I turned to watch Alexis coming down the stairs. After twenty years she still took my breath away.
“Why the stare?” Alex asked.
“Because you’re more beautiful at forty-five than you were at twenty-five,” I answered.
Alex walked up and kissed me.
“Keep that up and you won’t get any sleep tonight!” she said as she winked at me. “Now what’s all the shouting about? Why did you drag me down here?”
“You have got to see what just came in the mail,” I explained. “It’s really something!”
I handed Alex the dirty letter-sized envelope that had arrived that morning hidden and stuck between two oversized advertising flyers.
“Look at this,” I said. “Read it. I don’t believe it.”
Alex took the envelope. She looked at the front.
“My heavens!” she said. “Is that a nineteen forty-nine postmark? From California?”
She opened the envelope and took out the piece of paper inside. She read the brief message aloud.
“Darling. I love you so much. We’ll meet at our special place as planned. Then we will leave. Love, Raymond.”
Alexis looked up at me. “Is this a joke?” she asked. “Did you make this up?”
“No, I swear I didn’t,” I said. “Look how dirty and beat up that thing is! It was probably lying around on a floor or maybe stuck in some conveyor for sixty years! See. It’s addressed to a Mary Jacobs, eight zero seven East Washington Street. In Urbana, Illinois. I guess poor Mary never got the message. God only knows how it wound up here.”
My wife gave me a suspicious look. She carefully folded the note back up and returned it to the envelope. Then she looked at the front of the envelope again.
“There’s no return address,” she said. “I wonder why?”
“Maybe the sender didn’t want to identify himself,” I observed. “Maybe they just forgot.”
“You swear this isn’t one of your perverted jokes?” Alex asked.
“I swear,” I said. “Isn’t that something? I’ll just stick it back in the mailbox and put the red flag up. The postman can take it back. It’s the Post Office’s problem.”
“Oh no you won’t!” Alexis said. “Everything happens for a reason. This letter came to us. Not anyone else. It came to us. And it is our problem now.”
“What are we supposed to do with it?” I asked.
Alexis smiled at me.
“Deliver it,” she said. “Someone deserves to know that she was supposed to get this message. If it were me, I would want to know. Even if it were sixty years later.”
“You have got to be kidding!” I responded. “This is twenty thirteen! That was….let’s see… sixty-four years ago! Let’s say Ms. Jacobs was twenty then. She would be around eight-four now. She might not even be alive anymore!”
“But we don’t know that,” Alexis said. “And if she is alive she deserves to get this message.”
“Is this another of your mysterious, intuitive thingys?” I asked.
Alex stared at me. “Maybe,” she said.
I knew from her look and our history together that I had no choice. We were going to have to try to deliver the letter.
“Honey,” I said, “you have one of those expressions on your face. I can see that you have strong feelings about this. But how do you suggest that we deliver this thing? How do I find Mary Jacobs?”
“Hit the Net!” Alexis replied. “You have a name, a town, a time, and the name of a lover. You’re pretty smart. Go figure out how you can use all that information to track her down.”
Alex handed me the letter. “Get to work!” she said. “Times a-wastin’!”
I went into the den where our main computer was. I booted it up, waited for it to settle down, and at first just played around a bit. I logged onto Facebook and started looking thru all the Mary Jacobs. It was a waste of time. I googled Mary Jacobs and got a lot of hits but they didn’t lead anywhere. Then I had a brilliant idea! I tried searching online obits figuring that if Mary had died, we were off the hook. But that didn’t pan out either.
Eventually I decided that my best course was to utilize all the information that I had in the most direct way possible. I hit the white pages online to check out how many Jacobs were listed in Urbana, Illinois. There were one-hundred and thirty two listings. I looked through those that provided household members and ages to see if any had an appropriately aged Mary. But they didn’t. And so I decided that the following day, I would call each Jacobs. I figured that my best chance was that one might be a relative or descendant of Mary, if not Mary herself.
“Well,” I said to myself, “it could be worse. Say each call averages one minute, so one-hundred-thirty would be a little over two hours. What the heck.”
