Another short story by Ken Staley from his anthology ‘The Art of Ageing’ – pulished here with his permission.
Uncle Hugh and Aunt Emily looked like a matched set those graceful, porcelain salt and pepper collectibles that grace holiday tables. Withered and hammered by age, as long as they could reach out and touch each other, the world could crumble around them and they wouldn’t even have noticed. We could scarcely picture Aunt Emily without Uncle Hugh, her husband of more than seventy years.
Theirs was an unspoken love – somehow they didn’t need to vocalize their deep, deep feelings – to each other or anyone else. Hugh’s look was always for Emily – and he never once strayed or glanced away. Now and then, he’d reach out for her hand, but the ravages of arthritis accompanied age and even a gentle touch from a gentle man became painful and he settled for their special look.
They had their moments; which married couple doesn’t? Who hasn’t had a sharp word or a cross thought about a spouse? Now and then, especially when I visited them as a child, I’d hear her speak sharply to Uncle Hugh. Not that he ever complained. I don’t think I ever saw an angry moment from Hugh.
One day, after spending an afternoon doing odd jobs that had become too much for Hugh, I heard her cross words and, since they were so infrequent, they shocked me. What I saw in his face was pain. At first I thought it might be something he ate, but it dawned on me later, in bed that night, that Uncle Hugh took her sharp words to heart and they cut him far more than any implement could have done.
I wondered, as I heard him walk through the house for a final check, how he could bring himself to sleep in the same bed with Aunt Emily. She’d been so mean after all. I listened carefully, but the only sounds coming from their side of the hall was his bathroom ritual; a soft pad into the bedroom; a soft close of their door and bed springs that squeaked gently under his slight weight.
At breakfast the next morning, in a real awakening for me, I learned more about love than at any other time, before or since. I guess I thought Hugh had forgotten her sharp words, or perhaps he was going to ignore them. I think, given half a chance, he would simply have let things go. He was a gentle man as well as a gentleman. While I expected a cold table with few words, they had other plans – well, Aunt Emily did, at least.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as he sat at his place and unfolded his napkin. “About last night. I … I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I paused. What would Uncle Hugh say? Me – I think I’d have lashed out – gotten a bit of my own back perhaps.
He never said a word. He simply reached out and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. She grasped his hand in both of hers, a tear leaking gently from the corner of one eye. I knew that her hands, bent and twisted with eight decades of labor and love and arthritis hurt like the dickens, but I also saw she wasn’t going to let go. No other words of apology or forgiveness passed across the table. They simply didn’t need them. Their love was so blatant that to say anything would simply have been wasted breath.
Hugh didn’t want to let go, it seemed to me. Now I realize that simple physical touch was just about all they were capable of doing. Both were well into their seventies and hurt in places I had yet to discover.
He stood then and gave me another lesson. Never before had Uncle Hugh stood so tall in my eyes, seemed so strong, so virile, as when he stood and pulled the chair away from the table so his bride could sit down. Personal forgiveness is one thing, but to demonstrate that all is forgiven as well takes a real man. She kissed him gently as she sat, tracing his jaw line with a touch so intimate that I blushed.
Hugh went quickly. Over the years, they’d taken pieces of him away; a melanoma here and there, his prostate a few years back, inserted stints in his arteries, someplace around his kidneys. Eventually they simply ran out of pieces they could take and leave him alive. Hugh’s death was ugly and painful and its final stages dragged on for an eternity.
Aunt Emily stayed in the hospital when Uncle Hugh was there. She could be very determined and stubborn when she wanted to be. When they put Hugh down in the bed for the last time, she insisted the bed be large enough for her to join him at night.
“Emily, there are going to be tubes and things,” Mom argued, fruitlessly. “You could roll over in your sleep and pull one out accidentally. You can come and stay with us until they release Hugh.”
“You just let me worry about that,” Emily sniffed as if even the suggestion was insulting. “I’m 86 and I don’t roll over all that much any more. Takes too much effort.”
“You might get more sleep at home, Em,” Uncle Hugh said gently, his voice raspy and strange with the pressure of the oxygen flowing through the tube in his nose. “Listen to all these machines! You know what a light sleeper you are.”
“I can sleep later,” she insisted. “Once you get home.”
He didn’t press too hard. I think Uncle Hugh knew he wasn’t coming home again that last time and deep inside, he couldn’t bear to part with Emily. By that time, with a wife of my own, I understood. His end made me re-evaluate my own life, my own marriage. For the rest of my days, I’ll measure myself against Uncle Hugh and Aunt Emily.
Emily faded quickly without Hugh.
At first, she insisted that we let her stay in the small Cape Cod she and Hugh shared for nearly forty years. Everything familiar was in that house. In the first few weeks after his death, whenever I had a chance to stop by and check on her, I would find her talking to Uncle Hugh as though he were standing right next to her. Other times I found her sobbing, great wracking sobs, unable to otherwise vocalize the deep, deep loss she felt. She died still a vibrant woman of 89, having outlived her only husband by a matter of months.
