Read Your Heart's Desire Online
Authors: Melody Carlson
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December 26, 1945
As the train left
St. Paul station, Caroline Clark hoped she hadn't made an enormous mistake. What kind of mother pulls her son out of third grade in the middle of the school year, gives up a perfectly good job, abandons everything familiar, and relocates halfway across the country? Normal people just didn't do this sort of thing. Did they?
Caroline tugged at the cuff of a kid leather glove as she studied her son, trying to gauge his emotions as he stared out the window. Was he frightened like her, dreading the unknown? Miffed about leaving his school chums behind? Or perhaps he was simply curious about the speed of this sleek silver train, looking forward to the prospects of eating in the diner or sleeping in the upper berth tonight. She hoped his stoic expression was just suppressed excitement over this trip. And why shouldn't it be? Traveling more than two thousand miles from Minnesota to southern Californiaâwhat young boy wouldn't love such an adventure?
She controlled the urge to smooth an unruly blond curl sticking straight out from the side of his cobalt-blue cap. It was an old habit that he'd politely but firmly asked her to abandon not so very long ago. Keeping her hands in her lap, she simply admired her little man. He looked so sweet in his Sunday suit. But the pant legs, which had been let out twice, were already too short again. He was growing up quickly. Too quickly, she was afraid. But Joseph had always been an old soul, wise beyond his years, even before his father died. Even so, was he truly ready for this?
Caroline glanced nervously at her watch. Normally, she would be behind her desk at this hour. She'd be finishing up the morning mail and looking forward to a coffee break and a friendly chat with Bernice. Working for the Northern Leather Company had been a big part of her life ever since Joe was killed in the South Pacific nearly four years ago. And she'd assumed she would continue working there until she was a very old lady. It had seemed the safe route.
Despite the freezing temperature outside, the train was already stuffy and warm. Caroline stood to remove her gray woolen coat, neatly folding it with the inside out and laying it on the empty seat across from them, next to her black leather handbagâa going-away gift from the leather company.
“Are you too warm?” she asked Joseph. He silently shook his head no. Still focused on the view from the window, he watched intently as the city buildings steadily melded into warehouses that slowly ran into urban neighborhoods. Not too unlike where she and Joseph used to live, except that their little apartment was on the other side of the city. Only six blocks down from her parents. She felt a lump in her throat to imagine what life would be without them so nearby. Who would Mom share coffee with on Saturday mornings?
“You're doing the right thing,” her mother had insisted in late November, shortly after Caroline had informed her parents of her baby sister's interesting invitation. “Joseph will thrive in the warm California climate. Don't forget how bad his bronchitis got last winter, or the school days he missed.”
“That's right,” Dad had reassured her. “And if all goes well, your mother and I will join you girls out there by next year. Right after I retire.”
“But what if I don't find a job?” Caroline questioned them.
“Of course you'll get a job,” Dad had declared. “You've been a valuable employee at Northern Leather. Mark my words, the leather company will have its work cut out for it in finding a replacement for you.”
As she reached for the
magazine her mother had given her this morning, Caroline questioned her dad's confidence in her future employability. After all, he
her dad. It was only natural that he'd be biased in her favor. But what if he was wrong? What if she couldn't find a decent job? To distract herself from these dismal thoughts, she opened the magazine, flipping past a cigarette ad, and found herself staring at a headline that sent a chill down her spine.
POSTWAR JOBS SCARCE FOR EVERYONE.
It seemed to confirm the hopelessness of her situation, the folly of this trip.
Certainly, it was no secret that when the servicemen came home there weren't enough jobs to go around. Most of the women on the production line at the leather factory had been let go immediately. Most of the female secretaries were replaced with males, all war veterans. And if Caroline hadn't been a war widow herself, it was likely she'd have been jobless as well.
Was she a fool on a fool's errand? Dragging her poor son across the country, in the hopes of attaining a life that probably didn't even exist? Why hadn't she been more grateful for her old job? After all, she'd had a clean, warm office with relatively nice people to work with. And although her salary had been modest, it made life for her and Joseph a bit more comfortable. She'd even managed to stash away some savingsâa nest egg that she was quickly depleting.
But thanks to her little sister's enticing letter last month, Caroline was turning her back on all of it. What
she thinking? She reached for her handbag, extracting the letter that she'd probably read a dozen times. Just for reassurance. She slowly unfolded it, skimming over the familiar words.
First of all, I want to wish you Happy Thanksgiving. Lulu took her first steps last month. Danny is a handful, but at least he's in preschool three mornings a week. Rich got promoted to lead driver in the shipping department. That's partly why I'm writing you. Not to brag about Rich's promotion, but to tell you that the company he works for is expanding. According to Rich there are job opportunities. But more about that later.
