No Diamonds, No Butter

A Raleigh Fine Arts award winning story

Lydia Close, Student author

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October 5, 1943
I gazed through the rain-splattered window of the train, at the city going by in blurry streaks of lights and brick. It reminded me too much of Chicago, so I jerked my head back forward to the worn seats, the dim light, and the stuffy, cramped train car.

I was tired. No, I was exhausted. Worn thin, nerves frayed, I had decided that now was the time to finally get up, gather myself, move on, find my place again…do everything that anyone would suggest to a widow. But it wasn’t proving to be any easier to do so than when I was packing, saying goodbye to my sister Viv, or boarding the train. I was still hollow, still dull and gray inside, lacking luster and shine. I still felt dead.

My eyes drifted around the small compartment and eventually landed on my hand that lay limp against my side. There, the ring glittered from the passing lights. I couldn’t help but stare again at the beauty of the thin, spotless gold set against my cream hand. I never wished for a diamond like all the other girls; I was overjoyed with the simplicity and purity of the plain gold band. The first day I wore it as a married woman, only nine months ago, I had looked at it first with admiration and later with giddiness. Now my heart lurched and my stomach dropped, and that feeling I had become very good acquaintances with over the past few months arose once more with the fluttering of my lashes.

I laid my head back against the seat, not caring that it would mess my curls or that I was wearing my best blouse and trousers, and soon fell asleep.
***

“Rock Spring — ”

The fuzzy voice in my ear didn’t stop. It grew louder, then stronger.
“Rock Spring, next stop!”

I squinted my eyes open. Pain shot up my neck, and I groaned, rubbing the sore spot.Then I knew. Rock Spring. Not Portland. I sat up straight, heart pounding, looking about me. It was fully night, now. I thrust my watch in my face, trying to make out the minuscule hands. Eight-forty-two.

That couldn’t be right.

The train jerked to a stop. I looked outside. Pitch black. I frantically grabbed my purse, coat, and hat, pricking my finger on my hat pin. I could only grimace and ignore it for more pressing matters.
“Sir! Sir –” I called out to the conductor, and the stout man turned with a concerned furrow in his dark mustache. “Did we already pass Portland? I was supposed to get off at Portland.”

“Sorry, ma’am. Portland was two stops ago. But you’ll want to get off now and take another train back.”
I nodded with understanding, unable to speak, then sucked on my fingertip as I pulled down my battered suitcase from the bag rack. Stumbling down the aisle, I gave a brief smile of thanks, then stepped off the train and onto the platform.

“Good luck getting back there,” the conductor yelled from behind me before turning to another departing passenger.

I stopped and looked around me, trying to gather myself. A cold wind chilled me to the bone. It all felt like a dream. I followed a man to the lobby of the station, where only a handful of people milled about sluggishly, as though in slow motion.

I looked up to see bronze letters above the wide glass doors. Rock Spring Union Station. I had never heard of this town. It seemed so vague and small, even from inside the high-ceilinged brick station. Out of shock and ultimate cluelessness, tears pressed against my eyes, threatening to spill, but I swallowed them down and tried to find a clerk to question about other trains.

“He — Helen? Helen Mitchell?” a voice called from behind. I turned, surprised to hear my maiden name, or my name at all.
A woman stood there, of a round figure and soft appearance. Her corduroy coat looked decades old, and her dark plum hat was scrunched down low onto her thick, graying brown curls.

“I — I noticed the red hair, and then your eyes…” she trailed off, then her face wrinkled with a realization. “You don’t remember me, do you?” she chuckled sadly. “I’m Mona Clarence, a friend of John and Ruth Mitchell, your parents. I used to teach you Sunday school in Chicago.”

“Wh–why, I’m sorry I don’t remember,” I apologized softly. “It’s good to see you.” I shifted my things over to my left arm and held out my hand. She shook it gently, and her eyes held an unexpected understanding.

“What are you doing here, may I ask?” she continued on. “I would have never expected you to be in Rock Spring.”

“Oh — well, I slept right through the last stop after Portland, and ended up here,” I explained, trying to make it sound like a humorous event. But I wasn’t very successful; my weak smile fell, and I glanced up long enough to see the all-knowing look of scrutiny in Mona Clarence’s eyes. I was glad, after a while, that she didn’t ask more questions, like why I was heading there in the first place.

