Below is the beginning of Joy’s story. Joy is Devonny’s mother and first appears in an as-of-yet unpublished novel tentatively entitled IF YOU KNEW. Devonny leaves her life in LA behind and starts over in a small Iowa town. But she soon realizes she can’t leave her past and she’ll be judged for every choice she’s made. Enjoy the beginning of Joy’s story. Feel free to comment and tell me where you think it could go.
Joy parked across the street from her childhood home. The neighborhood hadn’t changed much, but neighborhoods like this one never did. The houses stood like sentinels successfully holding back time for the past hundred years or so.
Some of the homes had been updated, many restored to their original glory. Peaked roofs and chimneys and clapboard. Porches and gables and a turret or two. Mostly the way she remembered it.
She stared at the home she’d grown up in, the one where her parents still resided. A home and a family she hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. She wasn’t nervous, she realized, thanks in part to Devonny. Her daughter’s journey had given her hope. Maybe it wasn’t too late to bridge the span of time and space between her and her parents. And if it was? If it was, then she still had Devonny and her new baby granddaughter Lucy. She still had a family. And always she could comfort herself that she had tried. Tried to reconcile with those who’d abandoned her when she’d needed them most.
She got out of the car and stood for a moment. The air was damp, the old cobblestones wet from morning rain. The trees had not quite released their leaf buds, waiting perhaps for the exact right moment. Unlike her, they wouldn’t wait too long. They’d know when the time was right to burst forward without fear of damage from yet another frost.
Joy stowed her car keys and hitched she strap of her purse higher on her shoulder, before she strode across the street and marched up the steps. The porch looked cold and neglected. The wicker chairs had no cushions. The swing sat sadly on the floor at one end. The flower pots showed off dry dirt and dead stalks and nothing else.
In another month, however, Joy knew, her mother would transform the space into one that welcomed and warmed. She’d plant her flowers and get Joy’s dad to hang the swing. Her mother would wash everything down as part of her spring cleaning routine and replace the cushions on the chairs. In the afternoons she’d sit in the rocker with her needlepoint or mending or perhaps the crossword puzzle from the morning paper. She’d visit with the neighbors before it was time to fix dinner.
Joy sighed as a thousand memories from her years spent here assailed her. Maybe, she thought, she’d make a thousand new ones. Or maybe not.
She opened the storm door and knocked on the wood one. The old house telegraphed movement from inside, the approach of footsteps. Behind the cloudy prismed glass of the door she saw her father. He seemed to debate for a moment before he opened the door.
“Whatever you’re selling, asking for or promoting, you’re wasting your time.”
He hasn’t changed a bit was Joy’s first thought. Still as tall and stern and formidable as he’d always been. His hair was a bit grayer and he’d developed a slight paunch, but Joy bet Arthur Harmon could still put the fear of God into his parishioners. But she wasn’t afraid of him any more. She didn’t need his approval. Or his love. Or his forgiveness. She didn’t need anything from him. And if he didn’t want to be her father, that was his choice. All she wanted to do was give him one last chance.
He stared hard at her. She couldn’t read all of the emotions as he reacted to her greeting. Surprise certainly. From which he quickly recovered. No outpouring of love. No sigh of regret. He frowned. “Thought I told you never to come back here.”
“You did. But it’s a free country. And that was twenty-five years ago.”
“What I said then still goes.” He started to close the door, but Joy stepped into its path and stopped it.
“Is Mom here?”
“You made your choice. You forced us to make ours. You’d best go back from wherever you were and leave us be.”
“I want to see my mother first.” Joy stared him down. She’d turned out just as stubborn as he was. She’d nearly lost her own daughter by behaving as he had. But she’d caught her mistake in time. She’d made amends. She’d learned to accept what she couldn’t change, learned that children often made choices their parents didn’t approve of. But respecting a child’s right to make those choices was the difference between having a relationship with the child or not having one.
“Who’s at the door, Art? Who are you talking to?”
Both of them turned as Marcy Harmon approached. She stopped and stared. “Joy?”
Marcy covered the few steps between them, ignoring her husband’s signal to stop. She enveloped Joy in a hug, crying over and over, “My baby. My baby.”
Joy closed her eyes and let herself revel in the feel of her mother’s arms around her, something she’d thought she’d never experience again. While her father seemed not to have changed at all, her mother seemed smaller than she remembered, diminished, somehow, from the woman Joy had known.
“I can’t believe you’re here.” Marcy pulled back and cupped Joy’s face in her hands to look into her eyes. “Come in. Come in. Art, why are you standing there with the door open?”