I printed out all the names and phone numbers in preparation for the next day’s effort. Cost wasn’t an issue. My phone plan let me call anywhere in the country for my flat fee. It was just a matter of putting in the time. My strategy would be simple; start at the top of the list and work my way down.
That night I went to bed at least knowing that I had a plan.
The next morning while Alex and I sat at the breakfast table I described my approach.
“Sounds like a plan to me!” she said. “What time are you going to start calling?”
“I figured after ten this morning,” I responded. “It’s a Saturday. Most people are up by then and are probably home.”
Alex got up and started cleaning off the table. She leaned down to grab my dishes but stopped and kissed the top of my head.
“Even though it’s all skin it’s still kind of cute!” she said.
“Thanks a lot!” I responded
It was already nine forty-five so I headed back to the den where the main computer was. I had already placed my list of names there on a clip board along with pens and a magic marker. Once again I booted up the PC and waited for it to settle down. Then I browsed the news sites for a while to kill time. At precisely ten o’clock I got to work.
The first name on the list was Aaron Jacobs. My heart pounded a little as I made that first call. The phone rang, and what sounded like a young man answered.
“Hello?” the voice said.
“Is this Aaron Jacobs?” I asked.
“Yes,” came the response. “Who is this?”
“I’m hoping that you can help me. I’m looking for a Mary Jacobs,” I explained. “She lived in Urbana, Illinois in the forties. I have something of value of hers that I’d like to return. Might you know her?”
“Sorry,” came the response. “Don’t know her.” Then he hung up the phone.
“That was quick,” I thought. “I’ll be done in no time!”
The next name was Adam Jacobs. I dialed the number. This time an older voice answered.
“Hello?” it said.
“Hi,” I responded. “I’m hoping that you can help me. I’m looking for a Mary Jacobs. She lived in Urbana, Illinois in the forties. I have something of value of hers that I’d like to return….”
“I’m sick of stupid telemarketing calls!” the voice answered. “Go screw yourself!” I could almost see him slamming down the phone.
And so went the afternoon. Next was Adelaide. Then Amy. Then Bob. Then Christopher, Edward, Elton, George, Henry, Ira……..and eventually, three hours later, Zelda. Sometimes people were rude, sometimes they were nice, and sometimes they were intrigued when they heard the whole story and wanted to chat. But no one knew Mary.
Right after I had crossed off Zelda on my list, Alex appeared. She handed me a cup of coffee.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“It’s not,” I replied. “I just went through a list of over one hundred names. No one knows our Mary Jacobs.”
“Did you try googling her, Hon?” Alex asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It really wasn’t too helpful.”
“May I?” Alex asked.
“Be my guest,” I said. “Maybe you can work some of your mysterious intuitive magic!”
I got up and let Alexis sit down. I stood behind her sipping my coffee and looking over her shoulder.
Alexis clicked inside the Google search bar, typed in ‘Mary Jacobs Raymond special place’ and then hit return. The typical array of useless and often incomprehensible hits came up. But as we visually scanned each page, it was the next to last listing on page eight that caught our eye. It was a poem that someone had posted on a Facebook page and left accessible to the public.
The poem read:
To Beautiful Raymond
by Mary Jacobs
I wait beneath the big Elm tree
My heart sings as you come to me.
You join me and I take your hand
Without a word you understand.
We kiss after a firm embrace
And make love at our special place.
Soon will come that lovely day
when we shall meet then run away.
Underneath the poem there was one line of text.
Raymond, if you are out there please contact me. Email is: chill ran through both of us!
“My god!” I said. “That has to be her! That has to be her poem!”
Alex looked up at me and smiled.
“I told you!” she said. “There are strong forces at work here! Stronger than you know!”
Alex went into mail and started composing a message to the address provided. In keeping with her personality, it was to the point:
‘We have a letter written in 1949 addressed to a Mary Jacobs on East Washington Street in Urbana Illinois. It was delivered to us by mistake. It’s from a man named Raymond and talks about leaving. Please write back if you’re interested.’
Alex clicked on the send button.
“Well,” she said, “we should know soon enough if this is the person.”
“What if the message just goes into some spam folder and gets deleted?” I mused.
