Summer Sundays in Bay City
Tim Lutenski is a success coach at Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College (SKYCTC). He holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Michigan State University and two masters degrees, one in counseling psychology and one in organizational leadership. He has lived in many states.
The landlord once told me the house had been built in 1901 and then showed me the cornerstone inscribed with this same date. It was a large, almost stately domicile of dirty blond brick, with a many-hued fieldstone foundation, gray slate roof, and expansive wooden front porch, painted entirely white. Solidly built, this once single family residence had long ago been divided up into separate living quarters and I occupied one of its four apartments.
Just around the corner was a small park, where I would go every Sunday that summer to wood carve, working on my very first sculpture. Always sitting at the same concrete picnic table, I would at first, in the beginning, carve virtually nonstop, but soon learned to pace myself and rest, taking occasional breaks. It was during the course of one of these breaks that I first noticed a woman walking around the perimeter of the park. Several Sundays came and went and it was a regular occurrence, seeing this same woman. One afternoon her usual route brought her closer to me. Although elderly, she had a vigorous bounce to her step and was tall with a medium build, slightly bow legged, with a creased leathery brown face, hollow cheeks, grayish-brown hair, heavy eye brows, and thick bifocals, behind which were penetrating dark brown eyes.
I made eye contact, waved to get her attention and called hello, then stood up as she approached.
“Hello, I’ve seen you around the park a bit, seems like you walk all the time.”“Oh yes, I try to anyway. I do like to walk, especially outdoors on Sundays. There’s not much else happening and usually there are more people out and about, and other things to see. That makes it interesting. It’s so much better than sitting at home.”
“How often do you walk here, at the park?”
“Only once a week, always on Sundays. But I walk other places on other days of the week too. I don’t live too far away, the park is nearby and it’s convenient. There’s some nice open space and green trees. And I like watching the kids on the playground equipment. What are you doing with that piece of wood?”
I tried to describe the abstract shape I was forming from the walnut log, but stopped myself short; she looked dubious, it was obvious she didn’t quite comprehend.
“Well, it looks like hard work. I can’t say I exactly understand what you’re making, but it seems like you enjoy doing it. Like I enjoy walking I suppose. Are you from around here? What’s your name?”
“No, I’m not from around here, I grew up in Saginaw. My name is Tim, and yours?”
“Pleased to meet you, Virginia. How about yourself, are you from around here?”
“Yes, born and raised and will probably be here for the rest of my life. It’s a pretty nice little town - I guess some people might call it a small city - and it’s a good fit for me, the place I where I belong. I can still get around and at my age feel pretty lucky that I’m able to get out and about. God has really blessed me. But yourself, do you work?”
“Yes. I’m a counselor on the mental health unit at the hospital. Wood carving is something I’ve just started to get into, so it’s new to me. I’m just getting used to things in terms of using the tools and how they work.”
“Oh, ok. Well, it’s has been nice talking with you, but I’ve got to go. I’m sure we’ll see each other again, sometime here in the park. I’ve seen you here several times already. And I’m sorry, I can’t remember names like I used to…so, if you please, one more time, what was your name?”
“Alright, Tim. I’ll see you again. And sooner than later I hope.” After we shook hands and she walked away I wasn’t at all certain that we would see each other again.
But we did see each other again. The next Sunday and every Sunday thereafter that summer, at the same park and picnic table. In the course of our encounters Virginia mostly talked, while I mostly listened. And I loved listening to her. Virginia had a quite wonderful and unique way of speaking: her voice was steady and unwavering, a rather matter of fact tone of voice, with little inflection, as if she were stating facts or information that was commonly understood, and she maintained an unusual rhythm, pausing briefly at the end of every few sentences, then gathered herself before proceeding onward. These pauses tended to lengthen the longer she talked. She had an overall gentle presence, but still maintained a straightforward, no nonsense demeanor.
