The Little Brown Book
Emma never opened the book of poems after that day. Still, that little book would sit on her bookshelf for the rest of her life, long after the pictures taken of the three girls that weekend had been put away in boxes to make room for new memories. The little book was a constant on the shelf at her elbow: a reminder of the past and of the future, and an encouragement to make the most of the present moment.
Whenever Emma caught a glimpse of that book out of the corner of her eye, memories of that 16th birthday celebration came back to her as if it was only yesterday…
“What pose shall we do?” Emma had asked, skipping out onto the balcony with a twirl to make the full skirt of her turquoise dress dance around her.
Rosie didn't miss a beat: “Let’s blow kisses” she said, tossing her flyaway blond hair over her shoulder and putting one hand up to her puckered pink lips.
“Noooo, girls — come on,” Emma’s mother said as she lifted the camera in preparation to capture this moment, the latest that would be added to her series of jam-packed photo albums chronicling the life of her only child. “Look as though you like each other!”
Emma, Rosie, and Kate reluctantly abandoned their more dramatic pose and settled for putting their arms around each other and smiling to please Mom the Photographer.
The sun was setting on an autumn afternoon that still retained more of the warmth of summer than the chill of winter, and a slight golden haze seemed to settle over the three young girls as they took a brief pause in this moment of exuberance. It was a picture that would sit in frames in all of their rooms at home, and then in dorm rooms at college, for many years to come; until it was, finally, relegated to forgotten shoe boxes in the back of a closet like so many other relics of their childhood friendship.
“Ok, and NOW a picture with arms up,” Emma said, showing off her ballet training as she threw both her hands up in the air in her best showgirl pose. Without a question as to what was expected of them, Rosie and Kate on either side of Emma put their outside hands in the air with an automatic leg bevel and great flair.
With a shake of her head and a laugh to herself at the girls’ constant and inherent theatricality, Mom took another picture. “All right. Now in to dinner!” she said, beckoning them off of the balcony and back into the hotel.
The Mom watched the three girls caper down the gaudily decorated hall of The Greenbrier Resort. The trio looked like little hummingbirds amongst the outré fuchsia flowers on the wallpaper, flitting ahead of her in the party dresses that they had carefully chosen to be “in palette” without being “too match-y” for the inevitable string of photographs that would be taken that weekend.
Emma was trying to imitate her mother’s walk as she followed her into the grand dining room. She kept her shoulders back, her chin up, and she folded her hands together as she had seen Audrey Hepburn do as the princess in Roman Holiday. Despite these efforts to seem self-possessed, as she looked around at the tall gilt mirrors and the tables adorned with delicate floral arrangements, Emma felt her gleefulness threaten to make her soar off of the ground like a giddy hot air balloon. The sensation reminded her of the scene in the Julie Andrews’ film of Mary Poppins, where they go to visit Uncle Albert and he makes them laugh with such exuberance that they float up into the air — tea table and all!
The whole weekend had been spent by Emma and her friends scurrying around the resort in constantly changing outfits: playing croquet, drinking tea, exploring the exquisite gardens, and generally pretending that they were the heroines of their beloved nineteenth century novels. This elegant dinner was the icing on Emma’s birthday cake.
A middle-aged waiter in an immaculate uniform seated them at their table. His forbidding stateliness was slightly belied by the twinkle in his eye as he pulled out the chairs for the three young ladies, who were all sparkling with the effort to contain their excitement.
As she settled herself in her seat, straining her legs to keep from putting her full 100 pounds on the chair as the waiter pushed it in for her, Emma’s eyes were drawn to the woman at the table next to theirs.
The woman was conspicuous to Emma for the same reasons that she seemed to be invisible to everyone else in the room. Amidst all of the color and gaiety of the assembled company in the restaurant, the lady was wearing black — except for the subtle red silk scarf around her thin, wrinkled neck — and she was dining alone, a prospect that 16-year-old Emma viewed with dread, but which did not seem to disturb the lady in the slightest. The woman sat alone at her table, slightly stooped over her plate, but with remnants of the imposing posture she must have had in her youth evident in the carriage of her head. She sipped her glass of wine, holding it by the stem with a delicate touch, and nodded with gracious self-possession whenever a waiter would appear at her elbow to bring the next course, or to take a plate away.
A little chocolate brown book sat next to the woman’s plate. She never opened it, but Emma noticed that every so often she would glance at the book as though she were checking in with an old friend.
“A toast!” Emma’s mother said in a cheerful, celebratory voice, drawing Emma’s attention back to her own gigging and gleeful group. “To the birthday girl!”
