When I was in graduate school in Wisconsin, my mother met a man named Pete. My father had died several years earlier, and she was lonesome. She liked to socialize, to dance, to eat and drink with friends. She was a one-man woman, and liked strong men. She didn’t care what they looked like as long as they were smart and had a good heart. She was in her fifties, a good-humored woman to whom laughter came easily, but who knew too much sadness.
I was in a Master’s of Environmental Science program, concerned with things like soil science and federal environmental grant programs. In a letter—this was before email, smart phones or computers, when people actually wrote letters, because long distance phone calls were quite expensive. In a letter, she said, oh by the way, Pete and I have moved in together.
So there I was, a few hundred miles from what passed for home, and heading home for Christmas break. The plan was that I’d spend a couple days with them, then join some friends in the college town where I had lived for several years after graduating.
Whether I liked the guy or not was irrelevant. Pete made her happy, and that’s what counted. Still, I had to meet the guy.
And I did. He was not a good-looking man. He had landed at Normandy in 1944 and a German shell had nearly killed him. He spent more than a year in hospitals, getting part of his face reconstructed. He had married once, which dissolved in mutual recriminations. He worked for the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton railroad, a lonely, hard-drinking man.
They lived in an old hotel, with rooms converted to apartments. They’d met at the neighborhood bar on the old hotel’s first floor. It was a sort of cool arrangement. The hotel staff gave me a room to stay in for a couple of days.
So we met. Me, a young college kid starting grad school. Him, unsure of himself, meeting the adult son of the woman he was living with. We started talking. And drinking. Beer and good scotch. And kept talking. We talked past midnight. I’m pretty good with making up jokes and Pete had an uproarious laugh. My mother gave up and went to bed. The sound of roaring laughter from the man she loved and the son she loved must have been about as sweet as anything she had ever heard.
If I hadn’t liked him, it would have made no difference. Her happiness was what was important, and she was happy. But it turns out that we got along like family. Which I guess we were.
The story doesn’t end there. They married a year later, and not long after, Pete developed cancer, and died painfully, tempered only by being loved.
I flew in from Wisconsin for his funeral. We drove to his home town of Jackson, Ohio. My mother and I stayed overnight in a large old house with Pete’s mom, who must have been 90. It’s a pretty place, a small city in the rolling hills of southeast Ohio, in Ohio’s portion of Appalachia.
That might I sat with his mother. We drank beer and good scotch. Even at her age, she retained a kind of elegance, and must have been a beautiful and formidable woman in her youth. We told each other jokes and laughed, till well past midnight. Then she got serious and said that my mother’s love for Pete had brightened his last years, brought him out of sadness. Then she looked at me oddly, and said “I want you to do something for me.” I said, ‘I’ll try. What?” And she said, “I want you to leave one red rose on my grave.”
We buried Pete the next day, on a rainy fall day, with the leaves turning bright and the grass turning brown. I was a pallbearer. I’ve always considered him to be my step-father. He remains one of the finest men I have ever met.
My mother was a strong woman, and stood up well under her accumulated sadnesses—dying too young. I never did leave that rose on Madelyn’s grave. My mother was united in death with my father, in a Virginia family graveyard, so Pete is lonely in death.
Or maybe not. Pete had a few years at the end of his life brightened by the love of his life, and that is something that resonates in this our universe far beyond a life.
This little story doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. I’m not even sure of all the kinds of love it includes. I know that I sometimes think of it and can get teary-eyed. I’m not sure what lessons I have learned from it. I guess one is that love redeems the sadness that comes with all lives. Another is that I have an abiding faith that love surpasses the lives we live, and somehow connects across the universe and makes the universe something better.
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