By JM (Mike) Nelson
Dad and Irene, his first wife, grew up in Sylvester, TX, a small, dusty, West Texas town with no more than a few hundred people in the whole county. Dad never talked about Irene.
Soon after I married, my wife and I returned to college, and Dad lived with us in a dilapidated house we bought near campus. With Dad leading the way, the three of us began fixing it up. In the process, Dad and my wife became great friends. Though he never talked to me about Irene, occasionally he would mention her to my wife, who learned that, among other things, they did tatting together, an interesting avocation for a young cowboy at the turn of the century. She also learned that Irene and their daughter had died during childbirth.
Decades later, my daughter and I, at her urging, took a trip to Sylvester. It was almost a ghost town, with vacant buildings and untouched ruins from fires and storms. There was a tiny post office, a service station, and a general store, with all but empty shelves with a few, dusty artifacts to remind visitors of better days. With recommendations from the postmaster, we visited “Miss May,” a spinster, in her 90's, alone, still in her childhood home. She knew where Irene was buried and had known Dad and Irene in their youth.
Miss May drew us a map to help us find the small, rectangular concrete grave-markers, perhaps made by my father, one with "Irene" and the other with "baby" manually scribed across the top with a hand tool while the concrete was wet. Then she retrieved a box of old photographs. She gave my daughter a photo of two couples, headed for a dance; one of the men was my Dad, in his late teens or early twenties. Miss May was clearly still a bit perturbed at Dad's taking up with Irene, whom she described as not particularly attractive. She said no one really understood why, but that they just did everything together, and, after he took up with her, they had little to do with their other friends.
Dad never recovered from the loss. His relationship with my mother was volatile, and, after he left, or she kicked him out, he never formed a close relationship with another woman. He could have. He was kind, polite, generous, and helpful. Every woman I know who knew him thought well of him, and many seemed perplexed that he never had a companion. I know of no one ever speaking ill of him.
Dad never shared his memories of Irene. Emotionally, he never shared much of anything. He was a good father in many ways, helpful, generous, supportive, but never emotional, save, slightly, with my wife, and enthusiastically with my daughter, the delight of his life, and likely his only true love after Irene.
I often wondered what it might have been like had Irene lived. Certainly her loss had affected my father in many ways, not the least in his ability, or desire, to relate to other women. I was soon to find out even more than I could have imagined.
The sequined, high-heeled shoes, the patterned, net stockings, the bright lipstick, the heavy mascara and eye shadow, and the highlighted hair belied the intelligence, perceptiveness, and fragility of the underlying persona. The radiance of her smile and the sparkle of her eyes illuminated the dance floor, and they, too, masked the protectiveness underneath.
With patience, persistence, and perhaps a bit of luck, I eventually got beyond the facade, and with every small revelation I became more infatuated. The more we were together, the more we were together. We became inseparable, quite unlike her perception of relationships from observing those of her siblings, which, she admitted, had contributed to her caution. As we grew closer, and as the joys of companionship evolved, we both realized that we would never want or need anyone else.
We did everything together - housework, gardening, crafts, dance, home maintenance, remodeling - and rarely did anything separately, save my occasional trip to the rifle range and her trip with friend of many years to the theater, a tradition well established before she ever considered allowing a man into her life. Her progressive disease and untimely death robbed us of much of our 12 years and 50 weeks together. Even so, I learned so much, enjoyed so much, and gained so much, that she remains my anchor. And now, after over half a century of wondering, I understand all I need to know about Irene.