The Love I'll Never Forget
"She was elusive and beguiling, and I was dizzy for her, of course."
Crookston, my home town is a farming community of 8000 people, tucked into the northwest corner of Minnesota. Not a lot extraordinary passes through. Gretchen was an exception.
For one thing, she was an Eickhof, one of Crookston’s wealthiest family. They lived in a sprawling brick place on the banks of the Red Lake River and spent summers at their vacation home on Union Lake, 30 miles away.
Despite her numerous blessings, which included great physical beauty, there was nothing snooty about Gretchen. She was among the first to befriend new kids at school and tutored students less able than herself. She moved through the various elements of school society - farm kids, jocks and geeks - dispensing bonhomie to all. Gretchen, the Central High School Homecoming Queen of 1975, clearly was going places.
I knew Gretchen only enough to exchange greetings when we passed in the halls. I was a good athlete and, in the parlance of the time, kind of cute. But I was insecure, especially around females - creatures I found mysterious and more intimidating than fastballs hurled high and tight.
All of which may explain my bewilderment one midsummer night in 1977 when Gretchen and I bumped into each other at a local hangout. I’d just finished my first year at the University of North Dakota. Gretchen, whose horizons were much broader, was home from California after her first year at Stanford University.
Gretchen greeted me happily. I remembered the feel of her hand, rough as leather from hours in the waters of Union Lake, as she pulled me toward the dance floor. She was nearly as tall as I, with perfect almond skin, soft features and fluorescent white teeth. Honey-blond hair hung in strands past her shoulders. Her sleeveless white shirt glowed in the strobe lights, setting off arms that were brown and strong from swimming, horseback riding and canoeing.
Gretchen was a poor dancer, I noticed that night. But she moved to the music enthusiastically, smiling dreamily. After a few dances we stood and talked, yelling to each other over the music. By the time I walked her to her car, the street was deserted. Traffic lights blinked yellow. We held hands as we walked. And when we arrived at her car, she invited me to kiss her. I was glad to oblige.
Summer fun: I never had much purchase on Gretchen’s heart. She was fond of me, no doubt. Two years earlier, she eventually revealed, she had been my "Guardian Angel" - the anonymous benefactor who left cookies and inspirational notes at my locker before my hockey games.
But Gretchen could be as elusive as mercury. As passionately as she would return some of my kisses that summer and the next, for her I was part of the interlude between childhood and the more serious endeavours of adulthood to come.
Thus, Gretchen and I rarely ventured beyond the surface of life. She never mentioned the future of in any respect, or any nagging worry or sorrow. She never told me of the time where she was 11 and she broke both legs skiing and for months had to be carried around by her father. Gretchen had to teach herself to walk again after that, and years later her family pointed to the injury as the root of both her compassion and her independence.
I was dizzy for her, of course, and had a bad habit of saying no. Each time I did, she pulled away from me. These were university summers, not the time for moony eyes and vows of undying devotion.
One night in 1978 when Gretchen and I were together, out of nowhere she spoke the words that guys in my situation dread above all.
"Tim," she said, "I think we should just be friends."
I told her I was tired of her games and was not as much of a fool as she thought. And I stormed away. By morning I cooled off. I sent Gretchen some roses that day, and a note offering an apology and my friendship.
Gretchen and I started dating again about a month after. But this time I had learnt my lesson. No more moony eyes. I could be as detached and aloof as the next guy.
It worked beautifully for a few weeks. Finally, Gretchen asked, "What’s wrong with you?"
"You’re not yourself," she said. "You haven’t been for a long time."
"No," I said. I let her in on my ruse, the feigned standoffishness designed to keep her near. For the only time I remember, she became angry. Then she proposed a deal.
"You be who you are," she said, "and I won’t go anywhere, at least for the rest of the summer."
I was a bargain I quickly accepted. She was as good as her word.
Not long before Gretchen left again for Stanford, she and her sister hosted a large party at the lake. With all the duties as hostess, Gretchen would have little time for me, I surmised.
But midway through the raucous event, she gestured for me to follow as she sprinted the length of the dock, dove into the cold water and set off swimming toward a distant floating platform. I watched her brown arms slice the water with power and grace. I nearly drowned before getting top the platform myself, and she helped pull me up.
