Friday, November 6, 2009

"Through the Open Window" by Anne Faye, Chapter 10, Part 3

“I think I've got a photo around here somewhere.” She went over to an old chest that they used to keep blankets in the living room. One could never have too many blankets in Vermont. I think a couple of my first quilting attempts were still in there, serving their intended purpose alongside my mother’s much more accomplished handiwork. She reached down deep under the pile. “Your father would never dig this deep in the chest,” she explained. “He always grabs the blanket on the top. Even if he did, he probably wouldn't notice this secret compartment.” She reached into the corner and lifted up the bottom piece. “This chest used to belong to my mother. Her father made it for her when she was a little girl,” she continued. “This half of the chest has a false bottom. He told her that a girl would have secrets and that she should have a place to keep them.”

When she opened up the compartment I could see a stack of letters tied together with some green ribbon and a faded photograph, along with what appeared to be a diamond ring.

“What is all this, Mom?”

“That's what I am about to tell you,” she said, taking the things and settling into her chair. “This is Anthony and me.”

Two teenage faces smiled out at me from the photograph. They were both dressed up for a special occasion. My mom, as always, looked beautiful. The young man standing next to her was drop-dead gorgeous.

“My, he was handsome, wasn't he?” I said.

“Yes, he was. I could look at that face all day and never get bored. He was smart, too! We used to always argue about everything. He would take the opposite side of whatever I said. I think that he used to do it just for fun. Truth was, though, I enjoyed it, too.” My mom looked away, lost in a memory, but she was simply glowing at the thought of it. “Anyway, we met when we were very young. I was thirteen, he was fifteen. We fell hopelessly in love. My mom thought it was 'puppy love.' She thought it would pass. I've never really understood why people say that about teenagers in love. It seems to me like that is some of the strongest love you ever feel – that first time when you are young and it is so new and wonderful . . .It leaves a permanent imprint, that's for sure.”

“So, what happened?

“Well, your grandma was content to just let things be. She figured if she didn't pay too much attention to it, our romance would simply burn itself out. My father, on the other hand, hated him, and definitely did not want him hanging around his daughter. He made that clear in no uncertain terms. I don't think he had anything against him personally, but he was Italian. That was enough.”

“Ah . . .” Now I understood. Even at the end of his life, my pure-blood Irish grandfather never had anything good to say about anyone or anything associated with Italy, except, possibly, the Pope. For him, he was willing to make an exception.

“Anyway, we didn't care. My mom managed to keep your grandpa from going after him with his shotgun. Come to think of it, I don't imagine that was an easy feat. And, we continued seeing each other every chance we could. When I turned seventeen, he asked me to marry him. He gave me this ring.” She held it up for me to see.

“It's beautiful.” It was a small diamond but it still glimmered in the light.

“I was so happy! I threw my arms around him and said 'Yes.' I was so excited. I rushed home to tell my parents and show my mom the ring. I knew my father wasn't going to be happy, but I figured he must have expected it. After all, we had been dating for two years. I was not ready for his reaction. He was so furious. You remember your grandfather's temper, don't you?”

“Oh yes, I remember it well.” In fact, it was legendary.

“He demanded that I break off our engagement. He told me that no daughter of his was going to marry a boy like that as long as he was living on this earth. I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but for a moment there, I actually hoped God would send a well-placed bolt of lightening and strike him down. He told me I was grounded permanently, that I was never to see Anthony again.”

“What did you do?”

“I didn't know what to do. He was so angry. I knew no amount of begging and pleading on my part was going to change anything. My mom wasn't as opposed, but she felt I was too young to be getting married. She had been married at sixteen and I think she always wished she had been a bit older, had a chance to experience more of the world. I think she wanted more for me. She tried to calm both me and Dad down, but it was no use.

“I snuck out after I knew my father was sleeping and went to find Anthony. We made plans to elope. His friend knew a Justice of the Peace in the next town who wasn't too particular about birth certificates, as I would need to fudge my age a bit. I felt horrible about not getting married in a Church wedding, but I felt like I had no choice. I knew my father wasn't going to change his mind. I hoped that God would understand. We made plans to get married the following weekend. We were supposed to meet at the park late at night. I only packed a couple changes of clothes to bring with me – I had to be able to climb out the window, after all. I knew we would be starting life with nothing, but I didn't care. I loved him. I wanted to be with him. That was enough. When I got to the park, though, Anthony wasn't there. He had sent his best friend Patrick to meet me instead.”

