by Jackie Houchin
Fifty years is a long time to love a woman, Abe admitted as he leaned out his window and breathed in the fresh spring air. A lot can happen in that time to cool a man’s passion and make him look for something new. But his love, although changed and matured through the seasons of his life, had remained as strong as the day it began a half century ago.
He had been young then, only thirteen and “fresh off the boat” as they call new immigrants today. His uncle Herman had sent for Abe and his widowed mother when the trouble began in Europe, promising to provide a home and work for them in New York. But illness on the journey had taken his mother’s life and left Abe delirious with fever as the ship steamed into New York harbor.
His uncle, grieving for his sister, had signed for Abe, taken him as his own, and nursed him back to health. But Abe was heartbroken over his mother’s death and desperately lonely. He worked hard in his uncle’s butcher shop, grateful for the kindness, but he never smiled and rarely talked.
“You need to get out and have a little fun,” his uncle said one day and urged him to take the day off to see the city.
Reluctantly Abe left the shop, a few of his uncle’s coins jingling in his pocket, and wandered the streets of Manhattan. There was a freshness in the air that lifted his spirits and the ocean breeze made him hungry. He bought a hot dog and took a boat ride. Gradually he began to notice the people around him. He found them to be a mixture of nationalities and he felt less alone.
Then he saw her and from the first moment he loved her. She was beautiful and in his boyish eyes she was a real lady. She drew him like a magnet and he did not resist. He spent the afternoon shyly getting to know her and went home determined to see her as often as he could.
At first, she was like a mother to him. He told her about his loneliness, his fears, his hopes and ambitions. And she listened. She didn’t laugh at his wild dreams, but by her example encouraged him to follow them, to reach for the sky if he could. His loneliness left him and he began to smile. Uncle Herman noticed and relaxed.
At sixteen, he began to see “his lady” through different eyes. Although he loved her the same, he no longer needed her mothering. He became shy and too embarrassed to speak to her, and took to watching her from a distance.
And then the war exploded in Europe and she was caught up in a new work. Abe remembered the first twinges of jealousy as he watched her send off boatloads of soldiers bound for war. He wished he could go too, if only to receive that special attention from her.
He didn’t bother her much then, knowing it would be selfish for him to want her all to himself. She had given herself for a cause and any personal involvement had to be sacrificed. He understood and his love deepened. Because he loved her, he would share her with others in need. She never left his thoughts, however, and often he would fall asleep at night with her name on his lips.
From one of his uncle’s customers, Abe learned that she was an immigrant, that she too had come from Europe. But instead of it diminishing his love, the knowledge of her heritage made her seem even more desirable to him. He went to the library and learned a sentence in her language, practicing it until he knew it perfectly. Then one day he approached her closely and whispered, “Je t’aime.” She did not blush, Abe remembered, but he had.
At twenty his ungainliness was gone and he began to muscle out. His uncle introduced him to Anna, the daughter of one of his best customers. Before long the butcher and the customer made arrangements and he was married. He was very fold of Anna, even came to love her. She was sweet and gentle and she made him happy. She even understood about his lady whom he saw at least weekly.
“I think you love her more than you do me,” Anna said teasingly one day. Abe squeezed her and pinched her bottom to make her giggle, but he did not deny it. His lady had been his first love and she held a special place in his heart.
Four daughters and a son came into his life and he introduced each one to his lady. They all seemed awed by her fame and importance, but in the end they came to love her too.
Abe’s thoughts were brought suddenly back to the present as a wildly painted pink sedan screeched to a stop below his window, its radio blasting metallic sounds from quadruple speakers into the quiet neighborhood. Nicolai, the boy who lived across the street jumped out and waved to his friends.
“Cut out that noise!” yelled the fat Rosella from her window two houses down. “Nikki, those are no good friends for you. I tell-a you Mama!”
Nicolai reminded Abe of his own son Ramie, back in the sixties when the country had been a state of turmoil and dissatisfaction. Ramie, along with other boys his age, burned his draft card and disgraced the flag. In pain and frustration Abe ran to his lady for comfort. She was having a hard time then too, and Abe remembered how dejected and tired she looked. They mourned together for their anguished and bitter young people.
But that was twenty years ago, and Ramie had made a full turn about. Now, Abe noticed, Ramie’s car bore the bumper sticker, “America! Love it or Leave it!”
His lady was better too. It was almost as if she’ had a new lease on life. In her old age, she was being loved again, honored again, given the place of recognition that Abe knew she so well deserved. He had supported her with everything he had, as she had done for him. He was happy for her. Her success was his success.
Abe felt a warm tear trickle down his cheek and fall onto his arm to join the others he had not felt.
“Grandpa, are you happy-crying again?” his little granddaughter called from the step below. “Are you thinking about your lady?”
“Yes, Rosie, I’m thinking about her.”
“My teacher says she’s having a birthday soon and there will be a big party. Are you going to the party, Grandpa? Will you give her a present?”
“Yes, Honey, I’ve got a gift for her, something she’s always wanted. He thought of the refugee family from his own native country that he was now able to sponsor. Their arrival time was planned carefully. They were to be his gift to his lady. He could remember her exact words when he asked what she wanted.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…”