excerpt

Prologue

The Scent of Cedar

May 2016

“I think that’s about the last box, sweetheart. Do you need a few minutes alone to say goodbye?”

Mattie Tice scanned the room and then looked at her husband, Don, before nodding yes.

How can I properly say goodbye to the home I love when I can barely even talk anymore? Mattie thought.

After nearly fifty years together, Don could read his wife’s thoughts by instinct. He walked over to Mattie, knelt in front of her wheelchair, and leaned in close, until her white-blond hair tickled his tanned face.

“It will always be our lake home,” he whispered, his breath smelling sweet like the toffee lattes he loved to drink, especially when he was tired. “Our home is wherever we are.”

Mattie knew his words were meant to comfort her, but she was too upset for them to help. She opened her mouth to talk, but even if she screamed, no one could hear her.

My voice is getting weaker, Mattie thought.

“Say it again, sweetie. For me,” Don said softly, lifting the tiny mic that dangled in front of his wife’s face to amplify her voice.

“That’s … B … S,” Mattie said slowly. “Just … like … A … L … S.”

Don laughed at her pluck and kissed her cheek.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know how much you hate platitudes.”

“You know what they say about death and moving,” Mattie said, one garbled word at a time. “Very stressful.”

The word “death” hung in the silence of the now empty cottage and rattled around in Don’s mind.

He smiled and bit the inside of his cheek—it was the only way he could keep himself from crying in times like this.

Don put his hands on his wife’s shoulders and massaged them.

“Right up there with taxes,” Don said. “I know how hard this is, my love.”

Mattie leaned her head to the right until it was pressed against her husband’s hand. He is a warm man, she thought, inside and out.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” she said to her husband, knowing his every emotion. “I’m a big girl.”

Mattie Tice was the strongest person Don had ever known and that strength had willed her through five years of living with ALS.

But now their beloved lake house was simply too much for her to navigate.

It’s too big, and I’m too small, Mattie thought, looking around the cottage she’d been coming to since she was ten years old.

Two movers suddenly came barreling down the narrow staircase carrying a box. Mabel, the Tice’s beloved, mutt, barked her disappeared.

“I thought that was everything?” Mattie asked before they could exit the front door. “What’s in there?”

The two young men—broad shouldered, barrel-chested—stopped, unable to understand what she was saying.

“She’s wondering what’s in there,” Don restated for them.

“OF COURSE, MA’AM!” one of the movers, who was maybe twenty, yelled. He walked over, gesturing for his friend to follow, and stopped in front of Mattie. “WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE?”

He put the box on the floor with great animation and opened it, as if he were pantomiming a children’s story to a group of kindergarteners.

Don tried hard not to roll his eyes.

People always talked to his wife as if she were a baby, or deaf. They shouted, they cooed, they were nervous, they even invented their own language.

Why are people always so uncomfortable around someone with a disability? Don wondered, his mind screaming: She has ALS! Her brain, ironically, is as strong as her body is weak.

Instead, Don smiled politely and remained quiet. His wife hated scenes.

The box was filled with big, old scrapbooks, and the mover pulled one out and placed it on Mattie’s lap. Don walked over quickly to open the ancient, hardbound album for her.

“My flowers,” she said. “Oh!”

Over the years, Mattie had created these albums, documenting every start of every flower that every person had ever given her: Latin and common names of the plants and flowers, their colors, and years they were gifted and planted.

Alongside, Mattie had made a watercolor of each plant. Years later, when the plant was mature, Mattie would paint another watercolor of it in full bloom.

These books had also served as Mattie’s professional signature: She gave elaborate drawings of her garden designs to her landscape clients, returning years later—often unannounced—to paint the now-fully-grown gardens she had envisioned. Mattie’s clients had included CEOs, politicians, famous actors, and musicians.

The earth centers us all, Mattie thought.

Mattie ran a trembling finger over a watercolor of a white peony with a pink center, one of her favorite flowers.

It transported her back in time. She could feel her hands in the earth. She could feel a connection to the world.

I could feel, Mattie thought.

“Thank you,” Mattie said suddenly, and Don instantly closed the book. “Alone … now … please.”

“Of course,” Don said. “Let us know when you’re ready.”

Mattie could still hear her husband’s Ozarks accent living deep within his well-polished city-speak. It unknowingly reared its head when he was stressed. He’d try to hide it, but the give away, “ready” always came out in three syllables: “re uh-dee.”

“Go,” she said, forcing a smile.

