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A Life Never Forgotten

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Grandma Clarke was the quiet sort. Her hearing wasn’t all that good anymore but her eyes were still sharp. She’d sit on her rocking chair, rifling through her favourite science books; one eye on the books and one on the grandkids. And inevitably she’d catch her grandkids red handed (literally) with a box of her paints and their hands tantalizingly close to the cream coloured walls.

She’d put down her book and let out a loud cough. The children would stop in their tracks, throat bobbing.

“I have my art room for a reason kids,” She’d say kindly.

They’d all trot off heads bowed in slight shame. Which was as much shame as one could expect from two hell raisers like Anna and Charlie.

Alexandria would watch it happen every time from her spot next to Grandma Clarke almost like clockwork.

“Don’t know how your mother does it,” Clarke grumbled good-naturedly.

Also like clockwork.

“Why do you do it?” she asked instead of her usual: “You love it.”

Clarke’s eyes widened from the break in routine.

“Makes me feel alive.”

“This is you alive?”

Clarke snorted, “You should have seen me when I was younger. I’d have surprised you.”

“So tell me,” she asked excitedly, jumping closer to her grandmother, resting her chin on her fist.

Clarke looked at her for a moment, blue eyes twinkling for the smallest of seconds.

“Perhaps another time Alexandria,” she said slowly, savouring the name, “When you’re older.”

//

Grandma Clarke’s hearing is almost gone by the time Alexandria turns 19. Her other two siblings don’t visit their grandmother all too much. It’s quite alright with her. Alexandria always felt a kinship with her grandmother and preferred it when they were alone.

They both learned sign language together one summer when she was 15 and almost communicate with it exclusively much to everyone else’s chagrin.

Her grandma seemed to be the only one who understood her. Who looked beyond the books and the glasses. Beyond the silence and gazed deep into the loudness of her brain.

Which was why at 19, she began studying in a college in Polis and moved in with her grandmother.

Clarke had argued of course.

“You are meant for so much greater than Polis U!” she had actually yelled.

“I’ll find greatness wherever I go! You said so yourself.”

And so stumped by her own words, Clarke relented with a huff.

Alexandria took over the old guest bedroom. The wallpaper was a bit gaudy but as unused as it was (the grandchildren all slept over in the master bedroom with Clarke), there was a homely feeling to it all.

Clarke whirred in on her wheelchair, glasses precariously balanced on the tip of her nose.

“How did you find this place?” Alexandria asked.

“Little ol Griffin secret senses,” she said in that old mysterious way she liked. She smiled at the exasperated eye rolling she received.

//

There wasn’t much to redecorate. All she had were some books and her clothes; hoodies in various colours. And of course her trusty old beanbag; her prized reading chair.

She took up the old boxes to the basement, a part of the house her grandmother was very reluctant about letting guests into. Being an official member of 91 Pembroke Lane however, she felt she had due right to enter.

It was dusty. A whole lot of dust. Clarke had been bound to the wheelchair for almost two years so it made sense why it was so untouched.

Once it had cleared, Alexandria stared in some awe. Before the wheelchair it was clearly a favourite haunt of her grandmother. There was a nice plush chair. A coffee table with round cup stains still visible under the layer of dust. More science books than she’d ever seen. Numerous boxes and even a god honest telescope. She looked upon it all in awe.

The telescope especially. It was clearly handmade. She could tell from its rather DIY look. But whoever made it was still clearly an expert. It had stood the test of time. She reached across to touch and happened upon an inscribing.

for Clarke

from AW

For a moment she didn’t know how to feel. Her grandfather’s initials were JS and he was no builder. He was an art curator when he lived and was quite boring by all accounts.

She blamed the scientist in her. Her need to constantly uncover answers to questions no one had even asked.

Who was AW?

She started in the boxes by the right corner. Was disappointed when it ended up being old photo albums of Grandma Clarke and Grandpa Jeremy. There was a lot of them together but Clarke never seemed too thrilled. Didn’t seem too thrilled when her mother, Madi entered the picture either.

There for the first time perhaps she could see the cause for her mother’s resentment.

Albums upon albums slid by her fingers and there was not a smile.

