Part 2. An Angel of Mercy
The Revolving Door
Thus, Dr. Harrington was able to pick up the threads of his successful career. Once the housekeeper was established, he went back to work. His teaching load was a little lighter, but he had started a new research project. The work helped him to bury his sorrow and pass the lonely hours.
Because he had no interest in any women, he had no trouble fending off the advances of his romantically inclined students. However, once the coeds discovered that Dr. Harrington also had four children, the oldest of which was only a few years younger than them, their enthusiasm quickly cooled.
Handsome as he was, no one wanted any part of his kids, especially anyone who had ever tried to babysit them. If Helen had spoiled them, he had only made it worse. He had a difficult time saying no to them when he considered that they were motherless. When the boys wanted a dog, he allowed them to pick out a somewhat large tri-color Shetland Sheepdog. This caused housekeeper number five to leave. Chester's long hair clogged up the vacuum cleaner so badly that he had to buy a new one. And of course neither of the boys kept the promise that they had made to brush and groom him daily. And he made no effort to try and put the reins on Willa.
Feeling guilty because he had developed a vague sense that he had failed her, he had no idea of how to reach out and help her now. So he thought that she would be happy if he let her do her own thing. It never occurred to him that that "thing" could potentially be self-destructive. He also was so overwhelmed with all of his own new responsibilities that he didn't really know what she was up to most of the time.
Willa had grown from being difficult to being impossible. She had decided that her future lay in the flower child culture of the San Francisco bay area. In her own cynical way, she was all for peace, free love, and drugs. Sadly, her life's philosophy was most simply boiled down to escapism. Her one desire in life was to turn eighteen and escape the "uptight" world of her intellectual father.
The other three grew into a more cohesive unit. His older son Jay, now aged eleven, was obsessed with all things scientific, while his younger son Max, age seven, was a budding athlete of sorts. And lastly four-year-old Jennie was somewhat lost in the shuffle, alternately spoiled and ignored depending on the whim of those around her. But the three stuck together because much of the time they didn't have anyone else.
Young as he was, Jay still tried to keep the memory of his mother alive for the younger two. Helen had always been kind and bighearted. Jay had liked that about her and wanted to try to be like that. He did his best to take care of Max and Jennie, especially at those times when Willa wouldn't. However, the only area of his life where he was not kind and thoughtful was with regard to the housekeepers.
Since his wife's death, Justin had tried live-in housekeepers, who the kids chased off very quickly, resenting their intrusion into their lives. Willa, in particular, resented having to give up her bedroom again, this time to a complete stranger. Even with Alice Spencer to help him, he could not find the right person. Then, on her advice, he gave up the money that he had earned renting the little apartment over the garage out to graduate students, in order to house the housekeeper so that she might have a little more space, not to mention protection, from the children.
Finally, he realized, or rather admitted, that the problem was not the housekeepers, it was the kids. They were determined to dispose of anyone he brought in, and seemed to have fun doing it. His last two attempts had been full-time day housekeepers who came in six days a week to cook, clean, and babysit.
But that had resulted in even more chaos when Willa, who had vigorously fought for the arrangement and made promises that she had no intention of keeping, refused to uphold her end of the deal by taking care of Jennie in the evenings and on weekends. Luckily, Jay and Max had become relatively self-sufficient.
But Jay was too young to be left alone at home to babysit the other two. In an effort to be helpful, he tried to point out that Chester could be the guard dog. Yeah, right, thought Justin. That dog is so friendly he would probably lead any burglar directly to the family silver.
Willa also seemed to be getting a great detail of pleasure out of tormenting him. Every time a housekeeper left, she would play the sweet and loving cooperative daughter. Then when the next one was hired and settled in, she would begin instigating trouble with the younger children, manipulating them into pulling the pranks that would cause her to leave.
Justin was caught in the middle and indecisive. It was the boys' actions, which would drive the women away, but those actions were almost always initiated by Willa. Because she was not involved herself, he couldn't blame her directly. But without her influence, the boys would not be acting out. As a result, the children were behaving badly with impunity and his household was drifting further and further into chaos. It was a bad situation for all involved.
The present housekeeper now resided in the garage apartment. She came over to the house after breakfast to do the cleaning and then cared for Jennie and the boys, when they weren't in school, until Justin came home, leaving dinner for him to serve and clean up. But even this was an imperfect system.
The woman was older, impatient, and something of a martinet. Willa could ignore her, but the boys resented her inflexibility and sharp tongue. As a result, the younger kids pulled out their old bag of tricks, or better put pranks, some of which Willa had taught them.
At first she seemed impervious to their assaults, but when Jay rigged up a stink bomb in the kitchen timed to go off after they had left for school, it was the final straw for the final housekeeper. Justin was in the middle of a calculus class filled with over one hundred freshmen when his department head showed up at his classroom door with Jennie. On her way out of town, the housekeeper, having nowhere else to bring her, had deposited her at the university.
Luckily, one of the girls in the class thought that she was adorable and offered to babysit her for the rest of the day. But that only solved part of Justin's problem. He or Willa had to get home before Jay and Max did from school or they would be locked out. He had an afternoon seminar to teach, so thinking quickly, he called the high school, had Willa pulled out of class and ordered her to be home in time to meet their bus. He should have been tipped off by her nonchalant response that she had no intention of doing this.
By the time he got home it was dark and the boys were nowhere to be found. Then, he heard the plangent tones of his next-door neighbor Mrs. Jennings calling him from the side yard. Her voice was filled with outrage. She came striding over followed by Jay, Max, and their Shetland Sheepdog Chester. Her daughter Georgina wistfully trailed behind, holding her little white Bijon Frise, Snowflake, in her arms. The woman was furious.
"Dr. Harrington!" she declared. "What do you mean allowing these two poor children to arrive home and be locked out with no babysitter or housekeeper in sight."
