“It Was a Very Good Year”
May 23, 1970
When Beau burst through the doors of Howard County Community Hospital’s labor and delivery waiting room, Melanie Wheaten trembled, thankful she was sitting. Sitting, waiting with Val and Ben.
“Mom, he’s here. Owen is here. I’ll bring you back as soon as I can. We love you, Mom. Thanks for bringing her Aunt Mel and Ben.”
He appeared only long enough to give them the news and then slipped back to Hien, his wife.
A new grandson.
She squeezed her eyes closed, then blinked to chase the moisture away.
Little Owen was Val’s grandson by blood because Beau was her son. But he was Melanie’s by heart because that baby’s mother was the daughter she’d never had. Once sweet Hien had been her daughter-in-law, but now she was Val’s.
Melanie and Val had been tied heart-to-heart for going on forty years. They’d shared so much, it made sense to share a grandson.
Ben Carpenter handed her a handkerchief.
She raised her head and smiled her thanks. Truth was, she’d forgotten the man was there. After dabbing her eyes, she gripped the cloth in her fist and remembered to check on Val.
Valerie Salem suffered a stroke a few years ago that left her semi-paralyzed. She needed help with even minor things. Such as blotting the moisture from her cheeks.
Melanie handled those tears too, hanging onto the handkerchief. It still would come in handy.
Ben cleared his throat. “Ladies, I hate to be in the way, though I’m happy to remain as long as you want.”
Mel turned her attention back to him. “You’ve been a great help, Ben. How will you return to the reception?” He’d been volunteered to aid Mel in getting Val to the hospital for this event while another important one happened just up the highway—Phil and Val’s daughter Thea’s wedding day. Phil was his son, Thea was Val’s daughter. Their reception was in full swing. “I can’t imagine the kids meant for you to miss everything.”
“It’s fine. I can take a taxi back to the Casa Grande. But Thea arranged things, so we were there for the cake and important stuff. It’s…fine.” He smiled and in that expression Melanie thought she saw something. A wistfulness? It must be hard missing his only son’s wedding reception, even if they tried to make accommodations.
“I hate to keep you here when you have the party waiting. Val and I have handled this before.” She returned the smile, hoping her dread of maneuvering Val back into the car alone didn’t show.
He shook his head. “Nah, it’s not a problem. I got my dance with Thea and a taste of the cake. This is one more gift I can give them. That girl will worry to pieces about her mom otherwise.”
Val glanced up at that. “Tan coo.” Another tear slipped, but Melanie caught it with the handkerchief.
Ben patted Val’s hand. “We’re family now. And about time. I thought we’d never get those two together.” He chuckled, drawing Val into the laugh. “Funny how we can watch them manage all these grownup things and still they’re our kids.”
Val nodded while Melanie winced. Her kids lay buried in Arlington with her husband. The notion shot unbidden and pierced her heart. Sheer forcing of will her kept from doubling over from the rawness of her wound. It had been two years. It shouldn’t hurt this much. Instead, her pain grew.
Ben must have sensed something because he changed the subject. “You know I was thinking it’ll be awful convenient for Phil to remember how long he’s been married. It being a decade year and all. With his absentmindedness, he needs as much help as he can get.” He chuckled again.
Melanie breathed. The stitch of pain didn’t pull, so she inhaled and kept her smile plastered. “So right. Put one of Thea’s cookies or something about the founding fathers under his nose and he’s in another world.” She even added a slight chuckle.
“He was always willing to help on the farm. But I could tell it would take longer for him to do it than if I got it done. His mind wanders to his favorite topics and he loses himself. No idea how Thea’s gonna cope with that, but if anyone can, she will. Actually, she’s one of those favorite topics so that gives her an edge.” He grinned at Thea’s mother and winked.
The way he kept Val a part of the conversation touched Melanie. She was protective of her dearest friend and appreciated his kindness. Most spoke as if Val were invisible.
“He’ll never go hungry, that’s for sure. Speaking of which, would you ladies like anything to eat or drink? I’ll bring something from the cafeteria or maybe find a machine.” Ben stood.
Melanie glanced at Val, who shook her head. “I wouldn’t mind a coffee. Black is fine. Thank you, Ben.”
“One black coffee. Got it.” He grinned again, the dimple in his right cheek running deep. He striding down the hall, his posture that of a younger man, though his once ebony hair had distinguished streaks of silver.
“Goo mah.” Val followed him with her gaze.
“Yes, he’s a good man. I like his sense of humor. It reminds me of Dad’s. A little.”
Val nodded agreement.
“So, how are you holding up? I know you want to see the baby, so do I. But I don’t want you to overdo. It’s been a big day.”
Val smiled, but Melanie could read the exhaustion in her eyes. “I goo. Nah wahee.”
Mel straightened Val’s sleeve. “Well I do worry and telling me not to won’t change that.” She leaned back in her chair, feeling the strain of keeping her smile in place, crafting every word so as not to sound as depressed as she felt. There was too much to appreciate. Finally. She had no legitimate reason for depression.
