Bailey White's Thanksgiving Story: 'A Kind Of Love'

For All Things Considered's annual Thanksgiving story, Bailey White writes about two elderly women who live together. The pair get into trouble one night when they recline in the backyard to look at the full moon, and they get stuck. They wind up there all night, rescued by the mailman in the morning. They find the story funny, but a relative gets concerned. Changes come to the women's lives — and not all of them are welcome in the end.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

And now, the radio equivalent of pumpkin pie. Our Thanksgiving program would not be complete without storyteller Bailey White. We're going to spend the next half hour in southern Georgia with Bailey and this year's original tale. It's called "A Kind of Love."

BAILEY WHITE: It was midnight on the first of day of fall, a moonlit night. On the little lawn in the backyard of a ramshackle house on Crawford Street, two old ladies lay flat on their backs, looking up at the full harvest moon. They'd been lying there for five hours. They couldn't get up. The older of the two ladies, Belle, had slipped going out to get the laundry off the line. She had called her sister Daisy for help. And while trying to pull Belle up, Daisy fell down. They weren't hurt, they just couldn't get up.

For the first few hours, they'd tried all sorts of things. Get up like a cow, Belle said, bottom first. So they stuck their bottoms up in the air. But then what? There was nothing to grab onto. Daisy tried walking her hands up Belle's back and then tottering to stand, but it wasn't enough. Her legs wouldn't raise her up. Belle tried holding herself up by a sheet on the clothesline but the clothes pins turned loose.

About dusk, their discomfort rose above their pride and they thought about calling for help. But their neighborhood was not what it used to be. What if the people from Ethel van Landingham's house come to help? Daisy asked. Ethel van Landingham had died years ago. Her house had been sold and was now rented out as a duplex. People came and went at all hours, and cars pulled in and out all day and night, parking every which way on what used to be Ethel van Landingham's nice lawn.

So they did not call for help. Without saying anything about it, after dark, they began to whisper. I know what, said Daisy. In the morning, when we hear Clyde rattle the mailbox door, we'll both call out as loud as we can. Having a plan made them able to relax. About 9:00, the moon came up from behind the (unintelligible) hedge. It was a special moon, they've read in the newspaper, the full harvest moon on the first day of fall. It would be 19 years before that happened again. We'll never see this moon again, said Daisy.

They dozed off and woke up about midnight. The moon was high in the sky. They almost had to squint. We can read by this moon, said Daisy. If we had something to read, said Belle. About 4:00 in the morning, they woke up damp and cold. Belle remembered the sheet on the line and they pulled it over them. The smell of that clean sheet took Daisy back to what seems like long ago, almost a different life, the life they've had before they fell down in the backyard. And in a way, that was true, because their lives did change forever after that moonlit night.

But what if it happens again, said Monica. It was two days later. Belle and Daisy had told the whole story, first to the mailman then to the butcher at the RGA(ph) then to Mr. Rice at the bird seed store. They love telling it and they were good at it, each one adding her own little details. Now, they were telling it to their niece, Monica, who had come for her Wednesday afternoon tea. We lay out there so long, the lizard started crawling over us, said Belle. The moon was absolutely gorgeous, said Daisy. Lucky we didn't land in the far ant bed, said Belle.

They didn't tell the bad parts. The way they would lie so still when the car lights from Ethel van Landingham's house swept across the yard. Daisy didn't say that she'd almost cried. Belle didn't tell about the sharp pain in her hip that she still felt twinges of a week later. They didn't tell about the helpless desperation they had felt before they remembered that the mailman would come as usual at 10:00. The look on Clyde's face, said Belle. I've never been so glad to see anybody in my life, said Daisy.

But Monica was horrified. She'd been a fool all these months, years. These little old aunts had tricked her with their sturdy rituals and unvarying habits: Fresh biscuits every Monday for biscuit toast; with Wednesday, tea. Every September, crab apple jelly; every other week, turning the fern. Belle's weekly apple, Daisy's spring flower bed.

