Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte

June 18, 2020

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Charlotte had been wearing widow’s black for nearly eight months when she began, involuntarily at first, to think about Harold.  Dashing, charming Harold.  Her first love, her lost love.  But that had been a lifetime ago – 31 years, to be precise.

She shoved out of her mind the staccato flashes of the handsome, blond youth who would later become a crack Royal Air Force pilot in the battle against Hitler. It seemed disloyal to Paul, after all.

Paul.   Her late husband.  She let her memory drift back to their wedding day nearly three decades earlier.  She wore a gown of candlelight satin with leg-o’-mutton sleeves that were so popular at the time.  He was smiling but nervous, a thin wisp of mustache grazing his upper lip.

 They were so young.

 Her life with Paul had ended with the finality of his death 228 days ago, yet Charlotte still thought of herself as a married woman.  She continued to wear her wedding ring.  She kept photos of the smiling couple in places of honor throughout the house. And she replied – in her head, at least – “Yes, we would love to come,” when she received the occasional dinner invitation.

She and Paul had been, well, content, hadn’t they? He made a fine living as the chief financial officer of a local manufacturing firm with offices worldwide, and he was a good, if often absent, father. Charlotte was an affectionate mother to their three boisterous sons, and she enjoyed her volunteer work — reading books and newspapers to elderly residents at the nursing home nearby. 

The passion that had consumed them during the early years of their marriage had dimmed, it’s true, but they rarely fought.  Except, every now and then, when she broached the subject of getting a paying job.

 “Mr. Yates offered me a job today when I was at the boys’ school,” Charlotte began, carefully, as she finished up the dishes one evening shortly after their 12th wedding anniversary.  “I would be a teacher’s aide, tutoring kids in math.  I was always good in math.  I’d really love to do it.

 “Please understand, Paul.  Please. I need to do something more with my life than attend PTO meetings and iron the sheets and chill your wine.  I need to be somebody.”   

“You are somebody,” Paul replied stiffly.  “You are my wife and the mother of my children.  I won’t hear of you working, won’t hear of it!  The boys and I need you at home.”  Besides, he ended triumphantly, “you wouldn’t even earn enough to make it worthwhile!”

  Charlotte had to agree he was right about that.  She had no formal professional skills.  Her generation had been reared to be impeccable wives and mothers, not efficient accountants or lady lawyers.  

 But now it was 1972, and Paul was dead. 

She had begun reading “The Feminine Mystique,” that famous book by Betty Friedan, and it made Charlotte think maybe she wasn’t crazy for feeling so restless, for wanting something more.

‘We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: I want something more than my husband and my children and my home,’ Charlotte read, sipping her morning coffee. “That’s true, Betty Friedan,” Charlotte said, nodding her head in agreement.

She turned the page: ‘It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself.’ 

“Yes, Betty, that’s very, very true,” Charlotte murmured.

Was Friedan right when she said that “aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength”?  Charlotte reminded herself that she once had an adventurous spirit:  As a girl of 18, she had learned to fly airplanes.  “When I was in the sixth grade,” she told her best friend, Clare, “I went on a field trip with my class to the local airport, where we were treated to rides in a small open airplane.  I wore a helmet and goggles and sat in the front cockpit.  The pilot sat in the rear cockpit.  It was exhilarating! I was hooked.” 

“You actually flew planes when you were a teenager?” 

 “I did. I took flying lessons for a year-and-a-half and completed a couple of solo flights.”  She plucked a worn photograph from her purse and handed it to Clare:  there was the teenaged Charlotte, decked out in a snazzy white jump suit, smiling proudly beside her small plane.

  “I loved that Piper Cub!  My instructor told me that I ‘flew by the seat of my pants’ – very instinctually.  Once I flew along the Detroit River, and my instructor kept reminding me to stay on the Detroit side of the river, and not to stray into Canadian airspace.  It was absolutely thrilling.”

  Three decades later, was it perhaps time to do something different? To stretch herself?  To be somebody? (The actuarial tables informed her the day after Paul’s funeral that, on average, she could expect to live another 26 years.)

