Southern Graceby Jeanine
It was a warm summer night and the scent of honeysuckle drifted by on the breeze. Sam Seaborn took a deep breath, savouring the silence surrounding him. All too often in his life he'd been guilty of rushing from place to place, never stopping to smell the figurative roses - or honeysuckle in this case. That was what came of being one of the most promising young attorneys with Gage-Whitney in Manhattan, and later, the White House Deputy Chief of Communications. Life had been one long whirl of crises and disasters and near-disasters and far too little sleep. He figured that right now, stealing a few moments to himself at the end of the day wasn't too much to ask.
His reverie was interrupted by a soft footfall beside him. "Am I interrupting you?"
Sam turned his head and smiled, feeling not for the first time as if he was looking into a mirror. In front of him stood himself, or at least, a reasonable facsimile of the man he had been some thirty years before. Same dark hair, same blue eyes, same build, even the same idealistic dreams of changing the world, of making it a better place. "Does it look like you're interrupting me Chris?" He beckoned his son over to sit on the back porch swing beside him.
"Well...you looked pretty lost in thought there."
Sam's gaze swung from his son out to the garden, looking at the honeysuckle bushes there. "Just enjoying the garden," he told his son. "The bushes are in full bloom again."
"Same every year."
Sam shook his head. "I remember the day we planted them. Or should I say, the day I planted them. Your mom just stood behind me barking orders."
An expression of puzzlement crossed Chris's face, but the twinkle in his eyes gave him away. "Isn't that what Mom always does?"
Sam had been expecting that and ignored the barb. "I can still see her standing there you know. She had on these faded blue jeans and one of my old shirts...and her hair was up in this ratty ponytail, and there were bits sticking out everywhere... And every time I complained, she'd put on this pout..."
"I know the pout...."
"...And remind me that since I'd got her pregnant...although let me tell you son, I don't recall her objecting at the time...."
"...That the least I could do was plant, and I quote here, 'a couple'a small little honeysuckle bushes'." Father and son looked over the garden, at the twenty-some bushes that covered it. Chris was holding back his laughter at his father's dead-on Southern accent, and Sam shook his head and chuckled softly. "I never could say no to her. All she had to do was look at me with those big blue eyes and talk to me in that accent of hers and I was a goner." He took another deep breath, his life flashing before his eyes. "Did I ever tell you about the time we met?"
Chris tilted his head. "Well...let's see now.... you guys have been married for thirty years...and I'm twenty-six.... and you tell this story every anniversary...so I'm guessing I must have heard it at least that many times."
"You know, you're not too old for a spanking."
"Why don't you tell the girls the story?" There was something approaching a whine in Chris's voice.
"The girls aren't here. You are."
Sam was bowled over by a sense of deja-vu, of conversations like this one, usually held at breakneck speed in the White House, barrelling down the hallways, trying not to bang into anyone, and hoping that if you did, you didn't do them any major damage. He shook his head to clear the memory, skipping to the end of the story as he did so, much to his son's relief, he was sure. "She kicked my ass you know."
"I know Dad. And that's why all the Seaborn kids know that Kirkwood is in California and not Oregon."
"You want a game of Trivial Pursuit? You and me, right now?"
"Dad, I whipped Aunt Donna's butt. You don't think I could beat you?"
Chris brought back the subject at hand. "And that's when Uncle Leo offered Mom a job at the White House."
"CJ and I thought he'd lost his mind. And she told him so. Loudly. You don't want to mess with your Aunt CJ by the way."
"Dad, we all had that pretty much figured out by kindergarten."
"Please, she spoiled you. All of you." Sam remembered the look on CJ's face when she'd seen Chris for the first time, how she'd smiled bigger than he'd ever seen her smile and had tried to hide her tears as she'd hugged him, then Ainsley. "You know it's her fault that your mom and I got together?"
"It is?" This was a part of the story that Chris had never heard before.
"Yep. See, we were in the middle of the re-election campaign, and this fund-raising dinner came up. In North Carolina. Not a million miles away from where your mom grew up. It was a pretty big deal, black tie, you get the idea. All the senior staff were supposed to go...the usual suspects...me, CJ, Toby, Josh...who of course wouldn't go without Donna.... we had the whole thing organised. Until CJ, who hadn't been feeling well ever since she shepherded a group of first-graders around the White House a couple of weeks before, woke up the morning we were supposed to leave, covered in itchy red spots."
As his father paused for breath, Chris stared at him, his eyes wide and incredulous. "She didn't..."
"Oh, she did. Who ever would have guessed that Claudia Jean Cregg, White House Press Secretary, was possibly the only person in the free world who didn't get chicken pox when they were a kid? Of course, she couldn't travel...not that she wanted to leave her house looking like that, but still."