Justin was taken aback by her vehemence.
"Boys, where is Willa?" he asked turning to them. "She was supposed to come home and let you in. And make sure that you did your homework."
"I dunno," shrugged Jay. "Maybe she forgot."
"Maybe she didn't want to go into the smelly old kitchen," offered Jennie, who had trotted along beside him. "She told you not to put that stink bomb under the sink."
"Tattletale!" cried Max, outraged.
"Time out!" roared Justin before an argument could break out in front of their nosy neighbor. "Thank you, Mrs. Jennings for taking the boys in. This will not happen again."
She looked as if she wanted to argue, but grasping her daughter by the arm, she turned on her heel and returned to her own yard. As she walked off not the least bit mollified, he muttered under his breath, "I hope."
It was not a happy night in the Harrington household. The boys were quickly settled to do their homework, after being appropriately (or so he thought) disciplined for their untimely prank. Jennie was plopped in front of the television to keep her out of the fray. This was certainly not an ideal solution, but it was a good temporary one. Willa came casually strolling in around six-thirty.
"What's for dinner, Dad?" she asked innocently after she had wandered into his study and stood before his desk.
"Whatever you're cooking," he snapped back at her.
He got up and led the way into the kitchen so that Jennie couldn't hear their conversation through the open door. Willa gave an exaggerated sigh and followed him across the hall.
"Lost another one, haven't you?" she commented in a snide tone in her voice that her father didn't like. "How many does that make?"
"Too many," he replied, trying to control his fury. "Why didn't you come straight home from school like I told you to? Mrs. Jennings had to rescue Jay and Max."
"She should have left them outside," she retorted. "It's their fault that this happened. I see, or rather should say smell, that you've aired out the kitchen."
Justin sat down heavily at the table. It had been a long two years since his beloved wife Helen had died. In addition to the challenges of taking care of the four children on his own, his heart still ached for her. And every time another housekeeper left, he was made aware of his own inadequacy as a parent. But he had never imagined that he would be left alone to raise his brood. He looked up at his oldest child helplessly.
"Willa," he said. "What am I supposed to do? At the rate that I am going, I am not going to be able to keep up with both my job and you kids. Money doesn't grow on trees and if I can't work then there won't be any coming in. Why can't you all just settle down and let someone cook, clean, and babysit for you?"
She looked back at him and then her face softened.
"I miss her too," she said. "But every time you hire someone and they do start to work out, you forget all about us. You know, like you did when Mom was alive. But Mom was Mom and these women aren't. And this last one was pretty mean."
"Well," replied Justin with an edge in his voice. "Maybe they ran out of nice housekeepers at the employment agency. Our reputation with them is definitely in the toilet by now."
"Okay, you're probably right about that," she answered. "But if you keep dumping us, the minute they start to work out, we'll keep chasing them off."
"So then what do you suggest that I do?" he asked.
But Willa's brief lapse into sympathy was over.
"I dunno," she said going over to the refrigerator. "You're the parent."
Justin was frustrated beyond words. It was pretty good actually that his oldest child had so much insight, but her unwillingness to help was only contributing to the problem. He was at a complete loss as to what he should do. At her age, Willa was more than capable of pitching in to help make things work. She understood her brothers and sister very well, but even when her mother was alive had done little to help around the house. It wasn't needed. Helen's entire life had revolved around home and family.
It didn't help that Willa had been an only child until she was five years old. Justin and Helen had married young and Willa had been born almost exactly nine months after the wedding. Since Justin was completely absorbed in earning his doctorate, Willa had been the central focus of her mother's life. It had been a very large shock for her when young Jay (short for Justin) was born and she suddenly had to share her with another sibling.
Ironically, Willa had learned to be so possessive of her mother "at the knee," so to speak, of her grandmother Bernice. Justin knew that Bernice had not entirely approved of Helen having so many children, but she had wanted a large family. Justin agreed, because he always agreed with Helen about such things. She treasured all of her children and it was no accident that Jay had come along to occupy her days as soon as Willa started kindergarten.
Even before Bernice had slapped her on that dreadful night, there had been tension between them. Helen, like Justin, hated confrontation of any kind and had tried to ignore it. But the rift had then festered and grown. If Willa hadn't been in school during the last months of Helen's life, he was sure that all out war would have broken out between them. But now, without Bernice to focus her anger on, Willa was taking it out on the rest of the family.
It felt as though now she was determined to prevent anyone from coming to help care for her deeply resented siblings. She acted without thinking of the consequences and ignored the fact that her mother would have wanted her to care for the others. If Justin had been more in tune with her however, he might have realized that he was trying to put adult responsibilities on a young girl.
Willa also needed care, but between Justin's need for her help and her own abrasive personality, she was not able to express those needs. In short, she was a typical, confused teenage girl in a very atypical situation. She no longer trusted anyone but her friends. But as teens themselves, they only reinforced her feelings of resentment. Their method of comforting her was to encourage her to keep rebelling against "the system."
Yet despite the fact that, as usual, Justin was almost paralyzed with indecision, things happened to alleviate the situation anyway. Word had gotten around campus pretty quickly that he had lost "another one." The math department was even betting as to how long it would take him to find a replacement and how long she would last.
But this time around, luck was on his side. As it turned out, he did not have to call the employment agency again. In fact, the minute he reached his office the next day, the phone was ringing and the university chaplain was on the line. He had a possible candidate that he wanted him to meet.
Within ten minutes a cheerful young woman was standing before him. Selena Tressidor was a youthful twenty-five and at first glance Justin was highly doubtful that she could keep his household in order. She was petite, blonde, and very pretty. Unlike the previous housekeepers, she had a sparkling smile and such a gentle manner that Justin thought that the math department might start a pool on how long it would take the first kid to sass her. Nevertheless, Justin hired her on the spot, gave her a key to the house, cab fare, and told her where to pick up Jennie.