One or more of Charlotte’s grown sons rolled into town most Sunday afternoons to visit their mother and then escort her to dinner.  Charlotte loved seeing her boys, of course, but she worried that perhaps they did this out of a sense of duty. Would they rather be somewhere else?

    She also had her weekly volunteer work.  And she did enjoy spending every Monday reading to the nursing home residents, especially when she could introduce them to her favorite novels.    But the other five-and-a-half days of the week finally began to be given over to thoughts of Harold.

He was a businessman who lived somewhere near London; she knew this from his annual Christmas card.  There had been two children and then a civilized divorce ten or 15 years ago.  But what was he like now, she wondered.  Was he still so engaging and droll?

 Charlotte had been 18 and Harold 19 when they met at a military base near her parents’ home in Detroit, where he had been sent for Allied flight training in the early days of World War II.   Charlotte told Clare the story decades later as the women shared a bottle of dry white wine.

“My girlfriends and I went to the base that evening for the Summer Solstice dance. We loved to dance, especially with handsome Brits!

“Sally and Val and I had agonized all day over what we would wear that night.  Sally thought we should have a military look, wearing those popular ‘patriotic’ jackets and the kind of wide-legged trousers that Katharine Hepburn used to wear. They were so stylish! 

“But I was determined to wear my new lavender dress with puffed-sleeves. It had sequins and a swirly skirt, and I knew it would be absolutely perfect when I showed off my dance steps.  Finally, we all agreed to wear summer dresses with kicky skirts to the dance. 

“Sally and Val and I walked together to the base gymnasium, where the dance was being held.  It was the first day of summer, and the weather was balmy.   It was so warm, in fact, that we wished the dance were being held outside.  But when we walked into the gym, we gasped. The creaky old gymnasium had been transformed into a makeshift dance hall, featuring twinkling white lights and huge vases of purple hydrangeas. It was so romantic!

“We took up our positions on the edge of the dance floor. Sally kept saying that the British boys had such lovely accents.  Val kept saying what superb dancers they were.  As for me, I looked across the room and saw the boy I hoped would ask me to dance.

“As if on cue, Harold crossed the ballroom and walked directly up to me.  He was dressed in his blue-grey RAF uniform and looked impossibly dapper.  My god, he was handsome! He smiled at me with those beautiful, honey-brown eyes and said, ‘Would you care to dance with the English king of swing, pretty miss?’  

‘I would,’ I told him.  ‘I’ve seen you before — at the airfield where I’m taking flying lessons.  I’ve seen you take off and land.  You’re pretty good.’

Charlotte smiled.  All these years later, she remembered every minute of that magical evening.

Harold had subsequently charmed her, recounting tales about the king of England (“Did you know, Charlotte, that our king has a terrible stutter?”), British motorcycle racing (“I attended the Isle of Man race a few years ago with one of my mates.  It was grand!”) and “pub crawling” — English style.  Her girlfriends adored his accent.  “Would you like another lettuce-and- ‘tomahh-to’ sandwich?” they would tease.  Her little sister Jeannie developed a colossal crush on him, and Charlotte’s parents had liked him, too.

“He taught me Swing and the Jitterbug and the Lambeth Walk – dances that were all the rage in England,” Charlotte told Clare.  “I reciprocated by teaching him the Lindy Hop and introducing him to American jazz.” 

  They courted for five glorious months, sharing long walks, romantic dinners, lingering kisses, and more.  They were in love.  “She’s my best girl,” Harold wrote to a friend in England.  “You’ll love her.  I’m bringing her home someday.”

Charlotte knew that Harold would be assigned to an RAF squadron in England just as soon as he completed his flight training in America.  She would miss him dreadfully.  But she would wait for him forever.  Forever and ever.

  It was an unusually mild evening in December, as the couple walked back from the movie theatre, hand-in-hand, that he gave her the news she had been dreading. “I’m being shipped back to England right after Christmas.  My flight training is finished, but please tell me, darling, that our story isn’t. Will you marry me, Charlotte, after the war is over?” He carefully placed a small, ruby engagement ring on Charlotte’s finger.  She wept.

Three weeks later, Harold was back in England, preparing to be shipped out to the Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre to fly sorties against the Germans and Italians.

