1. Ansley: A Southern Lady
Ansley: A Southern Lady The Day before Thanksgiving
FOR MAGAZINES AND TRAVEL GUIDES, globe-trotting Instagrammers and hotel reviewers, Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, was a beach destination best enjoyed during the heat of summer. But as I leaned on the counter at my waterfront design shop, looking out over the Intracoastal, I realized that fall in Peachtree might be our best-kept secret. Yes, summer was great—the sun glinted on the water, the wild horses roamed the islands, and the wind blew more softly through the trees than anywhere else in the world. But fall and winter, when the weather was slightly cooler and the streets less crowded, were glorious. And, if you asked a local, nothing beat Christmas in Peachtree Bluff.
I perched on the gray-and-white Parisian bistro stool behind the counter, stack of receipts in hand, to review the sales from the day before. It was the day before Thanksgiving, but already, the trees flanking the picture window were trimmed, the Christmas music was playing, and my store, Sloane Emerson, was overflowing with the goodies that I hoped would be mostly gone after this weekend. Between online sales and foot traffic from locals, the store made one-quarter of its profits in the weeks between Black Friday and Christmas, so it was paramount that everything be just right. That included my middle daughter, Sloane’s, collection of miniature paintings for sale, arranged on a round antique mahogany table in the center of the shop: reindeer, the Star of Bethlehem, a shining menorah, and, my personal favorite, the Grinch.
The quiet and calm, with everything in its place, made this the best way to start the day. It was a time when a woman could do some thinking. Of course, coffee helped. Coffee was key. And, as of yet, no coffee.
It gave me a pang for Kyle, the previous owner of Peachtree Perk, not only because I missed his piping-hot and always-on-time lattes—which I did—but also because I missed my daughter Emerson and my granddaughter Carter, who went with him to California three years earlier.
The idea that they were somewhere in the air over Montana right now, on their way from LA to Peachtree Bluff, made my stomach turn. I liked it better when my children were on the ground. But the idea that they were on their way here to see me was almost too thrilling to bear. I went through my mental checklist. I had ingredients for Emerson’s green juice, baby Carter’s organic milk, Kyle’s favorite double-dipped chocolate-covered peanuts from the candy shop on the corner, and IPAs from our local Blackbeard Brewing. I couldn’t wait for them to get here.
As the door to the store opened, the familiar tinkle of the bell rang out happily. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets her wings!” I exclaimed.
This morning, like so many mornings, it was my friend Hippie Hal who walked through the door. I could see his grin across the store even underneath his beard, which he let grow in more fully for winter. It was a chilly morning, so he had layered two of his signature white oxford shirts he always wore with jeans—and a piece of rope as a belt. “I got your latte,” he said somewhat grimly as he held it out to me.
“Oh no,” I said, standing up and walking around to the front of the counter. “Again?”
He nodded. Kyle’s cousin Keith had taken over Peachtree Perk when Kyle moved with Emerson to LA for her to take a once-in-a-lifetime acting role. When Keith had discontinued Kyle’s famous coffee delivery service, we had been aghast. But, finally, after years of complaining, he had decided to resume delivery.
“What did Keith bring you?” Hippie Hal asked.
“Nothing,” I said gleefully, as I took the cup from his hand and smiled. He rolled his eyes, so blue amidst the darkly tanned, deeply lined skin of his face.
The bell tinkled again and Leah, my design assistant—well, really more like my right-hand woman—walked through the door, her wavy red hair flowing over her shoulders.
“This is convenient,” she said. “I got a flat white today. Now I don’t have to run all over town looking for you.”
Leah handed Hal his usual coffee order and crossed her arms. “Y’all, I get it. We like Keith. Keith is nice, and we’re happy he’s here. But this is ridiculous. We have to tell him that he gets our orders wrong.”
I knew she was right. This was lunacy, and we couldn’t let it continue.
“I’ll tell him,” Hal said. “It should come from a man.”
I snapped my fingers. “Or we let Kyle tell him when he gets here! Things are better when they come from family.”
Leah shook her head. “Things are so much worse when they come from family.”
