The following is the second to last section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous sections here.
Lesson #1 – Find Beauty in the Smallest Things
Cassandra loved her granddaughter’s smile. Granted, if put under the gun, she would praise all of her grandchildren’s smiles, but there was something about young Toni Lyn’s smile that Cassandra found comfort in.
So when Toni Lyn called to ask if she could spend the summer with her on the Island, Cassandra immediately said yes. Toni Lyn’s parents however were less than amused with the idea when they found out. They feared that Cassandra would be a bad influence on their eighteen-year-old daughter’s perspective of the world. It wasn’t because of Cassandra’s past (they never truly knew about her time in Europe. Even for Cassandra most of it had slipped from memory and would only return as dark images in nightmares that left her strangely humming Mozart songs), but what Cassandra had become.
Cassandra had become a rascally old woman.
Cassandra loved to give her opinion about everything under the sun. Her opinions were always unique (and most of the time too unique). It was amazing to her children the change that occurred. It was almost as if Cassandra found a switch or a button that changed everything. Spending time with their mother soon became a chore of having to smile and nod to many strange and unique points.
Peter (the father of Toni Lyn) claimed the change in her personality arrived after her husband’s death. That was not the case. She was like this for at least three years before the good Reverend disappeared from her side. Living with her during that time could sometimes be uncomfortable for him. Where he seemed to fall back on his conservative upbringing and beliefs (and his questions pushed back into the shadows), she went to the other extreme.
By the “Summer of Poetry,” it had been four years since Jonathan’s death and Cassandra felt more alone each day. Her life seemed to follow a simple pattern.
- She would rise with the dawn, making sure to catch the brilliance of the morning glow, just like she used to do with Jonathan. When Toni Lyn was five, Cassandra told her that it was watching the dawn that gave her cheeks their blush. Even though Toni Lyn wouldn’t say it aloud, she believes it to be true with all her heart.
- Then she would retire to her typewriter where she would write letters to editors or family members. In the beginning, when Cassandra believed her voice should be heard in the world, it was a common occurrence to see her name as a daily addition to editorial pages across the country. But in the last year her memory has been slipping and from time to time one of her nail-bitingly true letters would suddenly turn into a grocery list.
- She would have lunch with the Duke. It was strange to her how that man never seemed to age. He had to be older than her (he had to be!), but he still seemed as vile and decadent and young spirited as the first day she met him. They would sip tea and exchange pictures of grandchildren like playing cards. Like her, his home has turned strangely into a private retirement home for one; and like her, he seemed to live in the memory of time. He still talked to his wife. It had been seven years since that dreaded car accident but for him it never happened, and he expected Alisha to walk through that door any day with an apology for missing all those dinners. As he would say to Cassandra on a daily basis, “I can’t wait to hear her excuse for this…”
- Afternoons were spent wandering the town and the beach, talking to locals and collecting seashells, not always in that order. The community had changed a great deal over the years. Many of the rich tenants and families had moved out (not enjoying, as their ancestors did, the separation from popular society) and been replaced with fishermen from every continent on the planet. The boat races were gone, as well as the costume balls. The story of the hidden pirate treasure remained but now the story included a sexy mermaid who seduced fishermen and then ate them.
- She would then have an early dinner on the patio; it had to be on the patio. Rarely would she eat more than a simple sandwich and milk, but it didn’t matter to her. Her taste buds had disappeared months prior. She couldn’t explain it, but suddenly she really couldn’t tell the differences in taste unless her eyes were open. It was that realization that made her wonder why she needed anything more than bologna.
- The sunset. She had to watch it every night. The dawn belonged to Jonathan, but the sunset was all hers.
- Then sleep…
She would never dream of saying it aloud, but the sunset was a private show for her from God. Every night through the colors and the fading light, the warmth would stir memories she had forgotten about. Chasing her first son down the beach when he was two and had forgotten to put on his suit. Kissing the reverend on the cliff one autumn day with a blanket wrapped around both of their shoulders. Giving birth to Lucy while on their sailboat. She always welcomed the darkness with a smile.
Trips were scheduled with her two children and their loved ones and their children like doctor visits. Once a year they visited and every two weeks (usually on a Sunday) they called with updates and “Hellos” and “We love you’s.” During the first few years, one of her children would ask about the letters in a recent publication. Cassandra would always laugh (assuming she remembered the letter) and would reply, “It made you think, right?” Thinking outside the box made Cassandra happy, and if saying something to stir things up did that, well, so be it. She was making her donation to the betterment of society.