Don was often the only one now who could easily understand his wife without intense concentration. He knew by heart her vocal cadences and rhythms, her every grunt, grumble, cough, choke, inflection. He could nearly read her mind by staring into her hazel eyes, those verdant flecks reminding him of the sea grass waving in the distance on the sandy dunes leading to Lake Michigan.

Don kissed the top of his wife’s head, stopping for a second to inhale her scent.

She always smells like sunshine, Don thought.

Mattie smiled, lifted her head a few inches off the headrest of the wheelchair, and nodded, before reclining it slightly to watch her husband—still so young, so strong, so vibrant—as he walked out the front door. A spring wreath hanging on the door looked like a happy halo over his head as he passed by.

She heard the birds sing before the door closed, their song like a summer chorus. Don always told Mattie that her voice, even now, sounded like a bird’s song.

Still beautiful, he told her every day.

Mattie pressed her right index finger on the wheelchair’s control and slowly rotated in a circle around her living room before toggling the joystick forward and stopping the wheelchair in front of the large picture window overlooking the lake.

The window was open just a touch—“to air out the home as well as its ghosts,” Mattie had joked earlier. She closed her eyes, listening to the whistle of the breeze as it transitioned from water to dune to land. Mattie opened her eyes again and rolled her head to the left, watching the breeze ripple the dune grass before causing the peonies, fox glove, delphinium, and arctic orange poppy blossoms to dance. When the wind finally reached her, the dainty collar of her white shirt rippled and her matching hair took flight.

She rolled her head right and watched Don load hundreds of little pots into the back of their “handi-capable” van.

Mattie’s heart broke.

Pots! Now all I will have are pots? she thought. Potted plants. Just like me.

When Mattie was diagnosed with ALS, her life in her beloved garden—and career as a landscape architect—quickly disappeared.

For decades, she had worked alone, in her garden, in other people’s gardens, and in the attic office she could no longer reach. Those were her private places.

Now, she was never alone: Everyone hovered around like ghosts, worried about every cough, breath, sip of water.

Nothing to take root ever again, to grow, to bloom. Forever trapped in this chair, Mattie thought, slamming her fists down on her wheelchair.

Mattie negotiated her wheelchair from the living room into the dining room, Mabel following closely behind. She stopped in the middle, where the grand table had long anchored the room. She could hear the voices of her family and past celebrations—anniversaries, birthdays, Thanksgivings, Fourth of Julys—ring in her head.

She moved into the kitchen, and thought of all the dinners she had prepared, the cookies she had baked, the picnic baskets she had packed. Vintage lake blue tiles she’d bought from Pewabic Pottery—Michigan’s historic ceramics studio—reflected the sunlight and filled the room with a warm glow.

Mattie moved her chair into the family room overlooking the lake, and the smell of smoke from the floor-to-ceiling fireplace engulfed her. She smiled at the beautiful, polished Michigan stones—gathered by her father and husband from the lakeshore—that comprised the fireplace.

Mattie remembered the first night in this house—a bone-chilling June night—when her father had just purchased the cottage.

He had lit a fire with birch limbs he had picked up in the woods—and nearly lit himself and the house on fire as well—not yet realizing that some woods were made for burning and some were not.

Mattie smiled and looked at the faded square over the mantel. She had framed a picture for her father decades ago of “The Firewood Poem,” and she could recite it line by line even though it was no longer in its sacred place.

… Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last …
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown
Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
Keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
A king shall warm his slippers by

Mattie turned her chair toward the screened porch that overlooked her massive backyard gardens, patio, and pool.

Her giant ferns were unfurling everywhere—like sleepy dancers stretching after a long winter’s hibernation. She stared out at the lake, the entire sandy coast of Michigan in the distance, the water’s horizon draped in clouds, almost like a mirage.

So Wuthering Heights, Mattie thought. I will miss you.

Mattie watched the wind sway through the branches and tender leaves of the sugar maples. Suddenly, a gust off the lake swept up and over the bluff, and a smell overwhelmed her. She shut her eyes and inhaled.

The scent of cedar.

Without warning, Mattie’s heart began to pound. She stared at the reddish-brown trunk of the ancient tree that sat at the edge of her garden.

How long ago was it? she thought, trying to remember how old she was when she took a sapling from her parents’ home in St. Louis and planted it here with her father.

The cedar’s arms reached toward the heavens. It was old, some of its lower branches sparse, and it stood in contrast to the willowy white birch she had also planted long ago. But the ancient, aging cedar had an unmistakable grace.

