Ginny Roark had it all. On a scale of one to ten, her husband Sam was a twelve. She and her family lived in a home that was every woman’s dream. Her handsome, fun-loving son was an excellent student and all-around son to be proud of, and her circle of diverse friends was caring and loyal. The icing on the cake was a part-time job, as a substitute teacher, that was not only fun but rewarding. One gorgeous spring morning, she learned in a devastating way that good fortune could turn on a dime.
When Sam appeared in the kitchen in sexy running shorts and jersey, she jokingly jostled him and said, “Honey, that fine-tuned body of yours is already garnering too many female glances to suit me.”
He grinned, nuzzled her neck and told her that the only glances he was interested in were hers. Fifteen minutes later, a neighbor called in tears. Sam had collapsed on the sidewalk in front of her home. Still in her pajamas and bunny slippers, Ginny was out of the house and by his side in mere seconds. She didn’t reach Sam in time to say good-bye. An autopsy later determined that he suffered a massive heart attack.
As devastated as Ginny was, she didn’t have the luxury of hiding from the world and mourning. The civil engineering firm that Sam and his friend Ron Eriksson founded was in crisis. She buried her grief for the sake of the firm. She took over the job of administrative assistant and Laura Goldstein—the current administrative assistant—began handling accounting and the minor legal issues of the firm. Intern Trina Wilson moved into a newly created position as a junior engineer. Ron immediately advertised for a partner, but thus far, a suitable candidate hadn’t been forthcoming. The workload, which had been labor intensive when the firm was fully staffed, loomed like an unscalable mountain. The team was dedicated, but long hours and client’s impatience began affecting the morale of employees.
On a personal level, Ginny’s teenage son Brian’s gregariousness turned to sullenness and combativeness. Ginny was at a loss about what to do. He missed his dad and, truthfully, she was emotionally and physically unavailable. She was not blind to what was happening with their relationship. She needed to find a balance between time spent at home and work. So far, she had failed miserably. If she walked away from the firm— Sam’s lifelong dream and the family’s livelihood—the firm would tumble into a death spiral. On the other hand, Brian’s needed emotional support that he wasn’t getting.
In despair, she poured out her frustrations and fears to her good friend Carol McKinley. Carol’s pragmatic approach to life always helped Ginny see things more clearly. The McKinley’s and Roark’s ties went deeper than Carol and Ginny’s friendship. Carol’s husband Ed had been one of Sam’s best friends and her son Cal was a buddy of Brian’s.
Carol didn’t mince words. “You don’t always have to put on a happy face, Ginny. Life can be damn cruel. If you internalize your grief and pain, you’ll become bitter. Let it out.”
Ginny reached across the table and gave Carol’s hand a squeeze. “What would I do without you. The support that you and your family have given Brian and me, has kept us afloat. If you have any suggestions about what I should do, I’ll listen.”
“Friends help friends, Ginny. It’s as simple as that. I agree that Brian shouldn’t be rambling around in an empty house, but you and I both know that it is unwise to over protective teens. If we as parents, tether them to tightly, they rebel.
“School will be out in a couple of weeks, and then Brian and Cal will be working at the nursery with Ed. When the guys have free time, they can hang out here. We'll treat him like a second son. He'll be expected to follow the same rules that Cal and the girls do. That's not as bad as it sounds. There are only four, and they aren’t extreme.
1.Keep us informed. (where you are and what you are doing)
2.If you are late, call.
3.Never drink and drive.
4.Pick-up after yourself
“Everything else is negotiable.”
“Adding a grieving teenager to your crew won’t be a picnic, Carol.”
“We’re up for the challenge. Sue and Beverly will be thrilled to have the guys hanging out here. They are at the age when they crush on male jocks. Cal and Brian might not be super-heroes, but the girls think their bro and Brian are the coolest dudes in town. All that adoration will be good for Brian’s ego.”
Six months after her conversation with Carol, Ginny was beginning to see improvements in Brian’s attitude. She began to take heart when his smile returned. He missed his dad as much as she did, but he was working through some of his anger and pain. Sam had been a forward-thinking kind of guy. Yesterday, she heard Brian tell Cal, “Dwelling on what might have been is a waste of time, Cal. If Dad were here, he’d be encouraging me to move forward.”
