The old man sat in the lawn chair by the newly set headstone, and gently traced the name of his wife of over fifty years. As his hands caressed the words following her personal particulars, a soft smile came to his face as he read the epitaph. Quietly he said the words, “It coulda been worse.”
His mind wandered back over sixty years to a hot summer day on a dusty street in a small town in Oklahoma. An old tin Lizzy clanked and clattered down the road, and shuddered to a stop in front of the general store. With a loud bang and hiss, the car seemed to lie down in exhaustion as the doors burst open and a teeming mass of children and dogs tumbled out in a seemingly endless stream. The last one out was a small red haired girl. Covered in enough freckles to compete with the local red-tick coon hounds, and wearing a faded dress patched with cotton flour sacks, she stood on the running board like a queen surveying her kingdom. Hopping down she stood appraising the old car, sighed and said, “Well, it coulda been worse, we coulda broke down in the desert miles from water.”
The small, ragged boy, who had watched the whole show, grinned at her words, grabbed his slingshot and sauntered over for a closer look. He looked the girl up and down, stuck out a grubby hand, and said, “Hey, my name is Henry Oxley, Y’all stayin’ here?” She grinned a gapped toothed smile, pointed at the car, and asked him, “What do you think? That car ain’t goin’ no place soon. If’n thar’s work here my Pa’ll stay, and I’m Maude Tuttle. I know it’s an awful name but it coulda been worse, I coulda been called Mud Puddle.” Her words took the wind right out of Harry’s sails, because Mud Puddle would have been exactly what he would have called her the first time he had a chance. Maude had a way with things like, that, she’d say just the right thing to take any chance of hurt out of a careless word.
Henry and Maude soon became the best of friends. Anywhere one was, the other was sure to be right behind. Harry took a lot of teasing from his pals for a while, until Maude stepped in and showed them she was just as good, if not better than they were at throwing a baseball, spitting, and stealing the occasional watermelon to share down at the creek on a hot summer afternoon. Before long, Maude became a regular member of the small group of poor farm kids who ran free in the woods around the small town that endless summer.
The years went by and they shared all the adventures of their lives from getting caught skipping school to go fishing, to getting lost in the snow on the way home from town one day. Maude could always be counted on to find something positive about situation just when it seemed at its worse. The words, “It coulda been worse” became her trademark statement, and darned if she wasn’t able to come up with a reason why it could have been every time. On the day they nearly froze to death when they were twelve, they had managed to wander into a barn and after groping around in the dark, they found enough hay to make a place to sit. Huddled together to stay warm, teeth chattering, hearts filled with fear, and bellies rumbling with hunger she turned to Henry and said, “It coulda been worse, we might lose a finger or a few toes, but at least we didn’t lie down and die in the snow.” Henry, who had been contemplating life as a fiddler wasn’t too amused, but he could see her point. When they were finally found the next morning, Harry got a visit to the woodshed with his Dad, but it coulda been worse, his Ma coulda kissed him in front of everyone like Maude’s Ma did her.
When Maudie turned 14 something mysterious and strange began to take place, she turned into a woman. That caused no end of confusion to poor Henry. His best pal went from being a grubby, dirt covered, barefoot ragamuffin in torn overalls to being a Female, with a capital F. She wore dresses, and, heaven help him, took to washing her face every day. It was just downright disgusting. Until one day he happened to really look at her and realized that she sure coulda been worse on the eyes that she was. It took a year or so, but Henry finally grew up enough to appreciate Maudie’s new looks. Soon they went from seed spitting contests and shooting at trees with sling shots, to exchanging shy smiles and holding hands when no one was looking. It didn’t surprise anyone when they told their families they wanted to marry when they grew up. After all, as Maudie put it, it coulda been worse, at least Henry would always have a job working on the family farm.
Life has a way of changing the best of plans. War broke out across the sea and the enemy had to be stopped. Like all fit young men, Henry volunteered to defend his country. Maudie and Henry married in a quiet ceremony on a Sunday afternoon at the local church. It wasn’t much of a celebration because Henry was going off to war then next day. As he stood next to his brand new wife, he tried to say all the things in his heart, and apologized that her wedding day was so simple. Maudie, smiled her sunniest grin and said, “Oh, Henry, it coulda been worse, if I’d had a big fancy wedding we would have had to invite all the folks we don’t like. This way, it was just those we love best and the Lord,” and darn it all, if she wasn’t right.