Just like me. Mattie laughed.

Mattie lifted her nose and sniffed again, Mabel doing the same. Mattie unconsciously moving her wheelchair until she was up against the screen.

The scent triggered something in Mattie, something powerful, ancient, unforgettable.

Mattie’s mind whirled, and she could suddenly hear the voice of her father.

“How big do you think this will get, Dad?” she remembered asking him when they planted it.

“How big are your hopes and dreams?” he asked, shovel in hand.

Mattie’s heart began to pound even faster, and a tear popped into her eye. She immediately tried to blame it on allergies, but knew better.

 

Easter 1950

 

“I found it! I found it!”

Madeline Barnhart zipped through her sloping backyard in St. Louis, down the hill, and directly toward a dyed pink egg nestled in the crook of a redbud tree.

Her parents laughed as she jumped up and down in her Easter dress—white with little pink bows that her mother had made, and patent leather shoes—holding up the matching pink egg for them to see.

While his daughter was looking, Joseph Barnhart secretly pointed behind his wife’s back toward the next location—a squirrel hole in an old oak—and Mattie giggled, racing off to the next hiding spot with her basket bursting with bright green plastic grass, chocolates, and colorful eggs.

Joseph put his arm around his wife.

“Perfect Easter,” he said, kissing her cheek.

“Looks like The Wizard of Oz with all the color, doesn’t it?” Mary Ellen asked.

As the Barnharts stood on their deck, they could survey not only their sprawling suburban yard but also those of their neighbors. They could see neighborhood kids rushing around their yards with baskets, too, while Harry Caray’s unmistakable voice boomed over radios broadcasting the Cardinals game.

 

The dogwoods and redbud were in bloom—white and pink dotting the lush green—and most of the trees, save for the stubborn oaks, were nearly full of leaves. Tulips encircled the trees—a Crayon box of colors—while sunny daffodils lined the fence.

It was April, and St. Louis was downright hot: The air was thick and moist like a rain forest. The earth smelled alive.

Mary Ellen dabbed at her brow with the Kleenex she pulled from deep within the top of her own Easter dress.

“You’re like a magician,” teased Joseph. “Always pulling Kleenex from a purse, a sleeve … anywhere.”

Mary Ellen draped the Kleenex over her husband’s face. “Sometimes I wish I could make you disappear,” she said laughing, before returning it to her forehead. “Humidity’s already back. It’s going to be a hot summer, I can already tell.”

Joseph waved his arms in front of his wife, pretending to be a fan.

“That’s not going to cut it.” She laughed.

He walked over and took a seat in a lawn chair on the patio, as his daughter continued her hunt.

“We should think about a summer house,” he said. “A place where we can get out of this heat.”

“Really?”

Mary Ellen beamed expectantly.

She looks just like Doris Day, Joseph thought. And Mattie looks like a mini-Doris. Both blond, happy rays of sunshine.

“We could do it, especially with the extra money from my raise,” Joseph said of his accounting job at Anheuser-Busch. “All the fellas from the brewery are buying in Wisconsin and Michigan. And I have nearly a month off now. We could make it work.”

Mattie’s happy shrieks echoed throughout the yard, and the ten-year-old zipped past the birdbath toward her parents, sending a pair of fat robins flying into the sky.

“Too much chocolate,” Mary Ellen said, plucking another Kleenex from her dress and wiping down her daughter’s face. “You are too excited.”

“It’s Easter!” screamed Mattie. “I love my Brach’s!”

“Well, we have one more surprise for you today … if you stay calm,” her mom said, unable to hide a smile. “Follow us.”

Mary Ellen and Joseph led Mattie into the family room of their sprawling red brick ranch, and their daughter gasped: A trail of jelly beans meandered past the kidney bean–shaped coffee table and burnt orange amoeba lounge chair and ottoman.

“Where’s it go?” Mattie giggled.

“Follow it and find out,” Joseph said.

“Follow the yellow brick road,” Mattie sang, giggling, before changing the lyrics. “Follow the jelly-bean road!”

Mattie took off in a flash—Easter basket still in the crook of her arm—her parents running to keep up, the trail of jelly beans leading across the kitchen linoleum, past the Hotpoint appliances, and into the formal living room where, smack-dab in the middle sat a large package wrapped in colorful cellophane.

“That’s a big Easter basket,” Mattie said, her hazel eyes wide.