Despite our age difference, as the weeks went on we gradually developed a rapport and camaraderie. Our conversations evolved, becoming more expansive, free flowing, and wide ranging. We covered a wide range of subjects in our discussions, exchanging our ideas, opinions, and feelings, although very little of our respective backgrounds and personal lives, and we remained receptive to each other; if we did reach an impasse, we would agree to disagree, and move on. Through these conversations it seemed we were laying the foundation for a special friendship.
But summer progressed onward and for me, the short season was coming to a rather bittersweet end. I knew I would be going away soon and moving far away, something I had not yet shared with Virginia.
Our last time together at the park was on a cool late afternoon in early September, the first tinges of early fall color displayed on the leaves of the trees. As usual we talked. I tried my best to outwardly maintain my composure and not say or do anything which might suggest this could be our final time together. Of the many conversations we had had, Virginia and I, this was the one that I remember best. Because it was then that she told me of her life.
“So tell me, Virginia, what was it like growing up?”
“Well, like I told you before, I was born here in Bay City. I’m not going to say exactly when, but a little after the turn of the century. It was a different time and era. It seems so long ago, but, on the other hand, the years have passed by so quickly. I’ve finally gotten to the age where sometimes I wonder if some of the places and people I remember really existed, or if they were just a dream, or maybe a figment of my imagination. My memory isn’t nearly what it used to be.
“Anyway, I can’t remember everything in detail, about how things were exactly, but when I was young and growing up almost everyone lived a pretty simple life. There weren’t a lot of extras you know, most people were just working class, taking care of the basics for themselves and their families - food, clothing, shelter. Nothing fancy, people got by, but everyone I knew had to live within their means. Not too many folks complained though; I guess they never missed what they never knew they didn’t have.
She continued, “But the rich folks around here…quite honestly, I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’m still a little resentful of some of them, even today. I can’t say I knew too many, but back when I was a young girl they stood out, they were a completely different class of people. Kind of uppity. The ones I did know lived like kings. Their money went such a long way back then. I think I feel a little angry when I think of so many others who didn’t have much money or many things, especially those who struggled to get along. So, looking at myself, I grew up maybe not poor, but you could safely say under humble circumstances. From an early age – oh, I’m thinking about seven or eight – I had to work at home, helping with chores. And some of these were hard chores for a kid, but my mother never could have done these by herself. We had to help, we didn’t have a choice.”
“But you were able to go to school, right? You got some type of formal education?”
“Yes, oh yes, yes, my parents were very insistent about that. I went to regular public schools. My parents were devout Catholics but couldn’t afford to send me to parochial school. They instilled in me a good work ethic though, so I worked hard at my studies. I was never especially bright, there were certainly smarter kids, but I was motivated and most of all persistent. I did well in school and as I moved on up through the grades knew that I didn’t want to live the kind of hard life my mother and father had. And they understood this and saw education as the key to living a better life. They encouraged and supported me, urged me to keep going to school and finish high school. I applied myself and graduated as a top student. I wanted to continue and attend college, but decided not to. Even with college there weren’t a whole lot of job opportunities for women back then. It was better to go out into the workforce and earn money. So I went to nursing school and became a nurse. God blessed me when I made that choice. I was a nurse for almost 40 years. And, I was a good nurse.”
“Really? That’s such a long time in one profession, not too many people do that anymore. What was your nursing career like?
“I guess in many ways probably not too different from anyone else’s career. Lots of ups and downs, failures and successes, but I learned to take things in stride. Nursing was satisfying work to me, I took pride in trying to give others the best care possible. To me it was always a special feeling to be able to touch lives in a good way. I really believed this during all my years as a nurse; the patient comes first, then their family, then the doctor, then the hospital, then me. So, I kind of lived by this creed when I worked. That’s mainly why I think I was a good nurse. Not like today - so many aren’t really cut out for nursing, their hearts just aren’t in the right place.
