Timeless compassion: A short story
“The floor is gorgeous!” squealed Victoria from down the hall, inspecting each room of her friend Rita’s new home, post-carpet removal.
Waiting patiently for her return, Rita stood at the art deco fireplace in the living room, lovingly stroking the burnished raised features which would be her next project. She couldn’t believe the old bungalow had been on the market for so long.
“I’m so jealous I could spit,” said Victoria, who had returned to the living room. “I won’t, of course, out of respect to the old girl.”
“And, the fact I would deck you,” Rita calmly replied.
“There is that. I’m so impressed at what you’ve done in such a short amount of time. Kudos to you, pal!”
“Thank you,” replied Rita. “To celebrate, I’m making Side Cars. Join me?”
Clearly a rhetorical question, Victoria followed her into the kitchen, without responding.
Rita poured two drinks, and handed one to her friend.
Victoria took a sip, sighed, and said, “Mi amore.”
Eyebrows arched, Rita asked, “Me or the drink?”
“Both, pal,” Victoria responded. “Hey, have you had time to check out those boxes in the attic?”
Rita took a sip, and then said, “Yes.” She took another sip.
Victoria impatiently asked, “And …?” her empty hand motioning a get-on-with-it gesture.
Rita continued. “I think I told you that the previous owner had been a doctor?” Victoria nodded. “Well, there were a couple of boxes full of what looked like medical research papers, framed medical degrees, career related clippings, and office stuff, like engraved pens, etc.” She grinned. “Oh, and there were some prescriptions for alcohol.”
Victoria stared at her blankly. “What?”
“Prohibition, pal, hence the Side Cars,” Rita winked, as she raised her glass.
Victoria laughed. “Fabulous! Wait, wouldn’t that have been before his time?”
“They were signed by someone else.” She shrugged. “Fun keepsake, I suppose.”
“Anything else?” Victoria asked.
“Looked like he served as an Army medic in World War II,” said Rita, “according to some discharge papers. And, there was a letter issuing him a Purple Heart, but I couldn’t find the medal. There were also a few children’s books, like Tom Swift.”
Rita took another sip, which was followed by an extended, dramatic pause. “Oh, and a stack of letters with a return address from a Sarah Montgomery in Springfield, Ohio.”
Victoria pointed an accusing finger at Rita. “You buried the lead.”
Rita nodded toward the counter behind Victoria, where she had laid the letters. “I haven’t looked through them yet. There aren’t many, so I thought we could take turns reading them.”
“Two more Side Cars, then, barkeep,” said Victoria.
Drinks were poured, and they sat down at the dining room table, across from each other. Victoria dealt the envelopes, until they each had a stack of five.
Rita brushed her fingers over an old postmark, before saying, “I like how they used to open the ends instead of the long sides.” She looked curiously at Victoria, who was blowing into the end of her envelope.
“What?” responded Victoria. “I saw this in a movie.”
“She had beautiful handwriting,” observed Rita, returning her attention to the letter in front of her. “It’s a shame cursive writing isn’t being taught anymore.”
They read in silence, trading letters.
“What do you think?” asked Rita, after they had finished.
“I’m intrigued. I think we should find out what happened to Sarah.”
“And, fill in John’s story,” Rita responded. “Since he was a doctor, there might be something online about him, especially if he published papers.”
Victoria said, “Alrighty, you research John, and I’ll cover Sarah.”
Two weeks later, Victoria pulled up to Rita’s place, where her friend was pruning bushes at the right corner of the house. She grabbed a large envelope from the passenger seat, and exited the car.
She walked over to Rita, looked over the newly groomed landscape, and said, “Well done.”
“It was so overgrown,” replied Rita, “and it’s such a beautiful day, there was no way I could not go for it. Behold, the fruits of my labor.” She pointed to a path of terra cotta tiles, leading to a side gate. A phrase had been imprinted into every other tile.
Victoria read each one aloud as she walked the path, “Make a difference. Learn. Move forward.”
