Excerpt – Unanswered Questions

Chapter 1

Iona Lambert gripped the railing and walked slowly up the stairs to the third floor of her home. She paused at the landing to catch her breath and wipe her brow. For the second time in as many days, she felt strangely winded. Should she call the doctor? No. I’m just getting old. That’s all this is.

After she caught her breath, she moved down the hall, pushing open each bedroom door. I should ask the housekeeper to come up here and dust. With only Logan still living at home, the third floor rooms were rarely used now. Why did I come up here?

Oh. Right. The decorations to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day coincided with Logan’s upcoming birthday.

Iona looked into Eden’s closet. Empty. No boxes here.

She passed the bathroom and opened the door into the bedroom Debra had claimed after Fletcher left for college. At the time, her middle daughter had insisted that the third floor should be the “girls’ floor.” Iona suspected that quiet-seeking Deb simply wanted distance from the twins, five years her junior.

When are you going to have a baby, Debra, like Alexis and Eden, and even Teddy?Or will you stay childless, like Elaine is now? Iona sensed a quiet sadness in her middle daughter whenever she and her husband, Todd, attended Iona’s Sunday family dinners. I should let her know I’ll listen if she wants to talk. She glanced around the room and approached Debra’s closet.

Iona sucked in a deep breath, relieved that her heart was no longer tripping rapidly against her ribs. She flipped on the light in Debra’s oversized closet. It smelled musty. Behind some abandoned clothes still hanging crookedly on hangers to one side of the space, she spotted several boxes at the far end of the closet, huddled against the back wall as if avoiding the light from the window near the closet door. Iona pulled each box into the bedroom where the light was better. Two of the boxes sported Debra’s name. Maybe she had planned to take them home but forgotten.

Iona tried to lift the nearest one and concluded it was too bulky for her to lift. When she opened the box, she saw two stuffed animals and other items from when Debra was small. Perfect. If she ever does have a baby, maybe she’ll want these. I’ll ask Todd to take them home. Another box held school notebooks and awards Debra had earned in middle and high school. Neither of the other boxes was labeled, nor were they as heavy.

Iona dragged the unmarked boxes closer to the bed. She opened the first box and thrust her hand inside.

“Oh, my gosh!” She tried to imagine why these had been shoved into the back of Debra’s closet. Inside were journals and what looked like notebooks that Iona had kept before her marriage, and after. At least until she became so busy with a growing family that she no longer had time to jot down musings or her children’s clever sayings.

She opened the first notebook, its cover poorly taped together. As she turned the first page, several other pages fell out.

The words scrawled on one of the pages conjured up conversations with her mother that she hadn’t thought about in years. Often their discussions turned into arguments, such as those about who her mother said she should marry: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one, Iona, dear.” Then there were the pictures of her and Nathan. How handsome he was back then, with that head of thick dark brown hair and his wide smile. But it was his eyes that had first captured Iona’s attention: dark brown shot through with golden sparks. Photos spilled into her lap. Nathan was in most of them, often with several of his grad school friends. Others included her, often gazing shyly, lovingly at him.

Iona’s heart jumped in her chest when she stared at one of the pictures. Nathan and his best friend, his roommate. Elias. The image sparked memories of her waitressing days at the little diner and bar so many college students had frequented. Where she’d met Nathan. And Elias. Where are you these days? Still in the States or did you go back to Sweden, like you planned?

She had spent many weekends with Nathan. Elias often joined them, and Nathan had laughingly dubbed the three of them latter-day Minnesota musketeers when they’d attended the state fair the first summer Iona had dated Nathan.

She remembered that first meeting when the two grad students had sat at one of her tables. Elias must have guessed from her last name, Gustoffson, that she also spoke Swedish and that she was blond. And she did, but she’d also firmly stated that she preferred to speak English, because she was an American. Unlike her mother, Iona had no Swedish accent, and she chose not to call attention to herself among her friends by speaking the language so often used at home prior to her father’s death. Alcohol had killed him, no matter that his death certificate labeled him a victim of a hit-and-run when he’d stumbled into the road one wintery evening shortly before Iona’s fifteenth birthday.

Elias reminded Iona of the heritage she preferred not to acknowledge to others. Even though Nathan had laughingly encouraged her to speak to Elias in Swedish, she’d refused, although she was drawn to his dimpled smile and his many efforts to make her laugh. Iona’s mother was of two minds about Elias. She liked that he was from “the old country,” but not that he was a scholarship student. Which meant he was poor. He’d worked as a janitor to supplement the meager funds enabling him to continue his schooling.

Nathan, on the other hand, didn’t have a job other than his studies. Nathan had said he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, and become a full professor at a college somewhere out West that his grandfather had founded.

