After the service, they took him to the family plot in Pleasant Hill, just a stone’s throw from their home. There he would lie next to Bessie, as it should be. After all, she had him almost fifty years; Anna, only seven. She and Oliver had decided it together, well before he became too confused to know or care where he would be laid to rest.
Later, the Brethren Home hosted a small reception. Anna sat by herself in a corner, as was her habit, working her way through a short stack of cookies (she had to be careful about her sugar). She was practicing being invisible, which seemed to get easier with age. Some people thought she was shy; others that she was stuck up. She knew it was a little of both, although Lord knows what she had to be stuck up about.
She was still chilled from the interment and tired to the bone. As soon as it felt proper, she would ask her daughter Lucy to take her home to the calm and quiet. Well, except for the noisy dogs, or the doggonits as she called them, tickled by her own cleverness. Anna lived on Lucy’s property, her pink trailer sitting between a pile of rusted farm equipment and Lucy’s kennel runs.
It was overwhelming to see so many of Oliver’s big family in one place. He and Bessie had eight children. All five daughters were there, and two of the three sons. John, although the youngest by far, was too poorly these days to travel up from Florida. Which wasn’t surprising. John’s wife June, a Bible thumper if Anna had ever met one, was insufferable, “Have you found Jesus yet?” being her favorite conversation starter. It would wear her down, too, if she had to live with that. The oldest sons, Olin and Robert, were pictures of prosperity in their nice suits.
The five girls sat around one of the big tables close by. You could tell they were sisters: they all had the dark eyes, thick wavy hair, thin lips that barely covered big front teeth, and ample hips and bosoms. They seemed liked sweet, friendly girls, although she only knew them in bits and pieces, coming so late into her life as they had. It didn’t feel right calling herself their stepmother, and she suspected the feeling was mutual.
Oliver had spent time living with each of them after he gave up his preaching and had to move out of the manse. By then Bessie was gone, and Anna could imagine that he was in a fuddle most of the time, no longer having a wife, a pulpit, or a home. And, of course, it was the girls who were expected to take care of him.
Mostly he lived with Lois because she was the only one who had stayed in Pleasant Hill. She had married a preacher herself (named Pius, if you could believe it), and the two of them liked to talk shop. He kept his old car in their shed, and he would take it out for an occasional spin. Anna was greatly relieved when he gave the old bucket up, mostly because he always drove at the same speed whether on the new freeway or the bumpy lane that led to Lucy’s property. Sitting beside him, Anna would either be bored to tears as every car passed them by or jostled so hard that her teeth rattled.
The sisters were talking louder than usual, probably because they were trying to be heard across the big table. Even so, Anna had to listen hard to catch their conversation.
“He was never a burden,” Esther was saying, a touch of sainthood in her tone. “Kept himself entertained. Remember how he liked to write those rhyming poems? I still have some.”
“Yeah, Dad was always busy with something or other,” Lois added, affectionately. “Never a nuisance. Well, except for his crazy scheme of getting himself remarried. You know how hard I tried to talk him out of it. I sure didn’t want him embarrassing himself. Or me and Pius either, for that matter.”
“We all know, when Dad got something in his head, that was that,” Esther chuckled.
“Yeah, but it didn’t feel good sneaking around to grab his letters before the mailman got them. But what else could I do?”
Murmurs of agreement went around the table.
“Well, however he managed it, I’m just glad he found Anna.” (She couldn’t tell if it was Eunice or Ruth talking.) “He struck gold in marriage, twice over. May he rest in peace.”
There was a chorus of “Amens.”
Anna stopped trying to listen. Instead, she repeated the conversation to herself, and its meaning slapped her in the face. They were talking about her private business (at least she had thought it was her secret), like it was some sweet memory to banter around the table. There was nothing sweet about it. In fact, she found it mortifying.
She felt herself getting hot, first her face, then her neck, until her navy-blue dress started sticking to her armpits and under her breasts, even though the room was cool. It was like the change was happening all over again.
Lordy, I have to get out of here before I go up in flames. She caught Lucy’s eye and prayed that she would see her distress and come to her rescue. Dear Lucy, thinking she was overcome with grief, took her straight home.
With Oliver gone, Anna felt like she was walking around in a heavy cloud, even though spring had arrived, bringing color back into the world. From the outside it probably looked like mourning. But she knew grief: her Lenny had passed more than twenty years ago, but she still remembered wishing that she had gone to the grave with him. What she was feeling now was different. She thought of it as her “gray days.” Not the black of deep grief, but the gray of sadness and loss. Oliver had been a kind husband, and they had some good years together. But that didn’t change the fact that he had played her for a fool. She thought she had made peace with it, that her pride had been wounded more than her heart and should be easier to heal. But the wound sat inside her like a hard knot.