“When I first started working the world wide influenza epidemic was still going on - called the Spanish Flu back then. Nobody seems to remember it much nowadays, and I guess almost everyone from that time has passed on, so there are not too many people left to talk about it. But let me tell you, it was a nasty piece of business, so horrible. And you never knew who it would hit, who would become infected – men, women, children, elderly, black, white, it didn’t matter. And there were people affected by it right here. I tended to some of those folks. It’s sort of funny…I was young, did all the dirty work, work the regular nurses wouldn’t do, but didn’t mind and never thought twice about getting sick, catching the flu. Now I realize it was a miracle I didn’t succumb to it myself, working so closely with patients in those conditions. At that time we really didn’t know of many precautions we could take. I was very fortunate. It was just God’s will, that’s all. I always had faith that I was doing good work, with God protecting me.”
“It really sounds like a terrible time, especially for such a young lady just starting out.”
“Well, I was always so busy with work, at the time it didn’t seem bad, only afterwards when the flu finally went away and then I thought about the experiences I’d been through. Some things still stick in my mind.
“One day I was walking to work at the hospital and passed by a house, not too far from here. I was little bit familiar with the family who lived there; they were a young couple with two small children. I saw a few people standing on the front porch, and as I got closer noticed it was kind of like a funeral gathering, every one dressed in black. Some men were standing, holding two small caskets up to a window, evidently so someone inside could view them. I kept on walking, but thought, those children must have both died from the flu. I remember glancing back and recognized the parents’ faces, as they were looking out the window from inside the house at the caskets on the porch. They looked pale, washed-out, with dark circles under their eyes, sickly. If you can believe this, not too many days later they were in the hospital and I tended to them. But it was too late, they were too sick, they met the same fate as their children. A whole family gone in just a couple of weeks you see. That’s what the Spanish Flu was like.”
“Sounds like nursing got off to a rough start for you. I’m surprised you kept at it.”
“Yes, it was rough, but I held on and moved past it. But it was a rough time for lots of folks, not just nurses. I can’t exactly remember, but it seems about the same time as the influenza epidemic, that World War I, the Great War in Europe, was taking place. Or maybe the war came to an end and then the epidemic began. I’m not sure which came first, anyway it seems they happened pretty close to one another. At the time I saw some returning soldiers, not a whole lot, but some, who had to stay and recover in the hospital.
“Of course, I performed my nursing duties, but did lots of other things. Wrote and read letters, listened to their stories, talked with their families, did different errands, like running out to get newspapers and cigarettes. To my surprise, by and large they were nice men. Very few talked about their war experiences. Some were never the same after the war – although most of them tried to hide it. Either physically or mentally, or sometimes both, they’d never be what you would call normal again. Those poor guys…I couldn’t imagine the things they were exposed to. People forget how terrible the First World War was, it destroyed so much and ruined so many lives. The war to end all wars. I’m forever grateful they didn’t fight it in America.”
“Yes. But then, unfortunately, not too many years later, along came the Second World War.”
“Oh yes. Something went wrong, sad to say. The war to end all wars didn’t quite work out as planned. I dealt with more patients, more soldiers coming home, than with the first war. It was a little ironic too; medical care was better and there were more survivors, but war became modernized. I guess because the types of weapons were more sophisticated and efficient, the wounds were worse. The type of wounds where it took a long time to recover. God knows I’m glad those wars are over and done. I hope nothing like that ever happens again, at least during my life time. So much sadness. So much sorrow.”
“Well, besides the wars and the flu, were there other important things that happened to you along the way?
“Yes, many things, but I try not to remember specifics. That’s getting easier as I get older, because I’m more forgetful now. Early on, I learned suffering and death was part of being a nurse. You want people to get better and get their health back, but sometimes there is no hope, and still you have to act like there is. I always felt you do the best you possibly can, then try and let it go. So, you gain acceptance, become resigned, learn to distance yourself from the bad things that happen, kind of shut them out of your mind. You learn to let go and not hang on. If a nurse didn’t do this I think they would go crazy.
“People today are very lucky by the way, because I dealt with patients who had problems and ailments you don’t hardly hear of anymore. My goodness…polio, measles, whooping cough...people don’t realize how fortunate they are now with modern medicine. But you know I also have many wonderful memories. The idea that I did work which helped other people always kept me going. Not too many people in this life can say they do work which makes a difference.”
“But outside of work, what was your personal life like, what sort of things did you do?”
