Monday, September 20, 2010


Her father was an immigrant from Austria and never shook his accent, though he would never speak or read German again from the day he set foot in Iowa. Her mother's people had been in the country longer, moving further west every other generation or so, until finally they crossed the Mississippi and stayed put. There wasn't much to the town except farms, but her father was no tiller of the soil. He opens a general store, starts a newspaper (which fails after a year), then a car dealership (which thrives), but he dies at forty and the depression wipes almost all of it away.

When she is twenty, in a moment of weakness, she allows a man in his thirties to love her. By the time her son is born he has gone elsewhere, never to return; as the years go by she decides that his departure, in sparing her the prospect of marrying him, is the best thing that ever happened to her. After two long years of cold stares from neighbors and uneasy silences from her family she packs a suitcase, bundles up the boy, and buys a train ticket to New York City, because she's always liked the pictures of the skyscrapers in the magazines and because it's the farthest place she can think of. Factories are hiring women and she finds a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard within a week, soldering wires into radios and switches, and putting the boy into day care nearby. Some of her co-workers are the first black people she has ever spoken to, though she never comes to know them socially.

When the war ends and many of the women leave the factory she moves instead into a secretarial position. She's good at her job and is well-liked; her boss is meticulous and hard-driving but respects her conscientiousness and intelligence. On the job she becomes friendly with one of the foreman, an electrical engineer demobbed from the Navy, a wiry, quick-witted man of thirty-five whose wild years are behind him. When he learns she has a child he at first assumes that she's a war widow. She explains the truth but he doesn't mind; he says that everyone is allowed to make one really bad mistake in their lives and that he's made at least that many. After they marry he adopts the boy and two years later they have another son. She stops working for good and they move into a row-house on the edge of the city. It has a little yard in the back and it suits them until the boys start needing more room to roam. They take a drive into the suburbs -- he can afford it now -- but in the middle of the ride she starts to cry, she can't explain it but somehow she feels intimidated, exposed. Instead they find a more comfortable house closer to home.

He works for twenty years and then retires. The Yard is shutting down soon but it's his health, and a two-pack a day nicotine habit, that have let him down. After two heart attacks he never really gets his strength back and a third one, a year later, kills him. Her older son, who is now in the Navy himself, comes back from California and stays a week. The younger boy finishes high school, tries a year at City College, then joins his brother on the West Coast. Both will settle there permanently.

She takes a part-time job as a secretary again -- not because she needs to, just to have something to do -- but her heart isn't in it and she quits after a few months. Not long afterward she puts the house on the market and when it sells moves her things back to Iowa, deciding that the one thing she has missed during all the happy years in the city was the silence. She takes one ride through her old town -- she recognizes some of the names on the mailboxes, but mostly not -- and then rents a small house a safe hour's drive away. In a town where the definition of a stranger is someone who doesn't go to the same church as yourself she remains, to the end, steadfastly unaffiliated. Her one regret is that she knows she won't be buried next to her husband, but she decides he would understand.

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