Milly and Vera
by Jaimien Delp
Vera wanted to go to the beach, and Milly didn't. But Milly
wouldn't say that, of course; that sentiment she would save for a more private moment, when it was just she and her daughter,
and then she might be able to turn the afternoon back in her favor. For now,
it would look unpleasant to argue with a guest, and after all, she hadn't seen Vera in twenty years, not since her husband's
– Vera's bother's –funeral. For now, she would nod okay to all of
Vera's suggestions about picnic baskets and cucumber sandwiches and finding a shady place by the shore for chairs and umbrellas.
“That would be so nice for you!” the daughter kept saying.
“We have chairs, we have umbrellas, we have picnic baskets, and I'm sure you'd love some time to catch up. It's really just beautiful by the lake!”
Later, Milly would hold her short grey curls in her hands and shake her head and beg her daughter to
do something. “The drive is too long,” she would say, “and
the sand so unsteady. And I was just reading about how even the shade now, even
when you're all covered up, can cause all sorts of horrible things. That's what
the studies proved. And my mail! Oh,
there's so much mail today. No, I just can't.” Until that moment, though, when she could let her worry spill onto her daughter, she would have to bite
her lip and hide her fear. She wrung her hands in her lap as if she were twisting
the keys to a piano, and smiled. The daughter left to answer a ringing phone,
and Milly thought about following her.
“Oh wonderful then!” Vera said, patting Milly's
knee. “We'll have a grand time. Just
us girls, like during the WAVES. Remember those times, Milly?”
Milly perked up then, and looked at Vera. It had been a
long time since she'd talked to someone else who had lived through the war, and she had adored the WAVES, even cried when
they'd told her the war was over and it was time to go home. Home meant returning
to work long, dull hours at her father's store, polishing the watches and tending the register, dusting and sitting. Her father was kind but strict, and after work there was little to look forward to. Life in Zagreb had been all about vibrant landscapes and games, but after their move
to America in '38 there was no time. America was about work and the passing of
time and the Church. Milly had felt sinful for her boredom, sinful for how desperately
she had wished to escape, and sinful for leaving her family behind to go to Chicago when suddenly there was a war and women
everywhere were gathering to support the troops and live independent, powerful lives.
There wasn't a lot, actually, that Milly hadn't felt sinful about, and she had combated the guilt by begging forgiveness
dutifully after Mass each Sunday, Tuesday and Friday, and by following the scriptures exactly.
But that large grey bird had taken up residence in her head, and stayed; still, nearly seventy years later, despite
the fact that she had long ago abandoned Catholicism, and despite the fact that the husband it had forced her to obey was
dead, she still felt the grey presence.
“Now we didn't know each other yet, of course, during the WAVES.
Oh Milly, don't you wish we had?” Vera tilted her head back ever-so-slightly when she smiled, and the gesture
made her look young.
“You know, I've told very few people this, but do you know why I joined the WAVES?” Milly felt her cheeks flushing.
“Why was that, Milly?” Vera leaned forward,
and put her hand on Milly's knee again. “You wanted to go to California,
“Oh, everybody wanted to go to California! I wanted
to go to California very badly, but no, that's not why.” Milly's cheeks
were growing maroon-colored now, bright as the belly of a cardinal. She covered
her face with her hands and it was the first time, Vera realized, that she had ever seen Milly behave girlishly.
“Why was it, Milly? Was this about a young man, before
Lewis? Now, Milly!” Vera let
her head fall backwards once again, and laughed.
“No, no ...” Milly answered, all blush and girl now.
“It was... Oh, you won't even believe it! Well, you see, my piano teacher was grooming me for a concert, and
I knew if I had to do it, I was just going to die! So I needed a way out, and
so I joined the WAVES.” Milly held her hand in front of her mouth, as if
to catch the little laughs before they escaped. Her arched shoulders twittered.
“Oh Milly, you didn't!”
“I did! Can you believe it? I'd given one or two recitals before, and it almost killed me! All
of those people, no, I just knew I couldn't do it! I really thought I would die!”
“Isn't that a story! Oh, the things we do. Now tell
me you've written all of this down somewhere, Milly!”
“Oh, but you have to!”
“You know, my hands are just so shaky now, it would take such a long time.” Milly batted her hand at the air as if to show Vera that this would be impossible.
