Images of rodents and insects clamoring within the old farmhouse walls sent shivers up Lindsey’s spine. But the agency needed interns, and she needed a degree. The neglected building with its weeds and peeling paint appeared more haunted than livable. The screen door, torn in several places, confirmed her suspicion of co-residing insects. Not bothering to knock, she spoke through the open screen.
“Mrs. Pearl?” She waited for a response and evaluated the interior of the small home through the haze of the screen. Despite the outside neglect, the inside appeared well-kept and inviting. Cozy, almost. No response.
“I’m Lindsey. The agency sent me for your session.” The agency in conjunction with the university provided home assistance for the elderly without family support. Each graduate, required to intern for a six-month rotation within the community, spent a month at a time at various locations whether it be within a nursing home or an individual’s home.
“I’m coming in Mrs. Pearl.” Although tempted to spend the next hour standing on the porch, Lindsey entered.
The ninety-three-year-olds declining health prohibited extraneous home improvement projects; but, by the looks of it, her interior maintenance never faded. Pearl Waterford liked order and cleanliness. Lindsey was grateful. Some homes she’d visited had deteriorated as quickly as its occupants. The air of hopelessness and depression within them weighed heavy on her shoulders each time she departed.
Pearl Waterford sat at a makeshift table in the kitchen shucking peas. She didn’t look up or speak as Lindsey entered the room.
“Good afternoon.” Lindsey sat opposite her in the stiff metal chair, wishing she’d carried a seat cushion along. The old lady continued shucking. They sat in silence a few moments as the nursing graduate assessed how to proceed, referencing the knowledge she’d gained from last semester’s geriatric classes. She decided on a more unorthodox approach thanks to her minor in psychology.
“You’re doing it wrong.” Mrs. Pearl looked stunned as if she’d been slapped. She lifted her eyes and peered at her opponent. Lindsey stared back, waiting for her to speak. No intern for the past six-months had heard the old lady utter a word. With a withered but steady hand, she pushed the bowl of pea pods towards the young woman, folded her arms across the table, and waited.
Without hesitation, Lindsey started shucking, discarding the empty pods in the accumulated pile between them.
“My grandmother loved shucking peas.” Lindsey smiled, recalling the memory. “She’d sit for hours on her front porch humming tunes, telling me stories about her life. ‘Your great-grandpap loved his pea soup’ she’d say ‘ladled in hog fat with a fine piece a cornbread. Not that boxed shit.’ Of course, her colorful vocabulary always sent Mom into a tirade. But Grandmother paid no mind.” Lindsey waved her hand dismissively.
“It wasn’t until after a parent-teacher conference in first grade that Mom posted a list of words not to be repeated on the fridge.” She chuckled. “As if I could read them.”
Over the next hour, Lindsey shucked peas and shared stories from her days in elementary school. The time Timmy Edwards set her hair on fire with a magnifying glass and Martha Peabody had Lindsey cut her eyelashes because they tickled Martha’s eyebrows.
“Martha’s mother banned me for life after that.”
Lindsey had shucked two bowls of peas and shared three stories by the end of their session. She also sensed a shift in Pearl Waterford’s attitude.
That evening Lindsey pulled Mrs. Pearl’s chart from her desk, settled upon her bed, and proceeded to note the day’s progress. She flipped through the pages reading Patient Disposition notes recorded by previous interns. The final entry read ‘rude, uncooperative, detached’. Lindsey did not think Mrs. Pearl displayed any of those qualities. Of course, she had spent only an hour with her. She picked up her pen, noted the date, and wrote ‘quiet, attentive, cautious’.
The next day, Mrs. Pearl did not speak but looked up as Lindsey entered the kitchen. She slid the shucking bowl across the table. The young woman took her assigned seat, started shucking, and began her story.
“Grandmother had this cat named Napoleon. A grey ball of fluff that tormented my legs every time I visited. He’d bat at them when I crossed uninvited into his perimeter. He followed Grandmother around like a centurion on duty, keeping guard for any approaching enemies he needed to attack; and, I was enemy number one.” Mrs. Pearl emptied the shucking bowl full of peas into a storage container, refilling it with pods from a nearby bucket.
“Grandad rescued him from a kill shelter and named him Sammy. But within a few days, he abandoned Grandad, preferring the company of my grandmother. From that point forward, Grandad called him Napoleon, muttering words like treason every time that cat curled up beside my grandmother.” She laughed, remembering the sulky look he’d give Napoleon as he purred, content to be at the side of Grandmother and not his rescuer.