She had a lively sense of humor and was unfazed by some of the mildly sarcastic remarks made by the boys when she met them. She was a recently arrived Englishwoman with a bit of experience in housekeeping and childcare. She had come at the recommendation of the chaplain after she had been hired to work part-time when there was a sudden vacancy in the campus ministry office. Apparently, she loved to travel and had jumped at the chance to visit the States when a cousin told her of the job opening.
This was a bit unusual. It was usually staffed by a graduate student, but no one was available. Her position was poorly paid and she needed a place to live and a second income to support herself. Knowing his situation, the chaplain agreed that Selena could work her hours for him while Jennie was in nursery school. Justin could only presume that God would be on her side and that "Miss Selena," as she was to be called, could potentially perform miracles with his unruly brood.
But Selena, or Miss Selena as they all called her, was no ordinary housekeeper. Although she was kind and gentle with the children, she was also strict when it came to their behavior. She demanded from them the same degree of respect that she gave them. Max and Jennie fell in line almost immediately. She charmed them with her belief in the less evident aspects of the world around them. She had whimsical sense of humor and an optimistic view of life.
She had a certain degree of prescience, which she used to her advantage when she needed it. She knew who was at the door before the bell rang, or on the phone before it rang. She knew where they all were in the house, even if she couldn't see them. Most humorous of all, she knew people's names before they had even introduced themselves. Every time she did it, Max and Jennie laughed, while Justin rolled his eyes or tossed his hands in the air. Despite his scientific mind, even he found it all very amusing.
This drove poor Jay crazy. As a budding scientist himself, he believed only in what could be seen and proven. As a romantic, Miss Selena encouraged all the children to believe in anything unless it was proven not to be true. She spoke of possibilities, not probabilities. And she appeared to believe that nothing was impossible.
However on that score, Willa was very determined to prove her wrong. Despite her escapist philosophy of peace and love, she bore no love for the young woman and was determined to not allow peace to finally settle over her father's household. And in spite of her colorful garb and love beads, her behavior didn't nearly match the projected image. Something about the sweet, young Englishwoman rubbed Willa the wrong way from their first meeting. It was possible that she realized that from the first Miss Selena saw through her pretense.
By the time that she arrived home from school the day following the stink bomb incident, Miss Selena had been hired and already begun to set the house in order. Everything had been cleaned and organized almost magically, when Justin considered the state of chaos in which it had been left that morning. The laundry was done. Dinner was cooking and would be ready to serve after she left. The boys were even doing their homework quietly up in their room.
For a minute he thought that he might have walked into a dream where Mary Poppins had come to the house and "spit-spot" pulled it all together. But when Jennie jumped into his arms and declared that she loved Miss Selena and she wanted her to stay forever, he realized that this was no dream.
Justin was working in his study and the boys were still upstairs, while she was reading a story to Jennie in the living room next door when the front door opened. If Willa had come in only ten minutes later, she would have missed the new housekeeper completely.
"Who the hell are you and what have you done to the house?" he heard her ask.
Justin was out of his study like a shot. It had been a great relief to come home and find the place tidy and the children happy. Jennie had been sitting at the kitchen table happily coloring in her coloring book while Selena cooked dinner, everyone's favorite, pot roast and mashed potatoes. Max was especially pleased that she had fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and cocoa waiting for him when he got off the bus. Presently, the aroma of home cooking was wafting through the house, as it had not done since Helen had passed away.
"Willa, this is Miss Selena Tressidor," he quickly said, immediately attempting damage control. "And Miss Selena this is my oldest daughter, Willa. Please ignore her lack of manners. She's a hopeless cause."
"Pleased to meet you, Willa," smoothly replied Miss Selena extending her hand. "But Dr. Harrington, isn't 'hopeless cause' a bit of an exaggeration? It must have been quite a surprise to find a stranger in the house."
Willa rolled her eyes at this gesture of friendship, not to mention forgiveness, and went upstairs without another word. Miss Selena looked puzzled, but didn't comment. Justin went back to work and hoped that his daughter wouldn't ruin what looked like it could potentially be a good thing. He had hoped that Miss Selena would join them for dinner, but she explained that she would prefer to finish moving into the apartment and dine alone.
Justin was disappointed, but let her go. He didn't want her to think that his invitation was a ploy to get her to work hours beyond the agreed upon arrangement. As it turned out, it was good that she wasn't there. Once she had left, Willa returned downstairs to partake in the meal that she grudgingly had to admit was good, not to mention better than anything that she could cook. When they were finished eating, Jay and Max stood up and cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher.
"It's your job to clean the dishes in the sink," said Jay to Willa as he turned on the dishwasher. There was an air of amusement in his tone, as if he couldn't wait to see the reaction. He was not disappointed.
"My what?" asked Willa, in genuine outrage.
"Miss Selena made up a chore list for us," said Jennie mischievously. "I can't read it, but it tells us who does what to get the work done when she's not here. She says that it will go a lot faster if we don't fight over what we have to do all the time."
"That's a great idea," said Justin with a hint of amusement in his own voice. "What was the first disagreement about?"
"Jay and Max argued over who would bring the clean laundry up to their room," tattled Jennie, at which both boys rolled their eyes.
"Tattletale," muttered Jay.
"Well," said Willa sarcastically. "You have such a great memory, Jennie, you don't need to be able to read. I don't recall agreeing to any chore list."
"And I don't recall asking your opinion," snapped Justin.
Once again, Willa rolled her eyes, stood up, and walked out. They all looked at each other. Justin sighed and walked over to the sink to do the dishes himself. After a minute, Jay took Jennie by the hand to bring her upstairs and help her get ready for bed. Once again, Willa was refusing to play by the rules. And she was determined not to contribute to the family in any way.
