Her name was Eleanor and our two families had lived next door to each other in a small western Pennsylvania town for as long as I could remember. She was perhaps 15 years older than me and this difference in ages meant that there was little we had in common but she was a cheerful person with a kind heart and I liked her.
In later years I would see a resemblance in her to Ingrid Bergman, with her slightly tilted eyes, proud nose with finely arched nostrils and high Slavic cheekbones but even as a child I could see that she had a wonderful figure with full breasts, trim hips and lovely legs for dancing.
The heady scent of her perfume was wonderful and the soft swish of her chiffon dresses seemed to me the epitome of sophistication. She had wonderful taste in clothes and always saved her money to buy her ‘good’ dresses at the better ladies stores in our town.
Because our houses were so close, it was not unusual for Eleanor to rush over before a Saturday night date or Sunday afternoon drive in the country for some last minute help in dressing – a back zipper that was hard to reach, a bracelet clasp that wouldn’t close, a birthday card that needed signing – for Eleanor could not read or write and often requested my assistance. She was what we then called a little ‘slow.’ She had never finished school; in fact, I don’t think she went beyond the sixth grade.
At age 14 Eleanor had followed in her mother’s footsteps as a daily housemaid for some of the wealthier families in town. During the week she would scrub floors, wash windows, dust, sweep, iron and do a myriad of other tasks for $5 a day. Over the years Eleanor often became part of the extended family of ‘her ladies.’ She learned whose husbands were straying, which ladies drank in the afternoon, what brides had ‘premature’ babies, and what women had to cover bruises with makeup.
One day, after I was an adult with children of my own, we were sharing a beer at the kitchen table and she talked about some of the families she had worked for over the years. In a low voice she told me about a family I knew myself; in fact, the husband was a business owner and former town mayor.
After he retired, he began to get funny, as she put it. She had been mopping the kitchen floor when he came in, pulled down his pants and began to masturbate in front of her. “I told him, ‘Don’t do that! Please, don’t do that!’” she said, starting to cry. “But he didn’t stop and after it was all over, I had to clean it up.” Even I, at 32, found the story shocking and infinitely sad that this happened to this good-hearted, simple girl – for she always seemed a girl to me and not a woman.
Eleanor was very much under the domination of her parents, particularly the forbidding father whose silence and cold demeanor also frightened me – although from a distance. Eleanor’s older sister, Pauline, had been the smart one and favored child. Pauline married a local carpenter, had five children and after his early death worked in the school cafeteria.
Since Pauline had provided grandchildren, Eleanor was told her duty was to stay home and care for her aging parents as long as they lived. Who would want to marry her anyway? But Eleanor longed for love and over the years had been courted by a few men who, for one reason or another, could not marry her, at least not right now.
I best remember a man named Paul who lived in a city 15 miles away. Every Sunday, without fail, he would pull up in front of the gray clapboard house, two cartons of Kent cigarettes and a six pack of beer in brown paper bag and ring the front door bell. This was the time she had waited for all week long. In her pretty dress, high heels and perfume, she and Paul would drive to one of the many private social clubs in the area.
Because Pennsylvania had ‘blue laws’ prohibiting the sale of liquor on Sunday they would visit the Russian Club, the Italian Home, the Slovenian Society, the VFW or in the summer drive to Shady Grove, an outdoor polka dance pavilion in the country. Even though Paul did not dance, he would sit there and watch as various men twirled Eleanor around the floor.
Eleanor and Paul saw each other for many years. Paul had to care for his aged mother and could not marry while she was still alive, Eleanor explained. When the mother finally died it was the sister and her family who needed his help and attention. But Paul had promised Eleanor that he had remembered her in his will. Later, after I had moved away from my small town, Eleanor would learn that Paul died one night of a heart attack. There was no mention of her in his will; in fact, other than the friends they both knew, no one in Paul’s family knew she existed.
In later years, after her mother’s death, Eleanor cared for her father as she was supposed to do. Eventually, she ended up having to bathe him and change his diapers. When he finally died, the older sister arranged for the family house to be sold and Eleanor moved to a senior apartment complex in a nearby town.
It has been more than fifteen years since I have seen Eleanor but the other day when it was so hot and I was sitting on the patio drinking a beer she came to mind. When I did a Google search I learned that the dominating older sister had died of a heart attack two years ago and Eleanor was still alive, living alone in her little apartment. I wish I could see her again. I wish we could sit around my mother’s kitchen table with a tall glass of cold beer and she would tell me all the good gossip about the people in our little western Pennsylvania town.