In 1965, when I was five years old, we moved into the neighborhood I would live in for the rest of my childhood years, a home with a big backyard, lots of trees, and a long line of lilac bushes that divided our yard from the neighbors. Our neighbors were a childless couple in their late forties who quickly grew to love me, my brother, and then the little sister who came along a few years later.
Arthur was a big man with a nice smile who never said very much. His wife Alberta, who was just Bert to us, did all the talking, and she did love to talk. She talked a mile a minute, and Arthur, or Art, just smiled behind her. He worked at the local brewery, and kept his yard neat and tidy. I remember him pushing the mower around the backyard, always wearing elastic waist shorts pulled up high on his belly, no shirt, knee-high white socks, and brown leather loafers. Art had a vegetable garden, and long rows of raspberry bushes that he kept neatly pruned and weeded.
Bert did laundry every Monday, like clockwork. She had an old wringer washer in the basement—the only one I’d ever seen. She ran her laundry through three rinse tubs, and then hung it out on the clothesline. Sometimes she let me turn the wringer and pull her clothes through.
I grew up and moved away, and Bert and Art got older. I was sad when I heard Art had cancer, and sadder when I heard not too long afterward that he had died. I went to see Bert, taking my second son, who was a baby. She was so glad to see me, and even gladder to see my baby boy, who she said was one of the prettiest babies she’d ever seen.
And somehow the years got away from me, that baby boy grew up too, and I’d been thinking about Bert when my mother mentioned today she was going by to see her at the Assisted Living Facility where she now lived, at the age of ninety. So I dropped what I was doing and met her there.
My mom had already arrived, and I went in and asked where Bert’s room was, knocked on the door, and heard a familiar voice telling me to come on in. When I saw her sitting in her chair, I thought with surprise that she hadn’t changed a bit! There was nothing frail about her, nothing diminished or weakened. Her hair was grayer, but that was all. And that was the first thing she said to me, “Kid, you haven’t changed a bit!” And then she was back to her story, the one she’d been telling my mom when I came in, words tumbling over words as she talked and talked. I was transported back over the decades—no, nothing had changed!
She was happy enough at the Assisted Living Facility, although the food was nothing to be proud of, and she hoped to get well enough to go home, to the home that she still kept, with all her furniture and all her things, and she really thought she was well enough, but her doctor and her nephew thought otherwise, but she kept holding on to the thought of going back. She did go by from time to time, when Frank would take her, and everything was just as she’d left it. She didn’t usually go down to the dining room except for breakfast, and when there was something on the menu that was real food, like the fried potatoes and sausage they’d had last night. She had a small fridge and microwave and always kept hotdogs that could be warmed up—she didn’t like buns but would just snack on the dogs while watching TV. Everybody knows that old people just don’t need that much to eat, anyhow, you’re not doing anything to burn it off.
And then she mentioned Art, how it was hard to believe he’d been gone twenty years now, and that she still missed him so much, especially at this time of year, and that today she was really feeling blue for him. “You know, he was so sick there at the end, it just broke my heart, and it wasn’t until those last two weeks, when he was in and out of the hospital, in more than he was out, and so very sick, and it was then that he told me he loved me. He said, ‘I love you, you are my rock.’ Just like that. And you know, I always knew it. Even though he’d never said it. He was shy, you know. And I knew it. But my niece said how did you know if he never told you? And I told her Oh actions speak louder than words. He always wanted to be with me. We were always together.”
I asked Bert then how long they’d been married. Tears came to her eyes as she said “Forty five and a half years. Not long enough. I had told him when we get to our fiftieth, I want two things. I want you to ask me to marry you and I want you to say you love me. He said we’re already married! I said Yes we are, but you never asked me. We only had fourteen dates you know. I knew his brother and he asked me if I’d go out with Art. I told him I already had a date with another boy, one I didn’t especially like, but he was a date. He asked me to break it, but I said that wouldn’t be right. So I agreed to go out with Art on another night, and he hardly even spoke. I got home and I said He was BORING! I’m not going out with him again. And then he wrote me a letter. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. His brother told me I needed to write him back. I had never written anyone a letter before and I didn’t have any idea what to say. His brother wrote something down and I copied it word for word. And Art never knew that.
And then he wanted me to meet his parents. I tell you, my mother watched over me like a hawk. She had never let me leave town. But she thought it was a nice thing that he wanted me to meet his parents. He was living down in Atchison and I went down there to meet his parents. And it was there that he gave me my diamond! He never asked me to marry him, just gave me my diamond! When I got home, I tried to hide it from my mother, I covered up my hand like this, but she saw it, and she said, ‘I never would have let you go down there if I thought he was going to give you a diamond.’ I was 23 though, and we got married in June.”
I was thoroughly intrigued now, and asked her why she married him if he was boring and never talked. She looked at me in amazement, and said, “Why, it was the LETTERS! He could say things in letters he could never say in person.
And I always knew he loved me. Even if he didn’t say it. Actions speak louder than words, you know. We bowled together every Monday and Friday. And Wednesdays we went and watched bowling. One day I told him I was just too busy and you go on by yourself this time. And he said if you’re not going, I’m not going. I insisted, and he went, and when he got home, he said he wished he hadn’t gone. He said everyone just kept saying Where’s Bert? Where’s Bert?
When I was thirty-eight, I had the hysterectomy. I tell you it was horrible. I laid there for three days and I was so sick I didn’t know anything. After I got better, the man across the hall stopped in and he said I felt so sorry for you, but I felt sorrier for your husband. He had it even worse than you did.
Art had got me a dozen red roses the day of the surgery. I guess he thought he needed to. But by the time I finally realized it and could look at them, they had started to go bad. He never left my side.
And every weekend, it was football, football. He’d lay there on the floor and watch the television, and I hated it. He’d want me there watching it with him, but after a while I’d go in the kitchen and work a jigsaw and listen to the radio. And pretty soon he’d be in there sitting beside me. I’d say Is the football over? And he’d say No. And so I’d say Well then what are you doing in here? And he’d say I got lonely. Yes, I always knew he loved me.
He didn’t talk much, but that last day in the hospital, he told me goodbye. He just looked at me and said Goodbye Bert. I said what are you talking about??! You’re not going anywhere. The nurse told me I should take a walk in the hall. And when I came back he was gone. Just like that. And I miss him so much.”
Bert’s eyes reddened and threatened to overflow.
You know, there’s a man here in the home who makes passes at me! Imagine! He told me the other day I had beautiful hair, and he’d love to run his fingers through it! Oh!”
I told her, “Bert, maybe you ought to let him!” I laughed—Bert did not. She looked at me seriously and said, “I had Art. I don’t ever want another man.”
So Art loved Bert, in his shy and quiet way, and Bert loved Art. And it was enough.