By Karen Brode
From this valley they say you are leaving
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For I know that you’re taking the sunshine
That brightened my pathway awhile
Winnie reached up to turn off the radio. It was better if she didn’t think of him. She stared out the kitchen window and sunk her gloved hands back into the plastic dishpan. She tried not to think of him. There was no way that anything could ever be worked out now.
She remembered that spring when her life had been so happy. She was 24 years old. She had graduated from college and started teaching at the community school. And then, almost on cue, there he was at church one night. Every time she peeked at him, he was looking at her as if his whole world revolved around her. She didn’t understand this. She knew she wasn’t pretty.
She had inherited her mother’s olive complexion and her uncontrollable hair. She couldn’t remember the number of times she had given up in despair trying to make it look normal. But it never did. It was easier when she was a child. She wore it in a long braid down her back, but as she had gotten older, a braid looked ridiculous, so her mother had cut it off when Winnie entered high school.
Her hair was bad enough, but she wasn’t like any of the other girls at church who wore makeup. She had no clue where to get it, let alone how to wear it! The only places she ever went were to church, work, and the grocery store. The grocery store only had basic necessities like flour and sugar and cornstarch. And even if she could get it, she didn’t know who to ask to help her with it.
Lucy Bradshaw was one of those girls who never needed that sort of help. She seemed to understand instinctively how to use makeup to make her beautiful eyes stand out more. And, of course, she did everything she could to bat her baby blues at the handsome man who had started coming to church. But, miraculously, it didn’t work. He seemed to have eyes meant only for Winnie.
His name was Gene. Eventually, she learned to accept his attention to her. It still troubled her that Lucy Bradshaw and Clara Bates stared daggers at her from the other side of the church, but it’s not like she had thrown herself at Gene. If she could’ve understood what it was that he found attractive in her, she would try to capitalize on that, but he seemed to accept her for who she was and what she looked like.
He sat by her every Sunday night at church that spring, and sometimes he was waiting for her when the school day was over – just to be with her.
So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the girl that has loved you so true.
When they took walks together, they talked of mundane things.
“The corn looks good this year.”
“It looks like like it’s going to be a dry summer.”
Among the mundane, Winnie wanted to ask him what he saw in her that he wouldn’t want those pretty girls, but she never did. After all, her skin was leathery from picking cotton under the unrelenting north Texas sun. Her hands were rough and hard. It would make so much more sense to her if she could understand what he saw in her.
She felt like she was in a strange land where she didn’t know the customs. She was fearful of saying something or doing something that would make him suddenly realize who she was.
Eventually, she decided that he was seeing her through rose-colored glasses and she accepted this, especially when she realized that her own life was nothing without him. He completed her.
In late May of that year, when school was almost out, Gene came to her house on a Sunday afternoon. This was not something he had done before. Winnie and Gene sat together in the glider out by the shed. It was a nice day, and shady where they sat. He seemed nervous and excited. She could tell he had something very important to tell her.
From her place on the glider, she could also see her mother, Effie, pulling the kitchen curtain to the side keeping watch over everything that happened. Winnie panicked a little when Gene slid off the glider and knelt at her feet. She thought maybe he was hurt. Her first instinct was to try to help him. Then he opened the little black velvet box and asked her to marry him. He put the ring on her finger and, for the first time, kissed her lips.
It was all too much for her. She cried out of joy and wonderment. All of it felt like someone else’s life. These things didn’t happen to her!
She was so overwhelmed that she didn’t know what to say. Gene took her hand in his and told her he loved her.
But the curtain shifted at the window and a familiar twang of guilt nudge her side. She was very practical minded and was led mostly be loyalty to her family. She hesitated then and looked down.
“I…I need to let you know next Sunday,” she said in a whisper. Her eyes flickered up to his face and then beyond to the window. “I need some time to think things over.”
The spark in his eyes trembled and dimmed. Confusion and hurt furrowed his brow.
“I do love you,” she said. “I just can’t make a decision right this minute.”
He grabbed her hand and held it. His grasp was both tight and gentle.
“I got a job in Missouri,” he told her. “I’ll be going there in a few weeks. I’d love for you to be there with me.”
Winnie nodded and smiled. Tears brimmed her eyes. “I’ll let you know. Just give me some time.”
She sat as still as possible on the glider when he got up to leave. She didn’t want this moment to end. She realized she had been holding her breath after he had walked far enough down the road that she couldn’t see him anymore.
It wasn’t long before Effie was outside standing where Gene had been standing only moments before.
“What was that all about,” she asked, her tone accusing and bitter.
Winnie flinched and had the urge not to respond. She didn’t want to tell anyone, especially not her mother, and take away that moment of magic.
But she owed it to her family to know, so she held the lump in her throat and said, “Gene asked me to marry him. He got a job in Missouri and wants me to go with him.”
Effie’s face twisted up like she had eaten a lemon. “Well, you might as well just get the gun and shoot me now.” She rubbed her neck with a handkerchief. “It’s just as well. My life is almost over anyway. I wouldn’t want to go on living if you were way off in Missouri. I don’t even know where that is!” Her rant continued with the nervous energy and fear fluttering out through shaking hands. “It’s not like I could make a trip there!” She clutched her chest and fanned herself while waddling off toward the house. “Oh, my chest hurts. I’m going to lie down in my bed and hope death comes quickly. I don’t want to linger.”
Winnie sat in the glider until the shadows had started to grow long. She had always suspected her mother would be unhappy if she married and moved on, but now she knew that Effie expected Winnie to live with her and Papa for the rest of her life.
Winnie tossed and turned through many nights wondering and worrying and trying to figure things out. She was certain that Effie could not keep her there with anything but guilt. But guilt was Effie’s currency. She manipulated her husband and her children with it, everyone except for Albert. Somehow he had escaped the chokehold of their mother’s guilt.
It was three o’clock in the morning on the Wednesday before Winnie would give Gene his answer. Effie woke and went to Winnie’s room to tell her she thought she was having a heart attack. Winnie walked Effie back to her bed with soothing words, just like she would have done a child of her own, and waited while her mother slipped back into sleep. But Winnie did not sleep.
On Sunday morning, Winnie put the black velvet box in her purse and went to church. Gene was waiting for her there. He watched her walk up with happy anticipation. His face practically glowed. She took her usual place beside him on the pew.
During the sermon, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
Winnie did everything she could not to let the tears fall, but they did. She didn’t say anything until after church was over, but she knew what she had to do and it was the hardest thing she had ever done.
When the last song had been sung, she asked Gene to follow her to the back of the building. It seemed an appropriate place for what she had to say. Cigarette butts littered the ground and the smell was heavy with the smoke of men who went there to smoke out of sight of their wives or the minister.
Winnie reached into her purse and pulled out the black velvet box.
“I can’t marry you,” she said, chocking on her words. “My mother is very ill and needs me to take care of her.”
She looked up into Gene’s face. Only moments before, it had had such a soft, gentle expression. Now, his mouth dropped open and he leaned against the church building like he would fall if it hadn’t been there to catch him.
Shaking, she took one of his hands and placed the box into it. And with as much courage as she could muster, she turned and walked toward her house. She didn’t look back. She knew if she did, she would never go home and she would live to regret leaving her mother.
Won’t you think of the valley you’re leaving.
Oh how lonely, how sad it will be?
Oh think of the fond heart you’re breaking
And the grief you are causing to me.
Even all these years later, the memory of Gene’s proposal left Winnie in heart wrenching sobs. She did love Gene. Why had her mother constantly stood between her and any happiness she might have?
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.