“Where is Monica?” asked the stern old woman.
Elisabeth turned slowly in the direction of the raspy, irritating voice. It was a humid late-summer day in 1978, and Elisabeth wiped the moisture from her brow as she leaned in toward the woman. In a hushed tone, Elisabeth replied, “She is just there, behind her father’s bed.” In a louder voice, she said, “Moni is hiding from me. I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”
“The child cannot play in here; her father will be beside himself if he finds the two of you here,” Mrs. Stedman warned. “Get her gathered up, and you two get back to the child’s rooms. She should be studying, not messing about. And furthermore, do not let Mr. Meeks hear you calling her by that abominable nickname. He does not want his only child to grow up with a moniker used by a common harlot found on the streets at night.”
Elisabeth, the young governess, in her very short tenure at the estate, already knew Huntington Meeks held no such concerns and that it was Mrs. Stedman and her outdated notions that carried the most weight in statements like these. But time would fix that situation; Elisabeth had to hold out for merely a short while. The process of selecting a new housekeeper was in the making. Rumor was that an offer had been made. Had it been accepted? Elisabeth had only to hope for better circumstances, cognizant that she should be wary of exactly what traits she was seeking to find in her new superior, as she just might get them.
* * *
Since arriving at the Meekses’ estate and beginning the life she had worked toward for so many years, Elisabeth felt the singular drawback had been Mrs. Stedman. She was not horrible or cruel, but the woman did make it a point as often as possible to put Elisabeth in her place, to make sure Elisabeth had an accurate view of her role in the manor. She had always cringed inside when the dour old woman’s commands were barked in her direction or at others. Elisabeth had been offered alternative opportunities of employment, though few, and could have decided against an appointment in the Meekses’ household, but she had liked the family from the beginning, even in her initial interview, and marveled at the prospect of living on such a grand estate.
Having grown up in Austria and schooled in London, Elisabeth preferred the cultured styles of the wealthy and longed for an opportunity to reside in a great house. Though she had not come from wealth nor seemed destined to live such a life herself, she called upon a power she could not see, but believed in, to help her to find a position where she could be associated with—if not partake in—that splendid lifestyle. When setting an intention for a desired occupation for herself, however, she had never imagined living or working in America. Her employment situation had indeed met the standards she had set forth in her earlier intentions. Elisabeth had simply neglected to ever consider the specific country for her employment.
The very first morning when the estate manager had brought her to the manor, Elisabeth had met Mrs. Stedman, who introduced her to the rest of the household staff and delivered her to the Meeks family in the solarium. The entire room was a bright glow of light. Stark white was the color of choice, in profound contrast to the darker paneled rooms in the rest of the manor house. Elisabeth had come to love that room as much as Huntington and his wife, Cora, had. She could visit the room—but not really relax and enjoy it—only when everyone else was away. There were few opportunities when the family was gone for a day and Mrs. Stedman was out of the house. But when those metaphoric moons aligned, Elisabeth took the time and imagined herself living a life of the wealthy. She thoroughly drew in the lovely space with its huge plants basking in the ever-present light and its windows offering pleasant views to the outside: the English garden—with its odd American accents—and the vast oak-studded grasslands beyond. If not for the golden grasses of the California hills, she could imagine herself looking out upon the English countryside.
As the name implied, the solarium took in a lot of natural light. Large beveled windows patterned in individual frames reached from floor to ceiling and faced the east toward the morning sun. Many potted plants filled the space, including various species of spider plants and two large banana trees, one in each corner of the magnificent room, near the windows. Huntington Meeks had changed very little in that room, or in any of the others in the manor, since taking over the reins after his father had passed. The original beveled-pane windows placed in their individual white frames were just as they had been when his grandfather Horace had the beautiful English-style manor built in the early 1920s. Horace had been a stickler for details, but Huntington had allowed his wife, Cora, to replace the rather drab long drapes with new ones, which now brightened the room for all to enjoy.
* * *
Elisabeth moved slowly around the huge four-poster bed, and acting as if surprised by the discovery, she found Monica devilishly smiling up at her. They looked at each other, each aware of their shared disdain for the old housekeeper and that her days working for the family were numbered.
