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Tristi Wilson


A Quiet Walk reading

They drove silently through the interminable blandness of the prairie lands of eastern Nebraska and then central South Dakota. The younger of the 3 behind the driver’s seat, a man in his 70s upfront and an elderly woman sprawled out in the back seat. The Black Hills and Mount Rushmore were their destination. While other states had Grand Canyons, Bayous, Broadway, their destination was through this Midwest state of flat, open prairies sparsely populated by stoic Scandinavian, Dutch and German immigrants. A state that was proud of its sole tourist-destination brought about only because of the courage and endurance of the WPA workers who chiseled faces in stone on a high cliff to leave a lasting legacy.

Her people, Ellie, thought from the back seat of the sedan as she watched the farmhouses spring up and drop back as in a children’s pop-up book. What were their stories, their secrets, she wondered as the solitary homes slipped past? Ellie sat in the back of the sedan, occasionally opening up the window and and sticking her hand out, her fingers outspread. It was her last trip to South Dakota, to see her home. “Colon cancer, Mrs. Nelson. We’ll start you with radiation first to get rid of the tumors and then go from there.” That had been 3 years ago and now she was in the “go from there” stage pushing against the 2 to 3 years estimate that she had forced out of her oncologist about her estimated lifespan. “I just have  time for truth, now,” she had told her doctors.

Feeling the wind between her fingers, she moved her hands back and forth as if in a wave good-bye to the countryside. Ellie recalled her childhood full of incessant farm labor through the Depression, then her high school years living with the childless wealthy Livingstons who took her in when Ellie’s father’s farm collapsed. She  worked tirelessly to care for the elderly Mrs. Livingston who told Ellie that they would pay for all her nursing school costs when she finished high school. Ellie lept at the chance, indifferent to which career choice had been offered. Those two career choices had been teaching or nursing, otherwise a you had better find someone to marry to avoid impoverishment and that’s what her younger sister had done. Left at home caring for their aging parents, Ellie’s sister had agreed to marry a widower from their Dutch Reformed Church who just needed a mother for his 3 small children. It was an economical match for her sister and Ellie wondered why her sister never divorced her husband after the children had been raised. “She should have left him then,” Ellie muttered, her words snatched up through the open car window. But Ellie could even now her mother’s strong imprinting of the question “but what would the neighbors think?”

The car sped down I-90, cutting through  the fields of corn as if it were a modern-day Moses parting the Red Sea. She could almost count down how the farms spaced themselves in this open prairie. About every 3 miles, every 3 minutes, there was another, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right side.  With each farm, each chunk of time, Ellie began to feel she was arriving at  some closures in her life.

The second night stop for the threesome was at a hotel outside of the Badlands with the usual - small motel, outdoor swimming pool, local restaurant serving a $2.99 Hamburger Plate Special. The major enterprise of the town seemed to be a bloated-sized bakery that took up half of one street, with a sign that said “family-owned for over 50 years.” As if that longevity ensured visitors everything must be extra fresh and satisfying. “Maybe we can have breakfast there tomorrow, Ellie,” her husband of 50 years said, head gesturing in the direction of the bakery then back to whatever was on the one channel the motel television received, not expecting a reply.

“OK,” she responded to Keith in her usual manner. Ellie didn’t feel like sitting any longer in the room as tomorrow would be another long day in the car. “How about a walk, Laura?” Ellie said turning to look at her daughter, who was dutifully unpacking the suitcases. “We’ll sit all day tomorrow, let’s stretch our legs while we can.”

“Sure, Mom. Let’s go.” Laura never turned down an opportunity to get out and explore, even if it meant a walk through the most unpromising of sceneries. Out behind the motel, behind its half-empty refuse cans, then down the alley-way past 200 square feet homes, back around the motel’s small swimming pool, and around again, the two women established their own track.

Ellie and her daughter talked about how the trip was going, looking forward to seeing the Badlands tomorrow, then of Laura’s new job at a small law firm in St. Paul, of Laura’s siblings, one by one. They talked using a well-established shorthand. Relationships: check. Jobs: check. Health: check. Irritations of the day: check. A few words from one, then a  few more words from the next as mother and daughter both ambled through the nearly-silent town, getting quieter and darker by each cycle they finished.  Only in these 2 years, had Ellie given herself permission to live without such check llsts continually scrolling through her mind, to live more unencumbered with “what would the neighbors think” concerns. But now as Ellie heard Laura talk about her life in St. Paul, she worried that Laura had picked up too much of Ellie’s own stoic tendencies - and was missing out on the real juiciness  of life - its passion, its joy. The eerie quiet of the sleeping town and the starless prairie night left Ellie feeling that time was being suspended - maybe this is what death feels like, Ellie thought. And then she knew she had to  break through the long-held silence.

“He’s gay, Dad’s gay.” Ellie’s clear and direct tone was what first startled Laura out of her own private reverie. Laura stopped, turned to look directly at her mother, but Ellie’s stony gaze was locked on the horizon, her pace unchanged.

“What!?” Laura said, quickening her steps now to catch up with her mother.

 “He’s gay, or bisexual maybe. A homosexual anyway.” Ellie said. Matter of factly.