Marcy drew Joy forward.
“She’s not welcome in my house,” Art intoned. “She knows why. And so do you.”
Marcy looked at her husband, her hand grasping Joy’s. “You’ve kept us apart for twenty-five years and I’ve had enough. Joy is my daughter and this is my house, too.”
Joy stared at her parents. She’d never known her mother to defy her father on anything. The Marcy she recalled had been a good, dutiful wife, deferring to her husband on all important matters. Marcy’s reign was the house. Anything outside of it was Arthur’s domain.
Arthur kept his hand on the door as if he could still slam it in Joy’s face. “We agreed—”
“We never agreed. You dictated and eventually I swallowed my own objections. I’ve been choking on them ever since. Joy is here now and she stays.” Marcy tugged Joy’s hand and Joy followed her to the kitchen feeling her father’s stare of disapproval like bullet holes in her back.
Joy stopped at the threshold. “Wow. Your kitchen is beautiful.” Not everything on the street or in this house had stayed the same. Marcy’s kitchen could have come straight out of a spread in House & Garden. It had been beautifully updated without losing its original charm. A sunny breakfast nook had been built in to an area enclosed by three curved windows.
“Hmmpf.” Marcy busied herself behind the center island. “When you can’t have what you want, you take what you can get. I learned that a long time ago. Would you like some coffee? Tea? A soft drink?”
“Coffee would be great. But please don’t go to any trouble just for me.”
Marcy looked at her. “I have twenty-five years of not going to trouble for you to make up for.” When Joy didn’t respond, Marcy indicated the nook. “Please. Sit. This will just take a minute.”
Joy sat and looked out at the backyard. There were changes there, too. The trees she remembered were taller than ever. There was a new shed at the back of the property and a large plot of turned earth where a sizeable garden would go.
When her mother took a seat on the other side of the table Joy said, “Mom, I don’t want to make trouble between you and Dad.”
Her mother’s lips thinned and her eyes sparked with barely suppressed emotion. “Your father made his own trouble with me when he hung up on you that night. When he refused to help me find you or let you come back home.” Marcy looked away. She blinked. Her voice softened. “But I’m as much to blame as he is. I should have—overruled him. Fought harder for you.”
“Is it even possible? To overrule Dad?”
Marcy gave her a bitter smile in reply. “Maybe not. But I should have tried harder than I did. I’m sorry that I didn’t.”
“I know it had to be hard for you. But was it horrible? I prayed, Joy. I prayed for you every day. And every sleepless night, and there were a lot of those. You were always in my prayers. You look wonderful, by the way.” She cocked her head. “Successful.”
Marcy got up to pour coffee. “Cream? Sugar? That’s one of those things I should know about you. But I don’t.”
“Black is fine.”
They sipped their coffee while awkwardness descended. Neither of them, it seemed to Joy, knew where to begin.
“Why did you come back?” Marcy asked. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m overjoyed that you’re here. Finally. After all this time. But I am curious. Why now?”
“Actually, it’s because of my daughter.”
“You’re a grandmother. In fact, you’re a great-grandmother. Devonny had Lucy in February.”
“Devonny. That’s a beautiful name. I always wondered if you had a boy or a girl.”
“She lives in Iowa.”
“I want to meet her. And my great-grandchild.”
“Of course. Dad won’t approve of her.”
“It will be his loss, then.” Marcy toyed with her coffee cup. “So because of Devonny you came back?”
“Devonny made some choices I didn’t agree with. She married a man I was certain was as wrong for her as he could be. When he died, I said some horrible things to her. Things I couldn’t take back.”
“Just like your father did to you.”
“I realized I’m more like him than I ever thought possible. Devonny left LA without a word to me. She wouldn’t answer my calls. Texts. Emails.”
“She was angry,” Marcy said.
“Of course she was and she had every right to be. But I tracked her down and showed up on her doorstep.”
Marcy smiled. “So it’s a habit with you. Just showing up.”
Joy grinned. “Apparently.”
Marcy snapped her fingers. “I have coffee cake. Baked it this morning. Would you like some?”
“I’m fine with just the coffee, but thank you.”
“So you showed up. Go on.”
“I’d never really told Devonny about you and Dad. Or what happened to her father. But when I saw the pattern repeating, I knew I had to change it. That’s what Devonny helped me see. I had to accept her right to make her own choices. I didn’t have to like them, but I had to respect them and her if I wanted to be in her life.”
“She sounds like a remarkable girl. Woman, now, I guess.”
