Finding Libbie

Finding Libbie ~ A Novel

Deanna Lynn Sletten


Poring over a dusty hatbox of photographs in her grandmother’s closet, Emily Prentice is shocked to discover her father was married to his high school sweetheart before meeting her mother.

In the summer of 1968, Jack and Libbie fall in love under the spell of their small town, untouched by the chaos of the late sixties. Though Libbie’s well-to-do parents disapprove of Jack’s humble family and his aspiration to become a mechanic, she marries Jack a year after they graduate high school. But soon their happiness crumbles as Libbie’s mental state unravels and she is drawn to alcohol and drugs. Despite his efforts to help her, Jack loses the woman he loves and is forced to move on with his life.

Now that Emily’s mother has passed away, Jack is alone again, and Emily grows obsessed with the beautiful woman who had given her father such joy. Determined to find Libbie, Emily pieces together the couple’s fragmented past. But is it too late for happy endings?

Finding Libbie is a powerful story of a love so strong that decades cannot tear it apart.

If you enjoyed Memories or Night Music, then you'll love this hauntingly beautiful story of Jack and Libbie in Finding Libbie.

Women's Fiction/Family Drama

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Please enjoy the First Chapter of Finding Libbie:

Chapter One



You never know what the day will bring, Emily Prentice thought as she stepped outside her town house into the May sunshine. It was something her grandma Bev always said, and for some reason, those words were echoing in her thoughts this morning.

As she walked to her car in the driveway, she inhaled the cool spring air—a delight after the long months of a northern Minnesota winter. She hopped into her Jeep and drove off through the quiet neighborhood until she turned onto the main road that ran south through town.

Unable to resist the fresh air, Emily opened the window a crack and let it rush across her face. A stray blond hair escaped her ponytail, and she swirled it behind her ear with her fingertip as her blue eyes kept vigil on the traffic around her. It was early morning and cars were rushing about the town of Jamison on their way to school, work, shopping, or any other number of destinations. By now, the local Walmart parking lot would be filling up, as would the Target. School parking lots would be mass confusion as parents dropped off children, and in an hour, the mall would open and shoppers would make their way there. Emily was happy that she wasn’t joining the throngs of people in any of those places. She was headed to the other side of town to her grandmother’s farmhouse, where, at least for the time being, it was still peaceful.

Emily followed the road that ran beside beautiful Lake Ogimaa. The area was rich in Ojibwa culture and many of the lakes and landmarks were named using the local Native American language. Ogimaa meant “chief” in Ojibwa. The blue water sparkled in the morning sunshine. The ice had finally melted, and it was refreshing to see the open water. The lake’s shore was trimmed with expensive homes on the north bank, resorts on the east bank, and the local park on the west bank where she was driving now. She continued on past Jamison State College, which had sat on the south shore of the lake since the early 1900s, and continued farther south where old farms were slowly being sold off and turned into housing developments to satisfy the needs of a growing community.

Less than thirty-five years ago, housing developments hadn’t been necessary for the sleepy town whose only saving graces were the tourists visiting the resorts in the summer and the college students in the winter. The downtown stores supplied all the necessities, and the three gas stations took turns being open on Sundays. Back then, as it had been for over one hundred years, two families owned the majority of the businesses in town—the Wilkenses and the Jamisons—and if one more Wilkens had lived in the town at the time of its incorporation in 1898, the town would have been named Wilkens instead. Of course, that had been a bone of contention between the two families for over a century.

But all that had happened before Emily was born thirty years ago, and she didn’t remember how the town looked before the mall opened, the chain department stores bought out the old fairgrounds, or the many franchised restaurants filled the strip between the lake and the mall. She only knew about it from the stories passed down by her grandmother and her father of how the town used to be.

