My cousin Hazel is eleven years older than I, and until I reached my 20 something’s was one of the women I most admired. In my junior high school eyes, she was the epitome of chic sophistication, a secretary who for a few short years had left our small western Pennsylvania town to work in Washington D.C. It was there she learned how to smoke Parliament cigarettes with élan, walk confidently in high heels and wear White Shoulders perfume, her signature scent.

I remember her walking into my parent’s neighborhood coffee shop after Mass one spring Sunday, her stiletto heels clicking on the tile, her brown hair in an Audrey Hepburn pixie cut capped with a small veiled hat and her working girl hands demurely gloved in white. She was petite and pretty and laughing and to my mind irresistible in her femininity which was why I could not understand her spinsterhood – for at 26 she was a spinster by our Italian measurement of seasons.

That day was nearly 50 years ago and during the intervening years both of us have walked our different paths – she to stay in that small Pennsylvania town surrounded by generations of Italian relatives, and I an emigrate to distant California with its anonymity and possibilities. We have kept in touch, more in these later years than in the earlier ones.

Hazel is now in her mid-70’s and in her call last night related to me how she had broken her leg after falling from a step stool. Like a tourist listening to a travel agent, for she had always preceded me on our journey, I heard her story about home health visits and dozens of pills and doctors visits and physical therapy.

Just as we were saying our goodbye’s something was said, I don’t remember what, that prompted her to say how she had been listening of late to a local radio station that played ballads from the 40’s and the 50’s, all the old love songs sung by all of the old Italian crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Perry Como.

She said she listened to those old songs and cried and remembered a young man she had loved named Bill. They had met in their mid-20’s and dated for four years until, one day, he was transferred to California by his employer. Bill contined to see her when he came home on summer vacations and at Christmastime but the rest of the year he was silent – no late night phone calls or occasional letters.

Finally, at 33, Hazel met the man she was to marry, an verbally abusive alcoholic who would, little by little, make her life a misery. And so the step from which there would be no return was taken and a letter sent to Bill to inform him of her coming marriage. There was no reply from this distant man.

A few years later, Hazel ran into Bill’s sister, a woman she knew but slightly who, after courtesies were observed, mentioned as she turned away, “You know, Bill was going to give you an engagement ring on his next visit.”

It is this sentence that now runs through her head as she sits up listening to old love songs in an apartment all alone. Before hanging up she added she had never before told anyone this story of this secret love and I felt honored by her midnight confession.

Was it true? Had he planned to marry her? Should she have waited just a few more months? Or, would she be waiting still? How I wished Hazel had been braver that day he said he was leaving, thrown herself into his arms and wept, declared her love and risked rejection. Or, before that final step into marriage taken, gone to California to see him one last time. But Hazel, like so many of her generation, was raised to be demure not bold.

When we look back over our lives, it seems a straight line from where we were then to where we are now, an inevitability of chance and choice. But all lives have what-if’s and might-have-been’s that visit our imaginations when we are all alone. If only, we say, we knew then what we know now how different our lives would be – or would they?

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