“Grenville: Hardy Birds, Wintering In” revisits the beloved characters in Grenville, a tiny Adirondack Mountain town that shrinks in winter as loneliness settles in. Then one day, a postcard arrives for Esther Crocker, the town’s unofficial matriarch.
Esther stayed put under the covers, straining for any sound, but all she heard was mild tinnitus buzzing in her left ear. One of these days, she wouldn’t hear even that anymore; then she’d know she was dead. Eighty loomed, and no matter how much folks tried to sugar coat it as “the new sixty,” Esther felt old and tired. And alone.
The heat kicked on, and the room filled with sound and motion as the blower billowed out the curtains. Esther lay there another moment, listening, then threw back the covers and patted the top of the nightstand for her eyeglasses. Lilac-printed wallpaper zoomed into focus.
Clean and combed, Esther emerged from the bathroom, dressed in knit pants with a pullup waist that fit her bulky body the way burlap does potatoes and a stretched-out cotton turtleneck. Downstairs in the kitchen, Esther fingered the coffeepot on switch to brew two cups of Folgers. Instead, she crossed the kitchen, took her coat off the hook, and headed out the door.
Grenville shrank this time of year like a dried corncob with most of the kernels missing. Summer homes and cottages stood empty along the twisting road into town, their windows shuttered and sometimes covered with plywood sheets. Only a few hundred townies stayed year-round in Grenville.
In the summer months, Chuck’s Hometown Diner did a pretty good business. Now, a handwritten sign on the door read “New Hours: Fri, Sat, Sun, 7AM-1PM.” Esther stopped to think—was this Friday or Saturday? It really didn’t matter.
Jimmy Rivers sat at the counter. He looked up from the newspaper folded in quarters beside his plate. “Esther!” he called out.
She slid onto the stool beside him. A girl who looked like she was still in high school appeared before Esther had time to open the plastic-coated menu. She glanced at the remnants on Jimmy’s plate. “A couple of scrambled eggs and some fried potatoes.”
“Toast?” the girl asked.
“Yes, please,” Esther added.
“No, what kind?” the girl repeated.
“Let’s give her the royal treatment,” Jimmy interjected. “A piece of white and a piece of wheat.”
The girl wrote on her pad as she walked away.
“Chuck’s daughter,” he said, lowering his voice. “She’s in eleventh grade but works here before school on Fridays and on the weekend. When she’s not here, her mother is.” Jimmy clapped Esther on the shoulder. “So it’s good you came in—a boost for business.”
Esther sipped her coffee, a little on the bitter side, and added another drop of milk from the metal creamer. “I’m old, Jimmy. I gotta get out while I can.”
“I hear you. That’s why I don’t retire.”
Jimmy was sixty or so, a kid as far as Esther was concerned. He was Grenville’s only full-time, year-round mail carrier, and always said he’d keep the job as long as he could drive.
“You and Glynda staying here for Thanksgiving?” Esther asked.
“Just the two of us. The kids are going to their in-laws and outlaws. You?”
“Anne wants me to go with her to her boyfriend’s folks. She’s dating a new fella, so she shouldn’t drag me along for her first big holiday with him.”
Esther didn’t mention her son, Claude, who recently moved his company and his family to Colorado. When he lived downstate in Westchester County, Claude came dutifully once a year with Jenn and the kids to see her. But once he left for Colorado, Esther suspected that was it. Claude didn’t even phone all that often. It was her fault, Esther knew. When Michael, her eldest, died as a teenager, grief took her away from Claude and Anne. Her daughter had clung to her persistently, but Claude slowly seeped away. Thirty years later, her relationship with her son was still strained.
“Come by us. Then Anne won’t worry that you’re home alone,” Jimmy said.
Before Esther could reply, the waitress set down a plate of scrambled eggs, golden fried potatoes, and three pieces of toast—white, wheat, and rye—with four different kinds of jelly. “Royal treatment,” the waitress said.
“Well, look at that.” Esther smiled, genuinely pleased.
After that big breakfast, Esther needed to put herself in motion. She always preferred outdoor work to housecleaning, but now she set to it, getting down on one knee to maneuver the dust mop under the beds. She stopped, thinking she heard something, but this old house always groaned when cold set in. Then she heard it again, followed by a man’s voice—Jimmy’s: “Hey, you here?”
The dust mop handle smacked against the floor as Esther got to her feet.
In the kitchen, Jimmy deposited the mail, mostly junk, on the table. “You aren’t going to believe who wrote to you.”
