[This post was originally published as part of my BluebirdFebruary creative nonfiction blog.]
A few years ago, my grandmother leaned forward over her cup of tea and said, “Did you know I was married to another man before I met your grandfather?”
I had not known.
She continued her story, explaining how she and her popular highschool boyfriend had plotted to elope after graduation. Their parents read about the marriage in the papers. Having made few plans about how they would survive, her husband got temporary work as a field hand on a large farm near Teako, in eastern Washington. But the honeymoon didn’t last. He drank hard and often left my grandmother alone for days in the bunkhouse they shared with the other workers. Needing to support herself, my grandmother found a job in the kitchen of another nearby farm. She said sometimes she would sneak up to the attic, where she’d discovered a pile of old housekeeping magazines. She would look through the pages and dream of having her own home someday.
One afternoon as she was working in the kitchen, one of the cooks approached her and said, “Sue, you don’t belong here. Why don’t you go? Go now. I’ll cover for you.” Then he reached into his pocket and offered her a small wad of bills.
She knew this was her chance, and she walked out.
She kept walking for seven miles to the nearest town, and by night, she was on a bus to Spokane. Too proud to go home, she worked for several months as a housekeeper for a wealthy family, then as a nanny. One day running errands in town, she heard a squeal and two women rushed across the road and caught her in an enormous hug, crying and carrying on, right there in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Oh, Molly, It was the most wonderful feeling in the world, I tell you!” My grandmother paused for a moment, lost in memory. It was her family, and despite her protests, they insisted she come home. They helped her annul her marriage, and her father brought her to tears with an offer to send her to college. And to a second chance. At school she met my grandfather with whom she would eventually share a strong and happy marriage — and a home of her own — for more than 60 years.
I heard a friend say once that big doors swing on small hinges. It’s true in this story. A conversation in a kitchen, an embrace on a sidewalk, just one more drink. People are powerful, and our humblest decisions can have great effects far beyond what we see. I am also moved by what prompted my grandmother to change: it wasn’t a scolding or a punishment or getting what she deserved, but a simple affirmation of who she was and the reminder that she could still make a choice. Even her own shame wasn’t a match for that kind of love. It never is.