This memory of Magdalena belongs to my childhood, in a year when I was 12. I was emerging from my illness with tuberculosis that had me bed-bound for almost two years. While still not allowed to leave the apartment, I was able to escape my bed for part of the day. On summer afternoons I sat for hours on our back porch, part of a maze of porches on the rear of those old two and three story brick apartments that littered the South Side of Chicago.
Another porch belonging to the apartment next door stood beside our porch, the two separated by a solitary wooden railing. That apartment was occupied by an old woman who often sat on her porch as well. In the beginning, aside from a word or a nod of greeting, we sat in silence broken only by the creaking of her rocker and noises rising from the alley. After a while we began speaking to one another. I told her about my illness and that I was recuperating.
She told me she lived with her son who was a salesman and who was away for weeks, so she spent a good deal of time alone. Her name was Magdalena. I cannot recall ever hearing her last name.
I wasn’t sure about her age but Magdalena seemed to me to be very old, her cheeks resembling parched brown autumn leaves so brittle that even a slight wind might crack them. She also had a low hoarse voice.
On those afternoons I watched enviously as the neighborhood boys and girls gathered in the alley below us played hide-and-seek and kick-the-can.
Magdalena sought to console me.
“It won’t be long now,” she said,” and you’ll be down there playing with the other boys and girls.”
Sometimes she’d offer me a cookie or a piece of cake she had baked. Their sweetness lingered with me long after I had eaten them.
I spoke to Magdalena about how many hours I had read during my time in bed and that pleased her.
“How wonderful!” she said. “All the books you have read will help sustain you all your life. That knowledge you gained will be the great benefit you’ll reap from your illness.”
Magdalena asked me what I wished to do when I became older.
“I want to write my own stories.”
“Praying, singing and telling stories are the most important and endearing things human beings can do,” Magdalena said. “And the storyteller is among the most important. Everyone has stories from their life to tell. The hardest thing is to find the way to write them down. Storytellers know the way and do that writing for us.”
Magdalena spoke about her family.
“My father was a pharmacist, mixing medications that helped people get well. My mother was a housewife who did dishes and washed the laundry but who also had a gift. She designed and hand-stitched lovely quilts that adorned every room in our house.” She paused, a sadness shadowing her face. “And then I had one sister, six years older than I was.”
“Her name was Melody and she was a gentle and sweet person,” Magdalena said. “But the sadness of her life was that she was truly ugly. It hurts me to even say it, because it wasn’t her fault. As a child she had the smallpox sickness, and it left her face terribly pocked and scarred. I loved her very much and I saw the beauty beneath her woeful face, but sometimes even I had trouble looking at her.”
Magdalena paused, the only sound her rocker creaking. “That was my sister’s cross to bear. We both believed she would never find a man to love her and to marry her.”
“The year I was 16, and Melody was 22 she went with a friend on a trip to Santa Fe. A rodeo was playing in that town at the time. Somehow, Melody met one of the rodeo cowboys, a bronco rider named Lancer. She fell in love with him and, miracle of miracles, he must have seen the sensitive, caring person she was under her scarred face, and he fell in love with her.”
“She brought home snapshots of Lancer, and he was truly one of the handsomest men I had ever seen, curly haired with big blue eyes, as good-looking as any of the leading men in the movies at that time. And because he loved her, Lancer must have seen Melody as beautiful as Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford.”
The afternoon sun shifted slightly in the sky, shining across Magdalena’s face. She rose and moved her rocker a few inches into the shade and sat down.
“Melody came back from Santa Fe glowing with happiness, marveling at her good fortune. I had never seen her so full of joy. Lancer was traveling the rodeo circuit and she wrote to him in different cities so he had letters waiting when he arrived. He wrote her back, wonderful letters she treasured and let me share, telling her how much he loved her and promising they would travel the following year’s rodeo circuit together. When Lancer finished his rodeo tour that year, they planned to get married.”
In the alley below us, an argument broke out among a small group of boys. After a while they moved on, their angry voices growing fainter.
“That year a terrible influenza epidemic broke out across the world. Millions of people fell ill, and thousands upon thousands died. My father and mother, Melody and myself, all of us fell severely ill. Melody was the one who died. She was just 24.”
The alley below us was now deserted, the shadows cast by the fading sun swallowing the row of garages. Small squares of light snapped on in the kitchen windows of apartments around us.
“I missed Melody so much, and I cried for a long time,” Magdalena said. “What consoled me in the end was the passionate love she had found before her death. Even for the short time they spent together, Melody’s love for Lancer and his love for her brightened their lives like a bursting sun. I truly believe God knew she was going to die so young and he allowed her to find Lancer and had him find her so she’d know the blessing of such a love before her death.”
Magdalena turned to look at me, her eyes glistening with tears.
“That is my story,” she said quietly. “Someday when you are grown up and writing stories, you can write my story about Melody and then it will become your story.”
Eighty years later, near the end of my own lifetime of storytelling, I am finally writing Magdalena’s story and making it my own.
Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.