Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte
May 15, 2020
Charlotte had been wearing widow’s black for nearly eight months when she began, involuntarily at first, to think about Harold. Her first love, her lost love. Dashing, charming Harold. But it had been so long ago – my God, had it really been 32 years?
The staccato flashes of the handsome, blond youth who would become a crack Royal Air Force pilot in the battle against Hitler were shoved hastily out of her mind. It seemed disloyal to Paul, after all.
Paul. Her high-school sweetheart. She let her memory drift back to their wedding day three decades earlier. She was enchanting in 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 202 days ago, yet Charlotte still thought of herself as a married woman. She continued to wear her wedding ring. 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 decent living as a traveling salesman across Ohio and Pennsylvania, and he was a good, if often absent, father. Charlotte was a devoted mother to their three boisterous sons, and she enjoyed her volunteer work. 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 would broach the subject of getting a paying job. Perhaps she could be a teacher’s aide at their sons’ school? Or maybe do some bookkeeping? She was stellar in math, and she’d always been a conscientious student.
Charlotte readily admitted 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 after years as the compleat helpmate, wife and mother, Charlotte needed Paul to understand that she needed to DO something more with her life than attend PTO meetings, iron flowered sheets, and chill his favorite wine. She needed to be somebody.
These conversations, though, invariably ended the same way. Paul wouldn’t hear of it, wouldn’t hear of it! He wanted his wife at home and besides, he’d conclude triumphantly, she couldn’t even earn enough to cover the extra expenses they would incur to keep up the house if she went to work. Charlotte had to agree he was right about that.
But now it was 1974, and Paul was dead.
She had just finished reading “The Feminine Mystique”, that controversial book by Betty Friedan, and it made Charlotte think maybe she wasn’t crazy for feeling so restless, for wanting to be something more than a wife (now widow) and mother.
Charlotte reminded herself that she once had an adventurous spirit: she had signed up for flying lessons as a teenager and found soaring through the air in her Piper Cub absolutely thrilling.
Perhaps it was time, finally, to do something different? To stretch herself? To be somebody? (The crisp actuarial tables informed her the day after the funeral that, on average, she could expect to live another 26 years.)
One or more of Charlotte’s dutiful sons rolled into town most Sunday afternoons to visit their mother and then escort her to dinner, and there was her once-a-week volunteer work. But the other five-and-a-half days of the week, finally, began to be given over to memories of Harold.
She knew from sporadic letters over the years with Harold’s chatty mother that he lived somewhere near London. He was an auto mechanic – that was it. And 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?
She had been 17 and he 18 during those early days of World War II when they met at the Navy base near her parents’ home in Detroit. “Would you care to dance with the English king of swing?” Harold had inquired jauntily as she sat – afraid to be asked and terrified not to be – with three of her girlfriends at the base’s Valentine’s Day dance.
He had subsequently charmed her, recounting outlandish tales about the king of England and British motor car racing and “pub crawling” — English style. Her girlfriends adored his accent; would he care for another lettuce-and-“tomahh-to” sandwich? they would tease. Her little sister developed a colossal crush on him, and Charlotte’s parents had liked him, too.
He taught her the dances that were all the rage in England, and she reciprocated by introducing him to American jazz. One night he offered her an engagement ring, and they made plans to marry “as soon as the war is over.” But Harold, his Allied flight training completed, was shipped back to England, then on to the Mediterranean theater to fly sorties against the Germans and Italians.
The wedding never took place. They were from “two different worlds,” they decided, and in late 1945, Charlotte became Mrs. Paul Richards, 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 an attractive 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 a tiny smudge of gray in her thick chestnut hair, Charlotte still fit easily into a size 6. She was no longer 17, but, then, Harold wasn’t 18, either.
She would take her chances.
Her hand trembled a little as she composed a proper 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 (the longest two weeks of her life, without doubt), a cream-colored envelope covered with stamps bearing the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II appeared in her mailbox. Of course, Harold would love to see her! What a grand idea! It had been a long time, but it would be jolly good to get together! He would meet her in the lobby of The Dorchester Hotel on the 28th at 12 o’clock. He would be wearing a gray wool jacket with a yellow rose in his lapel.
Charlotte didn’t tell her sons about Harold, of course. 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, 250 pounds at least, with a still-familiar ruddy face and those lovely honey-brown eyes. “Charlotte, I’d know you anywhere,” he cried, ripping the yellow flower out of 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. They reminisced about the war days so long ago, then skipped to the more recent past. Charlotte told him about her three children, her life with Paul, and his long, difficult dying.
“I’m trying to decide what to do with my life,” she blurted, finally. “I’m wondering if I’m too old to go to college 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 me, for a while,” he said quietly. “Had a walk-up flat that was comfortable but not fancy. She made all the kids’ clothes and seemed to enjoy cooking and fixing up the place. Then something happened. I don’t know what got into her, but she decided she didn’t want to stay home anymore. 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 up and 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?”
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).