Allison Borders – Allie to her friends – found her high school yearbook in one of the boxes she had stowed in the basement storeroom that came with her new Harmony Acres apartment.
“You’ll love that locker,” Gwen Simmons had said. Gwen was a neighbor assigned to help her settle into the new experience of a senior retirement community. “We all arrive with too much stuff. Had you been living in a big old house?”
Allie just nodded, unsure where this was going.
“Me, too,” Gwen had prattled on. “Gave furniture to the kids, sold it, gave it to charity. Threw away tons of stuff; thought I was bringing only what mattered. I got here and had to put half of it into my storeroom. I’ve hardly looked at any of it since. I’ll bet you’ll be the same.”
Allie had agreed that would probably be true, and went with Gwen on an introductory tour of the place. There were almost 300 apartments, plus formal and informal dining rooms, meeting rooms, game rooms, exercise rooms and a pool; it was exhausting. Finally, Gwen led her back to her new apartment and left her to continue settling in.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Gwen said. “Here’s the latest copy of our directory, photos and mini bios of everyone. Brand new, just out yesterday. They even got you in it, at least your photo. They’ll want you to give ‘em a short bio for the next printing. And you’ll be introduced at our monthly residents’ meeting by our Hospitality chairman, a handsome widower you’ll like.”
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Allie said.
“We’re a friendly community. You’ll enjoy getting acquainted with us.”
So she thanked Gwen, decided it was late-afternoon enough for a glass of sherry, kicked off her shoes and curled into a comfortable bedroom armchair to leaf through the directory. Just browsing, the way one might thumb through a birdbook when visiting a new country or territory, familiarizing oneself with the local denizens and plumage.
And there was Lex! Lexington Armstrong, as handsome as he’d been at Madison High more than five decades ago. “My God, Lex,” she murmured to herself, “You’ve hardly aged!”
Which had sent her down to that basement storeroom, where she muscled boxes for half an hour before finding her high school yearbook and taking it back to the apartment.
There they were, page after page: valedictorian and salutatorian, king and queen of the senior prom, stars of the senior play. Born Allison Thompson, she’d been Tommy since junior high; most friends didn’t even know her given name. Lex and Tommy. They were everyone’s bet for high school sweethearts most likely to enjoy long years of blissful marriage.
Although he was going across the country to a plum scholarship at Stanford that summer, and she was going to Ohio in the fall with her own scholarship at Oberlin, that would be an inconsequential pause in Madison High’s romance of the decade.
She pored over the photos, then took the book into the bathroom to compare the Allie in the mirror against the adolescent Tommy in the yearbook. It took imagination, thank God, to see them as the same woman. If she wore a Covid mask, her own mother might not recognize her.
Back in the armchair, she compared the yearbook photos with the new Harmony Acres directory Gwen had given her. Sure enough, Lex was an easily-discerned older version of his high school self, even to the dark head of wavy hair – never mind if he touched it up. She’d gasped the moment she saw him; hadn’t needed to read the name.
She, by contrast, was thicker. Not fat; she hadn’t let that happen. Still, what had been a willowy frame was maybe fifteen pounds heavier. And she had long ago given up on long blonde tresses; the salon nowadays kept her short bob regally white-haired, which was better than her natural mousy gray – and nothing like the golden-haired slip of a girl Lex had loved.
And compare that creamily smooth-skinned yearbook girl with the face she’d studied in the mirror. Even if exaggerated by the harsh white light, it was now a face that seemed to her as deeply furrowed as a freshly-plowed cornfield – probably the price paid for years in beachfront vacation sunshine.
She was, in short, all but unrecognizable as the beautiful Tommy Thompson of her high school years. Thank goodness! Lex might sit right across from her and not know her. And since they’d lost touch long before she met and married Michael Borders, he wouldn’t recognize her by name, either. He might not even remember the Allie; she’d been so universally known by her nickname that she’d been Tommy on the graduation rolls, even if the diploma had her full name.
She would have to be artful in that bio they wanted, but that shouldn’t be too hard. She could settle in here at Harmony Acres, make new friends and a new life, and not worry that Lexington Armstrong would some day look, blink, and shout out, “Tommy! Tommy Thompson! My long-lost high school sweetheart!”
Not likely he’d think that anyway. Their lives had diverged so far that convergence now would churn up a lot of history that was better left behind.
There was another photo to compare: She took the yearbook back to the bedroom to focus on the oversized frame on the bedside table. There she was with Libbie Tucker, the younger woman who had for decades called her ‘Auntie A’. The Tuckers, her foster parents, formally named her Elizabeth, but called her Libbie. Allie thought of her only by that pet name.
