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Authors: Dorothea Benton Frank

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Full of Grace

BOOK: Full of Grace
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F
ULL OF
G
RACE
DOROTHEA BENTON FRANK

For the fabulous bad boys of Sullivans Island
my brothers
William Oliver, Theodore Anthony,
and Michael Kent Benton

The weight of love is the heaviest burden
you have learned to carry.
In the silence of the heavens,
it’s a dream that wakes you
with the sound of your own voice singing.

—Marjory Heath Wentworth,
South Carolina poet laureate,
“The Sound of Your Own Voice Singing”

CONTENTS
 
A Message from Michael
 
Firecrackers
 
Grating Parmesan
 
Hide-and-Go-Seek
 
Darwinia/Sardinia
 
Room with a View
 
Bad Boys and Bimbos
 
Shooting from the Hip
 
When It Rains It Pours
 
Five-Alarm
 
Rest Assured
 
Napa
 
On the Bluff
 
Cure-all
 
Everyone’s Opinion
 
Stand By
 
Let’s Not Fight
 
Father Knows Best
 
Gobble It Up
 
Christmas
 
Round Table
 
Mexico City
 
Something About Mary
 
Revelations
 
Joy (Not the Perfume)
 
Another Message from Michael
PROLOGUE
A M
ESSAGE
FROM
M
ICHAEL

U
ntil I met Grace Russo, I did not know that my Lacoste shirts did not have to be dry-cleaned. In this area alone, she has saved me a very tidy sum. But in matters of serious significance, quite simply, Grace has changed my world. She showed me how to understand and value love, and on a lighter note, to crave all things Italian. But that’s not why I love her.

I was a lonely guy, living in a world of lab rats, trying to discover a way to save humanity from any and all illness. I lived on Chinese take-out, pizza to go, loose women, deli roasted chickens, baseball, frustration and beer. Grace popped into my life like a cork exploding from a bottle of champagne. Okay maybe Asti Spumante, but something highly explosive. Oh, she thought she was all kind of chill sophistication, but she was nothing but effervescence. Truth? Just being around her pumped carbonation into my veins, too. This bubbling and rumbling of volcanic eruption began the very first night we met. No one was more surprised than I was, except for Grace. We were avowed nonbubblers and the living embodiments of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force. Two hard-core cynics met their match and two other innocents out there were saved from our callous foibles. It may not sound romantic to you, but no one has ever accused me of being sentimental. Or Grace.

Why am I telling you this? I’m getting my two cents in now because once Grace starts telling you our story, I won’t be able to get a word in with a crowbar. Grace is a wonderful gal, but she can be very chatty, especially when she is excited about something. Anyway, here’s what I would like for you to keep in the back of your mind as this tale unwinds. I guess you could say I’m a happy slave to science but a curious skeptic all around. For all of my life I have believed wholeheartedly that if I wanted the cosmos explained, it was best to find the explanations myself. I always wanted proof. Irrefutable proof that could be measured and qualified.

Soon enough into my research, I had to throw out the old rulebook because some strange things began to happen. I would run an experiment fifty times in my lab and get the same results. But if I ran the exact experiment in the lab next door, the results changed. Then I heard about these guys in California, physicists in quantum mechanics. They ran a series of experiments using meditation in an attempt to lower the pH of water. Yes, you heard me. Meditation. But here are the facts: Four guys meditated on a canister of water and lowered its pH by one full degree. Just by the way, if your pH was lowered by one degree, you’d be dead. But then something interesting happened. When they performed the exact same experiment in another room, the results changed.

Okay, at first blush I thought they were a bunch of crackpots because I wasn’t exactly spellbound by meditation or the pH in water. It was interesting but not mesmerizing. However, what had me nailed were two things. Duplicating the experiment in another space caused a measurable change in results. As I said, I had witnessed and experienced the same phenomena in my own work. And I was fascinated that the intentions of people merely meditating could bring about a chemical change in the water.

What did it mean? Well, it implied that space had memory and you could condition space. And that you could apply human intent and bring about physical change. It had monumental implications. It might just explain a lot of the inexplicable.

You know the old story. A guy walks into a church and begs God for something. No answer. Another ten thousand people do the same thing.
Another ten million. God is apparently busy with other matters and does not reply to them either. Here comes someone in need, just there to sweep the floor, too humble and meek to ask for a toothpick much less anything else, and
boom!
His secret prayers are answered. Why? Perhaps because the space was conditioned by the millions of petitions of others. All those pleas of desperation from those believers who had gone before him had left a memory in the space.
Please! Help me! Save me!
But here’s what science can’t answer. Why
him
?

