June, 1945 - Vancouver, B.C.
Eva Carvell's shoulders sagged as she took the crumpled envelope from Paul's hand. She recognized the handwriting as Justin's. She knew instantly that inside the envelope was heartbreak.
Paul shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, unsure of whether to go or stay. She looked up into his homely, anguished face and offered a wan smile.
"It's okay, Paul," she said. "You go with your mom and dad. I'll be fine."
Paul tried his best to soften the blow. "Eva, it's Justin," he said. "You know him. He can be a little bit crazy. He'll be back soon, and ..."
But she had already turned her attention to the envelope, only now noticing that her hand was shaking. She opened it and read, "Dear Eva ..."
Paul, God love the poor bugger, stayed right there as she read the short letter, willing to take the bullet for his best friend. She finished reading, folded the thin paper neatly, put it carefully back in the envelope, and slipped it into her purse.
"Paul, look at your mom and dad," she said gamely. "They've missed you. Why don't you go with them?"
"I guess I should," he said, already edging away. "Look, Eva, maybe when he comes home ..."
"It's okay," she said. She patted him on the shoulder affectionately. "Go."
"No, wait," she said, as he took a step. She tugged at the ring on her left hand. "Take this. Have it."
"Me? But ... what will I do with it?"
"Does it matter?"
She turned and hurried out of the station. Paul watched until she was swallowed up by the crush of reuniting familes and embracing lovers. He tucked the ring in the breast pocket of his uniform, patted it twice to reassure himself it was safe, and rejoined his mom and dad.
October, 1946 - Vancouver, B.C.
The church was crowded; that was a relief, at any rate.
Eva ducked in the side door, avoiding the ushers who would, of course, have asked her if she was a friend of the bride or the groom.
"Friend of the groom," she thought, with just a tinge of bitterness.
She found a place on a pew far in the back and, like everyone else, rose and turned as the organist began the Wedding March.
The woman beside her leaned in close. "Isn't she beautiful?" she said breathlessly.
Eva nodded, her thoughts her own, and settled in with everyone else to witness the ceremony. When the minister asked if anyone could show cause why this man and this woman should not be joined in Holy Matrimony, she looked down at her hands folded neatly in her lap, closed her eyes, then stood with everyone else as the happy couple were introduced.
Neither Mary nor Justin ever learned she was at the church that day. If Paul had noticed her as the bride came up the aisle, he never said a word to anyone. When the ceremony was finished, Eva slipped quietly out the door she had come in and closed the book on that chapter of her life.
August, 1971 - Falcon Lake, Manitoba
Manitoba gets hot in the summer. It's a dry, prairie heat that sears your lungs, makes the hair on your arms feel crispy and brittle, and conjures up a nostalgia for January (until you remember how the bone-chilling cold would sear your lungs and make the hair on your arms feel crispy and brittle).
It's a land of extremes.
Winnipeg rises up from the parched, sun-baked prairie, its downtown highrises visible from the horizon. The city perches on a land so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for four days.
90 miles east of Winnipeg, the Canadian Shield bursts out of the earth, craggy and rugged with its granite outcroppings and impenetrable pine, spruce and hardwood forest. The Shield is prime cottage country, its hundreds of sparkling fresh-water lakes and staggering 75,000 miles of coastline liberally dotted with vacation homes both grand and modest.
On a hot August day in cottage country, there's little else to do but sit on the dock in a deck chair, listen to the water lapping at the pilings underneath you and the loons calling out on the water, read a good book and sip from a tall, cool glass.
Which is what Eva Jespersen was doing that afternoon.
She'd come to Winnipeg from her home in B.C. to visit an old friend, Olive MacGregor. Since the death of her huband Lars two years before, Eva took a couple of trips a year. When Eva's plane landed and Olive suggested they spend the weekend at the cottage to escape the city heat, Eva was relieved.
