Aunt Celia, who moved away from these mountains some years before even my parents were born, returned home often for visits until her age and Uncle Henry’s health slowed her itch to travel. We always looked forward to her visits and especially the gifts she brought, but the best thing of all about Aunt Celia was the stories she told us.. She told us all about what it was like growing up in an earlier time, a simpler time. Aunt Celia was born just as the Titanic was sinking and was just getting a start in life when the Great Depression hit. She lived through the uncertainty of two world wars and then, Korea, Vietnam, and even Desert Storm. She lived long enough to see a new millennium, dying just short of her 90th birthday.
Maybe this story was one that a young teenage girl just remembers or maybe it was because of the softness of her voice or the look in her eyes, but whatever the reason, it has stuck with me all these many years now. It is a story of young love, a story of love lost, and a story of alienation and isolation. I think it is a story that has probably been repeated often, although repetition does not make it any less acceptable for the young woman who becomes torn between all she loves. This is Aunt Celia’s first love story.
From time to time, my mind wanders back to a time when life and love were still young and simple. For a long while, my heart had belonged to a young man who had no idea he had it. He had given his heart to another, a young woman who, in my opinion, held it over him to get what she wanted. She was classy and sophisticated and didn’t seem to fit here in these rough mountains. I was country plain and simple and belonged nowhere else. We saw each other at school and at church outings and often ended up sharing conversation. He would often speak of his relationship with this young lady as we talked. I listened as if I couldn’t feel every hurt that came his way, never giving any hint of my own feelings. Inside, my heart broke a little more each time he told me of trying to meet her expectations. What could I do but listen?
Then, when spring was so young that snow still lay on the north side of the mountains, serendipity blew in, and life imitated a young girl’s dreams.
He looked at me with new eyes, not suddenly, but surely. It happened innocently and sweetly, over much more time and much more conversation. As us kids helped Mother and Father plant seeds in the soil of the garden, a little seed of a different kind began to grow in his heart. Then just about wild strawberry time, that little seed in his heart burst open, and he discovered that it held my heart. Love grew.
Months passed. There were no cross words. I had never been happier and couldn’t imagine happiness beyond what we had. I could see our life together stretched out in front of us, simple, pure, destined. I could see us working on our farm, raising a big family, taking care of each other and our family, all of it cradled safely within these mountains.
But, in a twist that I couldn’t begin to imagine, a dark cloud began to gather in a place that harbored a hurt unlike any other I had ever known.
Maybe my young man’s reputation had some blemishes, weeds that had grown wild in his adolescence. Maybe he had been known to take a drink or maybe more. Maybe curse words had been known to slip out, maybe a lot of them. I knew about these things, but I knew they were the habits of a boy who thought he was a man. He was no longer that boy; he had truly grown into a man, and I would have been proud to be seen anywhere with him.
But a nasty breeze began to blow and settle in a place that would cut me to the quick for a long time.
Maybe my young man would never be rich. Maybe he would never have a big job in town or travel beyond the confines of these hills. That didn’t matter to me. However he made his way would be enough. I didn’t need or want a pile of money.
Then the sky darkened, the wind whipped, and the clouds burst open, and hurt and betrayal rained down hard on my heart and flooded my life.
But it didn’t come from where you might think.
Tears fell hard and mixed with his as we sat together in the swing on the big wrap around porch. In the middle of the wide open space that surrounded us, I felt like a trapped animal with nowhere to go. He took his arms from around me and disappeared into the dark of the night. I sat there under a canopy of stars, unable to move. When finally my body stirred, I pulled myself up and drug myself inside. I went straight to bed where I cried myself to sleep.
From the moment consciousness shook me awake the next morning, grief filled me to overflowing. I grieved for the relationship that I no longer had with the young man I loved, and I grieved for the relationship with Mother and Father that would never be the same.
I dressed and worked silently as Mother and I cooked breakfast. I could not and would not meet Father’s gaze. At that moment, I wanted nothing to do with him, and I was really just as upset with Mother because she was the one who delivered the news to me the afternoon before.
“Celia,” she had said, “I know you think you love this boy, but you’re too young to know that. Your father doesn’t want him around here anymore. He’s plain too old for you, and you’ll end up getting hurt..You’ll have to tell him tonight.” I begged and pleaded with Mother to reconsider, but it was no use. I wanted to run away as fast as I could, but where would I go? I had no money. I was alone and trapped in something much more confining than these mountains. I had no choice. I had to stay.
I went through the motions of doing my chores that morning. Father was out mending fences, and I was thankful that I didn’t have to lay eyes on him. Having Mother nearby was hard enough. This was washing day, and she came out to hang the clothes on the line. The feeling to confront her overwhelmed me; I had to try again. I went to the clothesline and began to hand her clothespins. “Mother, I love him. Please don’t let Father do this.” I begged and pleaded, but she resolutely stood firm. Mother, who usually took my part, would take Father’s part in this. I felt sick to my stomach, and I knew that even if I couldn’t go far, I could not stay there. I set out walking over the hill and down the path to Granny’s house.
I lived with Granny for a long while. Granny was pure magic. She had such a gentle way about her, and she could talk reason without intimidating me. She reassured me every day that she loved me and that my mother and father loved me, too. She led me to understand that sometimes parents make hasty decisions and that they’re not perfect. Slowly, my heart began to soften towards them, and eventually, I returned home. I did love my parents, and I could forgive them.
I couldn’t forget, though, and for the next few months, my young man and I found ways to secretly see each other. Those were heavenly moments, but they also nagged at me and filled me with anxiety. I was going behind Mother and Father’s backs and deliberately disobeying them. I had never done that before, and I didn’t like the feeling it left behind. My heart was truly torn.
All the secrecy and sneaking took its toll on me, and I came to the point that I just couldn’t do it any more. Our meetings became more and more infrequent until finally they simply stopped. I still held my young man in my heart, but not in my arms. Slowly, my heart healed, and I guess his did, too.
I’ve loved two men in my life. One of them sits in the parlor in there; the other is still somewhere nearby. I haven’t seen my young man in almost 45 years, but I still hold him in my heart. Sometimes, I still wonder what might have been. I wonder if that is a sin. If it is, I’m guilty, but I also know what is true, at least for me. I believe I can think about that first love without forsaking or loving Uncle Henry any less. The truth is that the heart, my heart, has great capacity to love, and so it does.
I planned to end Aunt Celia’s story right there, but I can’t, and I wonder if you know. Do you know? Here’s the thing: I never really had an Aunt Celia. I made her up. I am Aunt Celia, and I imagine many of you are as well. It was my heart that broke, and because of my parents’ intervention, I will always have that question mark in my mind asking what might have been. I wonder how things would have played out had Dad and Mom let the relationship run its course.
I wonder if that now not so young man ever thinks of me or even remembers me. Thinking about all these things does not mean I’m unhappy with the life I have. The fact is I’ve always been happy with my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other. Still, that first love was real, at least for me, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other, either.