Why him indeed? You see, before Grace, I never paid much attention to a lot of things. After Grace…well, let’s just say, none of this could have happened without her. Grace and I are like infinitesimal pieces in the most complicated jigsaw puzzle there is and yet we found each other. Was this an accident? No. I can tell you this with certainty. The world holds more wonder and optimism than ever. Because of Grace, I’d say anything is possible. Seriously. Anything. I really would. And that’s why I love her. But I’ll let her give you the whole story.

CHAPTER ONE
F
IRECRACKERS

E
verything Michael just told you is true, but you have to understand our lives in its whole context for this story to make any sense. What happened to us was so unexpected that I think it’s worth understanding how we came together and why everything could only have happened as it did.

So let me take you back to the beginning and, for the moment, offer this singular thought. There are still a few pockets of the earth that transcend the realities of the modern world. To my complete astonishment, the Lowcountry of South Carolina is one of them. No one who knows the area would argue. Not every square inch of it is spiritually uplifting because it’s got its commercial sprawl like all cities. But just minutes south of historic Charleston’s ageless glories and the plastic outskirts of suburbia, the neon world of consumerism begins to melt away.

Soon, moving along on Savannah Highway, there is a small rise in the road. Rantowles Creek. The deep blue water is vast, shimmering like fields of sequins, their tiny edges catching flashes of the afternoon light. Every single time I passed over the tiny bridge I would literally gasp with surprise. It was so vibrant with life and naturally beautiful.

For the trillionth or so time, I wondered why I didn’t sublet my carriage house in downtown Charleston, move out here and sink roots in this blue and green paradise. But as soon as I asked myself the question, the answer was on the tip of my tongue. The answer was simple. I was
still in the game, running with the ball like my hair was on fire. Besides, I was still too urban. I mean, moving to Charleston had been a concession to my family after decades of living in and around New York, working for a luxury travel service that paid very little but took me everywhere I ever wanted to go: Cambodia, Chile, the Galápagos, Patagonia, Istanbul—dream it up, I can arrange it and you will travel like royalty. It was a niche business, but a very nice niche.

Eventually, I moved to the Lowcountry. I had been terrified to leave New York and in other ways just as terrified to stay. My family knew it, too. Truly there wasn’t much happening in my personal life except the packing and unpacking of luggage. So as usual, my father decided to take the matter of my future into his own lovable hands. He begged me to just try Charleston for a while, and after the big showdown, I finally caved. Here’s how that happened.

He called me one morning and said, “You gonna be home tonight?”

I said, “Yeah? Who wants to know?”

“The FBI. Be home at seven and that’s it. Don’t ask no more questions.”

So without any further hullabaloo, Big Al flew to New York and showed up that night with a sack of Chinese takeout. I opened the door to my apartment on lower Fifth Avenue and there he stood. Delighted to see the man who loved me more than anyone ever had, I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him with all my might. I was a mainlining daddy’s girl and not apologetic in the least.

After a feast of hot-and-sour soup, steamed dumplings, Peking duck, pork lo mein, and a lot of chitchat, he stood up and read his fortune cookie aloud.

“‘The Buddha sees Big Al’s only daughter in Charleston living happily in a carriage house on Wentworth Street that her wonderful father already bought for an investment and will allow her to live in rent-free but she has to pay the utilities.’ Humph! Well, what do you say about that, princess?”

What could I say? Even though I was an adult, I still loved the fact that my dad wanted to spoil me rotten. And that he missed me. The next day I called Eric Bomze, who owned the company I worked for, and
who by coincidence had relocated to Charleston after opening another office in Atlanta. He said, Come to Charleston immediately. That was the end of the New York chapter of my life. I called a mover and began to pack.

To my surprise and delight, it turned out that Charleston had everything I thought I needed and more. Like New York, it had neighborhoods and corner stores. It was old but not decrepit. What it didn’t have was snow, ice or, to date, terrorists.

It was little things that made me happy—frothy cappuccinos and the
New York Times
at my fingertips. I loved chamber music and theater. Salsa dancing, tennis and biking. Restaurants and shopping. Charleston had that and lots more, and best of all, I could walk to work. And once Michael became my “other,” he could be at the Medical University in five minutes. We didn’t pay a fortune to park or live on
gridlock alert
during the holiday season. So living downtown was the perfect decision for us.