Mrs. Stedman was retiring after forty-four years at the Meekses’ estate. She had served four different generations of the family in the palatial manor built by Horace Meeks, Monica’s great-grandfather. The man had been known by his friends as Horry and was famed for his exploits and riches gained in the Oklahoma oil fields of the early 1900s. Mrs. Stedman had known that it was time to go, to settle into the life of a retired housekeeper, and to move into the wonderful home the Meeks family had purchased in the central Napa Valley city of St. Helena for that inevitable day. She would attempt to enjoy her remaining years. She did like the home in the city of less than six thousand people, and she liked the few residents she knew there and the neighbors she had already met. Also, she knew that this small piece of the world was a very desirable place; many would give their eyeteeth to live there.
Three months ago, when Huntington Meeks had called her to his study one morning, she was, nevertheless, taken aback as he made the suggestion that she withdraw from her position. He had informed her, as delicately as possible, that his wife, Cora, was searching for a replacement housekeeper.
Sitting behind the large oak desk his grandfather had brought from Kentucky, where it was designed and built of the finest American oak, Huntington began the difficult meeting. “The proposition of a new housekeeper in this home does not settle well with me, either, Mrs. Stedman,” said her employer, a man she had raised nearly as a son and had come to admire more than any other man who had walked through the gates of the vast estate. “I have known no other in your role and will, of course, miss your presence here. But as is believed, and all evidence suggests to be true, nothing lasts forever. Our roles here on Earth, even our presence at all, are fleeting at best. We must make the most of it while we are here.”
Mrs. Stedman knew well that Huntington, or Hunty, as she called him in private, was struggling with the act of this speech and his own role as head of the family in this transition. She sought a simple way to relieve him of his misery, of his burden. “Thank you, Hunty, for your kind words and for those years you have allowed me to warm to this notion of retirement,” she said, aware that the use of her nickname for him was acceptable when uttered behind closed doors. “I have known this day would eventually arrive and that it is as difficult for you and Cora as it is for me.”
Mrs. Stedman would always praise Huntington’s wife outwardly. But she would never hold her in the same regard as the man, the boy she had reared in the home she loved so much. Nor could she ever be as happy in a smaller home with a meager view as she was in her room set aside specifically for the housekeeper on the servants’ level overlooking the vast hillsides to the north and east of the country house.
The Meekses, as part of her retirement and as a reward for her many years of service, had purchased a house for her use. And though it was not a mansion, it was quite large for one old woman, she knew. Nearly as old as the manor in which Mrs. Stedman had lived for so long, her new home was in a safe neighborhood close to the town center. The family had spent much time and large amounts of money to update the house with new windows and doors and security systems. Collaborating with Mrs. Stedman, the Meekses had also completed a stunning remodeling of the lovely kitchen and several of the rooms.
Mrs. Stedman loved the view from her quarters, though she never spent much time sitting and enjoying more than a quiet moment. Still, she had seen many things from that window over the years, such as the comings and goings of gentlemen and lady friends of the family as they would venture out into the countryside for a bird hunt or picnic. Most were business leaders, politicians, and neighbors. A very few were less-reputable types. But Mrs. Stedman, always the consummate professional, would never question or interact with those people in ways more than necessary for her position. She put them on a pedestal, no matter who they were, because they were honored guests of the Meeks family.
She would miss her work and how the staff, though few they were, would run roughshod throughout the estate. She feared all manner of errors that would be made by a new housekeeper, and she wondered how Huntington would have to deal with those issues because Cora was just not a born leader. The woman did try, but she had always left much of the task of managing the home to Mrs. Stedman, at least in the older woman’s estimation. She knew in her heart that little of what she feared would actually transpire, that it was just her self-image making life difficult, but she still feared the extra burden that would fall to Huntington. She would always look out for his well-being, even from a distance.
Mrs. Stedman strolled casually through the parlor room after her meeting with Huntington, stopped in the center of the room, and stood there calmly taking it all in: the high ceilings and tall doors entering from Huntington’s office and out into the main hall, the beautiful wall hangings and art work that family members had brought back from all corners of the globe (or that had been gifted to the estate throughout the generations of Meekses who had lived here), the luxurious carpets and posh furniture, and the sumptuous smell of cleanliness and age. She, too, could see ghostly images of various guests who had been entertained in the wonderful atmosphere. Those many memories made it all the more difficult to see herself living elsewhere, no matter how comfortable the surroundings.
What more could she do? It was time to let go, to pass the torch to a new generation. She had come to the estate in her early thirties and had no doubt that the woman she had replaced back in those days had probably felt much the same as she did now.
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