“She is. We talked about me coming back here. She made me see I had nothing to lose. I’d been without my family all this time. I’d proved I could make it on my own. So if you threw me out again…”
Joy tried to read her mother’s expression, but couldn’t.
“If we threw you out again, you still have a family to go back to. Devonny and her baby.”
Tears welled in Marcy’s eyes. She reached for a paper napkin from the holder on the table and dabbed at them beneath her glasses. “Devonny must think we’re horrible people.”
“I’m sure she doesn’t. But she is strong-willed. And she won’t be disrespected.”
A horn honked out front. Marcy jumped. “Oh, dear. That will be June Lethridge. On Fridays The Ladies’ Guild puts together lunches for the low-income children in the area. Let me just give her the keys to the church basement and she can go on without me.”
“Mom, no. I don’t want to interrupt your routine.”
Joy stood. “I’m going to be here for a few days. Maybe longer. We’ll see each other some more.”
“Where are you staying, though?”
June honked again.
Joy started walking with her mother to the front door. “I’m at that new motel out near the interstate. Room 219.” She drew a business card from her purse. “This has my cell number on it. Call me whenever you want.”
Her mother hugged her fiercely. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Joy could feel June Lethridge studying her as she walked down the steps. Probably, there’d be a lot of that if she stayed in town very long. She had no idea what her mother had told people when her daughter had disappeared all those years ago. But Joy was pretty sure she knew exactly what her father had said. If anyone had even had the nerve to ask him.
Joy waved at her mother as June’s car passed by. I really don’t care what they think. Or what they think they know.
I’m free. Joy had to keep reminding herself of that. She had no one but herself to consider in her decisions and choices. Her daughter was grown and had made it clear she valued her independence. And Joy had learned her lesson the hard way about attempting to interfere in Devonny’s life. Joy had a business doing research for a number of clients, but with her laptop and internet access, she could do research from anywhere.
She hadn’t told Devonny, but she’d put the condo in LA on the market and all of her things in storage. Joy didn’t know where she was going in much the same way Devonny hadn’t when she left LA. All Joy knew, just as her daughter had, was that she wanted a change.
Joy drove through the surrounding streets, reacquainting herself with the neighborhood. She drove past the park, the elementary and high schools, the community center.
The rental car seemed to know its way to downtown Liberty and steered itself into an angled parking space. She sat for a moment peering at the mix of old brick storefronts and new sidewalks of interlocking paving stones. The streetlights had that new vintage look. There was a coffee place on the corner and a bistro next to it. A bistro. Not a café. Not a diner. A bistro. Joy grinned. Revitalization had come to Liberty, Ohio while she’d been gone. Like a hundred other small historic towns across the country. She’d bet they’d applied for and received a grant to preserve historic buildings.
She squinted, almost certain she saw an art gallery and an interior design studio further along the block. She wondered what had happened to Kahl’s General Store and the pharmacy with the ice cream counter and sweet shop.
She remembered twirling round and round on the red stools while waiting for her mother to conclude her business. If she behaved herself, sometimes she got a Coke or a single dip cone.
Joy got out of the car. The wind had picked up and the threat of more rain was in the air. It didn’t bother her at all. After the dry smog-laden air of LA where water was a precious commodity, she relished the thought of a spring rain. She could always duck into the coffee shop for a hot chocolate or the bistro for lunch. After she checked out the art gallery, that is.
She purposely walked slowly, reading the menu posted outside the bistro and peeking into the coffee shop. There were small tables and a counter and workers wearing tan aprons and matching hats. Only a few patrons were in line.
She crossed the street and gazed at the art displayed in the windows of the art gallery. Curiosity piqued, she opened the door. A subtle bell sounded. A male head with lots of curly hair poked around a door at the back. “Be right out.”
“Take your time. I’m just browsing,” she called back. Joy loved art galleries and museums. She’d taken Devonny to them as often as possible. She’d wanted her home-schooled child exposed to as much culture as possible. Every learning experience Joy could afford, she’d given to Devonny. Concerts and music classes. Ballet performances and dance classes. Plays and movies and books. Devonny had soaked it all up and then thrown her future away by marrying Jack Campbell.
No, Joy warned herself. All Devonny had done was make her own choices. Her own life. Just as Joy herself had. Just as I’m going to do again, she reminded herself with a smile.
“Thanks for stopping in,” said the man who approached from the back. “Anything I can help you with?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m still getting over my shock. An art gallery in Liberty, Ohio? How did that happen?”
The man tilted his head and studied her. “Do I know you?”
She returned the favor. “I’m not sure. I grew up here, but I’ve been away for a long time.”