My grandmother is in a nursing home right now. She had one fall, then another, and needed physical therapy. She’s almost ninety-four and this is to be expected, I guess, the fragility and slow decline, the forgetfulness, poor health, and scary phone calls to let me know Grandma is in the hospital. Again.
I went to visit her today, bringing along a photo album she'd made for me years ago. It’s filled with photos of me. Only me. I was the first grandchild, the long awaited girl after having three sons of her own. We sat, looking over the faded photographs, and every so often Grandma’s roommate would turn and look at us with a smile.
"It's nice you brought pictures," she said. "It helps."
"It was my mom's idea," I said. "To help Grandma remember."
“Don't worry,” she said. “She's doing well here. Really well.”
Minnie had been in the nursing home for over a year. “But I’m leaving on Tuesday,” she said, her blue eyes bright. “I’m moving to Lancaster. I have family there. It’s five hours away, but we’ll have to stop for lunch. I hope the roads are okay.”
She cast a worried glance out the window, at the icy roads and piles of snow. “It’ll be fine by Tuesday,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”
She gave me a grateful smile, and that's when I noticed the photos on her nightstand. A wedding portrait. Snapshots. A black and white photo of a man in uniform standing next to a younger, brighter, happier version of Minnie. A small picture of the same man, shirtless and with his hair mussed, proudly holding up two fish. Minnie stood behind him, looking over his shoulder with a mischievous grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye. They looked young. They looked happy. They both looked kind of sexy.
“You look beautiful, Minnie,” I said. “And what a handsome man.”
She picked up the photo and smiled down at it, tracing the outline of his face with one gnarled and trembling finger. Her blue eyes were distant, thinking of days long gone by.
“His name was Martin,” she said. “He was my husband.”
Martin had dark, curly hair, olive skin, and a small, narrow moustache that must have been the style back then. In the shirtless photo he was kind of buff and his hair hung down around his face. He looked like a pirate or a gypsy. Someone a bit wild and lots of fun. In the photo, Minnie’s hands were pale and delicate on his tanned shoulders. Her lips were painted a bright red and she had a deep dimple in her cheek. Both of them had the sort of personalities that leapt out of the photo, grabbing your attention and holding it. The photo only captured a moment in their lives, but it was a happy moment, full of raw joy and love.
“He looks like he was a lot of fun,” I said.
Minnie nodded, her eyes still on the photo. “He was.” She looked up at me, her eyes coming back into focus as she put the photo back on her nightstand. “He died more than fifty years ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, and I meant it, even though they were such ineffectual words in the face of so much pain. Fifty years without her Martin.
I sat next to her, not sure what else I could say. She pulled out two more photos from under a blanket on her bed. One was of a laughing Minnie. The other was of Martin, taken in profile, wearing his army uniform. He looked serious, his wild hair slicked back and combed into submission. The photos were in beautiful frames and she handed them to be proudly, pausing first just to look at Martin, telling me more about her life with that one gesture than a million words could say.
There had been no children. Minnie had nieces and nephews who sent her packages from California and called her every week from Florida. She’d outlived her sisters. She outlived her friends. And she’d outlived her Martin by half a century.
Minnie tucked the photos back under the blanket and I stood to return to my grandmother, but I took one last look back at the photo of Minnie and Martin and the fish.
“He must have been a really lovely man,” I said.
She nodded. “It was his heart. There is nothing worse than a bad heart. He was sick seven years before he died. I hope your grandmother’s heart is okay.”
I looked at my grandmother sitting quiet and still in the wheelchair in one of the appliqued sweatshirts I’d given her for her birthday. She was looking through the photo album I’d brought and giggling softly to herself. She had a pacemaker and congestive heart failure. She had heart trouble of her own, but as Minnie stared up at me with her clear blue eyes, I just smiled.
“She’s fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
“I’m packing my things,” she said. “I’m leaving on Tuesday. It’ll be better in Lancaster. I have family there. It’s hard to be here. I’m alone, and there is nothing as bad as being alone. Nothing at all.”
“Good luck on Tuesday,” I said. “We’ll miss you.”
Minnie smiled, patted my hand, and went back to looking at her photos of Martin. Later when I talked to my sister, I told her about Minnie. She’d met her the week before.
“She told me she was going to Lancaster last week, too. I don’t think she’s actually going anywhere,” she said. “I think she might be there for the duration.”
The duration. She’d endured fifty lonely years, and now there was more to endure. I got the impression she was just tired of waiting.
I write romance. It’s what I do. I love brave heroes and spunky heroines, and there is something about Minnie and Martin’s story that both touched my heart and then broke it, too.
Sometimes the best romances have no happy ending. Not in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way, but in a Minnie and Martin way. A love that lasted in sickness and in health. Through childlessness and war. A love so bright and pure that its loss was mourned for fifty long and lonely years.
I’ve been thinking about Minnie and Martin all day, and the more I think about them the more questions I have. I want to know how they met. I want to hear about their first date. Did they go dancing? Did they travel? Where were they when the caught those fish?
And as much as I hope that my sister is wrong, that Minnie will be in Lancaster surrounded by her family on Tuesday, part of me selfishly wishes she’d stay just a bit longer and tell me some more.