“Oh, my, I haven’t really talked about that sort of stuff in years. No one’s asked me in a long time either though. I had a beau, he was a beautiful, gentle man. Taller and bigger than you. He was good looking but not terrifically handsome, he didn’t have what people would say are movie star looks, but he was so special in other ways. He loved flowers, was a great cook, and liked walking as much as I do. He was a sensitive and well-rounded man, very considerate and respectful. It was during the Great Depression. He was good with his hands and did carpentry and home repair projects for people, but never made much money. Most of the time people would give him food as payment, especially things they had grown in a garden. Anyway, so many times he would surprise me by cooking a nice meal or picking wildflowers. We had lots of fun and enjoyed each other’s company. We were so young and happy and full of life and loved each other. And yes, we were going to be married.”
“Did something happen to prevent that? You loved each other, why didn’t you get married?”
“We were engaged, and he worked at a small shop, a factory where they worked with machinery and metal and such. One day he had an accident and was hurt. Because of the accident, after this he never had much use of one of his hands and his face was a little disfigured. Still, I wanted to get married as planned. He was a good man and I knew we could make a good life together. But after he recovered from his injury he turned into a different man altogether. It was like someone turned off a light switch. He became hostile and bitter over the accident, became very unhappy with life, started drinking a little, and eventually left town, left me. It was sudden and unannounced, I was never able to say goodbye. Some years back a mutual acquaintance told me that he was up north and made his money by gathering and selling arrowheads, but I’m not sure. That was that though for me. I’ve kept my distance from men, no emotional involvements. I learned my lesson, don’t try to fool me twice. I’m not bitter. But no more men for me after that.”
“How about since that time? What’s your life been like?”
“On the whole a quiet life I’d say, but that’s the way I like it. I keep busy. Love to read, listen to music, play with plants, and garden. I stay active with my church. My best friend Carole is younger than me and helps me so much. I’ve never driven a car, so Carole takes me to church and out shopping, sometimes we go on some small fun trips. She’s polish and Catholic like me. A good girl. I still clean every Thursday. It usually takes me all day to do my apartment. It’s got to be done just right. Let’s see…what else? Well, I never watch T.V., I get the news from the radio, that’s all I need. I don’t even own a T.V. It’s a waste of time to me. Too many sports, too many stupid shows, so much that’s fake, it’s all ridiculous. I read the Bible pretty regularly, usually every night, and sip some cognac while I’m reading. So, things are ok. Born and raised in Michigan and I’ll stay here until it’s my time.
“But it’s getting a little cooler every day now. I don’t like the winters anymore and can’t get out much when the real cold weather sets in, which is just around the corner, it is September after all. The last few years I’ve been afraid I’ll slip on the ice and take a nasty fall. Seems like the cold and damp get into my joints real bad about the time November comes around and it lasts for about six months. Anyway, at my age I try to maintain a sense of structure with my days, keep up a routine as much as I can. Every evening I write down a schedule to follow, what I’m going to do the next day. Staying alert and active is important, otherwise you go downhill fast.”
Virginia took a deep breath and paused. There was a silence, which seemed to bring with it a mutual, unspoken acknowledgement that summer was finally gone and it was now the onset of autumn. By this time it was early evening; shadows were long, the light was fading, streetlights were beginning to turn on, it was chilly, and the first few stars were beginning to appear in the deep blue sky. Virginia was losing energy and tiring, showing signs of fatigue. But I had one more question.
“Looking back at your life, would you do anything differently?”
“Well, I’ve always thought that people who said that looking back, even if they could, they wouldn’t change anything about their lives were idiots. After all, given a choice, who would want to live the exact same life and experience the same things? If you had the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to undue things, to not have to go through the same struggles and disappointments, be able to have more happiness along the way? So yes, I would change some things if I could. Sure.
“But that’s not how we are made as people, it’s just not something we are able to do, we’re just human beings, that’s all. I don’t think about it too much or worry about it. You can become very burdened by regrets and second guessing. It can anchor you down, I’ve seen it happened with plenty of people. Believe this old lady who’s telling you to enjoy the moment, the here and now, and look forward, not backwards, not behind you, don’t look over your shoulder. In answer to your question, I’ve lived the life I have and can’t change it, can’t undo anything and I’m satisfied. And here we are now, talking and breathing, so I have no complaints.”
