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Nancy and Nick: A Cooney Classic Romance, page 1


Nancy and Nick: A Cooney Classic Romance

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Nancy and Nick: A Cooney Classic Romance

  Nancy and Nick

  A Cooney Classic Romance

  Caroline B. Cooney


















  A Biography of Caroline B. Cooney


  MY MOTHER COLLECTS KITCHEN antiques. An investment, she says. Personally, I think an investment is something you’d be willing to sell, but nothing would induce Mother to part with any of her collection.

  Last week we took one of our usual fourteen-hour Saturday excursions to the mountains, supposedly (as always) to admire the laurels and rhododendrons, but really to scour the Blue Ridge for any antique shops that might have popped up since our last trip there. Mother found a very early Jell-O box and a wire carpet beater with an entirely different shape from any of her other carpet beaters. She also spotted a very old Moravian cookie cutter shaped like a hand, but by then we were broke.

  Also, I was reminding her at five-minute intervals that the remaining cash had to buy me a new pair of shoes, because my toes were becoming slowly deformed in my old pair. You could see that Mother was really torn between having a daughter with bent toes and owning that cookie cutter. I will be the only girl in town whose mother thinks of cookie cutters every time she looks at my feet.

  When we get back home from our typical excursions we stagger into the apartment, trembling with driving fatigue. But this week, thank goodness, we went to Richmond, which is only an hour away. Sensible people go there quite often. Of course, sensible people are going to art museums or concerts or visiting civilized friends, while we are hitting the flea markets.

  I am not a connoisseur of flea markets (connoisseurs presumably like the thing they’re expert in) but I have been to my share of them. I think it would be fair to say I have been to about one hundred times my share of them. They’re all alike. Booth after booth of garbage—old tacky junky stuff from a box somebody’s aunt meant to throw out in 1964 but forgot and stashed in a corner and now they want two years’ worth of your allowance for every scrap of it. When my mother sees a booth like that, her eyes kind of glaze over and her breath comes faster. She is totally transported with the belief that somewhere in that heap of junk is a genuine find.

  She paws, strokes, taps, and fingers every object she sees. And at a flea market, that’s a lot of objects. I come along not to buy and not to browse, but to keep Mother from spending the tent money.

  “Nancy! Pssssst!” Mother was giving me her frantic but coolly disguised as totally bored look. This meant she had found a find.

  “Yes, Mother?” I strolled over. I am well-trained. We each picked up a piece of Depression glass and fondled it while Mother whispered in my ear. “Those books, Nancy—silly woman has those books marked for only two dollars apiece.”

  Now if it were a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, I might be able to tell if it was underpriced. These books, however, were tired-looking Book-of-the-Month-Club editions of ten-year-old best sellers. “That’s why there are libraries, Mother,” I said. “So you can read that stuff free.”

  “No, no, no, no, Nancy.” She was quite put out with me. Setting down the Depression glass, she lost all caution and led me to the book row. From between The Robe and What’s New in Color Photography: 1963, she drew out a slim worn volume that had once been pale blue with tiny flowers in a diagonal latticework. About a third of the way down the front of the cover was a large light rectangle with lacy corners. It contained the title in tangled complex script: The Nearing River Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy Cookbook of 1915.

  “Whee,” I said dutifully.

  Mother, obviously wafted to kitchen antiques heaven, smiled dreamily.

  When the century was young, women’s clubs and church groups loved to put together cookbooks. A fair number of these have survived and Mother feels it is her purpose here on earth to perpetuate the survival rate. We have, I believe, eighty-three ancient cookbooks. Mother reads them over and over, lovingly, the way other women read romances and gothics. Mother loves the recipes, the advertisements, the contributors’ names, the peculiar measurements, the illustrations, the little family histories that can sometimes be deduced from odd paragraphs here and there … but she detests actually cooking. That, at least, is a feeling with which I can identify.