Not the genuine smile she saw Grandma Clarke give her time after time. After a corny science joke. Or when she got the answer right in Jeopardy! Sometimes she saw Clarke smile by herself while staring at the big old crack in the living room wall.

She smiled a lot; but never here.

That is until she finds the next box. It’s old physics books. She loses her actual objective for a second. To catch a glimpse at how science looked in the early 50s. It is so tantalizing that she rifles through it gasping in nerdy awe.

She had never gotten her grandmother’s obsession with the books. She told her herself that she had not a scientific bone in her body. Yet she was an avid collector. She had books printed across every year. About every subject. She would sit and read and knit her brows. She would read maths problems aloud. And huff and change the page.

“I don’t know how she did it,” Clarke whispered to herself.

Alexandria caught the words once and wondered who?

It was just another mystery she feared she would never find the words to answer.

She picked up a weathered book, clearly beloved by its owner, “The Nature of the Universe.” She picked it up slowly, making sure to give it the love Clarke was sure to give. She feared for a moment that it would disintegrate in her hands but it survived the journey to her lap. Almost.

A page fell, sluggishly landing close to the box. Alexandria grunted, balancing the old book in her hand as she reached to return the page, only as she closed in it only became clear that it was not a page but a picture.

Of her grandmother dressed in men’s overalls two sizes too big and with a hammer in her hand. And oh. A smile on her face.

Like an abashed smile. Like someone’s told her a dirty joke and she can’t smile too openly to show she knows what it all means.

It must be that shadow on the ground. That’s the one who took the picture. The one who made Clarke smile like so.

Alexandria chewed on her lip, startling once again when she looked closer at the house Grandma Clarke was holding the hammer to.

The very one she is standing in. The one Grandma says she bought when she moved back here from Arkadia.

//

She doesn’t get to snoop much after that. Her grandmother had called for her to help move the groceries they had ordered.

The basement seemed all the more forbidden now than ever before and thus remained tucked away along with the picture of Clarke smiling, in her coat pocket.

At dinner it seemed the weight of the secrets hidden away in every corner, in the walls, the ceilings, they all caved in on her. Suffocated her until her soup remained untouched and she retired early, citing sleep.

Clarke nodded and whirled away on her wheelchair to the living room.

Alexandria lay in bed, head heavy with all the questions. From outside the thin walls she could hear her grandmother’s gameshows and the clack clack of the remote hitting the handle. Her grandma was anxious.

She crept into the living room slowly, and not for the first time was stunned by her grandmother’s features. She had seen definitive proof of Clarke’s beauty in those photo albums. But she had lost none of it in age. In fact she only seemed more beautiful. More real. Her silver hair was still as thick as ever and though her face was marred by wrinkles it did not take away from it. Only added an elegance to it.

“Are you feeling okay grandma?” she asked taking care not to startle Clarke.

“It’s the knees. Jeremy used to say he can feel death in his knees. I called him an idiot,” Clarke shook her head. “Maybe the old idiot was right.”

“Or maybe,” Alexandria said, stilling the hand with the remote, “Maybe you have severe arthritis.”

“Hmmph,” Clarke soured her face. “There you go again with your logic.”

“Your fault may I add,” Alexandria said, pointing at the physics book on the coffee table.

“That wasn’t me,” Clarke shook her head, “It was all you. I used to give you all those children’s books and you would always point at the science books on my shelf.”

Alexandria sat on the sofa, staring at the TV screen with her grandmother. There wasn’t much to say to that. She always claimed Clarke brought her on this path of science and logic and Clarke always maintained she did it all herself.

“Do you know who made this house grandma?” she asked.

The clack clack of the remote banging returned.

“Grandma Clarke?” she asked again, loud enough to be sure to reach Clarke.

“Yes?”

“Who made this house?”

Clack-clack. Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

“I don’t really know, Alex. I bought it when your grandfather died and I moved back.”

“You grew up here right?”

The clacking stopped and a small smile graced worn lips.

“I did. On the opposite side of town.”

“Then how come you didn’t move into your family home?”

“We had a falling out in the 50s,” Clarke shrugged, flipping the channel to some old Hollywood romance. Clarke gave the kissing couple on screen a look of disgust and changed to her favourite, Discovery Channel.

