The Telegram

Author’s note

A couple weeks ago, I couldn’t decide what to write.  I clicked on WordPress’ “inspiration” link and below is what popped up:

Italo Calvino said: The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts. Describe the ghosts that live in this house:

Image credit: “love Don’t live here anymore…” – © 2009 Robb North – made available under Attribution 2.0 Generic

I love ghost stories, so I decided to take on the challenge.  The house in the photo reminded me of the little farm house my stepmother lived in as a young child in Alberta, Canada.  We visited the house a couple summers ago while on vacation.  To my stepmother’s dismay, the house was in ruins, much like the one above.

I initially thought I would write a scary story (I’m a little morbid like that), but I couldn’t do that to a house that looked so much like my stepmother’s childhood home.  The story that developed is pure fiction, although some of the names were plucked off my family tree.

Please keep in mind as you read this that, even though I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I was nine years old, I’ve never been brave enough to finish a story and then make it public.  As with any written work, changes could be made to make it better.  I could spend my whole life trying to “perfect” something I write, but I know I have to stop somewhere.

Please feel free to leave a comment, if you’d like.

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The Telegram

I held the Western Union telegram in my hands and read it for the third time- as if the message would somehow say something different.  The words were the same, as I knew they would be.

The Secretary of War desires me to express his deepest regret that your husband Private First Class James C. Brennan was killed in action 17 December in Belgium.  Confirming letter follows.

I stared blankly at the piece of paper that brought my world crashing down. My vision narrowed until the telegram was all I saw. It seemed so far away, as if at the opposite end of a long tunnel.

My knees started to give way and I sat down hard on the doorstep of our little house. The house James and I shared for only a few short months.  I could hear the baby crying through the open door, but his wails barely registered.

“Etta, I’m sorry. James is– was– a fine young man,” said Len Allen.  “His pa and I knew each other a long time.”  He kicked his worn boot at a clump of wheat grass uncomfortably.  Clearing his throat, he said,  “I can stay a bit, if you’d like.”  I shook my head no.

“I’ll send Emily over tomorrow to help with anything you need.  I know she’ll want to.”

“Thank you, Mr. Allen.”  I said without looking up.  My voice sounded small and strained to my ears, but it was all I could manage.

I listened as he started up his old truck and drove down the road.  I knew it wasn’t easy for him to deliver this message.  He and James’ dad had been close, having grown up in the same small farming community.  I learned later that Len had been in town that morning and been enlisted to deliver the telegram to me.  He didn’t need to read the telegram to know what it said. I wasn’t the first widow of the war and we all knew what receiving a telegram meant.

As I sat on the doorstep, I expected the tears to flow. They didn’t.  I don’t know how long I stayed there waiting, but the baby’s cries grew louder, bringing me out of my stupor.  I stood, brushed off my skirt with my free hand, and did what I had to do.  I carried on.

The tears did come, late at night after I put Thomas to bed.  I allowed them to flow silently and in private.  I remained strong during the day because I had to.  Although the farm never had the chance to grow as big as James and I had dreamed, it took all my time and effort to keep it going.  After putting food on the table and providing the very base essentials, I somehow managed to scrape enough money to pay the farmhands each season.

Sometimes, in the quiet of the evening, after our quickly growing son was sleeping peacefully in his innocence, I would think about James.  I relived in my mind the first time we held hands, how he kissed me on the porch swing of his parent’s old house and told me he loved me. It was in these quiet moments I could feel James’ presence.  Sometimes it was in the way the candle flame danced in the absence of a draft.  Other times, it was in the warm breeze that caressed my face as I sat on the front step and searched the heavens for answers to questions too painful to speak.

I grieved for the dreams we lost to the war.  I wept for the boy who would never know his father– and for the father who never had the opportunity to see his son grow into a man.  I wondered when– if— my heart would ever stop hurting.

I was still young, so I knew it was expected that I would marry again.  In our small community, older women often told me I would have to stop living in the past at some point and find a husband.  The few close friends I had tried their share of matchmaking, without success.  I knew they meant well, but I was not ready… and wouldn’t be ready for many years.

