Caroline Giammanco: Before and After

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Before and After

By Caroline Giammanco

On a dreary October morning, Billie Henson sat in his favorite chair, drinking coffee and contemplating the years since his childhood. His life was bound to this place and he loved looking out the window into his familiar backyard as he daydreamed. Except for a short stint in the military, he’d lived here since he was born. He knew every nook and cranny in the old two-story farmhouse, and he was comfortable. 

 Looking out the window, he could picture his brother Larry and their friends sledding with him down the hill. He felt the crisp air on his cheeks and the numbness of his hands as his boyhood self steered his sled, slowly gliding to a stop next to the barn. Oh, how those were carefree days. Time went slower, or so it seemed, back then. Hours spent playing with his brother and friends lasted for what felt like days.

Sledding was a favorite winter pastime when he was a child. He was given his own sled when he was six, and he remembered how proud he’d been that he was finally “big.” Big was a relative term he would learn over the years. As a boy, he constantly played catch-up to his brother. Larry, being three years older, always got to do things ahead of him, and that was a source of jealousy for much of Billie’s youth. 

Billie winced at the thought. Larry was also drafted three years before Billie was at a time when the war was going strong. He never made it back from those fields made crimson by the blood of young farm boys like Larry. After that, Billie never looked at the passage of time the same. There was Before Larry’s Death and After. No other event so strictly defined his life than the loss of the only person who would ever know him that well.

The chiming clock in the background reminded him that time was still passing. He stirred his cup, and the scent of freshly brewed coffee filled the air around him. 

 Yes, those years with Larry were fun ones. They’d had their share of squabbles, but for the most part they were inseparable. Memories of ball games, double-dating the Crawford sisters, and milking cows in the early morning hours held special places in Billie’s heart. 

 The two brothers differed, however. Larry yearned to see the world and had even looked forward to being sent overseas by the Army. He was going to meet interesting people…and be killed by them. Billie never wanted to live anywhere other than the farmstead, and he hadn’t. The minute his plane touched ground on American soil, he made a beeline for home. Nothing separated him from the place he loved. 

In the years after his brother’s death, Billie cared for the farm and for his parents as they aged. There was always something to do whether it was feeding the livestock, mending the fence, or patching the roof of the house. Time with his parents, whom he adored, was treasured by Billie. Never once did he resent caring for them, and neither spent a day in a nursing home. When asked if he was ever lonely, the answer was no. He was a shy man and never bothered to marry. He wasn’t sure what to say to women and couldn’t fathom spending a lifetime trying to figure it out. That whole thing with the Crawford girl had only been to keep Larry happy. 

Over the years, the neighborhood changed. As a boy, it was a three-mile walk to the nearest neighbor’s place. Going the other direction, the Stiltmans had a large dairy operation about four miles away. Those were simpler times. On summer evenings, folks in the area would sometimes stop to visit for a while on front porches, and of course, everyone saw each other on Sundays—except for mean old Lester Parsons. That pinched-up heart of his wouldn’t even let the Gospel in. In the old days, people were self-sufficient and didn’t need the constant companionship of others. Each family worked hard and handled its own affairs. In Billie’s opinion, more people should try that. 

In time, the county paved the road going past the farm, and developers bought up farmland to create subdivisions. Multi-storied apartments now covered the Stiltman place. Why people wanted to live smack-dab on top of each other was a mystery to Billie. The influx meant new neighbors who had little respect for personal space. Gone were the days when a simple tip of your hat as you drove past was enough socialization for all involved. Now people even made friends on this thing called “social media.”

Carefully, Billie pored over all the changes he had seen in his time. New inventions and medical breakthroughs were almost daily occurrences now. Billie learned it was true that time sped by faster the older we became. Why, it had been eighty years since his parents passed away. True love kept them together even in death. His father died just three days after his sweet mother. Had it really been eighty years? Yes. Almost eighty-one come March. They both died the week before what would have been Larry’s seventieth birthday. 

New neighbors became the bane of Billie’s existence, and the latest ones were the worst yet. This new batch was constantly coming in and opening his cupboards and turning up the volume on that new-fangled flat-screen TV they put in his living room. These people had some real nerve. As best as he could, he just left them to their own devices. He stayed out of their way and tried to make his presence as unnoticeable as possible. 

Just then, a thunder of footsteps pounded down the stairwell. Two teenage boys jostled each other to reach the refrigerator first. Talking loudly and carrying on, they didn’t even notice Billie. He slowly set his coffee mug on the windowsill and faded quietly away. After all, he had an eternity to spend in his home, and these newcomers were just passing through. 

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