The Young Wife
by Bella Rum
When my husband took me home to meet his mother, she didn’t fall in love with me. She couldn’t quite bring herself to believe I was good enough for her boy. It didn’t help that I was young and immature, or that she found a matchbook from a motel on H’s dashboard. She once told me that when H didn’t get home till four in the morning, she wondered what kind of girl would stay out that late with a boy.
She was a country woman and all that implies. She was a dependable, resourceful, no nonsense, church going woman – even Wednesday nights. Failing to introduce my son to organized religion was the one thing for which she could never quite forgive me. While she had a loving side to which her grandchildren and others were given access, I found her aloof and was unable to breach the inner circle.
A large portion of her life was spent in a linoleum floored, high ceilinged, screen doored kitchen. If not for the old metal fan that sat on top of the refrigerator, nary a current of air would dare to stir on sultry summer days. Colorful jars of string beans and tomatoes, cucumber and watermelon rind pickles, jams and jellies, and pickled fruits of several varieties were made there by hands that bore the hieroglyphs of years of washing, and gardening, and feeding, and tending to the needs of others. There was not a pear or peach within her reach that was not in danger of being stemmed and pared and plumped into a jar, it’s honeyed flesh steeped in sweetness until the deliciousness of it would be the talk of the county. Her fame came to her in a small way, but she relished it.
She lived frugally till the day she died. When H’s father died suddenly and unexpectedly, she found herself with minimal resources and a seven year old son to raise. She never quite left that period of her life behind. There were years of grief and struggle before she married a man she respected but did not love, a man who loved her very much. By the time I met her, she wore her years of sacrifice like a shawl of chain mail.
She must have found me flighty and spoiled in those early days. She once told me that H was going to give clothing to me for Christmas, but she told him that a few yards of fabric would do just fine, that I could make several dresses for the price of one store bought dress.
When she wanted me to know that she was displeased with me, she would crinkle up her nose with sourness, and drag out the words, “Oooh, fancy.” It was her greatest insult; she eschewed all things superfluous. It was a splendid way of letting me know that I was transparent, that she could see that I was frivolous, wasteful, and a bit of a put-on. It must have been difficult for such a practical woman to accept a daughter-in-law who appreciated things for their beauty alone, who didn’t require a thing to be useful to be deemed worthwhile.
I loved nesting and all things home and hearth. Whenever she noticed something that I had bought for the house or a freshly painted room or any project recently finished, I would wait for those words, “Oooh, fancy.” They fell from her lips like acid rain dripping from a perfectly innocent branch. In the beginning, they came often.
It took years of push and pull and pinch and pluck before we finally reached a grudging but mutual respect, before we could stop picking the bone between us – The Husband/The Son. I had to mature, grow some confidence, and lose that air of judgment that seldom outlives the certainty of youth. She had to grudgingly admit to herself that I was not the very worst thing that could have happened to her son. She did not, however, have to believe I was good enough for him.
By the time I met H, she and H’s stepfather lived on a farm in a small farmhouse with a tin roof. Cornfields stretched out on either side of the house, and every summer she grew the most remarkable dahlias at the edge of one of the fields. I’ll never forget them. They actually were the size of dinner plates; sunny yellow, and deep black-red faces made their appearance when most things were wilting in the heat of our long summers. They were spectacular.
Every spring, as soon as the earth turned warm, she could be found rummaging around in one of the little sheds behind the house, searching for her burlap sackful of bulbs. The bulbs themselves were as extraordinary as the flowers they produced, though, not as beautiful. They were lumpy and bumpy, and their malformed shapes seemed to be a mistaken notion of nature. They were monstrous in size – almost a foot long – and at least two or three inches in diameter. They were bigger than any sweet potato you’ve ever laid eyes on, and I’ve never seen a dahlia bulb that big since.
Even when her health began to fail, she continued to plant those dahlias, and I regret lacking the foresight to dig them up that last autumn when her resolute spirit finally acknowledged what her wavering heart had long known. That year the bulbs stayed in the ground. When the frosty bite of autumn arrived, and the frigid winter followed, their life force seeped into the earth around the cornfields while her life force trickled from her body. She left with her dahlias, the one thing she had loved for beauty alone.
In the last summers of her life, she and I sometimes sat on the old green and white glider on the front porch, shelling butter beans or peeling fruit to be preserved. A rambling red rose covered a trellis at one end. One evening in July we sat, each one of us with a large bowl in her lap, the sound of the glider squeaking as we peeled peaches for pickling. They had been picked fresh that day at the local orchard. As the nectar ran over our sticky fingers, she tasted not a one, but I never grew her discipline. I tasted, and I’m glad I did. We softly chatted and waved to passersby whenever a car passed on the lightly traveled road. The corn was up. She hated when the corn was up because she couldn’t see what her neighbors were doing.
It had been a dry summer, and the dirt and gravel driveway was dusty. She was pleased that her vintage petunias had “volunteered” one more time. As night came softly falling, so did the night sounds of the country. Several chirps and whines with different cadences issued forth from the darkness. I asked her about one that seemed particularly pained and persistent. She told me the heat bugs were crying for rain.
When she began to fail, but before she lost her mind, she made one request. When I was alone with her, she told me to go to the white washed shed. She said there was an opening in the ceiling, and that I was to climb up there after she died. I would find an old suitcase. I was to remove it and take it home.
Three more months would pass before she died. A few weeks after that, H and I visited his stepfather. We went to the shed where H removed a square board from the ceiling and climbed up. He found the suitcase and we took it home. It was filled with letters that wore postmarks from the early forties. She had kept the letters that she and H’s father had written to one another during World War II.
I pored over those letters for months after her death, and I still pull one out occasionally. They tell the tale of a young woman who was struggling to keep things together at home while her soldier was away doing soldier things. She wrote of shortages at home, gathering the eggs, a neighbor hurting his leg, and Sister coming for a visit.
The passion I found there on those pages was not what I was expecting. In one letter, a plaintive voice spoke of a winter day when the snow would not stop. It told of heavily burdened tree branches, and a white blanketing of the earth that muffled all sound and softened all the world’s rough edges, and how she would make love to him all day long if he were only home, but he was so very far away.
The young wife was revealed to me as I read her words. The practical, durable, and sometimes intractable old woman had once possessed a soft and hurtable heart. There was a time when the juices of life had coursed her veins, and she had loved deeply and fully and with abandon, and she had been robbed of his love when he was in his prime. She had never quite gotten over it, and of all the people in her life, she had chosen me to be her witness.