Young Toni Lyn considered herself a poet. Instead of spending her sophomore summer from college working at a burger joint and dating her local frat boys, she instead asked to spend the summer with Cassandra. She asked without first asking her parents, and before her parents even had wind of the idea, Cassandra and her young granddaughter had it all planned.
In Toni Lyn’s poetic mind, this would be the perfect summer for inspiration. Walking the beaches, spending time with an old soul, and falling asleep in a sailboat was the stuff of living poetic brillance for her.
She arrived on a Sunday and told her folks on Friday that she was there. Cassandra and Toni Lyn would both snicker over the idea of her parents driving around her college campus asking if anyone saw their daughter. Yes, they both had twisted senses of humor. On that Sunday, Toni Lyn stepped onto the island with a feeling of destiny. “Here,” she said to herself, “I learn to write true poetry.” She flung her black gym bag over her shoulder and walked the three miles to her grandmother’s cottage.
Cassandra was sitting in her gazebo knitting. She was trying to make something that looked like a scarf. But it would’ve taken a true artist with an acceptance of things that don’t look like what they are supposed to be to see that. “When was the last time I even saw a scarf,” Cassandra laughed to herself.
“Grandma!” Toni Lyn shouted and waved.
Cassandra took off her sunglasses and squinted at the entrance of the gazebo. She stood up slowly and held out her arms. “Toni Lyn.”
“What are you making Grandma?” Toni Lyn asked. She held it up for examination. “Toilet bowl cover?”
“Hell, no!” Cassandra stated, taking the scarf back. “It’s a scarf for my favorite grandchild.”
“Oh, yeah, who is that?”
“You,” Cassandra stated, “so you better like it.”
When prodded by her fellow grandchildren, Toni Lyn would state very assuredly that she was not happy with Cassandra calling her the favorite, but deep down inside she had to fight back a smile. It had become more a joke than anything else anyway. It brought a reaction from the others and both Cassandra and Toni Lyn loved to create a reaction. Truthfully, the others had no reason to doubt the love, Cassandra spoiled all her grandchildren. If Peter or Lucy would not give them something, it wasn’t difficult, not difficult at all, to call rich Grandma, talk for ten minutes, and get a “Yes.” That is how Toni Lyn got her car at age 14, two years before she could drive it. Peter and his wife, Kristen, were really happy about that.
Toni Lyn never knew the real reason behind her name. Neither did her parents. It was an odd little moment that everyone seemed to let slip by. While the new happy parents were celebrating the birth (and trying to decide on a name) in their private white hospital room, Cassandra took it in her power to sneak ninja-style to the nurses’ desk, pass around a few large pieces of currency and fill out the forms! She even faked the signature of the parents! And without the parents’ (or the child’s) knowledge she was blessed as Toni Lyn. The Reverend was highly embarrassed for his son over the situation. The first few conversations after the event were awkward for all and it didn’t help that Cassandra never explained her motive, but the name fit. It fit perfectly and the parents soon were happy with the choice, even though they would never tell Cassandra that what she did was a good idea. On one of the first nights of the Summer of Poetry, Toni Lyn did ask her grandmother about the source of the name and this is what Cassandra said: “A name like that must be carried on.”
“Who am I named after?” Toni Lyn sipped her iced tea.
“Happiness, love and beauty,” Cassandra turned to the sunset. “She was one of the purest souls I saw while…” Her voice trailed off. What was she again? An accountant? Before Alisha, that was it! She wasn’t one of the working girls, she actually believed in love. What was the story again? It was returning like pages being put together into a book. Cassandra used to wonder what happened to her. People that believe in love rarely have happy endings in novels or in life. Memories were beginning to return, and regret and guilt. Cassandra tried to brush it all off, but it didn’t work. It just made her feel so very heavy and old at that moment. Was he even alive now? Move on, she told herself, try to move on. “I wished for you to feel the love she did. It is how life should be. There was a purity in her smile. I saw that purity in your smile when I first saw you.”
Toni Lyn laughed. “There is a poet in you, Grandma.”
Cassandra looked away to the waves lapping at the shoreline. “I did take a little poetry class once here on the island.”
Toni Lyn laughed harder. “I’m scared to hear how the class was.”
“It wasn’t so bad really,” Cassandra leaned over and picked up a glass of iced tea. It was Toni Lyn’s, but Toni Lyn decided not to tell her Grandmother she took the wrong glass. It made no difference. “They did force four lessons on us.”
“What were they?”
“The first lesson was to find beauty in the smallest things, the nuisances. It’s in the little moments that make living, living.”