Aunt Emily went peacefully in her sleep. She put on her best flannel nightie, did her hair up in a scarf, crawled between the sheets, closed her eyes – and died. Personally, I think she simply didn’t want to continue without Hugh and went to meet him.
Mom couldn’t come into their house without going to pieces and crying over each and every item. She was as close to Uncle Hugh and Aunt Emily as her own parents and their now vacant house left the empty place in her heart, too.
April, Jackie and I sorted through seventy years of marriage, determined to get the bulk of the house organized at the very least, deciding what the family wanted and what should be donated. It took several weekends of hit and miss as we had our own lives after all. Jackie went almost every day, straight from her third grade class. She’s the one who found them.
We gathered around their kitchen table one Sunday morning. In the middle of the table, rested three very old, fancy shoe boxes, with decorative metal reinforcements at each corner, and the brand name instilled an image of class and style that somehow didn’t fit the image of either Hugh or Emily. Each box showed a picture of an open toed, high heel pump. Once the lid came off, bundle after neat bundle of letters waited inside, each tied with a colorful silk ribbon. Jackie found them hidden in a back closet and already opened one bundle. A few of the envelopes slipped and scattered across the table.
“She obviously cherished these and stored them in the best thing she had. Are they all from Hugh?” I asked, entering the room just as the bundle slid apart. I glanced at the letters. “You know, like his letters from over seas during the war. She certainly would have kept anything he wrote to her.”
“I don’t think any are from him,” April said as she picked up an envelope and examined the return address carefully. “The postage and post mark say London.”
“Did you ever see Uncle Hugh’s writing? It was pretty bad,” Jackie said as she examined another envelope. “There were times his hand writing was so illegible only Auntie Emily could decipher the words.”
“Who are they from then?” I asked as I pulled one of the ornate shoe boxes closer and peered inside. Each box contained at least twenty bundles tightly and neatly wrapped with silk ribbon.
April removed two sheets of velum from an envelope, paper so thin as to be nearly transparent, so light that it quivered under her gentle touch. I could see that whoever wrote the pages numbered them dated them, and the hand writing so neat as to be a work of art itself.
“Edward,” April said as she gently lifted the first page away from the second and scanned to the end.
“Your loving Edward,” she read as she looked up into our dumbfound faces. “Earl of Rochford.”
The cosmos froze. Everything in time and space lurched to a stop. We sat stunned, unable to move. Those who know nothing of love suddenly found themselves shaking their heads in wonder and muttering, “What?”
“We should tell Mom,” April was all business as she quickly refolded the letter carefully and gathered up the scattered bundle.
“This would shatter her,” Jackie said. “We can’t tell her. She’s already a basket case. We need to throw all of these away. Now.”
She started to do just that, picking up the box in front of her as April and I grabbed our boxes and moved away from the table.
“Not on your life!” April said.
We argued for an hour. Showing Mom was no answer, but neither was destroying them. Someplace in between, there had to be a way to compromise.
“Look,” I said. “This is too much for any of us to handle right now. Let’s just step back.”
Finally, we decided that we would each take a box and read the contents, meeting again in a week to share what we learned.
“But keep this to yourself!” Jackie said. “Discuss it with no one! Not even with each other. We might just decide that it’s best to destroy these.”
“Just promise you’re going to read yours,” April said. “Don’t make any decisions based on some knee jerk reaction.”
My resolve lasted through the weekend. In fact, I was strong until late Tuesday night.
“What’s the matter?” Patty asked sleepily as she lifted her head and peered at me. “Ricky? You’re crying! Why are you crying?”
She sat up and reached for me.
Suddenly, I no longer wanted to carry the burden alone. It was easier just to read her the letter in my lap. I picked up that delicate paper.
10 May 1953
My darling Emily,
I’ve closed my office door and left strict instructions that I’m not to be disturbed for the next half hour. Your letter just arrived and, although my staff may wonder whose, your perfume now brings me closer to you. With the shades drawn and only the small light on my desk, I’ve taken out that most special of gifts you sent. This lock of your hair – these wonderful curls – wrap around my fingers and, if I close my eyes, I can pretend that you’re here.
You cannot know how your love sustains me, sees me through the trials of the week and gives me courage and reason to go on. I know my heart would be lost without your sweet love. You are the reason I get up mornings, the reason I can face each sunrise, bless each sunset.
My love, although so many miles and so many moons separate us, in my heart you are just a beat away. What more can a man say to the woman who opened her heart to him, allowing him to feel the warmth of her love across the great distance? I have no other words to describe the way you make me feel.
Of course, my darling, rush to London and into my arms, please, whenever you are able. I lay awake nights with an ache for your touch, for the sound of your voice, to feel you in my arms. Please come, my love, and nothing could prevent me from showing you my country.
