Sophie and Stanley
By Denise Whelan
She's gone. In my mind, this event was always something that would happen in the future but never now.
How could you Granny? I am not ready. Standing beside you, seeing you in your favorite red dress, I realize you have looked the exact same way to me all my life. My Father, her son, caught me as my knees buckled. Your silvered hair always pulled back in two pugs at the base of the back of your neck. You really wore "true" granny glasses. The little gold rose pin on your dress. Your hands, hands that showed the signs of a hard working woman, hands that were an exact match to mine. You look so peaceful, you look like your are sleeping so much so that twice I swore I see you move. Only to realize later that was my heart crying out, "Please Granny please, wake up! Show them all they are wrong! You are still here!"
I am one of nine grandchildren. I am the only grand who lived in the same city and state. I am the only one who remembered and celebrated her birthday. I am the only one she saw for Easter, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I loved her the most, the best. They, who never even as adults made any effort to have a relationship with her, were coming. Well that isn’t exactly true, two other granddaughters did write her from time to time very infrequently. My Father saw the horror on my face when he announced they were all coming to go through Granny's things. It was such an unbelievable gut wrenching feeling of violation. Those things were mine! They hadn’t played with them. They hadn’t come to love and cherish them as I had. Granny wanted me to have them. It never crossed my mind that I would ever have to share her things with my cousin’s. In my mind, they didn’t exist, I never realized in her heart they did.
In 1920, Granny met Stanley shortly after she moved from her parent’s home in northern Wisconsin to Milwaukee with three of her younger sisters - she was one of 13, the second oldest daughter. It appeared to be a mutual “love at first site” attested to by the love letters that would be found shortly after her passing. He had assured her that his new job as a tool & die maker would be more than enough to support a family.
Sophie came from a family of Irish farmers - country folk. They lived a simple life, a simple existence. Four of five sons became farmers on land not far from their Father’s at his directive. The one son who dared to open a fuel station selling gasoline and local fresh produce was considered the black sheep; later he became a traitor for moving to LaCrosse to open a liquor store. Tillie, the oldest daughter, did what was expected - she married a local farmer who later moved their family to farm in Grafton. A set of girl twins were born, one died shortly after birth, the other twin a few years later. The baby of the family, Agnes, married and lived on a farm given to her by her Father. The move to the big city by Sophie and her sister’s never changed any of them - they all lived modest, unadorned lives.
When Sophie introduced Stanley to her sister’s their was an immediate consensus of disapproval. He was a city slicker, a ladies man, nothing more than a swank gent. Eva was the first to make her rejection of Stanley known. It took Martha and Genevieve no time to concur. They were certain their father would not approve; therefore, no permission to marry would be forthcoming. The sister’s predictions were correct - he was never accepted by anyone, he was despised by all her Father having made sure of that. None of this made any difference to Sophie, she was a girl swept off her feet by a dapper young man who in the eyes of her family was no good. No one knew, most assuredly not even Granny, that she could have not done better than Stanley even if she deliberately set out to defy her kin knowing that meant facing their wrath and contempt.
One day Stanley never came home from work, Sophie had no idea what happened to him. Granny was left to raise her three sons alone - ages 1, 3, and 5. Granny faced many hardships in her life - expelled from the catholic parish where her eldest attended school for being a woman of sin with three boys without a husband, and being the sole source of income for her sons. Sophie worked as a housekeeper and governess until she was 76 years old. She brought a house but never a car - the city bus was her transportation. When I was 6 years old, we were baking gingerbread cookies, that is when we discovered my severe allergy to ginger - she carried me to the bus stop and that is how we went to Children’s Hospital. When my Father was nine, Granny was hit by a car. She spent six months in the hospital. The boys were sent to live on two of her brother’s farms. Martha, her youngest sister, always paid Sophie’s real estate taxes. Granny received a great deal of help for the boys from the Salvation Army. I cannot remember a time when she passed a red kettle that she didn’t contribute. When Granny retired, she received $185.00 a month from social security. She died 63 years later never hearing from Stanley again.
In June of 1991, Granny no longer could live alone. It almost killed my Father to put her in a nursing home, she fought it and ended up being put in a straight jacket that day. I held my Father while he cried, so did I. By the end of September, Granny was gone. By mid-October, my parents were resigned to going to Granny’s forlorn house to begin the cleanout process. Her three story house was full from top to bottom with the things of Granny’s life. Although Granny never considered herself poor, she kept most everything just in case she needed it knowing she couldn’t afford to buy much.