“It’s against the law to read other folks’ mail, ain’t it?” Esther chuckled.
“Hard not to when it’s a postcard.” Jimmy handed it to her.
Multicolored parrots with elongated red tailfeathers froze mid-squawk in the photo. Esther couldn’t imagine looking out her window at such creatures. All she saw now were tiny white, gray, and black chickadees, hardy and compact, gobbling seeds at her feeder. Winter seemed cruelest for the smallest creatures that couldn’t forage when the snow deepened.
Esther turned the postcard over and read the message.
Ever since Halloween, Anne had been bracing for the worst. Last year, Jack, her ex-husband, showed up unannounced on Thanksgiving to take the girls out for dinner. When Anne protested that they already had plans, he’d invited her, too. She’d compromised to keep the peace: the girls went with Jack and she went to her mother’s, then Dianne and Isabelle showed up with Jack for dessert.
Not this year, Anne told herself, as she assessed the outfit she was wearing for Thanksgiving dinner: dark skirt, white blouse, and a red cardigan that brought out the highlights in her dark hair. Jason had invited her and the girls to come to his parents’ house in Lake Placid. Jason was a high school teacher, newly divorced with no children. They had been dating almost four months and really clicked. This year, she wasn’t going to let Jack upset things, but every time the phone rang, her stomach lurched.
The first call was one of those nonsense robo-things. The second time was from her brother, who sounded like he was in the car. Jenn had sent him out for shallots, Claude said. “Don’t even know what that is.”
“They’ll be near the onions and garlic,” Anne explained.
Then the connection turned bad and Claude’s voice broke up.
While she still had the phone in her hand, Anne called her mother. When Esther picked up right away, Anne felt the familiar pangs of guilt. No matter that she saw her mother a few times a week—Esther’s house was only about twenty-minute away from Anne’s condo on the outskirts of Saranac Lake—not being with her mother on Thanksgiving just seemed wrong.
At forty, Anne was acutely aware of the age gap with her mother, who was nearly twice her age. Her mother told the story often: of being late to marriage and motherhood and feeling so blessed to experience both. Her parents had a love story; they were each other’s best friend and beloved companion until her father died three years ago.
Anne refocused on the conversation to catch her mother’s question about what she was bringing to Thanksgiving dinner. “My cranberry-orange relish.”
“They’ll like that,” Esther agreed.
“I have to leave the walnuts out. Jason’s got a cousin who’s allergic.”
“Good thing you found that out. Cousin, huh? Sounds like a big crowd.”
“Thirty, at last count.” Anne pressed her fingertips into her forehead. She’d met Jason’s parents and his sister. But his two brothers and their families were coming from Vermont and Massachusetts. Plus, there were a couple aunts and uncles and some assorted cousins.
“Land’s sake! Where are they gonna put them all?”
“I’ll let you know. Maybe I’ll come by on Friday.”
“Or the next day—you don’t have to worry about me.”
“Thank you, Mama,” Anne said.
“For what?” Her mother sounded genuinely puzzled.
“For letting me have my own life,” Anne said.
“That’s how it works,” Esther sighed. “Motherhood comes with strong ties, and a stronger pair of scissors.”
On the day after Thanksgiving, Anne stopped by after work. Esther made coffee and set out two slices of pie she’d brought home from Jimmy and Glynda’s. Anne picked a little at hers, then slid the plate out of reach. “I ate enough yesterday to last me a week.”
Esther listened eagerly as Anne recounted Thanksgiving with Jason and his family, how everyone had gotten along, and how easily her daughters had socialized with Jason’s nieces and nephews. Esther had been nervous for her daughter, worried that Jason’s family wouldn’t welcome her, and even more afraid that Jack, Anne’s ex, would somehow spoil it for her.
“Hey, I almost forgot to tell you my news,” Esther said. “I got company coming. Evan—you know, the guy from Fish & Game. He’s home from Guatemala with his girlfriend.”
Seeing Anne’s puzzled look, Esther started back at the beginning: in the early spring, a huge snowy owl, which Esther had named “Oliver,” roosted for a few weeks in her backyard.
“I remember the owl. I brought the girls over to see it,” Anne interrupted.
“But you don’t remember Evan,” Esther replied impatiently and explained that when she called the state Fish & Game Department, Evan was the one who’d come out to see the owl. He’d visit a few times a week, right before dusk when Oliver awakened. They’d stand back, watching the bird go through the motions of preparing to hunt, then Esther would invite Evan in for supper. He told her about Birgitta, a young woman from Sweden he’d met in college, who was in Guatemala working on a global health project. One day, Evan quit his job and went there to be with her. By then, Oliver had flown off, probably bound for the tundra to find a mate.