Joseph laughed, running a hand through his thick, black hair, which was slicked back and parted on the side. “Open it,” he said, kneeling down in front of his daughter. “I’ll help you.”

The two began to unwrap the layers of cellophane, the loud crinkling causing Mattie to giggle even more.

“What is it?” Mattie asked as the gift was revealed, her mouth hanging open.

“It’s a hope chest,” Mary Ellen answered, taking a seat on the carpet next to her daughter.

“A what, Mommy?”

“A hope chest,” she said. “It’s sort of like a jewelry box, except bigger, for your dreams.”

Mary Ellen sat on her knees next to Mattie and smoothed her daughter’s short blond hair.

“This was mine when I was a little girl, and your dad and I thought it was the perfect time to pass it on to you.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to help you fill it before you’re all grown up.”

“With what?” Mattie asked.

“Well, a hope chest is filled with lots of things,” Mary Ellen said, continuing to smooth her daughter’s hair. “It’s filled with blankets and linens to keep you warm. It’s filled with household items, like glasses, dishes, kitchen towels, and bakeware, so that your future house is truly a home. It’s filled with memories, like scrapbooks and family pictures, teddy bears and dolls, so that you can pass those along when you are married and have a family. It’s a way to connect your past with your future.”

Mary Ellen stopped and looked at her husband. “But, mostly, a hope chest is filled with love, and the hopes and dreams that parents have for their daughters, that we have for you.”

“It’s so pretty,” Mattie exclaimed, touching the chest, whose wood was burnished and the color of gold, the lid shiny and smooth from use.

“Your father wanted to add something, too,” Mary Ellen started, “so he carved these beautiful spring flowers onto the front.”

“They’re all your favorites: tulips and daffodils and dogwood blooms,” Joseph said. “I thought you’d like that since we love to work in the garden together. And those flowers represent spring, the season of eternal hope.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” Mattie said, standing to give him a big hug.

“Open it,” Mary Ellen said. “I have something in there for you, too.”

Mattie tried to lift the lid, but it wouldn’t budge. “I think it’s jammed,” she said, turning to look at her parents. “Or broken.”

“Oh, I forgot,” Mary Ellen said. “See the lock? There’s a special key—the only one like it in the world—that goes with it that only you will have. So you need to keep it in a secret place, okay?”

“Where is it?” Mattie asked.

“Would you help me?” Mary Ellen asked her husband.

“I don’t know where the key is, either,” Joseph said.

“The last place anyone would ever look,” she said, grabbing one end of the chest and nodding at her husband to grab the other. The pair tilted the chest up and taped to the bottom was the key. “The most obvious.”

Mattie giggled.

“Grab it, sweetheart,” Mary Ellen said.

Mattie took the key, her parents tilted the chest onto the floor again, and Mattie carefully inserted the key into the old lock.

As she lifted the lid, she asked, “What’s that smell? It’s like we’re in the woods.”

“That’s cedar,” Mary Ellen said. “That smell never goes away. It smells exactly the same way it did when I was a little girl. You’ll never forget that scent. Did you find anything in there yet?”

Mattie bent over the chest. Its lid had a lined drawer with compartments that ran the entire length of the chest. In the bottom of the deep chest sat one item: a wooden plaque.

Mattie carefully lifted it out of the chest.

“It’s a ‘Home Sweet Home’ plaque for your future home,” Mary Ellen said. “I wrote the poem on it just for you, and your father engraved the plaque.”

Mary Ellen took it from her daughter’s hands and held it up for her to read. 

 

Hope Is Only One Short Letter From Home
H is for Hope
Now and for always
O is for the Overwhelming love
I have for you

 

P is for the Practical items
That will make your house a home

 

E is for the Eternal memories this chest will provide
Every time you open it up

 

You are my hope, and my home, in this world
My daughter, my love

 

As Mattie read, Mary Ellen’s eyes grew misty, and Joseph put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“And, see,” Mary Ellen said with a shaky voice, “on the other side of the plaque your father engraved the word ‘home’ and trailed your name down from the m. Like the title, my mother always told me that hope is only one short letter from home.”

“Thank you, Mommy!” Mattie said. “I love it! When can we start filling it up?”

“We have all the time in the world, my angel,” Mary Ellen said, laying the plaque back into the chest. “We’ll have it overflowing by the time you meet the man of your dreams and have your first little girl.”

Mary Ellen stopped and pulled her daughter close. “Can I tell you something important?”

“Of course.” Mattie nodded.