“No way,” Alex said. “Someone wouldn’t go to all this trouble and not turn off the spam filters. If this is our Mary, we’ll hear something.”
Alexis got up and took me by the hand.
“Come with me,” she said.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“To the bedroom,” she replied. “You’ve been a very good boy and deserve a reward.”
“Wow,” I observed. “If that’s what it takes we’re gonna start getting a lot of old letters!”
It was Sunday afternoon when the reply arrived. Alex was checking the mail in the den. I was watching a baseball game on TV when I heard her excited shout.
“Hon!” she screamed, “come to the den. We’ve got a reply!”
I immediately jumped to my feet and rushed to the den. Alex was glowing! I looked over her shoulder at the e-mail message.
I am very interested. It sounds like the letter was intended for my grandmother, Mary. She used to live on Washington Street in Urbana many years ago, and was deeply in love with a man named Raymond. Please contact me at your earliest convenience. I’ll be happy to pay for any long distance call. Contact information is provided below.
“Look,” Alex said. “She provided a home address, a home phone number, a work phone number, and a Skype account name.”
“Wow,” I said. “This is really something. What should we do? Call her? Try Skype? Make love in the bedroom? Ouch!”
Alex had jabbed me with her elbow. “Be serious,” she said.
“May I displace you from the chair this time, Hon?” I asked.
“Go ahead,” Alex said as she arose. “What are you going to do?”
“Reverse lookups on the phone numbers,” I replied. “Let’s see if everything seems legit.”
I looked up the home phone number Mary had provided and discovered that it was listed to a Carl Granowski in Urbana, Illinois. Then I ran the work number. It showed up as belonging to Maple Manor hospital in the same city.
“Well,” I said, “it seems legit. Maybe she’s married to Carl and is a nurse or something.”
“Let’s call her right now!” Alex suggested.
“Hang on,” I said. “I’m going to call the work number.”
“It’s Sunday,” Alex observed. “She probably isn’t there.”
“I know,” I said. “I just want to check it out.” I dialed the number and got a voice mail announcement.
“Hello,” a female voice said. “This is Mary Granowski. Please leave your message after the tone. I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” I hung up the phone.
“Well,” Alex said, “convinced that she’s not a serial ax-murderer luring us to her chamber of horrors?”
“Just doing some due diligence,” I said. “Let’s call. May I do the honors? I’ll put her on speaker.”
“Please do,” Alexis said. “But some people are intimidated by speaker phones.”
I called the home number. I pushed the button to put the call on speaker and both of us listened. I was still sitting and Alexis was standing beside me. We heard someone pick up the phone after the third ring.
“Hello?” the female voice said. It sounded like the woman on the voicemail message.
“Hello,” I said. “Is this Mary Granowski?”
“Yes it is,” the woman answered. “Who is this?”
“We’re the people who wrote you about the letter,” I responded. “The one addressed to Mary Jacobs.”
“Oh my god!” the voice said. “I can’t believe this! I am so happy that you called!”
“You’re on a speaker phone,” I said. “My name is Roger. My wife is Alexis. We’re both listening.”
“I’m Mary Granowski,” the voice said. “Well, I guess you know that. But my maiden name is Jacobs. Mary Jacobs was my grandmother. I’m named after her.”
“Well it’s nice to meet you, Mary,” Alexis said. “Would you like us to read you the letter?”
“Would you?” Mary responded. “That would be so nice!”
Alexis picked up the envelope that I had left on the desk, removed the letter and read it. We could hear Mary crying on the other end of the phone.
“Are you ok?” Alexis asked.
“Yes,” Mary said. “Yes I am. Please forgive me. There is a lot of emotion associated with what you just read.”
“May I ask,” I interjected, “is your grandmother still alive?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone.
“Yes,” Mary said. “She’s still alive.”
“Would you like us to overnight the letter to you, Mary?” Alex asked.
There was another long pause.
“Yes,” Mary said. “That would be nice. But she might not believe me.”
“Who might not? Your grandmother?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mary repeated. “She might not believe me.” Then Mary became silent.
Suddenly Alex shooed me out of the chair, took the phone, and sat down. She took the call off speaker and talked to Mary through the handset.
