Part of the Richness
The afternoon I spent leaking stupid tears five weeks after my wedding, our neighbor Mrs. Baker noticed my red-rimmed eyes. We stood together at the trailer park’s row of mailboxes. Just returned from work, she offered a tired smile as she always did and used the greeting of choice around Charleston, “Hey.” She asked how my day had gone.
“I got fired,” I said. A fresh tear stung my cheek. Cicada tones throbbed the South Carolina summer air.
“Now, child,” Mrs. Baker said. “You come inside with me and have some lemonade.”
Too oppressed by emotions to resist, I followed. She climbed weathered porch steps to her door, her spine erect and head high. I dragged behind. Their front room was dim. Mrs. Baker tugged open the drapes.
Directing me to her couch, she went to Mr. Baker, who smiled kindly from his chair. One side of his neck swelled with a cancerous growth. He could barely speak.
I perched on a cushion. How had I forgotten? His condition looked much worse than the last time I’d been here.
Four weeks ago, after I arrived to fill the rooms my husband prepared for us, Tim had introduced me. Mr. Baker had chuckled, shaking his head. “You meant it, Tim, when you said you were taking leave to get married,” he said. “Good job.” He held out a hand to me. “Right nice to meet you.”
Now from the couch I said, “Hi, Mr. Baker.”
“He’s Ted,” Mrs. Baker called from the kitchen, above the air conditioner fan. “And I’m Barbara. You make us feel old, child.” She breezed back in carrying tall glasses.
“Sorry,” I said. “My dad’s a minister…” I trailed off, as if that should explain things. I’d been raised to act formal around other people and was as used to it as I was to my parents’ Pacific Northwest home, its doors swung open to receive late August breezes.
The Baker’s teenage daughter, Darla, bounced in, home from the first day of school. She flitted past me to kiss her father, then asked how I’d been. At my bad news, she seemed shocked. “But you’re nice!” she said. “What a stupid boss.”
My sadness pangs lessened as the family and I sipped our lemonades. Barbara handed me today’s paper. “Find the help wanted ads and take them home,” she said. “Don’t let one bad apple stop you. You’ll land the right job, I know you will.” She smiled, patting my arm. “Bring Tim around to visit soon.”
After dinner my sobs wetted Tim’s shoulder. For the past week he’d heard my woes as I tried to be a waitress in a noisy truck stop off the main drag, where men ordered grits and eggs and I spilled coffee. Tim did his best to offer comfort now, his arm around me while we watched TV.
At nineteen, I had traded grant-funded college life beneath Oregon Douglas fir trees for Navy wife status and fire ants on the driveway. I chose love as my adventure over good grades. Somewhere in there I lost my favored, smart-child status with the world.
I imagined that Tim, the Bakers, and everyone at the truck stop considered me a baby. Even so, people seemed to assume I would go forward and find my way.
I took Barbara’s job-hunting advice. The next morning, though tempted to huddle on the couch and read magazines, I looked for work. A Krispy Kreme was hiring. With trepidation, I took their offer and trained to serve doughnuts.
Slowly I caught on. The manager allowed a bit more bumbling than my last boss had. Other Navy wives worked there and were patient. Customers chatted and teased like family. I didn’t yet grasp how this multi-tasking stint at Krispy Kreme was destined to help me in years to come. The morning shift would prove good preparation for my future role as domestic engineer.
Leaving my driveway for work each day I waved at Barbara Baker warming her car, hoping she saw the gratitude in my smile.
One evening near the end of September, Barbara phoned to tell us Mr. Baker had taken a worse turn. Tim and I rushed to the hospital.
Over his bed Darla and her mother bowed like cypress trees in a hurricane. Beneath a white sheet, attached to efficient wires and machines, their father and husband struggled to breathe.
I wished I knew something to say. I could only imagine each one’s anguish. Though my dad had comforted many sick and grieving people, I’d been kept safe, apart from realities like this. What if Ted Baker were my own dad, or Darla my little sister?
When she and Barbara reached for my hands, I squeezed in what I hoped was reassurance.
Days later, Darla phoned us. “My daddy died,” she whispered.