Anna was well settled into her widowhood when Oliver came into her life. She had her sweet little trailer, bought with the money from selling the big house where she and Lenny had raised Lucy. She enjoyed her books, her small garden, and her own company. In the mornings, if the weather was mild and her joints willing, she helped Lucy in the kennels, and then they would read the morning paper together over a cup of coffee. When she wanted more company, she played pinochle or had tea with friends. Her life had a nice, even rhythm.
One afternoon Lucy handed her a letter addressed to her in small, near perfect cursive. It was handwritten on ivory stationery, with Oliver’s name and address printed in fancy script at the top.
I pray that you will not be offended that I am addressing you by your Christian name. Now that I no longer have my church and congregation, I have time to indulge in fond memories, and I remember you in particular as a woman of charm and wit.
I know that you, as I, have long been widowed, and I was hoping that you might consider a marriage partnership to add some richness to our later years.
Of course, it is only proper that we get to know each other first. If you agree, may I call on you? We could go out to the new ice cream parlor on Spring Street or perhaps one of the band concerts at the pavilion. I look forward to hearing from you.
I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits.
“For heaven’s sake, what falderal!” she said out loud and tossed the letter onto the kitchen table. Clearly, here was a man who was full of the sound of his own voice or, in this case, the scratch of his fountain pen.
She finished her chores by tea time and took her cup out onto the front landing where she could admire her pink and yellow gladiolas. Her thoughts returned to the letter. She had known Oliver only as her pastor. She remembered him as a big man, probably a good six feet tall, with a wide forehead and receding hairline that made him look intelligent. He preached too much fire and brimstone for her taste, but he had a lovely, strong voice that carried into every corner.
He seemed different when he came down from the pulpit, when he shook their hands after the service or mingled at church socials. Not at all high and mighty but friendly, like a close neighbor. They had the occasional chat, but their only discussion of any substance was the day of Lenny’s funeral, when he had asked what Lenny was like and then turned her words into a moving eulogy. But that was many years ago.
She was surprised and flattered that he remembered her at all, much less as a woman of charm and wit. She wasn’t one of those pious widows who always sat in the front pews, thinking it would bring them closer to heaven. They were like the nuns who were married to God, except, in this case, these were second marriages. The Church of the Brethren wasn’t even her first choice for a place of worship, being a bit too sober, but the only other church in town was Catholic. Even then, she didn’t attend if she had something else that needed doing. As her father used to say, “Chores don’t do themselves just cuz it’s a Sunday.”
But Oliver had seen something special in her, and that was worth taking note. She hadn’t even shared a look with another man since Lenny, out of some notion of loyalty. But what was wrong with a look? At most she would be agreeing to a get-together. She sent off a short reply, telling him, Yes, I would like to get to know you better.
Anna was pleasantly surprised to find that his companionship did make her life better. He was sweeter and funnier than she had imagined and a good listener. She liked hearing his rich, deep voice and could imagine hearing it every day. Her heart didn’t flutter, but that was just as well at her age. Anyway, Lenny had been the love of her life, and she didn’t need or expect to have another.
She insisted on a city hall wedding, as a church wedding would have looked silly. She wore her Sunday best, and they spent the night at a nice hotel in Dayton with a free continental breakfast.
When Oliver moved into her trailer, he brought a scuffed suitcase and a garment bag that held his only suit. His most valued possession was the family Bible that took up nearly all of the end table in their tiny living room. It wasn’t just his spiritual advisor. It also served as his diary, his account ledgers, and a filing cabinet where he stored old sermons, letters, poems he had written, even silly jokes that he would pull out for her amusement. His small, neat penmanship filled pieces of paper that he slipped between the pages and any spaces on the pages not already taken by the words of God.
He showed her his lists of every marriage and funeral he had performed, often recounting some interesting tidbit about the newlyweds or newly widowed. He also had a list of every baptism. She remembered the pool behind the pulpit where he did his dunking and how some of the young’uns had come up looking like they’d seen the devil. Frankly, it had given her the heebie-jeebies, although she would never tell Oliver that.
She, in turn, showed him her garden and explained what made each flower different and special. She read him passages from her favorite books (skipping the parts he might consider scandalous) and baked him blueberry pies, his hands-down favorite.
Before long, they were fitting like a comfortable old pair of shoes.
A few years into their marriage, Oliver’s mind began to dim at an alarming pace, his usual state of slight befuddlement slipping into prolonged periods of confusion. With it, his body seemed to sink into itself. He would pace around the trailer, looking for his glasses, his shirt buttoned up wrong, his shoulders stooped as if his suspenders were dragging him down. Always a loquacious man, he grew mostly silent.
She became his caretaker, helping him with his daily routines. She made sure his clothes were clean and his dinners hot and that he took his morning pills.
