I’ve always been a sender of Christmas cards. Even when I couldn’t afford much else, I always sent cards to old and new friends, immediate and extended family—even the racist ones in Warren, Michigan and the ones with the Hank Williams Jr. impersonator in San Antonio, Texas. Last Christmas I didn’t manage to get any sent out, and it’s not looking like I will this Christmas, either. But there is one that I will be sending. This one will be to Eugene, an elderly dairy farmer in western Pennsylvania.
Eugene was my grandmother Juanita’s boyfriend for years. After my grandfather died in 1993, she spent a year or so in intense grief. And then she got going. She volunteered at the hospital where she’d worked as a nurse for so many years, she joined women’s groups and senior citizens’ groups. She signed up for senior citizen bus trips to places like Branson, Missouri, and it was on one such trip that she met Eugene.
They quickly became a pair. They’d sign up for the same trips, he invited her to join his family for holiday dinners, they began driving the 2 ½ hours to visit each other regularly, they bought each other little presents, like boxes of tissues and hot water bottle cozies, and they talked on the phone several times a week.
These phone conversations made me crazy, actually. Both of them were hard of hearing, but especially Eugene. He’d call her at 7am shortly after she got up and, when I spent the night at her house—though I was sleeping at the other end of the house—her end of the conversation woke me up.
“Good morning, how are you?” she'd begin happily.
“I said, ‘How are you?’” she’d repeat louder.
“I said, ‘How ARE you?!’” she’d cry, and then, “Okay, I’ll wait while you put your hearing aid in.”
[After a moment’s pause…]
“I asked, ‘HOW ARE YOU!?!?’….Oh, nevermind.”
It pretty much went on like this the entire phone call.
Though she occasionally spent the night at his house, she told me all the time, “We’re not sleeping together, you know.” I always told her this was her private business and that she didn’t have to justify anything to me. “But we aren’t!” she would insist. “I promised your grandpa I would never sleep with anyone else, even after he died, and it wouldn’t be right.” During one of these conversations when she assured me that they slept in separate bedrooms and did not have sex, I suggested, “Maybe you SHOULD.” She was rather shocked.
Actually, my aunt and I used to tease her about sex a lot, because she was so shy and embarrassed. We’d give her a glass of champagne, and after half a glass she was giddy and her tongue was loose. She’d say, “When I’m sitting on the couch, Eugene likes to get down on the floor on his knees in front of me and hold my hands and kiss them. He’s older than me and can’t move very well, but he certainly seems to like to get down there on his knees! I can’t figure out why…” We’d laugh and remind her that she’d had six children and wasn’t exactly virginal, and that she could probably figure out why he liked to do this. She'd gasp in horror and say, “Oh! You girls are TERRIBLE!”
Once she confessed to us that she hadn’t even known what a blowjob was until she’d been married for eleven years. We cried, “What!?!” and collapsed with laughter as she blushed fiercely.
Though she apparently never allowed him more than kisses on her hands and a chaste peck on the lips, Eugene was my grandmother’s boyfriend for about thirteen years. She insisted that she didn’t want to get married again because she had cleaned up after a man most of her life, but he brought her a lot of happiness during the time they spent together.
When she got sick and started staying in the hospital with increasing frequency, she refused to allow him to see her because she was embarrassed by how she looked. He would still call her all the time and write her passionate love letters. He would tell her he missed her and that he didn’t know what he would do if anything happened to her, and then he would cry.
In March I returned to West Virginia to attend my grandmother’s funeral, and this was the last time I saw Eugene. My family was gathered in the front rows of chairs as the funeral was about to start, and my aunt noticed that Eugene had come in and had taken a seat near the back. She went back to get him and led him by the arm to join us in the front. He was a frail little man in a shabby jacket, and he had big fat tears rolling down his cheeks. “You sit here with us,” my aunt told him, “you’re part of the family, too.” Everyone hugged him or grabbed his hand and squeezed it, and this was about the time when my own tears refused to stop flowing.
I don’t know how Eugene is doing right now, or what he’s been doing since then, but he will get the one Christmas card I send out this year. I want him to know he’s in my thoughts and how grateful I am for all the love he showed my grandmother when she thought that part of her life was over.
[I say, “How can you live so high in the mountains?”
“It’s cool in the shade of the woodshed,
Baby, say, can I stay awhile?”
She said, “No. How dare you live up
So high in the mountains.”
“I got chased by a hundred snakes in the morning
Got away from a hundred snakes in the night.
Sing, how can you live up so…”]