Sighing, I placed my paintbrush on the drip tray. My swollen feet and aching back were crying out for a break, but with the baby's due date rapidly approaching I'd been hoping to finish the mural on the nursery wall today. I took a few steps back to survey my handiwork. Friendly animals peered out at me through lush vegetation and a riot of wildflowers. I had incorporated Gertrude's favorite colors and flowers in the mural as well as placing little mementos of her throughout the room.
Pleased with the results, I decided I’d earned a short break. Carefully I lowered myself into Gertrude's rocking chair and, smiling, I picked up the little black book that my husband had given me as a gift for the baby. He’d even gotten her name embroidered on the cover in lilac which had been Gertude’s favorite color and flower. Keeping journals was a family tradition we were looking forward to passing on to our baby girl. When Ben surprised me with the small gift-wrapped package, I had planned to write down some of my favorite Gertrude stories, but then I realized our daughter would know the stories by heart before she could even read and I decided I would write her a letter instead.
I closed my eyes, resting them for a moment while I gathered my thoughts. Memories, flickering like old home movies, came to life behind my eyelids and as they played out I marveled at how my whole life had changed for the better the day I met Gertrude. How different my life would be today if it weren’t for her friendship. I would never have met my husband, there would be no Gertie on the way, I would never have had the chance to fix up and live in her lovely home, and I might never have started writing. Gertrude had given me all of those gifts. Gertrude, who believed in me before I believed in myself, who believed Ben would eventually come home and who never gave up hope that Ben and I would one day be a couple. Our lives had turned out just the way she'd planned them for us. I was honored to have been her friend.
That friendship started when I offered to help my elderly neighbor clear out her attic. I marveled at the eclectic collection I found there. Before removing the tarps covering the larger pieces, I blew off a layer of dust that, to my vivid imagination, appeared to have been left by fairies. The specks twirled playfully, dancing in the twin shafts of sunlight coming from the pair of dormer windows. I was excited by what I would find - my imagination already in high gear.
There were lovely pieces of turned wood furniture, a wardrobe overfilled with dresses that I would have loved to try on as well as several decorative tables and lamps. I found boxes of books that my fingers ached to pick up and read. I made a mental note to ask Gertude if I could select a few before she donated them to the local library. I was nearly done uncovering boxes and pieces of furniture when I found the treasure that I somehow knew would be there. A beautifully carved wooden chest. My heart rate picked up as I opened it. It was filled with all kinds of miscellaneous goodies including scarves, hats and gloves that brought to mind ladies getting together for tea parties. There were undergarments that looked quite uncomfortable, and then, at the bottom of the chest, wrapped carefully in a lovely shawl, I found a little black book. Sensing its importance, I put aside the pile I had been working on, quickly re-wrapped the book, and headed down the rickety attic ladder. I was already hoping Gertrude would allow me to read it, but didn't dare peek without permission.
Gertrude unwrapped the small book, let out a tiny surprised sound, and with her eyes welling up, patted the sofa cushion beside her. I brushed the dust off the seat of my jeans before taking my place next to her.
“Oh, Dear”, she said. “You can’t imagine what this means to me”. She stopped speaking for a moment, closing her eyes. I assumed she needed time to process the emotion of the moment. “I've kept journals my whole life”, she continued, “but this one has a special place in my heart because it was written when I met my beloved Ben. After a whirlwind romance we were married and only had time for a brief honeymoon before he was called to serve in the war. I haven't laid eyes on this in years and feared it was lost to me forever. You don't know how happy you've made me”. By now I could barely sit still in my excitement to hear the journal entries.
Waving her hand at the boxes we'd set aside to sort through she said, “let's leave those for now. I was thinking we could have a cup of tea and read for a bit”. She said this while lovingly patting the book's well-worn cover. She didn’t need to ask me twice. I was practically vibrating by that time and leapt off the sofa to make the tea as quickly as possible.
It seemed like a lifetime before the kettle whistled. When I returned, Gertrude was smiling and leafing through the pages of the journal. After carefully placing her tea within her reach, I neglected my cup in my rush to hear her story. Gertrude held the book out to me. Announcing that her eyes were tired, she asked me to read to her. My hands shook a bit as I held the book reverently. I cleared my throat and began to read.
The journal was filled with vivid stories from a bygone era. Her writing style was beautiful, the imagery compelling, and I paused in my reading periodically to laugh, and at times to wait for the lump in my throat to clear when reading especially moving passages.
That day had been the beginning of a wonderful friendship that had blossomed over the years. We settled into a routine of daily visits and she always got in at least one not too subtle hint that her grandson and I would be perfect together. I wasn't interested and I suspected Ben felt the same way but she was such a good friend that I played along with her attempts at matchmaking.
