Love Dies Hard
by Lesley Sudders
“I never told you I grew up in a soddy, did I?” Louise aked.
I shook my head, my mouth full of an excellent shortbread cookie.
“Do you know what that is?”
I nodded. I’d read that a soddy was a house made of sod blocks, mostly in rural western America. I knew Louise has been born in the 1920s to a poor farm or ranch family in Montana. So it fit.
“I appreciated you coming to Mom’s memorial service.” I swallowed my tea. “Tell me about life in the soddy.”
“Well, it was miserable, and the only reason I’m talking about it now is because I want to tell you about Frank.”
“My dear young friend, something wonderful has befallen these old bones!”
“I will. When I read Charles Dickens, I realized we had our own version of poor and wretched out there on the prairie. But if things hadn’t been so difficult, I probably would have never met Frank.” She paused. “I’d like to think my life isn’t reduced to platitudes. You know, the road not taken, everything has a purpose, blah blah.”
I smiled at her dry humor. When I first met her, more than thirty years ago, she was a graceful skier, avid climber, and dancer. I was in high school and often babysat her young son. I thought she was now about seventy. She maintained a trim figure and had dark brown hair touched with grey.
She went on. “The soddy was cramped for the four of us, my older brother, Mom and Dad, and me. Our so-called ranch had a few skinny chickens and pitiful cows. Montana offers unrelenting cold. Never had enough warm clothes or blankets. Such a hard life turned my parents old before their time, and into angry, bitter people.”
“One day when I was 12, my dad told me to get in the car. My mom put a burlap bag in the back, turned, and went inside the soddy. We drove to the town, about twenty miles away. I wondered what I had done wrong that he wouldn’t talk to me.”
A tear glistened in her eye. She poured a little more tea.
“He stopped by the drug store and told me to get out. He handed me the burlap bag and a ten dollar bill. This was the height of the Great Depression, and I know now that $10 was a lot of money. He pointed to the house of a woman I knew about but had never met. ‘See you around, kid.’ And he drove off.”
I found I wasn’t breathing.
“What did you do?”
She dragged herself back to the moment.
“Do you like these cookies? It’s a new recipe I’m trying out.”
“Yes, they’re wonderful. What happened?”
“The woman in the house was named Mrs. Davenport. Mr. Davenport had run the feed store but had died a few years earlier. I guess he left her enough to live on in their nice home. It was really cold outside. Lugging the burlap bag, which I found contained my mended clothes and a few books from the one-room schoolhouse I’d been attending, I knocked on her door.”
She gazed out the window a few moments.
“I lived with Mrs. Davenport for nearly six years. She wasn’t really mean but she wasn’t friendly, either. On my bad day, it’s tempting to say she made a household slave out of me, and I did work hard for her. I cleaned, did some of the cooking and the wash, and picked up groceries and things. But I attended junior high there in town, and high school, which would otherwise not have been possible, living so far away.”
I knew Louise had made to her way to Denver after high school, married, had a son, and divorced. Meanwhile, she had established herself in the insurance business and made a good living.
“About the only place Mrs. Davenport liked to go was to her woman’s club meetings. Now that I look back, I wonder if she was lauded for taking in a poor waif like me.” She chuckled. “I did appreciate being warm most of the time, and she gave me a small allowance so I could buy clothes. She brought things home sometimes, used clothes and shoes. I also had enough to eat.”
“What about your family? Did you see them?”
“Not much. At first, I didn’t want to see them. You cannot imagine the rejection I felt. Life on the ranch was hard, but I didn’t mind the work. Yet they cast me out. How dramatic is that?”
“I think now that maybe they wanted me to get education or a different life and didn’t know a better way to provide it. I’ll never know what they thought. My older brother managed to come to town for high school for a few years. We hardly ever spoke. Sometimes I wondered if he was jealous that I had better things than he, and other times I thought he enjoyed being the one they kept instead of sending off. He joined the Army, just as World War II was about to start. I’ve hardly seen him since.”
“So when does the wonderful part start?”
“I didn’t know it, but it started a few weeks after I moved in with Mrs. Davenport. I became friends with two sisters, Mary and Margaret, who lived on the next block. They were one and two years older than me, and their family was better off than mine, surely, but we became fast friends. They were the first girlfriends I ever had. One day they invited me to a birthday party at their house. Their mom knew Mrs. Davenport, so she let me go. The birthday party was for their brother Frank. He was turning 16. I’d never seen him before that day; our paths hadn’t crossed. He gave me a big smile, and I fell for him so hard. I was just turning 13.
“After that, I saw him now and then. He was always nice to me but I thought he had a girlfriend his own age. Like my brother, he quit school to join the Army. A first crush of that intensity is hard to forget.”
She was silent for several moments. I wondered about the “now and then.”
“A few years ago, after I retired, I drove to Montana. I found Mary and Margaret. Both were widowed and they had moved back into their family home. Little had changed in the more-than-fifty years since I’d seen it last. They were happy to see me and offered to have me stay with them whenever I wanted. I had a wonderful time and went back the next summer.
“Mary told me that Frank had lived in Albuquerque for many years, and was recently divorced. He’d earned a living as a rodeo hand, and then a truck driver and mechanic. Sometimes he drove through Denver on his way to visit them. She said if it was okay, she’d give him my phone number.
“The long story short is that about three weeks ago, he called. I gave him directions to my house, with no idea of what to expect. He showed up in about an hour. And as the Good Lord is my witness, this is what happened.”
I was on the edge of my seat, cookies forgotten.
“I opened the door. There stood a chubby, bald man, with the big smile that I remembered, and flowers in his hand.
“He said, ‘I think I’ve loved you all my life.’”
It was my turn to have tears in my eyes.
A few years went by. I invited her to lunch, which would turn out to be the last time I would see her. She and Frank did keep company, she said, for a year or more, even driving to Montana a few times. They found they enjoyed catching up on the past and got along well. But eventually she saw they had little in common.
Frank was kind and generous in many ways. He had taken up silverwork and made her several interesting and beautiful pieces of jewelry. He was also an outspoken racist and didn’t trust people who read too much.
Louise had struggled to earn a college degree and her walls boasted shelves full of books. She had become a gourmet cook, growing many vegetables and herbs herself, and went to art gallery openings and lectures on numerous topics.
She decided to end it before it became acrimonious, and just let them drift apart.
“The sad part is,” she said, “is that I never stopped loving him from the first time I saw him, over sixty years ago.”
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.