I considered that. Maybe she was right. I couldn’t be sure. I hadn’t had any caffeine yet, after all.
The bell tinkled a third time and in walked Jack, the love of my life, and now, after decades of being apart, my husband. I still got a thrill just seeing him walk through the door, so polished and handsome but also the right amount of rugged. His salt-and-pepper hair was thick and full, and he had the kindest smile I’d ever seen. Our tiny dog, Biscuit, ran to me, and I leaned down to rub her white, furry head. Jack kissed me quickly.
Then he turned and said, “Miss Leah, you are the proud winner of a cinnamon spice latte.”
“Yes!” she said. “The day can begin!”
“We’re three for four now!” I said happily.
Leah rolled her eyes. “Ansley, your tolerance is too high.”
“It has only been a couple weeks. I think we need to be more patient and—”
“Oh!” Jack interjected. “Keith told me to let y’all know that he baked loaves of fresh pumpkin bread for all his regulars. They’re waiting and you can grab one at your convenience.”
Hal, Leah, and I groaned in unison.
“What?” Jack asked. “Do y’all have something against pumpkin bread?”
“No,” Hal said. “It’s just that every time we decide to do something about the messed-up coffee orders, he does something so nice that we can’t.”
“He did just donate that money for the new bleachers at the high school too,” Leah said.
“Traitor!” I said, pointing at her. “You’re the maddest of all, and you cave the fastest.”
A tinkle of the bell and Kimmy, our resident produce woman, walked in, basket of squash, sweet potatoes, and lettuces in hand. She had been growing out her short, spiky hair, and it was almost to her chin now. And pink. She’d gone back to her natural black for a while last year, and it just felt wrong.
“Oh, good, you’re here,” she said, handing the basket and a cup to Jack. “These are all your Thanksgiving veggies—and your plain black coffee. Ick.”
Jack raised his cup to us like he had just won the lottery. “Good things come to those who wait.”
“Or complain!” Kimmy countered. “Why can’t one of you tell him that he’s screwing up the whole town’s orders?”
Kimmy was by far the snarkiest of the group and cared very little about anyone’s feelings. “Why don’t you tell him,” I countered, “if you’re so bothered?”
“Because he’s my second-biggest client! Do you know how many strawberries that man buys? I can’t be on his bad side.”
She looked around the circle expectantly. Jack put his arm around her shoulder. “No takers here, Kim. Let’s go down to Page and Stage. Claudia certainly has a mean streak.” He paused and perked back up. “And, hey! Maybe she has your coffee too.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” she said.
He turned back to me. “Five days, Ans. Five days.”
“I know, love,” I said back. Five days from today, Jack and I would leave for three weeks for a trip we had wanted to take since we were teenagers. I never would have imagined that, decades later, after I had been a widow for sixteen years, he would come back into my life, and we would fall in love, get married, and finally be able to cruise the Australian coast like we had dreamed—and explore Indonesia as a bonus.
I had some qualms about coming home only a few days before Christmas, but my daughter Sloane, who was living next door to Jack and me with her sons and husband, would be the one hosting this year anyway. She was in the big house, the one my grandmother had left to me, so she inherited the family gatherings. Thanksgiving was relatively small for a Murphy celebration, so we would do that at Jack’s. Sloane had promised me that she would decorate the tree to my exacting specifications and make plenty of cookies and I would come home to a fridge full of everything I needed to make Christmas Eve dinner. She was nothing if not dependable, my Sloane.
I knew she could handle it. I just wanted to be there to handle it with her. The thought of missing Taylor and AJ’s Christmas program at school filled me with dread.
As if they knew I was thinking about them, the door flew open and five-year-old Taylor ran through, with seven-year-old AJ on his heels. They were both tall for their age, little clones of their father, with dark hair and a penchant for trucks and toy soldiers. But Taylor had Sloane’s bow mouth, and AJ got her eyes. Every now and then it struck me in moments like these, took my breath away how quickly they were growing. But they weren’t too big to run into my arms, nearly knocking me down, so that was good. They had just seen me last night, but their enthusiasm made it seem like it had been months.
