Gone South
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Excerpt
No doubt it was the last time they would ever meet at the hole-in-awall Greek place for gyros, but brooding wouldn’t help. She had arrived first, as usual, so she placed their regular orders at the counter and settled into a bright orange booth by a window. Wrapped in the cocoon of clatter from the kitchen and an ancient Motown song on the stereo, Tish McComb rested her chin in her hands and watched headlights zip past on the big hill that descended into the south end of town.

Snow flurries twinkled down from the sky, a reminder that the first serious snow would arrive soon. As much as Tish loved the way a winter storm could swaddle an ordinary little Michigan town in a sparkling blanket of white, she wasn’t fond of driving in it.

A gust of wind blew a flock of faded autumn leaves past the window. Her mother followed at a trot with a gigantic handbag on her arm and a red scarf hugging her neck. No gloves, probably because she loved to show off her new
wedding ring. She pushed the heavy glass door open and stepped inside, smoothing her rumpled gray curls with her left hand.

Spotting Tish, she smiled. "You’re always too punctual. Did you order for me?"

"Yes, I did."

"Thanks. Did you remember my avgolemono? And extra tzatziki sauce?"

"Of course," Tish said with a trace of envy. She’d blow up like a blimp if she ate like that. She didn’t have her mother’s petite figure.

Her cheeks flushed, Barb Miller plopped down on the other side of the booth and unwound her scarf. She looked both wired and tired.

"Pretty scarf," Tish said.

"I knew you would like it. And I see you’ve been thrifting again. Cute jacket."

"I found it online. It’s from the forties, but it still has all its original hardware, see?" Tish patted the brass buttons that marched down the jacket’s smooth, bright blue wool. "It has some tiny stains that won’t come out, but I couldn’t pass it up."

"We vintage items always have our flaws. They’re part of our charm." Tish smiled at her mother, a woman whose gentle wrinkles were like those of a well-ripened persimmon. "Part of your charm is the way you describe how
charming you are," she teased.

Mom ignored the quip. "That’s a nice blue on you. It goes with your eyes." Peering at Tish’s hair, she said, "I wish you wouldn’t keep your hair skinned back tight like that. You know it’s gorgeous, so turn it loose. Let it frame your pretty face."

Tish refrained from rolling her eyes at her mother’s predictable comments. "You know I have to look businesslike for my job, Mom. How’s the packing coming along?"

"Slowly. Charles hasn’t moved a lot, so he hasn’t weeded out a thousand times like we did. It’ll be a miracle if we finish before moving day."

"I’ll come over a few more times to help," Tish offered. "And I’ve put in for that week off so I can make the trip with you."

Her mother frowned. "I wish you wouldn’t waste your vacation days to help a couple of old fogies move their junk. You should round up some of those nice girls from your church and go someplace special. Someplace warm. Puerto Vallarta, maybe. Isn’t Fran a traveler? I bet she’d love to go on a trip."

"Yes, she would." Tish loved Fran, but when they’d roomed together at the over-thirty singles retreat, she’d snored like an overweight trucker. "But I want to see your new place and help you unpack. It’ll be fun—and warm."

"Not as much fun as Puerto Vallarta, but…oh, all right. Thanks, honey." An impish smile overcame the frown. "You know I’m pretty well organized, but I’m still cleaning out your father’s storage unit. Yesterday I found a blender
in a box he’d labeled ’garden stuff.’"

Tish laughed. "Typical."

"This morning I hauled out a box labeled ’miscellaneous,’ and you’ll never guess what he’d tucked away with his electric car research." Her mom reached for her bag.

"You’re right. I’ll never guess."

"A treasure, just for you." She pulled out a large manila envelope and handed it to Tish. "Ta-da!"

Tish sucked in her breath, recognizing that loose, loopy penmanship. ’The McComb Letters,’ her father had written, and he’d underlined it twice. She reached for the envelope. "Oh my goodness. Finally, I have my chance to read the letters. He always kept them out of reach, like he thought they’d be stolen or something."

"I still haven’t run across the other papers—the genealogy and whatnot—but I’ll find them eventually. Will you want them too?"

"Sure. Thanks, Mom." Tish unfastened the metal clasp and reached into the envelope. She smiled at how meticulously he had wrapped the letters in acid-free paper.

Tish slid the packet back into the envelope. "I won’t look until I get them home. I’d hate to get grease on them. Or lemon soup."

"Heaven forbid. Your father would roll over in his grave."

"They’re for me to keep?"

"Of course. You’re the one with McComb blood, not me, and you’re at least a little bit interested in family history."

"I haven’t given it much thought since Dad passed away, though." Tish closed the envelope again and tucked it carefully between her purse and the wall.