The photo, taken at Libbie’s high school graduation, showed a very pretty young woman. If you looked closely, expectantly, you might see something of that young Tommy from the yearbook – and maybe more than a touch of Lex, too.
Wangling an invitation to that graduation had been a piece of work. But nothing, Allie thought to herself, like the work involved in becoming “aunt” to her own child. All the agencies that helped unwed mothers put babies up for adoption wanted a clean break. The mothers weren’t supposed to know even where the adopting couple lived, let alone their names or the baby’s new name.
Daddy had made it happen. He was well known in town, a lawyer and a judge who sometimes heard child custody cases, so the agency had been deferential.
And money had helped. Let the child and her parents stay in touch with her Aunt Allie, Daddy the lawyer proposed, and her ‘Auntie A’ would create and regularly add to a trust fund sufficient to see her through college and even an advanced degree. The Tuckers could share oversight of the fund, to guarantee its reality. They needn’t go into details of the supposed kinship; Allie was just a distant relative.
She gratefully became Auntie A.
The Tuckers – who Libbie always thought were her real parents – moved soon after that graduation to a new job in the Midwest, so in-person contact had been scarce for more than a decade. But they corresponded, and became quite close when Libbie’s studies brought her back East.
The first encounter with Lex went better than she could have hoped. The most recent COVID variant had sent Harmony Acres back into semi-lockdown, so the monthly meeting of the residents’ association was conducted on Zoom. The Hospitality chair Gwen had mentioned turned out to be . . . Lex!
“We have a half-dozen to welcome today,” he began. They had forced everyone’s screen into speaker view, so he was big as life in front of her. His baritone was as strong as she remembered it, and she suddenly wondered whether her own voice still had any memorable traces of her high school self.
Too late now to experiment with disguising her voice. She toyed with putting on a mask, but decided that would seem stupid, since they were all alone in their apartments, in front of their computers. So a moment of risk.
“We’ll go alphabetically,” Lex said on her screen. “Allison Borders is first.” The screen turned to gallery view. “Are you here, Ms. Borders?” His eyes darted around, obviously scanning the regimented Zoom images.
“Right here, Mr. Armstrong,” she said. Her face suddenly filled the screen. She had written this out and even practiced it, to be sure she would say nothing that might jog his memory. She carefully skipped the early years. “I’m Allie Borders,” she began. “After graduation, I immediately went on for a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at Cornell, then was lucky enough to be hired by Bryn Mawr High in Pennsylvania. My husband died within a year of our marriage, and I never re-married. I spent most of my career at Bryn Mawr, moving up to be guidance chair and then principal of the school. That prompted me to study for another advanced degree in administration, and I spent my last working decade as superintendent of schools in the nearby town of King of Prussia. I have a niece, my only next-generation kin, who used to call me the Queen of Prussia.”
She heard a few chuckles, and was pleased with herself. There was a smile on Lex’ face, too, but it was quickly apparent he’d been planning ahead for his next introduction, so hadn’t paid close attention to her. “Thank you, Allison. Is that how you like to be called? I may have missed that. And our next self-introduction is from Barbara Levine. Barbara, I’m sorry, I should have asked beforehand, do you say it LeVEEN or LeVYNE?”
So Barbara Levine – VEEN – was off and running. It had obviously never occurred to Lex that he might have known Allie Borders in another life.
“Does he have an idea that you might be pregnant?” her father had asked.
“No, Daddy,” she’d said. She felt her face bright red, hot. “It only … we only … it was the night before he left for California. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so sorry!”
Her parents had been just terrific. No recriminations. No scolding. She should confess her sin to Father Fitzpatrick – she was still a devout girl back then – and would be forgiven, and that would be the end of it.
Or the end as far as shame and humiliation went. But there were consequences and prohibitions, permutations. She was not even to hint to any of her girlfriends, let alone to Lex, that she was pregnant. There was never any doubt that she would bear the child; in those days abortionists were back-alley practitioners of a dark art, far beyond the pale, especially in the view of Catholic believers. And she would go away to bear the child, leaving long before her pregnancy showed.
Not telling Lex, surprisingly enough, had been the easy part. Since he had left for California right after graduation, in early June, they had written several times a week; long-distance phones back then were expensive and not always clear. The mails were slow: Usually each had written again before an answer came to a prior letter, so their responses to each other’s questions or comments were always tardy.
