March 22, 2005 | "Losing a wife," explained the man, very frail, almost ninety years old, "is like cuttin' a man off at the knees."

Moments prior, I had arrived in his high-rise apartment to deliver a meal to him. He had left his door propped open and before I reached the doorway, a welcoming hello greeted me. As I walked in, he stood up from his kitchen nook to accept the meal. His face was ashen and a threadbare blue cotton dress shirt was tucked into slacks that once fit a much stronger waist.

Three antique church organs stood against his apartment walls and I inquired as to their origin. Learning of his impressive musical accomplishments and career success displayed in photos, degrees, and books in his apartment, I was intrigued to know more. However, he was not interested in rehashing his lifetime accomplishments, and paused in humility. I placed his meal on the kitchen counter, explained that the small serving of ice cream should go right away into the freezer, and then admired the view from his apartment. He replied simply, "I live here alone. . .my wife died two years ago,"—then, staring beyond me: "Losing a wife, you know, it's like cuttin' a man off at the knees."

I turned to look at what his eyes were fixed on, and it was a photo of his wife, her college photo when they met. With brunette hair, high cheekbones, a slighted slanted smile and a wide jaw line, she was charming and cute, but not exactly glamorous.

I pointed to the photo, and asked, "Is that her?"

"Yup….," he paused and shuffled slowly, about two inches per step, and arrived in front of more photos of his wife.

"That one was in school. We met there." Pointing to another on the other side of the wall: "That's our wedding photo." Then, turning to another photo, "That's her father. Good man." Upon seeing their wedding photo, the simple dress, a beaming smile, I confirmed his devotion: "What a beautiful wedding."

He then pointed across the room to another photo of a young girl hanging on the wall, "That's her first photo. The one of the little girl. She was adopted, so that's the first picture they had." Moments earlier he had been concerned about the ice cream melting, but now he abandoned that priority, while I learned of the year they were married, and the year she was born, of his fondness of their life together, where they lived, how many people in their family, and lastly, how she died.

"It was so sudden," he said, "Supposed to be just a simple surgery." Then he trailed off.

Closing on simple subjects, a few smiles, and a hope for good weather, I picked up my two big bags of other meals to be delivered, while he stood with the door open, as if disappointed that he could not help me carry the big bags. "Be careful on those stairs," he warned me, "The stairwell is sometimes kind of dark."

An echo of his frail voice followed me down the cement stairwell: Losing a wife is like cutting a man off the knees. What percentage of men today would feel that way about their wives, I wondered? And what percentage of women, convinced of greener pastures, accept the thrill of an affair and do cut their man off at the knees? A recent book claims that the number of cheating women is increasing. The issues run deep, their sources varied. The results are the divorce rate we have all heard of, and the many failed relationships where the passions in bed have been exciting but fleeting, like common house flies mating and moving on.

This man, saddened but proud, confirmed my choices and clarified what I am waiting for—the kind of man who will shuffle over to my photo, leave ice cream to melt, and carefully point to each photo of us with a story about our life together.

Returning home after delivering the meals, I sat down for a cold glass of water and opened a newspaper that included a bit on Abercrombie & Fitch's latest marketing magazine. The excerpt included their advice column to young lovers. A girl writes to her Abercrombie mentor,

"Dear A&F, I have a bit of a reputation as a party girl around town, but I'm getting ready to go away to college. What can I do this summer to prepare? Veronica."

"Dear Veronica, Since we assume you've already been spending a lot of your time getting blasted and sleeping with the first guy who smiles at you, all you need to do is learn to cut classes and insert a diaphragm."

Instead of displaying childhood and wedding photos on her wall, Veronica in her elder years can proudly post a list of men that she's ported in her bed for an hour. Such a list probably wouldn't have photos, just names. Or if she forgot the names when she was blasted or because of old age, I guess she can always just describe what they were wearing. Like this:

Veronica's Summer Before College:

1. Guy at bar, friend of Greg's, named John I think, wearing Abercrombie sweater. June 11, 2005.
2. Big football player. Took him away from a cheerleader! Big score. June 27, 2005. Wasn't wearing anything. His jersey number was 18, same age as me.
3. Fourth of July Man. Wearing Red, White and Blue. After fireworks made fireworks.
4. All through August, dated Edward Francesco. His mom hated me. Dumped him. Every day he wore jeans and a white shirt. How boring.
5. Seymour. He said he wanted to see more of me. I think he did that night and Labor Day weekend, but of course I don't remember much.