“Always remember that hope is something you carry with you forever, not only in this chest but also in your heart. So look inside it and inside yourself when you need hope the most, and it will guide you, and remind you of what was and what is to be.”

Mattie looked at her mother, considering her words. Then she nodded and dropped the key into her Easter basket, before reaching back in and grabbing a little chocolate egg. She unwrapped the candy and popped it into her mouth.

“Okay!” she said. “But I don’t think there will ever be a time when I’m sad. I have oodles of hope!”

Mattie popped another chocolate into her mouth, hugged her parents, and skipped out of the room with her Easter basket.

“Later, ’gator!” she giggled, leaving five chocolatey fingerprints on the inside of the white frame of the door, just below the pencil marks that measured her growing height.

 

 

“Almost forgot this!”

The shouts of the movers startled Mattie.

“Found it in the attic,” one of the men was saying. “What is this old thing?”

Mattie heard a thud as they placed it down behind her, and she turned her wheelchair around to see what they had discovered.

Her heart stopped.

“That’s my hope,” Mattie gasped, her voice choking, stopping short of adding the word “chest.”

Before she could say anything further, the young movers were already trying to open the chest.

“Thing’s jammed,” one of the movers said. He turned to Mattie. “Sorry.”

Mattie smiled. “Key,” she said. “Taped underneath.”

The movers tilted the hope chest up a little, and an old key glimmered in the sunlight.

“Well, I’ll be,” one of the men said. “Pretty clever. Last place I would have looked.”

He took the key, inserted it into the lock, and opened the chest.

“Wow,” one of the young men said, before standing in front of the chest, which was overflowing with family heirlooms. “Smells great. What is all this stuff?”

Mattie’s eyes instantly filled with tears when she looked at the contents: a cloth doll, family photos, china, Christmas ornaments, a Bible, a scrapbook, an embroidered pillowcase and apron.

One of the movers saw Mattie’s tears and smiled at her.

“Must be for your kids or grandkids, huh?” he asked. “That’s real sweet. Glad we found it.”

“Please put it in the back of our van,” Don said quietly from the front door, before walking over to take the key and whisper to his wife, “Honey, are you okay?”

“How could I have forgotten that?” she asked, her voice weak and trembling. “How?”

“It was in the attic,” Don said. “It’s been there a long time.”

“I never would have forgiven myself,” Mattie said.

The smell of cedar rushed on to the screened porch.

“Can we leave now? Please,” she begged.

Don walked over to kiss his wife.

“Of course,” he said, softly kissing Mattie’s cheek. Don put his hand underneath her chin and looked into his wife’s eyes. “I love you.”

“Me, too,” she replied. “Time to go.”

“Here,” Don said, putting the key into her hands. “For luck. To remind you that memories can never be locked away.”

Mattie tried to smile, but nothing came. Instead, she navigated her wheelchair out of the house, down the ramp, and to the van, silently screaming inside.

I’m saying goodbye to everything, Mattie thought. My family. My history.

Mattie stopped.

My life.

Mattie squeezed her eyes shut, until her chair had been lifted and locked into place and she could hear the gravel of the long driveway crunch under the tires.

Mattie tried to keep her eyes closed, but she couldn’t help herself, and she opened them at the final moment, just in time to see the wood-carved sign that announced the name of the family cottage to visitors for years—HOPE DUNES—swinging in the lake breeze on a log post attached to two stone pillars.

Mattie closed her eyes again and rubbed the key, but she couldn’t shut out the smell of cedar seeping from the chest or the fact that the only thing worse than remembering a time once filled with hope was living when there was none at all.

Part One

The Cloth Doll

One

May 2016

Rose Hoffs leaned in to her bathroom mirror and pushed at the bags beneath her eyes.

She sighed and reached for some moisturizer and then for the foundation.

More water, more sleep, more exercise, more … everything, Rose thought. I’m 26 going on 107.

Rose took a deep breath and even bigger swig of coffee, and continued to “put on her face” as her mom used to say. Her nose twitched instinctively, just like a rabbit, and she sniffed the air.

Spring, Rose thought. The town is alive again!

It was a beautiful spring day in Saugatuck, Michigan, and the windows were open in Rose’s tiny five-room cottage, letting in the warm air that Michiganders wait so long for after interminable winters. Carried along on the wind was the sweet scent of blueberry streusel muffins, cinnamon scones, and roasting beans from Lake Effect Coffee located a few blocks away.

Rose’s mouth watered.