We couldn’t be bothered with a house and a yard. And I hated to admit it, but a suburban house would have destroyed our relationship in about two days. It wasn’t about who was going to cut the grass or clean out the garage. No, it was fastidiously manicured neighborhoods with married couples having block parties, backyard barbecues with coordinated paper products, children, dogs and bicycles strewn helter-skelter like randomly placed garden sculpture. That whole scene had the malodorous quality of long-term commitment. The
M
word. Like cheap chocolate—it looked good, but ultimately it made your teeth hurt. Marriage was not for me. Or Michael.

We didn’t want to live among a sliding-scale population of predictable failures. Like stick-figure couples in a PowerPoint presentation, diminishing with each screen until over half of them disappeared by the end. We were together because we wanted to be together, not because we were stuck under the heel of a legal agreement, the guilt of custody and every kind of social convention you can name: country-club memberships, religious affiliations, shared bank accounts—the list of entanglements was endless. We shunned them all. I mean, it was great for some people but not for us. It wasn’t who we were.

The only reason I bring this up at all is that I was en route to Hilton Head to visit my entire family for the Fourth of July holidays. I loved them like mad, but every visit to their new home was like the Spanish Inquisition—Italian style. This trip would be no different from all the others. They just couldn’t help themselves.

It was a relief to pass the last red traffic signal that would crop up in the next hour or so because even though it was four in the afternoon, the heat was still eating me alive. I could taste salt in the beads of perspiration that tickled my upper lip. Taking a long swig of water from the sweaty lukewarm bottle in my cup holder, I decided it probably hadn’t been the best idea to make the trip with the top down. But I loved summer and the rushing warm wind on my face and arms. Being a little on the other side of thirty, I bought into sunscreen and its merits. But any way you sliced it, getting older was a drag.

I inhaled the facts of life deeply and exhaled the reality that you really couldn’t have it both ways. Balance was everything. If I wanted to be with Michael, it was best to keep things as they were. And
how things were
was pretty fantastic most days. Besides, I wasn’t certain that I really wanted children. Let’s be honest here. From the practical side, it would have meant giving up my career because I traveled all the time. Or I would have been forced to change industries and start all over again.

I wasn’t willing to gamble the salary cut that might come with an industry switch. And even if the mortgage was covered by my father, I still had bills to pay: groceries, utilities, clothes, cell phone, whatever…Besides, I wasn’t bohemian enough to have children out of wedlock or brave enough to face the possibility that I might wind up raising them myself. Alone. Me, alone with a kid? And truly, illegitimate children would have put my parents in their grave. For sure.

I envisioned calling Connie and Big Al and telling them they had a new precious bastard grandchild. My father would have cut out his own heart and FedExed it to me. My mother would have swallowed every sleeping pill in CVS, washing them down with Pellegrino—wait! No! Not Pellegrino—she never would have wasted the money on something so frivolous. Tap water. She would’ve used tap water. And she definitely
would have left behind a soggy, smeared epistle, drenched in her tears, apologizing for not teaching me better morals. And Nonna? My grandmother? The queen of Naples, Italy? Don’t ask. No. Rock stars acquired children in that unseemly manner, naming them after food groups, not the Russos of Bloomfield, New Jersey, whose great-grandfather played bocce with Mussolini when he visited Naples. And now that my parents were nicely settled in the posh environs of Hilton Head, with nice friends and a membership to two golf clubs, a book club and a bridge club? Nope. Not happening.

“Oh, fine,” I said aloud, and changed the radio station.

As I passed each stretch of forest that thumped with the ghostly heartbeats of soldiers long gone to glory, honestly, I could feel my chest constrict. The minute I got there they would start asking questions, implying I was wasting my life, telling me how shallow I was. But in a nice way, of course.

Look, some of the details in my bio might help you understand my case. As you know, I’m Italian Catholic, now a ripened thirty-two and, as you know, God help us, the only daughter and unmarried. If that wasn’t enough, Michael, the one true and only love of my entire life, is unfortunately Irish. He insisted his red hair was actually more blond and that his freckled nose was merely sun-kissed, but for my family’s money, he was as Irish as Paddy’s pig, even though they had never laid eyes on him. Worse, as my parents would say, he fell away from
the One True Church
. He’s basically an agnostic.