Iona’s mother heartily approved of Nathan, when Iona shared details about his family. He was unfailingly polite to Ida, telling Mrs. Gustoffson that he enjoyed listening to her lilting accent, never teasing her when she asked for help recalling an English word.

Iona flipped several more pages in the journal that needed repairing, and another photo fell into her lap. She turned it over and glanced at the date. I remember this one. She suspected it was taken shortly after Nathan secured an appointment at Lambert-Knoll College. Nathan was holding little Fletcher by the hand, Iona was cradling baby Eden in her arms, and Nathan’s father was beaming. His mother, Linnea, not so much.

Iona remembered how cowed she felt by her mother-in-law from their first meeting. Linnea Lambert reminded Iona of a queen, entitled to her exalted position in Pacific Knoll as the wife of a professor, the daughter-in-law of the college founder, and the mother of a son she expected to one day chair the History Department, just like his father. Looking at that old photo sent Iona’s pulse speeding.

She placed the old photographs on the bed before slipping them into the pocket of her apron. She flipped back the pages in her notebook to a spot still attached to the spine. On the top of one page she read Proposal! She’d recorded a description of Nathan’s words to her. And she remembered the question that had plagued her that day, a question she hadn’t dared to ask. Even now, she wondered what would have been Nathan’s answer.

Was her uncertainty why their marriage had been so stormy? Family was important to Nathan. He’d declared, even before their firstborn’s birth, that he wanted at least four children, two for himself and two for his sister, Annoria. He’d laughed when he’d said that. But Iona had feared that her in-laws disapproved of her, thought she was a gold digger, eager to marry their son because he was such a bright young man with promising future, to say nothing of his heritage and the wealth it represented.

Iona’s mother, on the other hand, was elated when Nathan proposed. She’d congratulated Iona for securing her future with a marriage to “that rich boy. He’ll make a name for himself, daughter. You’ll see. But you better get married quick, now that you have a bun in the oven.”

Which they did. The week before he defended his dissertation, she and Nathan flew off to Nevada to get married. The following week, he and Elias received their PhD degrees.

If only telling his parents had been as easy. Iona feared how his parents—especially Nathan’s mother—might react to the marriage they knew nothing about until after Nathan reached them weeks later. Iona still recalled her and Nathan’s fierce argument at the time. Nathan had reluctantly agreed to Iona’s insistent plea that they tell his parents their marriage had occurred three months earlier, shortly after the elder Lamberts left on that lengthy cruise. It was the perfect explanation for why she and Nathan had not extended an invitation to them—and disguised their premarital conception.

After they returned from Nevada, Nathan had packed up the car with their belongings and moved to Iowa to begin his first post-doctoral appointment as a brand-new assistant professor.

Nathan had assured Elias that they’d stay in touch right before the latter left for a small college somewhere in Missouri. She remembered the day the men had parted, with man hugs and hearty back slaps. Nathan had said, “Iowa isn’t that far away. Maybe I’ll see you at a regional conference.” After all, Elias was Nathan’s best grad school friend and he valued friendships, claiming he never lost track of the people he cared about.

So much for good intentions, Iona recalled with a wry smile. Except for that one history conference when she’d reluctantly tagged along so many years later, Nathan seemed to have forgotten about Elias Eklund. Probably because the man wanted to return to Sweden after teaching for a few years in America. Iona wondered whether he’d married and raised a family. He hadn’t said when he’d comforted her after that awful fight she’d had with Nathan at the conference. Her thoughts of that evening and how it had ended set her heart pounding again and she placed her hands on her heated cheeks. All that is long past, best left there.

She shoved the dislodged pages back into the notebook, closed the box and pushed it to the back of the closet before struggling to her feet. Iona glanced out the window. During her musings, the sun had gone down, cloaking the room in shadows where the ceiling light didn’t reach. She patted the top of the box holding those old notebooks and other miscellany. The contents of that box and the other one would have to wait until she had more time to go through them. And she had yet to find the St. Patrick’s Day decorations she was looking for. Maybe they were downstairs, in the basement.

Iona sneezed from the dust she’d stirred up in the closet under the eaves. She walked downstairs, reached for the kitchen wall phone and left a message. “Todd, Debbie has some boxes here. If you’ll come get them, the two of you can go through them. See if any of what’s in them is something you and she want to keep. Please let me know when you plan to stop over.”

She sat down on the stool and leaned against the kitchen island, aware of how different her life was from her mother’s, how different from her own children. The doorbell rang, startling Iona out of her remembrances.

~ ~ ~

Later that day, Iona glared at Nathan, unable to keep her voice from grating. “There’s no need for you to haul those boxes downstairs. I called Todd and told him to come get them.” Iona frowned. “If they’re too bulky for me, I’m sure they’re too bulky for you.”