Rose’s cottage on Butler Street sat perched behind a row of larger resort homes, almost like a carriage house. But it wasn’t. The home was one of the town’s original fishing cottages—which came with a tiny square lot big enough for some rhododendrons and a couple of bikes. The Hoffs never dreamed resorters would come in droves to the little artists’ colony on the dunes of Lake Michigan, buying every available plot of land and building houses that reached up, up, up for seasonal peeks of the river and lake.

In fact, the Hoffs’ house had become known in town as the “Up” house (the level of sarcasm or affection for the nickname depended on whom you talked to and their net worth) because their adorable little cottage sat in the midst of gentrification just like the elderly widower’s home in the Disney movie.

The film Up came out just before Rose’s mother, Dora, died, and she had loved the movie and moniker.

“Up,” she would say, laughing every time the cartoon movie house took flight thanks to the hundreds of helium balloons attached. “Our house is like that one: filled with hope and adventure.”

The wind again wafted the scent of freshly baked treats into Rose’s house—Those are definitely blueberry muffins, she thought—making her mouth water again. Rose wondered how many blueberries her parents, Dora and Dave, had sold over the course of their lifetimes from their tiny farmers’ market on Blue Star Highway.

We couldn’t afford to buy this house today, Rose thought. I couldn’t even afford to keep their stand going. I can barely pay the taxes.

Rose’s mind drifted to all the resorters who owned land around the Hoffs’ house and their offers to buy the house and property.

How much longer can I hold out? Rose wondered. My mother would never forgive me if I lost it. I need this job.

Rose shook her head and reached for her lipstick.

“How about this one, Mommy?”

Rose looked over at her daughter, Jeri, seated on a cushioned chair at the vanity, happily holding up a tube of lipstick. In the few minutes Rose was not paying attention, her seven-year-old daughter painted her whole face pink, her favorite color. She resembled one of the Doodlebops, from the cartoon she loved to watch.

“Very Deedee Doodle,” said Rose, smiling, despite Jeri’s misbehavior, referencing one of the colorfully painted children’s band members who teach kids social lessons.

“Yeah!” giggled Jeri. “Better than one of the boys.”

Jeri stopped and looked at her mom with a serious expression. “How come I’m named after a boy? All the kids in Mrs. Hooper’s class made fun of my name this year. I’m glad it’s summer vacation!”

“Well…,” started Rose, who always had trouble explaining this fact to her seven-year-old.

Do I tell her that her father had wanted a boy? And that he had been disappointed with a girl? And me? And with pretty much everything in his life? And that her name was a compromise to keep him happy?

“We wanted a name as unique as you,” Rose said, reaching over to muss her daughter’s curly red locks. “Don’t worry. You’ll grow into it. It wasn’t easy being named after a thorny flower, either.”

Rose dampened a washcloth and leaned down to clean her daughter’s face.

That won’t cut it, Rose thought, before grabbing some makeup remover as well as some makeup remover towelettes. As she was scrubbing Jeri’s pink, round cheeks, her daughter said, “A rose is beautiful, Mommy. Just like you.”

Rose’s lip quivered, and her eyes filled with tears.

“You’re so sweet. Thank you. You’re going to make me cry.”

“Don’t cry, Mommy,” Jeri said. “It’s a very big day.”

Rose nodded, as she finished scrubbing her daughter’s face. “Yes, it is,” she agreed.

She was putting on her lipstick when Jeri asked another question.

“Are you nervous?”

Rose stopped with her lipstick in midair, as if she were conducting an invisible orchestra. Her lip quivered again.

“I am,” she said. “It’s a very big interview for me … for us.”

“Wait here,” Jeri said, hopping off the little seat at the vanity. Rose could hear Jeri’s padded footsteps run into her bedroom. A few seconds later, her daughter was back, her tiny hands hiding something behind her back.

Jeri’s face broke into a wide smile.

“Here!” she said with conviction, handing her mom her favorite doll—a beat-up, hand-me-down Raggedy Ann cloth doll. “She was sleeping, but I woke her up. I think you need her more than I do today.”

Rose smiled and, without thinking, hugged Jeri and the cloth doll tightly.

“Thank you, sweetie,” she said.

“I want you to take Ann with you on your … what’s it called again?” Jeri asked.

“Interview,” Rose said.

“Yeah, inner-blue,” Jeri said. “She’ll keep you company.”

Rose smiled at her daughter, feeling calm for a split second, before she felt her nerves kick in again.

I have no friends or family to watch Jeri today, Rose thought, and no extra money for a sitter. I’m a bad mother.