“Well, there’s no train going back there tonight,” she sighed. “Would you feel comfortable staying with me? I’m a five-minute walk away, and this town, though it may be small, holds a lot more than Portland does, in my opinion. We have good folks and good times….”

Before I knew it, Mona, as she insisted I called her, was chatting away as we walked briskly down the straight main street toward her home. I didn’t see I had any choice, but once we reached a slender and modest cottage painted an ocean-gray, illuminated by golden lights from inside and graced with a welcome sign by the door that was painted to be a chicken, I felt relaxed, even grateful to be staying with a woman I could trust and connect to my childhood. She did look familiar after a while, but it was her voice that brought back a memory or two of Sunday school, a lively event in someone’s home with little cakes for the children. I remembered one with pink icing and eating it while the same sure, confident falsetto voice read aloud the story of Joseph. Then there was the community picnic, where she played hopscotch with me and gathered the other children in for more games.

Mona opened the door, which had been unlocked, and let me walk in ahead of her. I stepped inside the small corridor, looking to my left at a living room with a buzzing radio and to my right at a narrow staircase.

“Down the hall’s the kitchen, next to it my bedroom, and upstairs the guest rooms,” Mona huffed, closing the door and hanging up her handbag, coat, and hat. “Louise Clarke and Velma Bronner live upstairs; they’re both my good friends, and won’t bother you. They go to bed early and rise late.

“The bathroom upstairs you’ll have to share with them since it’s the only one with a bath. But the one down here is for anyone at any time as well,” she explained, taking my coat and hanging it next to hers.

I followed her up the creaky steps, lugging my suitcase, which was beginning to feel heavy. We took two sharp lefts after the bathroom came into view, and entered a tiny room that held a narrow twin bed and a short, stubby dresser with a mirror mounted above it to act as a vanity. After a long train ride, it looked heavenly.

I set my suitcase on a wooden chair in the corner, unsuccessfully suppressing a yawn. Mona was watching me with a warm smile.

“You look so much like your mother,” she whispered. “I knew her for only five years until she died, but she was one of the greatest women I have ever met. Just bursting with gentleness and love.” She stopped, held up her hands, and shook her head. “Oh, I hope I’m not bothering you. You just let me know if you want me to stop talking. Velma is always telling me I talk too much.”

I hesitated, then tucked a loose curl behind my ear and wrapped my arms around my torso. “It’s good to hear about Mother,” I insisted.

“Really. No one I know from back then ever talks about her. And…I haven’t been able to coax Father to reminisce with me, either.”
Mona nodded, then sighed. “Well…I’d best be getting myself off to bed, too. Breakfast is always ready at eight, and I’m sorry to say I have company over tomorrow. Every Wednesday. It’s just women from church, and all we do is cook a little so we have an excuse to talk.” She chuckled, and I returned a smile.

“Thank you, Mona.”

“Oh, anything for a Mitchell,” she answered. Before I could correct her, she waved me away and closed the door behind her. I couldn’t help but wonder if I could keep it a secret since I would be leaving for Portland the next day, and as soon as possible. It wouldn’t hurt to keep in her memory the image of me as a Mitchell. Not a James. She wouldn’t have seen the wedding ring, I figured, as I pulled off my gloves. Only the morning would tell what would happen next.

***

I fumbled around in the bathroom, gathering my comb and toiletries, then trying helplessly to tame the frizzy hairs that refused to curl like the rest. I checked myself again in the mirror, smoothed the few wrinkles in my plain green dress, opened the door, and almost crashed into someone in the hallway.

“Oh, my!”

I stumbled, dropped my face cream, and then looked up. A willowy, blond, older woman quickly scooped up the cream and apologized.

“I didn’t see you there, dear—oh, so you’re Helen Mitchell!” she rambled shyly, placing the cream back into my arms and giving my hand a pat. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Louise Clarke. I was just heading into the bathroom. And I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“Nice to meet you,” I answered, as she shut the bathroom door. A bit confused, I put everything away in my room, pulled on a knit cardigan, and carefully tread down the stairs and hallway, first hearing the clatter and voices before the strong scents of postum coffee and oats made my stomach churn. I followed the hallway, then tentatively stood in the doorway of the good-sized, bright kitchen, seeing five faces turn to see mine.