Even as they got to know each other better, Willa and Miss Selena did not exactly hit it off. It was not for lack of trying on Miss Selena's part. However the young woman would only go so far in her offers of friendship. Unlike Dr. Harrington, she was unwilling to totally overlook the girl's bad behavior. Despite the fact that Willa was obviously still grieving from the loss of her mother, Miss Selena refused to see it as an excuse to let her do and say what she wanted. Especially when it hurt other people.
Early on in Miss Selena's employment, Willa came into house one afternoon to find Jennie waiting for her at the front door. Jennie "innocently" announced to her that Miss Selena was outside cleaning up the tangled garden in the backyard.
"Why did you plant weeds out there?" she asked sweetly.
Willa was through the house and out the backdoor within seconds. Just as Jennie had informed her, Miss Selena had cleared out the underbrush from the various flowerbeds. For the first time since Willa's mother had gotten sick, the yard actually looked tidy. Miss Selena, dressed in jeans, a straw hat, and an old flannel shirt, was covered in dirt. And off to the side was a pile of Willa's own gardening "project."
"So it's true," she said in annoyance.
"I have simply been 'weeding' the garden," replied Miss Selena coolly. "Someone took a great deal of time and effort to layout and plant these beds. It seems to be a shame to simply let them 'go to pot,' so to speak."
Willa was furious. Miss Selena had not only destroyed her personal stash, she had cut off her best source of income.
"You realize of course that it is illegal to grow this stuff," continued Miss Selena. "And you also realize that your father could get in an awful lot of trouble if it was discovered. As the homeowner, he is responsible for what is growing on his land."
"If you hadn't stuck your nose in where it didn't belong, then it wouldn't have been a problem," Willa snarled. "Do you always poke around in other people's business?"
But Miss Selena just looked back at her serenely.
"One of my hobbies is gardening," she replied calmly. "I asked your father if I might try my hand at cleaning this mess up out here. He seemed rather pleased at the idea. It will be a lovely yard for the children to play in once it is fixed up. Jay and Max are even working on plans to build a playhouse for Jennie."
Willa rolled her eyes in anger. Because she was several inches taller than Miss Selena, she looked rather intimidating. However, Selena was determined not to back down. Since Dr. Harrington wasn't home, she was able to exert some real authority. She did not wish to be mean. But she felt that she needed to get her point across. This time, she was not going to give into her whims in order to keep the peace.
"Just what are you trying to accomplish here?" Willa asked insolently. "Everything was just fine until you came."
"No it wasn't," said Jay from the back porch where he was standing with Jennie and Max. "It was awful. We never knew who was going to be home when we got there. Yeah, it was fun for a while seeing how quickly that we could get rid of the housekeepers, but I like her."
"Me too," said Max. "I like having hot food for dinner and having cookies and brownies baked for me for my after school snack. I like having clean clothes to wear."
"I took care of all that," answered Willa.
"No you didn't!" answered back Jennie. "And you would forget to pick me up or be home to meet my bus on my nursery school days."
"Yeah," added Max. "And the last time we got stuck outside, when we were over at Mrs. Jennings' house she said that if it happened one more time that she was going to call the police."
"Call the police?" asked Willa.
"Yeah," said Jay. "And then Dad would get in trouble, not you. And we might get taken away, but not you. You're old enough to take care of yourself."
"I like Miss Selena," said Jennie. "I want her to stay. Please don't listen to Willa, Miss Selena! Don't go away!"
And with that she went over to Miss Selena and threw her arms around her waist. She buried her face in Miss Selena's gardening apron. In turn, Selena put her arms around her and patted her on the back and said, "There. There."
Willa then felt distinctly uncomfortable.
"I didn't want to get Dad in trouble," she said slowly. "But why do you have to stick your nose in our personal business?"
"I don't mean to intrude," replied Miss Selena. "But if I am going to set this household to rights so that it is a happy and healthy place for all of you children to grow up, then changes need to be made."
"Are you going to stay with us forever?" asked Jennie.
"No," answered Miss Selena. "I never stay in one place for very long. But I will stay here until things are running properly."
"If you're not planning on staying, then why are you turning them all against me?" asked Willa.
"I believe that you did that before I even walked in the door," answered Miss Selena. "Nothing would make me happier than for the five of you to come together as a real family and move forward with your lives. I know that's what your mother would have wanted."
"How do you know that?" demanded Willa. "You never even met my mother."
Ignoring the tone, Miss Selena smiled softly.
"I may not have met her, but after being here for the past few weeks, I feel that I know her very well," she said quietly. "She loved you all very much. She certainly kept a beautiful home. Oh, it was quite a mess when I came, but a lot of thought and care went into the decoration of the bedrooms and the rest of the house. The yard out here can be restored and when it is, I think that it will be quite a fitting tribute to her memory, a living expression of her love for you all."
"What else do you know about my Mommy, Miss Selena?" asked Jennie, who didn't remember her at all.
"She raised you all to be good and loving people," she said. "Jay is always telling me about small kindnesses that she did for others. And some of the neighbors have mentioned that they miss her very much. You may not realize it, but she was always helping them out. You should be very proud to have had such a mother and wish to be like her."
"Oh, I do, Miss Selena, I do," replied Jennie smiling and nodding.
Willa was still silent. Miss Selena said a small prayer, hoping that she had finally broken through the very isolating wall that the girl had erected around herself. It was a difficult balance. The child was spoiled enough, but she would never be able to turn her around unless she reached out with kindness and patience.
"Okay, I'll leave the gardening to you," she said testily and then stalked into the house.
"I'm not sure if that was just good or bad," commented Jay, looking disappointed because Willa still refused to accept the offer of friendship.
It was definitely bad, thought Miss Selena. As of yet, she had made no progress with Willa. And that bothered her more than she cared to admit. Nevertheless, the relationship did inch forward a bit.
