I sat at the dining room table reading the latest letter from my elderly pen pal, Mr. Elton Greta. Across from me sat Arnie, my husband. Having finished mowing the lawn, he’d made himself a cheese and sausage sandwich before going back outside to work on a boat he wanted to rehab.
After taking a swig from a bottle of Busch beer, he asked, “What’s new with the Greta’s?”
Putting the letter down, I said, “They want to meet me and would like it if we stopped for a visit when we take our summer vacation.”
Taking another bite from his sandwich, Arnie looked thoughtful as he chewed. Swallowing, he commented, “You don’t look excited about the idea. What are your thoughts?”
I shifted uneasily in my chair and looked around the room before finally saying cautiously, “Well, I’d like to meet them, but…”
Correctly interpreting my hesitancy, Arnie finished the sentence for me, “But, you like how you are both a mystery to each other right now. You’re also afraid that reality will disappoint them, or you.”
Nodding, I ruefully admitted, “Exactly.”
Mr. Elton Greta was already 80 years old the first day I met him. I was holding my two-month-old infant in my arms as I answered his knock on the back door. He wasn’t tall, had thinning gray hair and wore a dress shirt with neat gray slacks. He only stayed long enough to ask permission to walk along the small river that borders our property. My house had been his home, he’d explained, until his family moved away in the year 1913.
My baby had a clinic appointment that afternoon, so when Elton returned from his walk, I wasn’t home. He left a note on the back door. And that began our monthly exchange of letters for more than a decade.
Arnie and I never did go visit the Greta’s. From his letters through the years, I got the impression he thought everyone else was aging, but he wasn’t. Then, in his 90’s, he was shoveling the sidewalk for the “old lady living next door.” He canned apricots from his orchard for his beloved Margaret. He had fixes for everything, including the common cold; at the first symptom he said, go on a three-day diet of nothing but oranges.
One day a letter arrived from Mr. Greta. Reading it made me sad. His big, flowing penmanship appeared shaky. He explained that his Margaret had had a stroke and was in the hospital.
A long time passed before I heard from Elton Greta again. This time he wrote his letter using a purple crayon on wrinkled paper. The letters were large and scribbled. He wrote, “I was rushing around, preparing to go visit Margaret at the hospital when I fell and broke my hip. I had surgery and now I’m in a nursing home.”
That was my last letter from my fine old friend. In the months that followed, I grieved for him and his wife, wondering what ultimately had happened. My whole family seemed to miss hearing about him. He had somehow become a part of our family.
One cold, rainy February afternoon, I went out to the mailbox and found a letter with an unfamiliar return address. It was from Mr. and Mrs. Greta’s son.
A couple of weeks earlier, Margaret had died. On the day of her funeral, they’d picked Elton up from his nursing home and took him to the service. That afternoon when they returned him to the nursing home, he said he was tired and wanted to lay down for a while.
When the nursing staff checked on him, they found he had passed away, too. Elton’s funeral took place exactly one week to the day after his beloved wife’s funeral. The family used all the same readings and songs for his service.
Elton and Margaret Greta were now safe and sound together in eternity.
Thanks to their children’s thoughtful letter, I had been spared the anxiety of not knowing what happened. The apricot doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it, Elton? You were always so polite and encouraging. Your children learned from the best!