My hand shook as I sprinkled another spoonful of sugar into the steaming cup. I went to add another spoonful when Grandmother’s voice stopped me, “Not too much sugar, darling.”
“I know Grandmother,” I replied, stuffing the spoon back into the sugar bowl. I placed the teacup on its matching saucer and slowly made my way to the dining room table where Grandmother was sitting. A lace placemat was set before her with a buttered biscuit on a pink plate that matched the cup I brought to her. I set the tea down in front of her plate, careful not to spill a drop. This was our routine. At 3:50 pm, I set the table. At 3:52 pm, I buttered Grandmother’s biscuit and started brewing the tea. At 3:58 pm, I poured the tea and added the sugar. At 4:00 pm, we had afternoon tea.
Grandmother checked her watch, squinting at the small numbers. “4:00. I really wish you would make yourself a cup sometimes, Elizabeth.”
“I know, Grandmother.” I watched as she took a sip, a content look crossed her face. I stared out the window and watched a small boy chase after a soccer ball that had rolled into the street. The trees were just changing color; reds and yellows dotted the leaves.
“This biscuit needs more butter, dear.” I stood to return to the kitchen and grab the butter dish but Grandmother shook her head. “No need to get up. Tomorrow, place the butter dish on the table. Today, sit with me.” She turned her gaze outside, her eyes crinkled in confusion. “The leaves usually change color in October back in London. It’s mid-September and autumn is already approaching.”
“Yes, Grandmother. We’re in Denver and the leaves change color earlier here. It’s very pretty.” A leaf dropped from a nearby aspen tree. One down, a million more to go.
“I wish we could visit London this year. Autumn was always my favorite season there.”
“I wish we could too Grandmother.” I knew well that there would be no more visits to London or anywhere else for the older woman. Her last plane ride was the one she took moving here with me. I remembered that day. It was the saddest day of my life, besides the day of the car accident that took my parents.
After my parents' funeral, I chose to take a semester off and live with my grandmother in London before continuing college. It was a much needed break. While the routined and structured life she led became tedious here in Denver, it was exactly what I needed during my visit. I spent every day ordering meals, answering letters, making calls to acquaintances (Grandmother did not believe in friends), and doing exactly what I was told. Grandmother lived her life like she was in Downton Abbey. And although she did not believe in friends, I did. Two weeks into my stay I paid a visit to one of her acquaintances, an older gentleman whose entire family lived with him on his estate. I made my introductions and discussed the weather until the gentleman’s grandson appeared in the doorway. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Messy brown hair, freckles on his nose, and enchanting green eyes. He was so tall his hair brushed the doorframe. Mark was his name. His perfect name.
Grandmother always asked me why I visited that gentleman’s house so much. My response was always, “Mr. Roberts serves the most delicious scones with his tea.” But the real reason was Mark. He paid his visits to Grandmother too. She was entirely uninterested in answering calls which gave me and him plenty of time to talk. It only took me three weeks to figure out I was in love.
Three days before I was scheduled to fly back to Colorado, Mark and I took a walk through Primrose Hill at dusk. The sun had turned the sky dusty pink and only a few stars shone faintly through the clouds. His hand fit perfectly in mine, like a puzzle piece.
“Lizzie,” Mark was the only person on the planet who was allowed to call me ‘Lizzie,’ “What will you miss most about living here?”
I stopped walking. “The afternoon showers, the morning fog. Being at my grandmother’s beck and call. All of those. But mostly, you.” A street lamp cast a shadow across his face but I could imagine how his eyes lit up at my smile. “I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“Maybe you don’t.” Mark bit his lip and reached into his pocket. “You know, I’ve never met anyone like you before. You are perfect. I love everything about you. I love your smile. I love the way your hair frizzes in the rain. I love how you can’t go to sleep without a light by your bed. I love how you make me drive you around everywhere because you don’t like driving in the city. I love you.” He pulled a small box out of his pocket and knelt down on one knee. I held my breath. He had never looked more beautiful than at that moment. “Lizzie, will you marry me?”
Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! The answer would always be yes. Even now I would not hesitate to accept the proposal. But the happiest night of my life quickly turned sour. Grandmother’s old age manifested itself in a severe heart attack that night. The doctor said her days of living on her own were over.
Have you ever been to the beach right before a storm? You try to swim in the ocean, but it is impossible. All you can do is dig your feet in the sand and hope to stay upright. But eventually, a wave too big or too strong will overcome your efforts and you will be pulled under. That is what that night felt like. The grief and disappointment were just like saltwater in my nose. It was crushing. I could not breathe.
The decision was made before anyone could protest. Grandmother was my responsibility. She would come back to Denver with me. I would continue my schooling as best as I could while taking care of her. Marriage was the last thing on my mind. But it was the first thing on Mark’s.
“I’ll move to Colorado with you! I’ve always wanted to spend a few years in America.”
“You have your grandfather to take care of.”
“Long distance. We can make it work.”
“We could. But it will be hard. And how are we going to get married if I live in Denver and you live here?”
“You could stay here! Stay with me.”
“You know I want to, but I can’t take care of Grandmother here. I just looked at her finances and it’s worse than I thought. She’s been living some posh illusion. If I’m to support her, it has to be back home.”
“She’ll die in a few years anyway. Or Grandpa will. Long distance and then you can move back here. Or I can move there. And we can be married.”
“Why would you say something like that? Mark, I don’t want to lose you, but my responsibility is to my Grandmother.”
I’ll never forget the look of disappointment that crossed his face as he drove away that day. The last time we spoke was a few days ago. He was still living with his grandfather who he was unhappy to report was doing just fine. Grandmother’s health was only slightly impacted by the heart attack. Our conversations were filled with stories from college and reminiscing on our four months together. Sometimes we discussed the future, but not often. I am certain I have lost him.
“Darling, when we are finished here, check the duck and make sure it will be done exactly at 7. And I know you said you would cook carrots with that, but if we have any asparagus I would prefer that instead.” Grandmother’s plate was clean and her cup was half empty. Back to reality.
“Of course, Grandmother.”