Feeling relieved that the young woman wasn't planning on becoming a permanent addition to the family, Willa grudgingly accepted her. They even reached a point of armed neutrality. As long as she didn't do anything to upset the harmonious balance of the household, Miss Selena permitted Willa to "do her own thing." Dr. Harrington barely noticed. He was just happy that there was now a nominal equilibrium in his home life so that he could focus on his career.
His excuse might have been that he wanted to insure their financial security, but in reality, he had no idea of how to connect with the children. Helen had always done that. He also had a difficult time looking at them without thinking of her, especially little Jennie. Despite the fact that she was presently a little "tow head," it was obvious that one day she was going to look very much like her mother, especially with her large blue eyes. Jay's hair was already darkening to the same light brown as Helen's had been. He suspected that that was why they had seen so little of Tom and Bernice since Helen passed away. But that really didn't bother him at all.
Miraculous might not have been the word for it, but after about eight months, the family had settled down considerably and Miss Selena still hadn't thrown up her hands and walked out. Jennie adored her. She was the first real mother figure that she had ever known. The boys, after a short adjustment period, also liked her. She ran the house efficiently and gave them the structure that they craved. It also helped that she really wasn't your typical housekeeper at all.
She didn't always act like a housekeeper and pretty much didn't look like one. She certainly didn't dress like your average housekeeper. Her "work clothes" were neat skirts and high-necked blouses with an apron. Despite this, she looked far from matronly. And when she was "off duty" or driving them around town, she wore slacks and a simple blouse or tee shirt. And nobody would think that she was a housekeeper by looking at her car.
She was able to pick up a little convertible inexpensively from a graduate student who had finished her degree and was headed for the east coast. Because she had wanted to "unload" it quickly, she accepted a couple of hundred dollars. The boys liked the "cool" car much better than the family station wagon.
They were only too happy to keep it clean and waxed for her. However, Selena drew the line when Jay wanted to try his hand at tinkering with it. She preferred to bring it to the local Texaco station where she struck up a friendship with the mechanic Chris. All the kids' friends thought that they had the grooviest housekeeper in town.
Only Willa remained discontented. It was difficult to say what her problem was, but it seemed to have something to do with the fact that in addition to putting the house in order, Miss Selena was well liked by all the others. It was odd too, because Miss Selena had finally managed to bring Justin around to the idea spending more time with the kids. She couldn't even see the benefit in this. But it could also have been that she sensed something that no one else did.
As the family settled down, Justin began to date. None of the women that he dated interested him for very long, but Miss Selena kept encouraging him. Willa didn't like that one bit. She didn't like the idea that any woman could take her mother's place. It never occurred to her that the younger children really needed a stepmother.
She was now a senior in high school and ready to be free. Her needs were different. She hated to admit it, but all their lives were better without the constant turmoil. In addition to needing help raising the children, her father also needed a wife. She found herself caught in a dilemma. Deep down she knew that if she was set on leaving, she had no right to hold back the others, but she couldn't help it, more mixed up than ever, she continued on her sad path to slow, but sure, self-destruction.
Then one beautiful fall day, Selena drove home from her job at the university to catch sight of the top of a very large hot air balloon peeking over the roof of the house. She didn't even have time to process this information when Mrs. Jennings from next door came running over.
"Miss Selena!" she declared. "I cannot believe my eyes. Whatever is a hot air balloon doing in Dr. Harrington's backyard?"
"I think that we're about to find out," replied Selena cheerfully as she led her past the garage and through the gate.
"Selena, darling!" cried Aunt Phyllis from the basket of the balloon. "How have you been?"
"Quite well, Auntie," she said walking briskly over. "Quite well."
"Well, my dear," said Aunt Edith as she kissed her cheek. "The family has been most concerned about you. You have never stayed in one place for so long. Since we were going to be in the area, our brother, your father, asked us to drop in on you."
"Yes, indeed," said Aunt Phyllis with a giggle. "Drop in on you. Dear Meg is most concerned that you may be in some kind of difficulty."
"Oh everything is just splendid," replied Selena, inclining her head in Mrs. Jennings' direction. "My work here isn't quite done, is all."
Before anyone could say anything else, Mrs. Jennings interrupted.
"So these two ladies are your aunts, Miss Selena," she said. "How . . . interesting."
"Well, yes, of course, where are my manners?" said Selena. "Aunt Edith, Aunt Phyllis, this is our next door neighbor Mrs. Jennings. I believe that you have quite startled her with your completely unexpected landing."
"How do you do, Mrs. Jennings?" said Aunt Edith, as she extended her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you."
"Yes, and I'm pleased to meet you," said Mrs. Jennings. "I must say that it was very brave of you to fly all the way from England in that thing."
"This 'thing,' as you so elegantly put it," commented Aunt Edith. "Is the most sensible form of transportation these days, I wouldn't travel any other way."
"Yes, dear," said Aunt Phyllis. "And we haven't come directly from England. We've just been down the Galapagos Islands looking at the turtles, and before that Easter Island. What lovely heads those are! We're on our way now Vancouver."
"Well, you do get around then," said Mrs. Jennings. "Oh! Look at the time. I must fly. Georgina has a dance class this afternoon and I must pick her up at school."
"Yes, well, we wouldn't want to make you late," said Aunt Edith in relief.
"So Aunties," said Selena, when she was gone. "Why are you here? Papa can't possibly have sent you to check up on me."
"As a matter of fact, dear," corrected Aunt Edith. "He has. In fact all of the family is very concerned about you."
Selena began to feel very uncomfortable. If Aunt Edith could be counted on in one thing, it was to not waste words. If Papa had sent them to check up on her, he had. She wondered if everything was all right at home.
"Don't worry, dear," said Aunt Phyllis kindly. "Everything is just fine at home. The little one misses you of course and your mother is worried because Kenneth hadn't done his duty yet, but that is nothing new. Owen does not like the fact that it seems as if you have settled here."
Selena closed her mind and considered her words carefully.