“Pretty deep for a ‘little’ class.”
“Rule number 2. Imperfections make us human. Nothing is perfect, so never describe something as perfect. Finding faults make things more real, more accessible to the reader.”
“Sounds like they were reading a manual.”
“Oh, the teacher was! And you can tell that by the next one- Compare things to flowers.”
“Nice,” Toni Lyn clapped. “Very nice. What was the fourth one?”
“Don’t be afraid of a peaceful ending. Endings to works that are overly dramatic come out as melodrama. So, in a poem it is best to let the words fade away, like a final breath.”
“You’re doing it again,” Toni Lyn mockingly pointed at her Grandma. “You’re acting like a poet.
“I’m sorry, I won’t let it happen again.”
“Good,” Toni Lyn said, “I don’t know if I could stand competition in this family.” She laughed at her own joke. She must have gotten that trait from Jonathan. Jonathan used to always laugh at his own jokes, even when no one else did. And yet, Cassandra loved that sound and she woke up each morning looking forward to hearing that laugh later in her day. After years of almost isolation, having such a happy young voice in her midst seemed to give her life more beauty, more peace.
Lesson # 2 – Imperfections Make Us Human
Even after her children and the numerous grandchildren, Cassandra had never known someone to dress like Toni Lyn. Her wardrobe and what she chose to bring with her to the island… Well, it never failed to intrigue her. Today as they were working in the garden, Toni Lyn was wearing an old trenchcoat (Cassandra was pretty sure it used to belong to Peter), a pair of jeans that she had rolled up at the end (those looked strangely new and two sizes too big), and an old T-shirt with a faded portrait of a jazz bass player on it. It was a picture of Charles Mingus. When Cassandra asked about the bass player, Toni Lyn promised to play some of his music later. “I found his music in Aunt Lucy’s old collection. I borrowed her vinyls. I should return them, someday.”
As they dug in the garden, Toni Lyn used the trenchcoat to keep the dirt off her large jeans. She had a black sailor hat on backwards. Toni Lyn got off her knees and moved to the gazebo. She sat down and looked at the garden and her work from a safe distance. “I’ve always been interested in your garden, grandma.” Toni Lyn said.
Cassandra just smiled in return.
“Your choice of flowers, plants… Well, unique.”
Someone was approaching.
“Who is this young foxy lady, Cassie?” The Duke asked as he walked up to the Gazebo. “Is she single?”
“You old goat,” Cassandra said and waved her arm like she wanted to slap him. “And don’t call me Cassie.”
“Sure, Cas, whatever.” The Duke sat down next to Toni Lyn… maybe almost too close.
Toni Lyn didn’t feel uncomfortable about the Duke’s presence. It actually made her laugh. The Duke appreciated the laugh and looked at Cassandra, “Oh, I like this one. She must be adopted.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Cassandra said sarcastically. “What would Alisha say if she saw you right now?”
“Alisha, who?” the Duke asked.
“Oh, nevermind,” Cassandra sighed and forced herself up from the ground.
“Where are you going?” the Duke asked.
“To get you some tea.”
“I didn’t ask for any.”
“Sure you did. I can read your mind.”
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Of course and no, I’m not that flexible,” she pointed at Toni Lyn. “You be careful with that one. He is weaselly.”
“Oh, I don’t want to be in the way,” Duke called after her. “I’m just a’visiting for an hour and then I’ll go my way.” He turned to Toni Lyn and took her hand. “Peter’s, right?”
Toni Lyn nodded.
“How is your father?”
“He is working on his dissertation still. It’s about Greek mythology.”
“Peter was a good kid,” Duke said, “Even though I thought he hated me after I married Alisha.”
“Oh, what made you think that?” Toni Lyn asked. She couldn’t picture her laid-back Dad hating anyone.
“At the reception he said, ‘I hate you Duke for marrying Alisha.’”
“Subtle,” Toni Lyn said. She would have to ask her father about that sometime. She got up from the gazebo and went back to digging up weeds in the garden.
“Of course, he was only 15 at the time so I’m sure he doesn’t remember.” The Duke watched Toni Lyn work for a minute. “If I was younger,” he sighed with a wink.
Toni Lyn laughed. “I don’t know there, Duke. I used to play on the beach with your youngest son, Duke Jr. #4, remember?”
“Did he make a move on you?”
“No!” Toni Lyn exclaimed.
“Well, his loss,” Duke sighed.
Toni Lyn squinted at him in a playful scolding manner.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Duke said. “But if I was 10 years younger it would be a different story.”
