“Hey, Gram, who is this?” asked Samantha, studying the yellowed photo she held in her hands.
Sam was home from college for the weekend. She was helping Joan get the house ready for sale; it involved going through all the things stored in her grandmother’s attic. It was a bittersweet task for Sam, one that left her with mixed feelings. Her beloved ‘Pop’ had died over a year ago, but Sam still grieved for him.
So did Joan, and that was one of the reasons she wanted to move on. After four decades of a happy life spent in the aged Victorian, Joan had decided it was time to take her life in a new direction. This was no easy task. She and Dave had been happy in the old house. They had raised Sam’s mother there. Unexpectedly, they ended up raising Sam, as well. Sam was now off at school for months at a time, and Dave… well, Dave was gone. Suddenly, their comfortable old Victorian seemed too big, too empty… and too filled with memories of a wonderful man who had been bigger than life.
The house was filled also with an accumulation of the bits and pieces of their lives. The dusty attic had become the repository of happy moments from their past. While it was comforting and safe to live in the presence of old memories, Joan had always been a realist. She knew the time had come to forge a new life for herself.
Brushing back a lock of thick, silvered hair, Joan glanced at the photo. Suddenly, a sweet smile lit up her face. “Well, well… what do you know… Sam, wherever did you find this?”
“In that beat-up old box in the corner, the one stacked under all the Christmas ornaments.” Sam turned the photo over and read the faded writing on the back. It looked like her grandmother’s handwriting. It read: Bobby – Tanzania – 1968.
“Who is Bobby?” she asked again, handing the photo to Joan.
“Bobby Monahan… I haven’t thought of him in years. Wasn’t long after this photo was taken that we went our separate ways. He stayed on in Africa; I came home.”
Joan stood up from her kneeling position and slipped the photo into the back pocket of her jeans. She brushed the dust from her hands and thighs. “I don’t know about you, Sammy, but I could use a break. How about some tea?”
“Sure,” replied Sam, following her down the stairs. “You were once in Africa? I never knew that!”
Joan grinned and, in that moment, looked like the mischievous twenty something she’d once been. “There’s a lot you probably don’t know about your old Gram.”
Sam smiled. “You’re the youngest person, I know – and the best!” Sam slipped her arm around Joan’s waist and they headed toward the kitchen. Sam loved her grandmother. When her parents had died in an automobile accident, it was Joan and Dave who had taken the five-year old in. Sam had few memories of her parents; Joan and Dave were the only mother and father she’d ever known.
Looking at her still attractive grandmother, Sam wondered why she felt so unsettled to learn Joan had possessed a prior life she hadn’t known about. Naïve of her, perhaps, but she had always thought of Joan and Dave as people who lived quiet lives of service in the small town of Hatfield, Indiana. Until his death, Dave had been the rector of Saint Barnabas Church, their small Episcopal parish. Sam’s memories of her youth consisted of church suppers, choir practice, Sunday sermons and community service. It sounder drier than it actually was; Sam had loved the security of it all, and the members of the small parish who looked out for her as if she belonged to them. All of Sam’s memories were good ones, warm and golden. Her Pop had been a good man – a man who made a difference in the lives of others.
Coming across the photo, learning that Gram had once been in Africa, noticing the tender smile when looking at a long ago photo… well, it bothered Sam. It upset the everyday trajectory of her life. It confused her, and she wasn’t sure what to think.
Joan put the teakettle on to heat. She then pulled the photo out of her pocket and looked at it again. “Bobby Monahan… I wonder what became of him…”
Feeling Sam’s eyes on her, Joan looked up. “Bobby was my first love.” She smiled then. “They say you never forget your first love…”
“Gram, how did you end up in Africa, of all places? Did you go to Africa with Bobby?”
Joan laughed softly. “No, no… Bobby was already in Africa by the time I’d gotten there. He’d been out of medical school about two years at that point, and had been assigned to Tanzania as part of the Peace Corps.”
“The Peace Corps! Gram, were you part of the Peace Corps?”