"I have certainly not settled here," she said. "And I am having trouble getting this family to settle."
"And I suppose it's all my fault," called a voice from behind her. "What the hell is this? Did you escape from the Land of Oz or something?"
"Young lady," said Aunt Edith crisply. "You are quite definitely proving the claims by my generation that your generation has lost all sense of common courtesy. Come over here so that you may be properly introduced."
"Aunt Edith, Aunt Phyllis," said Selena politely. "May I introduce Willa Harrington, she is Dr. Harrington's oldest child."
"How do you do?" said Aunt Phyllis, grasping Willa's reluctantly extended hand. "You are such a lovely girl. It's a pity that you seem to have forgotten how to smile."
"Yes, indeed Phyllis," said Aunt Edith, smiling. "Well, I can see now why you have been here so long Selena dear. If all the children are like her . . ."
"Wait a minute," interrupted Willa rudely. "Are you saying that it really is my fault that she's still here?"
"A bit hostile, aren't we?" said Aunt Edith coolly. "It's probably not the only reason, but I'm sure that it's a contributing factor. Selena?"
"Oh, yes, certainly," answered Selena quickly. "Quite definitely a contributing factor indeed."
"Oh, brother," said Willa with an eye roll. She then walked away without another word.
"I hope that they're all not like that," said Aunt Phyllis in a worried tone.
"Oh, hardly," replied Selena. "Willa, shall we say, is sui generis. I do worry about her, but thankfully the others are nothing like her."
"Thankfully," agreed Aunt Edith. "I suppose that you have work to do before the other children arrive home from school. We certainly do not want to disrupt your routine."
"Well, dearie," she said. "You may not want to, but I am sure that you will. The children will be most excited by the balloon."
"And Dr. Harrington?" asked Aunt Phyllis.
"That remains to be seen," she replied. "He does not like his routine upset."
As it turned out, Dr. Harrington was amused by the Aunties. The children of course, couldn't wait to tell all their friends in school, many of which came over to view the spectacle. Since her first meeting with the Aunts, Willa decided to stay out of the backyard.
For their part, the Aunties enjoyed the attention and patiently answered many questions about the balloon and their travels. Selena was secretly grateful that the sightseers kept them so busy that they didn't have time to talk to her alone. Aunt Edith promised her a sit down and she was sure that they wouldn't leave before she got one.
However, after a weekend of turmoil that included Max attempting to hawk tickets for balloon rides without asking permission and a visit from a member of the British Embassy staff looking for their passports, the aunts decided that it was time to move on. Unlike the younger generation, they were not used to foreign countries being so concerned with those going in and out. It meant that on Sunday night, Selena was no longer able to avoid the conversation.
After she had put the children to bed, she went out to sit with the Aunties in the backyard. They were really an odd pair. Both had once been blonde Tressidors whose hair had now turned an iron gray in the case of Aunt Edith and snow white in the case of Aunt Phyllis. Both were the same height and slim build, but because of her presence Aunt Edith always seemed taller. She wore simple tailored clothing, while Aunt Phyllis preferred a frillier, feminine style. And of course they both had the deep blue Tressidor eyes.
Now Selena found those eyes watching her closely as she sipped her tea. Finally, Aunt Edith broke the silence.
"As I mentioned the other day," she began. "Owen is most concerned because you have been here for so long. Needless to say, he is worried that something is terribly amiss that you are not telling us."
"Well," replied Selena slowly. "I would not say that anything is amiss. But this family has proven far more of a challenge than I expected."
"Yes, well, the sullen one being excepted, the others all seem to be doing rather well," said Aunt Edith.
"However, Dr. Harrington is still not married," she said. "And I never really view a family as settled until there are two parents in the home. I'm a bit old-fashioned about that you know."
"Yes, dear, we do know," said Aunt Phyllis kindly. "We are all a bit old-fashioned in that regard. But I must admit that I am a bit puzzled. After all, Dr. Harrington is such a handsome man. You can't tell that there isn't any woman out there who would go for him."
Turning a little pink at the implication, Selena replied, "He does date. In fact he has dated some very lovely women who would have been most suitable. But he always seems to lose interest so quickly. And the children really have turned around. So far they have not tried to chase off a single date."
"Well then we are concerned about you and the limitations that this situation is placing on your future," said Aunt Phyllis. "You really must not get stuck in a rut. You do know that when people have before, things have gone very badly for them. Meg does so worry about that, you know."
"No," said Selena, looking off into the distance. "I do not believe that I am stuck in a rut. I believe that I am . . . content. You know, every once in a while it's nice to settle into a place and catch your breath so to speak. It is very tiring constantly being on the move, you know."
"No, dear, we don't," said Aunt Phyllis simply. "Those of us who roam never grow tired of the change of scenery. In fact we get most restless when we are stuck in one place for too long. Isn't that so, Edith?"
"Yes, it is," she nodded vigorously. "If you are tending towards settling then perhaps your days of roaming are at an end. It never truly been your destiny to roam, you know."
"I'm not really sure about that, my days of roaming being at an end that is," admitted Selena. "But I must finish my job here first. I rather like this family and would not like to see them fall to pieces again. I believe that I shall be content with my present lot until the last bit falls into place."
"Well, dear," said Aunt Edith sharply. "If you are ready to settle, then return to the village now. That is where your contentment lies, or at least it ought to. Remember, that Tressidors owe everything, not owed to God, to family. These people may be very nice, but they are not your family."
"It's funny," said Selena. "But whenever I go in to mend a family, I do become one of them for a while. But you are right. I do understand my duty as a Tressidor."
"Is it really just a duty to you, dear?" asked Aunt Phyllis, her voice filled with concern.
"Perhaps that was a poor choice of words," replied Selena. "But I am prepared to return home with Kenneth when he comes to claim me."