“Not Dad?” I asked, not believing my ears.

“Yes, the one and the same. I didn't know him all that well then, though. We had only met a few times. He had a letter for me from Anthony.”

“What did it say?”

“I have it right here.” She took the top letter from under the green ribbon, unfolded the well-worn sheet of paper and began to read.

My darling Colleen,

I'm so sorry I couldn't tell you this in person, but I know if I saw you, I would never have the strength to leave. You know I love you. I love you more than I ever have, or ever will, love anyone on this earth, but that is why I must go. I can't take you away from your family, your friends, everything you know and love. I know that you love me and are willing to give it all up. That means more to me than you'll ever know. That thought alone will keep me warm for 10,000 nights. But I know that in time you would resent me for it. When we had children and you couldn't bring them to your parents, or when your parents were dying and you couldn't visit – the day would come when you would hate me for it, and I cannot bear the thought of that. Your father is a proud, stubborn man. He won't change his mind. You and I both know that. I know you will be angry at me for this. I don't blame you, but I am doing what I must do, for both our sakes. Please don't try to find me. I will always remember you, always dream of you, always love you. I hope someday that you will forgive me and think of me with the same fondness.
Yours forever,

Tears were in my mother's eyes. Mine, too. “That's beautiful, Mom.”

“Yes. I've read this letter so many times. I know it by heart. It's so silly that I still cry after all these years.”

“What did you do after you got it?”

“Your father walked me home. We walked in silence. I don’t think he had any idea what to say to me. I climbed back up to my window, unpacked my things, put the letter and my engagement ring in this chest, and cried myself to sleep. The next day, I acted like everything was fine, and I never mentioned Anthony's name again in my house. My father just thought I was finally being an obedient daughter. My mother was a bit more suspicious, I think, but I never said anything to her, either.”

“Didn't you try to find him?”

“Yes, I did, but he hadn't told Patrick or his parents where he was going. His parents were as upset as I was, although they didn't know I was the reason he had left. He had written them a letter saying he needed to find himself. I thought of him everyday, though, and cried myself to sleep every night for months. I’m ashamed to admit this, but on most days, I still think of him. Part of me will always belong to him,” she admitted. “Several years later, I read in the paper that he had been killed in Vietnam. They shipped his body home. They found this photo of the two of us in his pocket. Your father and I went to his funeral.”

“Oh, Mom, I'm so sorry.”

“We lost too many young men to that war,” she stated firmly, then continued with her story. “But, back here at home, Patrick kind of took it as his responsibility to look after me. I don't know whether Anthony asked him to or not, but as he had lost his best friend and I had lost my boyfriend, we both were rather lonely and began to spend quite a bit of time together. He was a good, solid man, and not too hard on the eyes, either,” she added with a smile. “We needed each other. The rest, as they say, is history.”

“Wow. I can't believe this. All those years when you said that the two of you met through a mutual friend, this is not what I had in mind.”

“I know. You won't tell your father I told you?”

“No, I promise. Your secret is safe with me. You won't tell him about Alan?”

“No. It would only raise his blood pressure. Do you know why I told you about Anthony?”

“No, why did you? Why now?”

“Because I wanted you to know that I know what it is to be hurt by someone you love. We all get hurt by love at some point in our lives, often more than once.” She took my face in her hands, and looked steadfastly into my eyes and spoke with great determination. “Like I told you, I don't want to see you get hurt again, because I know getting your heart broken hurts like hell, but falling in love is still worth it.” She paused, still looking me in the eye. “It is a great risk to love, but it is a greater risk not to.

“Oh my goodness, look at the time. I need to get ready for our guests.” She hurriedly put away the letters and her ring, piled the blankets back on top and closed the chest. I would never look at that chest in the same way! “Would you mind setting the table, and checking on the vegetables while I go get dressed?”

“Sure thing, Mom.” I went to go get the good china out of the cabinet and our thanksgiving tablecloth out of the dining room hutch. I was still a little stunned by what my mother had shared with me. I can't believe I never knew about such an important part of my mother's past. She almost married someone else? If that had happened, I wouldn't be here at all. My parents went together so well. I mean, I guess I knew that they must have dated other people, but I had never given it much thought. They had always seemed made for each other. Wow! It had been a lot to take in for one morning. And I had thought I was the one with the secrets!

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