“You could do it, Milly! Of course you could. So what if it took awhile! But really
you should write all of this down, document it!”
Milly nodded, but it was apparent that she had little intention of taking Vera's suggestion. Vera settled herself back in her chair, and Milly lowered her hands from her mouth to rest again in her
“What a time we would have had together, both of us stationed in Chicago. Because you met Lewis after the war. When was it, exactly,
“Shortly after the war, yes,” Milly answered. “We
were married in 1946.”
“That's right, it was '46. Of course it was! How could I forget that? It was right
before Vera was born. I was big as a house at the wedding. Remember that? I remember you had that lovely dress with the
crochet bodice on it, and I just thought, what a lovely girl my brother's found.”
“No, you're too kind,” Milly said, in her whispering, tremolo laugh that sounded as if it
was fluttering in a cage.
“Yes, Milly, that's just what I thought. That's just
what we all thought! Lewis really was smitten with you.”
Milly nodded. “Yes, well ...”
Vera sensed that the pause wasn't about to end, and picked it up.
“I know, dear. I wish I knew what happened. I wish I knew.”
“Me, too.” Milly laughed her hummingbird laugh
again. “But really, it wasn't so bad... You know, everybody has their difficult
times. And I survived!”
“Well, I know Milly, but still. I've asked myself over and over, and I just have no idea. It was like all of a sudden this switch just went off in him or something, and he
was a different person. Even when I saw him, he was a different person.”
Milly nodded again, but she was beginning to feel a kind of permission now to speak up. Vera was vibrant and talked with her hands and her arms and her whole body, and you could tell she meant
what she said.
“It was like that,” Milly said. “Before we got married, you know, everything was wonderful. But we didn't know each other long, of course.
It all happened very fast, he wanted to be married right away. And then
everything just changed.”
“You poor dear. It must have been terrible.”
“Well ...” Milly stopped, then began again. “I
do remember one time, I wanted to go out shopping, for groceries, you know. He
usually did all of the shopping for us, but he always got the worst of everything. Like
bananas that were already brown, or apples with bruises all over them. And on
purpose. So you see, I wanted to go, at least to have fresh food for the children. And
I remember he said, “No, you're not going. You're not to leave this house.”
Vera shook her head, and her ruby earrings seemed heavy on her ears.
“It was things like that, always things like that,” Milly finished, wondering if she'd said
too much now. This time Vera let the silence run its course, hang in the air
like a heavy rain, and the two of them stared out at the trees and squirrels beyond the porch.
Milly thought that yes, perhaps she hadn't needed to say all of that. Lewis
had been Vera's brother, and whatever Vera thought she knew about him, she'd never seen how truly cruel he could be. He had
reeled in his anger around other people, even his sister. But now, what did it
matter, anyway? It was in the past, so long ago, and weren't they all God's children,
however they behaved? And wasn't it up to Him to make the judgments? And sure, there had been some good things about him, though her head was beginning to ache now trying to
remember what those things were, hoping to mention some of them to Vera. He had
been charming those first few months when he'd courted her, before they married. There
“You know, I do remember this onetime,” Milly said.
“Let me see, now, Lewis and I had been married for almost fifteen years when this happened. It was when Grace was nine, and she had just gotten new glasses, but she'd broken them at school, out in
the yard at playtime or something. And I thought, oh no, what am I going to do,
Lewis is going to be so upset. So I told Grace to go to her room when I heard Lewis pulling in the drive, and I showed him
the broken glasses, but he didn't yell or scream or anything. I remember he just
sat down at the table for his dinner, and I thought that was the end of if, that Grace would just have to go without glasses
until I could save up my own allowance. But the next day Lewis came home, and he had a new pair of glasses for her. Pink ones, even. He was always buying boys things, even for
the girls; boys shoes or boys clothes, but he came home with pink glasses. Where
he ever found them I have no idea, but he did.” Milly shook her head, feigning amusement. “And oh did Grace ever love those glasses! She even
wore them to sleep at night, I remember, and I would have to take them off of her so she didn't break them again!”
Vera seemed to be watching something beyond the porch with great intensity, and Milly wondered if she
had heard her.