“To Emma!” Rosie and Kate echoed. Then, before they clinked their glasses of sparkling cider, Rosie added, “‘Cheers, darling!” and Kate completed one of their favorite quotes from the glamorous Baroness in The Sound of Music, saying, “I feel like celebrating!”
The dinner was a blur of chatter and laughter, quotes from favorite books and movies, and talk about work at school, and up-coming travels. Once in a while Emma noticed out of the corner of her eye that the lady alone at the next table would glance over at them with a slight, distant smile.
“Mom,” Emma said quietly, leaning-in over the table, which was temporarily empty until dessert was brought out. “Do you think that lady’s here all alone?” She nodded awkwardly toward the neighboring table. Her mother glanced in that direction and then looked down to adjust the napkin on her lap.
“Many people enjoy dining alone,” Mom said. “Or perhaps she’s divorced or a widow.”
Emma knit her eyebrows together. “But why eat in the restaurant alone in front of all these people? I feel like, if I were on my own, I would want to have room service, so I could stay in my bathrobe and watch TV.”
“You never know,” her mother replied. “To each their own.”
Emma twisted the thin stem of her glass of sparkling cider back and forth between her fingers.
She became aware that Rosie and Kate had gotten very quiet. At first she thought they were also fascinated by the lady, but then she noticed that their surreptitious glances were cast in the direction of an attractive young waiter across the room.
“They’re sisters,” Emma thought. “Neither one of them is ever going to be the person eating alone.”
Suddenly, a bevy of waiters appeared by their table holding a sumptuous-looking chocolate cake that was positively glowing with candles.
“Happy birthday to you…” Her mother started singing in a sonorous voice that carried throughout the restaurant, which made Emma blush up to her hairline. Rosie and Kate joined in, followed by the waiters. (This included the attractive waiter across the room, much to the apparent delight of Rosie and Kate, who were trying to use the moment to get his attention.) Soon the majority of the restaurant had joined the chorus with good-humored glances in the direction of their table, which undoubtedly had the youngest median age in the room. The song ended with her mother and her two friends breaking into various harmonies, and a delightfully embarrassing round of applause.
As pieces of cake bigger than their heads were set on the gold-rimmed plates in front of them, Emma’s mother asked, “Would you like to send a piece over to the lady next to us?”
“Mom! No! I don’t want to intrude,” Emma said — her first teenage whine of the evening.
“I don’t think it would be intruding,” Emma’s mother said. “I think she might appreciate it.”
“Mom, it would be so awkward,” Emma said, looking to her friends for back-up. They just focused on their cake with raised eyebrows. Both girls knew from experience that it was generally useless to resist if Emma’s mother got her mind set on an idea.
“Why don’t you just ask her?” Mom encouraged.
So, Emma, feeling mortification seeping into her very bones, turned to the lady and asked, “Excuse me for interrupting your dinner, but we have lots more cake here than we can possibly eat. Would you like a piece?”
The lady looked up from her coffee with a surprised smile on her face. Her smooth white hair pulled elegantly back into a chignon revealed lustrous pearl earrings, and highlighted her dark eyes that looked as though they were unaccustomed to focusing on the present moment.
“That’s very kind,” the lady said. “I would enjoy that.”
“Ok,” Emma said, turning back to the table to find that one of the waiters was already putting a piece of the cake onto a plate to take over to the lady.
“May I ask which birthday you are celebrating?” the lady asked in a quiet voice that sounded polished, but rusty from disuse.
Emma looked at her mother, who nodded encouragingly.
“16,” Emma said with a shy, awkward shrug of her shoulders. Then she realized that this motion had made her look much younger than her age — even more so than she already did — so she quickly straightened her shoulders and folded her hands in her lap with deliberate focus. “Audrey Hepburn,” she repeated to herself. “Audrey Hepburn.”
“16,” the lady echoed with a wistful look at the centerpiece of tiny roses before her on the table. She paused for a moment. “Have you had your first kiss?” she asked, looking at Emma out of the corner of her eye.
Emma’s eyes grew wide, but before she could pull together an answer, her mother laughed and said, “Of course not!”
Emma could feel her cheeks burning with vexation. The fact that she was a late bloomer and had never attracted much attention from boys was something of a sore-spot with her. All of the heroines in her favorite novels had been kissed by the time they were 16, and they had generally had their hearts dramatically broken, and mended into the bargain — not to mention the exploits of her more mature classmates.
Of course, there was the one boy who had asked her out during the class field trip to Chincoteague Island last year but, luckily, Emma had found out in time that he only did it because the other boys had dared him to on the bus.