"Which he hasn't," said Aunt Edith acidly. "Selena, you really need to examine your mind and heart. You say that you may or may not wish to settle, but you are not overly enthusiastic about your betrothed coming to claim you and returning to the village. And you say that you are content here."
"Selena, dear," said Aunt Phyllis. "Young Kenneth cannot come to claim you if he doesn't know where you are. If you go home, then he will have no excuses. Is it possible that something or someone else is holding you here, keeping you content so to speak?"
Despite the cool evening air, Selena flushed. The aunts looked at each other knowingly and nodded.
"Dr. Harrington is not only a good-looking man," continued Aunt Phyllis. "I believe that he likes you very much. He was questioning me earlier about the family and your background. Now of course I didn't tell him anything worthwhile, but I did get the impression that his interest was not mere idle curiosity."
"And I would suggest that what you are saying is idle speculation," commented Selena. "Dr. Harrington is a man of sterling character. If he knew of the betrothal he would never think along those lines."
"So you haven't told them?" asked Aunt Edith. "Why not?"
"I never tell my families about the betrothal," admitted Selena. "As you know, we all like to keep our private lives to ourselves out here. And why would the Harringtons or any other family for that matter even care if I was betrothed?"
"I don't know," said Aunt Phyllis suggestively. "Why would Dr. Harrington be interested in your betrothal?"
Selena sighed. Here we go again, she thought. Aunt Edith is here to keep me on the straight and narrow while Aunt Phyllis would try to tempt me off. It was not the first time that they had popped in on her while she was traveling. They loved her very dearly, but each in her own way, thought that she knew what was best for her. Aunt Edith would scold and Aunt Phyllis would insinuate and it would take her several days to bring the house back to normal after they were gone.
"Aunt Phyllis," she said defensively. "Things are quite definitely not like that."
"Well, if they're not," she challenged her. "Then why can't you get the poor fellow married off? You've never had any trouble on that score before."
"True," she said. "But I have also never had a child as unresponsive as poor Willa either. That is the larger issue in my mind. The others could probably do well enough without me, but I refuse to give up on her."
"Face it, Selena," said Aunt Edith bluntly. "She has given up on herself. You can see it plain as day in her aura. You cannot stop someone who is as hell bent on self-destruction as she is. It is time to go home and prepare yourself to be married. If he knows that you are waiting, Kenneth will have no choice."
"Oh, dear, Edith," said Aunt Phyllis. "When you put it like that it sounds as if Kenneth is even more reluctant than our Selena to finally tie the knot. And he is one of us. If he wants to find Selena it is a simple enough business. It's his place you know."
"Maybe he's hiding from me," commented Selena.
"No, no, no," replied Aunt Phyllis. "That's all wrong. Those betrothed always grow closer in mind and heart right before they wed. Even if they haven't felt that way before."
Selena and Aunt Edith both looked at her.
"So I've heard," she amended. "But this is most odd. And you, my dear, can make all the excuses that you want. Dr. Harrington is a fine man and his children love you. You are content. Your father is not going to like this at all."
"Must you tell him?" she asked.
"Selena dear," sighed Aunt Edith. "What are we going to do with you? Have you forgotten so quickly that Owen is also our pater? We cannot withhold the information that he sent us to acquire. We will do as he says and so will you. It is simply the way that we are."
"Yes, I know," replied Selena. "Is he ordering me to return home?"
"No dear, of course not," said Aunt Phyllis. "Oh, my word, this is turning into such a muddle. Your father knows as well as we do that you are called by God to your service. And of course duty to God is the only duty higher than duty to family. Edith, what shall we do about this?"
"This is nothing that we can do at the moment," admitted Edith. "However, I believe that the betrothal commitment supersedes the other. If Kenneth comes, Selena, you must go with him. Whatever can be keeping him away?"
"I surely do not know, auntie," replied Selena. "In the meantime, I will do my best to bring things here to a conclusion. But you must realize that although Willa is intransigent, I am not ready to give up on her yet. I have never lost a child before."
"Yes, dear, intransigent, but not hopeless, dear," said Aunt Phyllis. "Never hopeless. No, if you are still here there is a reason for it, but for now we cannot discern it."
"Yes, Auntie," said Selena quietly.
Aunt Edith decided that she would have the last word.
"We will inform our brother of our findings," she said stiffly. "It will be for him to decide what to make of them. After all, as paterfamilias that is his prerogative. Just remember, niece, that you owe him your complete obedience."
"I will never forget that," promised Selena.
"Yes, well, when young girls such as you have their heads turned, they forget lots of things," commented Aunt Phyllis.
"Phyllis!" exclaimed Aunt Edith in exasperation. "Will you kindly let that be!"
Selena once again blushed a deep red as Aunt Phyllis gave her a wink. She wondered what bothered her more, the insinuation or her own response to it. Dr. Harrington was, she agreed, a fine man, but he was much older than her. And he was not even one of them. And she was previously committed to someone else. And sooner or later, the right woman would come along for him. At least she hoped that she would. She would hate to leave that matter unsettled if Kenneth did show up.
She wondered where he was. It had been so long since she had seen him that she wasn't even sure that she would recognize him. She also wondered if he had changed. Remembering how her little sister Trelawney Rose had responded to his name the last time she was home, she could only think that he must have. And she wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing.
The next morning when she arose, she realized that the balloon was gone. As usual, the aunties departed when the wind was right. She continued to ponder their conversation of the previous night. It had been disturbing on a number of levels, but she was now very concerned about what they would tell Papa.
The seasons changed, and it was now a little over a year since Miss Selena had come to take care of them. Willa was counting the days until graduation. In complete defiance of her father's wishes, she refused to even apply to college. She had no plans for the future, other than to get out of the house.
She knew that her mother would have been very disappointed in her, but she no longer cared. Her mother had been the only person that she had ever really loved, but from her perspective, she had abandoned her by dying. In the words of her high school classmates, she was "pretty messed up."