“I forgot it was breakfast day,” Mona called from the stove. “The girls are here to prepare a tart, but we’ll soon be out of your way.” She used her spoon to point at each woman sitting at the small round table in the left corner. A clump of oats flew onto the floor.

“This is Lily Carter — ” Mona started, ignoring the drip, which was quickly lapped up by a slender cat that dashed out from nowhere.

“Hi,” a young woman with coppery blonde hair waved.

“Harriet McVay — ”

“Good morning,” an elderly, white-haired woman greeted, as she peeled an apple.

“Nancy Jenkins — ”

A straight-backed, middle-aged woman nodded with a wide smile, as she contributed to
the pile of apple peelings, too.

“ — and Velma Bronner.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, then brought a teacup to her lips. She had a kind, slender face, but I noticed her shoulders were slumped and her eyes were blank before I looked away.

Soon, Louise entered, and I was forgotten for a moment as they sorted out what seemed to be a recipe, as each woman interjected with suggestions for measurements, only sometimes mentioning for which ingredient. Then Lily motioned me to the counter, where she stood in front of a sheet pan.

“I’m glad — we’re all glad — that you’re here, Helen,” she said with a smile. “There’s always a job to do around here on a Wednesday. You can help me press down the oats, which we’ll spread evenly over the whole pan.”

Mona passed her the bowl she had been working on, which held a chunky mixture of rolled oats, sticky, sweet honey, and shaved almonds. Lily began scooping it out with her bare hands, expertly pounding it onto the pan.

“We place the apples on top, then some honey, and bake it,” Lily explained.

“Velma’s original idea, and the group’s recipe. It’s good for dessert, too, but we all have a sweet tooth any
time of day.”

I nodded, watched her sticky hands that bore no rings, waited a moment, then tried to pull off my wedding ring inconspicuously. It didn’t work. It flung off right onto the pan of oats.

I quickly grabbed it and clenched it tight in my fist. But it was too late.

“Oh, your ring is beautiful,” Lily gasped. “I hope it isn’t ruined by all that honey.”

I could only nod. Then I shook my head. “It’s fine,” I protested.

“Are you married?” Lily asked innocently. I began to stutter, then saw Mona turn her head.

“Yes, and no,” I said softly, answering both her question and Mona’s polite, but confused, stare. Before I knew it, every woman was looking but trying not to seem like she was prying. My lips pulled into a melancholy smile.

“I was actually Mrs. Wesley James,” I continued solemnly with a catch in my throat.

“Now I’m widowed, and…and a sorry excuse for a guest. I’m sorry — ”
I broke away, starting to run out of the kitchen when Mona reached for my hand. She pulled me back, searching for my gaze. I fought back tears and dared to look into her face.

“Oh, Helen, I’m so sorry,” she whispered. And a peace and gentleness I had never felt before from another person exuded from her like spring sunshine as she brought me into a firm hug and offered me her soothing, kind words.

I couldn’t explain how strange and comforting it was to receive such care from a long-lost friend. But then Louise came up in a hurry, and Lily was by my shoulder. Soon each woman was standing and fretting over me like a flock of mother hens.

“Alright, alright, I’m fine,” I sniffed. “I just- haven’t told anyone about it for a while, and Mona — I didn’t think I would have to explain myself, not if I would be leaving today.”

I blew my nose, and Harriet, who had grabbed my hand, laughed aloud.

“Mona!” she exclaimed. “You told us she would be staying here for at least two more days!”

“Well, I figured by the time she met you all and tasted our cooking she would,” Mona reasoned.

“Oh!” Harriet sputtered. Nancy and Louise exchanged a look of amusement, and Mona’s eyebrows furrowed together with regret.

“My apologies, Helen,” she chuckled. “I was just so eager to have you, I went on and on this morning without so much as thinking that you might have grown into a woman with her own trials.”

“It’s alright, Mona. You do deserve an explanation — ”

“Oh, no,” she argued. “Let’s just get you some tea and sit you down in the parlor before the apple tart is finished. We’ll all explain ourselves another time.”

I could only let her lead me to a cushioned armchair graced with doilies and surrounded by other cozy furnishings, then accepted a teacup from Nancy. I saw Louise hang back, shyly moving closer.

“I — I just have to ask, did your Wesley…was he killed in combat?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered quietly, sliding my thumb over the teacup’s rim.

