She did not send the sad love letter she wrote after the events described below. She gave it to me after a lot more water under the bridge. I found it fifty years later in a Rubbermaid tub full of notes, manuscripts and correspondence from a life lived on paper. The ink was faded. The words were fresh, as if sadness has no shelf life. How did Faulkner phrase it? The past is not dead. It isn’t even the past.
Although you have said goodbye, not shalom — not wait for me — but goodbye, I still think of you constantly. A song, a scene, a wisp of smoke from a passing pipe sends me into melancholy daydreams. Nothing seems to be able to stop the memories, the hopeless wishes, indeed the fantasies, from shouldering their way through whatever I am doing or saying or thinking.
Sometimes I am in Paris with you, walking down the Champs, or in a cozy café drinking something warm and sweet; sometimes — many times, and I can’t explain it — we are in London, hatted and coated snugly against the chill dampness. At times we are walking in a sun-spattered forest and I breathe deeply to savor the freshness of the air. Sometimes we are sitting before a fire. I am very quiet while you read or work and I would not disturb you for any but the utmost emergency.
So many times you spoke of things that might have been. These are some of the things my dreams are made of. Even now…
She had been unable to find another free evening after our first chaotic date when I was home on annual leave. Best she could do was a poignant lunch. I was committed to another year of military servitude far away. She said she dreaded my departure. I felt empty when I left her, a feeling too familiar from my lost love in Paris. These heartaches at parting were something the matriarch never told me about in her warnings against women.
Glenda’s devotion had finally softened the after-all romantic heart of the matriarch, usually suspicious of women interested in me. My mother already was on her side. Unknown to me, the women in my life hatched a plot: she would leave her husband, child and job and follow me Northwest. My mother would come with her, two women who loved me driving my Barracuda cross-country. The matriarch would ensure my favorite uncle, a big wheel in Southern politics, got my mother’s Post Office transfer expedited to a Washington city. Meanwhile she could waitress while Glenda found an art-studio job. But best-laid plans of Venusians, as well as mice and men, gang aft aglay.
I was sequestered in the rainy Northwest, absent for the storm of Southern Gothic melodrama that burst in Florida.
She planned her escape like a convict because her domineering husband treated her like one. Fifty years ago I had never heard of abused-wife syndrome or whatever it’s called. He had acquired a boat for commercial fishing in South Florida. Her presence aboard was required when she could get off work. She told him she had to drive to town for supplies, left the car and took a bus home to pack and flee.
He caught up with her at home, packing. Like a canny warden he had smelled something brewing. Did she leave the car keys for him? Did he have spares? Hot-wire the car? Anyway, he caught her. She never told me what he did when he caught her. But he forced confession of her putative road trip — and naming of her co-conspirators.
Then he made what should have been a fatal mistake.
He drove her, trembling and terrified, to my beach home to raise hell about them helping her. He was lucky. First because my mother was at work slinging mail bags. She was perfectly capable of beating him to death with her bare hands for hurting a woman who loved me. The second lucky break was due to the matriarch’s unwavering iron code of conduct. Which takes explaining.
When he literally dragged his cowed wife into our living room to confront the matriarch, it was now my old man’s bedroom. One leg gone, he sat ignored in his wheelchair. The asshole had no conception his life hung by the proverbial thread. He stormed at the matriarch for aiding his wife and announced she had recanted her travel plans with my mother. Had forsworn anything more to do with me. He was there to put my family on notice to back off.
“Let her speak.” I can hear the coldness in the matriarch’s voice without having been there. A rum-runner chieftain’s girl before she married a stronger and meaner man, blowhards left her contemptuous.
The old man sat boiling. He had a soft spot for Glenda. She painted him a sad clown picture after his surgery. He had permanently injured better men with his fists. The old 1911 Colt tucked in his wheelchair saw him through gunfights he walked away from but enemies did not. Most often told tale of his power was about an armed gangster in a barbershop ranting because the old man married his boss’s squeeze, saying he would punish such insolence. Not knowing who slept in the next chair under a hot Turkish face towel. The barber whipped the towel away like a conjurer. The old man grumbled awake and sat up. The hoodlum…fainted. The old man eyed the prostrate guy with the shoulder holster:What the hell’s wrong with him? The barbershop exploded with laughter.
But while the old man was titular head, the matriarch governed our family. No violence at home without her command. He waited, coiled like a broken-back old rattlesnake.
“Let her speak,” the matriarch repeated.
The idiot shoved his diminished wife. “Say it!” Never looking up, she said it: no road trip, no more contact with me, no separation from him, no divorce.
“Are you sure?” the matriarch said. “This is your decision?” Perhaps not the exact words. But fifty years later I still can hear that diamond-cutting tone.
“Yes,” Glenda said humbly, eyes down.
When she described the scene later, the matriarch told me the idiot preened. His preening almost tipped her decision to unleash the old man. But her iron code held. Glenda twice denied her favorite grandson. And betrayed the matriarch, for trusting this woman with my affections. The matriarch gave no Biblical third chance. “So be it,” she told me flatly. “Forget her.”
I was astonished by the road trip the women who loved me had cooked up. Incredulous Glenda crawled before my old man and the matriarch, safest place on earth she could be. That had to mean I was just a fling despite her vows of love. Which hurt badly as anything I can remember.
Glenda had a diametrically opposed version of the incident: that she had to protect that nice old couple from her brutal keeper. She wrote to explain that she lied to save them, of course she loved me. I followed the matriarch’s decree and said goodbye. The letter she gave me later was proof that in her heart of hearts no goodbye was final.