[January Short Story Contest Winner] My Joe: A Reflection by Phyllis Babrove

Thank you to everyone who submitted work for the December Short Story Contest. The winning entry is:

My Joe: A Reflection by Phyllis Babrove

Phyllis Babrove, a semi¬retired clinical social worker, has resided in Florida since moving there as a newlywed from Wisconsin forty-six years ago. She likes to travel with her husband and has fallen in love with New England, with much of her writing set in Vermont. Phyllis has published two full-length novels, two novelettes, one nonfiction book, and two short stories. She has also written a series of articles for a social work magazine. Learn more about her work at mirikalblog.com.

Please Enjoy

My Joe: A Reflection

As I lie in bed listening to the battering of hail on the roof, I wonder how the years passed by so quickly. Here I am, eighty-three years old with the spot next to me empty, as it has been for too long. I’ve been alone and lonely for such a long time that I’ve lost track of how long Joe has been gone.

Joe and I got married young, like people did back in those days. I was nineteen and he was twenty­-two. I may not recall how long he’s been gone, but I can see as clear as day the way Joe looked the first time I saw him.

It was Valentine’s Day in 1946 and our soldiers had returned from the war. The USO was having a dance in Milwaukee for the veterans and I went with my best friend. It was a bitter cold afternoon, with temperatures in the twenties; inside, the hall was warm and cozy, filled with people laughing and talking. Large pink and red hearts, along with carnations, transformed the room into an enormous valentine card. Sitting on the sidelines and watching couples dance, I hadn’t noticed anyone approach. Turning around to look for my friend, the best ­looking man I had ever seen was sitting next to me. Tall and thin with brown hair and twinkling blue eyes, Joe introduced himself and thus began a lifelong relationship. We talked and danced as though the world had stopped with just the two of us in it. Joe took my name and phone number, promising to call me.

I thought about Joe constantly until he called me two days later. We made arrangements to meet at Monument Square in downtown Racine that afternoon. Over hot coffee, Joe and I shared stories about ourselves, feeling as though we’d always known each other. After that, we saw each other every day for the next two months until he proposed. And, of course, I said yes.

Mama and Papa were against me marrying Joe. Oh sure, they said they liked him well enough and that he was a good guy, but insisted he had no future and they wanted better for me. I knew what they really meant. They didn’t like the fact that Joe practiced a different religion. I didn’t care what they said. Joe and I were in love, and we were going to get married whether they liked it or not. So, we eloped. That’s exactly what we did. We went to Milwaukee and a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. After all, it was 1946 and we could darn well do what we wanted.

When we told our parents that we were married, they threw a fit, especially mine. They told me to pack my stuff and get out, that I had disobeyed them, and they were done with me. So I did. Joe’s parents did the same thing, so he packed his stuff, too. We had a little money and went to the train station, since we didn’t have a car at the time. After all, Joe had just gotten back from the war. We sat on a bench trying to decide where we would go, and finally decided on Chicago. I can’t tell you why, except that it was far enough away from Racine, and our families wouldn’t be able to bother us. And since it was a big city, Joe figured it would be easy to find jobs and a place to live. I sure don’t recall how much money it cost to take the train, but I do know that we didn’t have very much. Between us, we probably had about $1,500 from my job and the money Joe came

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home with from the army. It was a lot in those days, but still wouldn’t last for too long. We stayed in a hotel the first night we were in Chicago. The next day we found a cute little furnished apartment for forty-five dollars a month and then figured we’d better find jobs. And we did. I found one in an insurance office as a receptionist (I had typing experience) and Joe found one working in a grocery store.

Joe’s plan was to go to school under the GI Bill, something the government started for servicemen to help them get an education. The government would pay for Joe to go to school, pay our living expenses, and give him unemployment benefits for a year. Joe signed up for classes at the university to become a teacher; I kept working while Joe worked and went to school. We stayed in our little apartment. Life was good—we were in love, doing okay with money, and had everything we needed or wanted. We could even go out to a movie and to dinner on the weekend if we wanted to, but most of the time we stayed home.

I got sick six months before Joe was supposed to graduate. Just as things were going well for us, something hit me. After it lasted about a week, I went to the doctor without telling Joe. He was so busy working and studying that I didn’t want to bother him. Women sure were a lot tougher in those days. Anyway, the ‘something that hit’ me was the news when the doctor told me I was two months pregnant. At first, I didn’t believe him because we had been careful. Well, we thought we had been careful. After I got my thoughts together and stopped crying, I remember thinking that maybe it was a good thing. We both had talked about having children but just not quite yet. But it was okay. Things don’t have to go exactly like we plan, do they?