“Mary,” she said, “this is Alexis. You’re off the speaker phone. It’s just us girls talking now.”
Mary had obviously started talking again. Alexis listened intently. I watched her nod every now and then and utter the obligatory “Uh-huh.” After what must have been at least five minutes I saw Alexis’s eyes tear up.
“Mary,” Alexis said, “what if we came tonight with the letter? Would that help?”
Alexis listened a while more. Then she spoke again.
“Don’t worry. We’ll come tonight, Mary. We both know that things happen for a reason. Everything will work out. We’ll see you later tonight.”
Alexis hung up the phone, stood up, and faced me. She saw my look of irritation.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I had to do that. Mary was starting to feel uncomfortable. To shut down. I could tell. I could feel it. I had to put her at ease so I could hear her story. She was much more comfortable when it was just us girls.”
I composed myself. Alexis understood people far better than I did. I had to defer to her judgment.
“OK,” I said. “So what’s the story? What’s this about seeing her later? Urbana is about a three hour drive from here.”
Alex took my face in her hands and stared into my eyes.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” I said.
“Then trust me,” Alex replied. “I’ll fill you in on the way there. Print out the mail with Mary’s contact information, grab a map, let’s pack a few things and hit the road.”
Twenty minutes later we were off to Urbana, Illinois.
The drive to Urbana was going well. The roads were clear, traffic was flying along, and we were about twenty minutes away from our destination.
“OK,” I said to Alexis, “let me make sure that I have all of this straight so I don’t embarrass myself when we get there.”
“Go ahead,” Alexis said.
“So Raymond and Grandma Mary were lovers. In their twenties. But Mary’s family disapproved of the relationship.”
“Correct!” Alex said. “Mary’s parents thought Raymond was a worthless gold digger. An orphan from the wrong side of the tracks just playing her for her money. Her family was fairly well off.”
“And Mary would sneak out of the house to see him. And they would meet by this big elm tree in a forest. And make love there.”
“Correct again,” Alexis said. “The birds and the bees with the real birds and the bees watching! And the honey was granddaughter Mary Granowski’s mother.”
“So they were going to run away together,” I continued. “Mary empties her bank account, gives it to Raymond, and he heads off to California to check things out.”
“That’s right,” Alex said. “When things are all set there, Raymond is going to send Mary a letter. Then he will come back, they will meet at their pre-arranged rendezvous point, run away, and live happily after.”
“Except that the letter never comes,” I noted. “Until we get it over sixty years later.”
“Yes,” Alexis confirmed. “And Raymond never comes either. To this day no one knows what happened to him. And Grandmother Mary spends the rest of her life waiting for Raymond to come back to her, wondering if her parents were right about him never loving her. And she raises his child, young Mary’s mother. Who died last year.”
“And the poem on the Facebook page?” I asked.
“Put up as part of a promise to Grandma Mary by Granddaughter Mary to never stop looking for Raymond,” Alexis explained. “Grandma had written the poem many years ago. Mary told me that every day, before her stint in the nursing home, Grandma would ask whether or not Raymond had responded.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Now just one more thing,” I asked. “What was the deal about Grandma not believing Granddaughter Mary?”
“Well,” Alexis said, “when Grandma was very ill a while back Mary insisted that she go to the nursing home. Grandma never forgave her for putting her there. She says that Mary tricked her. Rightly or wrongly, that’s how she sees it.”
“But she adores Carl, Mary’s husband?” I asked.
“Yes,” Alexis explained. “For whatever reason, Grandma does trust and adore Carl. Mary has become the villain in Grandma’s eyes and Carl the angel.”
“That must be hard on young Mary,” I said.
“I’m sure it is,” Alex responded.
The conversation was interrupted when Alex shouted, “Look. I think that’s it! The house!”
We had arrived. We turned up into the driveway of a modest white wood frame home in Urbana, Illinois. I pulled to a stop behind a gray minivan parked near a detached garage. It was a warm summer night. We exited the car and took a moment to just smell the fresh country air and listen to the crickets. Then we walked up the steps to the front door. Alex rang the bell. The door opened and there stood the younger Mary Granowski.