The main reason I'm writing is to tell you about the house we signed papers on last week. Thanks to Rich's GI housing loan (and Rich's parents' generosity) we will move into our first real home next week. Four bedrooms! Can you believe it? And there's a brand-new school nearby. But the best news is that this house has a finished basement with a complete apartment that we plan to rent for additional income. I got to thinking it would be perfect for you and Joseph. And you could probably get a job where Rich works, at the chocolate factory. So, please, Sis, say yes. The climate here is wonderful. I know it will be good for Joseph's health. And my children really need their auntie. If you promise me that you'll pray about this idea, I will promise not to keep nagging you about it.
P.S. Don't tell Mom and Dad yet, but I'm expecting again. In June. I need my family nearby!
Caroline refolded the well-worn letter, slipping it back into her handbag. Although it was reassuring to have a place to stay, it wasn't as if Marjorie could offer them free rent. They clearly needed the rental income to help with their house payments. Just the same, it was a good opportunity. If only Caroline could land a decent job.
She looked back at Joseph, still glued to the window. “Are you having fun, honey?” she asked in a tentative tone, not certain she wanted to hear his honest response. What if he said no or that he was unhappy?
“Sure, Mom.” He turned to give her a slightly somber-looking half smile.
“Are you excited about seeing your aunt and uncle and cousins?”
“I guess so.”
“Are you sad that we left?” She braced herself for his answer.
He shrugged. “I'll miss my friends and school. And Grandma and Grandpa.”
“Don't forget that Grandma and Grandpa want to relocate to California, too.” She reached for the bag her mom had given her this morning. Mostly it was food and things for their trip. But she pulled out the book her dad had contributed. “This is a resource book about California,” she told Joseph. “Grandpa thought you might like to read it during the trip.” She opened it up to the first page, pointing to the beautiful photo of a white sandy beach peppered with colorful sun umbrellas and tanned people in swimwear. “Look at this, Joseph. Can you imagine what it will be like to swim in the ocean for the first time?”
He took the book, peering down into the photo with what seemed genuine interest. “The Pacific Ocean,” he read out loud. “The California shoreline is 840 miles long.” He looked impressed. “I bet Minnesota isn't even that long from one end to the other end.”
“I'm pretty sure it's not,” she told him.
As Joseph continued to read the book, sharing random tidbits of California information from time to time, she began to relax a little. Maybe he really was having a good time. And maybe she hadn't made such a ridiculous mistake after all. Besides, she reminded herself, she had done just as Marjorie had suggested. Caroline
prayed about this big decision. Right from the start, she had prayed long and hard. And it seemed like the doors had opened. In fact, after she gave notice at work, she'd had a real sense of peace about everything. And she couldn't wait to see Marjorie and the children. If she could only find a good job, it would be perfect. And she wouldn't even complain if the only work available was on the assembly line. In fact, she might actually welcome a job that didn't involve her secretarial skills. Besides, she'd always been quite fond of chocolate!
Caroline couldn't believe how
warm the air felt as she and Joseph emerged from the train car in Los Angeles. Also, despite it being nearly five o'clock, it seemed surprisingly light out. “I guess we don't need our overcoats after all,” she said as she and Joseph carried their bags down the platform. Up ahead she spotted her sister, dressed in a stylish peach-colored suit and pushing a stroller. Beside her a little boy in short pants jumped up and down, waving both hands with enthusiasm.
“Our relatives!” Caroline said to Joseph as they hurried toward them.
“You're here at last!” Marjorie exclaimed as she embraced Caroline and Joseph. “I can hardly believe it!”
“Daddy's getting a cart for your suitcases,” Danny informed Caroline.
“Wonderful.” Caroline knelt to look in the small boy's big brown eyes. “Do you even remember me?”
“Yes,” he told her. “You're Aunt Caroline. Mommy's sister. Mommy told me.”
“And this is my son, Joseph,” she said as Joseph stuck out his hand for a handshake. “Your cousin.”
“You're big,” Danny told Joseph. “How old are you?”
“Almost ten.” Joseph stood taller with pride. “And you're four, right?”
“There's Rich now,” Marjorie said. “Do you have more bags, Sis?”
Caroline pointed to where a pile of baggage was stacked on the platform. “We have a few other things in that pile and some larger trunks and things that I've arranged to have delivered to your house.” She nudged Joseph as Marjorie's husband came along with a baggage cart. “Why don't you show Uncle Rich which bags are ours?”
“It's so warm here.” Caroline removed her heavy coat, hanging it over her arm.
“Yes. It's warm for this time of year. More than seventy degrees today.”
“Seventy degrees! And to think we left snow.” Caroline knelt down to look at Lulu. “What a darling,” she exclaimed. “A little living doll!” She peered up at Marjorie. “May I take her out of the stroller?”
“Of course! Just be careful if you let her down. That living doll has recently discovered she can run.”