After reading the "wisdom" of A&F, I wondered how many young women really aspire to this kind of college preparation?

Letters that offer more wisdom were hidden in the back of a closet for years, where time took its toll on their inscriptions—fading ink, edges worn. Letters that were sent from the war lines in France in 1917, onto a ship and then by train to the small towns of La Crosse and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Many letters were written in return, sent back over to France, and read by a man who clung to them as if to life itself.

They were love letters exchanged by my grandparents.

My grandfather met my grandmother, Serine Christopher, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, and began adoring her during afternoon visits from St. Paul to St. Croix Falls Wisconsin, when they would go out for a dance or picnic with friends in the river valley on a sunny afternoon. He referred to her as his "sweetheart in Happy Valley."

Shortly after, my grandfather, who was an excellent construction engineer, was sent into World War I to be stationed in France. There he would engineer roads and bridges so that the military could move troops and equipment efficiently to the front. Their letters number in the hundreds. His words describe his life in France—the long train ride until 2:00 in the morning when he first arrived, the middle of the night unpacking, setting up camp, and the clothes that constantly needed mending. He also wrote of the scenery of French farms and of the young French children that ran up to him to try to learn English. It was difficult to try to find peace and quiet so he nicknamed his sweetheart "Peaceful," and wrote often in the few stolen moments in the nights before they snapped off the lights. Sometimes he continued to write illegibly in the dark, running the words together. He convinced his bunkmates to draw pictures for her. I was always struck by how endearing my grandfather's letters were, so uplifting despite what he was going through.

April 10, 1918, France
Serine dear:

I haven't forgotten my best friend in La Crosse but have been in dire straights to find time to even keep buttons sewed on my unclean uniform. I am up to my neck in work and glad of it. It sure helps to shorten the time…..But anyhow, when I crawl into my little trundle at night, I'm ready and willing to say Amen until 5:30 the next morning. I sure did have a pleasant surprise the day before yesterday. I was handed the biggest stack of mail I ever laid eyes on and it was all for me. And surprise followed surprise as I opened and read each one. I saved all the ones marked La Crosse until the last, for dessert. . . I was awfully glad that all those letters came for me from there and the only thing that I am afraid of is that you'll get the notion that I don't like to read them and you'll naturally quit which will be a terrible disappointment. You ought to know that your letters are more than welcome, even if they consist only of a sheet of paper with "Peaceful" inscribed there on.

May 18, 1918, France
Serine Dear:
You are due for a terrible scolding, and I sure would like to be there to administer it in person, but seeing as how time and money and other minor circumstances do not permit, I'll have to be content to just write about it. To be brief, the charges are as follows:

1. Failure to perceive the fact that for me the sun shines in only one spot, La Crosse.
2. Doubting the fact that anything in writing from that place is received and read and reread with extreme pleasure.
3. Doubting my ability to remember something that was said long about last December and questioning in your own mind my present attitude in that respect.

Of the charges, I am sorry to have to say that in my own mind you are guilty but before being convicted the defendant has the right if so desired to plead the case and if possible turn the case in her favor. . . You see, it's just like this, sis, the judge in this case happens to be a very good friend of the defendant, or rather wants to be the best friend the defendant ever had, and he is biased in his opinion. . .. I'll bid you adieux and just say that Pte J.M.Kellogg salutes you, which is the highest honor he can extend you.


August 28, 1918, Censored Location
My dear little girl:
Sitting around in the evening, talking about home and the war, wondering what you are doing, wishing for you all the more. Working and thinking of you dear, sleeping and doing the same. For from you comes the inspiration, to keep in playing the game. Playing the game on the square, dear, though sometimes it's mighty tough, but I owe it all to you dear, and well guess I have said enough. You see, dear, sometimes I get rambling around in my head and pull out a few thoughts but have never dared write them down before, but tonight it just slipped out while I was thinking about you.


