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For former residents of the Richmond Home for Ladies, a 15-minute van ride is a journey to tomorrow.

A Trip Too Bountiful

Anne Huff rarely wears light green. She had been told when she was young the color made her look sallow. But on moving day everything else was boxed away.

Today Mrs. Huff, along with 35 others from the century-old Richmond Home for Ladies in the Fan, is moving to the retirement community Covenant Woods in Hanover County.

Mrs. Huff, 83, is a morning person but today she had worried she would oversleep — her alarm clock was packed. But her nerves woke her up at 6.

She eats half a banana, as she always does, and a few spoonfuls of cereal. She barely touches her morning tea. Normally, she would have tidied her place at the table. Today, she reckons, that can't be expected. The sun-filled dining room is emptying. There is little time before the move.

Norma Simms has one day to go before she can bask in the glory of her own darn kitchen. Since February she has been dreaming about fixing Jimmy Dean sausage links, scrambled eggs mixed with cream, raisin toast. She can nearly detect those smells wafting together as they did in her country house when she was a child. The air there was always salty, moist and sweet.

So when Mrs. Simms, 85, sees her last breakfast at the Richmond Home for Ladies, she freezes. Staring up at her is a heap of sausage links, scrambled eggs and toast. It's a pale imitation of what she has planned to make tomorrow. A moment passes before she sees any humor in it. Then she picks up her fork and eats with a smirk. The look on her face says nothing can spoil this day.

Eileen Mabe isn't convinced she'll be inspired to paint at the new place. She worries about the oils and about not having enough light and peace from others to use them. She hates to part, even for one day, with the picture she has just completed of Jesus and a lamb. Mrs. Mabe prays it will make the trip safely.

She has painted her cheeks and lips pink, like a canvas flush with color. Her silver hair is curled and tucked and aglow from the lavender rinse she got at the beauty parlor. A tote bag covered with cardinals is all she cares to keep close. With one hand on the railing and the other clutching the bag, Mrs. Mabe, 81, takes each of the porch steps as they come. She reaches a shady spot on the sidewalk where she waits for Mrs. Huff and Mrs. Simms.

History is being made today, the women say, in Richmond and in Hanover County. It's the end of one institution and the beginning of another. And for the 36 women who live at the Richmond Home for Ladies, the move to Covenant Woods is the last one they plan to make before heaven.

Mrs. Huff, Mrs. Simms and Mrs. Mabe climb aboard their van and buckle up.

"I want y'all to behave when you get out there," says Wayne Shiflett, project manager for Covenant Woods. "No partying till I arrive."

"We can't do anything but behave," says Mrs. Huff, amused. It's 9:10 a.m.

"They cleaned out our rooms yesterday of everything but our beds," Mrs. Huff adds. "You'd be surprised by all the little boxes all of us had. It' s sad, in a way, to go."

"No it's not," Mrs. Simms insists. "I want to go."

"Oh, I think we all want to go," agrees Mrs. Huff. "But the companionship of this place I'm going to miss even though I've only been here six years. For a woman by herself without any family, it's been the most perfect place in the world. And I bet some of these neighbors are sorry to see us go."

"Well, I picked up the phone this morning and that phone was already cut off," says Mrs. Simms.

"I'm glad I got my sister before. They'll have one of those magic systems like the ones they have in hospitals out there," says Mrs. Huff.

Three nurses' assistants and the driver board the van. At 9:15 a.m. it pulls away from the three-story brick building on Stuart Avenue like it would for any other appointment. Not a head in the van looks back. Except for the whistle of wind through a cracked window, there is silence for what seems like a long while. The women are poised. They are brave.

The van heads north on the Boulevard, crosses Broad Street, passes The Diamond and stops to turn right onto Laburnum Avenue. In North Side it is sunny and raining gently. It's the kind of weather that makes rainbows.

"They're taking a lot of our antiques from the old building and incorporating them into the furnishings," says Mrs. Huff. "It's good to see something that's meant so much to you stay nearby."

The van takes a left onto Meadowbridge Road by the state fairgrounds. Soon it starts to look like a country road flanked by high green fields.

"Hey, cattails are out already," says Mrs. Huff. "I used to use them in arrangements."

"I like the country," asserts Mrs. Simms. Farmhouses, stables and cornfields yield to the wind and sun, flickering like silver sycamore leaves before a storm.

"There are subdivisions out here now," says Mrs. Huff. She points to the left. "That's an odd place for a cemetery." The small leaning lot nearly kisses the road.

"That's because they've built up so much out here," says Mrs. Simms.

"It's a shame," notes Mrs. Huff.

At a grove stand on Pole Green Road the van turns right onto Lee Davis Road. The ladies say they've heard the stand will be moved soon so a gas station can be built there.

In an instant the sparkling complex at Covenant Woods appears. "OK, ladies, you're home," the driver says. It's 9:30. In pauses of silence on the 15-minute journey, years might have flashed before them. But now they dwell in the moment.

"Oh, it's landscaped!" exclaims Mrs. Huff. There is a hub of activity outside as staff and volunteers gather round to greet the van. "Welcome home, Welcome home," the volunteers sing.

Mrs. Mabe, who hasn't said a word, suddenly spies the chapel's stained glass window. She folds down one side of her bag to show what she keeps close. It is an artist's sketchbook. Mrs. Maybe taps the brown cover and smiles. "I think," she says, "I'm going to like it here."

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