She’d missed her period in July – ironically, not long after Independence Day – and managed to make an appointment within a few days without telling Mommy and Daddy. Her doctor then was still her pediatrician, a warm and supportive woman, who did a test and phoned the next day.
The letter from Lex had come that very day. “Dearest Tommy,” he wrote, “it is hard being apart. I won’t see you until I come back for Christmas. I don’t want to deny you a normal social life at Oberlin, or make you some kind of outcast. You must feel free to date others, knowing that the time will come when we can truly be together again.”
That hadn’t been hard to decipher: He was dating others out there at Stanford, and maybe even had a special someone. That made not telling him an easy decision. She began writing less often. When she got to Nebraska, where the postmark might have led to questions, she just stopped writing.
Meanwhile, Daddy the arranger had been arranging. An uncle and aunt in Nebraska, a childless older couple, would happily have her live with them until she delivered. Daddy persuaded Oberlin that she had an unnamed transient illness making it impossible to begin her studies in the fall, but that might permit a tardy arrival for the following summer semester.
A gift to the university’s latest growth fund probably helped: Oberlin agreed. She took a Greyhound bus to Nebraska and settled in with a kinfolk couple who proved warm, supportive, and non-judgmental. She even enrolled in what turned out to be stimulating courses for would-be teachers at the University of Nebraska in nearby Lincoln, credits that she could take back to Oberlin and, with some extra effort, hope to graduate with her class of ‘67.
When the time came, Mommy came out as support, and she delivered her child at Bryan Medical Center’s “birthing center” in Lincoln. Four days later she flew back – her first flight – with her baby, as Daddy had arranged, to leave her at the already-familiar Adoptions from the Heart center.
They wouldn’t let her meet the Tuckers just then; it would have been too obvious. But the Tuckers were told a little more about the distant aunt who would help underwrite college. Several months later, she had tea with them at a nearby restaurant to get acquainted. Only then did she learn her own daughter’s name; she wouldn’t see the baby girl herself for several years.
It would be several years more before their first, awkward phone conversation. She managed a first in-person visit when the girl was in grade school, and then managed to stay in touch and meet occasionally until after high school when the Tucker family moved west.
Happy coincidences: Young Libbie went to Oberlin, too, taking courses aimed at a career in – amazingly! – guidance and counselling. Her ‘Auntie A’ was pleased to say that had been her major, too, and to suggest that Cornell had a good post-graduate program. In due course Libbie enrolled there too.
When the Tuckers, her ‘parents’, died in the following decade, Allie finally became not merely a distant, wealthy, supportive aunt, but a friend and quasi-parental advisor. They made a point of getting together at least once a year, often spending a weekend in New York and taking in plays or concerts.
And then Libbie proposed to come visit here at Harmony Acres. That was hardly a surprise, although sooner than expected; welcome, of course.
Libbie was, as Allie herself had done, going back to college for a doctorate, at almost the same age, 56. How exciting! Her thesis was to be on how best to counsel residents of senior life care communities like this. Might she come for a few days visit? she asked in a phone call. Shadow her aunt around for a few days, and perhaps arrange an interview with some of the senior staff?
Of course! Allie booked a guest room, and alerted the director of the place, who seemed flattered that Harmony Acres might draw the attention of a distinguished doctoral program; she would be glad to help Libbie with her studies.
It proved a delightful visit. Since the Tuckers’ death, Libbie had felt closer to her Auntie A. Even beyond their chosen studies and careers, they had life experience in common: Both had been widowed within a few years of their marriages, kept their married names – she was Libbie Godwin – and never remarried. Neither had children from those unions.
Libbie had read about communities like Harmony Acres, but this was the first that she’d visited, and she took an immediate liking to some of Allie’s new friends. They went to early-morning exercise class together every day of the visit, and went together to meetings of the Health Committee and then the full Residents’ Association.
On the last day, Libbie expressed interest in how newcomers were oriented to this new community life, and without thinking Allie suggested they go together to that morning’s meeting of the Hospitality Committee. And of course, there was Lex.
“Nice to have you visit us, Ms. Godwin,” Lex said. “I see by your nametag that you’re Libbie; may I call you that? We’re quite informal here. I haven’t really gotten to know your mother yet, she’s such a newcomer, but . . . ”
“She’s my niece,” Allie interrupted him.
Libbie broke the awkwardness: “Nice to meet you, Mr. Armstrong – Lex – and of course call me Libbie.”