“It wasn’t ’till Grandad died that she confessed. She’d been slipping pieces of tuna to Napoleon. Bribing him for his loyalty.” Lindsey glanced up. To her surprise, Mrs. Pearl was smiling. Not daring to ruin the moment, she continued.
“She took great pride in her ability to sway his allegiance. Those two were inseparable. Napoleon went everywhere with her. The grocery stores. The doctor. The salon. The town accepted those two as one. To deny Napoleon entrance meant Grandmother would take her business elsewhere. And no one was willing to offend the matriarch of the town.” She paused. Grandmother had been proud of her heritage.
“Grandmother Adams. That’s what everyone called her. I think I was ten before I knew her first name because I’d never heard anyone use it. I probably would have been much older if Ms. Hines, my English teacher, hadn’t assigned a paper requiring our class to interview a relative.” Lindsey still had the essay tucked into one of her scrapbooks with a little bit of Robert Crane’s DNA dripped across it after she’d punched him for accusing Grandmother of being a liar.
“Paulina Adams. A descendant of Archibald Adams. Proprietor and founding father of Havenwood. He had settled the area in the early 1800s.” Lindsey recalled the respect in her grandmother’s eyes as she’d told the story of her great-great-grandfather.
Startled, Lindsey looked at Mrs. Pearl. Her soft-spoken voice was just as much of a surprise as the spoken word itself.
“Yes, please. Thank you.” Lindsey struggled to maintain her composure; ecstatic Mrs. Pearl had spoken. A milestone had been crossed. Trust had been established.
The old woman proceeded to shuck the peas as Lindsey enjoyed her cup of coffee detailing her and her brother’s first excursion with a canoe, how they’d been caught in a rainstorm upon the river and soaked to the bone. They’d flipped the canoe over for shelter and started a fire for warmth. This had smoked them out, leaving them to shiver in the rain once more. Mrs. Pearl laughed and to Lindsey’s delight shared a story herself.
She and her sister, playing hay bale hopscotch, had rolled in poison ivy infused hay. The next few weeks the two spent de-clothed and miserable with nothing but a towel to cover their naked bodies. They never went near another hay bale.
Each day that followed the two shared stories, coffee, and the task of shucking peas. Lindsey even visited on the weekends, pulling weeds and tidying up the yard as Mrs. Pearl sat on the porch telling stories of her father’s service during World War I and her mother’s during World War II. Both had saved many lives. One as a fighter pilot and the other as a nurse tending to wounded soldiers.
During the third week of Lindsey’s rotation, the old woman pulled a tattered notebook from a kitchen drawer and gently placed it on the table between them.
“This is my families most valued recipes. I would like for you to have it.” She raised her hand as Lindsey began to protest.
“I have no family left. No siblings. No children. I would be honored if you would continue my family’s legacy.” She grinned. “Plus, they are mostly pea recipes.”
Lindsey did not know what to say but pulled the notebook towards her, tears blurring her vision. As she left for the day, she hugged the old woman for the first time since meeting her, promising to make one of the dishes for them to share the following afternoon.
That evening she prepared a green pea soup per Mrs. Pearl’s handwritten instructions. She discovered stories layered among the recipes. As the soup simmered, she sat on the sofa tucking her feet beneath her and opened the notebook across her lap. She read through each one. They journaled both accomplishments and disappointments experienced by Mrs. Pearl and lessons she’d learned along the way. She couldn’t wait to ask her about them over her pea soup the following day. But the soup remained in Lindsey’s refrigerator the next afternoon as she sat at the bedside of the dying woman. By nightfall, Pearl Waterford was gone.
Lindsey mourned her friend’s passing all week. Saturday morning a man stood on her doorstep. A package in one hand. A letter in the other.
“Mrs. Pearl instructed I deliver these to you personally.” She took both and watched him walk down the steps towards his car without another word.
Closing the door with her foot, she sat the box down on the foyer table and opened the letter.
My Dearest Lindsey,
Remember our time together no matter how short it may have been. You breathed life back into an old woman who felt discarded by the world. I will never forget you.
All my love,
Tears flowed freely down Lindsey’s cheeks as she opened the box. Inside lay their shucking bowl filled to the brim with peas.