  While I maneuvered through the late-afternoon traffic, Mother sat in the passenger seat happily muttering to herself about Miss Mary H. Metcalf’s recipe for Boiled Cider Pie. It’s sort of like driving with the radio on. After a while you don’t notice it.

  I am always the driver in our little duo. Mother hates to drive. She wants me to drive so she can look out the window and spot little hand-painted antique shop signs. It would be nice if she would spot them before I am past the turn, but she never does.

  Mother thought the nicest thing in my life was my sixteenth birthday and the acquisition of a license. Everybody else’s parents were postponing the evil day, moaning about Freedom, the Misuse of; or Gas, the High Cost of; or Cars, the Privilege and Responsibility of. But my mother had me at the Motor Vehicle Bureau at dawn on my birthday, fee in hand. By noon of the day I got my temporary license, we had already parallel-parked in front of three antique shops with Mother joyously and—as it turned out—permanently ensconced in the passenger seat.

  “Nancy, guess what?”

  “Mother, wait till I’m out of this traffic circle, okay?”

  “Nancy, just listen to this.”

  “Mother, that furniture van is going to eat our bumper. Wait a minute.” I sometimes think that having children will come as no shock to me. I have always driven a car with an immature person babbling at me.

  “Nancy, the woman who donated the recipe for cough syrup is named Nearing. Miss Elizabeth Priory Nearing.”

  I avoided the furniture van, extricated myself from the traffic circle, honked at a dachshund deliberating whether to cross the street, and accelerated quickly to avoid a crash with a guy in an old Triumph who was jumping the light. “How about that?” I said.

  But Mother went on, “I wonder … I wonder if we’re related.”

  I hadn’t even paid attention to the name of that particular recipe donor. Our last name is Nearing. Father died years ago. Mother had never met any of his family and we’d never come across anybody else named Nearing. I said, “If she donated a recipe to a cookbook that was published in 1915, I very much doubt she is still with us.”

  “She may have had descendants.”

  “In 1915, Mother, people named Miss did not have descendants.”

  “She could have been young in 1915. She could have gotten married later and had children.”

  I’ve always envied people with families. You just know that at Thanksgiving they’re gathered around the dining room table, kissing their fourth cousins, embracing their aunts, and generally reveling in all those roots. If you had a big family there’d always be somebody to babysit for or to do your babysitting. There’d always be little kids’ stockings to make neat little presents for and somebody who could teach you to knit or take you to New York or organize a family soccer team or tell you the name of a good automobile mechanic they trust.

  Mother and I have each other.

  Fortunately I like Mother. It’s always good to like the person with whom you share a four-room apartment that is hung, strewn, and jammed with little antiques. I have a bolt on the insi
de of my bedroom door so the antiques can’t slither in during the night. Grow them on your side of the apartment, I tell Mother.

  Mother tells me I should have a hobby myself. Everyone needs a hobby, she insists; hobbies make a person well-rounded.

  My hobby, I tell her, is daydreaming about boys. Someday I plan to expand this hobby to include a real live boy. But this seems to require the consent of the boy, and so far this hasn’t happened.

  My favorite study hall activity is thinking of interesting names for a boy to have. Then I see how Nancy Nearing would look linked with it. Oh Nancy, says my mother sadly, when she finds my little lists. Take up classical music or transmission repair. Something you can really benefit from.

  I tell her I would truly benefit from having a boyfriend.

  I drove the last several miles home from Richmond daydreaming that Miss Elizabeth Priory Nearing had married late in life and had a son. He came down with a terrible lung disease, but she saved him with her famous cough remedy. He grew up and also had a son and we would meet and the family would be complete once more. I almost went through a red light trying to work out how many generations I was going to need for this fantasy to work right.

  “We’re home, Mother.” I slid the little car between the custom van with triangle windows that belongs to the two young men in the apartment above us and the gas-guzzling chrome-studded ship that belongs to the retired couple in the apartment below us.

