A Change of Heart

Stephanie Levy

© Copyright 2022 by Stephanie Levy

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This story is from a yet unpublished memoir, Tucked In and Tuckered Out - Memoir of an Innkeeper with Reservations about the years my husband James and I ran a bed and breakfast. Our son Sam put The Federal House Bed and Breakfast on his Christmas wish list when he was 13, right above X-Box and a kitten.

August burned hot and dry that second summer of innkeeping. Grass crunched underfoot and the abundant waterfalls of Ithaca’s famed gorges trickled by summer’s end. Drought shortened the season for fireflies but did nothing to decrease cicada serenades. They actively quacked their three-note songs and their two-note responses, pestering insomniacs without air-conditioning for hours into the night. I felt as tired and spent as the straggly black-eyed Susans in our withered perennial bed, the sole survivors of a once lush spring garden.

Temperatures rose higher in the city, where pavement and exhaust fumes from traffic sent tempers flaring, adding to the emotional undercurrent that pervaded Ithaca for several days when the students arrive. Students readied themselves for college like the first day of kindergarten, supplied with a new crayon box of emotions, furnished with a full palette of feelings: excitement, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, expectancy, competition, and sheer terror. Ithaca doubled in size within a week, splitting at its seams, raw and ragged.

As we headed into the summer months, exhausted from the grinding workload, I tried to hide my fatigue and anxieties and extend a gracious welcome to our guests. I struggled to balance hospitality with the realities of running a business. I lived with the fear of financial failure and the stress of having our home open to strangers, night after night. And I knew I needed to call forth all my reserve energy to brace myself for that hectic week in August when students arrived in droves to attend Ithaca College and Cornell.

I still had so much to learn about accommodation as a new innkeeper. My blunder a few months before when I’d booked the reservations gouged a deep impression in my mind. I didn’t need to check the reservation book to remind myself of the arriving guests the week of the students’ return. Tom Harris had called to inquire about the possibility of having his son stay with him in the room he and his wife had already booked. It would be for the first night only, before his son checked into the dorm the following morning.

I don’t know what to do,” he said. His voice rose in frustration. “We didn’t have Cornell’s dorm schedule when we booked six weeks ago, and even then, all the hotels were booked. We looked everywhere. We were lucky to find you.”

I tried to dismiss the disappointment I always felt when hearing those words, “We’ve tried everywhere else before finding you.” The guests never understood how those words sounded, how they gave the impression that our B&B was “the last resort.” I probably needed to work harder on my search engine optimization.

The room’s too small to accommodate a third bed,” I told him.

No way to squeeze in a rollaway or an air mattress?” he asked.

Not really,” I said, as I tried to come up with a solution to help.

Then, I had an idea. The woman who’d booked The Lincoln Suite, a larger room, had reserved it for herself and her daughter, and since from my experience at that point, most guests were happy to save money, I told him he might be able to switch rooms with another guest. His room would accommodate Eve Franklin and her daughter nicely, while saving Eve hundreds of dollars. Tom was willing to pay the extra money for the larger room, plus the third-person fee for his son. We could accommodate everyone happily, I figured, and we would come out ahead fifty dollars. I said I would check to see if it were possible and get back with him.

I tried contacting Eve, but she didn’t respond to my phone call or first two emails. Days later, I left a message saying I hoped it would be possible for her to switch rooms with another guest since she only had two in her party, and we had some unforeseen problems with the other guest’s availability. If I didn't hear back from her I'd assume it was alright, and notify the other couple that we could accept their son, too.

Three days later she called saying she’d been writing a paper and hadn't had a chance to respond, but she was certain since she hadn’t authorized the change, I wouldn’t have altered her reservation.

I began to feel uneasy with the realization that perhaps Eve wasn’t thrilled with the solution I’d assumed would be perfect for all.

Actually, I left a message asking you to get back to me if this change were not okay, so when I didn’t hear from you, I called the other party and accepted their son, figuring I still had a nice room for you and your daughter.”

She lit into me.

"I reserved that specific room and I expected to get that room. Now it's so late I'll never be able to find another room anywhere else. I was busy and couldn't respond to your calls and email. I planned this months ago, and I don't see why I should have to change my plans because these other people didn't plan ahead."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I thought when I didn't hear from you, that meant you were fine with the change.”

Well you thought wrong!”