That exchange didn’t last any longer, thank goodness: Lex was chairman, and had to get the meeting underway. But they both noticed that he kept glancing their way throughout the meeting, and after adjourning the gathering he came back at full steam to resume the conversation.
“Ms. Godwin,” he said. “I hope you’ll forgive me, but you bear a striking resemblance to my own mother. I haven’t been able to keep my eyes off you.”
“We noticed,” Allie said. “Wondered.”
“I have a photo of her,” Lex went on, “with my father, in their fifties. I keep it on my bedroom dresser. Your likeness to her is quite remarkable. Mom was a native of Kansas, who came East for college. Might your roots by any chance be in Kansas?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Mr. . . uh, Lex, but I’d never been out of New Jersey until I went to college, and I never went west of Ohio until many years later still. Any resemblance must be a remarkable coincidence.”
“Well, I couldn’t help asking. Sorry. Hope you continue to enjoy your visit.”
“Auntie A,” Libbie said as he left, “if I understand the way your culinary service works, we could pick something up at what you call The Refectory, bring it back to your place, and just be together, the two of us, for supper. What do you think?”
So there they were, back in her tiny-cozy living room, each with a cup of soup, a sandwich, and glasse of Pinot Grigio on the coffee table between them. “Can I share a secret with you?” Libbie asked. “At least, maybe it’s a secret.”
“Of course, dear.”
“It’s something I learned just before Mom’s death.”
Allie could think of nothing to say. She thought to have a sip of soup, but her hand seemed inexplicably fragile.
“Dad, as you may remember, had died several years earlier. Mom wasn’t going to last more than an hour or two. And suddenly she pulled herself together, seemed almost to sit up in bed, and said I should know that they weren’t my real parents.”
“Oh, my!” was all Allie could manage.
“That I was a foster child.”
“What a shock!” Allie struggled to say.
“Not entirely. I’d begun to wonder, in my teen years, how I could be so different from them: A foot taller, blue eyes instead of their brown, flaxen blonde instead of their brown hair. Nobody meeting us for the first time would have guessed I was their daughter.”
“Well, dear, you know that inherited traits don’t always follow a straight line. There are bends in the road; gaps. There’s a lot we don’t know about genetics and all that.”
“Of course,” Libbie said. “I don’t think I ever would’ve been bold enough to ask Mom or Dad why we looked so different.”
“And did she tell you more?”
“Not a word more. She sank back, and in what seemed no time, she was gone.”
“How sad,” Allie said. “And frustrating, I suppose.”
“Yes. I have to confess: It’s been chewing at me. And now suddenly your Mr. Armstrong – sorry, not yours, he says he hasn’t gotten to know you – tells me I favor his mother. What am I to think?”
“Oh, that must be just a coincidence. You heard him say his family was from Kansas.”
Libbie went on as though Allie hadn’t spoken. “And I have an ‘aunt’ whose relationship to my parents – or foster parents, or me – I’ve never known. But friends who’ve seen your photo in my apartment think I favor you. What should I make of that? Another coincidence?”
Silence. Allie sat looking at this daughter she had never acknowledged, struggling to find words, trying to find the right course. A tear appeared, and she let it roll down her cheek.
Finally: “I have an idea,” she said. “Wait.”
She took out her phone, found the directory, and dialed Lex Armstrong. While it rang, she put it on speakerphone so Libbie could hear the whole conversation.
“Hello, this is Lex.”
“Lex, this is Allie Borders. We haven’t really gotten acquainted, but I’m calling to ask a favor.”
“Libbie and I have just finished a little supper, and are lingering over a glass of fair-to-middling Pinot Grigio and talking about genetic coincidences, so to speak.”
“Hmmm. How can I help?”
“I think our apartments aren’t too far apart. I wondered if you might join us for a glass of wine, and bring that picture of your mother?”
“I . . . . My goodness! . . . Come now? . . . With the photo?”
“It would be a huge favor.”
“Well . . . . Sure! I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Thank you. I’ll set the door ajar.” She punched the phone off, and looked across the coffee table at a Libbie who seemed too perplexed to say anything.
He wedged the door open; went to the kitchen to retrieve the wine from the fridge and get another glass, and put those on the little table. She almost sat down, but instead went to the bedroom for the yearbook, which she put face down on the floor beside her chair. All that in silence as thick and dense as the moments before a summer rainstorm.
Then, as she settled down to wait: “I think, my dear, we’ll find more than one likeness.” She looked up at a knock on the door. “Come in, Lex.”
Published in April 2023 by Muleskinner Journal