She'd been lulled into thinking that everything would always stay the same as it always had been. They had been like magicians putting on an act, and she like an innocent child who had just been watching the show. Now, she's gotten a peek behind the screen. It could have been worse, she said, much worse. Something will have to be done, she thought, and she went to work on it right away.

Within a week, Belle and Daisy had been to three doctors. Their teeth were scraped, their bellies prodded, their ears poked into, air was puffed at their eyes, Belle was fitted with a hearing aid, and several skin cancers were burned off Daisy. A carpenter came and built a ramp and a railing right through the (unintelligible) branches. And a man from Plantation Security crept around the edges of the house wiring the windows for an alarm system.

Monica came not just on Wednesday, when she was invited for tea, but every day - hallooing from the front door and going in and out of rooms that have been closed off for years. Can you hear me? Can you hear me? A little voice screeched from the lifeline. And you have violated a protected area, a manly voiced boomed from the burglar alarm. Even on the dark of the moon, their room was lit up by the eerie blue glow of the cell phone on its charger.

Is this fern water day, asked Daisy on Thursday. For years there had been a leak in the kitchen sink trap. And in five days, exactly the right amount of water dripped into the coffee can under the drain to water the fern. But Monica had plumbers all over the house. And there was no more fern water. I can't even remember fern water day, said Belle.

In the backyard, crab apple started to fall. Daisy got out the jelly pot and scalded the jars, but the carpenter had torn the steps off. And before the ramp was finished, crab apples were rotting under the tree with yellow jackets swarming over them. What we will give away at Christmas, asked Daisy.

The pain in Belle's hip got worse. It would catch her up at unexpected moments. Monica took away her dragon-headed walking stick with the little ruby eyes and brought her an aluminum walker with wheels and a basket. It got to be too much to make biscuits on Monday.

And one day, Belle, looking out the window down Crawford Street, said, as soon as mother gets here, we'll ride out to see (unintelligible). After a few minutes, she came back to her senses. But every day or so, it would happen again. Johnny will be here at noon - when Johnny had been dead for 30 years.

One day, she looked out the window and her whole face lit up. Oh, Daisy, look at the white pearls, she said. But white pearls were a daffodil that blooms in March, and it was October. When it happened in front of Monica, Daisy tried to cover for Belle. That's just her way of remembering things from long ago, said Daisy.

But Monica went to work. And the next week, she showed up on the front porch with a cute little fat young woman. She's going to stay with you for a while, said Monica, just to help out with things. This is Daisy, she said to the young woman. And Belle is the older sister, she added blinking significantly.

They began hauling bags and boxes into the old, unused middle room, what had been called the box room. Monica cleared it out, put up a bed and had the sink hooked back up. Daisy and Belle watched as they brought in a bag of kitty litter and a puffy dog bed. Would you like, said Daisy, could we? But there was nothing they could do to help.

Now, I want you to meet my family, said the woman. And one by one she brought animals into the house. A tailless white cat, a little beagle hound and a flying squirrel in a birdcage. Up the steps, across the porch, through the front door and into the house they came. She set the bird cage on a chair and dropped a dog bed in the corner.

Now, said the young woman brightly - she sat down on the dog crate and slapped her knees with delight - let's get to know each other. She introduced the animals first, then herself, Audrey. She was a student at the vocational school in geriatric studies with a specialty in pet therapy.

It's incredible what daily interaction with animals can do for geriatric welfare, she said. From the litter box, they heard a rhythmic scrunch, scrunch.

Audrey was fun to look at. She had bright little chinkapin(ph) eyes, a tiny, insignificant nose and a busy mouth. Her hair was a mess, the parting as crooked as if she'd done it with a rake, with lots of little glitter and grabbers snarled up in it.

Her clothes were all the wrong size: too long, too short, too tight. A ruffled shirt tail hung out from under a little sweater that seemed to bind under her arms. Tiny gold slippers clung to the edges of her cute, little feet.

