by Paula Gail Benson
Throughout this week leading up to Mother’s Day we will be publishing several mother related mystery short stories and one non-mystery one. Pelican Spring has never before been published. Be sure to check out the rest of the stories! You can also find all of them after they are posted, and many others, in our Terrific Tales section!
The quest for scholarships is a rite of Spring, but in my twelve years as a law school admissions director, I had never seen a situation like this one.
I’d attended plenty of meetings with potential students, seeking to optimize their chances at partial or full scholarships. What I had not previously encountered was a student-parent-financial-package-tag-team. The parent, Chloe Rathbone, owned a prominent local women’s fashion store and theoretically should have been able to afford her daughter’s tuition. The store only registered on my radar as a place to go look pitifully male when I needed help selecting expensive gifts–a very rare and infrequent occurrence for a dedicated bachelor. But, I knew all the women professors and staff who could afford to shopped there and bragged about it.
Mrs. Rathbone sat wearing a light blue silk suit on one of the straight-backed chairs in front of my metal desk while her daughter, Gabrielle, who had told me to call her Gabby, slumped in the other. Gabby had a list of accomplishments and glowing references in her application package. I also knew she had blackballed my work study student, Tanya, from a sorority. Tanya said it was for the best, that she could never have afforded the expense. Yet, I recognized the hurt in Tanya’s eyes as she watched Mrs. Rathbone and Gabby sashay into my office.
Gabby had received our acceptance in addition to several from other law schools. Now, came the bargaining to see which school could give her the sweetest ride. Only, Mrs. Rathbone instead of Gabby took the lead.
“I know GPA and LSAT scores are important,” she said, leaning forward in her seat, engaging me with her congenial manner. Drawing me into her confidence, her sphere of influence. “And, my Gabrielle has achieved those numbers, but after all, they are only numbers, just representatives of how someone prevailed in a test on a particular day.”
“Not unlike a lawyer’s client’s single day in court.” I couldn’t help myself. Playing devil’s advocate was a job perk, particularly with this master negotiator.
Mrs. Rathbone responded to my challenge with a dazzling smile. “Exactly. That’s why a proven student leader, who has planned and successfully executed projects for student government, sorority, church, and community, is a better law school risk than just an applicant with good numbers.” She pointed to a small painting that sat in a five-by-seven inch wooden frame on the bookshelf behind my desk. “I take it that you have an interest in church matters.”
“Did you paint that yourself?”
She referred to a figure of a white pelican, head bowed, silhouetted against an azure sky. Before the pelican stood three chicks eager to be fed. The pelican provided the only food available, ruby droplets from its own breast.
“My mother painted it for me,” I replied.
“She was a fine artist.”
“I agree. She made and donated the Chrismon decorations to our church. This symbol is my favorite. Do you know its meaning?”
Mrs. Rathbone nodded. “An image for Lent, the pelican-in-her-piety, plucking the blood from her own breast to feed her young. Very dramatic and haunting.”
Every year growing up, when the Chrismons were displayed at church, I searched for the pelican as if I were compelled to study it. The beauty of the bird marred by its sacrifice. Finally, my mother gave me my own copy when I graduated from law school.
I turned to Gabby. “You have a good advocate on your behalf.”
Gabby shrugged. “She’s the one who should be attending law school.”
Mrs. Rathbone winced. “Perhaps a long time ago. My life took its course when I married Gabrielle’s father.”
“I understand you’re very talented in fashion design and merchandizing.” I hoped I had given her a tactful opening to broach the subject we were both avoiding.
She took the bull by the horns. “My success makes you wonder why I’m here.”
Drumming her pale mauve nails against my desk, she began. “It’s not a pretty picture, but you’ll recognize the pattern. Loyalty repaid with deception and a kick in the teeth. If we could have preserved our family and our family business, Gabrielle’s and my financial situation would be quite stable and comfortable. But, when my husband divorced me, the business we built together reverted to him by court order. He was supposed to pay alimony and support, but only did so when it suited him. Otherwise, he said his profits had to go back into his business.”
She stopped to dig in her purse, extracting a pill box with a Monet-style water lily miniature embroidered on its cover. No wonder she admired my painting.
“To survive and provide for my daughter, I started my own company,” she continued, rolling the box back and forth against the palm of her hand. “Then, when I began to succeed, Gabrielle’s father went back to court, arguing I had caused his business to fail. After he got his obligations to us reduced, a new girl friend appeared on the scene. They live quite lavishly now while Gabrielle and I struggle to keep our store going and make ends meet. I won’t throw good money away taking him back to court.”
With her free hand, Mrs. Rathbone grasped Gabrielle’s wrist. Gabby returned a fiercely loyal and proud gaze, her lips seeming to catch her mother’s infectious smile.
Mrs. Rathbone’s eyes never wavered from her daughter’s face. “Gabrielle and I have worked hard to build our assets. Someday, all I have will be hers.”
