From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

When Winter Was Warm

“Do you think I’m crazy?” Miss Lawrence would ask every time I visited her.

“Everyone is a little crazy in their own way,” I would always answer.

I didn’t belong in Miss Lawrence’s house, but I couldn’t help tagging along with my older brother when he did chores for the old woman.

Miss Lawrence paid my brother five dollars a week to chop wood for her little stove and to bring groceries when she needed something. I washed her few dishes and sometimes did her laundry.

Our mother would often send extra food with us, trying to put a few pounds on the tiny old woman’s bones.

“Be sure you set out a plate for John; he might come home today,” Miss Lawrence would say when I put the food on the table. She’d been setting an extra plate on the table for seventy-two years, waiting for John to return from World War I.

“John had hair the color of oak leaves in October. No one else ever had such beautiful hair. My own mother used to say it was a shame that such beautiful hair was wasted on a boy.” Miss Lawrence would smile, and her wrinkles would deepen. “We were both seventeen when he left for the war. He promised we’d be sweethearts forever, and he promised he’d come home.”

Those were the times I could almost see that seventeen-year-old girl. Miss Lawrence would smooth back her dry, white hair and tuck the wispy ends into the messy bun on top of her head. She’d been blond when she was young and had worn her hair in curls. Sometimes when she’d laugh about something, her eyes would sparkle again, just for an instant. That must have been how she looked when she was with John. I thought they must have been such a handsome young couple.

Everyone knew John had died somewhere in Germany during the bitter winter, but she would never believe it. Finally, people just found it easier and kinder to let her believe he was coming home.

Miss Lawrence never married, never had children. Over the years, her parents and sisters and friends had died, and now she was alone. Her only visitors were my brother and I and a nurse the county sent to her house once a month to check on her health.

Even in the summer, my brother still had to build a small fire in the potbellied stove before we left every afternoon.

“It’s funny,” Miss Lawrence said. “The weather used to be so different. When I was a girl, the winters were warm. John and I used to walk in the forest, and I’d slip my hand into his mitten. Sometimes he’d reach up and shake a branch and the snowflakes would fall down on us, but we never felt cold. I was never cold when I was with John. After John left, the weather changed, and I was never warm again.”

As I listened to Miss Lawrence, World War I wasn’t just something in a history book anymore. For my brother and me, it was something horrible that slaughtered thousands of young boys like John. The pain and loss and loneliness Miss Lawrence felt were just as fresh as if the war had happened yesterday.

I felt sorry for all the soldiers who were killed. I felt sorry for the soldiers who came home with wounded bodies and wounded hearts. But mostly, I felt sorry for Miss Lawrence and all the young women like her who waited for their sweethearts to come home.

No one talks about the girls who were left behind. They don’t have a holiday and they didn’t get any medals. But they were so very brave, and they were so terribly wounded.

One of the last times I visited Miss Lawrence she told me all her stories again, but this time she asked a favor.

“Will you make me a promise?” She laid her thin hand on my shoulder. “Will you promise me that you will never forget John? Someone has to remember John.” Her voice trembled.

“I remember John had hair the color of oak leaves in October,” I said. “And you were both seventeen, and you walked in the woods, and he shook the tree branches, and snow fell on you, and you were sweethearts forever.”

“Yes. Yes.” Sighing, she smiled sadly. “You do remember. Now someone else will always remember.”

Storm Stafford

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