She had started talking about dietary needs, and Daisy tried to listen, but she saw Belle begin to fidget, and she worried that Belle might reach out and tweak up the rucked-up sweater down over a fat little hip.

Now this is a hazard, Audrey said, poking at the curled-up corner of the rug. Then she briskly switched herself all over the house, looking into every room.

If I'd only known, Daisy thought, I would have straightened up, and sure enough, Audrey's bright, little eyes didn't miss a thing. This is not the best way, she sang out from the kitchen, throwing open cupboard doors. Lots of room for improvement. That's what I'm here for. Do you have trouble getting up off the toilet?

Who is that girl, Belle asked? Is that Henry's child? Audrey was a hard worker. She never slowed down. In just one day, she installed pull-out shelves in the kitchen, a grab-bar by the bathtub and a raised toilet seat. She flattened out the rug corner and put a non-slip plastic mat over it. She threw out all the salty food and stocked the kitchen with cartoons of Boost. She was always cheerful and friendly.

Belle and Daisy quickly got used to it. Everything became so easy. Daisy's hand went right to the grab-bar, as if it had always been there, and there were no more awkward struggles in the bathroom. The new toilet seat seemed like a gracious hostess, welcoming her and making departure so graceful.

Cool weather came, but there was no need to worry. Audrey saw to the furnace. Leaves piled up on the new ramp, but they never had to go out to the clothesline. Audrey sent the laundry out and brought it back dried and folded.

Monica came to see them, but they had not made biscuits and couldn't offer her tea. She didn't seem to expect it. She looked around at everything. I'm so relieved, she said.

Audrey was right about another thing, too: The animals were a delight. After just a few days, the beagle hound took to Daisy. It woke her up every morning, poking its nose at the bedcovers. When she sat up, it would tear around the house, overcome with delight at the sight of her and then dash back and slide to sit at her feet, crooning with joy.

Daisy stroked its velvet ears, and it would skootch closer to sit right on her slippered feet and lean against her legs. Audrey declared that petting an animal lowered blood pressure, and Daisy did feel a lazy peace steal over her, gazing into the dog's adoring, yellow eyes.

Belle loved the flying squirrel. She would hold it in her lap for hours, stroking its fur with her thumb and curling its toes over her finger. It was the sweetest little sleeper, rolled up in a ball with its head tucked under its tail.

The fur on its belly was a beautiful, rosy tan, the softest thing in the world, its webbed flap scalloping along the edge. Sometimes Belle would tuck it under her chin, a nest of warmth, and sometimes she'd cup her hands full of flying squirrel under her nose. It smelled like pine mast and sweetgum leaves, like her Uncle Henry used to smell, coming in from the woods.

Sometimes Belle would sit too long, enthralled to the flying squirrel, and Audrey would have to coax her up to go to the bathroom or take a stretch. Put that squirrel down, Miss Belle. You're going to stiffen up, Audrey said.

But Belle was always in a hurry to get back to her rocking chair and scoot the little thing out of its leafy nest and onto her lap. You just never know, Audrey said to Monica. Some people think the squirrel is just like a rat and loves a cat. I've seen them go all moony over a goldfish. But Miss Belle just took to that flying squirrel. Come on, Miss Belle, get up. Come see Monica.

Monica could not be more pleased. I never worry now, she said. Look at Belle, she said to Daisy. She's just blissful.

But Daisy noticed other things. It was hard to get Belle to talk or pay attention. She didn't take an interest in any of the daily and seasonal rituals of their lives. Let's dust off the Eisenhower turkey, Daisy said in Thanksgiving week.

This was an old, stuffed turkey they got out and stood up on a special pedestal on the half-round table in the hall for Thanksgiving. It was a fine specimen of a turkey, with iridescent feathers and a magnificent beard their uncle Henry had shot in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower had visited.