Toni Lyn laughed again. “Only 10 years?”
“Yep, all I would need is 10 years.”
“Your older than my grandmother!”
“Did she tell you that?”
Cassandra came out of the house with the tea. “Alright, you old pervert, I have your tea.”
“That’s Earl Gray?” he asked taking the tea. Of course, it was Earl Gray. It was all they drank. All they ever drank now. The rush from the drink was intoxicating for them.Cassandra didn’t answer, she just shook her head and sipped the drink. Toni Lyn sighed and went back to working in the garden. They sat and watched Toni Lyn casually for a few quiet minutes.
“She’s a good worker, isn’t she?”
“Damn good worker,” Duke replied.
Toni Lyn stopped digging and sat up. “Ok, I’m not a show. How about some tea for the only person working?”
Duke pretended to be astonished. “You expect your old grandmother to make you tea?”
Toni Lyn instantly felt embarrassed. That wasn’t what she meant. “I’ll get it. Don’t worry.” She said quickly and went in.
“You have me get tea for you,” Cassandra reminded Duke.
Duke snickered in response. Pause. He slowly sipped his tea and then looked at Cassandra. Something was up, it was hanging on him like clothes. This was almost strangely awkward now. “Cassandra there is something I want to talk to you about.”
Duke stared off at the beach and then back to his tea. “I found this key in Alisha’s jewelry box. “
“It’s for a bank in Switzerland.”
“Do you know anything about it?”
Cassandra sipped some more of her tea without an answer.
“The name of the bank was on the key. I called them and they said there should be a second key to get in the vault. They wouldn’t tell me what was in it. Well, I spent all yesterday searching the house. And, well, I couldn’t find another key.”
Cassandra sipped some more of her tea.
Duke paused. “You don’t know anything about this, do you?”
Cassandra didn’t answer.
“Fine,” Duke said as if to himself.
Cassandra felt guilty. She patted his arm. “Don’t worry, Duke. It’s nothing bad in that vault. Someday, you’ll have your answer about what’s in there. Don’t worry. I’m sure the key is around… (Toni Lyn came out with his drink) But let’s not talk about it now.”
Toni Lyn sat on the gazebo with them. The sun was beginning to set in the distance.
“This is nice,” Duke said.
Toni Lyn sipped her drink. “The poet John Keats wrote about moments called spots of time. They are the moments that when you look back at your life, you remember first. They can be moments of pure happiness or pure surprise or anything, but they’re really moments when life was overwhelming. When you really knew you were alive.”
“Ode to a Grecian Urn?” Cassandra asked.
Toni Lyn was impressed and smiled.
“I told you that class taught me something.” Cassandra sipped her tea again. It was too hot.
That night Toni Lyn got another call. Cassandra learned after the first day, it was best not to ask Toni Lyn about the calls. They were from her boyfriend, well, ex-boyfriend now. He didn’t seem to like the idea of her escaping away to an island for the summer… and yet, he couldn’t allow himself to separate the tie. Cassandra had never talked to him or met him. It was as if Toni Lyn could tell who was on the phone before picking it up, and she would be on that phone the second she could tell it was him from the ring.
He’d said some stupid things to Toni Lyn. He’d said some smart things. Cassandra had a pile of advice ready to share with Toni Lyn at the drop of a hat. But Toni Lyn didn’t ask and didn’t seem to want any.
The next day, Toni Lyn took Cassandra to a coffee shop. It wasn’t one of those typical coffee shops in the mall, no, this was the kind made for beatnik poetry, acoustic rock. It had black painted walls and incense burned in the corners. Cassandra smiled. So this is what it is like to be young, she thought.
“Tomorrow,” Toni Lyn said, “I’ll take you to a dance club.”
Cassandra didn’t argue against that idea as she sipped her coffee. For the last few hours she had been preparing for this conversation. She had finally remembered enough. “I want to tell you about your name,” she said quietly.
“You did,” Toni Lyn said. “Something about beauty and peace and…”
“No, no, no,” Cassandra sighed. “I was just trying to show off my poetry skills. Show I can keep up with you…. But part of that was true.” Cassandra sipped more of the coffee (Wow, a lot of caffeine). “Before I met your grandfather, before I moved to this island, I lived in Europe.”
The “hidden years” is how her children described them. The years she wouldn’t discuss. The years between college and Royal Carlton Island. Toni Lyn (through listening in on many adult conversations) knew she was in new territory… She leaned naturally forward.