Esther reached for the postcard in the stack of mail on the table, next to the napkin holder. “They’re coming back for a month to see Evan’s family in New York City. Birgitta’s folks are coming from Sweden for Christmas. But they want to come up to Grenville. Jimmy and me emailed Evan on Thanksgiving and we arranged everything. I could tell Glynda wanted them to stay with her and Jimmy, but I insisted they stay with me.”
Anne turned the postcard over to the picture on the front and then back to the message. “Why don’t they stay in a motel?”
“Because I want them to stay here!” Esther said, her voice rising. “Evan’s a nice man, and Birgitta sounds lovely.” Esther got up from the table on the pretense of putting her cup in the sink.
“I’m sorry, Mama. You just can’t be too careful.”
Esther pulled the sides of her old cardigan together and folded her arms. “I want them to stay here. I get to have something for once.”
Anne rose slowly from the table and brought her own cup to the sink. “Can’t blame me for caring.”
Later that evening, Claude called. “What’s this about you having houseguests?”
So that’s why he was calling, Esther grumbled to herself.
“Sounds like they want free room and board,” Claude sputtered.
“M—” Esther stopped herself; this was Claude, not Michael. She scrambled for an “m” word. “Me,” she said. “They’re staying with me, and I’m having a party for them. Anne and Jason are coming. I wish you were coming, too.”
“I’m not flying all the way from Colorado just for some Fish & Game guy.”
“Of course not,” Esther replied. “Never expected you to.”
Evan and Birgitta arrived late on Thursday afternoon. With construction and traffic, it had taken them nearly eight hours from New York City to Grenville. Esther had heard someplace that Europeans were reserved so she tried to hold herself back but couldn’t keep her arms from enfolding Birgitta into a hug.
The young woman looked like her name: tall and blond, with ice-blue eyes and a slight lilt to her Swedish accent. “Maybe we walk outside?” Birgitta suggested. “We sit for so long in the car.”
Esther grabbed her coat before she stopped to consider whether she was invited along. Neither Birgitta nor Evan protested.
It had snowed a few days before, but only small patches of icy crust remained in the woods. “Reminds me of home,” Birgitta said. “The trees, very monochromatic.”
The only wildlife they saw were clusters of chickadees, scrambling for seeds from the weeds that dried to chaff and scraped together in the wind. Seeing them flit around in the cold, Esther burrowed deeper inside her down coat. She’d refill her feeder as soon as she got home.
“No sign of Oliver?” Evan asked.
Esther shook her head. “I thought maybe he’d stop back on his migration south. But maybe he’s got some better place to go.” She smirked. “In-laws invited him instead.”
“Maybe you see him again,” Birgitta said.
Esther felt the young woman’s light touch on the padded sleeve of her down coat. She hated someone feeling sorry for her, even someone as nice as Birgitta. She changed the subject abruptly. “I’m having a party for you—Saturday night. Jimmy and Glynda. My daughter Anne and Jason, her boyfriend. Louisa and Frank, some other folks.”
Evan and Birgitta exchanged a look. “We were going to hike on Saturday,” he said.
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Esther replied quickly. “You young folks do what you want.” Her smile felt so tight, Esther thought her face would rip. Maybe Claude was right, they were just staying with her for free room and board.
“No, we hike and then we come back for a little party,” Birgitta said. “Maybe at seven?”
Esther never served dinner later than five-thirty. “Seven would be perfect.”
Evan and Birgitta spent Friday around Grenville and took a long hike in the afternoon, then went to Jimmy and Glynda’s for supper. Esther was invited too but stayed home, knowing Jimmy would want some alone time with Evan. The two men had developed a kind of father-son relationship; from what Esther could gather, Jimmy had been the one to encourage Evan to go to Guatemala and tell Birgitta how he felt.
By the time the young couple came back that night, Esther was in bed, but she heard their whispers and tiptoeing. Lying there, Esther could remember being their age, down to the smallest detail of wearing a favorite blue dress printed with small yellow flowers. A million tiny things lived in her memory: how she’d spent years getting used to the idea of being alone all her life, and then the surprising assuredness of knowing she and Charlie would be together. She could close her eyes and see Charlie humming as he shaved every morning at the bathroom sink; how precisely he cut his meat and potatoes; how they could sit for hours in the living room, just talking or reading.
Don’t waste time, Esther wanted to tell Evan or Birgitta. Don’t expect to be young forever.