Annie was born a month after Joe got his teaching degree. With his new salary and the GI bill helping veterans get houses, we were able to buy a three-bedroom ranch style house in Elmhurst. Joe got a job teaching in the high school and life was good. Three years later little Jimmy came along, and two years after that came Paula. Our family was complete.

The years went by and all three children were in school before we knew it. Joe’s job was good, and he was happy. I was bored and ready to go back to work, so I got a job in the local library. The hours were perfect because I worked while the kids were in school. During the summers, we went on camping trips and to national parks. We loved to visit different states and learn about the history of our country. One year we even drove to Canada and spent a month traveling to historic sites.

I remember that the world changed in the early 1960s. The music became loud and wild; there was talk about people smoking marijuana and using drugs that caused hallucinations. Protests were taking place in cities like Milwaukee and Chicago so that people could have equal rights for housing and jobs.

It was on November 22, 1963 that the most shocking thing that could possibly happen did when President John Kennedy was assassinated. The whole country watched his young family in mourning and cried for their loss and ours. We were all shocked that something so tragic could take place in the United States. By the end of the 1960s, it seemed as though everything was out of control all over the place. In April of 1968, a man by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Tennessee. Dr. King, thirty-nine years old, was a leader in The Civil Rights Movement and he also left a wife and young children. Two months later, in June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in California. A presidential candidate and the brother of John Kennedy, he was only forty-two years old and left behind a family.


The Vietnam War had started in 1955 and was still going strong in 1970. Demonstrations were taking place on college campuses across the country to protest the war. I’ll never forget the day that Jimmy got his draft notice in the mail. Although we had been expecting it since his eighteenth birthday, it was still a shock to actually see it in writing. After all of the anxiety about my child going off to war, it turned out they wouldn’t take him because he had poor vision. The draft ended in 1973 and the war ended in 1975.

It was in the ‘80s that Joe got sick with cancer. He hadn’t been feeling well but thought it was from stress at work. I kept thinking it was his age because, after all, he was almost sixty years old. But when the doctor came back with the news that it was prostate cancer, I almost passed out. But my Joe was brave, just like he had always been. The doctor said it was in the early stages and he was going to remove the prostate. He didn’t think Joe would even need any treatment, which he didn’t. Joe recovered quickly and was able to dance at Annie’s wedding four months later.

I never regretted marrying Joe or giving up my family because they rejected him. We had a wonderful marriage, raised a good family and taught them not to judge people because of what race they are or where they worship. We taught them to believe in God and practice religion the way they wanted to. The kids had done well. Annie married a doctor and gave us four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. Jimmy became a teacher like his dad, got married and had two beautiful girls; and Paula decided to become a lawyer and not get married. Our children have always been good to us. Like Joe always said, we were lucky to have such a wonderful family.

The cancer was more serious when Joe got sick the second time. The doctor said that it was in his pancreas and even I knew that there was no cure. Joe had retired ten years or so before, so I guess he was about seventy-five when he got sick. All we could do was support his decision to not undergo treatments, and to make him comfortable for the time that he had left. I never left Joe’s side while he was sick. We didn’t need nurses or anyone else to help. Joe and I had always taken care of each other and had promised that we would until the end. And we did.

Now I remember. It’s been about ten or eleven years since Joe was taken from me. It was a day just like this one, in the middle of winter, with hail hammering the roof. Joe opened his eyes, looked at me and told me he would always love me. And then he was gone; my Joe was gone.

I’m looking out of the window now, from my bed. The hail has stopped and snow is falling gently from the gray sky. The tree outside of my window is bare but soon the snow will cover it. I’m still in the house that Joe bought with the VA loan; the one our babies came home to from the hospital; the one where Joe and I laughed and loved; and the one in which Joe died in my arms. I’ve had plenty of arguments from Annie and Jimmy about living with them, but Paula has stayed here with me. Maybe that’s why she hasn’t gotten married; who knows.

I keep wondering when Joe and I will be together again. It probably won’t be long now. I must have dozed off for a few minutes because the sun is shining and I feel warmth that I haven’t felt in ten or eleven years. But now I see why. Joe is standing at the foot of our bed smiling at me. I call his name, but he doesn’t answer. It’s been so long since I have seen him or we have talked. Holding his hand out to me, I sit up and put my hand in his. Holding me closely, he whispers that it’s time for us to be together. I whisper back that we have never been apart.



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