When her mother had died, because she was the oldest child by far, there had been an expectation that she would, to a certain extent, step up and do her part to maintain the family. But not only had she lost her mother, she had no desire to take up any of her duties. Her marijuana and alcohol use contributed to her barely passing grades and even greater detachment from the world at large. She was well on her way to becoming a lost child.
Willa had been aching for a fight with Miss Selena since she had arrived. She was filled with unexpressed anger because her mother was dead and the family, even though it was fully three years later, was moving on. She did not want her father to remarry. She did not want her younger siblings to have a stepmother to love and care for them. But most of all, because she was miserable, she wanted everyone else to be miserable too. And Miss Selena had shown up at the precise moment when she was about to achieve her goal. Even though she would never admit it, she was most mad of all about that.
It was at this time that Miss Selena's cousin, Emmeline, showed up one morning with her younger sister. The girls' parents had died suddenly in a car accident back in England and they were now alone in the world, twenty-six year old Selena and ten-year-old Trelawney Rose.
Emmeline informed Selena that it was her own father's wish that she return with them to their small village in England at once. And within this culture, Selena had no real choice but to obey her uncle's wishes. However, she was so traumatized by what had happened, it was obvious that she would not be able to travel immediately. Nor could she fulfill her duties to Dr. Harrington's family.
Emmeline, a cool, efficient young Brit herself, took over many of the household chores for her, while she tended to her younger sister and grieved in her own way. Emmeline completed everything that needed to be done and even made herself available to babysit (despite the fact that she really did not like children). During the first week, Selena and Trelawney Rose did not venture from the little apartment, except to go to church. Justin had no idea of what was really happening until the university chaplain paid him a visit at his office.
"Dr. Harrington," he explained once he had sat down. "Selena Tressidor is suffering from a tremendous shock. Not only has she lost both of her parents, she now must return home with her sister and settle down to village life to raise her."
"I knew that she was supposed to return," said Justin slowly. "And I was aware that is because she has to raise her sister there."
"That is the arrangement that her parents made. Her Uncle David Tressidor will make sure that it happens," explained the chaplain. "All of the legal and financial niceties have been tied up. The house is in Selena's name and there is ample money to raise the child."
"I am not sure of why you are telling me this," he replied puzzled. "Obviously, Selena is free to leave whenever she wants. Under the circumstances, I wouldn't even ask for two weeks notice, not that I've ever gotten it from any other housekeeper. I will certainly be hard pressed to replace her, but that is not her problem."
"No, it's not," agreed the chaplain. "But for some reason, she feels that it is. She feels guilty that she must leave while she is still needed. Her cousin is presently helping her, but she can't do that forever. Emmeline Tressidor is not a housekeeper, nor does she want to be. She is also under pressure from the family to bring the girls back. She has been trying to buy extra time by explaining that Selena is too distraught to travel."
"Is she?" asked Justin. "I haven't really seen her in over a week. Her cousin arrived while the family was out at school. I met her when I had to go back to get my briefcase that I had forgotten. Miss Selena was in pretty bad shape then. Emmeline took over before I got home from work. In fact I haven't even seen the little sister. I haven't wanted to . . . intrude."
The chaplain looked sympathetic.
"And you're still struggling with some of your own latent grief," he replied gently. "But it's just as well. I suspect that a part of Selena's reluctance to leave is a reluctance to leave you, as well as the children. And she seems to have no desire to return any time soon."
"I am still not sure of what I can do about this," he said.
"This is just a suggestion," answered the chaplain. "But I think that if you offered to let her sister live with her here in the states for now, she would accept it. When people suffer great traumas in their lives, they very often are reluctant to take any kind of immediate life changing action. If the girl were in England, she would certainly go to her. However, since she is here, Selena will probably wish to stay."
"But why is this such a big problem?" asked Justin. "She is a full grown woman."
"Selena's desire to stay is not a consideration in their culture," explained the chaplain. "Selena must do as her Uncle David says, until she marries. Once she marries, she is under the control of her husband and his family."
"Isn't all of this a little . . . medieval?" asked Justin.
"Yes, very," agreed the chaplain. "It was actually very bold of the girls not to have returned on the next flight back last week. Luckily, David Tressidor is choosing not to exert his full authority. He is trying to be sensitive to the situation, but his patience won't last forever. Emmeline does see a way of forestalling things however."
"If you will allow Trelawney Rose to live with her sister here, then he could be persuaded to allow her to stay until you have worked out a new living arrangement for yourself and the kids. In many ways, it is a logical step," he replied.
"Willa will be disappointed," grimaced Justin. "She has been unnaturally happy since the news came. It's been rather useful since she hasn't tried to stir up any trouble with Emmeline who doesn't seem the type to suffer fools gladly."
"No offense, Dr. Harrington," he answered. "But Willa's opinion is the very last that should be under consideration right now. To be blunt, she's the one who put you in this predicament to begin with. You have your other children to be concerned with. They have come a long way in the past year and I wouldn't want to see all of Selena's hard work go for naught."
"Just out of curiosity, what do you mean by that?" he asked testily.
The chaplain smiled.
"She has viewed it as her mission this past year to set your family to rights so that you can marry a nice, sympathetic woman who will love you and the children and make your house a home again."
"Oh," he felt odd.
"Yes," added the chaplain. "And you have been most uncooperative about following through on the marriage part."
Justin felt himself turning a bit red.
"Well, I, um, have been dating," he stumbled. "But no one has really clicked."
The chaplain looked at him and shook his head. Justin didn't like the insinuation that he was making. However, it didn't take him long to make up his mind. Not wishing to go back the madness and chaos that had defined his life before Miss Selena had arrived, when the opportunity arose, Dr. Justin Harrington, much to the chagrin of his oldest daughter, offered the child a home. It was a decision that would have permanent ramifications for all of their lives.