It was the saddest labor of love that I have ever performed. We started with the kitchen. I learned to cook from Granny not my mother so this room was full of memories for me. Packing the glassware, china, silverware, bake ware, cookware, and depression glass - trying to decide what items were so precious I had to keep them. There was nothing in that room and the pantry that wasn’t precious to me. I did the bathroom next, again a room full of memories. I quickly realized that every single room in her house held priceless memories, most especially her bedroom. I remembered taking baths in the claw footed tub with flower sprinkling cans soaking the floor. And when I was older, I remember Granny teaching me about skincare and lotions. I found my white towel with tiny pink rosebuds that she had kept. Oh Granny…
It was time to do the room all of us dreaded the most, yet I pleaded with my Father to do it alone. He finally conceded. He walked me to her bedroom, kissed my cheek, and said, “thank you Denise,” with tears in his eyes. Granny was not a woman of lace, ribbons, or ruffles, at least I never knew she was. I had thought she reserved those for me, the dolls & accessories and bedding she made for them, the quilts & pillows she made as gifts and some that she sold. At first, I just sat on Granny’s bed, I couldn’t bear to start. This was the one room I was never in without Granny, and usually only for a special reason. I packed the closet. I have no idea why, but I felt I didn’t want to open her dresser drawers. After striping the bed, the dresser was all that was left. Slowly, my hands almost shaking, I opened the top drawer. I quickly closed my eyes! My God, Granny had nothing but lacey undergarments - slips, petticoats, bra’s, panties, garter belts, stockings. My mind didn’t believe it. Slowly, I opened my eyes and confirmed it was true. I found a box she had made a fabric liner for, I couldn’t just put these items in a black plastic garbage bag or cardboard box! One by one, I laid each item in the box. I reached back to make sure the drawer was empty, I felt papers and pulled them out of the drawer. It was not just papers, it was a stack of letters in envelopes tied together with a light pink faded ribbon.
My heart began to pound. I sat on the bed holding the secret treasure in my hands. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to read them but felt I would violate her privacy. Somehow I knew this would tell me something I never knew about her. All envelopes were to be checked for hidden money. Gently, I pulled the ribbon off and removed the thin piece of parchment paper she had on each side of the stack of letters. Each envelope read, “My Dearest Sophie.” One by one I opened and read each letter. They were love letters from Stanley to Granny as he courted her before they were married. They were almost poetic - Stanley repeatedly professing her beauty and his undying love for her.
One of the letters, the last letter, was unlike any of the others. You see, Stanley had explained why he left Sophie. My grandfather had found out from her sister’s that Sophie’s Father was about to give her an absolute ultimatum. Granny would be given the choice of leaving her husband or be disowned by her entire family. Stanley told her he loved her entirely too much to ever allow her to make that choice. There would never be any happiness for them if she gave up her family. Stanley thought it best that the boys know her family since they would never know his. His heart would be forever broken, he wrote, but that he thought it was best if he just returned to his homeland - Ireland. There were water stains on this letter, I presume from the many tears Sophie shed. Granny never told anyone this, not even her own sons. When I took them to my Father, he refused to read them nor did he want to hear about them.
A month had past since we began. My parents needed a break. That day I went to Granny’s house myself. It was the first time since Granny passed that I was there alone. I knew we were close to being done, close to walking away for the final time. I had no idea of how I was going to do that. While I put some boxes into my station wagon late that afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman walking towards me. He walked with two canes, slightly hunched over. He stopped by my side, when he spoke his speech was garbled as if he had a stroke. At first, I could not understand what he was asking.
“Sop hie, So phie.”
I asked, “Sophie, are you asking for Sophie?”
He nodded his head confirming my question.
“I am Denise, her granddaughter. Who are you?”
I could not understand what he said.
“Sophie passed away.”
Tears began to fall from his eyes. He began to shake, he was almost sobbing. I was afraid he would fall. I held him as he cried. When he stopped and we separated, my eyes met his. It was like looking into my Father’s and my Fathers’ youngest brother’s eyes. His eyes were almost an exact match to my Father’s.
I watched him walk away the same way as he came, through tears that would not stop streaming my face. I couldn’t breathe from the heaviness that fell upon my heart, I was frozen, paralyzed unable to move, unable to speak. Why now Grandpa? Why, why, why?
© Denise Whelan 2012