“Seven months ago. We had been married only five weeks.”

Louise gave a little gasp, her round face fallen slack with astonishment.

“And- and you’re this well? I mean, calm? You’ve come so far and so fast, at least compared to what I’ve…seen.”

“Oh — ” I swallowed. “Well, I didn’t have much of a choice. I was told to dry my tears by the end of the week of his funeral, and….”

She gasped again, this time with Lily, too, who had
crept in. I hesitated.

“So, since then…I’ve been trying to find a fresh start and a new…purpose.

Not that I put my identity in Wesley, but life without him, and so suddenly, was painful.”

Lily sat on the floor, Louise on the other armchair, and then Harriet and Nancy were tentatively settling down on the sofa. Velma and Mona stood in the hall.

I would have stopped talking, then, if it had been a few months or even weeks before. But something pushed me to go on. Each woman had something like a veil or a melancholy depth about her.

“And…for days, it was like my heart was bruised,” I confessed, catching my breath and feeling beautifully vulnerable for once instead of ashamed about my grief. These women were really listening, really wanting to hear how I felt. I took a deep breath and went on.

“I remembered losing my mother when I was three. I was clueless then, bearing the grief later on, but this time, I was given a deep wound, and I was fully awake to feel it. I wasn’t sure of myself
anymore, it was like I was in a muddled nightmare, and it felt like…like….”

“It felt like you were lost,” Velma whispered from across the room. I met her watery blue gaze, which locked onto mine for seconds before fluttering away.

“Yes,” I answered.

“And there was an emptiness in your home,” Harriet added.

“And a hollowness in your soul,” Louise whispered.

“It was hard to keep going on with the same routines each day. Even going shopping would feel like you were drowning,” Nancy finished with a sniffle.

I blinked hard, bringing my heels tight together as I felt every woman’s gaze upon me.

“You- you all understand?” I asked.

“My husband Ray was killed at Pearl Harbor,” Velma said plainly.

“And my Herb in France,” Mona whispered, trying to give me a half-hearted smile when I caught her eye.

Then Lily spoke up.

“My brother, Danny, is in the hospital now, only a few miles away,
both legs amputated and a great big cloud of depression hanging over him.”

“And my only son, Robert, was killed in action in Germany itself,”

Louise said with a quiver in her voice. She was the first to bring a handkerchief to her eye.

“Wesley was killed flying over France,” I finished, clasping my hands in my lap. I noticed then that I was still clutching my ring. I slowly unfolded my palm, seeing the mark it had left behind from how tight I had been holding it.

Then it all came rushing back to me, like uncontrollable, mountainous waves. I had been clutching onto my grief over Wesley for these past months just as hard as I clutched this ring. It
was a constant companion, a leech of despair, a reminder of my widowhood and of the life that was now gone.

It was then that the tears finally spilled like sweet rain after a drought, a cleansing spring of catharsis. I didn’t brush them away, but shut my eyes and let them cling to my cheeks and chin, drip onto my dress and into my teacup. A strong hand gripped my shoulder.

Another, softer and gentler, rested on my knee.

“I felt like extra baggage,” I finally whispered through my quivering throat. “A burden to my family and friends who fared much better than I.

There was first utter despair, then anger and frustration at anyone and anything, then a confusing mixture of embitterment and wavering sadness.” My voice climbed with emotion and strife, then it lowered once more.

“Now,” I scoffed, “I am in the fourth stage of this grief, and it seems to be an identity crisis.”

That brought about a sad laugh in Mona, and Nancy nodded in understanding.

“I’m able to stand on my own two feet,” I urged, “Have lunch in a real restaurant again, even travel to visit my in-laws. But thinking of Chicago where we made our first home in a crummy apartment, or passing by any courthouse, remembering the one we were married in….”

Louise spoke up with a sniffle. “The important thing now is that you know that you weren’t — and you’re not — alone.”

I nodded, finally accepting a handkerchief and wiping away the dampness. “Yes,” I agreed. “But how do I get out of this rut, this — pit?” I stuttered, soaking up another tear.

“None of us have made it out of our own, yet,” Nancy said after a long silence.

“All you can do is find a new way to get through the day and the week,” Mona answered honestly. “And hope and pray that someday you’ll be able to climb out. I realized that my Herb would have begged me to do that, would have cracked jokes and bent himself backward to cheer me up.