Alexandria recalled the early early days back when she couldn’t form any sentences of value. She recalled watching her grandmother sift through the TV guide for Discovery and writing the time for the space show at 7pm on a post it note and sticking it on the TV.

She recalled also how Clarke would bring out her best spectacles and sit a bit too close to the screen. It was odd to her even back then that for someone so engrossed in science and space, her grandmother wasn’t really listening. That was not why she sat so close, to help those failing ears, it was for her eyes. She was watching the faces.

The programme would end in an hour. Afterwards Clarke would dutifully keep her glasses back in its pristine case and make her way outside to the porch where she stared at the sky.

Those were all she remembered.

“Where can I find more about this house?” Alexandria asked.

Clarke feigned sleep in his wheelchair.

And then she realized her grandmother was of no goddamn help.

//

Once the stubborn old lady was put in bed (she had the gall to snore into her ear when she lifted her), Alexandria emerged out of her bedroom with her torches and notebooks and equipment.

She had three questions.

Who was AW?

And who was he to Clarke?

Did they build this house?

And why is Clarke being so secretive about it?

Within the hour her back hurt. Clarke seemed above all the usual grandmotherly things. Except when it came to her hoarding. Amongst all her life basically was the key to a mystery Alexandria had no idea about.

In the second hour, after she had read Clarke’s meticulous notes on her daughter Madi’s birth, she found the rest of her journals. She searched them for a clue and found nothing of value in the years 1941-3 until late October 1943 arrived.

22 October 1943

They assigned me to C Ward today. I am glad to be away from Nurse Ratched and her abuse but C has the worst cases. I spent much of the morning looking after Ludeman and Peters. The blood loss was massive but Dr. Green is mildly hopeful.

I was exhausted. Went to eat lunch by the abandoned E. Only it was occupied! By an old man and a woman! Both in green men’s overalls. The old man sat on one of our old beds and pointed a finger at the walls. The lady would go in and tinker and something would start to sparkle in the corner. I had no idea women were doing these kinds of labours as well. Most interesting.

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The rest were gory recollections of war injuries.

24 October 1943

That woman in the men’s overalls. Her name is Lexa. I found out today after she caught me snooping around the room. She is surprisingly gentle for someone of her stature.

She gave me her apple after I dropped mine after she caught me sneaking and insisted I take it. She pulled up a chair next to the old man who grunted in greeting.

His name is Gustus, Lexa told me. He either doesn’t talk much or he doesn’t like me. I suppose its both. I didn’t see him talk to Lexa last two days either.

Lexa works under Gustus. And they’re tasked with fixing Ward E. A mighty task I told her but she shrugged like it’s child’s play.

It is to her actually. She is like a whiz. Half the time I don’t even know what to call each of the things we use in the hospital but here she is fixing up a storm.

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Most days were written about in short choppy sentences. Like Clarke found a minute to catch her breath and hurriedly scribbled down the day’s events.

There were some days however where it seemed like she had all the time in the world. Like she sat down at her desk at her home under candlelight and wrote languorously about her fascination with female electricians.

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A group of pages are torn between 25 and 26 November

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I don’t think I am built for poetry.

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30 November 1943

Lexa waited for me to finish the day. She said she wanted to tell me her work in Ward E is done. Then she smiled and it occurred to me that I never saw her smile. She always has this serious look on her face. Or when she’s trying to fix something she furrows her brows and sticks her tongue out.

She said good day to me and turned to leave. And I realized it would mean the last I saw of her.

It was that odd compulsion. I cannot explain it. What made me to catch up and ask if she wanted some pie and coffee.

Then she smiled again and said yes.

She had black coffee and I had apple pie.

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7 December 1943

At the end of every day I know she is there. Waiting by the oak tree next to the hospital. She always has her hair in a bun and that odd smile I can never place.

She asked me if I know how to drive and when I said no she smiled again. A whole month she never smiled and now she can’t stop. Ridiculous woman.

She took me to Gustus’ shop where HE smiled when he saw me. I wonder if the fumes from the pacific have finally wafted over. Made everyone mad.