“Remember, you’re going to have to babysit Ann in the car while I talk to the nice people for a few minutes today, okay?” Rose said to her daughter. “You’re going to have to be a very big girl today.”

“I will! I promise!” Jeri said. “And you’re gonna have to be a big girl today, too!”

Rose smiled and again hugged the doll, which smelled of her daughter.

I can’t recall a time Ann hasn’t been part of my life, Rose thought.

“I promise to be a big girl, too,” Rose said. “But now I have to find some big girl clothes to wear. We’ve got to hurry.”

Rose and Jeri scurried over to the closet, and Rose began to scour through her clothes, tossing slacks, suit jackets, and blouses onto her bed.

Jeri’s words—You’re gonna have to be a big girl today—ran through Rose’s head as she tried to pick out something to wear.

Why do I still feel like such a little girl? Rose thought, still clutching the red-haired doll that looked so much like her and her daughter.

Two

February 2011

Rose watched her baby daughter sleep, nuzzling her beloved doll, which was nestled into the curve of her chubby body.

As Jeri slept, she unconsciously gummed the cloth doll’s hand, something Rose had done to the same doll as an infant, her mother had told her.

Rose reached out to caress the downy reddish curls that swept like little waves over her daughter’s head, but stopped at the last moment, lowered her head, and wept.

I have everything, Rose thought. I have nothing.

In two short years, Rose’s life had turned upside down. She had quit school, married her boyfriend, gotten pregnant, gotten a divorce, had a baby, and lost her mother.

In the distance, bells of the neighborhood church chimed. Rose thought of the day she married Ray Rhodes.

“I don’t hear joyous church bells ringing today,” her mother had said the day of Rose’s wedding. “I only hear alarm bells.”

She had been right, of course, Rose thought. About everything.

The church bells echoed throughout Rose’s tiny home, making the old, wavy glass reverberate in the window panes of the house in which she had grown up. She looked around the nursery—once her bedroom—and watched tiny yellow ducks happily marching in rain boots around the border that lined the walls of the room.

Happy, Rose thought, staring at their smiling beaks. What’s that?

She swung forward in her rocker and gently eased the Raggedy Ann doll from the crook of her daughter’s body.

I must look like the Grinch when he stole all of the Whoville children’s Christmas gifts, Rose thought, slinking the doll out of the crib without waking Jeri.

Rose wrapped her arms around the tiny doll and hugged it. Raggedy Ann had faded from years of play and washes, her red triangle nose, string hair, gingham top, and striped legs now more pink in color.

“Life sure puts us through the wringer, doesn’t it?” Rose whispered to the doll. With Rose’s coaxing, Raggedy Ann nodded her head in agreement.

Rose looked into the doll’s eyes. Ann had two mismatched button eyes, one the original large black circle, the other a small blue button from …

A sob emerged from the depths of Rose, and she covered her mouth to stop herself from waking Jeri.

Oh, Mom, she thought. I miss you.

I hate cancer, Rose said to the doll, who had lost its original eye when Rose—overcome with grief—had nervously twisted it off and then lost it during her mother’s illness. She had plucked the new button off the back of her mother’s blue Easter dress when she picked it for the funeral, and added it to the doll as a way to keep a part of her mother with her forever.

Cancer has taken both my parents and both of Jeri’s grandparents. I’m too young to have no family.

“I love blue!” her mother had chirped every Easter as she walked to the stone church on the hill in Saugatuck, rain or shine or snow. “Blue spring skies, bluebirds, blooming blue bells, and blue moon ice cream. Blue is hope, Rose. Sunny skies ahead!”

Rose would always laugh at her mother’s optimism because Easter weather in Michigan was iffy, at best. But, no matter the weather, Rose’s mother made her feel safe, happy, hopeful.

“I have no future without you, Mom,” Rose told Dora in her final days, when all her mom wanted to do was hold her newborn granddaughter and sleep.

“No,” Dora responded one morning, before she fell into a coma from which she wouldn’t wake, “you just won’t have any backup plan anymore.”

That morning, Dora patted the edge of the hospital bed for her daughter to come and sit. “You’re such a wonderful mother and daughter. And you take such great care of me. You are neither helpless nor hopeless. You’re just scared.”

She continued with a sense of purpose: “Take some of my strength moving forward, and some of your daughter’s strength. You should be a nurse. It’s your calling. Go back to school.”