“Interesting, isn’t it?” asked Rita. “Let’s go inside and share our findings.”
Victoria followed her into the house, where Rita shed her gloves and clippers.
“I made some iced tea,” said Rita. “Help yourself. I’m going to change.”
Victoria set her envelope on the dining room table, and walked into the kitchen, where she retrieved the pitcher out of the refrigerator, set it on the table, then returned to the kitchen. She selected two of her friend’s vintage glasses out of a newly painted cabinet. As she carried them to the table, she silently confessed to having glass envy.
Rita joined her a short time later, setting down a handful of papers, and emptying her glass in record time.
“Worked up a wee bit of thirst, I see,” observed Victoria. She refilled her friend’s glass.
“Thank you,” said Rita. “Why don’t you start?”
“Well, Springfield has some interesting history,” said Victoria. “From the Civil War to the 1950’s, it’s where most of the agricultural machinery in the country was built, and the 4-H movement began there. Oh, and Simon Kent, a friend of Daniel Boone’s lived there!”
“Sarah …?” prodded Rita.
“You know I have to slide down history rabbit holes,” pouted Victoria. “Sarah was born in Springfield, where her parents were both teachers. They would undoubtedly be very proud of my continuing education in history.”
Rita rolled a finger in a circular motion to move forward. Victoria stuck her tongue out in response.
“It turns out she was a war correspondent,” said Victoria, “which is seriously cool.”
“Seriously cool,” agreed Rita. Looking thoughtful, she asked, “How many female correspondents were there during World War II?”
“Quite a few, actually. The Library of Congress lists 117 on their website.”
“Wow!” responded Rita. “I’m guessing the old boys’ club wasn’t happy about that.”
“Definitely,” agreed Victoria. “In fact, I discovered that The National Endowment for the Humanities funded a film called, ‘No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report World War II.’ I ordered the DVD, so, movie night.”
Rita grinned, raising her glass in a silent toast. Victoria smiled back as she raised her glass in return, and clinked the glasses.
After drinking some more tea, Rita suggested, “Since the doctor was a medic during the war, that may be how their paths crossed.”
Victoria said, “I think so, too. Imagine the horrors they each witnessed, but from different perspectives. One is focused on saving lives, the other documenting them.”
Rita asked, “What did Sarah do after the war?”
“She worked with combat veterans who suffered from what we now call PTSD,” responded Victoria. “I think that explains a few of her letters.”
“I agree,” replied Rita. “I re-read them the other day. Not only was there clearly great affection between them, but mutual respect.” She paused. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but what happened to Sarah?”
“Yes. And, the doctor?” asked Victoria. “I assume he lived to a ripe old age.”
Rita replied, “Yes. According to local veterans’ groups, even though he had a successful general practice, he donated a great deal of time to veterans – not only those with medical issues, but offered counseling as well.”
Smiling, Victoria said, “Nice. Following Sarah’s lead, I suppose.”
As she looked at the paperwork before her, Rita said, “He certainly didn’t do it for the glory. I couldn’t find anything in the attic about it – no photos, correspondence; nothing.”
After a moment, Victoria said, “I have an idea for another tile.”
Rita looked up to meet her eyes.
“I like it,” agreed Rita, with a smile. “You know, I feel like I was pulled to this place for a reason. How can we continue their efforts? Neither of us are vets. I feel out of my league.”
“Hmmm,” said Victoria, as she took a contemplative drink. She swirled the ice cubes in her glass for a few laps, before exclaiming, “I know! A canteen!”
“You mean like the USO in World War II?” asked Rita.
“Yes!” Victoria said, her face radiating with excitement. “Updated, of course. We can host one say, every three months, with food and music. Vets could have an evening to just hang out; take a break from life.”
Rita smiled. “You’re the best, V.”
“I know.” Victoria was quiet for a few moments, then raised her glass. “To Sarah and Doc.”
“To Sarah and Doc,” agreed Rita, raising her glass for the toast, “who continue to inspire.”