  “Nancy, you must read this cookbook,” said my mother, as if cookbook reading were on a par with good citizenship and voting.

  “Sure,” I said. I locked the car. We ran up the stairs, something Mother often does fifteen times in a row. Exercise, she explains when people begin to regard her nervously. Keeps the old heart pumping. Or stops it, she gets told. Anyway, we ran up.

  “Really, Nan,” she said again, “I want you to read this cookbook.”

  “Mother, I have a term paper due on Lord Byron.” Cookbook reading is very very low on my list of things to read even when I’m not doing a paper on Lord Byron. Besides, cooking is too detestable even to think about. One of my life goals is to be rich enough to eat all my meals out.

  “But, Nannie,” Mother said (and I knew she really wanted it, the way she was going through all my nicknames), “Nannie, this book is about you, you’ll love it.”

  It was difficult to imagine how a cookbook compiled in 1915 could be about me. I shooed Mother out of my room and began concentrating on Lord Byron. I don’t know why English teachers think Byron is so interesting. Every single poem of his I’ve ever read is a complete dud. I wondered what the teacher would say if I handed him a paper that began, “For reasons not made clear in research texts, this conceited fellow—possibly through the aid of a good press agent—got his poems published.”

  I probably would not get an A.

  After I had written the word dud in fat curving letters and added little birds and flowers and leaves, like a medieval manuscript, I decided that maybe a cookbook about me would be more interesting than Lord Byron. I opened my bedroom door. “Mother,” I said (you never have to yell in an apartment as small as ours), “what makes you say that cookbook is about me?”

  She was right there, putting the cookbook in my hand.

  My desk chair is on casters. I love to propel myself around the bedroom. I set the cookbook on my lap and scooted back to my desk and shoved Lord Byron to the rear, where he belonged.

  I began with the introduction. I don’t normally read introductions—they’re sure to be stuffy—but the word Nearing, my own last name, kept popping out at me.

  It seemed that Nearing River was a town in North Carolina. The name had nothing to do with proximity to a body of water, although there was a river there. The town was founded by the Nearing family. Half the members of the Daughters of the Confederacy Chapter that compiled the cookbook seemed to be married to Nearings or sprung from Nearings or both. There was actually a biscuit recipe written by Anne Nearing Nearing.

  I suddenly began thinking of the distant cousins and grandmothers with white hair and aprons and old cookie recipes that I’d daydreamed about during the drive home. (Though, in fact, all my friends’ grandmothers are young with dark hair and buy their cookies at the grocery.)

  And then came the real surprise.

  The very first recipe had been put in by a Nearing lady who said she had gotten it from her grandmother: Nelle Catherine Nearing.

  I was so startled I nearly tore the page in half and ruined Mother’s investment.

  Nelle Catherine Nearing is my name. Mother had wanted to call her new baby daughter Melissa, but Father, the father I can’t remember, had insisted on Nelle Catherine. And after all that arguing to settle on such an old-fashioned name, he called me nothing but Nancy.

  It was weird to find my own name scattered throughout a cookbook dated 1915. As far as I could piece it together, there were no fewer than four donors whose names were Nelle Catherine. I read every recipe in the little volume. Susannah Nearing had a sweet potato pie recipe. Nelle Catherine Nearing Roberson submitted a recipe using cold potatoes, something apparently unheard of, because she had to explain that she really did mean cold potatoes; she called her novelty potato salad. Elizabeth Mollison and Jeannie Nearing Brown had cake recipes and Constance Nearing Fitzhugh gave out hints on how to use the new electric irons that were just coming out. Kate Firth was cooking with gas now, which was her bread-making secret, and Nancy Nearing MacDonald told how to dry spices in the attic.

  Nancy Nearing MacDonald had something else to say, too.

  Since 1748, when the Nearings first came to North Carolina, the women had been named Nelle Catherine and nicknamed N. C., for their initials. “Nancy” was not a name at all, but a quick way of saying “N. C.”