The traffic thinned out as Emily left the southern tip of Jamison and headed out to the new suburbs where nice, modest-priced homes were being built on one-acre lots in a maze of streets. Farther down the road from those, she turned right on old County Road 9, which had been renamed Valley View Drive years ago but which locals still called by its original name. Soon, she was driving past open farmland separated by clumps of pines and scattered oak and birch trees. The fields were just beginning to turn green and sat untended because no one farmed here anymore. Some of the land was still used for grazing horses, but most of it was just sitting there, waiting to be plucked up by the highest bidder to turn it into an oasis of two-story houses with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a family/media room. The world had closed in on Jamison, and although growth was welcomed by many, it was resented by those who’d lived there the longest.

Emily gazed around her at the open fields that would soon be dotted with houses. Her heart ached at the thought that this would all be gone soon. No more would there be the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay in the summer or wide-open land where deer grazed and eagles hunted. Century-old farmhouses would be bulldozed, all of the memories inside them brushed away in an instant. Progress was necessary, but Emily wished that some things would never change.

A small rail fence on the left marked the beginning of the Prentice farmland, and Emily smiled when she saw her grandmother’s farmhouse in the distance amidst a grove of trees. As she drew nearer, the two front windows on the second floor winked at her like two friendly eyes, and the screened-in porch below them spread across the front of the house like a smile. Many old farmhouses looked creepy, but her grandmother’s always looked cheerful and welcoming.

Emily turned her car left and drove up the long gravel driveway past old oak trees that spread out their limbs like welcoming arms and tall spruce trees that stood at attention high up into the sky. An old, faded red barn sat off in the distance, and the small chicken coop beside it sagged a bit to the left. A large building that had once been her grandfather’s woodworking shop now sat silent and empty. Since the death of Grandpa Norm in 1998, the outbuildings were no longer being tended to, but the house still looked as clean and fresh as always. Her grandmother might be going on eighty-four, but she was as active as when Emily was a little girl tromping the fields alongside her on her daily walk.

Emily pulled her car up to the back of the house and parked under a maple tree. Stepping out, she looked around slowly, memorizing every bit of the land and the house. Just as her neighbors had done, Emily’s grandmother had sold off the farm to developers, and in a year or so, the farmland and house would be a distant memory. Emily felt like all her childhood memories had been sold along with it. She’d never again walk the fields with her grandmother, never explore the inside of the musty old barn, and never be able to bring her own children here—when she had them—to relive the past. The past would be gone forever.

Sighing, Emily walked toward the back mudroom, but before she reached the door, her grandmother opened it and smiled down at her. Emily couldn’t help but smile back. Her grandmother’s charm was too sweet to ignore.

“There’s my Emily,” Beverly Prentice said, standing in the doorway and wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. “You’re in time for my homemade sweet rolls. They’re just out of the oven. And I’ll even make you one of your sweet coffees with that fancy machine you all gave me for Christmas.”

Emily took the three steps up into the mudroom as her grandmother moved aside to let her in. The two women hugged, and Emily felt comforted by her familiar scent. She smelled of spices from baking and flowery fabric softener that lingered on her soft cotton blouses. To Emily, it was the smell of love.

Emily slipped off her sneakers, and the two women walked into the tiny hallway and took a right into the small country kitchen. Emily inhaled deeply. The sweet aroma of rolls made her mouth water.

“You’re going to make me fat,” Emily said, taking down two plates and retrieving the forks and napkins. “Did it occur to you that maybe I’d already eaten breakfast?”

Bev shook her head. “I’ll bet you haven’t. And a couple of sweet rolls aren’t going to put an ounce of fat on your lean body.” She bustled around the kitchen, turning on the coffee machine and selecting her granddaughter’s favorite coffee packet to put in it.

Emily watched her as she took down mugs. She swore her grandmother had more energy than she did. Even though her grandmother complained of slowing down, Emily had yet to see any sign of it. She was two inches shorter than Emily’s own five-foot-six frame, and she had just enough padding on her to look healthy. Today, she wore a pale-pink blouse and brown knit slacks with a pair of tan Keds. Her face had been kissed by time, with each wrinkle earned from smiles and worry, but her blue eyes still shone brightly and sparkled with delight at the simplest of things. It was a sweet face that cast its spell instantly over anyone lucky enough to meet her. Her quick smiles and easy ways made people want to sit down and confide in her, and throughout her life, many had.

