When George met Henrietta

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When Harry Met Sally… is a 1989 American romantic comedy film written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It stars Billy Crystal as Harry and Meg Ryan as Sally. The story follows the title characters from the time they meet just before sharing a cross-country drive, through twelve years or so of chance encounters in New York City. The film raises the question “Can men and women ever just be friends?” and advances many ideas about relationships that became household concepts, such as those of the “high-maintenance” girlfriend and the “transitional person”

Anyone who has worked with members of the opposite sex knows the relevance of this topic. It is consistently the top reason for people blowing up their lives and leaving a debris field to be swept up by the divorce lawyers.

I have written about the issue. It is like an underground coal fire burning that seemingly cannot be resolved. One experience from my childhood does inform me more than others.

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My grandmother Lucille had a younger sister named Henrietta. They had both left the dreariness of the family farm in Rhame, ND and emigrated to Montana. Henrietta married Harry and lived in Anaconda, Montana, home to the copper smelters. Harry was an incurable alcoholic who drank his weekly salary and died early. Henrietta was left to support herself and raise an only child. She opened a hair salon on her front porch and had a television tuned to the daily soaps for the girls to watch and socialize. But times were tough and the only way she could make a go of it was to do the hair on the stiffs at the local funeral home. Physically she resembled a grown up Orphane Annie with died blonde hair and curls. She was a kleptomaniac but my father tolerated her visits by putting locks on the freezers. She was, after all, family and my father’s aunt.

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George entered the scene in the 1960s. He was a sheet metal worker who had ventured out to Montana to work on State buildings. His first wife had died of cancer at 54 and it devastated him. He sold everything, gave his three kids their half and headed for Helena, Montana. After the work petered out, George picked Anaconda as the place to retire. It’s a quaint town with small homes and tree lined streets.

George met Henrietta when he blundered into her shop to get his hair cut. She cooked him dinner and the rest is history. They became friends until death overtook them both. Henrietta always introduced George as her cousin. But, we knew all the cousins and he wasn’t a branch or leaf on the tree. My dad and the rest of the family adored George and we tolerated Henrietta.

In the early 1980s, I was in Butte on business. I went over to Anaconda to see George, who I hadn’t seen since college and military service. He took me to the nursing home where Henrietta was bedridden. He went there every day for 12 years. Her son had long ago stopped coming and was estranged from the family.

What struck me as odd was that on every visit George stroked Henrietta’s hair. She didn’t respond to language but purred like a kitten when her hair was stroked. I think it had some erotic overtones from the past. At any rate, George indulged her until the day she died. Upon her death and burial, George packed up and went back to Minnesota where he died and was buried beside his first wife.

As I think back on it, the relationship between Henrietta and George was pure love and friendship. On that visit, George and I finished off a bottle of vodka. He revealed that a day had not gone by that he had not thought of his first wife. He visited her grave twice a year.  Once a year with his children and once a year by himself after solo trips driven through the night.

If Henrietta and George had a sexual relationship my guess is it was the minimal part of their relationship. Perhaps reaching an older age allowed focusing on issues transcending the hardwiring of biology and the desires to procreate.

I am not sure this anecdote allows one to infer beyond the a particular situation. But, it does proves such relationships are possible and can be fulfilling. The conditions for success require two individuals, both of whom are more interested in the other person’s well-being, rather than fueling their ego or narcissm.

Another afterthought. Both Henrietta and George could have dealt with their initial losses by becoming victims and grief-stricken. That’s what most people do.  They often die just a few years beyond the loss of their original partner. But, both of these individuals became child-like. They lived a full 15 years beyond the life expectancy of their peer group. I doubt that it was genetics. It was emotional well-being. And, I doubt if either of their original partners would have wanted to deny them that final happiness.

Me. I just hope that if I end up in a nursing home that there is someone, anyone who will be willing to touch me and administer to my basic needs. If God sends angels to earth, he sent George to Henrietta and vice versa. I think that is as good as it gets.

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