Most people remembered birthdays and anniversaries and all sorts of holidays. Some people kept little books wherein they listed all the happy dates they needed to observe or remember or punctuate with a gift. Not Hilda. Hilda remembered the days of death. She didn’t need a little book wherein she listed the days of death. The important days were permanently embedded in her brain.
Hilda’s husband Geoffrey had died on a cold day in January, January 15 to be exact. Though she had been a widow for ten years, she still mourned him and made a special effort to mope every January 15. But that wasn’t the only day for depression. Hilda’s father had died on February 3, over thirty years ago. And on every February 3, Hilda would walk to the cemetery in her town of Ashleyville, Ohio and talk to Daddy. Her friend Joyce didn’t think that was such a bad idea, even though Joyce rarely visited the graves of her own parents, who had left this life over two decades before. What bothered Joyce was not the visit to the cemetery but the way Hilda spent the rest of the day, moping, crying, calling friends and mourning the fact that she was an orphan.
“Hilda, dear, you’re over sixty-years-old. Your parents passed away when you were already an adult. You were in your thirties.”
“I lost them both within a year of each other. That made me an orphan.”
“I looked up the definition of ‘orphan’ just because you keep using that word. An orphan is a child, a minor.”
Still, Hilda kept thinking of herself as an orphan, and she even complained to her father on February 3 about Joyce. Daddy didn’t answer.
In March, March 14 to be precise, Hilda was back at the cemetery, this time talking to her mother and once again later complaining to Joyce about her orphan status.
When Hilda called Joyce on January 15, February 3, and March 14, Joyce would often say, “For crying out loud!” She liked saying it, and it didn’t involve any swear words. She would say it when she saw Hilda’s name on her caller ID. When Hilda hung up, Joyce would say it again, and when she felt bold, she would say it at least once during the conversation.
On April 25th, Hilda had two relatives to remember: her Aunt Hilda after whom she was named, and her Uncle Joachim, who was married to someone who was not Aunt Hilda. Joyce sometimes thought she needed to keep a chart in order to follow Hilda’s days of mourning. But that would be silly and would mean that she was somehow becoming part of her friend’s quirkiness.
Every month involved crying over a dead friend or parent or uncle or aunt or cousin or sometimes multiple relatives. Joyce was getting heartily sick of the whole process and considered breaking off her friendship with Hilda, which had now lasted for fifteen years.
Joyce needed a strategy, something more than yelling “For crying out loud” before, during, and after phone calls on melancholy days. She pondered and wondered and thought about Hilda’s problem, which had become Joyce’s problem, since she had let her friend’s morbidity affect her own equilibrium, but only on certain days of each month.
One day in June when the sun was shining, the birds chirping, and flowers blooming, Joyce knocked on Hilda’s door. She was reasonably sure this was not one of Hilda’s mourning mornings, so to speak.
“Hi, Hilda. I have something for you.”
“For me? How sweet. Come on in. I’ll get you a cup of coffee.”
They sat at the kitchen table, by the window that overlooked Hilda’s abundant flower garden. Joyce took a sip of coffee, then reached into her gigantic tote bag. She pulled out a small package. “I hope you’ll like this.” She handed the package to Hilda.
Hilda quickly unwrapped the package like the little girl she used to be. “What is it? Oh, it’s a beautiful book.” She opened it. “It’s a calendar, an eighteen-month calendar. That’s different.” She sounded disappointed.
Joyce took another sip of coffee. “Hilda, I’ve been worried about you.”
“Me? There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think there is. Look, you keep observing the deaths of people, people who died a long time ago. I’m worried that you are going to keep adding death dates to your calendar.”
“I don’t use a calendar. The dates are in my head. Is that why you gave me this calendar, so I can add more days to mourn people?” Hilda looked puzzled, but also hopeful, Joyce thought.
“No, no, not that. I bought the calendar for you so you can start celebrating happy events. Birthdays. Anniversaries. The end of World War II. Flag Day. Whatever you want to celebrate, so long as it’s happy. And, look, the calendar starts July 1. I had it made especially for you so you can start next week. That will give you time to start putting in notes about happy events to celebrate.”
“Had it made for me? I didn’t know that was possible. Really?” Hilda sounded doubtful.
“You can get just about anything you want on the internet. Custom made. Did you see your name on the cover and on the first page?”
Hilda looked carefully. “Wow. I’m impressed.” She sat at the kitchen table looking through the calendar. “Gee, it even has pictures.”
“Do you notice anything about the pictures?”
Hilda turned the pages and thought before answering. “Well, I guess the pictures are all about happy things, happy people, happy events. Did you choose the pictures, Joyce?”
“Of course. Look, I want you to stop mourning people who have been dead for years. Why don’t you celebrate your mother’s birthday or your aunt’s wedding anniversary, or the end of World War II?
“Why do you keep talking about the end of World War II?”
“Don’t know. I like the way it sounds. And you could celebrate two days for the price of one, so to speak. V-E Day and V-J Day.”
“Never heard of them.”
“V-E Day means Victory in Europe Day. V-J Day means Victory in Japan Day. Both the Germans and their friends had to surrender, and so did the Japanese thousands of miles away.”
“But isn’t it sad to think about war?”
“This is the end of a war, a great big war. So it’s a happy time. But listen, you don’t have to observe the end of World War II if you don’t want to. Can’t you find other happy occasions?”
“I guess so. Maybe this is a good idea. It would be more fun to celebrate Mom’s birthday than her death. Or I could go have a banana split or something on the anniversary of Marilyn and Joe’s wedding.”
“Relatives of yours?”
“No. I was thinking of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.”
“Didn’t they get divorced?”
“Yeah. I guess. Well, how about Karam Chand and Kartari Chand?”
“Who? Never heard of them.”
“I looked them up on the internet. Well, not them, exactly. I wanted to find out who had been married the longest. Karam Chand and Kartari Chand got married on December 11, 1925, in India and then later moved to Bradford, England. They were married for ninety years. As of 2015. The Chands may be dead by now. Still, that could be an event worth celebrating. Wouldn’t it?” Hilda looked at Joyce for approval.
“Sure. Why not? You know, Hilda, I bet that if you put your mind to it, you could find something to celebrate every single day of the year.”
Hilda smiled. “Maybe I could. But what about Leap Year?”
“That shouldn’t be too hard. Wait, I’ll check my phone.” Joyce started tapping and frowning and tapping some more. Then she smiled. “Here’s something. On February 29, 1940 Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar. It was for her performance in Gone With the Wind. That’s cool. See, if you try, you can fill every day on your calendar with happy events to celebrate.”
“But what about my loved ones?”
Joyce sighed. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. You celebrate their birthdays or weddings or some event you shared. Not the day someone was diagnosed with a terminal illness or died.”
Hilda was silent for a minute. Then she smiled. “Thanks, Joyce. I think I can do this.”
“Yes, I’m sure you can. If anyone can, you can.”
Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Her scholarly work has appeared in such publications as Clues: A Journal of Detection; FOLLY; Mythlore; Dime Novel Roundup; the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and eight volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Her essay “Where Are You, O High-School Friends?” was published in Unfinished Chapters (2015) and “Finding Bill” in Finding Mr. Right (2016). "Tea with Barbara" appears in the 2018 collection Table for Two. Her short stories have appeared in Gilbert, Down in the Dirt, Dual Coast, Jitter Press, Red Fez, Speculative Grammarian, Scarlet Leaf Review, Knee-Jerk, Eyedrum Periodically, Adelaide, and Inwood Indiana Press. Her one-act play, "Astrid; Or, My Swedish Mama", was produced by the Hopewell Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio in March 2018.