Laura stared across the trestle table at Eli. Unaware, Eli was reading the newspaper as he slowly brought the spoonful of corn flakes and bananas to his mouth. It was their morning ritual, and it was the same as it had been for over fifty years. There was something sacred about their mornings. Talk was minimal. Always had been. Eli liked to read his paper. Eat his corn flakes. Drink his coffee. Laura had learned to respect that early on. At first, of course, she had yearned for the kind of breakfast table depicted in the movies of their youth. Cary Grant leans across a small round table adorned with fresh flowers, gazes lovingly in his young bride’s eyes and regales her with witty one liners, most of them simply complimenting her beauty and her charm. But of course, Eli was not the Cary Grant type. Damn!
No, he was not that type at all. In fact, he had not been anything at all like what she had imagined for herself as a girl. She had imagined someone tall, witty and urbane with dark good looks. Someone who had read George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Someone who loved Gershwin. Someone, well, frankly, rich. And why not? As we all know, and as Laura’s mother had often repeated, ‘It’s just as easy to love a rich man as it is to love a poor one!’
But Laura had barely had time to look around when she had met Eli. She was sixteen and he had been playing guitar at the church social. It had been her first time to go to a church social in a grown-up dress with her hair piled on top of her head. She had felt breathless with anticipation, and frozen with fear. She and Eli had hardly spoken that night, except during one of the band’s breaks when he had offered to bring her some punch. When he handed her the cup their fingers had barely brushed. Startled, her eyes had met his and she had the sensation of the room spinning. His soft grey eyes flashed, capturing her heart as he recorded the moment, indelibly photographed and preserved for eternity in his own mind. For the rest of their lives he would see her as he saw her then; a coltish, willowy slip of a girl in a pink and blue organdy floral print, her pale blond hair parted in the middle and twisted on top of her head, framing an oval face of exquisite delicacy, her mouth as fresh and pink as a baby’s, slightly parted in an expression of surprise and bewilderment. In fact, they had caught one another quite unawares, and that, as they say, was that.
Laura had planned all her life to have a large church wedding. She had pictured herself in a long, white satin gown with a train, attended by her sisters; her mother and father, for once, not fighting, but actually holding hands as they watched and wept from the front pew. She had planned for her younger sister, Marcy, to catch the bouquet. She had yearned to have one special day in her life when her father would not end the day by becoming loud and obnoxiously drunk, passing out in the living room. She had planned to have one day in her life in which her mother would not end the day by crying silently alone in her single bed. She had planned to honeymoon in New York City so that she and her adoring bridegroom could stay at the Plaza and see all the latest Broadway shows and take moonlit rides in the hansom cabs.
In real life, however, neither mother nor father had approved of Eli. He was the wrong religion. Worse, he was a musician. Worse, he was poor. Those were the facts. On top of that, Laura’s mother suspected he was lazy, shiftless, Godless, and that Laura would wind up exactly as she, Laura’s mother, had — poor and miserable. They had forbidden Laura to see Eli. They had scrupulously kept her from church socials and square dances where Eli might be playing. Laura’s parents had forgotten the one cardinal rule of youth: that which is forbidden is that which we desire. So in the end, they could not prevent Laura from furtively writing to Eli and volunteering to pick up the mail at the post office herself. The love letters had been stacked neatly at the bottom of Laura’s underwear drawer and bound with a rubber band. One day Laura’s mother had discovered them while “spring cleaning” and thrown them in the furnace. Laura’s resolve became ironclad.
On Laura’s eighteenth birthday they had run away together. They were married by the justice of the peace down the road and honeymooned in Niagara Falls. In the excitement of it all, Laura had barely noticed that one of her dreams, the one about the Fairy Tale Wedding, had died.
After the honeymoon, Laura and Eli had come back to town and learned of an old general store nearby which was for lease. Since it was already apparent that Laura was pregnant, they decided to lease the store and to live in the small apartment upstairs from it so that they would have some practical way of making a living in those hard times. It was 1939, and there was a depression on.
What with the excitement of the marriage and the impending birth of their first child, Eli hardly noticed that one of his own dreams had died, somewhere along the way. He had longed to move to Nashville and play in the Grand Ole Opry. Now it was not to be. Musicians starved. Musicians did not have families.
The war passed Eli by, since he was the sole provider for his family, and besides, he had flat feet. So many young men had volunteered to go across the sea and pulverize the German tyrant or crush the treacherous Japanese. Eli had been curious at his own lack of desire to go. All his life he had read the paper. He had been an informed and enthusiastic participant in the democratic process. And yet, all his life he had been stunned and overwhelmed by the sheer stupidity of his fellow man. Why go around killing when there is music to be played and love to be made? He was not at all sure, in his heart of hearts, that war was the answer to the madness, although he dared not admit this, even to himself.
Two of his fellow musicians, Saul, a bass player and Harry, the best damn fiddle player this side of the Mississippi had run down to the recruiter together one spring morning. Neither had ever come back. Eli had wept like a child when he heard about Harry.
Laura was wakened from her reverie. Eli’s grey head stayed bowed over his cereal, but he raised his eyes above the bifocals:
“Laura, is my white shirt clean?”
“It’s hanging on the door, Eli. I ironed it last
“I SAY I IRONED IT LAST NIGHT!”