Laura could think in only monosyllabic flashes as her mind processed her mother’s few densely-compressed words, not yet able to articulate a coherent question. Laura’s feet kept moving in rhythm as before, the same exact gait of her mother’s, encircling the motel, homes and languid pool as before. Looking on at them, a stranger would have thought they were talking about weather or recipes as they continued their quiet, rhythmic walk through the starless night. Such a witness could not have realized that what they were seeing should have illuminated the night sky - an exploding nova-size burst of courage by a dying mother, expending her last energy, to save her daughter in any way that the truth about her parent’s marriage could.

  Laura’s thoughts were flowing faster than her pace, questions about her Dad and family memories sorting through this untested lens. But Laura realized there was one thought missing and that was shock. She wasn’t surprised at this news.

“I’ve come to believe, to know, he is gay,” Ellie repeated.  There was a steadiness in Ellie’s speech purged of any judgement, a maturity honed by years of an uneasy growing awareness followed by  an intense curiosity as she read article after article about homosexuality. Her husband’s self-righteous sermons on such topics, at first nearly intolerable to listen to, began to give her new insights about the shame he must have felt. She found in herself a growing compassion for him which made it easier to keep up appearances. A couple of times she considered moving out when the kids were starting to leave for college. But then something always stopped her, finances, surgery, kids, and  then this cancer.

And longevity does count for something, Ellie, thought as she caught the sight of the bakery’s neon sign flicker off. Ellie was over 30 years old when she met Keith a couple of years after the war ended and he had such a sense of humor. She had missed laughing and Keith brought that back for her.  As a Captain in the Army Nurse Corp in the Philippines, Ellie had seen young men die begging for life. She had worked in Chicago maternity words and placed infants in incubators that had little chance of survival. She had buried her brother at age 20, paying for all the funeral expenses herself as her parents couldn’t.  She had just wanted to marry her best friend and both Keith and her were  anxious to start a family. Their values matched. Money, check. Humor, check. Family values, check. Marital permanency, Divorce not an option, Check.

“Well, when did you know this about Dad?” Now it was Laura’s turn to break into Ellie’s reverie with a lawyerly quality to her tone. Laura wondered what had led to her mother’s abrupt confession on this trip. It reminded Laura of something in her Law School Evidence textbook - something about Deathbed Confessions. They were considered truthful because the dying are not motivated to lie, but to alleviate their guilt and sins, if they were religious. This was Her Mother’s Deathbed Confession. Her mother must have held this in for years, Laura thought, still scanning through her memories for more evidence, more clues over the years about her Dad’s inner struggles. Her Dad. Charismatic, outgoing, everyone loved him , so many friends. Laura remembered one close friend in particular, another minister in their small town. “Too gifted a preacher to stay in this town for much longer,” his congregants would say year after year. There was always an uneasiness, she recalled, between her mother and this other man. And Laura had always suspected it was more than coincidence that he moved on the same month to the same large urban neighborhood as her parents had after they retired.

“I’ve known for a while. He is gay.” Now it was Ellie’s turn to break the silence, responding to Laura’s questioning. Around the circuit, her long-known, truth, drifting out into the darkening, cool, cicada-filled prairie.  

When Laura and Ellie arrived back in the motel, Keith was sleeping, the tv still on. Laura and Ellie finished watching Johnny Carson - it was Joan Rivers, after all. Laura had so many more questions to ask, but when she turned to her mother, she saw Ellie getting ready for bed, looking drained and burnt out, but still concentrating on moving quietly as to not disturb Keith. Laura thought, “I’ll ask her more tomorrow. . .we’ll find some time together.” But for Ellie, all had been said; she was done with the walk, she was done with this truth. She knew it wouldn’t be enough for Laura, but it would have to do.

During the return trip home,  there were no further such walks between Ellie and Laura. Laura visited with her parents over the next months as her mother’s condition weakened and, for Laura, it began to seem as if the conversation about her Dad had never happened. On occasion alone with her mother, Laura would try to resurrect the conversation, but got little more from Ellie. Laura brought  up the conversation with her other 2 siblings over the following weeks, but they had never had such a conversation with their mother. It was as if her Mother’s moment of blinding truth-telling was forever preserved in that now long-ago prairie night and so eventually Laura let go of all of her remaining questions. Never to know more, but grateful for this truth. Check.

Ellie had informed her family that she had wanted only the veteran-issued standard granite marker. Even though Ellie had been a civilian for nearly 60 years, her stone contained only the facts of her long-ago military service: name, dates, unit and rank. The last line left some personal choice for veterans but Ellie chose  “Army Nurses Corp WW II,” as if to punctuate a life of integrity and endurance. Check.

Fifteen years later, Keith had asked for the same granite stone as his wife’s -  but instead of the military or career-related final line, he made a special request. When Laura took her father’s  request to the local Veteran’s Service Office, the representative fell silent. He asked if another final line, such as “minister,” or  “father” couldn’t work better, that the office had never had this request, and what is the legacy for visitors to the cemetery walking past the grave and seeing such an inscription at the bottom of the marker.  But in the end, the representative agreed to it, agreed to let future visitors taking quiet walks through the prairie cemetery read the last line -- “Forgiven.”