"Remember the time he drove you down to Alabama to see the McComb house? He was such a sweetie, trying to distract you. He never could stand to see you hurt, so he did the best thing he knew—took you on a trip." Tish nodded. On that slapdash father-daughter adventure, her father had been her rock. Bob McComb might have been a dreamer, chasing the latest get-rich-quick scheme or business opportunity, but he’d made himself completely
available when she’d needed him most.

The waitress set the bowl of avgolemono on the table. As her mother sipped the lemony broth, Tish listened to her talk, enjoying the excitement in her mother’s eyes.

"Just think, Tish. By the time winter really hits, Charles and I will be in Florida." Her mom sat up straight. "Are you sure you don’t want to move south too? You’ve got enough money to buy a condo or even a house by now. Don’t
you want to settle down somewhere? All those years in apartments…and it would be a new adventure."

Tish laughed. "You sound like Dad with all his pep talks about greener pastures."

"Talk about greener pastures, honey—we’ll have palm trees and orchids. An orange tree in the front yard and mangoes and avocados out back. You could too."

"Trying to bribe me with guacamole and fruit salad? Nice try, but if there’s one thing I learned from all our moves, it’s that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence. It’s just another pasture. With its own cow pies."

"At least my pasture’s full of tropical flowers instead of ice and snow."

Catching a whiff of lemon, Tish could almost imagine being there. "Oh, Mom, Florida just doesn’t appeal to me. Sorry. I like a place that has four seasons."

"Well, ice and snow don’t appeal to me. Not anymore. I’m ready to get out of here." Pushing her empty bowl to the side, her mom said, "I’m just glad we don’t live in covered-wagon days. We can hop a plane and be anywhere in a few
hours. That reminds me. I’ll have to buy you a plane ticket so you can fly home from Tampa."

A new idea fluttered into Tish’s mind, triggered by the road-trip memories she’d made with her dad. Sunrise over a new town. The crazy place names on road signs and water towers. Different accents in different states. Seeing the
landscape change, mile by mile, and coming to a new understanding of what a huge country she lived in.

"You know what I should do, Mom? I should drive myself down. Caravan with you and Charles. Then I can take my time on the way back and see some sights."

"Oh, Tish. Don’t try to make that long drive all by yourself. In that old car."

"Mother, I’m thirty-five years old. I can handle it. And the car’s in great shape."

The waitress set their plates of gyros and curly fries on the table. As their drinks were being refilled, Tish shrugged her way out of her vintage jacket and placed it on the seat beside her, safe from the drippy, spicy lamb and tangy sauce.
After they’d eaten and settled their bill, they headed outside and stood under the awning. The snow flurries had given way to a fine mist sifting down from the dark sky. Tish tucked the McComb letters under her arm while she buttoned her jacket.

Her mom zipped her parka, wound her red scarf around her neck, and reached into her purse for a matching pair of knit gloves. She pulled them on and clapped her hands, the sound muffled by the fabric. "You can adopt my winter gear, Tish. I won’t need parkas and scarves and gloves in Tampa." Tish smiled, remembering a series of stretchy red gloves tucked into longago Christmas stockings. "Thanks. That would be nice. Thank you for giving me Letitia’s letters too. I’m glad you found them."

"It’s right for you to have them, especially since you’re named after her."

"I’ll read them with her and her husband staring down at me from their wedding portrait."

"Ugh! That old thing always makes me think of haunted houses and bad smells. He’s ghoulish and she looks anemic."

Tish was quick to defend her namesake. "No, she was just fair skinned. And he had a long, thin face."

Her mother laughed. "He sure did. I think he’s related to Lurch from The Addams Family." She reached out for a hug, and Tish welcomed it. "Well, good night, sweetheart. Let me know if you find anything interesting."

"’Night, Mom. Drive carefully." Tish watched her mom hurry down the wet sidewalk toward her car, a little kick in her step. Her mom really knew how to roll with life, a trait that had served her well through Dad’s numerous ventures
and so many moves.

While her Volvo warmed up, Tish rubbed her cold hands together and thought about the manila envelope on the passenger seat. Her dad had told her about the letters. About his great-great-grandmother moving from Ohio to Alabama sometime after the Civil War. She’d written home to her mother in Ohio, and her mother had saved the letters. They’d been passed down from one generation to another, treasured but seldom read.

Tish had always wanted to read them, especially since her dad always put Nathan and Letitia McComb on a pedestal. But Dad had been wise to keep them out of the hands of a curious little girl who could damage the fragile old papers. Sometimes, like the lonely child she’d once been, Tish still yearned to disappear into the past. She wasn’t quite sure why.
 
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