In this issue: Many of us dream about those things that ‘could be.’ If Louella ever had those dreams, she never told her friends at Faded Glory. In this issue, a figure out of Louella’s past arrives to make at least one dream come true. Homer looks on in wonderment.
It was the last Friday in August, and although the Inn would be filled to capacity for the weekend, it was much too early in the afternoon for any of our guests to be arriving. Nobody, including me, had heard an automobile come up the driveway, but the knocking at our front door was insistent and unrelenting. Isabel immediately excused herself from her conversation with Micah Davenport and Hank Beavers, got up from her chair, and headed for the front door.
Ready to welcome an early arrival, Isabel opened the door to greet a short, slightly-built, middle-aged and graying woman carrying a battered brown leather suitcase. “My name is Jennifer Ruth Hightower, and I believe that my mother, Mrs. Louella Hightower, works here.” Isabel’s mind whirred and raced as she tried to place her visitor’s name and face. She had never seen this woman before in her life, but, somehow, the last name rang a bell!
“We have a Louella Hightower Hess working here as a pastry chef, but I don’t think that she has any living relatives,” replied Isabel. “Are you sure that you have the right address?”
“Mrs. Louella Hightower is my mother; I don’t know anything about a Ms. Hess. Is Mrs. Hightower here today?”
“Come right in, Jennifer, and let me get Louella for you,” Isabel said, as she regained her decorum and held the screen door open. “If you will take a seat right here on this love seat, she will be with you in just a moment.”
Louella had finished with the day’s baking, and eight of her mile-high fruit pies were cooling on the wire cooling racks on the stainless steel work table. Louella was just preparing to leave for the day as Isabel pushed through the swinging door with a most quizzical look on her face. “Louella, there’s a lady in the front vestibule who says that she is Jennifer Ruth Hightower.” Louella just stared at her, hardly reacted, and actually hesitated for almost a half minute before the true impact of Isabel’s announcement seemed to sink in. “Jennifer Ruth Hightower?” she asked in a quavering voice.
“Yes, Louella, I think she said that she was Jennifer Ruth . . .” But, before she could finish her sentence, Louella had already disappeared through the swinging door and was virtually sprinting through the dining area toward the front vestibule. Because I didn’t want to miss a minute of the excitement to come, I was loping along right behind her.
Jennifer looked up as Louella burst into the vestibule. Louella suddenly stopped her forward movement and paused for a moment as if inspecting her visitor. “My God, you look just like your grandmother, Jennifer Ruth! I never thought I’d ever see you again after you left with your father so many years ago.” The tears running down Louella’s face were unabashed tears of joy. Their embrace, tearful and heartfelt, was prolonged and emotional, as decades of doubt and fears dissolved in that moment.
Micah and Isabel quietly exchanged glances and excused themselves leaving Louella and Jennifer alone in the vestibule to explore their new found relationship. There would be plenty of time for questions and answers, and, of course, Isabel and Micah certainly had their share. I stayed put, not wanting to miss any of the unfolding drama.
After nearly forty-seven years of disappointment and loneliness, Louella eclipsed everyone in her need to know all there is to know about Jennifer Ruth. Louella’s questions began to come fast and furious as Isabel ventured back just long enough to guide the two women from the vestibule to the more spacious and comfortable common area just off the dining room. I was overwhelmed with the dialogue as the conversation escalated, and I settled down on the cool hardwood floor to listen.
Louella and her first husband, Harold Hightower, divorced in 1939 when Jennifer Ruth was just 12 years old. Because Louella, at that time, was still almost a child herself and had no assets, Harold easily won custody of Jennifer Ruth and headed back to his original home town of Chicago. Because visitation was not an easily enforceable issue in those days, Louella had not seen or heard from Jennifer Ruth since August of 1939 and eventually lost complete touch with her until that Friday when she knocked on the Inn front door. In fact, no one at the Inn was aware Louella had any living relatives left in the world, say nothing of a daughter.
According to Jennifer Ruth, her father had remarried almost immediately and moved from Chicago with Jennifer and his new bride to the town of Urbana, Illinois. Unable to have children of her own, Jennifer’s new stepmother, Norma, soon accepted, and came to love, Jennifer Ruth as her own. Jennifer Ruth apparently led a happy life during her teenage years and grew very close to her stepmother. Jennifer Ruth enjoyed school, proved to be a excellent student, and graduated from the nearby University of Illinois with a degree in nutrition in 1949. Jennifer Ruth never married and eventually took a job as a staff nutritionist with a small but rapidly growing fast-food company in Oakbrook, Il., just outside of Chicago.
When Harold Hightower died suddenly in an automobile accident in April of 1961 just before Jennifer’s thirty-fourth birthday, Jennifer Ruth brought her stepmother to her apartment in Villa Park and lived with her there until she passed on in November of 1977.
Once orphaned, Jennifer Ruth somehow felt compelled to locate her birth mother, Louella Hightower, in hopes that she might still be alive. Jennifer’s search was slow and laborious, and she wrote letters to anyone she thought could help. Each search always came to a dead-end showing Louella Hightower’s last residence as Binghamton, New York. Finally, after several contacts with the US Department of Labor and the Social Security Administration, an unauthorized and somewhat clandestine search of Social Security records in November 1986 came up with a ‘Louella Hightower Hess’ living in Dial, GA, and employed at Faded Glory Farm, a north Georgia B&B.
To describe Jennifer Ruth Hightower as a minimalist would be considered an understatement. After working as lead-nutritionist for nearly 35 years at McDonald’s in Oakbrook, Il., and allegedly accruing thousands of shares of common stock, Jennifer Ruth still doesn’t own an automobile and continues to live in the same small rented apartment in Villa Park that she moved into more than thirty years ago. She traveled by AMTRAK to Atlanta and with a local bus company from Atlanta to Blue Ridge. Subsequent transportation from Blue Ridge to the Inn was provided by the kindness of strangers. Actually, Jennifer Ruth thumbed a ride from Blue Ridge out to the Inn in Morganton that day.
Since, as Friday afternoon progressed and the arrival of Inn guests began to intrude on Louella’s reunion, a weary but very happy Louella Hightower Hess offered to drive Jennifer Ruth to her own home in Dial to spend the night. Micah and Isabel seemed disappointed to see these happy moments end, but with guests arriving and a busy Inn to run, they had no choice but to get to their work. Their hope was to spend some time with Jennifer Ruth and her mother later on in the weekend. I could have listened forever, but somehow I suspected that I would be seeing a lot more of Jennifer Ruth over the next few days.
To my human counterparts, family IS everything. As a dog, even I realize that the probabilities of Louella ending up, face-to-face, with her long-lost daughter after forty-six years were dismal, at best. Few situations like this have happy endings, and I am very happy for Louella and Jennifer Ruth. I am looking forward to a joyous, long-term outcome for them both.