The large brick mansion was a testament to what Gabrielle’s family name had represented just a few generations ago. The vine covered building stood three stores tall and ivy crawled up the side that catered to a small garden. Centuries had passed and left Gabrielle a widow and sole caretaker of the family home. Now, renovated and split into apartments it was very much the broken home of a near dead family line.
She was fifty four and that fall would make the seventh to have passed since Jessica had left. After her son died in the military and her husband suffered a fatal stroke only a year later, Gabrielle became furiously protective of her daughter, and only other child, Jessica. The attention alienated the girl from her mother and at the age of nineteen Jessica proclaimed that she had fallen in love and was leaving to elope. Heart broken and terrified of losing the last person in her life Gabrielle had cried and begged as she watched her daughter pack her bags and leave. Jessica had never written or called since that day.
Gabrielle had held out for four years, sure that her daughter would return. Sometimes she dreamt that the ill planned marriage had failed horribly and that her daughter would appear at the door one afternoon sick of her husband’s cheating and ready to be home with the mother she loved. Still other nights she imagined her daughter happy and with children, coming to visit her to meet the grandmother they had never met. Always in the dreams, though, Jessica returned. It was only after four years of rushing to the mailbox and anticipating visitors that never came, that Gabrielle succumbed to the understanding that the great reunion was not coming.
It was at that point that she closed the double doors between the dining room and living room that split the first floor in half. With no need for all of the space she had a small kitchen built in and rented the other half of the first floor out as a small bachelor’s apartment. The first man to take it had been young, and after the end of the year she refused to rent to him again, having had to listen to his music through the closed double doors every evening when she was reading.
The next year there came an elderly man by the name of Edward Graham, though Gabrielle always referred to him as Mr. Graham. He was old but his large build and inexhaustible energy instilled a boyish youth in his aura that, like his smile, was hard to ignore. Although at first he had been overly friendly, inviting Gabrielle over for tea every weekend and trying to spark her interest in his stamp collecting, she recognized his interest in her as more than what she considered appropriate in a landlady and her tenant and firmly declined from any further entertaining.
That notwithstanding the two became good friends and Gabrielle often took walks with Mr. Graham after suppertime to reminisce about their earlier years and to exchange news (not that she had much to add but he was always excited to tell her where he had just been sent a stamp from). She learned about his youth traveling Europe on bike for several years and how his interest in stamps was sparked by his father. To him she told the stories of her life, her love for her son, and also her terrible preoccupation with the daughter she longed to see again. She told him of her loneliness and her need for the family that she had lost. It was after one such walk that Gabrielle found the first of the letters in the mailbox.
At first, seeing the postmark from a state out west and her name in such neat cursive writing, Gabrielle believed that the letter was from one of her distant friends from whom she heard from time to time. Upon opening the letter, however, she found herself wrong. The letter was from her daughter Jessica. Gabrielle was entranced – she read the short page over and over again, trying to absorb all of the information and glean any clues from between the lines. Jessica lived with her husband, not the first one but her second, in a little apartment, walking distance from the ocean. She was writing to say that she was six months pregnant. The rest of the letter was filled with vague descriptions of the local park and her job as a nurse. There was no return address and in the end Jessica apologized but insisted that she not be sought out or contacted and assured that she would send another letter soon. It was frustrating. On the one hand Gabrielle was beside herself with joy because after seven years her daughter was finally ready to connect with her again but on the other she was confused as to why was she not being allowed to write back? Surely, if she were to be a grandmother, her daughter would want her to meet the child. The letter must be a sign that Jessica was ready to let Gabrielle back into her life.
It was with these thoughts weighing heavily on her mind that Gabrielle went on her walk with Mr. Graham the following night. She talked with him about her concerns and by the time they had arrived back at the house she found that while few of her questions had been answered she still felt somehow assured.
The next letter came a month later filled, much as the first, with descriptions of outings and events that barely gave Gabrielle a glimpse of what her daughters life might be like. In the face of these frustrations and in the time between the second and third letter Gabrielle began to imagine what her daughter was like. She based whole aspects of Jessica’s imagined life off snippets of sentences, suggested nuances that allowed her to construct a complete life and identity for her daughter in ways that she was never able to before. When the third letter came, it announced the birth of her very first grandchild, a baby girl named Iris. Jessica still refused to give her address in the letters. After the next few, however, Gabrielle stopped minding as much. At least she had something. Her family had returned to her.
She continued to fill in all of the blanks left by the letters until she had created whole narratives that she felt confident enough in to share with Mr. Graham on their walks as acknowledged facts. He was always kind enough to ask how Iris was on the days after he had seen that she received a letter and he would listen as the duration of their walk was filled by Gabrielle’s excited response. Over the next couple of months Gabrielle began to change. Where once she had been quiet and sad she was then just the opposite.
It was late July and she had been receiving letters from Jessica for almost a year when she received a very different letter. This letter came from a hospital in Georgia. In very formal speak and “with the deepest of apologies” the letter explained that her daughter Jessica had been hit by a car and been killed. She was not only devastated, but baffled. What had Jessica been doing in Georgia? Where were Iris and her son-in-law? Unable to bear the news Gabrielle went straight to bed and cried.
The following evening she had still not left her room when she heard a knock at the door. She intended to ignore whoever it was until she realized that it was Mr. Graham coming to go with her on their walk. Gabrielle came to the door and, while opening it only a crack, informed him that she would not be coming. When he inquired as to why, Gabrielle lost her reserve and informed him of the awful news. With a grave face Mr. Graham insisted that he come in to speak with her about it. She refused at first but after he affirmed that he would not leave until he had had a chance, Gabrielle let him in.
He sat across from her on the chair in the dining room and delivered to her a blow almost as serious as the letter from the previous night. He felt it appropriate to tell her, lest she be confused, that it had been he who had been writing the letters from Jessica. He had been sending them to one of the stamp-collectors on the Pacific coast to send back in exchange for special stamps. She was immediately heart broken and outraged. How dare he play with her mind in such a way!! She demanded that he leave.
It was several days before she ventured out of the apartment, but each night after dinner time there would be a knock at the door. When she did not answer the feet on the other side would shuffle and a note would slide underneath. She ignored the notes as she did the knocks, tossing them in the garbage without a glance. After a week passed she was more sad then angry and when the note came beneath the door she walked over with the intention to throw it out and found that she was glancing to see what it said. The simple message read to the effect of describing his actions as an attempt to offer her the family she had been denied. The harm was not intended and the goal was not to mislead her but to make her happy.
The following night when Mr. Graham came to the door she was dressed and ready for their walk as if it had always been so. He did not ask any particular questions or even act particularly surprised at her sudden participation. Much of the walk was silent, but not uncomfortable. In a strange way the silence was much more personal then any of their previous walks had been.
When they returned home, they went to their respective apartments. Gabrielle sat on her couch, attempting to read and overwhelmed by the sense of loneliness and despair that had settled around her home in the last week of grieving. After sitting for a time in thought, she walked to the double doors and gave them a light knock. The voice of Mr. Graham inviting her in convinced her that he had been waiting for this moment for some time. She opened the double doors that had been closed and locked for seven years and entered what had once been her and now was Mr. Graham’s living room. He was sitting on the couch leaning over the book and stamps that were spread out over the coffee table. He did not look up as she crossed the living room or stop his sorting as she sat beside him on the couch and began to read.