Dora had stopped and kissed the top of Jeri’s head. “And never forget,” she said, her voice shaking, “that the world is always full of hope and possibility simply because this precious angel is now in it.”

The February wind rattled the window frames and Rose from her thoughts. She looked outside. It was ten in the morning, but it might as well have been midnight: The Saugatuck skies were black, and lake-effect snow was coming down in heavy bursts every half hour. Right now, Rose couldn’t even make out the silhouette of a tree in her neighbor’s yard. The little house moaned in the storm.

Rose shivered. It was a day just like this when she had moved out of this house.

“You’re not taking that thing, too, are you?” Ray Rhodes had asked his new wife, as Rose clutched the doll against her pregnant stomach and looked over at her mother. “We got a tiny apartment.”

“Yes! She’s taking the doll,” said Dora. “It was mine as a little girl, Rose’s as a little girl, and one day they will belong to your little girl.”

“Dolls.” Ray had snorted. “Girls.”

“Mom,” Rose said sweetly. “Please. Don’t.”

“I’m paying for that place,” Dora said, her words as icy as the winter weather roaring outside. “I think there’s room for the doll and three girls—don’t you?—considering I’ll be there all the time.”

Ray roared out of the Hoffs’ house and into the swirling snow outside.

Why didn’t I listen? Rose thought. Why did I believe he would change? Ray and Rose Rhodes. I thought we fit perfectly. Why was I such an idiot?

Rose shivered, and realized she was still sitting in her daughter’s nursery. She stood and checked the thermostat.

Sixty degrees. And the heat was running nonstop.

Rose briefly considered cranking it up a notch but stopped, thinking of all the bills that were due.

Ray wouldn’t help, she thought, even if I knew where he was and had two nickels to rub together.

Rose was happy to have her mom’s house—and to have retaken her family name after her divorce. Now, she needed a job to pay the remaining mortgage, the utilities, and taxes. Her parents’ tiny inheritance was already dwindling.

I have a baby, Rose thought. I can’t just go back to school. I need an income.

Jeri began to squirm, and Rose walked back into the nursery, grabbing a throw and pulling it over her shoulders, still holding the doll.

Out the window, a sliver of blue sky—an oddity of the lake-effect snow machine appeared. It can be a virtual whiteout and still sunny.

Mom? Rose thought. Are you trying to tell me something?

She walked over to an old chest of drawers. The paint was peeling and the dresser top was crammed with a mix of Rose’s past and present: high school trophies and ribbons scattered amongst bottles and bibs.

Rose’s ribbons were all “honorable mention” or team manager ribbons. One trophy from the basketball team read, “Best Sixth Man,” while another from FHA read, “Always Gives It Her All.”

Rose opened a creaky drawer in the old chest. She rifled through a pile of baby clothes, searching for a book. She gasped when she pulled out her senior yearbook. Rose opened it and began to read what her friends had written: “To the nicest girl ever”; “You were always there for me”; “To the sweetest girl in school.”

Rose flipped through the yearbook, stopping at “Senior Superlatives.” There was a color picture of Rose outside, smiling while embracing the trunk of a pine tree, the sun beaming through her red hair, making it look as if it were on fire.

“Most Likely to Give A Hug When You Need It—Rose Hoffs,” hers read.

Rose gave her shoulders a hopeless shrug.

What did being nice ever get me? Rose thought.

Rose dug her hand back into the drawer and pulled out another book.

Ah, here it is, she thought. The Raggedy Ann Stories by Johnny Gruelle.

Rose opened the book and smiled. Her mother used to read it to her when she was little. Rose turned to the preface. The yellowed page was still bent at the corner, and she hugged her doll even more tightly.

“What lessons of kindness and fortitude you might teach could you but talk … No wonder Rag Dolls are the best beloved!… The more you become torn, tattered and loose-jointed, Rag Dolls, the more you are loved by children.”

Rose smiled as her daughter began to coo.

I’m a walking Raggedy Ann, she thought, looking at the little doll and then at her little girl.

Rose walked over and pulled her waking baby into her arms, and Jeri clutched at the little doll’s arms, before falling asleep again almost instantaneously.

Rose took a seat in her rocker and watched Jeri sleep. A ray of light pierced the darkness and illuminated the pink cheeks of her daughter and of the doll.

Blue skies ahead, Rose thought, thinking of her mom, her Easter dress, Raggedy Ann, and how the simplest of moments are often the most beautiful.

She tenderly kissed the top of her daughter’s head. Maybe things look up when you least expect it.