“I’m perfectly capable of carrying them,” her husband argued. “And don’t say it again! I’ve had about enough of you reminding me that I’m ‘getting up in years.’” Nathan mimicked her tone, irritating Iona further.

“Fine, but don’t blame me if you fall.” She crossed her arms across her chest. “Where’s Logan? It’s almost dinnertime.”

Her husband sighed. “Logan. Right. I forgot. He’s at Petra’s. Something about a science project they’re trying to finish up before spring break.”

“And you believe that excuse? Nathan, Logan is besotted with that girl. Have you talked to him about being careful, being a gentleman? You know how teens are these days.”

Nathan snorted. “You want me to give him a birds-and-bees talk again? Done—when he was eleven. And I’m quite sure he’s heard more than he’d prefer on the subject. He had health class in middle school. Last fall, too.”

“As if those discussions are complete,” she countered. “You know how they pussyfoot around things in school.”

“No, I don’t. Besides, I’d bet you money that Chris has talked to him. Fletcher, too. Logan knows all about protection, and sexually-transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Furthermore, you’re giving that girl no credit whatsoever. Petra Jenkins is as intent as Logan is on getting into a good college. No way is she going to risk getting pregnant.” He shoved his glasses higher up his nose as he stared back at Iona.

Iona felt like squirming under his intent gaze. Was he thinking of their own slip-up? Don’t say it, Nathan. Please.

But he smiled and softened his tone. As if he’d read her mind, Nathan added, “Hey, we made the best of things, didn’t we, love?” He reached out and stroked her cheek with a thumb.

Iona turned away, unwilling to accept what Nathan seemed to be offering. “That may be. But I do not want that for Logan.”

“Not to worry. He’s too smart. He’ll follow his brothers’ and sisters’ lead and get married first. Even Elaine. She was the one I feared might get pregnant, what with all that time she wasted with Norm. Thank the good Lord that Cliff came along.” He reached for Iona as if to pull her back against his front.

“Hormones are hormones, Nathan. Or don’t you remember?” She huffed and eased away from him.

“I’m sure Petra’s mother has talked with her.”

Iona frowned. “Petra’s mom probably thinks Logan’s a real catch. Star of the basketball team, a student getting top grades, part of our family…”

“Thinking of your mother again, love?”

Iona thought she detected a hint of not-so-nice teasing in Nathan’s question. “She was only looking out for me, like any mother would, like your mother was looking out for you,” Iona insisted, even as her heart bumped against her ribs.

“Of course.” His gaze softened. “But you getting pregnant gave me the perfect excuse to convince you to marry me.”

“Your mother never thought I was good enough for you,” Iona said, aware that she sounded defensive. “If she’d known why we got married, she never would have accepted me. We lied to her to protect you, Nathan, so that she wouldn’t be angry with you. Or me. Especially me.”

“Hey, you won her over with the children. Fletcher was always her favorite. Not that she didn’t love the girls, too. I know she regretted not getting to know the twins better.”

Nathan stepped closer and succeeded in pulling Iona into his arms for a hug. As if reading her mind, he added, “Too bad Father was so ill when they were born. She would have helped you more if he hadn’t needed her so much.”

“Which would have been nice.”

And I’ve been a good wife to you, Nathan. And mother of our children. What I concentrated on, so you could concentrate on your career. Why you accomplished so much. She wanted to say the words but hesitated.  

And even after his retirement, Nathan continued collecting information that he turned into books. Wasn’t he still thought of as a revered historian of Idaho’s pioneers of the nineteenth century? She thought of all those visits to Boise he’d made, studying old letters of the various families that settled the area, becoming friends with the relatives still living there. Trips he still made, although not as often.

She realized with a guilty start, that his trips often followed their arguments, which she liked to think she won. Maybe because he removed himself from her verbal assaults, during which time she cooled off. And he did, too.

Only a couple times had he asked her to accompany him. Perhaps he’d hoped that inviting her would make her less inclined to complain about the frequency of his departures from home, leaving her to manage the children by herself. But she had hated waiting around in an impersonal hotel room while Nathan spent hours in dusty stacks, thumbing through collections of fragile letters and ancient documents.

Downstairs, the kitchen door opened and closed with a bang. “Sounds like Logan’s home,” Nathan declared.

“It’s about time.” Iona eased away from the warmth of Nathan’s body and headed for the stairs, aware of the slight weight of the photos she’d tucked into her apron pocket, and momentarily debated what to do with them.

“I should put food on the table.” She glanced at her husband. “You coming?”

He nodded. “Right behind you, love.”