The day Brian talked about his dad without getting choked up, Ginny’s feeling of hopelessness began to turn to hopefulness. Lately, he had become protective of her. She appreciated his concern, but she regretted that he thought he had to take on the role of man of the house. It was sad that Brian had to grow up too soon.
Her decision to sell their home would be another loss for Brian, but it was necessary. Financially and emotionally. Although the house had every available modern convenience and was lovely enough to be featured in House & Garden, she and Brian found it difficult to live with the family memories. Without Sam’s infectious laughter, their home became nothing more than a beautiful house.
Granted, Ginny would miss the property’s natural walkways, flowering trees, flowerbeds, patio and fish pond. She and Sam had spent countless hours creating their own little bit of heaven. The yard remained as lovely as ever thanks to a lawn service but evenings on the patio had lost their appeal.
Denise, Ginny’s realtor, had showed the house several times, but so far there had not been an offer.
On a Thursday morning in early fall, the ringing of her doorbell brought an added complication to their lives. An already complicated life suddenly became more interesting, but decidedly more complicated.
She was achy and irritable from the insomnia that continued to plague her. When Brian drifted into the kitchen, he found her staring at the empty coffee canister. She’d forgotten to stop by the store the previous evening to pick up coffee and milk. She’d never been much of a coffee drinker until Sam’s death. These days it took two cups of coffee to get her brain in gear.
When she glanced at her son, his “leave me alone” expression was firmly in place. She quietly began rummaging through the cabinets hoping to find an emergency stash of coffee. She was ever so tempted to suggest that a change of clothes would be appropriate. There were days when he dressed for school in clothes that had seen better days. They would make great dust rags, or better still, he could pitch them in the trash bin. She bit her tongue. Why start an argument she couldn’t win?
He frowned and muttered under his breath when he checked the fridge and found no milk. He grabbed an energy bar from the pantry, nodded and stalked out the door. If she had the time, she'd throw herself across her bed and have a good long cry. She wanted her life back.
Every day she entered the office optimistically hoping that Ron would share the news that he’d found a buyer for her shares in the firm. No news definitely wasn’t good news. The only way she remained positive was by reminding herself that better days were ahead. Part of the problem was that she didn’t find the work nearly as rewarding as teaching. She longed for the time when she would be able to return to her teaching career and prayed for the day her financial situation would stabilize.
When the doorbell rang, she was tempted to ignore it. She wasn’t dressed to greet friends or strangers. Finally, after the third buzz, she dragged to the door. A stranger stood on her doorstep. She frowned and said a silent prayer that whoever he was that he wasn’t there to deliver more bad news.
With reluctance, she nodded.
“My name is Nick McLeod. I represent a young woman named Julie Davidson.” He held out a business card that read:
Attorney at Law
McLeod and McClusky Law Offices
5061 Bainbridge Road
New Holland, Virginia 27352
Ginny drew a blank. Her uncomprehending stare must have alerted him that she didn’t recognize the name.
“You met her at First Home seven years ago. She was a resident during her pregnancy. The midwife on staff delivered her daughter Molly.”
Ginny’s eyes widened. “Julie Davidson. No wonder the name didn’t sound familiar. You have to understand, Mr. McLeod, most of the residents at First Home chose to remain anonymous. Volunteers were asked to respect their privacy. Because of that policy, residents were known by their given name.
“I liked Julie. She was a lovely young woman who was dealing with a pregnancy that she hadn’t anticipated. I hope that your visit doesn’t mean that Julie is in trouble.”
“I would rather have this conversation inside if you don’t mind.”
“You are welcome to come in, but I warn you that I need to be at work in an hour, and I need to shower and dress.”
“I chose to come to your home because I felt our conversation wasn't appropriate to have at your place of business. I promise not to keep you long.”
When they were seated in the den, she mumbled more to herself than to her visitor. “Surely this is a mistake. I haven’t heard a word from Julie in seven years. Why now?”
“Believe me, it’s not a mistake. I met Julie two months ago. Unfortunately, she was already quite ill at the time. Six months before her visit to my office, she was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Her illness progressed more quickly than she or her doctors expected. Unfortunately, she died last week.”
