Opinion: Working for a widow

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Commentary by Ward Degler

We felt sorry for Mrs. Costner when her husband died in the war. My parents told me I should ask what I could do to help out at her house.

I was 10 at the time and felt a little awkward asking a grieving widow if I could carry out her trash or rake the leaves in her yard. Mrs. Costner, on the other hand, never hesitated.

“That’s sweet,” she said. “There’s a bunch of junk in the attic that Harry was going to get down, but never got around to it.” I climbed the ladder to the attic and began hauling stuff down.

It was awful. Everything was dusty, and the attic was full of spiders. But after the job was done, she had me wash my hands at the sink, and then she gave me an oatmeal cookie.

The garage, too, was full of junk. Dutifully, I hauled it to the curb so the junk man could cart it away. There was a trunk in her basement that contained quilts and blankets that had belonged to her grandmother. They needed to be aired out on the clothesline in her back yard. Then they needed to be folded and put away again.

Naturally, when I was finished I got a cookie.

One Saturday in the spring I spent planting petunias and snapdragons in her flowerbed. Subsequent weekends I pulled weeds.

Over the next four years I did a hundred different chores for Mrs. Costner. Things, she said, that Harry was going to do but didn’t.

We moved away from that town some time later; I went through high school and college. After that, I went into the army where, on occasion, I thought about Harry Costner, how he had died defending our country, and I wondered how Mrs. Costner was getting on.

Many years later my younger sister was visiting from Arizona and we decided to revisit our old hometown. We drove around for a while, checking out the school building that had long ago yielded its desks and blackboards to the new school across the street.

I showed her the building that used to be a dairy where I worked summers and weekends washing milk bottles and running the pasteurizer. It had long been abandoned and forgotten.

Then we stopped in front of the house where we grew up, and I pointed to the house next door where Mrs. Costner had lived. An old woman opened the front door and peeked out.

“Mrs. Costner?” I asked hesitantly. She adjusted the glasses on her nose and peered at me.

“Well,” she said with a smile of recognition, “I suppose you could fix that screen door if you wanted to.”


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