I dipped my brush into the powder blue paint, and ran the edges across the lip of my paint can to remove any excess. The brush felt heavy in my hand as I reached up to swipe it across the old wood once more. I had painted half a wall in the run down barn on our land. My arthritic fingers throbbed from the labor, so I balanced the brush carefully across the can’s rim to give myself a break.
Leaning back in my rattan chair, I massaged my knuckles. They were boney and gnarled from old age and a well lived life.
“Do you need any help, Mrs. Patterson?”
“Hmm?” I turned around in my seat to see the silhouette of my neighbor’s son in the doorway. “Hello there, Jeremy! How are you doing today?” I ushered him inside to the empty chair next to me.
“I’m doing alright. And yourself?” He sat down, a large tupperware container in his lap.
“Oh, you know. Just the aches and pains of an old woman!” I chuckled as I held up my tired hands. “Taking a little break from painting.”
“I can help if you want, Mrs. Patterson. I already finished my homework.”
“Well, that’s mighty kind of you! If you don’t mind, I won’t turn down the help! Mr. Patterson and I were going to paint it together, but we never quite found the time before he passed.” I clutched my heart, realizing it was the first time I’d said it out loud.
“That’s actually why I came over.” Jeremy said hesitantly. “My mom sent these lemon bars along with our condolences.” He passed me the tupperware, looking unsure of how I was holding up since the recent death of my husband.
“I’ll have to write up a thank you note later, but let your momma know that I appreciate it.” I set the cookies down on the matching rattan side table between us.
“So why are we painting your barn blue?” Jeremy asked, leaning over to grab the abandoned brush. He was a good kid. I often saw him helping his parents out on their neighboring farm.
“It’s a little bit of a story if you don’t mind listening to an old bat while you work.”
He looked as if he wanted to laugh, but didn’t know if it would be polite, “That sounds fine, Mrs. Patterson!” He ran the paint brush across the next naked plank of wood, picking up where I left off.
“Well, it all started back in 1941.” I pictured the year as if it were yesterday. “The second World War had begun two years previously, and most everyone’s fathers in the U.S. were being called to duty. We lived on a farm at the time, very much like this one. So when my daddy left for war, my brother David and I had to pick up the slack at home, tending to all the animals and such.”
Jeremy nodded as he listened, knowing himself the strict responsibilities of running a farm.
“I only saw my daddy once after that, when he was shipped home in 1942 on medical leave. He had gotten injured pretty badly, and there weren’t enough doctors and nurses to look after everyone. They thought he’d be alright since it wasn’t a life threatening injury, but he hadn’t been properly bandaged before he returned to the trenches.” I sighed, “So he ended up with a nasty infection. And by the time he reached home, the bacteria had made it to his heart, and the doctors here couldn’t do anything to save him.”
“That’s awful!” Jeremy said, dipping his brush again.
“It was.” I nodded, “And something I never truly got over. So, when it came time for David to be sent overseas a few months later, I decided to go with him.”
“Wait, really? You fought in the war?” His eyes widened.
“No, no…” I laughed at his enthusiasm, “I went as a nurse! Women weren’t fighting back then, but I wanted to make sure that what happened to my dad wouldn’t happen to David. Or anyone else for that matter. So we both left home, leaving my poor mother behind. She was a nervous wreck with all of us gone.”
I readjusted in my chair, getting comfortable as the memories flooded back to me.
“We were stationed in Northern France. It was certainly a change from the farm. Always loud with the sounds of gun shots and bombings. But there were good times too! They often held dances for the soldiers during down time, and that’s when I met my Benny.” The thought brought a smile to my lips.
“Captain Benjamin J. Patterson. The most handsome man I’d ever seen. David made the introduction, and we all hit it off so splendidly, that we were inseparable ever after. We went to all the social club events and dances. Benny and I would dance the night away together, and Davey-a handsome man in his own right-never had a problem finding his own dance partner! Oh, how the beautiful blondes and brunettes and anyone in between would just fawn over him. He had so many to choose from, he decided not to choose! Dancing with a new girl each time the music changed!” I laughed at the thought, which turned into a cough. Something I was becoming accustomed to as an old lady.