Olive's teenaged son Gary was already there, and he had brought along his new girlfriend, a stunning girl, white-blonde hair, athletic and tanned and full of life. The two lovebirds were already out in the canoe when Olive and Eva arrived, but once the drinks were poured and the two old friends settled into a conversation, she could see the canoe heading back.
The prow of the canoe bumped the dock and Gary scrambled out, stopping to help his girlfriend. He hugged his "Aunt" Eva and introduced the sweetie he'd brought to the cottage for the weekend.
"Auntie Eva, this is Andrea Ling," he said.
When the young girl smiled, Eva knew. In her suddenly rapidly-beating heart, she knew.
"Ling," she said. "That's an unusual name."
Andrea grinned and said, "Most people expect me to be Chinese."
"But you're not," said Eva. "Unless that's the best dye job I'll ever see." Andrea giggled.
"It's Swedish," she said.
"And are you from Sweden?"
"Oh, no," said Andrea. "My grandfather was. His name was Nils Ling. We're from here. Winnipeg, I mean. Well, all over. Dad was in the Air Force."
Eva nodded thoughtfully. "She's so sweet," she thought. Then: "She looks so much like him. So much like his sister Barbara ...".
Then Eva thought about Carol, three weeks from starting her final year of business school. A rocky few years as a teenager, but the most adorable child she could ever imagine and now a mature, thoughtful young woman, and the image of Eva as a young girl.
They'd had lunch just the week before, Carol had been her rock when Lars had died. No: they'd been that for each other.
And in those moments she realized that whatever ill she might have wished Justin in the past 25 years (and she'd had some vicious thoughts, for sure), she couldn't help but see that her life had turned out just fine without him. "She's a lovely girl, his daughter," thought Eva. "But I wouldn't have had Carol."
And that, she knew, would have been too high a price to pay.
And finally, she was at peace with that so-secret part of her previous life. Roads not taken were finally left to grow over and turn to forest.
She was at peace ... but not without a sly sense of mischief.
"Can you do me a favour?" said Eva. "Can you tell your father that Eva Carvell says "Hello"? We're old friends." She smiled sweetly at this adorable blonde, and thought, "There you go, Justin; a bird has come home to roost."
Eva took a sip of her gin and tonic. It tasted wonderful. Olive really did know how to mix a drink.
August, 1971 - Winnipeg, Manitoba
Justin's fork paused in mid-air.
"Eva Carvell ...?"
"Yeah. She says "Hi". That she was an old friend. She's from B.C."
Justin glanced up at Mary. She was watching him with a glint of amusement in her eyes. He rolled his eyes at her and she giggled. "Wasn't Eva an old high school friend?" she asked, all innocence and sweetness.
The kids were all curious, wrapping their heads around the idea that their father may have actually been young enough to attend high school.
"She was very pretty," Andrea gushed. "And really nice."
It was Justin's turn to grin as Mary's face darkened. "Yes, I remember Eva as being very beautiful," he said, straight-faced. "And she was one of the nicest girls you'd ever meet."
"Bastard," Mary muttered, and Justin burst out laughing.
Over dinner the story came out. They'd been young kids; the engagement had been an impulse; in the end, it was better for everyone how it turned out.
Four kids around the table. Four jaws agape. A flood of questions asked.
"Who is she?" asked Andrea.
"How did you meet her?" Barb wondered.
"When did you get engaged?" Kathy wanted to know.
"Can somebody pass the ketchup?" pleaded Nils. Relationship talk. With a table full of good food. No-brainer.
Finally, from Andrea: "How did you tell her it was over?"
Mary snorted. "A letter. He wrote her a letter."
The three girls turned as one to their father. "A letter? You broke off your engagement in a letter?"
Nils said, "Is there any more garlic bread?"
"I saw her when I got back. She agreed it was best. We were young."
"But a letter?"
"I was young. I was foolish. It wasn't the right thing to do. But in the end, it turned out best for everyone."
"Garlic bread? Was that the last piece ... ?"
It was an interesting conversation that night. And the garlic bread was delicious. And that's the thing.
The course of love may wind and meander.
But you can always count on garlic bread.