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Solace in a Bottle

Two months ago, I stood in this very room to proclaim smugly to friends preparing to annihilate a chocolate birthday cake that I was on top of the world.

Days later, the Chief Operating Officer called me in to advise that the executive position I’d both coveted and deserved would go to a less experienced male whose tongue and elbows weren’t quite as sharp.

A week later, a disembodied voice informed me that my mother–a sturdy, industrious woman of Scotch-Irish descent–had ‘passed’ unexpectedly of what I later learned was an aneurysm.

As Will and I finish lunch, it seems that every few sentences we exchange provide potential fodder for a new argument.

“You can’t drive up to your Mom’s place knowing we could get a foot or more of snow. Suppose you get stuck there.” Will is in a foul mood as he knocks back what remains of a bottle of 2003 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“Suppose I do,” I reply testily. What am I truly sacrificing if I don’t return?

My yearning increases for the solace of that house, 1400 square feet of modern comfort and breathtaking views nestled in the foothills of West Virginia a few hours from the McMansion Will and I occupy in a D.C. suburb. On our last visit–my first and only since Mom died–I gathered some of her favorite things while Will set the thermostats to 50 degrees and shut off the water. He checked windows and tested doors as I cried in the car.

Will sighs heavily as his hostility sloughs off. His right hand shifts to cover my left, warm and solid. For a split second I’m tempted to launch myself out of the chair and into his arms.

His thumb brushes my fingers before he pulls away. “The Camaro’s running rough. I’ll be in the garage.”

The drive is uneventful, although the threatened snowfall does materialize 80 miles out. Puddles of white condense and bubble on asphalt as I leave the highway. There’s barely room on the narrow county road for two vehicles to pass without kissing.

The gravel driveway winds for nearly a mile. My arrival startles a six-point buck. I tap the brakes as he bolts in front of me, swallowed quickly by a stand of pines.

The accumulating snow crunches beneath my tires. I feel the traction slip on the first switchback as the elevation increases. My SUV finally crests the hill. I park beneath towering, naked oaks whose broad branches shelter the A-frame.

My hands shake as I fumble with the key.

Fortunately, all anxiety wicks away as I stride room-to-room.

The slumbering furnace reawakens and, with the turn of a valve, I again have water. I open the bathroom window before turning on the faucet, closing the door behind me as the odor of rotten eggs escapes the tap.

I gaze out the massive picture window as snow embraces the firs that serve to demarcate front yard from open field. I stand transfixed, watching the stubble of the last harvest vanish beneath a downy blanket.

When I finally break away, my eyes settle on the mass of cardboard stacked against the wall. Will is nothing if not efficient. “There’s no reason to keep this place,” he’d called out as I added two wool sweaters, a handful of faded silk scarves, and a pashmina to the leather satchel in which my mother’s jewelry box and three framed photographs already were cosseted. “It’s good as worthless since we’re too busy to get any use from it.”

I realized the significance of that moment in bed the following night, when the love that once had bloomed so radiantly fell into dormancy.

I place a cardboard box on the dining room table, a round tiger oak handed down through four generations of Stewart women. Where to start? Mom liked clean lines and open spaces, so there are few objets d’art or tchotchkes to pack.

My eyes settle on a row of bottles occupying the window sill, blue, green and copper hues vibrant against an exterior backdrop of lace-encrusted pine and spruce. I see now how this simple array of colored glass infuses the room with life.

I pick up a familiar medicine bottle. The smooth surface chills my fingers. We discovered this treasure in Charlottesville on our first mother-daughter vacation. Mom insisted we go after my father severed all ties to begin life anew with a younger version of his soon-to-be ex-wife. “This trip marks the start of our own adventure,” she’d whispered, enveloping me in a bear hug.

I replace it and select a syrup bottle. I recall the flush of my mother’s cheeks and the pleasure in her eyes as she liberated it from its Christmas bindings more than two decades ago. I return it to its spot and grasp a third bottle. This beauty was acquired in historic Smithville en route to a weekend of concerts, gambling, and romance in Atlantic City. Will had grinned from ear-to-ear after freeing it from a cache of vintage Hemingray insulators. “Your mom will love this.” His lips had brushed mine as the clerk processed his credit card.

I clutch that bottle to my breast as my vision clouds. I lift a hand to wipe my eyes. I miss my mother and I ache for Will. I’m not strong enough right now to sift through a lifetime of mementos and memories, to decide what to discard and what to retain. My grip tightens as I make my way to the sofa, where I curl into a ball and cry myself to sleep.

“Hey.” His voice is soft and his touch gentle. “I’m sorry…about everything.”

My heart leaps.

His hair is slick. Rivulets of water stream down his face. His collar and sleeves are soaked. “I left my car beside the road–that hill’s a killer.”

I extend the bottle and Will palms it. That smile that’s been AWOL for far too many weeks returns, and with it, hope stirs.

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