When Myrtle Turns 90

She pulls his houseslippers from the closet where she’d tucked them last year, slides them on, and scuffs down the hallway, closing her eyes just long enough to imagine it’s him, shuffling to the kitchen to do what he always did—coffee in bed for his favorite girl.

She opens the warped front door, its hinges creaking for oil, his slippers slapping against the driveway as she retrieves the Statesman Journal the way he always did—they’d read the headlines to each other as the buckwheat batter sizzled in the grease left dripping from the bacon.

She shuffles back to the closet, reaches for the shoe box overhead that seems higher and heavier than it did before, empties its contents onto the bed and fingers the crinkly paper of his letters, sniffs the half-bottle of Old Spice, pins the ruby brooch on her housedress and hums a favorite song.

She flips through the collection of LPs until she finds it, sways as the needle purrs her back to 1961 when two drifters were off to see the world—and what a lot of world there was to see, with him, her huckleberry friend.

She wraps up in his thick blue cardigan, curls into his lumpy armchair and reads the obituaries, as she does every morning now—it’s Eleanor Schneider and Owen Parcell today, two more in a string of friends stretching back years—and she wonders aloud how close she is to the head of the line.

She sighs, a smile resting on her once-plump lips, and whispers, “It won’t be long now, my love—and Moon River, we’ll see.”

15 Comments

  1. Sarah Freligh

    Oh, Traci, this is just gorgeous — just a seamless narrative comprising significant actions that individually and collectively spell out her grief at his passing, their contented life together and how her life has altered, however great or slightly.

    The details are just first rate, so subtle and yet so telling. The slippers she wears, his, so she can imagine the sounds are him; the retrieval of the newspaper, “the way he always did,” a detail that characterizes a bit about him but also suggests the great change that loss has wrought. And so, so good — the shoebox that seem “higher and heavier than it ever did,” an objective correlative for the weight of grief.

    I love Moon River (and how that locates us in a specific time), but root for an ending that reaches back to the whole of the piece, the theme of how it is to go on without somebody, of keeping on. She may be dreaming of the end, but there’s lunch to fix, too.

  2. Traci Mullins

    Thank you, Sarah, I’ll work on that ending for sure! I’m looking forward to going back through this course and mining for many other story ideas. How long will we have access?

  3. MaxieJane Frazier

    Hi Traci, I have such a complicated and personal response to this! My own grandmother (Elizabeth) is about the same age as the Queen of England (was). When my grandfather died, about a decade ago, he seemed like the center of her world and I know she misses and talks to him every day. And yet, she’s a person, too, and I just love how whatever is also her emerges more with each passing year. So I’m steeped in Myrtle’s nostalgia and understand her anticipation while resisting it based on my own reality. Thank you for making me examine all these emotions!

  4. Catherine Parnell

    Hi Traci, This is excellent but the conclusion is a bridge too far. Is the end buried somewhere in the second or third to last paragraphs? I felt the conclusion strike a half note with “what a lot of world there was to see, with him, her huckleberry friend.” Still, “Moon River” is a great way to bow out, a reach to Audrey H, as you intended. Kudos!

    • Traci Mullins

      I appreciate your thoughts here because I’d much rather Myrtle go on another 10 years, creating a life post-partner that’s rich while sweetened by nostalgia. Thank you for pushing me in that direction.

      • Traci Mullins

        Oops, meant for Maxie, but I couldn’t agree more about the ending, Catherine. I didn’t know where to go, so I copped out. Now I have some ideas about where to take it!

  5. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh, I love the slipper images and how she slips on his “remnants” to feel comfortable, to sculpt herself into his being/old life, and how she slips into song and knows she’ll slip into another realm to be with him. Agree with what Sarah says about having to fix lunch, too, so it’d be great to see some details of her self-custodial life in there as well. Such a poignant, endearing story!

    • Traci Mullins

      Thanks, Mikki! I concur with the consensus that Myrtle needs to find her footing after her loss, so I’ll work on that.

  6. Kathryn Kulpa

    This is so genuinely touching. I love how Myrtle chooses to celebrate her own birthday, to recreate the sights and sounds and smells of her lost love. Beautiful details–the way you subtly quote-but-not-really-quote “Moon River” is especially nice, and I could almost taste those buckwheat pancakes.

    I agree that the last paragraph is too much; I believe she misses him terribly (how could she not, after 50 + years?), but this feels like she’s giving up, and I don’t think that’s the note you want to end on. I’m sure we all bring something of our own to reading, and I’m thinking of my aunt, a widow, who just turned 90 and who absolutely is still cooking her own lunch and driving herself to the corner store. Not that Myrtle has to be a poster child for all elders, but I like the idea of showing her as a strong character who’s doing more than waiting around to die.

    • Traci Mullins

      Thank you, Kathryn, and I couldn’t agree more that this needs a completely different ending. I, too, know widows who have embraced their new stage of life. I’m excited to see how Myrtle will move on and leave the reader inspired rather than let down.

  7. Kathryn Silver-Hajo

    I hope I’m not too late getting to comments. This was a weekend packed with tons of family obligations and I’m waaaay behind. That said, I really enjoyed this, Traci–and interesting that we both went to grief as the theme of our stories. For me I think it’s because I lost both my mother and my father in the fall–as well as my sister-in-law–so the weight of grief is on my mind around this time of year.

    Anyway, I particularly love the details you chose to put us in the time frame of their marriage. They were so well chosen that we would have know their approximate ages even without the title. A couple examples I especially loved: “coffee in bed for his favorite girl” and “the buckwheat batter sizzled in the grease left dripping from the bacon.” Really puts us in the milieu, habits and diction of a previous time.

    I agree with the others about the ending but I’m sure you’ll hit just the right note on revision!

    I’ve really enjoyed being in workshop with you, Traci! 🙂

    • Traci Mullins

      Thanks so much, Kathryn. I’m sorry for your recent losses. Writing our grief can be cathartic. I look forward to seeing your wonderful stories in print!

  8. Suzanne van de Velde

    Traci — what can I add about this glorious piece? Such a strong feeling of contentment from Myrtle, since her love is still so present in her life. I do think Myrtle feels too positive a person for a gloomy path. A suggestion for the end, I love how she reads his letters, how it brings him to sit right next to her. Could she write him about her life now? We wouldn’t need to see every comma, so it wouldn’t need to be clunky exposition, but subtle nuance perhaps, a line or two?

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