Once the coffee was poured, Bev and Emily took their treat out into the dining room and sat at the oval oak table. The room held a matching hutch on one side and three large windows that looked out into the fields where her grandfather’s cows had once grazed. When Emily was younger, she’d often sit here in early mornings or evenings and watch as white-tailed deer grazed in among the cows. Now the view held only spring grass starting to sprout out of the untended land.

Emily bit into her sweet roll and sighed. It was warm, sweet, and gooey, and it was perfect.

“You’re a sweetheart to help your old grandma pack up this house,” Bev said, her eyes sparkling at Emily. “It’s going to be a big job, going through generations of things in this old farmhouse.”

“I’m happy to help, Grandma. We have all summer to do it, so it won’t be too bad. We can take one room at a time.” Emily glanced around her. “What do you think Grandpa would say about the family farm being sold off to developers? Would he be sad?”

Bev shook her head. “Your grandfather was the one who told me to do it years ago. He said, ‘Bevie, don’t you worry about this old place when I’m gone. You sell it off to the highest bidder and live it up.’”

Emily laughed. “Is that what you’re going to do, Grandma? Live it up?”

Bev chuckled. “Well, first off I’m going to move into that little town house two blocks over from yours, and then we’ll see. I might do a little traveling, take a cruise with some of my old lady friends, and maybe even go on some of those casino bus trips. It’ll be nice not having to worry about this big house anymore.”

Emily smiled. “You do deserve to have some fun.”

Bev began stacking the dirty plates to carry into the kitchen. “So, dear, how is that young man of yours? Will he be finished with school this spring?”

Emily hid her grin. She knew her grandmother didn’t approve of her boyfriend, but she always asked politely what he was up to. Emily met Jordan Reardon in their first year at Jamison State College, and they had started living together in the town house by the end of their second year. Emily had quit college after finishing her general education requirements because she hadn’t yet figured out what to major in and couldn’t afford to waste the money. But Jordan had known exactly what course he’d wanted to pursue—a PhD in English literature, eventually obtaining a position as a college professor. So he’d continued his education, while Emily had taken a full-time job at a department store in the mall. That was almost ten years ago, and she was still at the store—albeit now as a manager in the women’s clothing department—and Jordan was at the college, working as a teaching assistant and also taking classes for his doctoral degree.

Her grandmother’s disapproval of Jordan had nothing to do with his character—he was a good man and a hard worker—it was the fact that Emily had supported him while he pursued his many degrees, making it impossible for her to go back to school. Emily didn’t mind helping him, since she still didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She didn’t necessarily like her job at the store, but at least it paid the bills. She figured Jordan would be finished with school at some point and earning a decent income, and then maybe she could go back to college.

“He’s still working toward his PhD,” Emily replied calmly, as she helped her grandmother wash and dry the few dishes. “But he’s been teaching a few undergraduate classes and he should be finished by the end of next year.”

“My, but it takes a long time to get through college these days,” Bev said, shaking her head. “What about you, dear? Will you be going back to college sometime soon?”

Emily sighed. “I’m not sure, Grandma. I still don’t know what I want to do. I’ll just work until I figure it out.”

“Well, you’re a smart girl. You’ll figure something out,” Bev said with certainty.

Emily wished she felt as certain as her grandmother.

Bev placed her hands on her hips. “Well, dear, where shall we start? The basement, main floor, upstairs, or attic?”

Emily thought a moment. They were going to pack up the items her grandmother wanted to take with her to the town house, then separate out the larger items for either storage or to sell. Her father and brother would come and help with the heavier furniture on the day her grandmother moved. In the meantime, she and her grandmother had to go through all the closets and decide what to do with decades of her grandmother’s life.

“Why don’t we start up in the bedroom closets and box up the giveaway items and anything you want to take with you that you absolutely don’t need right now?” Emily suggested.

“Sounds good,” Bev agreed. “All the boxes are upstairs in the guest room.”

The two women trudged upstairs where the master bedroom, two small guest rooms, and the one bathroom were. Armed with tape, markers, and scissors, they went into one of the guest bedrooms and began in the closet.