“Don’t look so surprised!” replied Joan, enjoying her granddaughter’s incredulity. “I was just a few years older than you when I decided to join the Corps. It was a special time… 1968. I was just out of college, longing for adventure, wanting to do something that would have an impact on the lives of others. JFK had been dead several years by then, but those of us who remembered him continued to be inspired by his message. He called upon Americans to take an active role in making things better throughout the world. It was a heady time, Sam… we believed – each of us – that we could create a better life for all.”
Joan sighed. “We were so young, so earnest… My parents were scandalized when I told them I was joining the Corps. They were good people, simple people, and their dreams for me involved a teaching job and a good husband – and settling down here in Hatfield. Their plans certainly didn’t include my traipsing around the world with a bunch of ‘do-gooders,’ as my dad put it.” She smiled at the memory.
“Yet that’s how you ended up, teaching school in Hatfield… didn’t you meet Pop while teaching school here?”
“I did. His niece was one of my students, and I met him at a school assembly.”
“That’s a long way from Africa, Gram.”
“In more ways than one,” said Joan.
Sam watched her grandmother set out two teacups and a few cookies on a plate. “Well, go on… tell me about this young doctor who stole your heart. And to think I thought Pop was your only love,” she teased.
“Your Pop was the best man I ever knew. I love him even now. Miss him, too… terribly.” Joan finished pouring the tea and sat down across from Sam. “Bobby Monahan was a long time ago.”
She blew on her tea, allowing her warm breath to cool it while she gathered her thoughts. “He was so intense, and so committed to taking care of the people in the small village where we were placed. Bobby was part of a small medical team, working long hours, inoculating the villagers, teaching them basic hygiene.”
“What about you? Were you a nurse?”
“Me?” Joan chuckled at the idea. “No, no. I was a teacher. Oh, Sam, what a time that was.”
“So, what happened?”
“We fell in love,” she said simply. “In love with Africa, with life… with each other. We were young, excited. We had a shared passion for helping others. Unfortunately, Africa didn’t love me as much as I loved her. I became very sick over there, almost died. I lost a lot of weight. After a year, I came home, never to return.”
“But what about Bobby?”
Joan shrugged. “What about him? I couldn’t return to Africa, and his life was there. At first, we held onto the idea I might return when better, but my doctor said my constitution couldn’t take it. We wrote long, intense letters for several months, but then we began to drift apart. It almost killed me to give that man up… or maybe it was the dream. Either way, it hurt me. Oh, I did yearn for him and the life we might have had in Africa…”
Joan shook her head at the memory. “My poor parents… they were so worried about me. I was living in Indiana but my heart was still in Tanzania. I was like a zombie when I first got home, Sam… wandering around the house, thin, gaunt… aware that if I couldn’t get back to Africa, I’d lose Bobby.
“It just wasn’t meant to be.” Joan looked again at the photo. “Life had another plan for me. I recovered, and I got that job teaching school that my parents had wanted… and then I met Dave.”
“You ever have any regrets, Gram, about not keeping in touch with Bobby?”
Joan smiled. “No. That was a long time ago. When I met your grandfather, the past was just that: the past. Dave and I were happy; we had good lives. You know, you don’t have to go to Africa to make a difference in the lives of people. Dave made a difference here in Hatfield every day of his life. I like to think that I did, too.”
Sam reached across the table for her grandmother’s hand. “You sure made a difference in my life,” she said quietly.
“My good girl,” said Joan, patting her hand. “Now, let’s finish up our tea and get back to work. We have a lot of stuff to box up and crate.”
Sam watched her grandmother swallow the last of her tea. Joan rose, then, and went to the sink to rinse out the cup.
“Ever think about contacting him now? You could, Gram. Just to see how he is, find out if he ever left Africa.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start,” said Joan, drying the cup.
Sam said nothing. Looking at her grandmother, her heart was full. She made a mental note.
Nothing was impossible with the internet…
Samantha stood up and approached her grandmother, and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. She then rinsed out her cup.
The two women worked in silence, a silence that was sweet.
Author’s Note: This story is written in response to two challenges. First, Keith Channing’s photo challenge, found at KeithKreates (here); and second, Esther Newton’s writing challenge (here) to write a story around the words yearn and zombie.
Photo credit: Keith Channing