Certainly sometimes I feel (some lines are scribbled out here)

She taught me the gears and the brakes. Parts of the engines. What matters what doesn’t. Then she said I’ll teach you again tomorrow. She must have known from my face I understood nothing.

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15 December 1943

Lexa took me to her home today. She lives above the shop in a tiny room. I could barely stretch my legs but she seemed happy. She has all these science books I can’t make heads or tails about.

She said she wants to go into space. The way she talks about it, I felt like I was there with her in the stars.

I should really stop with the poetry.

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25 December 1943

When I woke this morning I found a rose on my windowsill. There was no note but I have the strangest feeling. I feel like I know who it is.

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…told me to be safe

“your journals you leave them lying around”

this is true but I feel I should write this

15 February 1944

We kissed.

Alexandria read the words with trembling hands and took a shuddering breath when she reread once more.

Could it be?

She flipped through the days between 25th December and 15th February and it was nothing blood and gore. The daily thoughts of a nurse in the midst of war.

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She took my poetry. Said she likes it even if it doesn’t make sense. She has this way indescribable of making me

(the next page is a sketch of a woman with long wild hair and a gentle smile)

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(the sketches continue almost every page in varying detail)

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She bought me these colours

(it is Clarke’s most detailed sketch yet and the colours, some faded, have been used to colour in. Green in Lexa’s eyes. Green on her overalls. Brown in her hair.)

 

The journal finished, every page a sketch with increasing detail. With increasing care.

Alexandria was no idiot. Some of the pieces of Clarke’s puzzle was there in harrowing and loving detail. She looked to the mountains of journals and the sliver of sunlight pouring through and called it a day. Or night.

She had to treat Clarke with care if she was to find the truth from her.

//

Clarke sat in her wheelchair with a disapproving frown. Every so often she would poke her grandchild with her walking stick (gently of course, all very gentle).

Her grandchild would react to some of the pokes with a half-hearted wave and the others with a grunt.

Her college was not due to start in a week and in theory she could sleep as long as she wanted. But it was 4pm so really.

Really.

Clarke upped her game to a cough. It was poke poke cough then a poke and cough together. Then finally after the third try Alexandria awoke with a yell.

“Who the fucking fuck!?” her eyes settled on her grandmother.

“It’s 4pm,” Clarke yelled back, forgetting that it was her who was hard of hearing not her grandchild.

She turned around and wheeled away, secretly impressed that her bookish granddaughter managed to pick up some colourful words after all.

Today she picked a science fiction book.

With a mug of tea and a book in hand she took up her usual seat by the living room window and started to read. For an hour or two it was bliss. She was lost in the pages, in its worlds and words.

Alexandria stood by the sofa, fumbling with her hoodie and crinkling her nose to push up her glasses. God bless her for moving in with Clarke but her granddaughter was up to something. Unlike her namesake she was horrible at being subtle. Or sneaky.

“Is there something the matter, Alex?” Clarke asked.

“Oh I-nothing. Did you want to watch a movie together?” Alexandria flashed a nervous smile.

It was only when she showed her grandma the DVD that she understood reason for the nervousness.

The Notebook.

//

Alex blew into her tissue paper discreetly as the credits rolled by. Clarke merely sighed and looked at the wall steely eyed.

It was not films that rendered her so rather that big old crack on the wall.

Result of Lexa allowing her to hammer some nails into the wall and her being a child.

“Was it like that with you and grandpa?” Alexandria asked.

Lexa had gone out to get some paint from her car. Clarke was given free reign with the hammer.

“Grandma?”

The first couple of nails went in easy and it only fuelled her cockiness. She snorted, remembering Lexa’s warning. Perhaps a bit too soon because that lapse in concentration made her go in a bit too hard. With a thud she fell and the hammer had gone in almost entirely. She stared in horror at the giant hole that had appeared in their living room. Lexa burst in soon after somehow balancing 4 cans of heavy paint.

“Something like that,” Clarke answered absentmindedly.

Lexa had gone straight for her, face contorted in disbelief and somehow, strangely awe? She cradled Clarke, kissing her forehead and helping her up.

“How are you the way that you are?”

