If he hadn’t been drafted they would still be married. Oh, not that they always got along just perfect, or anything, but they loved each other. They belonged together.
It was true, even their names said so. She had always been called Sissy in our family. She was my big Sis. And in his family he was always called Sonny. The perfect couple it seemed: Sissy and Sonny. That’s how you mentioned them, like it was just one word. They were a unit, always together. You never saw one without the other.
They got married just a few days after her 16th birthday. He was eighteen. A lot of people thought she was pregnant, since they were so young. But it wasn’t true. She wasn’t expecting a baby when they married, but they did plan to have kids and never did anything to prevent it. But it wasn’t in the cards for them. They worked together at the shoe factory, rode back and forth together, did everything together. They bought a tiny little house and fixed it up real cute.
They went to work every day and seemed to be real happy. Their fights were about little things, like which way the pillowcases should be when the bed was made: folded under of straightened out. It was an argument they had frequently as they made the bed together, him on one side and her on the other.
He took care of the money, her paycheck and his. She picked out the groceries and he paid for them. He carried cash to the landlord and the utility office. They never charged anything or had a bank account to write checks on. They lived out of the wallet in the hip pocket of his jeans. She never had any money in her purse. But she didn’t know enough to mind. It was the way every couple operated as far as she knew. And if she really wanted anything he would try to see that she got it, if they had the money at all.
He did keep her close, or she stayed close. He did all the driving and it never seemed important for her to learn. She wore her hair long because he liked it that way and kept her dresses a little longer than the fashion for the same reason. They loved each other and had settled into a life that should have gone on for 50 happy years together.
Then, early in 1960, their world fell apart. The shoe factory, where they had both worked since they turned 14, suddenly closed its doors. They were both laid off. Out of work for the first time in their lives. She was 20 years old. He was 22. There were no jobs because half the people in town were looking for work at the same time. Some people had other skills to fall back on, but not Sissy and Sonny. All they knew was making shoes.
Sonny didn’t stay unemployed long. He was drafted less than a month after the factory closed. He went to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training, leaving Sissy at home alone in her little house. She found a part time job at Dairy Queen. It was just a few hours a week and didn’t pay the bills, but it helped to keep her from going crazy. Sonny came home for a few days at Christmas. He was sent to Texas for more training after that, and Sissy scraped up enough money to go see him while he was there.
His next assignment was Germany. She begged him to let her go with him, but he said it was no place for a woman and she should stay home near her parents and his. She did what he said, just like she always did.
For the first six months she wrote a letter to him nearly every day. She told him everything that was happening in her life, poured out her loneliness and love for him. Every day she had a letter ready for the mailman and every day she prayed there would be a letter for her. A letter from Sonny. But there never was. Not one. Not even a postcard.
As the months rolled by she didn’t know what to think, Some days she was sure he was dead. Other days she pictured him keeping house with a buxom blonde fraulein . She wrote desperate letters, begging him for some word to let her know he was alive, that he still loved her. Anything he sent would have been received with joy and thanksgiving. But there was nothing.
Dairy Queen shut down. There wasn’t enough business to keep it open. Sissy got a job babysitting. She fell in love with the baby girl and devoted every ounce of her being to taking care of her. When the mother decided to move away and took the baby with her, Sissy was devastated. It was like she had lost her own child. She slid into a depression and everyone in the family tried to think of ways to cheer her up.
A cousin had moved to Columbia to find work. She had a tiny apartment over there and she invited Sissy to come live with her and share expenses. There was work in Columbia. She found a job at a little neighborhood grocery store. She loved the work. She was meeting new people every day and making a pretty good check. She bought a few new clothes. She enjoyed fixing up pretty every morning to stand behind the counter and banter back and forth with the customers and delivery men. It was so different from the factory.
On one of her brief trips back home, she told Mom she felt young for the first time in her life. Mom told her to be careful, to remember she was still married. Sissy wrote a letter to Sonny that afternoon: If you love me, if we are still married, please write and tell me so. If you don’t answer I will know you don’t love me anymore. He didn’t answer.
An overseas tour was two years long. There was never any word from Sonny in all that time. But at the end of the two years, he came walking down our street in his uniform, duffle bag thrown over his shoulder. He asked where his wife was with a grin on his face. He fully expected she would be there to greet him with open arms.
Mom told him: “She’s somewhere in Kansas. She ran off with a bread truck driver. Said you didn’t love her anymore because you didn’t write.”
Sonny was stunned. He slumped down on the front step and twisted his cap in his hands. He looked smaller, like all the air went out of him when he heard Mom’s words. The tears soaked his face and made little wet spots on the cement between his legs. When he stopped crying and got up to go, I couldn’t resist asking him.
“Why didn’t you write to her?”
He said “I don’t know how.”