The lump in Ginny’s throat made it difficult to speak. “Premature deaths are tragic. She had so much potential, was so vibrant.”
“I agree that she had potential, but illness had stolen her physical vibrancy by the time we met. She was extremely pale and emaciated. She was philosophical about her diagnosis, illness in general and death. When I made the comment that life isn’t always fair, her response was, ‘Illness doesn’t discriminate. It strikes the young and old, weak and strong.’ I seriously doubt that I would face a terminal diagnosis with such equanimity.”
“She was systematically putting her life in order. I was impressed with her love for Molly and her determination to make financial and living arrangements for her child’s future. Her primary reason for coming to me was a simple will, or so I thought. Our conversation had barely begun when I realized that she needed a facilitator for an errand she was too ill to handle herself. There was only one person she trusted to do the job. You.
“Your expression tells me that she correctly anticipated your reaction. She expected you to initially say no, but she counted on your compassion and love of children to eventually agree to carry out her wishes. Her goal was an introduction. Her daughter Molly has never met her great-grandmother, Ruth Northrop.
"I assume you know that Julie and her grandmother have been estranged since Julie learned that she was pregnant. Despite their estrangement, Julie felt that Ruth deserved, and would want, to be consulted about Molly’s future. The Northrop name is a respected one. George, Ruth’s deceased husband, inherited money, and he was a beloved dentist in Summerfield. Ruth had a successful career as a trainer. Later in life, she became a successful artist. If she chooses, she has the means to provide extremely well for Molly.
“I’m probably giving you facts that you already know. I assume Julie shared a few details about her background.”
Ginny shook her head. “That’s just it. She didn’t. She told me that she was raised by her grandparents because her mom wasn’t ready to accept the responsibility of being a parent. That is the sum total of what I know about her family.
“So many of the girls and young women, who stayed at the Home, were bitter. Julie wasn’t. She admitted to bad judgment, but never considered her pregnancy a mistake. She was excited about the birth of her baby and spoke frequently about the miracle of birth. She asked questions about childcare, and I answered as honestly and as thoroughly as I could. Other than those topics, our conversations were about literature and writing. She was an avid reader.
“I have a question for you Mr. McLeod. Where did Molly go after she and Molly left First Home?”
“Call me Nick, Ginny. She lived in a small town outside of Atlanta. She obviously found someone to create a new identity for her, because she took online courses for two years at Georgia Southern. Later, she filled out an application for the position she held until her death.”
“How did she finance college?”
“Julie was a planner. When she realized she was pregnant, she gradually withdrew money from the bank account her granddad established for her. In addition, she sold valuable jewelry that had been given to her by her grandparents. She didn’t specify dollar amounts that were available, but she had enough to go to school and to pay for daycare.
“Two years later, she accepted a position from a manufacturing firm in New Holland. Her excellent computer skills and work ethic assured success. Her employer was devastated when he learned about Molly’s illness. Not only was she a valued employee, she was a valued friend.
“Fortunately, the firm offered excellent health and life insurance plans. Since Julie was a single parent, she carried as much insurance as she could afford. As it turns out, her decision was a wise one.”
Ginny shook her head in disbelief. “And I thought I had troubles. With work and raising a child, she was heavily burdened.”
“She was, but she assured me that she was content with her life. When her illness was diagnosed, her greatest fear was that Molly would end up in foster care. When she gave me your address, I recognized the name Samuel Roark. Even though I never met your husband, I’m aware of his reputation and of his untimely death. His death was a shock to the business community, not only in Archdale but the business communities in New Holland and Summerfield. Because of your circumstances, I suggested that asking Molly’s caregiver, Abigail Jones, might be more appropriate. Julie refused. She argued that Abigail couldn’t be objective.”
“Julie must have been desperate. I can’t think of any reason except desperation for asking a virtual stranger to intercede in a family matter. Surely, she realized that it’s impossible to redo the past, and it’s difficult to compensate for lost opportunities. Did she actually believe that Ruth Northrop would take Molly into her home?”