I mean, he had never come right out and declared himself to be an agnostic or an atheist, but I knew Michael inside and out. He doesn’t want to support the Vatican machine and he thought science would eventually explain everything. He might be right. He might just be right. Or not.

All I know is this. From the first moment I met Michael Higgins I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with him. Okay, I didn’t really know that. But I knew there was a high probability that my sheets were in his future and that I would work every last trick in my female toolbox to get some kind of serious relationship going. On sight, it was that intense.

My boss invited me to his annual Labor Day outdoor barbecue, right? I remember that I really didn’t want to go because it was hot in a totally surreal way. Boiling oil. Mosquitoes the size of small birds. Flying jaws. Hurricanes looming off the coast. But we’re talking Charleston in August, so what else was new? Think handsome men with golf tans, drinking gin and tonics, wearing long trousers printed with little whales and no socks. Women in pink floral sundresses, Lilly or Liberty, sipping frosted stems of Prosecco, toned arms and bony décolleté glistening in their marinade of perfume and glow. All the while an ancient man in a starched linen jacket refilled drinks at a makeshift bar in the brick courtyard and his companion moved in the background in a waltz of service, through the throng, offering pickled shrimp speared with little toothpicks. At the other end of the garden, on an oversize grill, skewers of pork, chicken, onions and pineapple sizzled, filling the air with glorious, mouthwatering fragrances. They would be served from the buffet over steamed rice, with salad and rolls. It was Lowcountry civility and propriety in tandem and completely irresistible.

Anyway, there was Michael leaning over the banister of the veranda, surveying the crowd, and I caught his eye. He was wearing a cream-colored linen jacket over a navy T-shirt with navy lightweight gabardine trousers. By coincidence, so was I. But my navy T-shirt was actually a camisole and my jacket hung from the crook of my finger over my shoulder. I gave him a small smile and a slight nod.

Just to clarify the varying degrees of “small smile and slight nod” and what they meant, this one meant
The drawbridge is lowered. You may approach
. At the far end of the spectrum, there was the jaw-dropper, in which your face was agog and you looked like a total ass with zero odds to recoup your cool. And at the opposite end there’s the vacant stare as your eyes slide elsewhere that says
Don’t even think about it
. Well seasoned in reading social signals, the smiling and self-assured Michael came down from the porch and made his way to my side.

“Don’t I know you from someplace?” he said.

“Good grief. Is that the best you can do?” I said. And I fell like a fool into the endless blue of his eyes.

“Do you want to live together? My apartment is over-air-
conditioned,” he said with a grin and dimples that were beyond adorable and irresistible. He reached in his pocket and pulled out his keys. “It’s freezing there.”

“So is my place, and you’re pretty optimistic,” I said. “Shouldn’t we start with something like, I don’t know,
dinner
?”

“I don’t know. Sure. Hey, do you like baseball?”

“What red-blooded American doesn’t?”

“Well, want to come see me play?”

“What’s up with you and baseball? You play for the Yankees?”

“No, no. I play for the MUSC team to benefit the terminal patients in the children’s wing. My friend Larry works there with critical-care kids. Got me involved.”

Well, that stopped me in my lustful tracks. I mean, any man eager to play ball for a good cause in that heat had to be a great guy. I looked at him and said, “Sure. I’d love to.”

What ensued over the next few weeks were many baseball games, too many romantic fattening dinners, lots of sweaty hooking-up and me holding out on the deed. Rule one: If you want a man to take you seriously, keep your britches on. Besides, there were so many things about him I didn’t know. Like, was he a pathological liar? A philanderer? In huge debt? Did he have a drinking problem? An ex-wife with anger issues? Twenty children? A drug problem?

Did any of these things matter? Not really. No, they didn’t really matter at all because for the first time in my life I was dumbstruck, absolutely flattened by the stupefying, powerful all-consuming feelings I had for a member of the opposite sex.

Eventually our bloomers hit the floor and I gave him keys. He put his stuff in storage and moved in. I had never been as happy as I was then, and in my head I was doing the hippie dance of stoned-out love every waking minute. Ah, yes, life was pretty darn near perfection in the domestic arena. Until I talked to my mother or my father or any member of the clan. Little by little my parents wheedled the facts about Michael from me. They were aghast that he was Irish, but the fact that he was doing stem-cell research in a project to repair heart-wall muscle sent them over the moon. He became
the Irish Baby Butcher
.

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