Table For One-Part 1

It was either a few days before or after Christmas of 1917 my Aunt Theda got the news her husband—my uncle Alvin—my dad’s brother—was killed somewhere in France. His body was never recovered. There was no monument to go to where she could cry out her grief. All she had of him was a closet of his clothes and a serene, contemplative portrait. She and Alvin had it made a few weeks before he left for basic training in 1916—it always sat on her nightstand.

Alvin  looked almost exactly like my dad and I look almost exactly like my dad. When Theda opened her apartment door in 1966 Detroit and I was standing there in my Army uniform, the same age Alvin was when she last saw him (also in uniform) her face went white and she nearly collapsed.

I caught her and sat her down gently on the floor in the doorway for a few minutes until she could recover enough that I could help her to a chair. She knew I was coming—it wasn’t a complete surprise—but she was shocked at how much I resembled Alvin.

As it happens, Theda was the last person who ever saw me in uniform. I had been discharged the day before and once I changed into “civvies” that day I never put on the uniform again.

I was in between chapters in my life at that time. I had about 3 weeks between my military discharge and the start of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college in Western North Carolina so I decided to take up another aunt’s—my Aunt Marie who also lived in Detroit—invitation to visit until school started.

Marie had no place for me to stay but there was an empty apartment next to Theda’s I could use. Theda, who was in her late ‘70s, had a “sort of boyfriend” (that was never clarified) who was in his early ‘80s who lived in that apartment but he was in the hospital and it was fairly likely he would not live. Theda was paying the rent on it partly because there was some possibility he might live but mostly because—with no living relatives—if he lost his only home he would become disheartened and “give up.”

Theda also had a friend who lived across the hall—“Lucky” (I never did find out why she was called that) who was also a widow and probably in her early ‘60s. The three of us would visit—talk, play cards, watch TV, visit friends of theirs around town, go out for lunch. Marie came by several times and I’d go out to lunch with her. Marie (who was close to Theda’s age) enjoyed showing me off to her elderly lady friends who all hung out at the Schraff’s Restaurant in Detroit—a then upper-middle class chain which catered largely to ladies with affectations of gentility.

After about a week of this I got pretty bored so I found a temporary job at Wayne State University  helping move chemistry department supplies and furniture from one building to another.

A routine was quickly established. I’d get up, Theda would fix breakfast for me, hand me a bag lunch and I’d go off to work. At night there would be supper then cards, TV, chatting with Lucky and sometimes Marie would come by.

Theda’s health was quite poor. I think she had a severe Hiatal Hernia, diabetes, high blood pressure and some other serious issues but I can’t remember now what. She had to sleep sitting up in a chair when things got bad and had to be very careful about her diet. I also believe now—looking back over 40 years later—she was depressed. I think my visit with her was probably the most enjoyable thing that had happened to her in many empty years. As the days wound down to the end of my visit I thought I could see her becoming more wistful and sad but at age 21 it didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time.

Often in the evenings she would tell me stories about Alvin. She proudly explained how his death in 1916 was faked because the U.S. Government needed a man of his extraordinary talents working behind the international scenes, carrying out covert, sensitive political missions. She related to me—in confidence—the United States  could not have won World War Two if it weren’t for his work.

She explained while his work would not allow him to lead a normal life and be with her he continued to love and look out for her. On one occasion in the early ‘50s she was passing through Idlewild Airport in New York and she glanced out through the huge windows that looked out over the main taxi area. There on the other side of the glass—where she could not possibly get to him easily—Alvin was watching her. She said he had gained weight and lost most of his hair but it was definitely him. She could see the love and deep yearning in his eyes as—for a few aching seconds—he looked sadly into hers. She tried of course, to get to where he was but by the time she did he was gone.

She described other occasions—some as far back as the 30s—where she would see him watching her from a car passing slowly by in heavy Detroit traffic—driven by a chauffeur. And for all the years since he left, every 4 or 5 months the phone would ring—the caller did not speak—but she knew it was him. After the second silent call—she would tell him how much she loved and missed him and add a few bits of news. They would share a few minutes of silence then he would hang up.

That was why she never re-married.

End part one

Begin part two

At that young age I initially pretty much accepted what Theda told me about Alvin—since in every other aspect of her life and personality she seemed perfectly normal for a person in her circumstances. But after several story-telling sessions I began to wonder and while dining at Schraff’s with Marie one afternoon I casually mentioned Theda’s comments abut Alvin.

Marie was your archetypal, old maid retired school teacher—a little too concerned with propriety, convention and dignified comportment—but at the same time, sometimes capable of being quite candid.