"So there was a spot open." Chris winced as he heard his own words. "No pun intended."
Sam laughed. "And your mom just happened to be in Leo's office when CJ called in sick. Once Leo stopped laughing his ass off...once we all stopped laughing...he asked Ainsley to come. She tried to back out of it, even played the Republican-campaigning-for-a-Democrat card. Leo pointed out to her that it was a paid chance to see her family, that she'd probably enjoy the dinner, that she could keep a low profile. And then I reminded her that what with having your Uncle Josh in the same room as all those very important people, that a lawyer might be a very good idea."
"I thought Aunt Donna always kept him in line."
"She did. She does. But every now and again, Josh slips the leash. Did I ever tell you about his bachelor party? I promised Donna that I'd keep him on the straight and narrow, but you should have..."
Sam blinked a couple of times, trying to remember what he had been thinking of. "What?"
"The dinner? You and Mom?"
"Oh. That. Yeah....so, we went to North Carolina, and we all had our meetings. And your mom went to meet your grandparents for lunch. When she came back to the hotel..." He paused, taking a deep breath. Even now, so many years later, recalling the look on Ainsley's face still caused something in his stomach to twist painfully. "Let's just say that your grandparents weren't happy about their golden girl on the campaign trail for a man that they must've considered the spawn of Satan. She never told me what they said, and I never asked. But the look on her face...." He shook his head, banishing the memory. "She just blew right by us, went straight up to her room. I, of course, followed her up. That was the first time I hugged your mom. Standing there in that hotel corridor...trying to make it all better."
He was silent a moment, turning to find Chris staring at him, rapt. "What?"
"What happened next?" All of a sudden, Chris was seven years old again and Sam was reading him the Harry Potter books. Just one more chapter Dad...please...
"It's pretty late son...don't you have anything better to do than rehash the past with your old man?"
"I want to hear the end of the story."
Sam grinned. "Well, your mom wasn't even sure she was going to go to the party. She muttered something about a long hot bath and a pint of Ben and Jerry's....so I did the next logical thing."
Chris took a guess. "You got Aunt Donna on to her."
"Yup. And whatever she said worked a treat. Your Uncle Josh and I were in the lobby of the hotel, trying to tie our ties, when the two of them floated down the stairs. And we just stood there, like two idiots, gawping at them. I'd never noticed before how your mom walks into a room - that night, I swear, it was like her feet didn't even touch the ground. She was wearing this green velvet dress... and it was long and she had to pull it up when she walked...I remember thinking that she'd probably trip all over it. But she didn't. And while I was standing there staring at her like an idiot, she just took charge of everything, walked over to me and fixed my tie. Like she'd been doing it all her life."
Sam was back in that hotel lobby again and he barely even registered Chris's words. "Nice to know some things never change."
"The dinner was the usual kind of thing...mingling with people, trying to avoid anyone you didn't want to talk with...trying to avoid the President when he decided that you simply had to dance with one of the ladies there...believe me, you didn't say no to President Bartlet."
"Did you dance with Mom?"
"Sure. A couple of times. Then Josh grabbed me and brought me over to talk to someone. I can't even remember who. And we must've been gone a while because the next thing I knew, I saw Donna coming over. I thought she was looking for Josh, but she asked to talk to me instead. And she told me that your mom was out on the patio, and that she looked upset."
"So you followed her out?"
Sam nodded. "It was a night kinda like this actually. And I could see that Donna was right, that something was wrong. She had that same look that she'd had when she came back to the hotel. I asked her what was wrong, she tried to tell me that she was fine. I finally got out of her that someone had said something about a Republican working for Bartlet - the same kind of thing that she'd been hearing since she started at the White House, but hearing it from your grandpa, if that's what he said to her, and then from this other schmuck...it was a little too much for her. And she didn't want to go back inside for a little while, so she said she'd walk in the garden for a little while. And I went with her." The memory of it made him smile now - Ainsley, holding her dress up as they walked, prattling on a mile a minute about something inconsequential, him just listening, letting her forget about things for a while. The scent of honeysuckle had been all around them, and the moon was high and bright in the sky. "We were out there for a while before I noticed that she was shivering...there was no back on her dress. There was actually very little front to it too..." Sam cast an eye at his son, and seeing the look of panic in his eyes, decided to get back to the story. "So I gave her my jacket...wrapped her up in it. She's so small and it just swamped her...and I don't know how it happened, but one minute I was tightening my jacket around her, making sure that it wouldn't fall off. And the next thing I knew, I was kissing her."