“Sometimes,” Milly tried again,“ you know, he just did things like that, like show
up with a present for one of the children or surprise us with ice cream. I remember
he did that once. Vanilla with cherry bits in it from the shop down the street
that the children always talked about afterschool.” But still, Vera did
not reply. Perhaps Milly really had said too much, and now Vera was angry, and
there was nothing Milly would ever be able to do to make up for it. If she had
upset Vera, she thought she might die. She bit her lip and wrung her hands again. Or perhaps there was something happening in the trees that Milly just couldn't see,
and that's what Vera was thinking about. Or perhaps she just really hadn't heard
“There was another time—”
“Stop it, Milly.” Vera was sharp now, but not
mean. Milly put her lips back together and looked down at her hands.
“I'm sorry, Vera. I'm awfully so—”
“No, stop it. You must stop this, Milly. You're not sorry and you shouldn't be sorry.” Vera turned
now from the trees to look directly at her. “He was a bastard and you lived
with him for thirty-five years, and that's just nonsense.”
The world outside the porch was whirring and Milly felt that the wood panels beneath her might suddenly
give way to the combined weight of their one hundred and eighty two years. She
shook her head and wondered what to say.
“No, no, he really wasn't like that ...” Milly felt her lips forming the words but she wasn't
sure if there was any sound until she heard Vera answer her.
“Yes, he was. You don't have to pretend he wasn't. Why pretend any longer? For whom?”
Milly thought back to God, and to the shelves of books she had ordered through Reader's Digest about
the power of positive thinking. She should remember the good things about the
man she had married, no matter how few of them there were. She was in no position to judge another. She was mortal like everyone else. And a person's thoughts
could control them and could control the things that happened to them. Thinking
bad thoughts about someone, especially someone dead, or about anything, really, could cause a person's life to wither.
“Oh, Vera, I shouldn't have –” But again Vera interrupted.
“Milly, you must stop! You're good to want to make
him seem good, but let's face it, he wasn't. You poor dear. But you've got to
be mad about it! Otherwise, if you don't tell the truth about it, it'll just
live in you like a fever. He was a bastard, Milly. Plain and simple. Bits of cherry and all. I can only imagine how you must have wanted to leave him, but I'm sure he never
would have let you.”
Milly said nothing, but she did begin to nod, very slowly, though she wasn't sure if the gesture was
to pacify Vera, or an experiment in courage. She felt the old grey bird whisking
about inside of her skull.
“Did you ever try, Milly? Did you ever try to leave
him?” Vera's eyes were great parachutes cast in the sun.
“I don't know,” Milly answered, and that was the truth. She didn't know, not really. Maybe she had, but not very hard. So
maybe she hadn't. How could she have.
“How do you mean, Milly?” Vera asked, but the daughter was returning now, with the phone
in her hand.
“It's Kate, Aunt Vera. She wants to say hello.” The daughter handed the phone to Vera, and then knelt beside her mother.
“Are you having a good time, Mom?” the daughter asked.
“We're having a very good time,” Milly answered. “But
I'm terribly thirsty. I think I need a little bit of water.”
“Let me get it for you,” the daughter said, and began to move towards the door.
“I think I need to stretch my legs. I'll get it. You come with me.”
Inside, Milly didn't waste any time. Vera might not be
very long, and she didn't want her to hear. She held her daughter's wrist like it was the key to an otherwise impossible lock.
“Grace, Grace, I can't go to the beach. I just can't.”
“Mom, it will be okay. I'll be with you. It will be a nice change of scenery for you.”
Milly put her head in her hands and shook it from side to side.
“No, no, it's much too far. It's much too difficult.”
“What's difficult about it?” Grace was arching her eyebrows in the way Milly knew meant
she would make everything better. “I'll be right there with you, Mom, and
we won't be gone long.”
“No no no, it's just too much. Even the shade now, they're saying, can cause all sorts of damage.
And the mail! There's so much mail today.
No, I just can't.”
“Okay,” the daughter swallowed a sigh that went undetected by Milly. “If you really don't want to go, I'll figure something else out for the afternoon. Don't worry about it, Mom.”
“Yes,” Milly said, “I think that would be best.
It's just too much.”
Outside, Milly could hear Vera talking on the phone, wishing her daughter a pleasant afternoon, laughing
like the day had no end to it.