I kissed both their chilly cheeks and smiled at their little backpacks. My grandsons could walk to our neighborhood elementary school and stop by to see me on their way there. It was a sweet and special magic.
I looked up to see Sloane coming in behind them, messy bun atop her head, fresh paint already smattered on her white, long-sleeved T-shirt, smiling down at me, sipping her coffee. Even with no makeup and little attention to her appearance, she had such a fresh glow about her. She was a natural, effortless beauty. Always had been. “Who had your coffee this morning?” Hal asked.
She shrugged. “I couldn’t deal with it. I’m just drinking someone’s coffee with cream and sugar or something.”
Leah, Hal, and I gasped simultaneously. Drinking someone else’s coffee order was strictly forbidden.
She put her free hand up in defense. “I know, okay? I drink someone else’s coffee and this entire idiotic system of traipsing around town returning coffee falls apart. I get it. I hear you. But I’m a mother of two young sons, my husband is still overcoming PTSD, I am a full-time artist, and I run three stores with my sisters and my mother. I need my caffeine, people! And today, I needed it now!”
A hush fell over the crowd. Sloane was the quietest, mildest-mannered of my daughters, so when she raised her voice, she was mad. Really mad.
“You should just tell Keith, you know,” Leah said, faux concern lacing her voice.
Sloane waved her finger at her. “No, ma’am. I see what you’re doing. Of everyone in town, I think we all know I’m the least likely to tell him. I hate confrontation.” She blew me a kiss and said, “Come on, boys! Time to get to school.”
I hugged the three of them goodbye. “We’ll see you later! Leah and I need to get to work!” The comment was aimed at Hal, who was now lounging in one of the club chairs in the corner, holding the NO SITTING, PLEASE sign in his lap. He was a good friend, but sometimes he lacked the wherewithal to realize when people needed to cut the visit short. Whether it was just his personality or a side effect of the copious amounts of pot he smoked, I couldn’t really be sure.
“All right,” I said, hinting again. “Mrs. Milton wants a full remodel now that Mr. Milton is dead.”
Hal laughed. Mr. Milton was absolutely loaded but never spent a single dime. Mrs. Milton cried at his funeral, spent three days accepting casseroles, and then, like a caged animal set free, went on a spending spree that probably made the fiscal years of most of the businesses in town. You wouldn’t hear me complaining. “Unlimited budget” was the most beautiful phrase in the English language.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Hal said. “I just wanted to be sure that you’d heard about Hurricane Pearl making her way through the Gulf.”
My heart raced at the prospect, but I waved my hand casually, like that was the farthest thing from my mind. “It’s almost Thanksgiving, Hal. We never have hurricanes this late.” I smiled. “Plus, a Southern lady like Pearl would never ruin the holidays in Peachtree Bluff.” If I had learned one thing from a lifetime here, it was that roughly three-fourths of our potential hurricanes were all talk and no show.
He laughed. “I just want you to keep an eye on it with you leaving for your trip and all that. Just because we don’t usually have hurricanes this late doesn’t mean it isn’t still hurricane season.”
I nodded. “Okay. Well, thanks.”
My phone beeped. A little shiver of excitement ran up my spine. Caroline.
Vivi, Preston, and I are at JFK. Thank God. Be warned: my daughter has made the complete transition into the spawn of Satan.
I laughed out loud. Caroline hadn’t exactly been easy when she was a teenager either. But I did empathize with her problems. A moody daughter was rough under the best of circumstances, but when you had a toddler and were going through a divorce it was even worse. Vivi, who was usually such a sweet-natured child, had been giving Caroline a run for her money: arguing with her over everything, talking back, even sneaking out and threatening to live with her father full-time. It was breaking Caroline’s heart. I felt like a few days in Peachtree Bluff, away from the hustle and bustle, the pressures and stresses of the city, would do them all a world of good.
Plus, I was totally convinced: there was nothing that Gransley’s homemade pecan pie—made from my own grandmother’s recipe—couldn’t fix.