Outside the kitchen, the reception is in full swing. It’s a happy event; a new Senior Pastor has been asked to take the helm of the church where I work, and his youth and energy seem to be contagious. The June sun shines obligingly in through the ancient lead-paned windows, and a revolving throng of congregants stops in on a busy Saturday to eat fresh strawberries and blanched asparagus, check out Ida Wooten’s famous chocolate chip meringue cookies, and meet the new pastor and his family.
Miss Skeeter Tells a Story
Inside the kitchen, not the big kitchen where I actually cook, but the smaller, beautifully appointed “upstairs kitchen,” I am methodically slicing another round of Brie, and chatting with Skeeter. That really is her name; when I was in elementary school she lived three doors up the street from my best friend Isabel, and after mounting a fierce seven-year-old battle against the possibility that any grown woman was really named “Skeeter,” I met her and had to concede. She is about my mother’s age, Skeeter is, and still speaks with the deceptively folksy drawl of one born and raised in deepest Georgia. Recently widowed, her eyes still fill when she speaks of her beloved Bob. The two of them traveled ambitiously and exotically, and she has been most of the places I would most like to go in this world. She has fierce, articulate political opinions, and after a lifetime of work as a nurse at the university’s health center she is particularly vehement on issues related to reproductive health. Like Andy Griffith playing “Matlock,” Skeeter has all the charm of a country mouse with the wit, intellect and sly humor of Dorothy Parker. I could not love her more if I stayed up nights trying.
As I return to the kitchen after placing the cheese alongside its companions on the kale-lined platter, Skeeter is talking about World War II, lamenting the fact that a nurse who cared for her Bob during his final illness had not known the significance of D-Day, and had, after receiving an explanation, remarked that it “didn’t really affect her life.”
“I’ll tell you a story as true as anything I’ve ever said,” says Skeeter. I am busy, but I have learned some things in my life. One is that people like my history professor father tell long stories, longer than the average contemporary attention span, but that those stories are like elegantly wrapped gifts from the universe. Another is that being too busy for a genuine human connection is penny wise and pound foolish.
“Tell me,” I say, leaning back against the counter.
“When I was a little girl, I didn’t think there would even be a newspaper any more after V-J Day, because that’s all the paper was,” she makes a vertical zigzag with her index finger, “charts and numbers and stories about the war.” I nod, recognizing a good intro when I hear one. “So anyway,” she continues, “the neighbor boy, Archie, was one of the ones who parachuted in on D-Day. We were all so proud of him, he joined up with his best friend right after high school, what was his name?“ She screws her eyes tight, searching for the name, and shakes her head. “Anyway, they were in the same unit, and they were both dropped on D-Day.” I nod, waiting.
“Well, then they found out that Archie was captured and was a prisoner of war. They got a telegram. The other boy was safe, a French family took him in, but Archie was captured. We were all so worried, it was terrible.” I absently hand a pitcher of iced tea to a volunteer who appears in the doorway. There is no reception any more; I am waiting to find out whether Archie made it home. “Then we found out he was alive, and he was liberated but nobody knew where he was or when he would come home. So one morning that summer, because you know V-E day was in May, Archie’s brother decided to drive uptown because it was such a fine day. And Archie’s mother, we called her ’Miss Linette’ because we called everybody ’Miss’ in the South, anyway, Miss Linette decided to go along for the ride, and she just got in the car in her nightgown and robe because she wasn’t planning to get out of the car, just riding along.” Skeeter’s eyes grow brighter. “And at the first stoplight on their way into town,” she says, her voice becoming treacherously unreliable, “there was Archie. Just standing there, waiting to cross the street.” I find my own eyes filling, imagining such a reunion with my own boy.
“Now how does something like that happen?!” Skeeter says briskly, wiping her eyes. “That can’t just be a coincidence. It just gives me the chill bumps all over.” She turns to find her abandoned platter of Snickerdoodles, and begins once again to arrange them in a tidy pattern.
It gives me the chill bumps, too. Also, a corny, sentimental, wave of love and gratitude for the Archies who parachuted so that I can live in freedom, the Miss Linettes who gave up their sons more graciously than I might, and the Skeeters who keep them alive by telling their stories. That’s as true as anything I’ve ever said.