Someone whistled a tune. It sounded like Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” Melanie glanced up to see Ben rounding the corner.
Their gazes met and he stopped mid-note, blushing with a grin. “Sorry, I’m a Sinatra fan. Just seemed to be the right song.”
“Don’t stop on my account. I enjoy his music too.”
His grin deepened, as did his dimple. “I knew I liked you for a reason.” He handed her the coffee.
It was terrible. But she wouldn’t tell him.
A nurse stepped out. “If you are part of the Salem family, you may follow me.”
Ben looked to disengage himself.
Melanie tapped his forearm. “You’ve come this far, no slipping away now. I’ll let you push the chair.”
“Okeydokey.” He maneuvered Val as he followed the nurse down the hall through the big double doors.
Melanie walked at her friend’s side. They’d already made arrangements in case the baby arrived while Thea was on her honeymoon. Mel would move in with the Salems and care for Val, even stay on a few days until Hien got her bearings and was ready. After that, she’d just pop in each day to give Hien and Beau a breather. Having a baby was hard enough. Summertime on a farm with a newborn, while providing for an invalid? That’d be over a plateful. But perhaps keeping busy, doing the cooking for more than one person, and having Val’s company would chase this deep sadness away.
She could only hope.
There was much to be thankful for. It was ungrateful to wallow in melancholy.
The nurse stopped and pointed to a viewing window. “Wait here and we’ll bring him to show you.”
A tingle shimmered down Melanie’s arms in anticipation. Her empty arms. She winced again. Why’d that thought slink in? To spoil things? No. She would focus on the good of now, the blessings she’d experienced since coming home from Viet Nam. Too many to count.
A different nurse, dressed in her white uniform and cap and wearing a mask, picked up a bundle of blue from a bassinet and brought it to the window. She pulled the receiving blanket back a bit to reveal a sweet face and a waving fist. Little Owen didn’t cry, but he squirmed. Melanie silently chuckled as she remembered the first time she saw his father, Beau, and held him in her arms. He did the same thing. In fact, if not for the mass of black hair, she’d say this little guy looked a lot like his daddy.
This should be Michael and Hien’s baby.
Oh! That thought was too much. How had that crept into her brain? It was so wrong it embarrassed her, even if no one else heard.
Beau was an outstanding man. He loved Hien and Hien loved him. She had no doubt that Hien had loved her Michael and that if he had lived, it would be very different. But if Michael couldn’t make a family with Hien, Melanie knew of no one better than Val’s Beau.
She glanced at her friend. The tears had returned to them both. Good thing she’d hung on to that handkerchief.
That lil’ feller was cuter than the dickens. And all that black hair. He was bound to be spoiled rotten with those two as his grammas. Ben smiled to himself.
Beau joined them at the window, looking like he viewed the eighth wonder of the world. “Owen James Salem. What do you think, Mom?” The awe in his voice was hard to miss.
As much as he was happy to assist, Ben might as well be a frog banned from its pond. But he had the notion that since they’d seen the baby, the ladies would want to get Val home. She seemed a little tuckered, peaked maybe. And as far as he was concerned, the sooner he got out of this building the better. He was grateful it was a joyful reason for his presence or he might not have been able to enter the premises. Even then, it had taken everything he had to do it.
That set his brain to wondering. If Beau wasn’t leaving right away, those gals’d need help to get Val into the house. But hiring a taxi miles out in the country? That was a whole ’nuther matter. Would they mind driving by the Casa Grande restaurant first? He could pick up his car and follow them to the farm. That’d work. He’d suggest it when they got out of this place.
The nurse returned the baby to his bassinet. Beau hugged his mom and aunt, then shook Ben’s hand. “I need to get back to Hien.” He hurried off.
Melanie leaned down to Val. “Ready now?” She dabbed the woman’s cheeks as she asked.
Val nodded, so he stepped behind her chair and pushed her down the corridor.
Melanie got the doors. Once through the big glass exit she turned his way. “We should take you to the restaurant for your car first.”
That gal was one smart cookie. “I was thinking the same. Then I can follow you to the house.”
“Oh, there’s no need.” Her words said one thing, but her eyes another.
“Melanie, I don’t mind. Besides, how’ll you two maneuver those front steps?”
She smiled. “I figured we’d wait for Beau. Sit under the old sycamore.” A sigh escaped. “But thank you. Your help will make it easier, and I think Val’s ready for her bed.” She glanced at her friend, who appeared to be fading fast. “Right?”
Val nodded and flashed a tired half smile.
“Then that’s settled. Let’s head for the Casa Grande. I’ll run in and tell the kids what’s happening and then meet you at the house.”
“Good plan.” Melanie’s eyes said more than her words.
They got Val buckled in and her chair loaded in the trunk. Melanie took the wheel while Ben climbed in the rear seat and they were off.