“I only ask because I realize I don’t know much about you and grandpa. Or your life really,” Alexandria spoke into the silence and gulped before continuing, “Did you-did you love him all your life or was there ever someone else?”

Perhaps it was the crack. Or the ghost of Lexa’s kiss burning into her forehead like an invisible brand only she can see. Or those broken notes of Ella Fitzgerald echoing through empty, newly painted halls. If she looked down could she still see the white painted handprint in the shape of Lexa’s palm on her ass? She could feel the faint sting and the mischief in her lover’s smile burying into her neck.

Clarke answered her granddaughter.

“Long time ago, there was someone else. He-he taught me what love was. I loved him more than I ever thought I could,” she said wistfully.

“What happened to them?”

“Circumstances-it forced us apart. I moved to Arkadia and met your grandfather a few years after. Rest is history,” she gave a strained smile.

“Do you ever wonder what happened to the other person?”

The pang in her chest got painful. Sharp. Almost blindingly so.

“I think it’s time for bed, Alex. Goodnight sweetheart.”

Running away in a wheelchair was not ideal. Her wheelchair screeched away drowning out the noise of her own head but not enough for her granddaughter’s meek voice.

“You can tell me anything grandma. I won’t ever judge.”

Clarke wished then that it was her eyes that were going not her ears. Only so she wouldn’t have to see that damned crack ever again.

//

Balancing college and uncovering the mystery that was her grandmother’s life was no small feat. But although she didn’t brag about her mental prowess it was useful in times like this. When she wasn’t working on assignments, she was sneaking boxes of journals from the basement into her room. For the first time, she was glad for Clarke’s terrible hearing.

She was not so glad however that Clarke was such a gifted artist. Her grandmother started to dabble in nude art sometime around 1945. She had seen too much of Lexa already. Two things then became much more certain, one was that Lexa was utterly beautiful and two was that Clarke loved her dearly.

But the trouble was that the journals did not have information she could actually use to discern how exactly to find Lexa. At its heart these were Clarke’s nurse journals so most of its content were work related. It would only be scribbles and sketches that gave Alex the information she desperately needed.

She spent the first semester sifting through each journal, carefully. They didn’t just hold the secret to Clarke’s mystery but also to the woman herself. Each page had carefully detailed descriptions of patients; their deaths and their injuries. Sometimes they were supplied by sketches. They were entirely clinical in nature however there was still an air of sadness in the letters on the pages. In the footnotes Clarke added or the tear stain smudging the ink.

It was no wonder Clarke was always considered to be emotionally cold. Alexandria defended her grandmother staunchly. She claimed that Clarke was misunderstood, that she was actually bursting with emotions, they were just carefully hidden beneath a defensive layer of indifference.

But now she had started to suspect that she was not this Clarke-whisperer. Rather it was that Alexandria shared similarities to her namesake. As she got to know Lexa through the titbits on the journal, this only became clearer. And this was probably the reason Clarke was softer with her than anyone else.

And the reason for that Alexandria had realized, was that Clarke had never stopped loving Lexa. Suddenly all those science books and cryptic answers made sense. Those evenings watching science channels. The way she always scanned every face in those shows. She was clinging to Lexa through the only things she still had of her.

It made her heart ache. To be so old and still yearn for someone long gone. An unattainable longing it was. A love so deep it could never be broken but so tragic that it was never fulfilled. There was then, all the intricacies of Clarke Griffin and to a lesser extent Alexandria Woods laid bare.

17th August 1949

Dad died today.

(much of the page is stained badly)

…I’ve been a nurse for almost 8 years. I have seen more death than most people and yet I cannot accept his passing. I felt like he knew me. Truly knew me. Sometimes he said these things-I swear he knew.

He left me some land in his will. It’s on the outskirts of Polis but I can’t help but feel this is his way of looking after me from the afterlife. Telling me to go live my life away from Mother.

…I will think of this land later. I can barely leave my bed now my legs feel so heavy. If it weren’t for Lexa I would have disintegrated into my bed long ago.

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5th October 1949

I requested Dr Green to put me in the cancer ward. I can’t get dad back but I can help others still. I am sure he will approve. He has always liked me and I am one of the only nurses still around from the war. That counts for a lot in Dr Green’s eyes.