It didn't take much prodding on her part to get me to start writing my own journal. I loved the feel of the book in my hands and the simple act of putting pen to paper filled me with comfort and inspiration. I was hooked. Once I started writing I found I couldn't stop, and one day I suggested to Gertrude that we write something together. She clapped her hands with joy and said it sounded like a wonderful idea. She had a suggestion. Wouldn't it be fun to write something geared toward the silver screen? I'd secretly imagined Gertrude’s journal entries coming to life on more than one occasion. Would I be interested in a romance loosely based on her nearly sixty-year romance with Ben? Would I ever!
Many of my fondest memories come from those writing sessions. We laughed and cried and even discussed which actors we would cast in all the roles if it were up to us. Shortly after we had completed our “masterpiece”, as Gertrude called it, she passed away unexpectedly.
I was devastated. I tried to find solace in my journal but even that wasn't enough. I was concerned about a timid stray cat Gertrude had befriended and I focused my attention and energy on her, busying myself trying to come up with ways to gain her trust. I needed to teach her to come to my door now that Gertrude was no longer there. I could tell by the cat’s demeanor how much she missed Gertrude and it filled me with sadness. How could I explain that Gertrude didn’t abandon her? And that I would do my best to take care of her in Gertrude’s absence. The little cat was slowly warming up to me and I knew we would soon provide comfort to each other. After all, we both missed Gertrude.
My somber mood was not helped by the fact that I was certain Gertrude's home would be sold. I would miss going there. In all the time I had been friends with Gertrude, her grandson had called regularly and sent cards and packages, but he had never visited. I assumed he would fly in and out for the funeral, putting the house on the market as soon as possible. He surprised me after the funeral when he announced he would be renovating the home to live in it himself. I knew Gertrude would be pleased and even though I wouldn't admit it, I was too.
He went on to confess his regret at not coming home sooner. His honesty and sincerity along with his sense of humor won me over. Gertrude’s matchmaking attempts finally took hold. I agreed to help him with the house and as we worked together, our friendship turned into a budding romance.
We were married the next summer in a simple service held in Gertrude’s lovely garden. Surrounded by wildflowers and the sound of the birds singing made for a setting more beautiful than anything a wedding planner could have arranged. Ben and I both felt Gertrude's presence that day. A few months later I found out I was pregnant. We agreed that if the baby was a girl, we would name her Gertrude.
It turned out the house needed more than just TLC. The repairs were costly and money was tight. Ben never said anything to me, but I could tell he was concerned. I had been toying with the idea of submitting some of my poetry and short stories for publication but hadn’t mentioned it to Ben yet. I knew it wouldn't be much money but with the baby on the way every little bit would count.
On the morning that I started painting the mural I heard the doorbell, followed by Ben's footsteps heading for the door. A few minutes later I heard him coming up the stairs. When he came into the nursery, he appeared nervous. I noticed his hand was shaking. I looked at Ben questioningly before wiping my hands on a rag and taking the Express Mail envelope he was holding out to me. It was addressed to me. I opened it, pulling out a contract with my name on it. I scanned the top page quickly to find out what this was all about. I noticed Ben trying to read over my shoulder.
Somehow the manuscript Gertrude and I had written had gotten into the hands of a film executive who liked what she read. The bottom line? If I approved the terms and signed on the dotted line, the first installment payment for the screenplay would be mine. A $20,000 payment.
Before I could ask the questions swirling around in my head, Ben started apologizing. “I’m sorry I never told you”, he said. “It's just when she asked me, I didn’t think anything would come of it”. He proceeded to tell me how Gertrude had mailed the manuscript to him with instructions to get it to the “right person”. He laughed, recalling Gertrude’s assumption that anyone living and working in Manhattan surely knew an influential agent. However, it just so happened that a friend working at an agency was able to get Ben an appointment. Certain they were meeting with him as a favor only, but out of love for his grandmother, Ben went through the motions. He said so much had happened since then it had simply slipped his mind. He hoped I would forgive him. I kissed him and assured him there was no reason to apologize. He kissed me back and twirled me around the room.
The money couldn’t have come at a better time - and to think that the story Gertrude and I wrote might actually appear on the silver screen - I was thrilled. I had always wondered what happened to the manuscript. I assumed it had been thrown away by mistake during the renovations. I had often thought of rewriting it but it didn’t seem right without Gertrude there at my side.
The baby kicked, pulling me out of my reverie. Shaking my head to clear it, I stood and placed one hand on the small of my back and one on my belly. I stretched and looked up at the tiny stars that Ben had hand painted on the ceiling for the baby. They were beautiful and took on the dreamy look of a watercolor as my eyes filled. Always remember to look up at the stars, Gertude had been fond of saying. “I love you Gertrude”, I whispered before sitting down to start the letter. Dear Gertie, I wrote in the little black book so much like the one that had started it all.