Everyone who’s stopped at the diner on their drive through town to the interstate has seen her there. Always at the same table in the corner where the shade drowns the otherwise bright sunlight filling the room. She always had the same faraway look in her eyes, the same simple cup of coffee. Some people have thought, mistakenly, that she was just people watching.
They’ve noticed the wedding ring, the earrings dangling from her wrinkled, elongated ear lobes. They’ve noticed the way her hands shake just a little as she stirs her coffee- something not at all unusual for a woman her age. They’ve noticed the bags under eyes where her skin sags, the crows feet from years of smiling. They’ve noticed all the usual details one might pick up on if one paid attention to the woman sitting in the corner of the caboose diner.
What they don’t know is that she fell in love with a farm hand on her father’s land when she was only 15. How she had a wild (at the time) affair in the rafters of her father’s barn well before marrying age. How she married this boy as soon as he turned 18 and was old enough to inherit his father’s farm. How she valued nothing more than looking out at the cornfields as dusk fell, watching her son play in the dirt and waiting for her husband to come home to the meals she’d prepared. The peace she’d felt during those mild evenings and the satisfaction that came from knowing your world is as it should be.
They don’t know how she felt when her husband came home with news that he was drafted and would be sent to fight the Nazis. How she worried herself so much during the years that he was gone she developed a heart condition which would remain with her for the rest of her life. They don’t know the passion, fear, pride, and horror that her husband relayed to her in his letters every single week. And they don’t know how she almost died when the postman failed to deliver one.
They don’t know how strange it was to reunite with her husband after that separation. How her son didn’t recognize him and how she herself failed to see the same man she married most nights when they bed together. How his eyes displayed the same faraway look she now had herself and how she found it difficult to impossible to connect with him.
They don’t know how secretly disappointed she’d been when her husband went from working the land to fixing the farming equipment that was now so common. How annoyed she was when he came home night after night with another ruined pair of overalls from grease stains she could never get out. How she found most of her joy during that time coming from watching her son age and grow fiery and wild- traits her husband had tried so hard to discourage in him.
They don’t know how angry she’d been when the factory moved into town and that little caboose diner was built just down the street from her house which used to be surround by farmland. How much she bemoaned the small town innocence lost. Or how guilty she’d felt the first time she walked down to the corner to sit and have a cup of coffee while her son was in school.
They don’t know how close she was to her son, her one remaining joy from a true connection with another human being. How they shared an intimacy so vivid that her husband would never understand. How she loved to listen to her son’s stories of school and friendships and activities that she could never do because she was born a girl. How she loved him more deeply than she’d ever loved someone before or after him. And they don’t know how she’d felt when he too was drafted for the next war.
They don’t know, and arguably could never know, how she felt when she received the telegram from the war department after her son had been in Vietnam for no more than three months. How she’d crumbled on her kitchen floor and stayed there in a daze until her husband came home that evening. They don’t know how that letter severed the small connection she and her husband still shared, and how they mostly stopped talking after that day.
They don’t know how angry and bitter she’d grown as she sat and watched the news reports day after day with footage of the horrors the other young American boys faced in a land so foreign she couldn’t imagine it, how obsessed she grew with knowing how much the death toll had raised, how many different nightmarish scenarios she imagined for her son’s death.
They don’t know how secretly relieved she’d been when her stranger of a husband was hired at a company manufacturing farm equipment and was gone for days at time selling machines to farmers all over the southwest. They don’t how strangely angry she’d been that he’d sold the farmstead because there was “no reason to keep it.” How she saw as him taking the last thing from her he could take.
They don’t know how deafeningly quiet her house grew when he was gone or how she missed him despite all the oceans of isolation between them. They don’t know how she sat day after day staring out at the fields which used to hold cornfields as far as the eye could see and marveled as the landscape changed.
They don’t know about the paintings she did which she never dared to show her husband, or the long walks she took for hours on end into Brower county because there was no one waiting for her at home. They don’t know about the repairs around the house she learned to do herself or the magazine subscriptions she sent away for because the articles reminded her of fantastical lives outside the world she knew.
They don’t know how she found her only joy day after day in walking to the diner for that cup of coffee and engaging the guilty pleasure of buying something she could have so easily made herself. They don’t know how much she hated the one or two days a week when her husband came home and sat in front of the tv drinking the beer she had to keep in the refrigerator just for him, and how much she grew to resent him for denying her that walk to the diner to get her coffee.
They don’t how little emotion she felt when her husband died during a business trip at the relatively young age of 63, or how detached she’d felt as she donned her black dress for his funeral. They don’t know how he’d watched so many young, pretty girls walk into the viewing, inconsolable over a man they shouldn’t have known at all. They don’t how many suspicions that had settled for her, or how much pain it’d caused her to find that that, too, didn’t really evoke much emotion from her.
They don’t know how much about herself she discovered after her husband passed. How thrilled she’d been when her paintings were exhibited in the public library and mentioned in the local newspaper. How she reveled in the young lovers she took despite what the neighbors thought, or how much pleasure she’d experienced with them that her husband had never given her. They know how she kick them out of the house the second they did anything that reminded her of her son when he was their age, right before he’d gone to the war that killed him.
They don’t know about the trip she took to New York city all by herself, or how disappointed she’d been with this place she’d read so many magazine articles about. They don’t know how happy she was to return to her still relatively small, quiet town and how she swore she’d never leave her natural home again.
They don’t know how she aged reading poetry in the local library with the other older woman in the bookclub. How she became an active member of the town board and voted on which company would take over the factory left vacant years ago. How much of a staple her presence in that little diner was to the townsfolk. How much they will all miss her when she finally has her stroke at age 87 and passes on.
No, all they would know from their cursory glance as they stopped at the diner for a quick cup of coffee and bite to eat before getting back on the local county route that connected the two highways, is that she was an old lady sitting in the corner of the diner sipping coffee.