“Virginia, it’s starting to get pretty dark. I think it’s time for us to go home. If you’re ok with it I can walk you home, sort of be your escort and make sure you get home safely.”
“That sounds fine, everything’s safe, you’re a nice young man, I know I can trust you. Hey, you’re Polish. Too, aren’t you? All Polish folks are good people, I’ve never met a bad one yet. But here now, let me ask you something; I can tell, you have something on your mind don’t you, something you want me to know, but have a hard time telling?”
“Yes, I do. I’d feel better if I told you. But it’s a hard thing for me”
“A surprise of some sort, an unexpected thing?”
“Yes. But you see I don’t want to rush through in explaining it. It would be no good. It wouldn’t make sense.”
“Ok. How about this? Walk me home and then we’ll sit and have a little sip of cognac together. It’ll warm us up and put us at ease. That way there’s no rush, we can take our time.”
Virginia also lived in an old house, I told her not too far from the one where I resided. Despite its age, when I sat in her apartment I found it was spotlessly clean, attractive, and quaint. She asked me to position a small table and two chairs by the large window facing the street, while she went to get two glasses and the bottle. Then she carefully poured the amber liquid into the tulip-shaped glasses. I told her I had never tried cognac and she guided me along, emphasizing I had to know the proper drinking technique.
“Believe me, this is the real stuff, I only bring it out for special occasions. You’ve got to be patient with good cognac. Now, here’s what I’d like you to do. Pick up the glass and hold it in the palm of your hand, and feel it, just let it sit there, hold it easy. It looks beautiful doesn’t it? Almost the color of the amber jewelry from Poland. Then position your nose like this, right at the edge of your glass. Now, I want you to inhale a few times, breath in the fumes, slow and easy, no rush. Carefully swirl the liquid around in the glass and be gentle, don’t overdo it, use a light touch.
“Wait just a minute or so. Don’t rush. Bring the glass slowly up to your lips, take a small sample, just let the liquid hit the tip of your tongue. Gently swirl the cognac again. Now bring the glass up, and take a small sip, don’t gulp, don’t take a huge swallow a small sip is better. This is elegance to me…kind of a ceremony. Take your time, sip it slowly to get the full taste and appreciate it. Now, how is it?”
“A real different taste, but delicious and warm. Something I’ve never experienced this before. It’s special. Really wonderful stuff. Thank you.”
“Good, I’m glad you like it. Just don’t let it become too wonderful, where you get drinking too much too often. Well now, you’ve got something to tell me, no more hiding, what’s on your mind?”
I suppressed any expression of sadness and explained that I would be going away and why, then answered all her questions and provided further details. It took some time: we had another cognac together and kept talking, then she brought me a dark beer. We were both intentionally lingering, dragging out the conversation, not being certain of how to leave or the proper way to say goodbye. Finally it was time to go.
“I’ll really miss you, Virginia. Believe me, I’ll miss all our times spent together. But you understand why I’m going, don’t you?”
“Yes. You’re young and it’s something you want to do. I can’t lie, I’m sad you’ll be going and leaving. And so far away. I’ll miss you, it’s a little scary, I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. I’m getting old now. You know that house you live in? I know when it was built, I’ve seen the date on the cornerstone. I’m the same age, born in 1901. I’ll tell you, I’m pretty sure this is our last goodbye.”
That next day I did move far away, to Texas. For a couple of years, every so often I would send along a postcard to Virginia. Although I was virtually certain I would never see her again, circumstances brought me back to Michigan for a short visit and I made the trip to Bay City. We had a happy reunion, spending a wonderful afternoon together at her apartment, reminiscing and catching up, in a way that only two old friends can.
Before we parted Virginia insisted upon having a drink of cognac, for old time’s sake. Our final, last goodbye was heartrending, and we both cried and our bodies shook as we hugged, this time knowing we would never see each other again.