They began sorting items and boxing up the keepers and the giveaways. Even though her grandfather had been gone a long time, Emily’s grandmother still had some of his old clothes in the guest closet. They boxed those items up for Goodwill, keeping only his army uniform and the suit he’d worn for their wedding. In the dresser, there were long-forgotten sheet sets, doilies, and other linens that they separated out and boxed. Her grandmother told Emily to take any items she might want—like some of the doilies that had been crocheted by her great-grandmother Prentice—and also gave her the military medals belonging to her grandfather that they’d found in a drawer to give to her brother.

“Maybe Edward would like to have these,” Bev said.

Emily nodded. “I’m sure he’d love to.”

After two hours in the first guest bedroom, they moved on to the second one. This room was one that Emily knew well. It was the bedroom she’d slept in when she’d stayed overnight as a child, and it was the room that held all the fun toys her grandmother kept for when children visited. The closet in this room was much like the other one, but deeper, and with shelves from floor to ceiling. Games, dolls, Legos, puzzles, and a variety of other toys sat on the shelves, and a few dress-up clothes were stored in an old chest. An antique cake tin held costume jewelry that Emily used to wear when she played dress-up, and she smiled when she pulled it from the closet.

“You have to keep those,” Bev said. “You just loved playing with them as a child.”

Emily agreed and put the tin aside to take home with her later.

“I wish your mother were here to help,” Bev said as they worked. “She’d offered to sort through things with me years ago before she became sick, but we never had a chance. Poor Kate. She was such a sweet soul.”

“She would have enjoyed this,” Emily agreed. Her mother had died of breast cancer two years earlier, after fighting the disease for four long years. She missed her mother terribly, and she knew her father, Jack, did also. Even at age sixty-four, he still worked five days a week at his garage, fixing cars, tractors, motorcycles, and just about anything else with a motor. In fact, Emily knew he worked even more than he had before her mother died. He rarely left the garage. He was using work to deal with his grief, and Emily found his loneliness heartbreaking.

They separated out which toys to keep and which to give away. As the closet began to empty, Emily stepped inside it and, using a flashlight, searched the top shelf to make sure they’d taken out everything. To her surprise, there was a round box at the very back of the shelf. Using the little stepladder, she climbed up and reached for the box. As she brought it out into the lighted room, she blew on it and a cloud of dust flew in every direction. She took a rag from her pocket and dusted it off, then marveled at how lovely it was. It was a very old hatbox, covered in a creamy-white fabric with soft-pink cabbage roses and green leaves on it. The top of the box was trimmed in eggshell-colored crochet edging. A faded pink ribbon was tied around it to keep the lid secure. The box had also faded over time, but it was still beautiful.

“Grandma? What is this? I’ve never seen this box before.”

Bev turned from where she’d been packing puzzles into a box. She gasped when she saw what was in Emily’s hands. “Oh my!”

Emily set the box on the dresser and stared at her grandmother curiously. “What is it, Grandma?”

Bev walked over to where the box sat and gingerly laid a hand on it. “I’d forgotten all about this,” she said softly. “I haven’t seen this box in nearly forty years.”

Emily watched as a sad expression crossed over her grandmother’s face. “Maybe we should just put it away,” she suggested.

Bev shook her head slowly. “No, it’s been hidden away long enough. Go ahead and open it, dear. The past can’t hide forever.”

Emily stared down at the box a moment, wondering what memories such a beautiful old box could hold that would cause her grandmother to act so strangely. Carefully, she pulled on the end of the ribbon and the bow came loose, falling away. She put both hands on the lid and lifted it up slowly, so as not to ruin the aging box. Peering inside, she saw the very young face of her father in a black and white photo staring back at her.

“It’s old photos!” Emily exclaimed, setting the lid aside and reaching inside the box. She lifted the first photo of her father. He was wearing his high school cap and gown and held a diploma in his hand. Underneath was another one of him in swim trunks by a lake, smiling crookedly at the camera. “He’s so young,” Emily said, smiling widely. “No wonder I’ve never seen many photos of him at this age. They were all in this box.”