The two of us lingered there for a long while, toeing the small waves and watching the throng on shore. I thought it a very nice way for her to acknowledge our friendship in front of the crowd.
Those weeks seemed golden, a bit unreal. One time as we said goodnight, I discarded the final wisp of my caution and told Gretchen that I loved her. She only smiled.
In early September I left for university. Gretchen and her friend Julie Janecky drove over from Crookston and surprised me in my dorm room, hauling me out dancing.
I came back to Crookston to see her off to Stanford in mid-September. While Gretchen packed, I absently shot pool at her father’s table. When she finished, we took a last walk around her family’s horse pasture in the gathering September chill. I thought of how dramatically our lives were about to diverge and was saddened. But more than anything, I felt gratitude for the fine, sun times we had spent over the last two summers.
Gretchen planned to find work in California the next summer. For her, the serious past of life beckoned, and I knew what that meant.
"Good-bye," she replied. "Say ‘See you later.’"
Back at school, emboldened by my experience with Gretchen, I began dating a student in the journalism department. Gretchen fell in love with a ruggedly handsome center on the Stanford football team.
The evening of October 9, 1978, I called her in California to wish her a happy 21st birthday. She thanked me for calling but sounded distracted. A loud party was obviously in progress. I quickly rang off.
The last of the autumn leaves were falling on October 13, but the sky was a cloudless blue, the air crisp and invigorating. Classes were done for the day, It is rare when happiness and contentment consciously register with a person, but they did that morning.
The telephone rang the second I stepped in my dorm room. I recognized Julie Janecky’s voice on the other end of the line and my heart soared. Julie was to be married the following month, and maybe Gretchen would be returning to Crookston for the wedding after all.
But hearing the uncharacteristic quiet scratch of Julie’s voice, I knew Gretchen was dead.
The previous morning, Julie told me, Gretchen had collected one of her birthday presents from a friend: a ride in a small plane. Shortly after takeoff, the craft lurched out of control and pitched into a marsh. Gretchen and her friend were killed instantly.
"Gretchen’s parents wondered if you would be a pallbearer," Julie said.
"I’d be honoured," I replied.
The word sounded strange even as it left my mouth. Honoured? Is that what you felt when you helped bury a friend - a smart, sunny beauty queen who was going places? I left my dormitory and walked aimlessly. I am told I sought out a campus priest, but 18 years later I have no memory of that.
Back home that afternoon, I knocked on the door of my high school hockey coach. He took me out for a drive. As we talked, I thought it strange that people should be concerned with such trivial matters as buying groceries when Gretchen Eickhof was dead.
How does a person grieve? I wondered, puzzled at my lack of tears.
Saturday night, I drove out to the Eickhof placed, past the horse pasture when Gretchen and I had walked together. The grieving family took me in as one of them. At one point Gretchen’s mother left the room and returned with a photograph of her daughter and me, taken a few weeks before. I was squinting, my arm lightly around Gretchen’s shoulder. She was smiling broadly, her teeth so white against her almond skin.
"Gretchen was very fond of you, Tim" her mother said.
The night after the funeral, Joel Rood and I sat in his Chevy Vega outside the restaurant where Gretchen’s mourning friends planned to congregate. At school Joel and I had been team-mates and best buddies, spending countless Saturday nights cruising the country roads, talking about sports or school, or love, or what the years might bring. Seeing him now was the beginning of both my pain and my consolation.
In the yellow Vega, as Joel spoke of Gretchen, his voice briefly failed. That tiny catch in my old friend’s voice dissolved whatever stood between me and my sorrows. My torrents of grief were unleashed.
The next morning Joel and I joined a procession from the Eickhof’s lakeside summer house into the nearby woods. Gretchen’s sisters took turns carrying a small urn that contained her ashes. It was cool and sunny, and the fallen leaves cracked underfoot.
We came to a lone birch tree, its magnificent white bark standing out among the surrounding brown maples. Many years before, Gretchen , her father and younger sister had discovered the tree and carved the date and their names in the bark.
Someone said a prayer. Gretchen’s father placed the urn in the ground below the birch. Above us, wind rustled through newly barren branches.
I was among the last to leave. I emerged from the woods that day into a different world, an adult world, where memories of first love linger, but summers always end.