“I knew a couple there,” Cassandra said quietly. “They were very much in love, but in trouble. I never knew exactly what, but the authorities and her family were after them. They ran off together, and they were so happy. They had such a wonderful energy about them.”
Toni Lyn touched her grandmother’s hand. “If you don’t want to tell me, you can stop. It’s no biggie.”
“No, I want to tell you,” Cassandra said. “There are many things that haunt me. I need to let this one go. At least one of them go.”
Cassandra stared outside at her car and then back at her hands on the table. Toni Lyn was still touching her hand. It was so young compared to hers. She moved her hand away quickly. “They stayed at my place, we were friends. We used to stay up evenings drinking wine and laughing and… I… You should have seen them dance together. It was beautiful. Once we had a murder party. Do you know about those? Where you take on a character for the evening and solve a mystery? Well, I remember watching them dance at the party and thinking that was… that was love and I knew deep down that I would never have that, no matter how much I wished for it… and… once I fell in love with your grandfather and got married, I started hating myself. Because I knew what I took away from them and…”
“What is it?”
“I turned them in,” Cassandra said quietly. “I got a call from a representative from her family asking if I saw anything. I had a lot of contacts in the city and they wondered if I heard anything. They made it sound like he was evil and did some pretty illegal things. They told me how worried and scared her family was. What could I say? He was a friend and I immediately assumed the worst instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt. I thought I was doing the best, but I’ve never heard someone cry as much as her. She was sent to America; he was put in jail. I don’t know what happened to either of them.” Cassandra couldn’t believe she was talking about it. She had kept this inside for so long that the fact that she could even put words to the moment, surprised her. “I’m not proud of my past. I’ve seen a lot of bad things, Toni Lyn. When I saw you, I felt I needed to carry on her name. Try again, a fresh and new start. It felt right.” Strangely, Cassandra didn’t feel better about admitting this. Did it even make sense to Toni Lyn? Did it even make sense to herself? Just random words put together to make sentences that make up attempts towards coherent thought. “It didn’t seem bad at the time. Not as bad as any of the other things I saw and… It didn’t seem that bad and the representative truly made it sound like her parents were scared and they were going to get caught someday and… well.” She had never walked so close to the edge of truth in years about her past. It would’ve just taken one step or misplaced word and everything would’ve been out.
“Her family may have been telling you the truth. You might have done the right thing,” Toni Lyn tried to sound reassuring.
Cassandra shook her head. “I’ll never know. I wasn’t there for the capture so I don’t know how he responded. I did see her later and… I’ve never seen someone cry so, so much… The next day, the representative from her family came by and gave me this.” Cassandra opened her purse and took out a piece of paper. “I’ve been carrying it with me for the last 50 years. Here.” She handed it to Toni Lyn.
Toni Lyn unfolded it. It was a check for 50,000 dollars. A check that was never cashed.
“It’s, of course, not any good now. It might not have even been good then. When I heard you talking on the phone last night,” Cassandra said even quieter, “I thought about your namesake and the love I took away from her. Life is short, Toni Lyn. Frightfully short. When love comes around, you…. Jonathan, your grandfather, once told me the only proof he ever needed that there was God was beauty and love. Cheesy? Well, that was your grandfather. So many people settle down and get married just to overcome a fear of loneliness. Few find true love, few give it time to emerge.” Was she crying? When was the last time Cassandra had cried? “If you don’t love him, let him go. You will find the right one. If I can find the right one after what I did, anyone can.”
Toni Lyn wiped a tear away from her eye. “Now you’ve got me doing it,” Toni Lyn said showing the tear on her finger to her grandmother.
Cassandra lightly laughed; it held back a slight cry.
Toni Lyn tried to hand the check back to Cassandra. “No, keep it,” Cassandra said while waving it away. “Keep it as a memory. It’s the only thing I have to remember your namesake. Maybe it will inspire you, who knows.”
Toni Lyn nodded her head slowly.
“This is good coffee,” Cassandra said with a sip. “I don’t miss my tea at all.”
Lesson #3 – Compare Things to Flowers
And it was then that the Summer of Poetry truly began for Toni Lyn. With that dark, amazing and brief insight into Cassandra’s past, she was given the beginning to a story. If there was a power or energy from that old check and that history, it had found a home in the belly of Toni Lyn. She saw in her mind the working of an epic poem. Not about the couple themselves, per se, but about the idea of finding true love and losing it.