December 19, 1918
My dear:
Every time I get in trouble and things go wrong I begin to think just before falling into my bunk, that I would like to be near enough to one of two persons to talk to and have her tell me when I get all through spilling my woes, that she knows it's a tough old world but that she expects me to be strong enough to stand the gaff and then begins to talk turkey to me and make me feel like five cents worth of canned willy, and then in a little while make me feel like going out and knocking the block off the first fellow that says I'm yellow. One of those persons is Ada, the best sister a fellow ever had and the other is the little miss from Happy Valley. Once, not long ago, I caught myself in the act of trying to pity my poor lot and generally trying to make myself out as a poor matryr, but after thinking of some of the lads who went through the mill a darn right longer time than I did, and who are going home minus a leg or an arm or both, I quit. Me, with all my arms and legs and eyes and a good appetite, and a bunch of real sisters, and the friendship and trust of someone else, why, my dear, its unreasonable for a fellow who is supposed to be, under normal conditions same, to be other than cheerful and contented with his lot. For some reason, when a day starts wrong, everything seems to go wrong. We had a general inspection today. It was awful. Never before has an inspection gone so poorly. The Frenchman next door let the family pig out just when the colonel came and after rooting around the rear rail for a while he beat it into the kitchen and raised cain. Then the wind blew down the roof of the kitchen and got everything all messed up. The wood came late and dinner was late. He, being top sergeant, got the whole thing. So excuse me while I run out and change the subject. I'll try to get something that doesn't sound like a graveyard at 3 A.M. . . . Well dear I'll say good night and just quit. It's way past taps and I ought to be in bed. My dear, I sincerely appreciate what you have told me in your last letters and I reckon the only way I can show my honest appreciation is to just keep on doing my work with this in mind: That I will do this job, no matter how hard or how distasteful, to the best of my ability, because the Little Lady of the Dales, who commands my heart and hand, expects me to do it. Good night, dear.

After returning to the good old U.S.A., my grandfather of course married Serine. His career as a construction project manager led him to construction projects all over the world, where he set high expectations for himself, his employees, and for his family. He was a strong leader, unwavering, and never settled for anything but the best. Serine was also the best, of course, and he never second guessed his love for her. Naturally, he still wrote her letters even after they were married.

I often think of this box of letters, a little treasure of dreams. Not as many stories and boasts that Veronica may have, but not exactly the same future either. When I have insisted to some of my friends who advise me like Abercrombie and Fitch, that they are wrong, and there are men out there who believe in love and morality, these individuals have pointed at me angrily from across a restaurant table, "If you think there are men like that in the world, you have your head in the sand. You'll be sitting alone the rest of your life." I've had men argue with me, with such aggressiveness that I leave the place and get in my car and cry. But then I remember reading those letters. I remember the serenity of my Grandma Serine, her gratefulness for her husband's devotion, and I remember one of the countless tidbits of faith and hope that my grandfather's son, my father, passed onto me. Indeed, it is good to wait. As for those who point at me from across a restaurant table, angry, in fits of emotion, I now just leave those arguments in the dust, like my grandfather left the pits of war in France, far far behind.

When I am almost 90, I would vastly prefer a letter like the one my grandfather wrote to Serine for their 26th wedding anniversary, over all of Veronica's casual adventures put together. This letter was written during the difficult years of 1946 through 1949, when Joe spent almost a year in Guam and two years in Alaska. Far away from Serine, he wrote:

October 2, 1948
Dear Serine,
This is a letter just for you. I got up early this morning so I could write you without being disturbed.
Twenty six years ago next Tuesday we were married. In all those years I have never regretted it.
In all these years you have been a good and true wife and you have carried me over many rough places in life. I loved you truly twenty six years ago and I still do. I hope this anniversary day will bring you much happiness.
God bless and keep you always.
With love and best wishes, Joe

 

Jeannine Kellogg, based in Minneapolis, has a Masters in Business Administration and works in the technology field. Outside of work she enjoys writing, travel, and teaching piano.




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