The chicken sign out front still gives me a painful reminder, but it’s turned into a good kind of pain. I remember him as the joking artist who painted signs and never seemed to learn
how to properly hang a coat.”

The women chuckled. I almost smiled.

“My son Robert, he used to make me flower chains when he would go out to play with the neighbors,” Louise said with a grin. “I don’t know what I was thinking at the time, but I saved a few of them, and now they are pressed in a picture frame that I have sitting by my bed,
and I remember the wonderful, good days he had as a boy.”

“And Ray,” Velma spoke up. “Though he was a quiet man, he knew exactly what to say and when. I have an album of notes he would leave me around the house, and his favorite book sits on a shelf in my room.” She smiled softly. “I never thought that I would ever keep these things with gladness or joy. It must have come from being together with Mona and Louise, then finding a way to cook with what we’re given, that has brought me closer to clawing my way out
of my pit.”

“That’s beautiful,” Lily whispered to herself. After a long pause, her youthful face turned solemn.

“Danny was never really close with me when we were children. He’s seven years older and was dating a girl he met in college before he was drafted. After he was deployed, she broke up with him, and only a few weeks later he was trapped under a truck from a bomb exploding.”

She sighed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, speaking next with determination.

“He’s becoming nicer to me, now. You would think the war would do the opposite, but he’s realizing who really matters in his life, who cares for him. I am the one who has been bitter, while he is just sad.”

I glanced at the other women. Many had their heads bowed, but all had a compassionate look in their eyes. After sharing so much, it was hard for any of us to find any more words.

“I think we all have a right to be bitter,” I spoke up. Lily looked up as I continued and set my teacup aside. “We shouldn’t be expected to be anything less than what we are. This war is none of our faults; it is out of our control. I think that as much as we do need to move on one day
and feel happy again, we are women who deserve a time of unjudged grief.

Look at us, trying to express and justify what we feel. This is a way to be connected to each other, not to separate ourselves from those women who still have husbands, sons, and brothers.”

“And look at who we are,” Mona said with a heavy sigh. “Beautiful women, strong and talented. Good friends. Brought together by grief.”

There was a needed silence, then, which was only broken by the ring of a timer coming from the kitchen. I looked around at the women sitting with me in this small living room in a cottage in Rock Spring, Oregon, and was in awe of each one of them and myself for sharing what had been plaguing our hearts for too long. I put my wedding ring back on my left ring finger, but this time it did not feel like a symbol of sorrow. It felt lighter on my hand as it represented the
short time I did have with Wesley, and the better times I would have still in this life.

***

The phone rang five times before the receiver was picked up, and by then I was nervous.

“Hello?” a voice called from the other side. I recognized it as that of Wesley’s father.

“David — ” I started, “This is Helen. I’m so sorry I didn’t call sooner, but I’m in Rock Spring; I missed the Portland stop last night, and I –”

“Oh, thank God you’re fine,” David interrupted. “Rachel has been worried sick. I told her you were alright. Where are you staying?”

“With an old friend who happened to recognize me at the station, Mona Clarence,” I answered, looking to Mona with a smile. “And — and I plan to stay for a few more days, at least. I hope that’s alright with you and Rachel.”

“Yes, dear. You do whatever you like. We’ll be fine, however long you decide to stay. Give us another ring when you’ve got an update.”

“Oh, thank you,” I sighed. “I’ll call soon.”

“Alright; we’ll manage over here. Say hello to Mona for us. Bye, Helen– ”
“Bye, Helen! We miss you,” Rachel suddenly interrupted.
David gave a short laugh again.

“She just came through the door. Enjoy your time there.”

“Alright. Thank you. See you soon.” I hung up, a peaceful sigh escaping my lips.

I followed Mona back into the kitchen, where the women were arguing and laughing over the many recipe cards, crumb-filled plates, and drained coffee cups. I helped wash the dishes in the sink while Mona dried them next to me, smiling to myself as I heard Lily defend her measurement of sugar for a muffin recipe, Louise turn on the radio, and Velma declaring that she was about to write in pen the last revision of that muffin recipe card.

I glanced over at Mona, who wiped her hands on her dish rag and looked at me with her gentle gaze.

“You know, Helen, maybe you weren’t supposed to go to Portland,” she said slowly. “Instead, you found us.”

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