The year after my mother's funeral, Fritz Waring was shot during a high-stakes poker game and Flora's and Nonie's great correspondence began. The sixteen-year-old Flora had written Nonie a long, emotional letter with the gory details (he had been shot between the eyes) and Nonie had answered back. Immediately came a second letter and Nonie felt it was her duty to reply, and this went on until her death. Flora always started her letters, "Dear Mrs. Anstruther," and signed them, "Your Friend, Flora Waring."
"The poor child thinks I am her diary," Nonie would remark, reading Flora's latest letter. Sometimes she would shake her head and murmur, "Gracious!" The letters disappeared before anyone else could read them. "Young people shouldn't write down personal things they might regret later," Nonie said.
Flora rode the train to Nonie's funeral in the spring of 1945. She was in her last year of teachers college in Birmingham and hoped to begin teaching in the fall.
"Flora's turned into a looker," said my father, making it sound like something short of a compliment. "Though not in your mother's style."
When friends came back to our house after the funeral, Flora greeted them and passed platters and refilled glasses like she was part of the family, which I suppose she felt she was. After the crowd had thinned, we noticed that a cluster of people had gathered around Nonie's wing chair and then we saw that Flora was sitting in it--the first person to do so since Nonie's death. She appeared to be telling a story. Everyone was rapt, even Father McFall, the circumspect Rector of Our Lady's, though he was careful to register a degree of separateness by the quizzical twist of his brow. Flora, softly weeping, was reading from something in her lap. When my father and I edged closer we saw that she was reading aloud from Nonie's letters.
I can still see Flora, the way her large moonlike face floated out at you from the frame of the wing chair. She wore her dark hair swept back from a middle parting, then falling in soft waves over the ears and pinned up loosely at the nape of the neck, a style you often see in movies and television dramas being faithful to the late 1930's and early'40's. Her forehead was spacious, though not high, and her wide-apart brown eyes, when they were not silky with tears, conveyed an ardent eagerness to be impressed.
What she was reading from my grandmother's letters seemed to be snippets of the kind of soldierly counsel Nonie loved to dispense to everyone. About taking control of your life and making something of yourself. But after listening for a minute, my father sent me over to tell Flora he wanted to speak with her in the kitchen and that was the end of the performance.
I have often wondered if that was when he broached the idea of her staying with me while he went back for his second summer to the construction job in Oak Ridge, where they were making something highly secret for the war effort. This would have been in character. My father loathed displays of emotion and he may have decided to offer me up, since he needed someone anyway, rather than to reprimand Flora about the letters and evoke her gift of tears.
Excerpted from Flora by Gail Godwin. Copyright © 2013 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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