I felt the breath catch in my chest. Sweat poured from my palm and I changed the receiver to the other hand so I could dry my hand on my apron.

I told the other couple I had to check with you first. I'll call them back and say it didn't work out," I said.

"No," she shouted. "Then you're putting the onus on me. I’ll look like the bad guy. I’ll come and take the smaller room."

I felt stuck, unable to make things right.

"It's much less costly," I said. "What’s your concern?"

Her voice cracked slightly, hinting at emotion. "I wanted to have a wonderful experience with my daughter before she started college, and that room seemed really special. But I'm coming, and I'll take the other room."

This explanation sliced through my assumptions straight to my heart. My grip on the telephone relaxed. I had heard her anger, but now I understood her disappointment, her dashed hopes, and thwarted plans. My assumptions had been skewed. I knew I’d made a terrible mistake and would do anything to change this for her.

"I’m really sorry,” I said. “How can I make this better for you?"

"I don't want you to tell the other people I won't change rooms.”
She sounded finished, ready to end the conversation. I feared she’d hang up. I wanted to fix this, and I knew I couldn’t let her take the smaller room.

"I understand what you’re saying. I'm going to call the other couple and tell them it didn't work out. If they want to put their son on an air mattress on the floor, that'll be okay. I won't say you wouldn't switch rooms, and you'll have the room just as you reserved it for you and your daughter.” I spoke calmly and tried to infuse my voice with kindness for my next statement. “But this is my house, and I don't want you to come here if you can't be happy about this."

As badly as I felt about how I’d handled this situation, I didn't want to share my house for a long busy weekend with someone who would arrive angry and poison the atmosphere for the other guests and for my family.

"Fine then," she said tersely. "See you in August. Goodbye."

I took a deep breath. My hands shook and I felt weak inside. I sat down and took a few minutes to calm myself before I called Tom Harris. I explained we wouldn’t be able to switch rooms. He offered to bring an air mattress for his son Kevin, and sounded extremely grateful that we’d allow Kevin to squeeze into their room. I felt embarrassed I couldn’t offer more but relieved he was grateful. I understood their desperation and lack of options.

The week before Eve’s arrival, I began to feel anxious, awaiting our meeting with trepidation. When the weekend arrived, guests in the two other rooms arrived first. They checked in and immediately left for dinner. Tom Harris, his wife Janet, and son Kevin arrived next, tired from hours of driving in traffic. Janet’s red swollen eyes revealed her struggles with the impending transition. Kevin, who stood well over six feet tall, laughed when he saw the space carved out for his mattress. He thanked me profusely and gave his mom a sympathetic hug. Janet spotted the box of tissues on the bedside table and plucked one to dry her eyes and blow her nose. I asked whether they’d like coffee or tea with breakfast in the morning. Janet turned to me, her face half covered by the tissue, and nodded wordlessly in agreement when Tom chose coffee. When he said, “This has been tough on Janet…the empty nest thing,” she headed into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.
Kevin looked embarrassed. “Just juice for me, please.”

See you at breakfast,” I said. I left them, went downstairs, and awaited our last guest, Eve.

The sound of rolling suitcases on the stone pathway sent Ellie, the guard dog, into spasms of alarm. I felt alarm, too, worried about the encounter. I expected to face the anger I’d engendered over the phone, or maybe a calm, cool disdain. I popped up from the sofa where I’d been folding towels and hurried to the front door. I reached it before the doorbell rang. Taking a deep breath, I gathered my strength, opened the door, and welcomed Eve with a smile.

I was surprised to see three women. Eve introduced herself first, then an older daughter who was an upperclassman at Cornell, and finally the youngest, who would follow in her sister's footsteps. Eve was tall and willowy, somewhat pale, with chin-length sandy blonde hair. Both daughters resembled her. The older daughter seemed more assertive, with dark, expressive eyebrows and a strong chin. Her hair was long, the same color, but bouncier. The youngest daughter seemed stunned. She had the same sandy blonde hair, straight, and down to her shoulder blades. She’d be checking in as a freshman the following day. There was no dad in the picture.

I led the way up the grand staircase to their room. The oldest daughter followed close behind and entered the room first, with Eve and the youngest daughter trailing, slowed down by their cumbersome luggage.

Oh, this is so beautiful,” the oldest daughter said. “I love the blue and white wallpaper. I forget the name of the pattern?”

Toile,” I replied.

