Into the Nineties
Marie and Gertie grew up within miles of each other but never knew one another until they were in their teens.
Marie was what someone may call 'white trash'. Her family was the poorest of the poor when everybody in their neck of the woods was poor. They had little to no money for common necessities because her father was a drunk. He drank up any income he managed to take in.
He was not an ordinary falling-down-drunken-sop but a mean drunk. Marie and her older brother, Henry, would hide in the woods behind their house until he passed out.
As soon as he was old enough, Henry took a hired-hand job on Gertie's Dad's farm staying in the unheated attic he couldn't stand up in.
Gertie's Dad was a hard working, fun-loving, frugal farmer. He was known to load up all the kids of the neighborhood in his old Model-A Ford and take them to dime night at the local theater. The whole carload got in for a dime. He also installed a wooden floor in his barn to hold ho-downs during threshing parties at harvest time.
He invested in the farm but never the four-room unadorned farmhouse. The front room stayed cold and unused, the family of four slept in one room and the kitchen held a large milk separator necessary for their dairy produce. Yet by Marie's standards Gertie seemed rich.
Gertie's Dad passed away suddenly at the age of forty-two from pneumonia. Even with Henry's help the farm never again prospered like it once did.
Henry was the one that introduced seventeen-year-old Marie to fourteen-year-old Gertie. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Marie was able to procure a job in a near-by town and had a co-worker that could drive her there. As soon as Gertie was old enough she started working there, too.
“Oh, Gertie, I met the dreamiest guy. He wants to take me out! Me! Can you believe it!” quiet, self-conscious Marie exclaimed on the ride home one day.
“Well, it's not hard to believe a guy wants to take you out. You are pretty, petite and full of personality. What's the problem?”
“It's me. What will I say? You know my background. People have always made fun of me. He comes from a fairly well-to-do family. They won't think I'm good enough for him.”
“You are only going out with him. Maybe he won't be good enough for you. Give it a shot first. You know, just be careful. Guys can be superficial. Be sure he treats you like the lady you are.”
“Tiny asked me to marry him!”
“That didn't take long, Marie. Are you sure you want to do that? I thought you said he was joining up. He'll be shipped out soon.”
“I'm totally crazy about him. I don't want to lose him. He says I can live with his folks until he gets back from overseas. It will be fine.”
“Marie, you seem extra quiet and a little down. Everything okay?”
“Oh, Gertie, everything is fine except I don't think Tiny's Mom likes me very much even though I work like a slave trying to get her to accept me. She is leader of the Ladies Extension and wins all the home economic events at local fairs. I can't live up to her standards.”
“It's more important what Tiny thinks. What do you hear from him?”
“War is H-E- double L. He can't wait to get home. He thinks I should introduce you to his younger brother, Junior. He is almost as handsome as Tiny. Want to meet him?”
“I don't think so, Marie. I have boyfriends calling all the time. Lance wants to marry me. He won't be going off to war because of some medical condition. And he is already successful.”
“But do you love him? Come on. Just think, we will truly be sisters if you give Junior a chance.”
“The two of you make the best looking couple in the county. I love your fancy wedding gown the way the veil swirls around your feet. Wish Tiny and I could have had a big affair but we had to hurry so he could go to war. Junior lied about his age to get in there at the end but they are both back now and guess what! We have our family started!”
“That is so wonderful and exciting, Marie! And as soon as our reception is over it will be back to work. Junior got that trucking contact and needs Tiny to work it with him.”
“Oh, Gertie! How are we going to survive? Junior's big contract fell through because he wouldn't bend to the teamsters. Now both of our husbands are out of work. I have a four-year-old and you have a three and a two-year old with another one on the way.”
“Their sister, Vi's, husband has said he could use their help on his new ranch in Texas so I guess we will all be moving down there. How do you like the idea of living together until we can afford better?”
“How did it happen, Junior? Marie is inconsolable. How will she ever get over his death? She has two little girls to care for alone. Oh, we will be here for her but it can never be the same again. She loved him so much.”
“They say he fell asleep on the tracks. What he was doing there I don't know, but he may have been drinking.”
“Marie, you really are going to marry this man you don't know and move to Alaska with him?”
“It is already done. I know it is so soon after losing Tiny but I have to consider my girls and their future. Dave is in the Army and they are sending him to Alaska. Who knows where else we may be living but I will always write to you.”
“And he never even told you he has three other children and their mother is too unstable to care for them. So now you are mother to those three, too.”
“I am sure I will learn to love all of them someday.”
“Well, you know we are taking our four children back to Illinois to take over Junior's parents' farm. They already sold it to the coal strip mine but it will be a few years before they take it over. Wish us luck and go with the Lord. Be sure to write.”
And so the letters started and continued over the next six decades. Never far from each others thoughts or hearts these 'sisters' kept up with each others triumphs and heartaches throughout the roller coaster of life.
There was no gold mine in Alaska so Marie followed Dave back to Texas where she raised the kids then started helping raise her grandchildren, too. Marie outlived Dave. She sat next to one of her step-son's death bed as he succumbed to a mysterious disease afflicting young men in the early eighties. She married a third husband, Martin, whom she nursed through old age for twelve years even knowing his children had made sure she was cut out of his will so sure they were she was nothing but a money-hungry gold-digger. Eventually she bought a house with her eldest daughter near Austin and helped her grandchildren with their children. Quiet spoken, she was always giving, caring, kind and more concerned for others than herself.
Gertie had two more children while on the parents' farm and eventually ended up in Northern Illinois caring for her six children and her mother. One of her daughters died in a car crash at a young age. Marie was there to comfort her.
Gertie had fourteen grandchildren and pretty much lost count of great-grandchildren. She outlived Junior by seventeen years. They had a marriage lasting 57 years despite his tendency toward alcoholism. Always hard-working she worked through aches and pains well into her seventies.
In later years, their children made sure Marie and Gertie had more frequent extended visits with each other although the distance was debilitating. They talked weekly on the phone until they couldn't hear or understand each other anymore.
Marie died at the age of ninety-three and was buried next to the love of her life, Tiny, in Southern Illinois. Gertie was there singing her favorite hymn 'Just as I Am' . She passed six years later at the age of ninety-six and is buried next to Junior in Northern Illinois.
Loved and missed by countless descendants, Marie and Gertie overcame all obstacles to enjoy the best life-long friendship that started when they were forlorn teens and lasted into their frail nineties.
Here's a forties song they taught their children when they lived together in Texas:
“Playmate, come out and play with me.
And bring your dollies-three,
Climb up my apple tree,
Look down my rain barrel,
Slide down my cellar door.
And we'll be jolly friends, forevermore.”
It was a sunny day, but she couldn't come out and play.
With tearful eye, she breathed a sigh.
And I could hear her say:
“I'm sorry playmate, I can not play with you.
My dollies have the flu,
Boo-hoo, boo-hoo, boo-hoo.
Ain't got no rain barrel
Ain't got no cellar door.
But we'll be jolly friends, forevermore.”
My siblings and I would catch our mother, Gertie, singing this song to herself often in the last year of her life. When she sometimes couldn't remember much else she knew all the words. Another favorite was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. We like to think of both of these friends singing on into eternity.