A very long moment passed as Marie put down her fork and pondered her choice of words. It was very apparent she did not appreciate my indelicacy—unintentional though it was.

“Theda…never really got over Alvin’s death…” Marie offered. “It’s not normal of course. We don’t know why she couldn’t let him go…

“And she has for many years been so very lonely—especially these last 15 or 16 years,” she continued, “…and depressed…even though she has friends …”

“We tried—Lucky and I, and others—to get her to go out and see people—do things…” and her voice trailed off.

Her manner became somewhat defensive—almost brittle. Looking back all these years later I can’t decide if she was feeling put upon by my clumsy curiosity, guilt at her failure to find some way to help her sister or resentment at having a close family member who had probably been an embarrassment. It was probably all three.

“Please try to understand—and not be judgmental or amused,” she went on. “She loves you and your father very much—it’s just her way of dealing with her life. You must be discreet.”

Despite the awkwardness of the exchange I felt relieved at having some clarity about the situation. I said I understood, would listen respectfully to Theda and not speak of this to others. I would have done that anyway.

One evening three or four days before I was due to leave for North Carolina, Theda and I were sitting, reading in her living room when I looked up and noticed she was looking through an old photo album. I really never liked looking at old photographs but I thought it would be a nice thing to do—to ask about the pictures. Everybody wants to show off their pictures—especially old people.

She showed me page after page of old, black and white prints held to the paper by those old, little, black glue-on corner mounts—many of them fallen away. Lots of images of young men and women dressed in depression-era clothing, then WW-2, then ‘50s—the evolution of cars between the 30s through the 50s was faintly interesting. The pictures of my dad and Alvin did hold my attention—Theda flipped back and forth to compare pictures of Alvin and dad at the same age to show how much alike they looked. She had a portrait of me taken for my high school yearbook I guess my dad had sent her. That portrait of me—taken in1963—was the latest picture she had. Her collection of photos stopped in the late ‘50s.

One image in particular stopped her browsing. It was a photograph of several people seated at a restaurant table who were black silhouettes against the bright light of a large picture window. The view through the window was of water—a vast expanse extending to the horizon with a sunny clear sky above.

I noticed her staring at it and asked if it was taken at the beach.

“That’s Lake Huron,” she smiled. She pointed to the silhouettes and identified the people even though no features other than outline were discernible. It was apparent the people in the picture were young.

“That’s Georgie Darus and the girl he was dating—I think her name was Sarah,” she explained. Nice girl—don’t know what happened to her. Georgie did came back from the war—with no legs.”

“And that’s Alvin  and that’s me,” she indicated—still smiling.

“What’s the name of the restaurant?” I said—just trying to make conversation.

“Shumacher’s,” she said. “It’s in Port Huron—right on the Lake shore—about 2 hours from here—it’s still there.” She explained Lucky and a friend had stopped there several months before. The photograph documented the last time she and Alvin ate out—a few weeks before he left for the war—the same day the portrait had been made.

“Different people own it now,” she concluded, “but it has the same name and except for adding onto the kitchen, looks the same.”

She flipped through several other pictures taken on the same occasion but returned to the first one—quietly studying the ancient image. We both spoke at the same time,

“Let’s go there,” we both said simultaneously.

End Part two

Begin part three

The next morning—about 10 A.M. I think—I was at the wheel of big rented Crown Victoria headed north on Interstate 94. Theda, dressed in her finest, flower-print, mid-calf length dress and sun glasses, sat serenely smiling in the passenger seat silently exalting in the scenery hurtling by under a sparkling, Michigan fall sky. She commented in a tone that was both sad and self-congratulatory, it was the first time she’d left the city in about 16 years.

She added almost incidentally that she had had another silent Alvin  call that morning before we left—just like all the others. The phone rang—nothing from the other end—she said she loved him, told him about this outing, they shared their moment of silence then he hung up. I listened, nodding as she spoke, focused on the traffic. When she finished I turned toward her, smiled, she smiled back, sighed and turned away to enjoy the scenery. For much of the remainder of the drive I pondered—how do people—who seem so perfectly competent and normal otherwise—get this way?

Six lanes of barreling traffic and high rise buildings soon gave way to bucolic, rolling green country-side—small towns with one or two stop lights and red-barn farms with black and white dairy cows standing motionless in the surrounding fields. At this latitude only a few hours from Canada—Maples and Oaks were turning red and gold against an electric blue sky.