“No,” she said, with an agonized look at Rosie, who seemed to have frozen with an expression on her face that was halfway between horror and amusement, her eyes fixed on the hands that were tightly entwined in her lap.
The lady looked up with her dark, inscrutable eyes, and settled her thoughtful gaze on Emma. “16-years-old and never been kissed,” she echoed, in a voice scarcely above a whisper. Somehow, the observation sounded like a benediction.
Emma shrugged again, and looked at Kate, who appeared as befuddled as she felt.
“Well,” the lady said in a slightly louder, more steady voice, “I wish you all the best.”
A waiter approached the lady’s table. “Would you like anything else this evening, Mrs. Vanderlyden?”
“No — Thank you, George,” she replied, standing up slowly, with what looked like some effort. Turning to Emma, she said, “Many happy returns of the day — and thank you for the cake. It was excellent.”
“You’re welcome! Have a good night!”
Moving slowly to give her knees time to warm-up — of late years, they started to grow stiff and painful whenever she sat still for any length of time — Mrs. Vanderlyden walked toward the door. She stepped out into the hallway, and felt the tension leave her shoulders as the noisy barrage of inane chatter and clicking silverware faded behind her. There was relief in returning to the quiet, isolated world of her own thoughts. With a little shake of her shoulders, she shuffled toward the elevator.
Mrs. Vanderlyden reached the door to her room and fumbled in her purse for the keycard. She still didn’t understand why the hotel couldn’t give her a proper, metal key that fit into a proper lock like they used to do when Henry was alive. Instead, the front desk clerk had handed her this temperamental piece of plastic. One had to wave it wildly in front of the door until an obstinate censor deigned to recognize it, at which point the door would buzz at you bossily to warn you that you had better go into your room immediately before the door decided to lock again, and you had to repeat the whole undignified rigmarole.
As the door shut behind her with a reassuring click, Mrs. Vanderlyden looked around her tidy little room. The interaction with those charming, happy teenage girls who were celebrating their first steps toward womanhood had unsettled her somehow —not in an unpleasant way, but in a way to which Mrs. Vanderlyden was unaccustomed in recent years. The incident had recalled memories to her mind that she made this yearly pilgrimage to honor, but not to dwell on.
Her eyes fell on an empty spot on her bedside table that should have been occupied by her little book. With a sigh, she slipped her feet back into her uncomfortable patten leather heels, picked-up her matching patten leather purse, and headed back out of the door.
Back in the dinning room, the birthday party was gathering themselves together to turn in for the night. As Emma’s mom signed the check, Rosie and Kate were whispering behind their hands about how to get the attention of the cute waiter who was now clearing a table in the opposite corner of the room, but Emma’s eyes were caught by something closer.
“Mrs. Vanderlyden left her book behind!” Emma said, as she noticed the small brown rectangle sitting next to the empty cake plate.
“Why don’t you run it to the front desk for her, Emma?” her mother suggested without looking up from the tip she was calculating. “They can let her know that it’s been found.”
“We’ll meet you upstairs,” her mother urged with a final nod of her head towards the door.
“Okay.” Emma knew better than to try to argue, even though the thought of going alone to speak to the unknown front desk attendant struck her with completely irrational, but no less petrifying, fear.
She picked-up the little book and headed towards the door. She glanced back at Kate and Rosie for encouragement, but their attention was not on her. Seeing the young waiter walking towards them, Kate was trying to stifle a fit of giggles as Rosie stealthily nudged her cardigan off the back of her chair onto the floor. Emma sighed, but didn’t wait to see if the waiter stopped to pick the cardigan up.
Bibliophile that she was, Emma couldn’t resist examining any book that she came into contact with. The front cover of this particular book was blank, but the spine revealed in silver letters that the book contained Poems from the Heart. “A bit too much on the Chicken Soup for the Soul side of things for me,” Emma thought with a toss of her head, but she opened the book and started to leaf through it, taking a little breath to enjoy the familiar, comforting smell of a well-loved old book.
There was an inscription on the title page in fading brownish ink:
“To my darling Polly,
Happy 1st Anniversary!
Thank you for the joy you have brought to my heart.
September 8, 1957”
Emma wrinkled her nose. She found the inscription sickeningly saccharine, but she continued to flip through the pages, reading a line here and a stanza there. The poems were of a decidedly soppy nature, not really to Emma’s taste. Still, something about the idea that this haunting old lady had returned to the spot of her anniversary celebrations almost fifty years later with this ghostly reminder of her husband made Emma’s throat tighten.
Suddenly, she realized that she had been standing still for serval minutes as she read, and that her mother would come looking for her soon if she didn’t hurry up. She cleared her throat and blinked her eyes a few times before approaching the front desk.