Henry went off to war for four long years. He wrote letters home to Maudie, letters that she would read over and over before putting them in an old cigar box that she tied with a pink ribbon from her bridal flowers. Henry didn’t talk much about the war, he would write about the things he wanted to do with the farm when he got home. He would talk about the men he served with, and once he told her about running into Junior Bonham in a small town in Italy in the middle of a battle. She wrote back every week, and reminded him of the things of home. She would tell him about the baby chicks that she found under the corn ric in the barn, the new calf that old Maisy gave them each year. She talked about his brothers and how John went off to war as soon as he was seventeen, but before he left he married Suky Williams and they made him an uncle of a baby boy. She told him about moving in with his parents when his Ma came down with pneumonia after working in the rain too long, and that she just stayed on because his Ma was never strong again. She told about the way they did without tires and gasoline for the war effort, and she said that sugar was harder to find than hens teeth, but it coulda been worse because at least they could cook up some sorghum for sweeting. But she didn’t tell him that once a month she would go to the movies in town and watch the news reels in hopes of seeing his face as the soldiers marched by the cameras.
Then one June day, just when the corn was about knee high, Henry came home. She was bent over the old wash tub in the front yard, scrubbing the mud out of yet another pair of overalls for one of the younger boys. She looked up to see him standing at the yard fence with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a tired look in his eyes. Well, she thought, it coulda been worse, my man is alive and whole, Junior Bonham never came home. Henry just stood and stared at his Maudie all grown up. And when he finally took her in his arms, all he could feel was that he was thankful to his bones that he had her to come home to. Henry was always quiet when it came to talk about the war. He didn’t bring it up, and he never made it sound as fun as the other boys did when they came home in twos and threes, he just quietly folded up his uniform and took that old duffel bag up to the attic and never took it out again.
The years slowly rolled by and Maudie gave him a house full of kids to raise in the old home place. His Ma and Dad passed on, and he took over the farm while Maudie raised kids, kept house, and filled a garden with plants to give them a root cellar full of food every winter. They lived through hard times and good times, standing together when they needed and always loving each other even when she was spitting mad at something he had done, or he was worried about money and took it out on her. There were moments that stood out in his memory, like when their first baby was born in the middle of winter and caught the whooping cough and almost died. Maudie fought for that baby boy with all her soul and strength. When he finally started to mend, Henry held her in his arms as she wept in exhaustion and relief. There was the time he got caught by the falling tree when he was logging in the winter to make ends meet. When he came limping in with a broken leg and stitches in his head, she just shook her head and went about trying to figure how to make it with him laid up for weeks.
In good times and bad, Maudie stood strong for her family. When things were bad, she would always find a reason why it coulda been worse. She helped her neighbors, served with the ladies in her church, took care of the old and the young, laughed her big laugh, and cried silent tears, but she always just kept on doing what she thought was right. When she was a young mother, she’d come to town on Saturday with a gaggle of red headed, freckled faced kids following behind and as they grew older, she would often be seen with one of her grandchildren holding her hand as she did her shopping. And always near would be her Henry with his quiet ways and slow smile to compliment her.
One day Maudie realized she wasn’t feeling too good. Her red hair had long since turned white, and her freckles competed with age spots for space on her skin. She was bent and slower, and soft in all the right places, with a lap just perfect for a grand baby to sit on. She finally took herself off to see the young man who said he was a doctor and he told her that she was going to die. Well, he put it nicer than that, but Maudie knew that is exactly what he meant. She went home and took a long look around at the farm, talked to the grandson that worked there and who was taking on more and more as Henry slowed down a tad, and decided it was time to settle her life.
Maudie gave away all her treasures to her family and friends. When she gave the old cigar box of letters to Henry, she made him promise not to destroy them but to pass them on to their kids when he was ready. She wrote long letters to her children and grandchildren, and she spent hours sitting quietly remembering the past with Henry. He knew she was sick, everyone did, but they all carried on like she wanted them to, pretending she would be there forever. In a way she would be, because every now and then there would be a little red headed, freckled faced girl crop up among the grandchildren who looked just like her. Or there would be an ornery grandson who laughed her big laugh and smiled with her gapped toothed grin. But Maudie knew she was dying, and when it came time to say goodbye, she took the time to see each one of them alone and whispered encouragement, hope, and love into their ears and hearts.
One hot summer day, Maudie was sitting on the front porch in her favorite chair, she turned to Henry and said, “Well, Henry, I guess its time to go. It coulda been worse, at least I stayed around this old town for nearly 60 years.” That night, Maudie died in her sleep.
The funeral was attended by just about everyone in the county. Every farmer, storekeeper, and rancher knew Maudie Oxley. Her family took up five rows in the church, Henry thought Maudie would have been proud to look down and see so many of her kin folks there. They buried her next to his parents in the cemetery by the old church. Henry turned into an old man over night.
That day, as he traced her epitaph, he whispered to his Maudie about all the things that were happening in the lives of their children and grandchildren. He told her of his loneliness and how much he missed her. Henry folded up the old lawn chair, tears rolled down his face as he said, “I know you’d say it coulda been worse, but Maudie with you gone, I just don’t know how it could be.”