“No. Ruth isn’t physically able to raise another child. However, she does have the resources to see that Molly is well taken care of. Julie provided amazingly well for one so young, but raising a child takes resources. Julie’s family has resources.”
“I don’t get it. Why would she expect Ruth to react positively to a child she doesn’t know exists?”
“Julie believed in her grandmother’s basic goodness. Because she was out of options, she was grasping at straws. To understand Julie, you have to understand the Northrop history.
“Her mom’s history was partially responsible for Julie’s decision to leave home, so Julie’s story begins when her mother Christine was a teenager. George and Ruth Northrop raised their daughter Christine in a loving environment, but they spoiled her. Something went terribly wrong when Christine entered her teens. Police records show that she was in and out of trouble. She was also known to be promiscuous. When she became pregnant, she demanded that her parents pay for an abortion. Her parents negotiated a deal. They promised to raise her child if she would go through the pregnancy. In return, they paid off all of Christine’s debts and set her up in an apartment of her own.
“Julie was convinced that there was more to Christine’s story than her grandparents were willing to share. When she lived at home, Christine’s name was never mentioned.”
“What kind of environment was Julie raised in?”
“Other than unanswered questions about her mom, Julie insisted that her childhood was idyllic. She loved her grandma but adored her grandpa. When he died both she and Ruth were devastated. Julie needed emotional support, and Ruth was emotionally unavailable. Julie turned to her boyfriend for the emotional support she so desperately needed. When she became pregnant, she didn’t know where to turn.
“She didn’t share the news with her boyfriend or her grandma. He, she didn’t provide a name, was scheduled to leave for college in the fall. She chose not to inform him. She loved her grandma and refused to burden her with news of an illegitimate great-grandchild. Illegitimacy is frowned on in the Northrop's social circle and Ruth had already endured one. There was another factor involved. Ruth was extremely proud of Julie’s scholarship from State. Julie didn’t want to see the disappointment on Ruth’s face when she told Ruth that she wouldn’t be attending. She packed a bag and left home. She couldn’t face Ruth, but she did leave a letter. She used the excuse that she wanted to travel for a year before settling down. She promised to be in touch.”
Ginny rolled her eyes. “Obviously, Julie broke her promise.”
“Yes and no. She sent Ruth a Christmas card with a return address the December she left home. Ruth didn’t respond. Julie accepted the no response as a sign that her grandma wasn’t ready to forgive her. She decided to wait until she had earned her degree and was able to provide a stable homelife for Molly. Three years ago, Julie learned that Ruth was losing her eyesight. She decided to gravel if need be. She wrote a letter of apology. She mentioned Molly and asked if she could bring her for a visit. Once again, there was no response.”
“Are you certain that Ruth is still living?”
Ginny was convinced that certain parts of the story was being glossed over. “If Ruth hasn’t made an effort to find her granddaughter, she must be unwilling to talk reconciliation. Maybe there are facts that Julie omitted. Mothers and grandparents don’t disown a child without cause. Personally, I wouldn’t disown my son Brian for any reason. If he disappeared, I’d move heaven and earth to find him.”
“It’s probably unwise to judge without hearing Ruth’s side of the story. There may have been extenuating circumstances.”
“Julie’s story would touch anyone who has a heart, Nick, but I have enough drama in my life without adding the drama of people I don’t know. Before my husband’s death, I would have undoubtedly waded into the middle of a family fray without a second thought. These days, I’m working long hours to help save my husband’s firm, and I’m trying to give my grieving son the support a mother should give her child. I don’t have time or energy to spare.”
He opened his briefcase, took out a folder and handed it to her. “When you have time, read over the documents and read the letter Julie wrote to you. You will find short bios of each family member, Julie's death certificate and Molly's birth certificate. There are several photos of Molly, her letter to you and one to Ruth. If you remain unwilling to become involved, give me a call. I will make other arrangements.
“She left a bequest to you. I didn’t mention the gift because I assumed you would find the mention of money distasteful. The money goes to you regardless of your decision.”
Ginny stood at the door and watched as Nick hurried down the sidewalk. She was mystified. Her encounters with Julie had been brief. It saddened her that a dying woman had so few resources or friends that she reached out to a stranger to intercede for her. There had to be more to Julie’s story.