Lena, sixteen, is in love with her second cousin, Robert. A year older, they became close during the summer of 1918 when they would meet and
swim in the creek near her Grandmother’s house. The Spanish flu swept through the area in November and Robert succumbed
to the swift onslaught of pneumonia. No one knew that Robert had proclaimed his
love for Lena or that they planned to marry. Lena was head over heels in love
with him, ready to marry as soon as he came of age. Robert would have turned
eighteen in two months and the couple was hopeful they could get her parent’s consent since she would not be eighteen
until next summer.
Lena is devastated by Robert’s death – her one true
love has died taking not only all the dreams they had together but all her own dreams as well.
Lena always thought that she would marry for love, unlike her parents who married because of a baby on the way. They weren’t happy now and separated off and on for the past ten years. Lena’s sister, ten years her senior, has been married for nine years and she
complains of the drudgery of married life, babies, housework, taking care of her husband with no time for anything but cooking,
Lena sees marriage to anyone who is not her true love as something
she cannot do. Robert was her soul mate but his death has destroyed her faith
in love. Lena is a shell of her former self but she is reluctant to let others
see how she feels.
Lena has a few close friends.
They are her confidants and two girls in particular know everything she is willing to tell about her and Robert. Lena did not tell her parents that Robert is the man of her dreams. She is afraid that her mother will scoff at her and tell her that there is no such thing as true love,
only duty. Her mother’s voice in her head would say things like, “Marriage
is like getting up in the morning. You just do it to get on with time.” Or “men think with their pants instead of their heads” and “there’s
no good to come of seeing a boy without a proper chaperone”. Lena has so
few experiences with men, she believes all her mother tells her. With some frequency
she would meet her brother’s friends but since he was eight years older than she, his friends were too old. But she did meet a nice young man at his wedding last year. Joe
was his name, the brother of George’s young wife who would have their first child in the coming weeks.
Lena was an average student at the Catholic school, attended church
religiously and belonged to the choir and a sewing group with some girls from church.
Her teachers would say that she takes direction well, obeys the rules, and only occasionally is chastised for getting
out of line. Lena’s school days ended at the eighth grade, age fourteen.
Lena’s home life is structured. Every day is very much the same as the one before it. She
rises and does laundry first thing no matter how dark or how cold. Her mother
is a laundress for a private family and leaves their home to catch the first trolley car at 6am. After laundry, Lena makes her breakfast, cleans the kitchen, sweeps all the floors and gets the trash out
to the alley behind the small house that is home to hers and three other families. If
her father is home, which she knows by his loud snoring, she will awaken him. This
is difficult because Andrew may or may not have a job on a particular day but her mother has told her to wake him every day. She sticks her head in, says in a soft voice “Good morning, Papa” and
pulls the door to. He always gets up before she leaves but the length of time
it takes him depends mostly on how much he drank the night before.
Lena dresses for work in an apron over her work dress, apron,
cap and sturdy shoes with one heel higher than the other. She is usually late
and races to catch the Pike Street trolley to take her to the Liberty Cherry Factory where she labors ten hours a day picking
stems and bad cherries from the table loaded with the purple fruit she’s coming to hate.
Her back aches by the end of the day from the bending, aggravated by a right leg one-quarter inch shorter than the
left from the polio she had when she was nine.
Today, Lena ran into the young man she met at her brother’s
wedding. Joe is tall, good lucking and sports a small mustache. Unexpectedly
he is waiting for the same trolley she takes home every day. They chat about
nothing while waiting only a few moments and he assists her over the wet slop-filled gutter and up the steps, into the warmth
of the coach. He takes a seat next to her while Lena positions herself as far
from his shoulder and leg as possible. But he turns to talk with her and his
knee meets hers. Unprepared, her cheeks grow hot while a chill races up her spine. Joe keeps talking about his work as a carpenter and she half-listens.
Her body is telling her that she likes this man but her heart
still belongs to Robert. How can she have this reaction when she is absolutely
sure there that she will never fall in love again? But it is there and she recognizes
her symptoms from her moments alone with Robert when they would hold hands and talk softly about their future.
Her stop is just ahead.
She has found a bit of comfort in Joe, his voice, his size and his attentiveness.
Hesitant to leave, but wary of this young man, she pulls the bell string announcing to the trolley driver that this
is her stop. Joe, steps out of his seat, helps Lena to her feet and follows her,
possessively placing a hand under her elbow to steady her in the moving car. Lena
looks back with surprise and meets Joe’s twinkling ice blue eyes. Responding
with a smile of encouragement, she steps from the trolley and finds Joe standing behind her.
She knows his stop is a ways down the street but she’s reluctantly thrilled that he is with her. Joe offers to walk her home. She accepts with “Yes,
Joe. That would be nice.”
As they walk swiftly through the chilly January dusk, Lena’s
heart and body are at war again. Her loyalty to Robert is true and infinite but
this man, Joe, is making her feel again. And she likes it. And then tells herself she shouldn’t.
By the time they reach her building, dark shadows surround them
as they stand at the doorway. Joe gently clasps her arm in one large, rough hand
and Lena is somehow reassured that everything will be ok. They say goodnight,
and say they hope to see each other again real soon.
Lena opens the door and as she closes it, she catches the last
sight of Joe hunched inside his thin coat, hurrying along the dark street toward his home.
She pulls a match from the bowl on the landing and reaches for the candle to light her way up the steep stairs. The candle flares brightly and Lena makes a wish.
“Robert, I love you. I don’t know what’s happening, but I hope you understand.”