Stuff of poetry and it had been done before? Toni Lyn didn’t hide that fact from herself. But she was going to do it through imagery. She was going to create moments with poems. “Let the reader put the story together on their own,” Toni Lyn explained to her grandmother over her notebook. “Hell, I might not even put the poems in the correct chronological order. Stories in the correct order, are boring, aren’t they? Let’s mix it up! Think about it, when you replay your memories, how often are they in the right order? You jump to the big parts, back and forth, around, and it works itself out in time, right?”
So, for the first time in years, Cassandra’s daily schedule was ruined. It was thrown completely out the window and she would follow Toni Lyn on her writing adventures. They would sit at restaurants watching couples (“Really? How could he order a steak when she ordered a salad?”). They would go to movies and sit behind lovers (“Does every guy use the yawn-arm maneuver?”). They would sit on the beach and watch the couples walk by (“They can’t be natural.” “Stop it! They might hear you.” “So? You know I’m right. Look at them!”). They went to local teen events to watch the teenager interact and deal with the emotions (“I forgot what a big deal holding hands used to be.”). They would sneak into weddings (“We’re with the groom, right?” “We were with the groom last time.” “Okay, we are with the bride.”) and try to get a good seat near the front.
Cassandra was fascinated by the episodes in front of her. It never occurred to her how much life was going on on her island that she never knew about. The hearts that were broken and ties that were forged, all that life going on that she didn’t know about. All that life that would go on after she was gone. Always.
For Toni Lyn, it was the little things. The way a woman would touch a man’s hand lightly over a table. The way a couple’s hips would grace against each other as they walked. The way a woman would smile just to see him smile in return. Toni Lyn would spot it all. Cassandra never knew what Toni Lyn saw until she got her hands on the notes later (Toni Lyn was always sharing the notes).
“I’ve never realized how fake love is in movies until I started watching reality,” Toni Lyn said one day. “That’s what I want to capture. The real deal.”
While for Cassandra telling the story about the couple was in time a cleansing of her soul (like admitting her sins to a priest on the deathbed), for Toni Lyn the story of her namesake opened up the world. It was what she needed. The spark was there in the story. How much of the human condition could be said to have been true for all time? Religions come and go and so do governments, but the emotions seem to stick to us like skin, and Toni Lyn was waking up to the possibility of what it had to offer.
At first, she numbered the poems and then stopped when that seemed to declare an order. Then she tried using words like “Hands” or “Touch” or “Smile” for titles, but that seemed to border on cheesy to her. “I’m not making a greeting card,” she pointed out to Cassandra one day. “Greeting cards can go to Hell.”
It was in August that Cassandra started to get ill. The doctor had come by a few times and instructed her to relax. Cassandra would have none of that! The creative energy springing from her granddaughter was too contagious. She needed to be near it. That energy was like a drug for her.
For the first time in a long time, Cassandra was being surprised by things. Toni Lyn was always taking her to new places, pointing out new things to her and doing things around her that she had only heard about in stories. Toni Lyn was becoming an eccentric writer and Cassandra thought it was wonderful. So when Toni Lyn started taping the poems up all over the living room walls, Cassandra didn’t mind.
“I don’t get it,” Duke said one day as he spied out the poems that covered all four walls. “They go from being about just a touch. Nothing more. And then… This one is about kissing… Wow, she actually used the word tongue!… And how did she get those to stick to the ceiling like that?”
Toni Lyn didn’t hear the criticisms. She was doing exactly what she wanted to be doing. There were some repercussions to her art though. She stopped responding to messages and calls from friends (and that ex-boyfriend). In the long run, those were minor to her and could be repaired later if she wished. Her life now consisted of little pieces of notepaper and pencils.
And, God knows, that’s all she wanted.
For Cassandra there was nothing more she wanted than to sit in the middle of the living room watching Toni Lyn scribble notes on to the paper that decorated her walls. Everywhere. Everywhere. She was witnessing art as life. Or life as art… She couldn’t tell the difference, but it was a unique way of seeing things.
Cassandra didn’t feel at all well one day and this time it was so bad she actually pointed it out. She had a fever and Toni Lyn did her best to take care of her. A different doctor (a specialist is what her primary doctor called him) came by and even though Cassandra first argued she wouldn’t let him see her, she finally consented to his cold hands. “It’s just a flu,” he said. “She should be fine. Just keep her in bed today, well rested, and maybe some hot soup. Take care of her.”
The doctor had no idea how hard a task that could have been, but Toni Lyn was up to it and made the meals and poured the glasses of soda or orange juice. For Cassandra, she was thankful of the attention, but what she really wanted to know was what Toni Lyn was doing when she wasn’t upstairs. Was she writing something new? Was she going out?