Beside Tim during the funeral, I stared at my lap, trying to comprehend. A few months ago, I hadn’t known the Bakers existed. Today a tragedy connected us. I had never lost a close loved one. I would be more awkward giving aid in these moments than on my first day serving coffee and breakfast doughnuts.
Barbara and Darla embraced us afterward. They clung briefly. Then Barbara squared her shoulders and attempted a smile. “All these arrangements,” she said. “We’re new at them. But we’re making it, one day at a time.”
After a short time off, Barbara returned to work. When I waved to her as before, her headlights shining through early darkness, I wondered how she managed to go on.
Some afternoons I went over to visit, sip tea, and greet Darla when she arrived from school. Both mom and daughter looked so thin. I grasped for words of comfort, but old standbys rang dully in my brain. They didn’t want to hear, I figured, my assurances for their lives to come. Who was I to know things would get better?
In November, sitting on their couch, a thought hit me. “What will you do for Thanksgiving?” I asked.
“Oh,” Barbara said, “I suppose we’ll figure that out when we get there.”
“Well, Tim and I can’t go anywhere,” I said. “Why not have dinner with us?”
Barbara remained quiet a long while. I supposed she was choosing words to politely decline, and I understood. How could I pretend to make such a day special? I barely fixed packaged meals right.
“That’s kind of you, child,” she said at last. “We’d be pleased to come.”
I bought a turkey breast and unearthed every recipe my mom had sent with me. Tim helped prepare the house before our feast.
Soft rain pattered our windows Thanksgiving afternoon. On our small table we spread a cloth and set potatoes, a salad, cranberry sauce, and stuffing. Barbara and Darla carried over a pumpkin pie. Despite my worries, our partial bird emerged from the oven looking edible. Its aroma filled our spaces and caused exclamations of hunger.
We bowed our heads to bless the meal. I thought of my parents on the west coast, enjoying time with my brothers. In a few hours they would sit at their table, hold hands, and pray. Shards of homesickness pricked my heart. Yet gratefully I recognized the gift of sharing today with neighbors. Having two more people here made Tim and me less lonely.
Passing the gravy to Darla, I tried to guess her feelings, missing the daddy who would miss every holiday in her future. I wished I knew the right phrases to help Darla and Barbara feel better. My mind, as usual, felt stiff as meat in the freezer.
Tim launched into a story. I wanted to elbow him, but he sat beyond my reach. This one I had heard before, about his days out at sea on his submarine. He built tension by hinting at a terrible problem the men faced, miles from shore and safety.
Finally, his deepened voice dramatic, he revealed they had run out of ice cream.
I rolled my eyes at his showing off, but Barbara and Darla were laughing.
Tim received my smile. Darla looked sideways at her mom, took a breath, and started talking about fishing with her father. “Remember…?” She brought up antics he had instigated on their outings to the lake. Tim, who had gone with them picnicking and fishing one day months before our marriage, joined in with his memories of Ted.
Across the table, Barbara nodded. She scooted back her chair, crossed her legs, and listened.
I hoped this was a good moment for her, these recollections of happier seasons. Listening to Darla and Tim, I glimpsed my own memories of times around larger tables with extended family, with people who had seen their share of grief.
There were two uncles’ deaths before I was born. A grandpa I never knew had died in the war. These stories grayed the edges of family gatherings, and yet the suffering they caused was somehow part of the richness. Together my loved ones remembered what they had been through. During such times they wept and they laughed, believing more joy would come along.
Later, stomachs full and dishes done, we bid Darla and Barbara goodbye at the front door.
“Thanks, Mrs. B – Barbara,” I said. “I’m so glad you came.”
She pulled me into a tight embrace. “Thank you, child,” she whispered. “You can’t know how much this day has meant.” My vision blurred as I squeezed back.
I swiped tears from my cheek while Tim and I waved to the two of them. Beneath an umbrella they smiled and took delicate steps, carrying dishes home in the rain.
Deanna Hershiser has been published in Relief Journal, BackHome Magazine, flashquake, and Prickthe Spindle. She lives in Oregon now, but remembers fondly the year she and her husband spent as newlyweds in Charleston, South Carolina.