“Excuse me,” she said. The attendant did not seem to have heard her. It wasn’t unusual for Emma to feel invisible.
She stood up on her tiptoes to lean over the desk and make one more attempt to get his attention, but somehow she did not want to unclasp her fingers from where she held the book against her side. Instead of speaking, she cast one last look over at the attendant, who had just picked-up the phone without noticing her, and then she scurried off down the hall as though she were being chased.
She was about to dive into the elevator when she realized that someone was coming out of it. Emma jumped back from the doors as though she had been slapped, and hugged the book to her chest in an impulsive motion.
“Ah! You’ve found my book!” Mrs. Vanderlyden said, stepping out of the elevator without any sign that she had noticed Emma’s curious behavior.
“Uh…yeah,” Emma said, relaxing her arms, but not handing the book over. “I was just going to bring it up to you.”
“That’s very kind of you.” Mrs. Vanderlyden stretched out her hand and, after a beat, Emma placed the book in it.
Mrs. Vanderlyden smiled at the book and ran a finger along the printed title on its spine.
This moment of silence felt interminable to Emma. She wanted to run away, but somehow she couldn’t get her feet to move.
“Are you fond of poetry?” Mrs. Vanderlyden asked, looking up at Emma with a directness that startled her.
“Not really,” Emma answered, rubbing the top of one foot on the back of her ankle in a habitual motion that her friends would have recognized as a warning sign. “I like Wordsworth some — I memorized ‘The Daffodils’ for school once — but, mostly, I prefer novels.”
“Perhaps you have’t yet had the life experience that would give you a taste or need for poetry,” Mrs. Vanderlyden suggested.
“Perhaps.” Emma’s shoulders slumped and her gaze drooped down to the garish pattern on the carpet.
“You have so much time ahead of you,” Mrs. Vanderlyden said with a smile that she could not resist.
Emma shook her head. “It doesn’t really feel that way. Mostly, I just feel like I’m getting left behind. Like I’m stuck.”
“I know the feeling,” Mrs. Vanderlyden replied, sitting down in one of the plush chairs along the hallway. She thought of all of the friends' funerals that she had attended over the last few years. There were days, weeks, when she couldn’t understand why she was still here. Why she was the one left behind.
Emma crumpled into the opposite chair.
“I’m glad you could be part of my birthday tonight,” she said after a moment’s pause.
“How is that?” Mrs. Vanderlyden asked, returning from the world of her own thoughts with a surprised laugh.
“You’re so elegant and poised and self-assured,” Emma said, looking down at the book resting on the arm of Mrs. Vanderlyden’s chair. “You don’t seem to mind being alone. I hope I can be like that one day.”
“I don’t think that being alone is anything a pretty young girl like you will have to worry about,” Mrs. Vanderlyden said. “But I think you will also find that enjoying one’s own company is a pleasant skill to cultivate.”
Emma shrugged and turned her gaze back down to the gaudy carpet flowers.
Mrs. Vanderlyden watched her for a moment, her head tilted to one side.
“In the meantime,” she said, holding her book out to Emma, “I’d like you to have this.”
“What? Your book?” Emma looked up from the carpet with wide eyes. “I couldn’t possibly…”
“I’d like for you to have it,” Mrs. Vanderlyden repeated, setting it down on the little table between them. “It’s been good company to me for many years, but now, as you say, I don’t mind being alone.”
“Thank you.” Emma picked-up the book and looked down at it to hide the fact that she was blinking (what she considered to be) immature tears out of her eyes.
“And now, I really should go to bed,” Mrs. Vanderlyden said, standing with her accustomed slow care to give her knees time to accept the fact that they needed to move. “10:00 in the evening is a shockingly late hour for a woman of my age to be up and about.”
Emma sniffed, cleared her throat, and then looked up with a bright smile. “Thank you,” she repeated. “I really will treasure this.”
“I’m glad.” Mrs. Vanderlyden turned and shuffled down the hall toward the elevator, but she turned back to Emma just as the doors opened. “You mustn’t let any fleeting disappointments make you give up on your life before it has even begun.”
Emma watched the elevator doors close. Then she carefully took off her sweater, folded it over her arm, and tucked the little book under it. Somehow, her little book wasn’t something she wanted to answer questions about from her mother, or from Rosie and Kate. At least, not tonight.
Someone opened the French doors down the hall that opened out onto the terrace, and Emma took a deep breath of the cool autumn air that carried the sound of their laughter towards her. With a buoyancy in her step, she started down the hall to her room, stopping to look out at the moonlit garden through the window, and to make plans for all of the adventures she wanted to have tomorrow.