," she said, explaining quickly. "And offered to when I started to do it myself."
The aforementioned man was sipping on glass of lemonade when we entered the kitchen. He smiled at me and nodded. "Hey Mr. Allen," I said.
"Now now Ginny, you know I just prefer Wil, no need for all that formality," he had a kindly, grandfatherly smile. He finished up his lemonade and rinsed out the glass in the sink. I noticed he seemed to know the house as well as my Gran and better than me. I ducked my head to hide a smile.
"How 'bout I make us a snack and we'll find you the perfect subject for your project," Gran was already bustling around the kitchen or I would have stopped her.
Her idea of a "snack" would involve enough food to feed a family if I left her to her own devices. "Just some of that delicious lemonade Gran, and maybe some of your cookies," I said hopefully. "Please tell me you have some cookies."
She pulled out an old, chipped cookie jar and presented me with a treasure trove of cookies. "You sure? I could cut up some fruit or make us some biscuits..."
"No, really – I wouldn't want to fill up before dinner anyway," I said as I took a second cookie. "Well not too much anyway," I said with a chuckle.
A few moments later we were settled onto the sofa with a dozen albums spread across the coffee table and our laps. "How did you accumulate all this?" I asked, in awe. She had clippings from papers from all over the country dating back at least two hundred years. Some were the genuine article, others were copies taken from microfiche or the library.
"I can't take all the credit, my step-father was deeply interested in genealogy and pieced together most of it. I've added to it over the years and found a few errant 'relations'," she said. She passed an album to me with a fade, black and white photo dated 1876. "She worked in a saloon, in her younger days anyway," Gran said with a chuckle. The photo was of an older woman who looked completely respectable. Gran proceeded to tell me the story of Miss Sara Ann Alder, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother.
Some of the people in the books were virtual mysteries, with only a name, location and birthday to give any idea who they were or how they lived. Others had full, vibrant stories that had been published or passed down, like Sara Ann and Eliza, my great-great grandmother. Eliza had been a nurse during World War II. It was during the war that she'd met, and lost, the father of her eldest child. Her other children had been fathered by a neighbor boy she'd left behind when she'd left for Europe.
"He was good man, my step-father. Never treated me differently though I wasn't his own," Gran was musing over a picture of him as she spoke. "As soon as the truth came out that ma was pregnant, they started planning to send her home. Didn't have much need for an unmarried, pregnant nurse. She found out her beau had been killed in action as she was packing up actually. When she got home, she kept her condition a secret from all but him – her old friend. He asked her to marry her then and there, he'd always loved her ya see so he wanted to save her from being shunned by everyone."
"Did she love him? Your step-father?" I asked.
"No, not at first. Not like that anyway. But she grew to love him I think. They'd been friends forever – like you and Todd – so it wasn't much of a leap," Gran said. "They were always very happy together, regardless."
"So, anyone strike your fancy?" Gran asked, after a few minutes of silence.
"There are so many...I doubt anyone else in the class even has this much information..." I said. "How did you even get original newspapers from the 1890s?"
"Well the editor, there," she stopped me from flipping the paper to point to a clipping with a small photo. "He was Sara Ann's son. She gave him to a friend to raise – given her profession, she couldn't really have a baby around. When she, eventually, left the saloon, the friend had grown rather attached to the child. But she did agree to let Sara move into their home, much to the chagrin of her husband!"
"I imagine so!" I said.
"He started working for the paper as a paperboy and eventually became the editor and owner. He grew the area paper from a single page, bi-monthly publication to a weekly with eight pages," Gran looked proud of this, puffing her chest a bit for her distant relation. "Oh look at the time! I better get started on supper! You can come in a tell my all about your boyfriend...what's his name again?"
Gran was already off the couch and headed for the kitchen, abandoning the clutter of albums. "Erik. His name is Erik," I said as I followed her into the kitchen. I perched on the stool as she pulled out a half dozen pots and pans. "What exactly are you planning to cook Gran?" I asked with a laugh.
I held up the conversation as she worked her magic in the kitchen. Telling her everything that had been happening lately was a great relief actually. From Veronica's family drama to Mei-Ling's death, Chrissy's attitude problems and Dad, I hadn't realized just how crazy the last few months had been until I unloaded it all that night over a plate of meatloaf and fresh apple pie.
"Now don't you let that Chrissy girl bully you," Gran said as we hugged good bye on the porch. She'd said it at least a dozen times since I'd dropped Chrissy's name into the conversation. She looked at me sternly, as if to be sure I was listening, and then smiled. "You're a good girl Ginny-bean, you give your dad my love you hear? And tell him I wanna meet this lady of his. I'm still his mother-in-law, of a sort," she said with a wink.
Balancing the pie she'd sent home for Dad in one hand, I fished out my keys and cell phone as I walked back to the car. As I put the stuff in the passenger seat, I saw a missed call and voicemail waiting for me so I dialed my voicemail box while starting the car.
"Hey Gin," Erik paused, "I went by your house but your dad said you were out, I thought we were going to see each other tonight but I guess you forgot or something. I'll talk to you later." The click at the end of the terse message was deafening. "Crap."