Mary was about five foot four, looked to be in her forties, and shook her head in disbelief as she saw us.
“You must be Roger and Alexis,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. You are so kind to do this! Please come in.”
We entered and Mary led us into the living room. A man who looked in his early fifties got up and extended his hand.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Carl, Mary’s husband. Please sit down and rest a bit.”
But while we were still standing, Mary looked at Alexis.
“May I see it? Please?” she asked.
“Of course,” Alexis said. She took the envelope out of her purse and gave it to Mary. Mary took it from her and looked at the address on the front. Then she took out the letter and read it.
“My heavens,” she said. She started crying. “Please forgive me for being so emotional.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Alexis said.
“May I offer you something?” Carl said. “Something to eat? A drink? Coffee?”
“No thank you,” Alexis said. “And I don’t mean to be rude, but I think we should attend to what’s important first. Where is Grandma, Hon?” she said to Mary.
“In the bedroom,” Mary said. Mary put the letter back in the envelope and handed it back to Alexis.
“OK, Hon,” Alexis said to me. “It’s time for you to meet Grandma and return the letter.”
I was shocked and it showed. Carl looked at the two of us.
“Would you two like a moment alone?” Carl asked.
“I think that might be a good idea,” I said. “Would you excuse us?”
“Of course,” Carl replied. He and Mary left the room.
“What’s going on, Hon?” I whispered. “What do you mean it’s time that I meet Grandma and return the letter?”
Alexis took a deep breath.
“Her grandmother is dying,” Alexis said softly. “Mary and Carl are hospice nurses. They brought her back from the nursing home so that she could pass in more comfortable surroundings. They’ve been caring for her here. They expected her to pass weeks ago, but she keeps hanging on.”
“You know how I feel about hospitals and death and dying!” I whispered somewhat louder.
“Yes,” Alex whispered back, “which is why I didn’t tell you! You might not have come if I had. But you’re going to have to get over your silly hang-ups! She’s dying from old age, not the bubonic plague! She’s just a person near her end. And you’re going to tell her what she needs to hear.”
“But why me? Why don’t you go talk go her? Why not Mary?” I whispered to Alexis.
“I told you,” Alexis whispered back. “Grandma doesn’t trust Mary anymore. She does trust Carl. Carl told her that you had called him about the letter. That you were going to bring it and give it to her. She doesn’t even know that Mary knows about it. Carl is going to introduce you and you are going to tell Grandma about the letter! ”
Alex put the envelope in my hand.
“We’re ready,” she announced loudly. Mary returned to the room. Carl disappeared toward the back of the house.
Mary led Alexis and me to a rear bedroom. She opened the door slightly. I saw her grandmother lying in bed. It looked like she was sleeping. Carl was sitting on a chair next to her on her right holding her hand and softly speaking.
“Just go talk to her,” Alexis said. “Show her the letter. Read it to her. Don’t be afraid.”
Carl stood up and walked into the hall where we were standing.
“She’s ready for you, Roger,” Carl said.
“Go ahead, Hon,” Alex said. “Now!” And with that she gave me a gentle shove into the room. She almost closed the door completely behind me but for a small crack that everyone could observe through.
I walked up next to the bed. It was a hospital bed. Lying in it was a frail, skinny, gray haired woman with her head and shoulders elevated. I regretted that I wasn’t intuitive and sensitive like Alexis. Alexis always knew what to say. She was so good with people. I was more analytical and a bit socially inept.
Grandma’s breathing was calm and steady. Her eyes were closed. Her wrinkled hands were at her sides. I walked up next to the head of the bed standing on her left.
“Hi, Ms. Jacobs,” I said. “I’m Roger. I’m the man who called Carl about the letter that was meant for you. I have it in my hand. I’ll show it to you.”
I held up the envelope. There was no visible response. Her breathing stayed steady and her eyes remained closed.
“I’ll read the letter to you,” I said. I took it out of the envelope. “It’s postmarked June sixth, nineteen forty-nine. From California. Here’s what the letter says. It says this. It says, Darling. I love you so much. We’ll meet at our special place. Then we can leave. Love, Raymond.”