At 9 p.m., Toni Lyn lightly touched Cassandra’s cheek. “Grandma.”
Cassandra opened her eyes. “Yes.”
“There is something I want you to see.”
Cassandra sat up in the bed (even that felt difficult). “What is it, darling?”
“This may upset you, but I had to see what it looked like and…” Toni Lyn sighed. “I just need to show you. It wouldn’t be fair not to show you, I figure.”
Cassandra didn’t realize truly how ill she was until Toni Lyn tried to help her out of the bed, into her bathrobe and down the stairs. It was so slow, so very slow; each step being felt. Each creak in the wood of the steps resonated for her. This was aging personified in her environment. She quickly brushed off that morbid thought. She had to really watch herself about doing that.
“Now I don’t want you to look.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a secret. I want to see your reaction.”
Cassandra didn’t know what to say to that request. It seemed odd to her, but for Toni Lyn she nodded her head and closed her eyes.
Toni Lyn helped Cassandra walk to the porch. Arm under hers. Slowly, taking each step one at a time. “I really probably shouldn’t be doing this, but I want you to see,” Toni Lyn said.
“Don’t worry about me,” Cassandra said. Tough as nails. “I can take it. Just a little flu.”
Toni Lyn used one hand to open the door and held it with her elbow. Cassandra slowly stepped over Toni Lyn’s feet as she made her way onto her front porch. There was a light to her right.
Cassandra stopped. “What did you do?”
Toni Lyn smiled. The gazebo was covered, covered with lights. Hundreds and hundreds of little lights. Cassandra hadn’t seen such a sight since…
“I always wanted to see what it would look like,” Toni Lyn said. “I hope you don’t mind. But after reading Grandpa’s poems and hearing the stories I had to see for myself.”
“I don’t mind,” Cassandra said quietly.
“Is it like how grandfather did it?” Toni Lyn asked.
Cassandra didn’t answer. “Can you walk me over there?” she asked instead.
“Sure, sure,” Toni Lyn said, and they slowly began walking towards it.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Jonathan laughed.
“Why do I have to?” Cassandra asked. “It’s my yard, it’s my house. I should be able to see whatever you’re doing. I probably could sue, if I didn’t like it.”
“That is why I love you,” Jonathan said, “Your lack of letting the world take you by surprise.”
“Well, I can tell a few things,” Cassandra said. “I can tell that it’s a bright light, and we are walking to it.”
“You are quite incredible with your deductions. Oh, watch your feet.”
Cassandra stumbled. “You didn’t tell me on purpose.”
Jonathan snickered. “Of course, not. This is the last step… There… Stop and slowly open your eyes.”
Cassandra was surrounded by light, gold light. They completely covered the spaces around her, like a cocoon of sheer brillance. It was like a collection of stars surrounding her. It was so beautiful. She looked down at Jonathan. She was about to ask him why he did this to her gazebo and why it had to be a surprise, but she was too shocked by the fact that he was on one knee…
The neighbors were all watching from their windows. Some were outside looking at it. The oddity of that glowing gazebo was not seen in almost 50 years. None of them could have remembered the moment, only Cassandra… only Cassandra
Cassandra sat on the porch in the gazebo and looked around her.
“What do you think?” Toni Lyn asked.
Cassandra looked at her eighteen-year old granddaughter. It was obvious she was dying for an answer. “Strangely enough,” she said quietly, “it looks like a flower.”
Lesson #4 – Don’t Be Afraid of a Peaceful Ending
This was now Cassandra’s time. She wrapped her blanket tighter around herself and watched the first light of the sun trace the waves. She leaned back in her rocking chair. Age sat on her thickly that morning.
She felt old.
It was Jonathan that created this habit of watching the Sunday sunrise. At first she was scared (Is that the right word?) to join his sacred morning vigil. He looked so peaceful. Why intrude? Why intrude?
He looked back at her.
He smiled. He walked towards her, slowly took her hand and led her onto the porch. The dew on the porch tickled the bottom of her feet.
Without a word of acknowledgement or greeting, he sat on the rocking chair and she sat on his lap. She rested her head on his shoulder as he ran his hand slowly, slowly through her hair. Without even a noise louder than a breath, they watched the sunrise together.
She felt cold. She should have brought another quilt with her. She never felt this cold before. Usually only one quilt would do.
“What are you doing up?” It was Toni Lyn. She was wearing a pair of sweat shorts and a t-shirt of her college. She wiped the sleep from her eyes and walked onto the porch.
Cassandra smiled. This felt right. “I’m watching the Sunday sun.”