She whispered to me, “My mom and sister are having a hard time emotionally. It wasn’t so bad when I left for college, but my sister’s the baby, and Mom’s taking it hard.”

Just then, the two entered, and I pointed out the luggage racks for their bags.

This is lovely,” Eve said, looking around, taking in her surroundings. “Nice and cool. Looks just like the picture on the internet.”

Her survey of room completed, she turned to me with a warm smile, and a soft voice that emanated kindness.

Wasn’t there mention of a trundle bed on your website?”

Yes,” I said, glancing at the youngest daughter who looked dazed, still holding onto her luggage, as if placing her bag on the luggage rack would signal some commitment, as if there would be no going back to her former life if she let go of that handle.

Eve asked if it were possible for the older daughter to stay with them for the night.

"Of course,” I said, "I just need to check to see if the third bed is made up."

I rolled it out to check. It wasn't.

"It turned out well that you have this room after all. There’s plenty of space for the three of you. It'll just take me a minute to have it ready. Would you like me to do it now or when you leave for dinner?"

I felt ashamed over my past behavior, and relieved that Eve seemed to harbor no resentment towards me.

"Oh please, don't go to any more trouble. We can do it."

"Not at all,” I assured her. “I’ll be happy to. I can do it right now if you don't mind."

"Sure, that would be great."

The daughters left their mom and went outside to get more bags. As I knelt on the floor tucking the sheets into the trundle bed, folding the corners of the blanket, I thought about kneeling in service, in apology to these people. I knew the pain of separation they were going through. When our son Sam had left for college the year before, he urged James and me to take his bedroom. My husband James and I had been sleeping on the pullout sofa in our family room when we wanted to rent all four guest rooms. Otherwise, we “slept around” in whatever guest room might be unoccupied.

We can’t take your bedroom,” I had protested. “You’ll be back for summer.”

No, I won’t, Mom. I have an internship the first year and I’ll get an apartment the second year.”

This rupture felt so sudden.

What about Christmas and school breaks?”

I can stay in an empty guest room or on the sofa,” he offered.

Panicked, I grasped for straws. “Well, what if you’re one of those losers who has to come back to live at home with your parents after school because you can’t get a job?”

I’d done that, gone back home to work one summer and save for a move cross-country.

Don’t count on it, Mom,” he said, and gave me a hug.

And that was it. He was gone.

The memory brought a twinge to my chest. I glanced down at the loose bed cover and gave the bedspread a few quick tugs to remove the wrinkles. I wanted everything to be perfect, glad Eve and her daughters could spend a little more time together here. I thought about how this reservation had started off so badly, about all my erroneous assumptions. The past seemed forgotten, all behind us, and now a chance lay ahead for these three women to share a night together in this beautiful room.

I plumped up the pillows and placed them on the bed. I looked at the mom sunken into the armchair. She sat waiting for the girls, and gazed quietly at the fireplace with a faraway look. I felt what mothers feel as their children leave home—the bittersweet sadness, the emptiness, the fear of loneliness, the memories, the passing of time, the acceptance of transition. I felt the conflict between the rational voice of the head whispering, "This is the culmination of a job well done," and the pain in the voice of the heart crying out, "No, I don't want you to leave."

I’d played the part of every person in this scenario, the mother, the daughter, the host, and now the servant, and my heart opened to the experience in a way I never expected. Despite the weariness brought on by the demands of my profession, I felt the rare, inner peace that innkeeping occasionally offered—that of being able to connect with others through service and accommodation.

The last lights of sunset streaked in through the rippled windowpanes. With its crisp white linens, fluffy pillows and soft blankets, the large airy room would provide cool comfort and rest for the three women who would treasure this time together as a lasting memory.

"Thank you," Eve said quietly as I finished making the bed. I walked toward the door and turned to see tears in her eyes. We connected as mothers in a moment of understanding.

"You're so very welcome," I said, as I closed the door behind me.

Stephanie Levy thought she’d like to be a writer one day but had nothing to write about until she and her husband bought a B&B in Upstate New York. "Change of Heart” is a chapter from
 Tucked in and Tuckered Out – Memoir of an Innkeeper with Reservations. Stephanie’s stories won two first place and one second place prize from the Tennessee Mountain Writers and Knoxville Writers’ Guild contests. Stephanie lived in Lansing, NY before moving to Knoxville, TN. She now resides in Santa Fe, NM.

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