Several times during the trip I glanced over at Theda who lay back on the comfortable seat dazzled at the beauty rolling past, sometimes with tears of happiness streaming down her pale wrinkled cheeks. Her eyes—filled with tears—shone and glimmered in the bright fall sunshine. The experience seemed overwhelming to her but at the same time, something she had yearned for, for centuries.

Shumacher’s was right where it had been since 1916. The exterior had been painted different colors yes, but Theda could not remember what the colors were 50 years before.

Other than carpeting, the décor and furnishings looked exactly the same as in the photographs. Theda nodded appreciatively and said she liked the new carpeting better than the old. It had been stained and in need of replacement.

There were a few trees in the foreground that had not been there in the old photograph but otherwise the view of Lake Huron looked the same.

While the waitress, who was about my age—stood silently—Theda snapped open the menu authoritatively, scanned for a few seconds and ordered the same meal she had had 50 years before—pan-seared scallops, baked trout with lemon and a buttered vegetable medley. For dessert, French vanilla ice cream covered in flaming Kirschwasser Cherries.

I knew it was all stuff she should not be eating but I thought, “What the hell—it’s a special occasion.” She savored every bite and twice during the meal called me “Alvin.” It was not the first time—she’d done it once before when we were talking in her apartment one morning as I was setting off to work.

On the way back that evening she seemed extraordinarily content—like an important task had finally been completed—though I saw her take several pills I learned later were for pain.

She needed help getting up to her apartment and I arranged pillows and blankets in her big overstuffed chair and hassock for her to sleep in that night. As she took a few more pills and settled into her piled-up nest she gave me the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen and thanked me for the most wonderful day she’d had in half a century.

The next morning I got up and upon leaving my apartment, found her door standing slightly open. Lucky was inside sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee waiting for me. Theda had been taken by ambulance to the hospital during the night. Lucky also told me Theda’s “sort of boyfriend” had died almost a week earlier—something Theda had not mentioned to me.

Not being very accomplished at big-city public transportation it took well over an hour to find my way to the hospital. Theda was there in a semi-dark hospital room in one of these mechanical beds cranked up to where she was almost sitting. An IV trickled into a vein on her left arm. She looked ashen and crushed—as though 90 percent of life was gone and the other 10 percent was barely hanging on.

We chatted a bit—I have no memory of what—she had difficulty speaking. After several minutes I could see it was becoming painful for her to talk. I stepped back from the bed a bit and leaned awkwardly against a wall trying to decide what I should do. After—I guess—four or five minutes she turned her head and barely opening her eyes thanked me for coming, said she loved me and that there was nothing I could do. She told me to, “Go, get on with your life.”

I didn’t know it at that moment of course but those were the last words she ever spoke to me.

That evening I called the airport and confirmed my flight out of Detroit  for the day after tomorrow.

The next morning I knocked on Lucky’s door—there was no answer. I stepped around the corner and—again Theda’s door was open—this time wide open.

Inside Lucky and Marie were standing in the middle of the living room looking at a painting on the wall above a bookcase and talking.

Marie turned to me and told me Theda was dead—she had died probably 5 or 6 hours after I left. Marie showed me a bearly legible note Theda had written probably only hours before she died—instructing me to take Alvin’s picture with me.

I sat down on a kitchen chair in light-headed disbelief—a bit confused. My throat tightened and I began weeping. Marie was not good with emotional stuff—she touched my shoulder and quietly left. Lucky pulled up a chair and put an arm around me. I briefly felt a sense of being cheated, victimized, beaten then I just felt sick and filled with anguish. I cried on Lucky’s shoulder for several minutes.

I don’t remember what I did that afternoon—probably packed my bags, probably had lunch—assuming I had an appetite—with Lucky or Marie. I just don’t know.

The next morning I cleaned up the apartment I had been sleeping in, carried my bags downstairs to the front door of the building and called an airport taxi. I went back upstairs and put an envelope with a thank you note and the keys to my and Theda’s apartments in it, under Lucky’s door. Then I went to Theda’s place one last time to say good bye.

After picking up the portrait of Alvin I sat on the couch listening to muffled traffic on the busy street outside and the quiet hum of Theda’s refrigerator. The big overstuffed chair with her blankets and pillows and hassock was still there in its place near the window—very still and empty. Lucky had neatly folded and stacked the blankets. Suddenly the phone rang, startling me out of my reverie. I picked it up and said “hello.” There was no answer—only a searching, melancholy quiet on the other end.

I held the phone to my ear for another moment—I could hear faint, ambiguous background noise. Finally, in a voice that didn’t sound quite like me I said, “She’s gone Alvin. She’s dead.”

We shared a moment of silence and then he hung up.

End part three

End story

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