She lifted up a pile of photos and began looking through them. “Look, Grandma. This one must be his high school prom. He’s wearing a suit and there’s a flower in his lapel.”

Bev drew closer and glanced over Emily’s shoulder. “Yes, that was his senior prom.”

The next picture was in color and was of Jack with a beautiful girl by his side. She was much shorter than Jack and very petite, with light blond hair that fell below her shoulders and large blue eyes. Her skin was creamy white, and she wore a lovely pink satin dress with a lace overlay that was long and skimmed the floor. Emily thought she was the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen. Jack stood behind her, his hands circling her tiny waist as they both smiled brightly.

“Who is she, Grandma?” Emily asked. “She’s so beautiful.”

“That’s Libbie,” Bev said softly. “Short for Elizabeth.”

Emily glanced over at her grandmother. “Was she Dad’s high school sweetheart? Is that why these pictures were put away?”

“Yes, she was,” Bev said, looking into Emily’s eyes. “She was also your father’s first wife.”

Emily’s mouth dropped open as she stared at her grandmother. “First wife?”

Bev reached out and patted Emily’s arm. “I know this is a bit of a shock, dear. It was something none of us talked about. But now there’s no reason for you not to know. Let’s take the box downstairs, and you can look through it while I make some coffee.”

Emily covered the box and followed her grandmother downstairs, dazed. She sat at the table and started pulling photos from the box and examining each one. One was of the couple sitting in a canoe, smiling playfully at each other on what looked to be Lake Ogimaa. The girl was wearing a two-piece swimsuit with a netlike cover-up and Jack was in his swim trunks. Even in black and white, Emily could tell they were deeply tanned. There were more pictures from prom, and a few of her uncle Larry—her mother’s brother and Jack’s best friend—clowning around with the couple. Another showed Libbie and Jack smiling happily, standing in front of a cottage. Reaching deeper into the box, Emily pulled out ripped up pages that looked to be from a photo album. When she peered closer, she saw that they were wedding photos of her father and Libbie. Some of the pages were torn, as if they’d been ripped angrily from the album. Why?

Emily glanced up at her grandmother as she set a mug of coffee in front of her. “Dad was married before,” she said, hardly believing her eyes. She gazed down at one of the photos in her hand. It was her father in a tuxedo with tails, and Libbie wearing a lovely satin wedding gown with lace sleeves and a long train that swirled around her feet. Both she and Jack were smiling happily at the camera. Emily returned her gaze to her grandmother, who’d sat down opposite her. “They look so happy.”

Bev sighed as she looked at the photo in Emily’s hand. “They were happy, dear. So happy that there was no possible way for anyone to predict it would end as it did.”

“What happened?”

Bev lifted the photo of Jack and Libbie in the canoe and gazed at it, looking as if she were trying to remember a long-lost memory. Finally, she set it down and looked into Emily’s eyes. “You know that your father loved your mother dearly, don’t you, Ems? He wouldn’t be grieving so if he hadn’t.”

Emily nodded. “I know he did.”

Bev nodded. “Well, your mother was eight years younger than Jack, and she was Larry’s baby sister. The boys really didn’t have much to do with her since they were so much older, unless they’d let her tag along every now and again. Libbie, she was the same age as Jack, and they’d known each other since kindergarten. But it was the year he turned seventeen that Jack’s eyes were drawn to Libbie Wilkens, and he saw no one else after that.”

“Libbie was a Wilkens? One of the rich Wilkenses?”

“Yes. Her parents owned half the businesses in town, what little bit of town we had here in 1968. Of course, they’d been handed down businesses from their parents and grandparents, but her father had built up their legacy even more. They owned the grocery store, hardware store, a furniture store, one of the dime stores, a building supply store, and even owned half of one of the two banks in town then. They lived in a lovely home on the north end of the lake, where Libbie had friends over every sunny day all summer. And it was that summer, between their junior and senior years, that Jack fell head over heels in love with Libbie.”