Now that the dust around dad’s death has settled, Mother is more insistent than ever about marrying a man. I like men just fine but my heart beats for one person only and always and it’s Lexa. Lexa keeps telling me to move into that land. She says she knows people who can help me build a small house. I cannot lie, it is an enticing thought. But doing so would mean severing my relations with mother. As numerous as our problems are she is still the only blood I have left.

I have to be careful.

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…cousins found a sketch of her and I…getting dangerous…I told A to start construction…I have enough money saved up.

(most of this page is scribbled out but some parts are still decipherable)

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1st January 1950

My family is gone and she is all I have left.

There was a big fight on Christmas. My cousin told my mother what he saw. I managed to leave the house with some of my things. I am writing this from the pillow Lexa puts on her windowsill for her morning tea. It’s entirely too small for me; perfect for her but I don’t mind. Everything about her one room flat gives me the comfort I have not felt since Dad left me. 

She is too patient with me. Sometimes what I feel aren’t enough for words. I was never too good at words anyway. I’ve started to paint instead and she always says I could be famous with them.

All those big cities like Arkadia she says. They have prestigious art galleries. But I think I am only comfortable letting her see them.

For now anyway.

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8th March 1950

Lexa surprised me today. She took me to the building site. It’s already well underway. She gave me a hardhat and we helped the crew a bit. They all seem to be old friends of hers. I don’t quite understand their relation but it seems they respect her like one would a leader.

According to Lexa I could move in quite soon. She seems to think I’ll move in alone. For such a smart person she is an idiot sometimes.

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16th June 1950

The house is finally complete. There are some finishing touches left of course but Lexa and I want to do that ourselves. She was genuinely surprised when I asked her to move in with me.

“What will the neighbours think Clarke?” she asked me in a scandalous whisper.

We have racoons for neighbours. The land is so out of the city. But still our story is that I am the houseowner and she is merely a tenant, a student of Polis U. It is the truth just lacking some details.

Details like- I love her and she loves me.

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22th October 1952

I don’t really write these personal entries much. Much of my time is spent in the hospital and Lexa is busy with her research. She working on this aeronautical engineering project. It is fascinating to hear her go on about it. She’s always so surprised at my inability to understand anything maths-related with my being a nurse. But she still patiently explains everything. It is a trait I didn’t know I was allowed to have in a partner. Kindness and patience.

Today’s our 9 year anniversary. Not of us being together but 9 years since I first laid eyes on her. I was drawn to her from the start. I think at first I mistook the feeling for curiosity. But now I truly think it was love at first sight. I love her wild mop of hair. I love those cool green eyes. I love her little ears. I laugh her smile and her laugh. I love her brain. The words and stories she can weave out of thin air. I love to get lost in her world of space and faraway alien planets. I love Lexa and my heart can only ever beat for her.

I surprised her with a new car today to commemorate. She surprised me with an impromptu road trip to a town by the coast. I stuffed my face full of pie and we stayed up the whole night entangled and in love.

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8th January 1953

I sold my first painting. Gustus bought it from me so its still within family. But with Lexa’s prodding I’ve put myself more out there. I don’t want to be a nurse forever. This job has taken more from me than its given. I think I long for a happier career. That reflects my personal life.

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19th April 1953

Ever since this damn neighbourhood started growing it’s been nothing but trouble. First those kids that’s been poking around our yard. Then those women down the street who keep dropping in. They keep asking us questions. Lexa hasn’t been a student for a while but she still works at Polis U as a researcher. They find it queer that two women in their 30s are still unwed. They keep bringing their sons around hoping we’ll be interested. Then my mother has been calling me lately. Says she is marrying a pastor and he was horrified to learn of me. She wants to help fix me she says.

Lexa tells me not to worry, that we have weathered worse storms but I feel a change. There’s too many sudden questions surrounding us and none that I can answer without giving away the truth.

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5th July 1953

Lexa left. My heart aches and nothing can heal it.

I am reminded of a poem she once gave to me,

“Someone, I tell you, will remember us,

even in another time.”