Monday, December 19, 2011


Mr. Liechty was not tall, rounded and solid, with thinning white hair, large dark spots on his head that looked like oversized freckles, and thick jowls that gave him a built-in scowl, but he also had a quick grin and a low chuckle. He was handy in the yard, but usually left the planting to his wife -- more often he was down seeing to the horses. He always wore glasses, red suspenders, denim slacks and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. (The only time I ever saw him wear anything else was at the funeral -- he had on a grey-brown three-piece suit, and it looked stifling on him.) His whole demeanor cried out "grandpa" or "Utah farmer." It came through in everything he did, as though he were an actor hired to play himself, like Wilford Brimley or John Wayne. It was weirdly paradoxical to hear him give the genus, species, and growing habits of the trees and flowers in his yard -- he had a degree in botanical science, and had taught botany classes at BYU -- in his hard-edged weathered voice.

He had a passion for horses, and had two old work horses on the lower edge of the property; their names were Tough Luck and Luke. My youngest sister Michele, who gravitated to any horse she could find, would stop by to talk to Tough Luck and Luke almost daily on her way home from elementary school, bringing apples or carrots or anything else she thought they might like to eat. Mr. Liechty, who found in her the kindred spirit he had hoped for but never experienced with his own daughters, would later pay for Michele to take riding lessons at a local stable. I can still see her at the final riding exhibition after her lessons. Her long brown hair is flying back in the wind as she canters around the small arena, she sits the horse as comfortably as though she'd been born to it, and she has a rare expression on her face, a combination of serenity and delight, that I wish I could see more often.

In the fall, Mr. Liechty and his son would go deer hunting, and the whole neighborhood would know if they had caught anything, because when they got back he would go to the edge of the property near the road, build a fire and set up a tripod over it, then roll out the cauldron and start making venison stew. This was his signal to the neighbors to grab a bowl and spoon and come over. It was a pretty casual method of cooking -- fill it to here with water from the hose, add the venison and some lamb bones if he had any, stew it all day with whole potatoes and carrots and onions, some ears of corn if the harvest had been good, and maybe a dash of spices -- and it was a pretty casual method of eating as well. You would come over with bowl and spoon in hand, and he would take a massive iron ladle, stirring around the pot for the good bits, and serve you a huge steaming bowl of stew. It was messy, required a fair amount of gnawing at bones and cornhusks, and on a crisp fall day it was possibly the most delicious food on earth. Mrs. Liechty (he always called her "Mama," pronouncing it "mumma" with the last syllable rather cut off) would always stay in the house because she couldn't stand the gamey smell of the stewing venison. She also couldn't stand the smell whenever he smoked fish, and half a dozen other of his highly-perfumed pursuits.

While Mr. Liechty was the rugged outdoorsman type, Mrs. Liechty was frail, fussy and domestic. Mr. Liechty was 11 years older than his wife, with whom he had carried on a torrid postal romance while he was away at war. Her parents had voiced their concerns -- he was far too old to be an appropriate suitor, he wasn't good enough for their Florence -- but he must have won them over somehow because in 1945, as soon as he came back from the war, they were married.

I came to know the family through Mrs. Liechty's persistent ill health; she was recovering from one of several abdominal surgeries and was under doctor's orders not to do anything but the lightest housework, so she hired me to come over once a week on Saturday mornings and do a thorough housecleaning. Scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming a home every week gives one plenty of time to observe and to think, and even as a somewhat clueless high school student, I did my share of observing and thinking.

It was the kind of home where all the family members and close friends entered by the back door, the one attached to the kitchen; the front door, which looked out over the sunset, was reserved for company coming into the parlor -- and Mrs. Liechty was definitely the kind of person who had a parlor, and who kept it spotless at all times. On the mantle in the parlor was a commissioned oil portrait of Mrs. Liechty, the face of which she had had repainted at least once because she disliked the way the painter had portrayed her features. The rooms she lived in were mostly pale pink and white, filled with china, delicate jewelry, objets d'art, and the books that had been in vogue when she was a young mother. Mrs. Liechty, too, was pale pink and white, with fading strawberry-blonde hair; although her husband had a decade on her, her mannerisms often made her seem the older of the two.

I worked for the Liechtys for several years, and in that time I simply couldn't understand how these two highly disparate people had ever come to take an interest in each other, let alone marry and have children together. The only things they seemed to have in common were religious convictions and a love of growing things. Surely that wasn't enough to build a relationship upon? It frankly baffled me how this chipped stoneware mug and this delicate china cup had shared the same cupboard space for over 40 years. And in some ways I felt a bit sorry for Mr. Liechty. He was so fond of his wife that she could bully him a bit and get away with it; she disliked the mess and smell of so many of the things he enjoyed doing, and so he was often relegated to the garage or the horse pasture, with the idea that the sight or scent of his activities would not reach her in the house. What kinds of things would he have been free to do if he'd married a woman who was more sympathetic to his interests?

And then, when I was in college, Mrs. Liechty died. That was how I came to see Mr. Liechty's stifling three-piece suit for the first time. At the funeral, he was stooped over, shuffling, his hands shaking, the light gone out of his eyes. He was already well past retirement age when I'd first met him, but it was only at his wife's funeral that I realized Mr. Liechty was a very old man. He'd never really seemed so before. But when "Mama" went out of his life, far from freeing him to do what he pleased, I saw that she had drawn away half his spirit with her, and there seemed not enough of it left in his body to sustain him alone. He did not live very long after that.

It took the funeral to help me recognize something. People like the Liechtys, who seem so different as to be wholly incompatible -- like a morning-glory vine clinging to the trunk of an old aspen tree -- often have quietly symbiotic relationships; their differences, which often appear insurmountable to an outside observer, often complement and strengthen each other in ways that are difficult to quantify unless and until the two are separated. Only then can you see how the aspen needs the vine, just as much as the vine needs the aspen.


Wendy Jean said...

I really needed to read this today! Thanks!

Jenny said...

Do you know what I loved about Mr. Liechty? When I would deliver his paper, he would quite often leave me an apple or several candies in the newspaper box. It always made me so happy. It seemed like the rest of my papers delivered themselves because I had something delicious to take my mind off of the work.

Soozcat said...

There were lots of things to love about Mr. Liechty. In truth, there were lots of things to love about Mrs. Liechty too. I really enjoyed working for them.