Caroline lifted Lulu out of the stroller, looking into her cherub face. “I'm your aunt Caroline,” she said softly. “We've never met before.”
Lulu made some happy babbles as she patted Caroline's cheeks.
“Here we go,” Rich said as he and Joseph rolled the cart up to them. “Everything present and accounted for?” He paused to give Caroline a welcome hug, then waited as she did a quick inventory of the cart, confirming that it was all there.
“And a few larger household items will be unloaded from a cargo car later. They'll be delivered to your house tomorrow,” she explained as the five of them headed to the parking lot. “It's not that we brought a lot. Our other apartment was furnished.”
“This one has a few furnishings,” Marjorie explained as Rich opened the trunk of a late model Oldsmobile, starting to load it. “I'm afraid you'll need a few more things.”
Caroline had assumed the basement apartment would be fully furnished, but kept this to herself. “What a beautiful car,” she said as she ran her hand over the midnight-blue surface. It shone as if it had been recently waxed.
“Rich's parents got this,” Marjorie told her. “Sort of a welcome home gift for Richâ¦you know, after he returned from the war.”
Joseph's eyes grew large as he handed Rich a suitcase. Caroline could see he was impressed. She would have to explain to him that Rich's parents were very wealthy and, apparently, very generous, too. With the car's trunk nearly full, she took the smaller bags with her, waiting as Danny slid into the backseat. Then she and Joseph sat on either side, wedging their extra bags all around them like sardines.
“Mom,” Joseph said urgently as Rich turned onto a wide street. “Look at those palm trees.” He pointed out the window. “They look like something in a motion picture.”
“My goodness,” Caroline said with amazement. “I've never seen a real palm tree before.”
“And flowers in the wintertime?” He pointed to a hedge with bright red blooms.
“Are those poinsettia plants?” she asked in wonder.
“Yes!” Marjorie exclaimed. “I nearly fainted when I saw them for the first time. Thousands of poinsettias. Honestly, it seemed decadent.” She laughed. “But I suppose I've gotten used to it.”
“Remember when Dad got Mom that poinsettia plant?” Caroline said.
“Yes. And the cold nearly killed it on his way home.”
“And then it finally bloomedâone single flower.”
“And we thought that was so wonderful.” Marjorie laughed heartily.
“Oh, my.” Caroline just shook her head at the multitude of red blooms. “I feel like I'm in a different country.”
The sun was setting now, painting the sky in shades of rose and coral. Rich and Marjorie pointed out a few other interesting sights, but it was too much for Caroline to take in. The warm air, the bright flowers, a new life in a new cityâshe almost felt dizzy.
“That's our sign!” Danny leaned over a suitcase to point to the illuminated billboard. “Welcome to Golden Oaks!”
“You know how to read?” Joseph asked.
“He memorized that sign,” Marjorie confided.
“Golden Oaks.” Caroline repeated the magical-sounding name in wonder. Was she really going to live here? Make their home in Golden Oaks?
“Have you been here before?” Danny asked her.
“No, this is my first visit,” she explained. “But your mom and I have been writing letters for years. She's told me a lot about it.”
“I'll drive past the chocolate factory,” Rich announced as he made a turn. “Just so you can see how close it is to our house.”
“That sign says MG Chocolate Factory!” Danny proclaimed as he pointed at the big brick building. “That's where my daddy works.”
“You're certainly good at reading signs,” Caroline told him. “So what does
Danny shrugged. “I dunno. But they make good chocolate.”
“Maybe it stands for Mighty Good,” Joseph suggested.
“MG is for Maxwell Gordon,” Rich said as he stopped for the traffic light. “It used to be called Maxwell Gordon Fine Chocolates, but they shortened it. Mr. Gordon founded the company more than forty years ago. I should say he and his wife founded it. It started out as a tiny fudge shop in Los Angeles.”
“Mr. Gordon is retired now,” Marjorie continued. “His son Max Jr. took over for, uh, a whileâ¦until the other brother stepped in.”
is doing an impressive job,” Rich added.
“He's Golden Oaks' most wealthy and eligible bachelor.” Marjorie giggled. “Or so I've heard.”
“Maybe Caroline will snag him,” Rich said.
“Goodness, no!” Caroline exclaimed.
“Oh, don't pay Rich any mind. He's just a big tease,” Marjorie told her.
“Sorry,” Rich said quickly. “I forgot you haven't been around me much.”
“Besides, any woman wanting to land that man would have her work cut out for her. One of my girlfriends calls him Mr. Untouchable.”
“That sounds about right.” Rich laughed. “But Mr. Untouchable draws women like an old fish creel draws flies.” As the light turned green, he pointed out a small shop. With candy-striped awnings, it appeared to be attached to the larger factory building. “That's the storefront shop for MG Chocolates. It was built to resemble the original one, but it's about five times bigger. It actually serves both as a retail chocolate shop and a showroom. MG stocks everything that the company makes in there.”
