Anna Lea worked in a doctor’s office and was sure the way those women screamed in pain was all put on, a desperate cry for attention from a pregnant woman. Grasping the idea of having a boyfriend, let alone marrying one, getting pregnant, and giving birth, it all seemed so foreign and far away. Listening to the women in the doctor’s office just made Ann believe all those women were weak, because no pain could be that bad.
Ann was a tough girl. She and her friend Dorothy would go out in the cold and milk Dorothy’s dad’s cows at the break of dawn, no matter how cold it was, and when Georgia Mae showed up with a bottle in her coat “to help get warm” Dorothy and Ann sent her away. They didn’t need help from the likes of such a girl.
“Drunk as a skunk,” Dorothy would say later.
“I’d forgotten her name,” Anna Lea would say back, her hands wrapped around a cup of coffee that had seemingly been there forever.
Across the street from that doctor’s office was a little cafe where Anna Lea ate lunch. Small towns being what they are, Dorothy’s dad’s milk got delivered to that little diner. Furman was that man’s name and he looked after a boy named Ottis like he was his own son.
“He stayed with us a lot,” Dorothy said later, and without the context necessarily to fully explain why.
It was Ottis who would carry the milk inside that cafe, but getting a look at his face would’ve been difficult. He was a shy kid who came of age during the Great Depression. Born in the unincorporated area of Falcon, Missouri just one year before the reality of that economic collapse, Ottis spent the first decade of his life knowing poverty like few others could have. No matter what he had from then on–and it was never much–he would never feel or be as poor as he and his people were then. Still, as the nation began to rebound, Ottis found enough coins to spend on his first love. He spent his spare time with his face buried in a comic book. Even as he grew older, the stories on the pages of those cheap books held his attention like nothing else.
It amused old Furman, and it gave him an idea. He looked at his daughter’s friend Anna Lea one day and bet her she couldn’t get Ottis’ nose out of the funny papers before another girl named Lavalle could. Some 60 years would pass after that bet was resolved, and the exact road to victory is one lost to time and discretion, but the outcome was clear.
“I won,” Anna Lea said. “I got him.”
A couple of years would pass, but fate had already decided Ottis and Anna Lea would marry, they would have a daughter and two sons, and they would foster a love born in one of the country’s toughest times. It was a love that would last them through some of the greatest tragedies a human should have to experience, and a love that survived when most people would have just given up.
“Ottis came down the hallway,” Dorothy remembered, “and said, ‘she ripped my shirt off!'”
The first child was a daughter named Jo Ann, a girl who would would someday be called a saint by most people who knew her, and, by me, “Mom.”
Ottis was my grandpa and had probably the greatest smile and laugh of any man I’ve known. He was imperfect like everyone else, but kind, and the type of grandfather who would take his grandkids fishing whenever they wanted. He was 81 years old when he and the doctors finally admitted to us that he had late stage cancer. Six weeks later he died at his home out in the country. My mom and grandma were there and cried together as the undertaker–that’s what Grandma called him–took Grandpa away.
It was time for Grandpa to go and his death ended a lot of pain none of us knew he’d been suffering. Because of that, I didn’t shed any tears when my dad told me Grandpa was dead, or when I told my son his great grandfather was gone, or even when I first hugged my mom afterward.
Sunday night as the funeral home emptied out, I watched my grandmother wipe a couple of tears from her eyes. They were the eyes that somehow pried Ottis’ nose from inside the comic book and steered him away from that girl named Lavalle. They were the eyes that watched a man grow from young buck to old man. Her eyes had seen just about every bit of Ottis’ life and now she was looking at the man for the last time.
She stood up from the small couch and walked away from her family. She stood over the casket, leaned in, and kissed that old man’s lips one last time.
I’m not ashamed to admit, that was when I cried a little.