“It was there she met her best friend, Frances Bailey.”
Frances traced the words of Shirley’s obituary with her gnarled forefinger and wondered if anyone guessed the weight behind them. A lifetime of mimosas on the front porch, of watching the fireflies dancing on the front lawn during sultry North Carolina summer nights, of borrowing each other’s clothes.
The words did not reveal their shorthand way of speaking to each other, the jokes that only they got, the secrets they shared only with each other because no one else would understand.
The words did not reveal the struggle of the custody battle during the divorce when Herbert claimed Shirley was an unfit mother because she had left him for a woman. Frances often thought he would have been less vindictive if Shirley had left for another man instead.
The words did not reveal Shirley’s tears or Frances’s feeling of helplessness at hearing the judge agree with Herbert. All Frances could do was hold Shirley while she wept and promise they would get a better lawyer. She blamed Herbert and herself. She offered to leave so Shirley wouldn’t feel like she had to choose between her daughter and her partner, but Shirley refused to let Frances go.
“That’s what he wants,” Shirley said. “And I’ve been without love long enough.”
The words did not reveal how difficult Shirley found it to be a mother only on weekends and every other holiday. How difficult she found it to cope with her daughter’s refusal to believe that she was happier with Frances. That the divorce was a necessity rather than a mistake. That she didn’t need Jesus or a therapist or maybe both to lead her back to the “right” path.
The words did not reveal Shirley’s pride in her daughter’s three graduations – high school, college, grad school – or her outrage of being seated two rows away from Frances at her daughter’s wedding because her daughter insisted on it, saying, “what would people think?”
The words did not reveal how many times Frances had zipped up Shirley’s dress or Shirley had zipped up hers, fingertips lingering on pale, smooth skin. How many times Shirley had cried because her mother hung up at the sound of her voice or refused to answer at all. How many times they’d had to move in a rush because their neighbors showed disapproval with spray paint on the garage door or bricks through the windows.
Two years ago, they planned to get married despite Shirley’s daughter’s objections because they finally could. Shirley’s daughter always introduced Frances as “my mother’s friend,” never “my mother’s partner.” Definitely not “my mother’s wife.” But Shirley got sick, and plans for the wedding got lost amid rounds of aggressive chemo. Instead of a veil, Shirley wore a knitted cap to cover her naked scalp.
Frances had driven Shirley to her appointments and chemo sessions. She had counted out pills and made sure Shirley took them. She cooked whatever Shirley thought she could eat. She bathed Shirley and helped her dress when she was too weak to do it herself.
“You don’t have to stay,” Shirley had said once while she watched Frances wipe away bread crumbs from the kitchen counter, sweeping them into her crooked fingers.
“Til death do us part,” Frances said as she dusted the crumbs into the trash can.
“We never took those vows.”
“Yes, we did.”
Frances tossed the newspaper onto the coffee table and heaved herself out of the recliner. She supposed she should be grateful to be mentioned, but she was tired of being treated like Shirley’s shameful secret. A family scandal to be ignored instead of a woman who loved and was loved in return. Her anger was familiar but not nearly as sharp as it was when she was twenty, thirty, forty-something. It was old and weary now, like her.
She went to their bedroom to get dressed. She had to wear a button-up blouse with a skirt instead of her usual black funeral dress because her joints were stiff and her fingers were arthritic, and there was no one to zip her up anymore.