The Eisenhower turkey always meant so much, the sure end of hot weather, the beginning of a new season, the bustle of the holidays. After the Eisenhower turkey came the Christmas parade, right down Crawford Street. Belle and Daisy always sat on the front porch and waved.

But Belle wasn't interested in the Eisenhower turkey. She didn't care about what they had in the pantry, how they could fix it and what they would serve it on. She was happy to sit in a rocking chair with the flying squirrel and slurp Boost out of a red, plastic bottle.

It was hard to get the flying squirrel away from her. Now Miss Belle, Audrey would say at bedtime, squatting in front of the chair. She would quickly sneak the flying squirrel into its cage and help Belle to the bathroom and then to bed.

But there was no bedtime for that flying squirrel. At nighttime, it turned into a different creature. At first dark, its eyes popped open round and wide, and it went wild, shoving off from one side of its cage and bouncing off the other, scrambling and scampering all night long.

Miss Belle just loved that squirrel, Audrey said. But what kind of love is that, Daisy wondered, lying awake at night listening to the frantic flying squirrel in the box room and Belle's peaceful snoring beside her?

One night, Daisy woke up after midnight. It's Thanksgiving, she said. And without thinking about it, she got up out of bed and turned the flying squirrel loose. She just slid open the wire door of its cage and stood back.

The flying squirrel made three dashes around the cage and then darted out. He scampered across the floor, up to the top of the curtain, and without a pause, he soared, his little scalloped flaps spread tight, across the room and landed on the transom of the opposite door.

From there, he soared again, all the way down the long hall to the transom of the kitchen door, then back again. He flew and flew. It was just gliding, Daisy knew that, but the grace and joy of it gave it all the glory of flight.

Daisy went back to bed peaceful. She knew its habits. At daybreak, it would go to sleep somewhere. She would find it and put it back in its cage. Audrey need never know about this night of Thanksgiving.

It was cold the morning of Thanksgiving Day. Daisy got up at sunrise, and in her furry slippers, she padded through every room. She looked behind the refrigerator, under the beds, behind the sofa. She shook the curtains and the cushions. At seven, she heard Audrey's alarm clock, the stomp of her little feet, the flush, running water, then a scream and wailing. Oh, oh.

The door flew open, and there stood Audrey. Behind her, Daisy saw on her tumbled bed, the white cat licking down its legs with long, vigorous strokes, and on Audrey's pillow, the little, flat tail of the flying squirrel. I just wanted it to have a chance to fly, said Daisy.

Thanksgiving was a miserable day. Audrey sat Belle in a rocking and dropped a fleece (unintelligible) from MacDonald's in her lap. But Belle ignored it, and it got lost behind a cushion. Audrey had fixed Thanksgiving dinner and served it on paper plates. They sat together at the dining room table, dutifully chewing and swallowing dry turkey from the grocery store deli. Nobody said a word all day.

Daisy's only comfort was the little beagle hound. He didn't leave her side but leaned up against her and gazed up at her with his little, worried face.

As soon as it was dark, Audrey put Belle to bed, turned on the nightlight in the bathroom, and as soon as Daisy was in bed, she stood in the doorway and made a speech.

She said: It's not healthy to keep feelings pent up inside. So I'll just say I'm hurt and very, very angry. Then she walked stiffly to her room and closed the door.

Daisy couldn't sleep. The whole inside of the house seemed to press on her. Finally, she got up and put on her robe. From the high closet shelf, she pulled down the eiderdown quilt and a heavy wool blanket. She woke Belle up and took her to the bathroom. Together, they crept down the dark hall, out the back door, down the ramp and into the yard.

The moon was past full, but the stars were bright. Daisy spread the blanket out on the lawn. She helped Belle lie down on it and then lay down beside her. She pulled the quilt over them, and they lay on their backs, looking up at the night sky.

I think that's Orion, said Daisy. I think it is, too, said Belle.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: An original story for Thanksgiving called "A Kind of Love" by Bailey White.

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