There was still no response.
“I’ll read it again,” I said. “It says…..”
“You don’t have to read it again,” she said softly as her eyes opened. “I’m not deaf, young man. I’m just dying.” She looked up at me. I was embarrassed and obviously uncomfortable.
“You don’t like being around dying people, do you?” she said. “Well, I guess I can’t blame you. But we are just people, you know.”
“That’s what my wife always says,” I responded.
“Young man,” Grandma asked, “would you do something for me?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Describe the handwriting to me.”
I looked at the letter.
“Well,” I said, “it’s mostly printed, actually. Except for the ells. They have loops. And it’s almost all in small letters.”
“Turn it over, please,” Grandma asked. “Tell me if you see anything on the other side.”
I turned the letter over but didn’t see anything. “No, I replied. I’m afraid not.”
“Look carefully,” Grandma said. “In the bottom right corner.”
I looked carefully.
“I’ll be darned!” I said. “There is something there. It looks like a tiny heart! I didn’t notice it before. Someone drew a tiny heart in that corner!”
Grandma smiled again.
“It was our code,” she said. “Our little secret sign. Yes, that is definitely Raymond’s letter. Thank you for bringing it. Would you put it in my hand please? I’m a little weak.”
Grandma sensed my hesitation.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I promise you won’t die if you touch me.” I felt so silly.
I bent over, reached down, and gently held her left wrist steady with my left hand. I placed the top edge of the letter in the palm of her left hand with my right hand. Her fingers and thumb came together and grasped the letter. Then I released her wrist. She shut her eyes and held the letter at her side between her fingers and her thumb. Then her fingers moved up and down ever so slightly as she caressed the letter.
“This was written with his hand,” Grandma Mary said. “So touching this is like touching a part of him. I never thought I would feel him again.”
My eyes started to tear up.
“Thank you, young man,” she whispered. “Thank you so much for coming here and bringing this. You’ve freed me. I am forever in your debt. And now, please don’t think me rude, but please excuse me. I am so tired.”
“Of course,” I said. I left the letter in Grandma’s hand as I exited the room.
Alexis hugged me. “You did good, Hon,” she said.
Young Mary came over and hugged me also.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” she said.
“Let’s go,” Alexis said to me as she took my arm. “We’re done here.”
“Please,” Carl said. “Stay? Rest a while? Can’t we do anything for you? You had such a long drive. You must be tired.”
“You have enough to do,” Alexis said. She handed Mary one of her cards.
“Here’s our address and phone numbers,” Alexis said. “Just in case you ever want to get in touch.”
Mary smiled. And before I knew it, we were on the road heading back home.
We were about a half hour out on the return trip home.
“I’m proud of you, Hon,” Alex said. “I know that wasn’t easy for you.”
“It wasn’t me. It was you,” I replied. “I was just the tool that you used.”
Alexis leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. She put her finger on my nose.
“And you are such a cute, handsome little tool!” she said. “Sometimes I just can’t keep my hands off of you!”
“Do I get a reward for just being a good tool?” I asked.
“When we get home,” Alex replied. “If you can stay awake! It has been a long day.”
We arrived home about three hours later. There was a message on the machine from Carl and Mary. Grandma had died about fifteen minutes after we left.
Alexis explained it all to me. She told me that Grandma had been hanging on because she was still hoping to have her doubts about Raymond’s love resolved. But once she experienced the letter, she knew that Raymond’s love for her was genuine. If he had already passed, she would join him after she died. If he hadn’t, she could just wait peacefully after she passed knowing that one day he would come to her. Either way she could move on. There was no reason for her to stay in the mortal plane. And that is why Grandma Mary had said that I freed her.
“Alexis,” I said, “I wish I were as sensitive and perceptive as you are.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Hon,” she said. “You do ok.”
“Alexis,” I asked, “if I left the house to go to the store and just completely disappeared, would you spend the rest of your life waiting to hear from me?”
Alexis thought a moment.
“Darling,” she said, “I couldn’t go on without you.”
I stared into Alexis’s eyes. “That’s bull!” I said.
“See!” Alex replied. “You’re more perceptive than you think you are!”