I see now that my moment of respite has evaporated and I must tuck this gentle piece of you away, in my vest pocket, close to my heart where you always, always rest. I’m pressed now to get this letter to the post today, my love, to rush it into your hands.
Forever yours and most lovingly
“Emily,” Patty seemed lost – in our own bed. “Great Aunt Emily? You’re kidding! Who is Edward?”
“We don’t know,” I sighed, glad that she was there, glad that she sat beside me, as confused as I was by the entire idea. I knew she had questions – I still had many questions. Unlike me, Patty needed to vocalize her dilemma.
“Where did you find these? How many are there?” She asked.
“Jackie found them in the back of Emily’s closet,” I explained, then brought my shoe box up from the floor. “As close as I can determine, she kept them according to year, wrapping the years separately. I have 15 years here.”
For the rest of the night, we shared Edward’s words of undying
love. Sometimes his letters discussed the loneliness filling his life. Other letters he filled with passion and love. Now and then, among those years, Edward threatened to stop – but always he came back.
Those pages – his departure and return – carried Aunt Emily’s tear stains.
Now and then, those words forced us to interrupt the cycle and read passages aloud. We alternately wept, laughed, smiled and sighed.
Our Saturday morning gathering had all the makings of the day after a drunken bender. Each of us had obviously read the letters in our box and been emotionally battered. I know I was still having difficulty reconciling my sweet, devoted Aunt Emily with the secret, almost Mata Hari – type, keeping her torrid affair private from everyone.
We settled around that kitchen table. I noticed even Jackie, who left hell bent to destroy everything, kept her box of letters close to her. Silence filled the kitchen and we looked, one to the other, each lost down private roads, trying to wrest reason back from the world of the irrational. I sat in my own quiet world, feeling dirty, like a voyeur suddenly caught in the act. At times, each of us started to say something, but nothing really intelligible came out.
Then Mom surprised us. After all her protests that even entering that house would be more than she could handle, there she was.
“What’s this?” She asked as she set her purse and a small packet of her own on the table. “Why so glum? So silent? The funeral was last month and you three act like it’s tomorrow.”
She pulled up a chair and saw the boxes.
“What are these?” She asked and before I could stop her, she shifted my box and lifted the lid. “Where did these come from?”
We hemmed and hawed and looked away, but there wasn’t time to hide the other two boxes. Then she picked up one of the bundles and brought up her reading glasses from their resting place on her chest and peered closely at the first envelope.
“Why would Em write letters to herself?” I think she said, mostly to herself, but she surely didn’t expect the shocked reaction she got from the rest of us.
“To her … I don’t understand.”
“They’re from England,” I pointed out.
“Well, I don’t care where they’re from,” she said as she opened the first envelope and scanned the letter. I’m not certain she actually read the letter as much as she did examine the writing. “But this is your Aunt Emily’s writing. No mistaking that penmanship. She won several prizes for her beautiful penmanship in school – when they used to give prizes for such things. But what are these?”
We sat silently as she reread that first letter, this time actually reading the words. She started smiling half way through the first page and suppressed a giggle as she read the signature.
“What?” Jackie demanded.
“None of you knew Emily had a sister,” Mom began, “Alice was two years older and lived in London. During a real whirlwind vacation, Alice met and married earl or duke somebody – I’ve forgotten. It’s been ages since I thought of her. Once she got the title, we were too low on the social scale for her to recognize so we didn’t talk about Alice very much at all. Still, Emily began sending her ‘care packages’ sometime early in the blitz. That’s the first thing you should know.
“Emily always wanted to be a famous writer. A romance writer to be specific,” Mom smiled and waved the packet. Suddenly, the fog began to clear and I saw my sisters smile as well. “Don’t you see? She created this character – what? The Duke of Rochford? – wrote these to herself and mailed the package to Alice. She must have had Alice send back these letters, one at a time.”
She picked up a bundle and absently fanned through the lot as a card player might fan a new deck of cards.
“In those boxes, too?” She asked. We nodded. “Looks like she got her wish after all. Must be enough here for two or three juicy books.”
“But what about Hugh?” April asked.
“Oh he probably knew,” Mom said. “Can you imagine them keeping anything from each other? You know how close they were.”
We laughed at the idea and relief sped around the table. The little old devil. Even from beyond the grave, sending us a pack of lies. Suddenly all was right with the world and the cosmos could continue unabated.
“What are these?” I asked as I picked up the packet Mom brought with her.
“Oh, cards from the funeral,” she said. “I’ve been putting off sending thank-yous out long enough.”
Most of the cards meant little as they came from strangers. Inside the bag Mom managed to paperclip a small group of cards from the flower arrangements that had been delivered to the church. I remember Emily’s casket awash in a sea of pastel flowers. I flipped through the first half dozen and froze. A blank card, no imprint of a local florist, no decorative edge, just a signature:
I slipped the card in my back pocket.