“Yummy.” Danny smacked his lips. “Can we go inside, Daddy?”
“I'm sure they're closed by now,” Rich told him.
“Besides, I've got dinner in the oven. And I'm sure Aunt Caroline and Joseph would like to get settled after their long train trip,” Marjorie added.
“Our house is only eight blocks away from the chocolate factory,” Rich explained as he turned onto a side street. “I usually walk to work.”
“That way I get to have the car during the day,” Marjorie said.
“That's a handy setup.” Caroline studied the pretty tree-lined street. “I always took the bus to work.” One more thing she would not miss.
“Well, if you get hired at MG, you can walk to work, too.” Rich slowed the car.
“Do you really think I can get a job?” she asked him as he turned into the driveway of a pale yellow two-story stucco house.
“They posted six openings on the assembly line, and that's this past week alone.”
“What a gorgeous house,” Caroline exclaimed as they all got out of the car. “I love the ironwork. It looks like we could be somewhere in Spain.”
“Mediterranean,” Marjorie said as she set Lulu down on the grass. “Danny, you keep an eye on your sister while we unload Aunt Caroline's things.”
“Why don't you ladies go inside,” Rich suggested. “The boys and I can handle this.”
“Thanks,” Marjorie called out as Lulu took off running across the lawn. “Hopefully the meatloaf isn't all dried out. I left it in the oven.”
“I'll grab my niece.” Caroline hurried to scoop up Lulu. “Are you going to show me your room, Lulu? I'll bet it's a pretty one.”
“Rich's dad has been helping me to paint. Everything was such dull, dreary colors.” Marjorie opened the front door.
“How nice of him.” Caroline went inside.
“He's retired and says it gives him something to do. We're not completely done yet, but it's getting better. And the kids' rooms are all set.”
“What a lovely room!” Caroline looked around the spacious living room with its large front windows. There was a small brown couch against one wall and a well-worn easy chair against another.
“It is lovely, but it desperately needs more furniture.” Marjorie waved her hand across the slightly barren space. “I can't even imagine how I'll begin to fill it up.”
“One piece at a time.” Caroline set Lulu down.
“You sound like Rich.” Marjorie made a pouting expression.
“Well, as our mother likes to say, âRome wasn't built in a day.'”
“But it would be so nice to have some more pieces for people to sit on, don't you think? I mean if we ever have guests. New Year's Eve is just a few days away. It would've been fun to have a party. Not this year.”
Caroline pointed to the lushly carpeted floor. “Get some big pillows. Let people sit on them Bohemian style.”
“Really?” Marjorie looked skeptical. “I want to show you the rest of the place, but I need to check the meatloaf first.” She led them through a somewhat formal dining room with a metal chandelier. A small plastic-topped kitchen table and four metal chairs seemed slightly out of place, but Caroline didn't plan to mention it.
“Smells good,” Caroline said as she followed Marjorie into the kitchen.
“I used Mom's recipeâthe one with mashed potatoes on top.”
“Wonderful.” Caroline looked down at the green linoleum floor. “Especially after three days of train food.”
“Three days of someone else doing the cooking sounds like a welcome vacation to me.” Marjorie checked the oven, then turned on the burner beneath a saucepan.
“Your kitchen is very nice.” Caroline ran her hand over a white cabinet door. “It looks recently painted.”
“Yes.” Marjorie pointed to the shell-pink wall. “But Rich doesn't like the wall color. He says it looks too girlish.” She giggled. “Probably because it's the same color I used to paint Lulu's room. But it's not like he spends much time in here anyway.”
Marjorie continued the house tour. “This is the downstairs bathroom,” she said proudly. “I never dreamed I'd have a house with
bathrooms.” She opened the door to reveal a small bathroom. “Of course, it doesn't have a tub or shower. The real estate agent called it a half-bath. I haven't decided what color to paint it yet, but this boring beige has to go.”
“Very handy.” Caroline nodded. “Especially for a big family.”
Marjorie balanced Lulu on her hip as she led Caroline up the stairs. “This is Danny's room.” She opened the door to reveal a bright blue room furnished with a neatly made bed and a small dresser, a bookshelf, toy chest, and child-sized wooden rocking chair. It was charming. The next bedroom was Lulu's. Like the kitchen it was shell pink and very girlish looking with white ruffled curtains. Next she led them into a sparsely furnished, but larger, room. The walls were robin's egg blue, giving it a peaceful feeling. “This is our bedroom,” Marjorie told her. “I painted it all by myself. I mixed leftover paint from Danny's room with some white to make the color.”
“It's a beautiful shade of blue,” Caroline said. “And you did a good job. I never knew my sister was a painter.”