It is one of the curiosities of growing old that just as you long for quiet and serenity one of you begins to lose their hearing, and you are doomed forever more to shouting at one another. It makes it seem as if you are angry when you are not, Laura realized. But just as quickly, she realized that she was, in fact, very angry. So many losses! Not just the hearing. The hearing is just the vanguard in a parade of losses. She watched as Eli gently pushed away his empty bowl and took a sip of his coffee. She remembered how it had been at first.
There had been furious, endless marathons lasting often into the early pre-dawn hours of the morning. Many a day Eli had opened the shop late because their lovemaking had left them exhausted and spent by six o’clock. They had fallen asleep for a short hour and instead of opening at 8:00, Eli had stumbled in at 8:15 nearly tripping on his untied shoelaces, his hair uncombed, his face still creased from the bed sheets. Everyone in the town clucked their tongues, but held them.
Babies had come like the rising tide. Five children spaced two years apart, almost to the day. It wasn’t that they didn’t know about birth control, but that their passion usually swept them away so quickly and so completely that there was no moment to consider the time of month or whether Laura had “taken care of herself”. It was as if their bodies had a will all their own totally divorced from their mental faculties. They fell together wherever they happened to be, both taken by surprise each time, once in the kitchen while Laura was cooking, once in the family room while listening to Jack Benny. Once they had found themselves groveling on the storeroom floor on a Sunday afternoon when Eli had gone in to get a can of peaches. They had both felt embarrassed afterwards, especially since it was the Lord’s day and they should not have been in the store to begin with, so they never spoke of it again.
In truth, they had very little in common. Their bodies did not seem to care. Beyond that, each seemed to see in the other something they longed to possess for themselves. Laura had been stunned by the brilliance of Eli’s smile from the first. His beautiful, large white teeth and the deep dimple at the corner of his mouth seemed to tell her, “I can laugh my way out of anything.” His clear, pale grey eyes seemed to say, “I can not be deceived. I am gentle, but strong”. For Eli, Laura’s smooth pink cheeks told him, “I am innocence. I am fragile as a bone china tea cup.” Her tall willowy build told him, “I have pride and dignity.”
Laura realized that over time, all of these symbols of their youth had vanished. Eli had lost his teeth years ago to advanced gum disease. In recent years Laura’s waist had thickened considerably and her cheeks were only rosy with rouge. And yet. Somehow, Eli’s eyes seemed as clear and calm as ever, even when he wore his glasses to read the paper. To Eli, something about Laura’s bearing seemed to have increased in dignity over the years, and from time to time he still saw flashes of the fragile young girl at the church social.
The children had long since gone and fled to the far reaches of the country. Their youngest, in fact, Marie, had become a reporter and was currently working for the Hong Kong bureau of Newsweek. They had loved their children and cared for them as best they could what with a limited income and the difficulties of the times. Orin had had a bout with alcoholism and was now a member of AA, but he still smoked up a storm. Julie had been three months pregnant when she married her childhood sweetheart, but the marriage had ended when Julie had discovered her husband having an affair with his secretary. All the children had their troubles, but they were good people. The grandchildren were sweet – whenever they saw them.
Now, however, Laura reflected that she was tired of babies and of children. Oh, she adored them and would gladly sit for them, now and then. But she had learned what an inordinate amount of work her children had required and marveled that she had managed it not once, but five times.
In the turmoil of bringing up five children through communicable diseases and the universal suffering of adolescence, another of Laura’s dreams had fallen by the wayside. She had always imagined, while holding her tiny babies and suckling them, walking them to their first day of school and attending their high school graduations, that in their old age, she and Eli would be comforted and cared for by their children. It was not a conscious dream, but more of a fantasy that creates a backdrop for the drama of your life; it was a selfish fantasy, perhaps, but one that helped Laura to get through some of the more serious sacrifices required of any mother. There had been vacations never taken, furniture never bought, restaurants never visited, books never read, careers never started, friendships never cultivated. After the miscarriage six months after Marie’s birth, Eli and Laura had suddenly seemed to lose even their physical desire for one another. No, Laura thought, there must be some great reward after all this loss. And so, she imagined her children all settled down within five miles of their birthplace, all seated together every Sunday afternoon at the trestle table for a family gathering with huge feasts followed by Scrabble or Parcheesi and the grandchildren playing on the front porch. Every Sunday, without fail. No old age home for them, either. Surely the five children would find a way to make their golden years truly golden.
Now, Laura realized the truth. You have babies. You raise children. But you say good-bye to adults. The children pass through you. They have their own lives, their own agendas. Their own souls. That is, of course, if you’ve done your job properly. That is, of course, if you haven’t crippled them with your own expectations. No, she wouldn’t have it any other way. The children came by from time to time. They shared a common history. They loved her and Eli. It was enough. It was more than enough — it was more than she could have hoped for.
Again, Laura looked across the table. Eli had taken off his glasses and was stretching in his chair, about to clear the dishes. She had not realized how threadbare his old white shirt had become. She could practically see through it. It occurred to her that she and Eli, too, were becoming threadbare and translucent, that they were gradually disappearing simply out of use. The thought did not disturb her. The shirt was tired, so was she. But a deep longing filled her from the soles of her shoes to the top of her head. She glided across the table and circled her arms around her husband just as he was about to rise from his chair.
“Come here, old man”.
They clasped hands and climbed the stairs and forgot the dishes.
© Robin Munson