"I rode our train for the last time today. I'm going to miss it."
Jake looked out at dozens of confused faces. His walker stood to one side, the podium itself enough to support his frail body. His eldest son, Joseph, himself an old man, stood at his side to steady him, to support him if necessary.
God, give me the strength to say what I have to say, he thought to himself. Just these last few minutes before I rest. They need to know it. They need to know Mary as I knew her. Especially the young ones.
He continued his eulogy. "I rode that train for the first time when I was four years old. I was terrified, but my father calmed me, telling me that the black beast belching steam and smoke was like Superman. It was made of iron and steel, it flew faster than a speeding bullet, and it even had a cape, if you looked at the smoke trailing behind it just the right way. My fear turned to awe and excitement.
"Later, my friends and I would watch the trains go by, daring each other to sit in a culvert that ran under the tracks, to be the one who could sit closest, to let the wind of its passage brush our fine new whiskers without flinching. I never won that contest. I was never the daring one.
"Yes, I was a teenager once, a lifetime ago. Rence Williams was my best friend. We took the train to Midvale when we were sixteen to buy nickel candy and watch cartoons and newsreels at the local cinema, the same one that showed grownup movies later in the evening. The ones that had kissing in them.
"We snuck into that theater one night, it was quite the thrill for a sixteen year old farm boy." He saw knowing smiles in the crowd, some of them humoring the old-fashioned memory. He didn't mind. He wanted them to understand.
"But even that is not why I'll miss my train. It wasn't my train yet, it was just the train.
"Rence and I were nineteen when we went to the State Fair. Rence saw a pretty girl walking with a friend. He wanted us to ask them if we could buy them cotton candy. It had to be both of us, asking both of them, or it would seem rude.
"I was too focused on my wingman duties, as you young people would call it now, to really notice the friend. We ate our cotton candy and talked about what a fine day it was. We impressed the girls with our glamorous work on the farm." He gave the audience a wink. "We listened to stories of their last year of high school.
"The girl I had bought cotton candy for said she wanted to see the horses at the fair. I was an idiot, oblivious to the obvious opening. She had to ask me if I would show her.
"There was this large quarter horse, a magnificent animal. We were allowed to give it a piece of an apple, one at a time so as to not startle it. I went first, and after heroically risking life and limb to convince her it was safe, she stepped nervously up to the powerful beast. It grunted and nuzzled her with its massive head as it gummed the apple from her delicate fingers. She backed away, startled, but she approached again and patted its strong shoulder.
"I stood behind her, admiring the elegant line of her frilly cream colored dress with red trim. She turned to me, a wide-eyed smile of wonder on her face." Jake paused for effect.
"That's when I realized that Mary Pepperdine was the most beautiful creature I would ever lay eyes on. And she must have somehow gotten the mistaken impression that I was a handsome man.
"I envy you young people. You still have that moment ahead of you. That first moment when the rest of the world is forgotten, when your stomach lurches and your hands tremble, when you are rendered incapable of coherent speech. When some girl's or some boys's eyes and smile are the only thing in the universe that matters."
He choked up at the memory, eyes going moist, his throat tightening. He gathered his strength. She would have wanted him to be strong, and the people gathered here in her honor deserved it. She was his wife, their mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, great aunt, or dear friend. They all needed to hear what she meant to him.
"I barely remember anything after that until it was time for the girls to leave. Rence and his girl said polite goodbyes. Mary and I took a little longer, reluctant to part, but it would not be proper to spend much longer together so soon. She reached into her little clutch purse and took out one of those newfangled ball-point pens. We hadn't a scrap of paper between us.
"Mary was not going to let something as simple as a lack of paper stand in her way. She asked me for my hand, demanded it, really. She wrote her address on the palm of my hand." He looked up at some of the teenagers and twenty-somethings. "Her digits, as some of you might say today." Smiles from them. He wanted them to be able to relate to this, to know that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that he and Mary had been young once, too.
"This hand right here," he held it up. "A less frail version of it, anyway." He looked at it. He could see her neat blue handwriting on it. He could read her name and every letter and number even now.