The next morning, of course, Esther said none of those things. Evan and Birgitta were up early to go hiking, and Esther made them a big breakfast. They took extra clothes and food and water in their backpacks and promised to be home before dark. Evan knew the Adirondacks, and Birgitta was strong and athletic, but still Esther worried.
By mid-afternoon, the day turned cold and raw with a steady wind and bursts of wet snow. Esther tried not to picture Evan and Birgitta slipping over rocks as they descended peaks that weren’t all that high but could be steep in places. At four o’clock, she pulled a second apple pie from the oven. At four-thirty, Anne came with Dianne and Isabelle, who carried in a crockpot of rice and lentils and a baking dish of meatless meatballs since Birgitta was a vegetarian.
“What time is Jason coming?” Esther asked.
“He had a late meeting,” Anne said. “He should be here just before seven.”
Esther’s heart sank. What teacher’s meeting ever lasted that long on a Saturday? She tried to focus her worry elsewhere. “I hope the squash doesn’t get dry. Baked it this morning.”
Anne lifted the foil and inspected. “Looks perfect.”
At five minutes to six, Birgitta and Evan came in the door, their faces reddened by the cold. Both proclaimed themselves to be starving and in need of showers.
“Nice couple,” Anne said after they went upstairs. “And she’s gorgeous.”
“Any word from Jason?” Esther asked.
“Yeah, he just texted. Probably will be here around seven-fifteen.”
And so it begins, Esther thought: first he’s late, and then it’s too late to come. Then Jason will let Anne down, just like that no-good Jack.
Evan came back downstairs in jeans and a gray wool sweater, his dark hair damp from the shower and combed straight back. Esther hid a smirk at the way her granddaughters turned shy around him. Birgitta wore a soft flannel dress that would have looked like a sack on anyone else, but she was stunning. Her long hair was braided into a single plait down her back. Immediately, Dianne and Isabelle latched onto her.
The guest list had grown to everyone Esther thought would come. Soon, the house was filled with voices and coats that needed to be piled on her bed upstairs. More food than they could eat in a month was arranged buffet-style on the dining table. Dianne and Isabelle passed trays of cheese and crackers around while they waited a little longer Jason. Then Esther had to carve the pork roast before the meat overcooked. She couldn’t bear to look at Anne, who seemed so cheerful despite the obvious.
As Esther leaned over to slice the meat, a draft tickled the back of her neck. Turning, she saw Jason coming in the back door, his glasses steamed by the warmth of the kitchen. Laughing, he took them off and hugged Anne.
Then she heard another man’s voice, one she almost didn’t recognize.
Claude stood behind Jason in the doorway. Esther set the knife down carefully. “I don’t understand,” she managed.
Her son hugged her, at first tentatively, then she felt the realness of him and hung on. The explanation was short: Claude’s software company had a plane and he flew to Lake Placid. Jason picked him up and brought him here. He was staying with Anne that night and flying home to Denver in the morning.
“Thought I’d surprise you,” Claude said.
Esther looked into his face, gobbling up every detail of his features. He was a grown man, forty-two years old, but Esther still saw the quiet boy who after his brother’s death never made trouble or asked for much. But what a fire he must have built inside to achieve all he had.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Esther said, grabbing him for a second hug.
The party kicked in, with laughter and conversation and too many people and too much food. Everyone stayed later than they planned, and the last to leave were Anne and Claude at midnight. Esther wanted to say something to Claude about coming back with the family at Christmas, but just hugged her son instead. It was more than enough to know he had come all this way on his own, without her demanding anything of him.
Birgitta and Evan offered to stay up and clean the kitchen, but Esther shooed them upstairs. They had a long drive ahead of them in the morning back to New York City. Washing all the dishes and putting everything away would give her something to do tomorrow. For now, Esther wanted to drink in the best night she’d had since before Charlie died.
Putting on her coat, Esther stepped outside. Her breath froze in great clouds in the frigid night air. So many pieces came together to make this night happen, long before any of them knew how their lives would intertwine. For her, it had happened one March day when a snowy owl perched in her backyard, a visitor so unexpected. The rest unfolded, just as it was supposed to, leading to this night.
“Thank you, Oliver,” Esther called out to the darkness and the bright yellow eyes she imagined looking back at her. “You go on your way, where you belong.”
The rest of them were content to stay where they were, hardy birds, wintering in.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of FaithHopeandFiction.com. Tricia received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which also honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of three Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on FaithHopeandFiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.
Image Credit: Copyright Robert Koutny.