I married Samuel Ganhart six years after I lost James.  He was a good, honest man and I loved him for that.  Our marriage was one of convenience and practicality.  He needed a wife and a mother for his two young daughters.  I was tired of being alone and my son needed a father.  What our marriage lacked in romance and passion, it made up for in stability, comfort, and familiarity.

Thomas and I moved away from our little house the day I married Samuel.  The house and its property had been sold to the son of a neighboring farmer.  As I gathered up the last of my household items that day, I whispered good-bye to our little house and the dreams it represented.  I shut the door, descended the step, and walked away without looking back.  I was afraid if I did, I would see James’ face watching as I moved on without him.

I didn’t realize until much later the little house had been abandoned and became derelict.  The owner built a larger house to accommodate his growing family not long after Tommy and I moved out.  It was what James and I had planned to do, as well.

I only made the long drive out to the house once– the day after I saw my second husband laid to rest in the ground.  That was in June of 1969. It was a much older woman who stepped up the front step than the one who once sat upon it searching the stars.  I made my way around the debris gathered inside the doorway and entered the sad skeleton of a house.  The glass in the windows had been broken out, the door was torn off its hinges and missing, and the wooden floor boards appeared to be rotten in several places.  The litter scattered everywhere was evidence that it had been used often by the bored youth of the small town.

Although there were birds singing outside and a gentle wind was teasing the tall grass, the sounds did not seem to carry into the house.  I was afraid to venture too far across the weakened floorboards, so I stopped short.  I could see my old home in its entirety from my vantage point.

Then, as if a floodgate had opened, the memories and emotions of the years spent living in this home poured into my mind; the first few months filled with hope and joy, the years of pain and loneliness, the fierce love I held for my son, the hard work, the struggles, the joys.  The impact of these memories left me light-headed and breathless.  For a moment, it was as if I had been transported back in time.

I closed my eyes so I could savor the feeling.  It was then that I felt the lightest touch of a hand brush across my check.  I wasn’t afraid, for I knew it was James.  His hand came to rest along the curve of my jawline.  I dared not open my eyes for fear if I did, the moment would abruptly end. His whisper was more felt than heard, “It won’t be long, sweet Etta.  I’ll be here.”  I opened my eyes, startled at the clarity of the words that saturated my soul.

A slight chill embraced me for a couple beats of my heart and then let go.  I was transfixed as I wondered at what just transpired. The longer I stood there, the more I questioned whether the experience had actually happened.  Gradually, the sounds of summer filled the space through the windowless panes and open threshold.  I knew it was time to leave, but I also knew I would see the house again.

Three months after that warm day in June, I was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  I was blessed in that I had time enough to say goodbye to Thomas, my beautiful stepdaughters, and my eight grandchildren.  I was ready to go.  To let go of the pain cancer had visited upon me.  I was ready to see loved ones who had already passed.  I was ready to see James.

I left my body in January of 1970.  One moment I was sleeping soundly, thanks to the painkillers I was being fed, the next moment I was released. I drifted away from what was once me and watched as my family cried over my passing.  I left them, knowing their tears would cease and they would move on.

Time no longer had meaning.  There was no fear, no pain.  I was free and that freedom led me to our little house.  He was there, waiting, as he promised.  The house was whole again, just as it was when we first moved in.  James was twenty-two, handsome, and dressed in his wool, olive-drab uniform.  He smiled as I found my way into his arms.

All I could do was let him hold me close.  It did not escape my notice  that I felt lighter, that my waist was the size it was before I became pregnant with Thomas, my hands were free of the wrinkles and pigmentation that comes with age.  I didn’t need to look in a mirror to know my face was that of my twenty-one year old self.

I also knew we were not meant to stay in this place.  This world was no longer ours, it belonged to our son and his children and they did not need us.  There was another place for James and me.  Taking my hand, James led us to the door of our little house. I stood beside him as he turned the handle and opened it.  Together, we stepped off the front step and into eternity.

© Sara Jones 2014

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