The Dead of Winter
Gram had called Marcie early that morning and told her to come over, explaining she wanted someone to plant daffodils in the flower beds outlining the front of her house. At first, Marcie tried to beg off, but Gram had insisted the bulbs had to be planted today. To Marcie, November didn’t seem the time to plant anything, especially this November. Normally, the month of November was an enigmatic time with oscillating sun warmed days and cold nights, but this year, winter had come on early and hard. The thermometer on the back porch indicated the temperature was barely above freezing. Marcie knew her precious grandmother probably would not survive another winter or live to see the flowers she wanted planted, so she had braced herself and agreed.
Gram’s house faced north, the direction of the frigid wind and provided no protection from its icy gusts. Making matters worse, the soil was frozen, making it difficult to dig the shallow holes necessary for the daffodil bulbs. Marcie had been working at least twenty minutes, but she had chipped and chiseled places for only three bulbs so far. She had at least twenty more holes to dig, and her spade was weakening from the hard earth.
Clunk. Her spade hit something hard. She brushed the loose dirt away to peer inside the hole. At the bottom of the hole, something metal sparked in the pale November sun. Never mind, she told her curiosity. Probably an old tin can. She placed a bulb in the hole and impatiently covered it with dirt. There was no time to stop and explore. The winter light was fading, and Gram wanted the daffodils planted today. It had to be today for some reason. Marcie planted three more bulbs, then sat back on her heels. What the hell? She might as well find out what it was that had glimmered so evocatively in the winter sun. She quickly excavated the newly planted bulb. Ahhhh. She saw the metallic glint again and continued digging. Carefully, she uncovered the buried object – a small metal box. What was this box doing in Gram’s flower bed? She tried to open it, but the lid wouldn’t budge. Hesitating as she looked at the bulbs yet to be planted, she shrugged her shoulders and decided she would just check on Gram and see if she needed anything. Maybe Gram would know something about the box.
“Gram, look what I found buried in your flower bed.”
Her grandmother beckoned to her. “Let me see, Marcie.” Gram’s blue veined hand trembled slightly as she reached for the box. She sighed and handed the box back to Marcie, “I hoped you would find it.”
“You knew this was buried in the flower bed?” Marcie shook the box gently causing a soft rattle inside. “What’s in it? Is it money?” Marcie laughed, “I know. The family jewels!”
“Nothing like that, but it is a lost treasure,” Gram paused, “to me. Marcie, get a table knife from the kitchen and open it.” Gram instructed, a wistful note to her voice.
Marcie did as instructed and finally managed to pry the lid off the box. Colors, still bright from being sealed away from sunlight - red, purple, blue, green. Tarnished brass. “What’s this, Gram? Did these medals belong to Pops?” Her grandfather had passed away seven years ago, and Marcie didn’t remember hearing he had been in the service.
Tentatively, Gram reached for the box again and lifted each medal to examine. “The Purple Heart – wounded in service,” she reached for another. “The bronze star for heroic actions,” she placed it carefully back in the box and picked up another. “This was given for service in Vietnam,” she sighed and placed the green and white ribboned medal back in the box before picking up another. Softly, she brought the medal to her lips and kissed it. “POW,” a tear slid down her face.
“Gram, whose medals are these?”
“Ah, dear. So long ago. But his memory is as bright in my mind as these ribbons are today. His name was Tom. We were in love, you see, and were to marry when he returned from Vietnam.”
“He didn’t make it back?”
“He made it back, Marcie. I was so happy the day he returned. I was a young woman ready to start planning a spring wedding. He tried, he really tried, but it was not to be.”
“What happened to him, Gram? What happened to Tom?”
“You have to understand, Marcie. It was hard back then. People spat at soldiers who had seen their buddies killed next to them in battle. People marched in the streets and burned the flag Tom and his friends fought for. It was too much for him. He couldn’t understand, and he couldn’t adjust. I have always thought he brought the war home with him from Vietnam. He might have been freed from the POW camp, but he had merely escaped to a prison without walls.”
“But you were going to get married…” Marcie stopped, not wanting to add to the pain she already saw on her grandmother’s face.
“Yes. That’s what I wanted more than anything, but one day a few months before our wedding date, Tom simply disappeared. I found this box with these medals and a short note on my doorstep one morning. I kept the note in my Bible for years, but it’s gone now - like him.”
“What did the note say, Gram?”
“I can remember every word of it. It said ‘I’ll always love you, but it wouldn’t be fair to marry you. You see, my beloved Marcianna, my soul is dead. I can’t give you the life you deserve because there is no more life in me. I am lost somewhere in these ribbons and medals. Keep these to remember me.”
“Where did he go, Gram? What happened to him?”
“No one knows. The Army had no record of him re-enlisting. We checked off and on for a number of years, but his Social Security number was never used to apply for a job or for veterans benefits. He just vanished. After a while, I decided I must bury him – figuratively, of course. By then, I had met your Pops, and because I knew how much Pops loved me, I realized I had to put Tom’s memory away. If I didn’t, I would have no future. On Veteran’s Day, 1974, I buried this box and my hopes of a life with Tom,” she shook her head sadly, then assured Marcie, “but I had a happy life with your Pops. A wonderful life. But I needed to tell someone about Tom. I chose you, Marcie,” she smiled and patted my hand, “my namesake, to share my story with. Finally, after all this time, I needed to see these again - to remember Tom, not sadly but with love again.” Gently, Gram placed the medals back in the box.
She continued, “I especially wanted you to plant the bulbs today, Marcie, because today is Veteran’s Day. This spring, the daffodils will be as bright and as yellow as the sunshine, alive and joyful. They’ll bloom every year, a perpetual reminder to anyone who sees them that there can be life after the dead of winter.”