Gabby squeezed her mother’s hand.
“I can’t afford to deplete those resources by paying for Gabrielle’s entire schooling,” Mrs. Rathbone concluded. “We already have substantial debts from her undergraduate degree. Gabrielle’s record speaks for itself. She has always made me proud. Now, she can bring honor and prestige to the institution that determines she’s worth the investment. Will that be this law school?”
I had to admit she was good. “We’ve already accepted Gabby, Mrs. Rathbone. Whether she comes here is up to her.”
She pulled her hand away from Gabby’s wrist to bring her fist down on the edge of my desk. “You know as well as I do that acceptance letter is just the entrance ticket. Without tokens, a person can only look at the rides. Not climb on board.”
I stared at her fist for a moment, then looked at her face. Her cheeks had become flushed. Perspiration appeared at her hairline.
Placating, I said, “Certainly, Gabby will have a scholarship offer. I hope it will be one she accepts, and that it will please you both.”
The rest of our interview was routine information, due dates, decision time frames. We ended on a cordial note and moved into the waiting room in front of my office. Before reaching the exit door, Mrs. Rathbone stopped to sit. She opened the pill box she carried and popped a tablet under her tongue.
I turned to Tanya, who manned the outer office. “Could you get a bottle of water for Mrs. Rathbone?”
When Tanya handed her the water, Mrs. Rathbone began to turn the cap and frowned.
She eyed Tanya with suspicion. “Do you recycle the bottles?”
“What?” Tanya glanced at me. I shrugged.
“The seal was broken.”
“So sorry.” Tanya blushed and reached for the bottle. “I meant to help you by opening the cap. I’ll get you another.”
Mrs. Rathbone refused to relinquish it and took a tentative sip. After a moment, she asked, “Do you receive financial support from this institution?”
“Work study,” Tanya said. “Not a scholarship.”
“You compete with my daughter for financial aid?”
I answered. “Each student is considered on a case-by-case basis and we do the absolute best we can for everyone.”
Mrs. Rathbone took another sip and put the bottle down as she stood. “Thank you for your time.”
“Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have further questions.”
I watched them leave. Tanya began to apologize. I smiled and told her not to worry before returning to the paperwork on my desk.
Almost an hour later, the dean knocked on my door. She came to tell me Mrs. Rathbone had collapsed on the sidewalk beside the law school and been taken by ambulance to the hospital. Gabby went with her.
The dean wanted to know all the details of our meeting. After I told her, she said, “I’ll see that Gabby gets what she needs from my discretionary fund.”
I was dispatched to the hospital to deliver the news. When I arrived, I found Gabby sitting alone in the ICU waiting room, holding a clear plastic bag containing her mother’s suit and purse.
As I sat down beside Gabby, I expressed my and the school’s concern. She nodded her thanks.
“I wanted to let you know that the dean has approved full funding for you to come to the law school.”
The news didn’t cheer her. “Mama wouldn’t sue you or the school. She has a heart condition. Her collapse wasn’t your fault.”
“You earned the scholarship, Gabby. It’s not a pay-off.”
She turned away.
“Why did you say to call you Gabby? You look so much happier when your mother calls you Gabrielle.”
Her eyes and face brightened. “Gabrielle is the princess of an empire. Gabby’s the drudge who has to attend law school to assure her mother we won’t be taken advantage of again.”
We heard the sound of someone coughing from inside the ICU. Gabby jumped up. “That’s mama. She needs her medicine.”
“Let me help you.” I took the plastic bag, opened it, and handed Gabby her mother’s purse. Gabby rifled through it before saying, “Wait. She was holding the pill box in her hand.”
Digging in her slack pocket, Gabby found the box. When she opened it, a frown creased her forehead.
“These aren’t her meds.”
I stood to look and saw three small red pills inside the box. They looked familiar. Like an over-the-counter brand I took.
“Did she have allergies?” I asked.
“She couldn’t take decongestants. They made her heart race.”
Inside the ICU, the coughing ceased. “The nurses must have helped her,” I said.
Gabby’s wide eyes still focused on the red pills. Against the white lining of the box, they looked so much like the ruby droplets on the pelican’s breast.
“You remember the painting in my office?” I asked. “Some accounts say the pelican killed its children in a fury, then brought them back to life with her own sacrifice.”
Gabby remained quiet.
“A mother’s sacrifice should be honored, don’t you think? But, unless a child uses that sacrifice to strengthen herself, the effort has been wasted. Your mother wouldn’t want you to come to law school just to please her if the experience meant nothing to you.”
“She wants me to never have to beg from my father,” Gabby said.
“Tell her what you want. A legal education to safeguard all you’ve built together.” I paused. “If that’s what you want, Gabby.”
Her eyes glistened as she looked up at me. “Call me Gabrielle.”