Toni Lyn yawned and sat on the porch swing.
It was almost Autumn. The Summer of Poetry had slipped by so fast. Years seem to speed up, not slow down.
The weight of the dew was having an effect on the trees that ran down the path of the backyard towards the beach. The leaves were falling in almost a slow, musical pattern.
Then the dawn. Combined with the luster of the leaves and the waves in the distance, the colors were strangely perfect. It can’t be perfect, Cassandra thought, nothing is supposed to ever be perfect. Yet, Cassandra never realized before the potential that was there for such a miracle.
“It’s beautiful,” Toni Lyn said quietly.
Cassandra nodded. She almost didn’t dare speak. “It all goes by so fast, Toni Lyn.”
Toni Lyn took her hand. Cassandra looked down at her hand, turned to her and smiled. “You are so picturesque.”
Toni Lyn smiled. “Nice word.” She had her grandfather’s crooked smile; funny how she never connected that before.
“I made mistakes in my past, Toni Lyn, many of them.”
“You don’t need to say anything, grandma.”
“There is something I want to give to you. I don’t want you to go down the path I did or even consider…”
“Grandma, what are you talking about? You gave me enough. You gave me the inspiration for my book and I really don’t need anything more.”
“This is important though.” Cassandra reached into the pocket of her pajama bottoms and pulled out a gold key. She handed it to Toni Lyn. “After I go…”
“Grandma, don’t,” Toni Lyn tried to interrupt.
Cassandra didn’t stop. “And after everything is passed around I want you to keep this secret. This is just for you. You will need to contact Duke since he has the other key. But see on the side of the key, right there, see, it’s the name of a bank. I want you to go there. They will lead you into the back of the bank. In the vault is a box. I want to imagine you… No, I want to dream of you walking down those hallways, there are so many different hallways, into the vault… being handed the box and opening it… the glow…”
“What is it?”
“After Alisha and I had the scare here on the island…”
“What are you talking about Grandma?”
Cassandra didn’t hear the interruption. “She made me again promise not to tell Jonathan about this. I couldn’t tell him until Peter and Lucy were out of the house. She was worried the children would talk and it would draw more attention to us. Alisha never told Duke. He has no idea what the keys are for. When I told Jonathan, your grandfather understood. He always understood. We agreed to save it for the second generation, when we were gone. We didn’t need it. Peter and Lucy have enough inheritance… And it’s better this way.”
“I don’t understand, Grandma.”
Cassandra again didn’t hear. “Just take whenever you need… whenever you need something… to tie you over.” Cassandra closed her eyes and she could see Toni Lyn (wearing a pair of old jeans and a too large white sweater) opening the box. In Cassandra’s mind, she is surprised and then smiling.
Cassandra was crying. Toni Lyn reached over and wiped some tears off of Cassandra’s face. Cassandra continued, “That is my gift to you. Make a life for yourself. Everything I own and my accounted fortunes will go to your dad and aunt and the other children and there is more than enough to keep them all happy, but that is for you. I want you to chase every dream, every wonderful thought. And I don’t want you to make the mistakes I made, the decision I made. Stay writing poetry. I want you to decorate more walls with poetry like wallpaper.”
“Okay, grandma, okay,” Toni Lyn said. She put the key in her sweat pants. She took her grandmother’s hand again. It was colder than usual.
A moment of silence.
Saying all that brought a sense of peace to Cassandra. She felt so at peace. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt so at peace. Cassandra looked down at the hand in hers. Her hands were so old in comparison, so old. This time she didn’t move it away.
Toni Lyn looked out towards the dawn. “Look at that.”
Cassandra looked back towards the waves, the sun and the leaves, but now… Now everything seemed to be moving slowly.
Toni Lyn let go of her hand. She got up and walked onto the lawn. She stepped under the falling leaves. They hung in the air around her as if time decided to take a rest for everything but her. She turned back to her grandmother and laughed.
Cassandra smiled back, ever so softly.
Toni Lyn spun gracefully and snatched a few leaves out of the air. They danced around her as if gravity gave up and decided to bow to her wishes. Her movement orchestrated it all. For that second, she could do anything she wanted.
She turned to the ocean and ran.
She ran across the grass.
She ran onto the sand and then…
She looked back at Cassandra and laughed loud and so beautifully.
Toni Lyn was standing on the water.
…Then with the slow dancing gold leaves, and Jonathan’s Sunday sunset, and her granddaughter, so happy, playfully dancing on the waves, Cassandra thought it best to close her eyes…