"She held this hand innocently, firmly enough to brace it for writing, but no more. It still felt like heaven. 'You may write to me.' she said in the proper manner of the day.
"We exchanged several letters, every word and sentence of them as proper and chaste as can be, but they were full of promise and hope. I still have every one of those letters.
"Three weeks later, a Saturday, I stood on the Watkinville station platform in my Sunday best. The piercing light appeared in the distance, promising to carry me to my girl. It arrived, I climbed onto the back of the man of steel, and with a huff and a lurch, I was inches closer to Midvale, to Mary. Then a few feet, then yards, then the world was a blur and the distance between us shrank faster than a speeding bullet.
"Our first date was quaint by today's standards. I met her parents first, of course. No waiting till things were 'serious' in those days. I asked her father's permission to escort her to dinner and ice cream. You've heard tales of a boy meeting a girl's father, and I can tell you, they're very real. I was terrified." A smile shared with the audience.
"Perhaps it was the courage I displayed by standing in front of him without my knees shaking, not visibly, at least, but he allowed it. Frighteningly stern warnings went unspoken but were clearly expressed on his face.
"After dinner at the inexpensive diner in the center of town, and ice cream next door, we sat on her front porch, fully visible through the front window and to the whole neighborhood. Courting was never a private thing. Privacy had to be earned with good behavior.
"The train back home was due promptly at seven. I don't mind admitting, I couldn't stop thinking about the shapes her dress took when she moved, her smile and the lips forming it, her eyes." He looked around the room. There was some squirming, but mostly indulgent smiles. Give the old man some leeway. "Her conversation was fascinating too. I must have managed to grunt out appropriate responses, because she took my hand, discreetly, but less innocently than when she had written her address on my palm. She was the daring one.
"The electricity of her touch fried my sense of time. When I heard the train whistle just outside of town, I jumped up in panic. It was a block and half to the station, and if I left that second, I could just make it. I blurted my apologies and started to turn, but I stopped.
"I stepped back to her, too panicked to be nervous. 'Can I see you again?'
"'I would enjoy that.' she replied, properly, knowing our voices could carry. I wanted to lean in to kiss her, but that was not the kind of good behavior we ought display.
"I had to sprint to the station, almost ruining my Sunday clothes. The ride home was a blur, and not because of the speed.
"Every two or three weeks, I would take the train to Midvale. It seemed she knew everyone in town, and everyone knew her. Relatives and friends of her family came out of the woodwork to be introduced. I felt their eyes examining me, judging my manners, evaluating my intentions.
"My intentions were good, mostly, and so were hers, mostly." More indulgent tittering. "Things were a lot different in those days, but not as different as you younger people might think. Teenage hormones are timeless. We followed the rules to a T, but her eyes told me she wished otherwise.
"Everyone else knew it too, of course. That's why we were watched so carefully. But as we proved our sincerity and good intentions, we were given more privacy, a moment here, a brief interlude there."
Jake remembered when it happened like it was yesterday. The prying eyes, or diligent chaperons depending on your point of view, watched as he and Mary walked hand in hand to the train station in the dusky light. It was allowed now, right out in the open. Just moments before the train was due to pull away, as if on a silent signal, the eyes averted. Mary noticed it, or maybe she knew it would happen. They had one brief moment to say goodbye.
He almost lost himself in the memory, but went on. "On our third date, we shared our first kiss on the train platform. I was still swooning when the train reached Watkinville. In that one oh so brief moment, it became our train.
"Ours was a long distance relationship, conducted through letters, an occasional long-distance phone call right there in the living room where nothing we said could be private, and too few blissful Saturdays together. I rode that train to her every two or three weeks, then every weekend. You could say things were getting serious.
"After several months, we rode our train together for the first time. Her father allowed me to bring her to Watkinville to meet my family, on the promise that she return on the evening train. If anything, we had even less privacy that day. It seemed that everyone I knew needed to be introduced. On the farm, as well as in the small town, dating was a community affair. She apparently passed all the tests, and I passed the final exam by getting her back to our train on time."