At first, they wrote to each other nearly every day — heartfelt, intense letters that attempted to bridge the miles imposed on them by the war. As the conflict raged on for another three years, though, their notes became more sporadic, more distant, more matter-of-fact. 

  In the end, there would be no vows with Harold. The couple decided that they came from “two different worlds.”  In late 1945, Charlotte married Paul Miller, instead.

 She remembered it all, settled on the beige leather sofa in her silent living room.  She was studying a frayed photo of herself and Harold, grinning and with their fingers fashioning a V for Victory sign, when she made up her mind.  She would write to Harold.

Charlotte was, after all, still a lovely woman at 49.  She hadn’t let herself go, as so many of her friends had. (“Women don’t age well,” her mother had informed her tartly two years earlier at the 50th birthday party of one of Charlotte’s closest friends.  “You’ll find that out soon enough.”)  Tall and slender, with only an occasional dash of gray in her thick chestnut hair, Charlotte still fit easily into a size 6.  She was no longer 18, but, then, Harold wasn’t 19, either.

She would take her chances.

Her hand trembled a little as she composed a note on the blue, crinkly airmail paper.  She was coming to London, she wrote, on a long-delayed holiday.  Would he be interested in meeting and re-living old times?

Two weeks later, a cream-colored envelope covered with stamps bearing the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II appeared in her mailbox.  Charlotte had to remind herself to breathe as she read the letter aloud.  “Of course, I’d love to see you, Charlotte!” Harold wrote. “What a grand idea!  It’s been a long time, but it will be jolly good to get together!  I’ll meet you in the lobby of The Dorchester Hotel on the 28th at 12 o’clock.”    

There was one more thing: he would be wearing a gray wool jacket with a yellow rose in his lapel.

Charlotte didn’t tell her sons about Harold; they probably wouldn’t approve.  She had always wanted to see England, she told them.  It was a trip she had been longing to take since they were little.

On the plane trip over, she rehearsed, at least a dozen times, the little speech she would recite when she saw Harold again.  “It’s so wonderful to see you, Harold!” she would exclaim. “You look just the same.  Shall we go somewhere and catch up on old times?”

But when he spotted Charlotte in the hotel lobby – girlish yet elegant in an emerald wool dress that brought out the green in her eyes – and swept her up in a crushing hug, she couldn’t utter a sound.  Charlotte was clamped in the embrace of a huge man, 200 pounds at least, with a still-familiar ruddy face and those lovely brown eyes.  “Charlotte, I’d know you anywhere,” he cried, prying the yellow flower from his lapel and pressing it into her hand.  “You look wonderful!  How do you possibly manage to keep looking so young?”  He glanced sheepishly at his protruding stomach.  “I’m afraid I’m a bit too fond of my ale, don’t you see, but no matter.  How are you?”

“I’m so lonely, Harold,” Charlotte heard herself whisper.  “Are you really happy to see me?”

He suggested luncheon at The Red Lion pub, a leisurely drive in the countryside, and then a cozy dinner at The Winston House.  The summer sky was darkening and the moon was rising as they reminisced about the war days so long ago, then skipped to the more recent past.  “My husband had cancer,” Charlotte said.  “He was sick for so long; it was a terrible time.  But my sons are grown now, and I’m trying to decide what to do with my life. Am I too old to go to college, Harold, and then get a real job?  Not be a volunteer, you understand, but get a real job?”

Harold didn’t answer.  He seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts, then haltingly told her about Joan, his former wife, and their son and daughter.

“We were happy, Joan and I, for a while,” he said quietly.  “We had a comfortable flat in the central city.  She made all the kids’ clothes and seemed to enjoy cooking and decorating the place.  Then something happened.  I don’t know what got into her, but she decided she didn’t want to stay home anymore.  She wanted to go out and find herself a job, even though I was bringing home quite enough quid for the four of us.  I told her that no wife of mine would be out walking the streets.  She would stay home and be a proper mate to me and a good mother to our children.  Then one day, she took the kids and walked out the door.  Said she wanted more.  More!  I never did understand any of it.”

He smacked his hand against the polished marble of their small café table.  “None of it did I understand,” he repeated.  “I gave her everything…But let’s talk about cheerier things.  What shall we do tomorrow?”

Collins-Jan-of-self-1

Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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