“Excuse me…” I cleared my throat before continuing, “The three of us formed a tight bond, doing everything we could together when we weren’t burdened with the tasks of war. But dancing was always our favorite. Ben would spin me around the room, past round tables with crisp white linens and beautiful China. Grand chandeliers hung from the ceiling above us, casting tiny rainbows around the room. As a farmer’s daughter, it was like nothing I had ever seen before.” I smiled at Jeremy, thinking of the good ole days, knowing that little things such as table settings didn’t hold the same meaning to someone of his generation.
“But anyway. You’ve met Ben, so you know how the story ends! We got married as soon as we got home. Davey was both his best man and my man of honor. He stood next to us as we wed on American soil in front of our families. Even with the war at an end, we were all three still the closest of friends. So when David moved in with our mother, Ben and I found a farm of our own not too far away.” I motioned at the lands around us.
“Unfortunately, David headed out to the Vietnam War a few years later. I think he was craving a bit of the old days in France. The drinks, the girls, the dances. But his letters from Vietnam proved that it wasn’t like the times we had all shared. Davey never made it back to us, leaving our momma alone once more.
“Ben and I agreed to move her in with us, and we sold the farm I grew up on. She spent the rest of her life with us, and that’s something I’m grateful for. But now my Benny is gone, and I’m the only one left!”
“What about your children?” Jeremy asked.
“Never had any.” I sighed, “Ben and I both agreed that we had seen too much loss in our lives. Bringing children into the world meant suscepting them to the horrors of this earth as well as the joys. I think if Davey hadn’t lost his life during my child bearing years, we might have considered it more. But we had both just experienced too much death and destruction at that point.
“I thought my momma would have objected more, wanting to be a grandmother herself. We didn’t really talk about it much, but I think David’s passing made her feel the same way that I did. How could we raise children that we love, just to send them to their too young deaths in far away lands? It seemed easier not to start a family, than to have to mourn one as my mother had.”
There was a moment of silence as I remembered how many lives had passed me by.
“So the chickens and cows and pigs and dogs were enough for us! They were basically like children. We were up all hours of the night feeding them and grooming them and getting them everything they needed. They kept us busy.”
“I’m sure they did, Mrs. Patterson!” Jeremy chimed in, “Our pig is about to have a litter, and I gotta watch her every move! All of them animals keep us busy too.”
“Oh, yes! They can be a handful.” I laughed, “Like having a dozen toddlers running around all day!”
Jeremy laughed too, then asked, “But Mrs. Patterson-that sure was a nice story-but I don’t see why it has to do with painting this barn blue.”
“Right. When you get old, you sometimes get lost in a story. And the older you are, the harder it is to find your way out!” I chuckled, coughing once more. “So we had this land with all our animal children, and we were very happy together. But we also had this old barn. It’s close to falling apart, but Ben and I always wanted to turn it into a dance hall like the ones we frequented during the war.
“Our first dance was in a beautiful ballroom at one of the hotels not far from German territory. It was painted powder blue with white crown moulding. The windows were outlined with sheer white curtains, topped with ornate brocade valances.” I stared off as I thought about it. “It felt like a dream. A little piece of ornate heaven in the epicenter of despair.”
I slowly stood up from my chair and stepped closer to the pale blue wall, my fingers tracing the edge of a dry blue plank. “Renovating the barn was something we always talked about. But life got in the way, as it always seems to do. Ben bought that blue paint before he got sick, with every intention of creating our little slice of heaven again. And now that he’s gone, I want to finish the job so I can picture him here with me.”
I stepped back from the wall, staring into the blue square. I closed my eyes, letting the memory draw me in. I hummed the song that played that night, forever belonging to me and my Benny. Imagining him there, I raised my arms into the right position, and slowly spun in a circle.
A light touch on my hand startled me, wondering if his ghost was there with me. But when I opened my eyes, I was surprised to see Jeremy in his place, bringing the memory to life. I rested my hand on his shoulder, and we circled the barn together as I finished humming the old tune.
As we finished our dance, I clutched my heart again. The humming and dancing together was a lot on my old lungs.
“Here.” Jeremy ran to grab my chair and placed it next to me.
I slipped down into it, and took a deep breath. “Thank you, Jeremy, for giving an old lady a little bit of joy!”
As I sat there catching my breath, I closed my eyes once more. The tattered barn transformed into that old dance hall, and next to me was Captain Benjamin J. Patterson. He may be gone from this world, but he’d always dance in the barn with me.