We sit on her oversized floral couch, dogs gnarled together on the north end, me in the middle, and nonna propped with a pillow on the south end. I pull her legs up to rest across mine. I barely feel their weight. A green oxygen tube drapes over the couch and loops down into a long pile of neon plastic. Tube stretches across the living room, disappears down the hall. Her emergency alert necklace blinks through both her t-shirt and sweatshirt. I lean to lay my chest on her shoulder. Nonna moans from my body’s pressure. Bone against bone. I sit upright.
She snuggles the cannula nose piece closer to her septum, simultaneously tugging the tube across her body. Air whistles.
She closes her eyes behind smudged eyeglasses, which provide more peace of mind than vision, her eyes weakened by macular degeneration and age.
We are three days shy of eight weeks from her 89th birthday. She weighs less than her age. Friday nights are our girl nights. On this eighth day of the Winter Olympics, we’re watching men’s aerial skiing, and when I mention that another skier is starting, she efforts up, smiles. “That looks like fun,” nonna says, her face light, grinning. The skier launches himself from the top, all muscles, all movement still and tight, flying until he lands smoothly across blue finish lines. Fists pump; a scream. The announcer yells, “He’s done it! He’s gone the distance, but is it enough to take the lead? It is! Ladies and gentlemen, he’s done it! A dream four years in the making.”
“I would be terrified,” I say. “They go so fast and all downhill.”
“I could do it. I did, you know.”
I nod, I know. She means she used to alpine ski.
“For two years with the group from the bank. We were all the same on the slopes—bank officers, tellers, typing pool girls, it didn’t matter. I got to intermediate, in only two winters. And then I had to stop because your grandfather decided it was too much. We were married and he hated the snow and he didn’t like the idea of me going up with the group. What if I fell, he said, what if I get really hurt? Then what? Besides, I got pregnant the next spring, anyway.
But boy, was I good.”
I imagine nonna as young Willie.
Willie giggles loudly, straight blonde hair framed around prominent cheekbones, brown eyes sharp behind bottle-cap eyeglasses, lean, petite legs, muscular arms. I imagine her seeming innocent to the servicemen returning from the war. Willie is three quarters through her senior year at West High School and seventeen and three-quarters years old when one January night after closing up the drugstore on 16th and California, she comes home to her stepmother, listening to the radio, swaying in the rocking chair. At near midnight, Willie expects a quiet, sleeping house.
“Your father and I are getting a divorce,” she says flatly, continuing to rock. “You’ve been paying us $50 a month, and since it’s just me and my daughter now, with no income and neither of us no way to work, rent’s going up to $100 a month. When you get your money on Friday, come home straight. Don’t go to the movies with your friends.” Willie swallows; there will be nothing left of her paycheck. “That’s the way it has to be,” her stepmother says as Willie turns into her bedroom.
Two paychecks later, Willie agrees to be the live-in babysitter for her sister, Myra, and her lover, who swears he’s going to divorce his wife. For babysitting evenings and weekends, Willie pays $20 a month, sleeps on the couch in the studio apartment, keeps her suitcase of clothes, a pair of heels, and a shoebox of treasures out of reach underneath the couch. The studio apartment is closer to downtown, which means more walking and less paying fare for the trolley. She knows she will finish high school. Myra and her lover ask for the week’s rent by Wednesday, and by Saturday, they’re asking for another loan—not much, something to buy groceries for their two toddler sons, they tell her. Myra takes to meeting Willie at the drugstore on payday Fridays.
Willie turns down the full-ride scholarship to teacher’s college to enter First National Bank’s typing pool with other girls from the class of 1947. “Becoming an English teacher was a child’s dream,” her father says. Reading books is something she could do anytime, anywhere, and she does. She’s always in a book. “A girl needs a job until she gets a husband.” Willie hasn’t much to argue, since her sister and her sister’s lover stay out more nights, for longer, and soon she’s buying the bread and milk. Every evening, most especially Friday evenings, she stretches out on Myra’s couch, cuddling her nephews and library books.
A morning that July, weeks into her professional job, Willie skips down First National Bank’s main flight of granite stairs. Down, back up, down, back up. Heels clack clack clack clack, clunk. Skirt whipping lightly above her knees. She challenges another new girl to a race to the bottom of the stairs. Their full laughs echo around the marble and brass entryway.
“Girls,” bellows the bank’s undersecretary of the vice president, leaning over the balcony on the floor above, “do you know who that is you’re keeping from going down the stairs?” The bank president halts, “Now, Henry, it’s fine.” He adds, smoothing his tie, “You girls look like you’re enjoying your jobs.” We are, they say, nodding, and Mr. Bank President hops the next two steps himself.
Willie joins the bank’s ski team. On Sundays she rides the ski train to Winter Park. In long johns and Levis, she sits on rented skis to ride down the bunny hill. She teaches herself. When it gets so cold only ski bums and the ski patrol remain on the mountain, she keeps at it. She soon stands upright. She learns to tuck. She races the stockbrokers. Willie skies until the very last minute before the last train returns to Denver.
At the end of ski season, Laura, another West High grad typing pool girl, begins inviting Willie to Sunday dinners. Laura’s brother, Carl, is wallpaper in a crowded Italian home. He is short, one arm unusable, permanently maimed. He’s distant, newly home from a tour in the Pacific. He never speaks. Willie only knows he’s there because everyone in Laura’s family is there. In April, Laura announces Willie’s birthday. Carl sits next to Willie at the oval table. Because it is her birthday and because she is no longer just a guest on this day, Laura’s father offers Willie a plate of spaghetti he has prepared for her. “This, this is the way we eat spaghetti.” Red pepper flakes top a mountain of spaghetti. Willie chokes on the first spoonful and Carl laughs to tears. “I don’t think it’s very funny,” she says, reaching for water. “Salute,” they say.
It is no surprise to Willie when Carl offers the way off Myra’s couch. They’d rent a room in a house. They could get a hot plate and a percolator. With her bank salary and his part-time janitor wages, it’d be tight. There wouldn’t be any extras, but they could make it. Do better, together.
A month after her nineteenth birthday, Willie meets her father for morning coffee. They sit across a small wooden table in another rented room in a house that serves as a brothel, a speakeasy, and a day-wagers’ respite. She comes alone.
“Happy, are you sure? Is this really what you want? To get married, to him?”
“I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” she responds.
“You’re over eighteen. You can do what you want. You don’t need my blessing. “He picks at sod caked into swollen brown knuckles.
“I’m not asking for it,” she says.
They both know she isn’t pregnant.
Carl and Willie tell Carl’s family together. “You marry him?” his father says to her. “With one arm no good. He no finish high school. He drink too much. He no work much.”
This is unspeakable desperation.
In the afternoon, the Justice of the Peace marries Willie and Carl with Laura and her fiancé their witnesses. Immediately after, all four catch a downtown trolley to the drugstore for celebratory milkshakes.
Nonna struggles to push herself up to sit straighter against the couch cushion. Her legs still stretch across my lap. She slowly pumps her swollen feet. We are distracted by the dogs who yip, by another car commercial. Soon, I announce the upcoming skier.
“I could do it. I did, you know,” nonna says.
I nod, I know.