  “Mother?” I said. I was actually breathing quickly and my hands were getting prickly. “Mother, do you really think this is me?”

  “Nannie, how could it be anyone else? Your father insisted on naming you Nelle Catherine. But he would never call you anything but Nancy.”

  “But, Mother, if we are related to these Nearings, we must have rafts of relatives. Didn’t Father ever say anything to you about them?”

  “The only thing your father ever said to me about his past was that he had grown up in a small town and hated it. He never wanted to see another one again and wanted to make sure no wife or daughter of his was ever going to have to endure small town life.”

  “Mother, you’ve failed. We are unquestionably living in a small town.”

  “I think by comparison with wherever he came from, this is quite a city, Nan. I think small town means, you know, say, a thousand people. Or even less.”

  “We have twice that many people in our high school.”

  “Precisely. I wonder where Nearing River, North Carolina, is and how many people it has.”

  We grabbed the atlas and flipped to North Carolina. We pored through the town listings till we found Nearing River. F-7 on the grids. We ran our fingers over the page and there was a teeny tiny open circle with a teeny tiny label that said NEARING RIVER.

  Mother got out her mileage pen and ran it down the thready little secondary roads leading from our home to Nearing River. “Not bad. Only a hundred and seventy miles. We’ll go next Saturday.”

  “Mother,” I said irritably, “one hundred seventy miles is not only. One hundred seventy miles is a lot.”

  “A town that produced a cookbook like that,” murmured Mother. “It must be a nice place.”

  I began to get embarrassed just thinking about going there. What would Mother do? Cruise up and down the streets calling “Yoo-hoo, Nearings, here we are”? A woman who would run up and down the same stairs fifteen times in a row would do anything. I could just see us going into the banks and the post office demanding to meet all Nearings, especially those with the initials N. C.

  “I wonder if Kate Firth’s gas stove is still around,” said Mother dreamily.

  “Mother! We do n
ot have room for an old stove in here!”

  “Or Nancy Nearing MacDonald’s spice jars.” Her eyes took on a rhapsodic gleam. I have such a one-track mind. All I could wonder about was whether Nancy Nearing MacDonald had a handsome grandson. Or would he be a great-grandson?


  IT MAY HAVE BEEN “only” one hundred seventy miles, but let me tell you, they were one hundred seventy hard, long, tough miles. “Mother, can’t you ever take a turn driving?” I said desperately.

  “Nancy, love, I’m trying to read that sign. Does it say hamburgers or antiques?”

  “If it says hamburgers I’ll stop.”

  “Antiques, Nan, antiques! Stop, stop!”

  I refused to stop. My fingers had been wrapped around the steering wheel for three hours, and except for food I wasn’t going to unwrap them until we tottered into Nearing River. Mother sat and sulked. I did battle with some wild teenagers in a dune buggy and an old lady in a Dodge Dart. After that I played footsie with a truck that was having a love affair with the dotted line in the middle of the road. When we finally hauled into Nearing River I had to sit and pant for a minute. Mother vaulted out right away, of course, and began scouring the village for antique shops.

  When I had calmed down, I caught up to her. “For this I drove three and three-quarter hours?” I said, looking at the pitiful rundown main street that seemed to be all of Nearing River. Half the stores were unoccupied. The other half looked in dire need of customers. Probably it was like so many other downtown shopping areas: a shopping mall or two had ruined it.

  “You should have made better time than that,” said Mother. “Why do you drive so slowly, anyway?”

  There seemed no point in mentioning the antagonists I’d encountered on the road. I concentrated on trying to find the river, creek, stream, or even swamp for which Nearing River could have been named, but there was no evidence of one.

  “Ah ha!” said Mother triumphantly.

  I need hardly say this is the exclamation that prefaces entrance into yet another antique shop. I tried to look interested in case any handsome young man were in there, although it is my experience (and let me tell you, I am experienced with antique shops) that it is a rare teenage boy who hangs out at an antique shop.

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