He was silent for a moment. "And then we went back inside, and we danced all night. And I never let her out of my sight again. We worked for the President during the campaign...and when he got re-elected. We got married, and when we moved out of the White House, we moved down here. You were on the way by then...and even if I did break my back planting those honeysuckle bushes, I didn't care. Because I knew how happy they'd make your mom. And every time we sit out here, and smell those bushes...we're back in that garden again, falling in love."
Father and son were silent then, looking out over the garden. A familiar voice eventually broke into their thoughts. "I'm not interrupting some male bonding here am I?"
Sam's face broke into a grin, and Chris stood up to make way for his mother. "No Mom," he said as he did. "Matter of fact, I was just going to head inside."
"You were not. Stay here and talk to your father." Even as she spoke, Ainsley was sliding into the spot on the porch swing that Chris had just vacated.
Chris smiled at his parents as they settled into each other's arms. "I think I've heard enough for tonight. See you guys later."
Ainsley shot Sam a look as she settled herself into her usual position, lying on the swing, almost in his lap, her head resting against his chest, both his arms around her. "Samuel Norman Seaborn, what were you saying to the poor boy?"
Sam's eyes sparkled as he looked down at his wife. "Just giving him some highlights of how we met and fell in love."
He had to fight back a grin as she closed her eyes. "Please tell me that the phrase "Blonde Republican Sex Kitten" didn't make an appearance in there."
"It didn't," he laughed.
"Good. I don't want the child traumatised by that image."
"He's hardly a child Ains," Sam snorted. "He's going into his final year of law school."
"And I want him to come home every once in a while, not be scared off by the tales that you tell him." She smacked his chest lightly.
Sam didn't miss the small smile hovering around Ainsley's lips. "Always gotta have the last word, don't you?" he groused good-naturedly.
"Why break the habit of a lifetime?" A full blown grin spread across her face, and the teasing look in her eyes made him bend his head down so that his lips met hers briefly.
When he pulled back, she settled her head against his chest and closed her eyes, listening to his heartbeat. One of his hands held hers, the other stroked her hair. "Are the girls home?" he asked.
"Emily's upstairs, talking on the phone. I swear, I don't think that girl has to breathe between sentences. Do you think it's natural for someone to talk that much?"
"She's nineteen years old Ains, and she's catching up with her friends from college. Give her a break." How Sam got that out with a straight face, he didn't know.
"I'll remind you of that when the phone bill comes in. Sarah's home too, she's watching a movie." There was a contented smile on Ainsley's face as she spoke, and Sam knew without question that there was a matching expression on his own face. Chris took after him, but Emily and Sarah were their mother's daughters, right down to the blue eyes, blonde hair, and in Emily's case, talkative nature.
"You love having them all home don't you?"
Ainsley opened her eyes. "They're my babies Sam...when did they get so big? When did we get old enough to have a son in law school?"
Josh had often complained about Donna's ability to change subject at a moment's notice. Until he'd met Ainsley, Sam had never quite understood what his friend had meant. Thirty years had taught him much however, and he wasn't caught as flat-footed as once he might have been. "The honeysuckle's out," he told her.
Ainsley knew what he was talking about straight away. "You were telling Chris about the fundraiser..."
"And if you hadn't come out when you did, I would have told him a few more things as well."
She raised an eyebrow. "Remember what I warned you..."
Sam dropped her hand, placing his finger to her lips, quieting her. "I would have told him just exactly how beautiful you looked that night, wrapped up in my jacket. I would not have told him what I wanted to do to you when we were dancing later on. I would have told him that every time that you walked into a room after that, you made my head spin. Yet later on, during the campaign, during the second term, when things got crazy, when the chips were down, that southern grace of yours saved me. Your feet stayed on the ground, and kept mine there too. That you have been my conscience, and my faith and my inspiration ever since that first night I kissed you. That your smile can reach down to my soul...that your heart is strong and your love is true...that I've never met anyone like you, and I thank God every day for bringing you into my life." His finger moved from her lips to her eyes as he wiped away the tears threatening to spill over, then moved to her chin, tilting it up so that her lips met his once more.
She smiled shakily at him, and when she spoke, her voice betrayed the tears still lodged at the back of her throat. "No wonder they paid you to write," she quipped.
He laughed, gathering her closer to him, and they stayed like that, rocking in the swing. Inside the house, Chris and his two sisters finished watching the movie together. When they were going to bed, the three of them snuck out to the back porch, and to no-one's surprise, saw Sam and Ainsley still sitting on the swing, sound asleep. The three exchanged knowing grins. "It's your turn tonight Em," Chris told his youngest sister.
"Just make sure you don't wake them," Sarah added.
Emily chuckled softly as she went to the kitchen press and pulled out a blanket. Tiptoeing to the swing, she draped the blanket over Ainsley, and left them there, dreaming of honeysuckle and Carolina moons and southern grace.