In the late afternoons, they would often sit in their matching recliners in the living room and she would read to him from the Bible. She preferred the more peaceful verses, like John 3:16 or Psalm 19 or 34. Life was hard enough without reading about hell and damnation. He was a King James man, so she always read from his big Bible, not the small New King James version that she kept in the bedside table. The Book would sit heavy in her lap, the loose pages threatening to spill everywhere. He would appear to listen, hunched in his recliner. Occasionally a passage would bring him out of his fog enough to mumble some fragment from memory.
One afternoon when she was reading to him, a chill started setting in, bringing with it an ache in her joints. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and several pieces of paper drifted to the floor. Her eye caught a list of names and addresses that somehow, she sensed, held some meaning to her. There were maybe half a dozen names, all women. Perhaps a list of the church secretaries over the years? He would have kept track of something like that.
She turned on the lamp, as it was getting to be dusk. Oliver had fallen asleep, slumped in his chair, letting out an even snore. The lamplight revealed faint marks next to some of the names. An X, followed by another X and another. The marks stopped close to the bottom. At her name. She studied the list and suddenly knew what she was seeing. A list of marriageable ladies, widows from his church who might be interested in marrying a man of God.
“Durn fool,” she sputtered, not sure if she meant Oliver or her own self. To think that she was just one of several ladies on his list, and not even near the top! Maybe she had been the only one silly enough to reply. Shame bubbled up beneath the anger, turning her stomach sour. Slipping the list into the pocket of her housedress, she got up to get some bicarbonate of soda. Then she went to retrieve the letter she kept in her keepsake box and put it in her pocket with the list. She would burn them both in the burn barrel.
A few weeks later, Lois and Lucy helped her put him in the Brethren Home. The staff there seemed like kind souls who would take good care of him. He could sit in the parlor with other retired pastors and devout Christians, or she could wheel him to the chapel where he could have a private word with God.
Eventually, they had to strap him into his wheelchair when he wasn’t in bed, and he got so he didn’t even recognize her. He passed quietly one night after her evening visit, and, truth be told, it felt like a blessing. She sealed up his Bible with twine and put it in his coffin to keep him company in the afterlife.
One late morning in September, Lucy came to the door dragging a scruffy mutt. Anna, who was still in her gray days, hadn’t gotten dressed yet.
“Look who’s been hanging around, Mom. I’m guessing he’s lost. None of the neighbors recognize him either. It got me wondering. Like maybe you’d like to keep him. I know you’re still grieving, but I think he’d be good company.” Her daughter got that look she used when she was little and would plead “pretty, pretty please” to get her way. Unfortunately, the dog had that same look.
“Don’t say anything now. Just think about it, OK? I’ll clean him up if you decide to take him.”
She thought about it for the rest of the day, then visited Lucy that evening to say she would give it a try. But no guarantees. She was just fine living by herself, thank you. Still, he looked like a sorry fellow who needed some love.
She named him Ollie because it seemed to fit. (Once, early in their courtship, when she’d called Oliver “Ollie,” he told her gently but firmly that nicknames didn’t suit him.)
Ollie quickly became a good companion, sensing when it was okay to lean against her chair when she was reading or when he should lie down under the table to give her some room. Sometimes she even invited him to sleep next to her in bed. She would let him play outside all day, then call him for dinner each evening. She liked to watch him run to her from across the yard as if he hadn’t seen her in a month of Sundays.
Maybe it was Ollie’s company or maybe just the time passing, but color started coming back into her life. She found herself daydreaming about the days ahead. She thought about what bulbs she might get in the ground before it froze. Or how Lucy would maybe help her put in a small vegetable garden in the spring. Then they could can beans and tomatoes together.
One day she got up early to do some weeding. She picked a few blooms to put in her best vase. Then she gave the house a good cleaning. She changed the bed quilt to a bright, floral-patterned bedspread with curtains to match that she’d bought before Oliver died, then decided they were too gaudy to bear. Now they looked perfect. That night she slept better than she had in ages, Ollie pressed against her side.
The next evening, Anna stood outside the door and called for Ollie a little earlier than usual. She could smell rain coming and wanted to get him in before he stank of wet dog. She called several times, raising her voice a little louder each time. She was losing patience. He had one more chance, and then he could just stay out for the night, for all she cared.
What came out of her mouth next was not what she had intended.
“GODDAMMIT TO HELL, OLIVER!” she hollered, putting her whole body into it, as if her voice could reach to the heavens, or at least as far as Oliver’s grave.
She surprised herself again by laughing out loud. It took her a moment to collect herself.
“I’m sorry, Oliver, but I guess that needed saying. I’ve been so angry. First, you took me for a damn fool. And then you had the gall to leave me to grow old alone.” She let out a long, noisy exhale. “But maybe I’m ready to be done with that.”
Anna looked up at the rain that had started falling and felt the knot inside her begin to loosen. When Ollie came bounding out of nowhere, she greeted him with joy.
Author's Comment“Anna” is based on a conversation about my grandfather that I overheard as a child. My imagination filled in the blanks.