He glanced around. Not his first experience riding behind the driver. But it sure was strange being chauffeured by a gal. A chuckle escaped and he caught her glance in the rearview mirror.
Melanie Wheaten still had fire.
He recollected her from their school days when she was Melanie Jo Salem and lived in the house where Val and her family were now. She’d been a year behind him in class, but that didn’t keep him from noticing her. A little. Once he’d set his cap for Julie, no other girl compared. But he wasn’t blind. Melanie Jo Salem Wheaten still had a firecracker personality.
“You’re awful quiet back there, Ben. Got you worn out too?”
He couldn’t hide his grin when she spoke. Her words pulled it out of him like a magnet. “A little. Wasn’t a whole lot of sleeping done last night, what with Phil pacing the floor til all hours. Funny how something you crave so much can wind you up.”
Her soft “um, hm” floated back as a yawn slipped out.
She turned in at the Casa Grande, pulling up near the door.
He climbed out and leaned in at Val’s window. “I’ll tell the kids, and then I’m on my way. Won’t take me long.”
Val smiled and brushed her hand against his fingers. She’d tried to pat them.
“Don’t worry. We’ll wait for you.” Melanie’s smile was kind, but there was something he’d noticed. Her eyes remained sad while her face chose to appear happy. Made him a little sad too.
He tapped the car’s roof and waved to them before he headed inside the restaurant.
Music still played and a few danced, but many mingled in groups, either standing at the border of the dance floor or at the tables covered with the remnants of the dinner the waiters had yet to clear. Ben scanned the crowd, spotting Phil and Thea talking with guests in the far corner.
As he headed their direction, Thea glanced up and caught his gaze. She tapped Phil’s arm and they both came to him.
“You have a new nephew. Owen James. Don’t have all those particulars you gals like, but he’s cuter than a spring colt with a whole lot of black hair.”
Thea hugged him. “Thanks. How’s Mom and Aunt Mel doing?”
“Fine. They dropped me off here to let you know and fetch my car. I’m gonna head over there now and get your mom in the house. Just wanted to give you kids the news.”
Phil shook his hand. “Appreciate it Dad. It seemed so strange not having you in the room with me, but it means a lot that you could help.” His eyes held a sheen that said more than his words.
Ben cleared his throat. “Glad to do it, son. You have the time of your life. I’ll see you when you’re back from French Lick.” He pulled them together into an embrace and wheeled toward the door before he got all sentimental and weepy around them.
His son had discovered the perfect little gal for him, and Ben couldn’t be happier.
He found his car and started it up, pulling out of the parking lot onto US 31. Traffic was low for a Saturday evening. Not twilight yet, but close. Fifteen minutes later he was turning on the road leading to the Salem farm. By then dusk had claimed central Indiana. Time to get Val inside the house to rest.
As soon as he pulled to a stop, Melanie slipped from the driver’s side of her car and popped the trunk.
He rushed over. “Here, let me get that.”
She went on to Val’s door and started unbuckling her while he brought the wheelchair around. Together they lifted and guided Val into her seat, and then he wheeled her to the front steps.
“Going up backwards seems to work best. If you pull her up, I’ll lift from here.” Melanie bent, ready to execute her system.
“What if I carry her up the steps and you bring the chair up? Wouldn’t that be easier?”
She stopped a moment, glanced at Val, and then back at him. “I think you’re right. Thea and I have always worked it this way, but with you here, yes, let’s try your plan.” She stepped aside so he could lift Val into his arms.
It shocked him how light she was. And he had a feeling if it weren’t so dark, he’d spot a blush on her cheeks. “We’ll not start a habit of this, Val, I promise.” He tossed her a wink and grinned as she half smiled.
A sound caught his attention, so he turned to see Melanie trying to wrangle the wheelchair up the steps. “Hey, Mel, I’ll make you a deal. If you’ll get the door here, I’ll put Val on her bed and come back for that contraption. Whaddya say?”
She straightened. “I say you got a deal, buster. Let’s go.” After opening the doors, Melanie led the way to Val’s room and switched on a light.
Ben placed her on the hospital bed and returned for the wheelchair, shaking his head. They did this sort of thing at least every Sunday. And if anyone had a special event or Val needed to go to an appointment somewhere, they followed the same routine. He knew it was hard on them all, but love lightened the load. What he’d give to have this kind of burden instead of losing his Julie.
After getting the thing inside and collapsing it accordion style, Ben made his exit. Not that he was in a hurry to get home, but the women needed their privacy.
Home. Not anymore. Its directional light flickered when Julie died, back when Phil was a tot. If it weren’t for his boy, there’d have been no light. Ever. But Phil was grown. He’d moved out for good, not just for a college campus.
His hands gripped the steering wheel as he turned into his drive, while the lonely two-story farmhouse loomed back at him. This might be where he worked and ate and slept. But one thing that empty old structure wasn’t, and that was home.