Jake had a part time job at the feed store by then, while also helping on the farm. They were long, backbreaking days, but worth every minute. After being promoted to full time manager, he had finally saved enough money to take the big step. He'd even talked to Mr Smithee at the bank about a loan for a small house.
"Two and a half years later, I arrived at her house in the best clothes that a feed store manager's salary could buy. Her father answered the door. He saw my clothes and knew. I explained to him that I had a good job, that I would be buying a home. He gave me his blessing.
"There were no secrets here. People knew, by my clothes, or because of the way my hands shook, or just from a sixth sense that told everybody that the time was right. All those watching eyes seemed to gather around us as I led Mary to the war memorial statue in the small town square.
"They kept a respectful distance and could not hear, but the intention could not have been more clear. They would see me get down on one knee, take her hand, hold out a small box. They would see words exchanged, then her head bobbing enthusiastically and her smile turn to tears. They would see me stand. They would witness a hug and a kiss that would have scandalized even the most jaded moviegoers.
"Our train brought me to Midvale the day that our life together officially began. After, it took us to the city for our honeymoon. I won't bore you with the details," Embarrassed laughter from the seats. "but Mary had reeled me in like a fish from the moment she decided to write her address on my hand, and you've never met a happier catch."
He smiled at the very private memories. They had played by the rules, only bending them once or twice. Or maybe three times. But with the blessing of their families, the priest, and God himself, they threw those rules out the window of the eighth floor honeymoon suite at the Excelsior hotel. Mary was a passionate woman, and knew what she wanted, every day and every night. That passion continued throughout their marriage, for as long as they were physically able, and after, their love never waned.
He let the smile show on his face. Let the young men and women know that grandma and grandpa had been every bit the young lovers. Four children should have been proof of it, but somehow, people tended to forget what their own existence implied about their parents and grandparents.
"The rest is history that most of you know. Dad sold the farm and opened up a real estate agency. The first in Watkinville. He struggled at first, but the town was growing. I joined the firm once it was on a solid footing, to learn the business. Over the years, he and I probably sold half the houses in town, some of them over and over again as generations of young families came and grew and moved on.
"Mary made me a better person, and she raised our children to be the best people they could be, to pass that on through three generations now, and certainly more in the future. She kept our home, she picked me up when I was down, she pushed me when I was timid, and she let me rest in her arms when I was tired. Every joy was multiplied tenfold by seeing it reflected in her eyes. It was her strength, her daring, and her love that made me what I have become.
"Through it all, our train stitched our lives together. It brought us to each other first, then it brought us to our families living in one town or the other. It brought them, many of you here, to us. But today, it brought me to Mary one last time. It has become only my train again, and after today, it will merely be the train once more. I will miss that train. I will miss it for the promise, the love, the life it helped make possible.
"I see before me a roomful of people that Mary and I are so proud of. There's a little bit of Mary in you, and, for better or worse, a little bit of me. Those of you not blood relation, you are proof of the good judgment of our progeny. We thank you all for being part of our family, and allowing us to be part of yours.
"I want you all to be happy today. Mary is gone. Be happy that she lived, that she gave so much of herself to so many of you. I stand here today as the happiest man in the world. We were madly, passionately in love to her final days. I grieve for her. We all grieve. We feel that grief because we knew someone, something, worthy of grieving. Be grateful for that. Grief is such a small price to pay for such a wonderful life.
He turned from the podium, Joseph taking his elbow to steady him. He hobbled to Mary's casket, suddenly exhausted and weak. His bad leg gave out, or maybe it didn't, and he sank gently to his knees with Joseph's help. He bowed his head and openly wept.
At the graveside, he was briefly overwhelmed with a desire to throw himself in, to be covered with dirt and breathe his last with his love. It passed, but he could hardly bear to see her laid to her final rest.
All he had to look forward to now was his own rest, but he looked back with pride, with love, with the purest happiness. His life was behind him, but the past had been a wonderful, incredible place to be. He had earned this day. Mary had earned it.
In the distance, the newfangled diesel locomotive blew its horn, as if it too mourned the end of the joy they'd shared. Everyone attending the service knew what the sound meant, and looked at him to see both tears and a beaming smile on his face.