“One time I got down on my knees and cried and begged him to forgive me, but he would not,” Elizabeth’s (not her real name) eyes glistened with tears as she recalled the hard heartedness of her husband. She ended her story by telling me that when her beloved Robert died suddenly, after 50 years of marriage, he still had not let go of his anger.
Elizabeth was 95 years old and even though she was confined to a wheelchair, her mind remained sharp. She had been a widow for over 20 years, when she told me this sad story. I had met her a few years earlier when I was writing a piece for the local paper to coincide with the yearly celebration of the city’s history. She and her husband had run a local business together for many years, raised 5 sons and were prominent members of the First Presbyterian Church. Elizabeth was born in 1911 in a nearby town, led a full life and always had many interesting stories to tell, which she loved to do. After our first meeting, I continued to visit Elizabeth in the nursing home where she spent the last decade of her life. And we became dear friends. On several occasions I took her out, to a restaurant for a meal, or for a drive in the country. One time she directed me to drive past the house she grew up in. As I slowed the car, she began to reminisce about her childhood. She loved talking about her father, whom she said indulged her, much to her mother’s chagrin. One time he said he would buy her a horse in exchange for her not playing on the girls basketball team. In his words, it “wasn’t becoming for a young lady.” When she turned 17 he brought home a little “run-a-bout” for her. I asked her what that was. And she explained that a run-about was an automobile. It had a removable top and a rumble seat in the back that flipped up. “I was the only girl with a car and me and my girlfriends would tool around town in it,” she laughingly recalled.
When Elizabeth was a child, women got the right to vote, horses still pulled carriages through town and most of the homes had no electricity or running water. One time as we drove down a curvy country road, she pointed out the old farm house where her great-grandparents from Scotland had lived. It got me laughing when she said, “They were so old, they scared me. My great-grandmother always wore black and covered her head with a bonnet. I never recall her smiling and I couldn’t understand a thing she said.”
Elizabeth recalled celebrating Armistice Day, marking the end of WWI, with flags and patriotic music and veterans in uniform marching in parades. Years later she thanked God that none of her sons were old enough to fight in WWII, although, she told me proudly, all five did serve in the armed forces; two were veterans of the Korean War and the youngest was a Viet Nam vet.
Elizabeth’s family; sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grand children were scattered throughout the US, so she only had family visitors on special occasions, but she never lacked visitors. She kept up correspondence with many friends and was known to call you on the phone just to chat. She, after all, was the oldest living member of the local garden club. One beautiful May afternoon I was honored to be her escort to the annual garden club luncheon where she was recognized for her years of service and presented with a plaque and a lovely bouquet of flowers.
Elizabeth was no stranger to tragedy and loss. She had outlived two of her children. The oldest son, Robert Jr. who lived several states away, had died recently at the age of 77 and she was unable to attend his funeral. Her second son disappeared. He just vanished, leaving his wife and children without a word. Elizabeth wept when she told me of this terrible time in her life. I don’t know the details, I never wanted to pry. But I do know that for unknown reasons her adult son was no longer in their lives and she grieved this loss. Later she told me his wife had asked her permission to have her husband, Elizabeth’s son, declared dead so she could remarry. Life goes on.
But the saddest most distressing story Elizabeth ever shared with me was that her husband could not find it in his heart to forgive her, ever, for the one act, which he felt was personally against him. What, you may ask, could be so heinous that a man could not release his wife of her guilt? Here’s how Elizabeth told this story. I’ll try to use her words.
“When I was about 18, out of high school, I had many beaus, but none I really liked that much. I had lots of friends, and maybe I had a little too much fun. But this one fellow I liked pretty well. He was real nice and cute and so one night I told him I wanted to find out what I was missing. What sex was all about. And I asked him if he would do it with me.” This part surprised me, because Elizabeth, did not mention love or lust, just curiosity about something of which she knew next to nothing. So this boy accommodated her and they found a spot and quickly commenced with the act. In her words, “There was nothing to it. ‘So that’s all it is.’ I thought. And we never did it again.” She added, “and I didn’t really have anything else to do with the fellow after that.”
A year later she married Robert at the age of 19. And at some point after they wed, she felt the need to tell him about her previous experience. I’m not sure why she told her husband, but in my opinion it is always a bad idea to confess something that can only cause you and another person pain. If you need to confess talk to God, or a priest.
She continued her story, “Robert got angry. He didn’t understand. He called me names. And he said he could never forgive me.” Her gray eyes glistened with tears as she recalled the painful memory.
And from what I gathered, Robert held this over her head for their whole life together. “You were not a virgin,” is what he would say to her anytime he got upset. When I heard this story I was enraged. I wanted to call this dead “Beloved Robert” whom Elizabeth never said a bad word about, a Mother F…..n despicable Bastard who was probably a hypocrite and much worse.
But I bit my tongue and responded with “Elizabeth, I am so sorry you had to go through that. What you did wasn’t bad. It was nothing more than youthful exploring. You didn’t deserve this at all. Even if you had a long term affair or committed adultery, you would not deserve to be treated that way. You did nothing to be forgiven for.”
Elizabeth was OK with this, her life, and she didn’t seem to hold any anger at Robert. In fact she said she believed that Robert was waiting for her in heaven and he had finally forgiven her. I certainly hope she’s right. Good thing I’m not the one to decide where people go. Just writing about this makes my blood boil.
All I can say is thanks to the sexual revolution of the sixties, the women’s equality movement of the last decades and for the #ME TOO movement, this kind of behavior (Robert’s) is no longer acceptable.
Epilogue: In 2011 Elizabeth joined Robert and her sons just 2 months shy of her 100th birthday. Her youngest son and several grandchildren were at her bedside. “I don’t want to be 100,” she would reply anytime I told her she was going to live a whole century. “I told Father God, (that’s how she addressed her creator) that I want to come home. I’m just so tired of being here.” And so she did.