A few years ago, Mrs Wilderness and I bought a motor home in California and spent the next four months just wandering around America. On a warm July day, on our way from Cheyenne, Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota we happened to stop at Fort Laramie, Wyoming for a cup of coffee. Not that we really needed another cup of coffee but this town, with all two-hundred and fifty residents, looked to us to be the essence of what used to be the western frontier of the United States. An old Army Fort abandoned in 1890, a trading post store selling "Real Indian Blankets" made in Mexico and deserted streets with an occasional pick-up truck attesting to some form of habitation. We liked the 'Old West' look of the just plain old buildings along the hot dusty streets. The sign at the entrance to town said, "Welcome to Fort Laramie, population 250 good people, and 6 sore heads." This was, indeed, my kind of town.
Margaret's Café looked particularly inviting as we went by, not because it looked well attended, there wasn't a place in town that even looked open for business. It looked... homey, like a place run by friendly people. I could just imagine a couple of wooden tables with kitchen chairs pulled around and a kindly "Margaret" slowly, but efficiently caring for your needs. A middle-aged man sitting out front on a wooden chair drinking from a coffee cup led us to believe Margaret's was open for business.
As we walked in the front door the man offered a "Nice day isn't it?" and followed us in. He told us, "You can sit anywhere you want" pointing out the few wooden tables with kitchen chairs pulled up around them. It was just as we had imagined except the man himself didn't fit in my mind's eye view. I said, "You don't really look like Margaret to me." He said, "No Margaret is in the back there but I can get you anything you need." I looked toward the back of the café and there standing in front of the color TV was the perfect look-alike to my mind's Margaret.
She was a slight, elderly lady with grey hair dressed in a gingham dress and wearing an apron. With a twinkle in her eye she said, "I think he's just kidding you Nathan." I asked Nathan for a couple of cups of coffee and he filled two clear glass cups for us from a large electric coffee urn. Margaret came over and sat down at the table with us just like we were family and we were sitting down to a morning cup of coffee together.
It wasn't long before Margaret volunteered she had just lost her husband of sixty-five years a short time ago. She said she had a wonderful life with her husband but then during the last two years he really didn't know her very often.
Soon Margaret was telling us her wonderful story as if we were long lost family and she was bringing us up to date. It seems Margaret came to the area when she was three years old from Nebraska where she was born. She had travelled west with her parents, sisters and brothers in a 'covered wagon'.
In May, a late, freezing storm struck just as they arrived at their new homestead. The only shelter they had was a tent and the covered wagon. All of the stock died in that storm except for two horses, which were put into the tent along with Margaret and her brothers and sisters.
When Margaret was just fourteen years old, Harold, her husband-to-be, came a courting on his horse. Margaret's Mother and Father knew of him because he lived just down the road and it was common knowledge that his Mother had died of influenza in the great epidemic. He did some rope tricks with his lariat on the ground and then stood up on his horse and did a few more. Margaret was so impressed she told her sister, "That's my boyfriend."
Very soon thereafter, still at the age of fourteen, Margaret was allowed to marry Harold. Margaret's parents thought he was a good boy and would take good care of her. Indeed, that is what he did for the next sixty-five years.
When Margaret and her husband were still quite young, Harold's Sister who was suffering a mental breakdown beat her young 18-month-old son with a piece of wood and caused irreparable brain damage. The doctors said he would have to be institutionalized for the rest of his life but Margaret would hear nothing of it. She and her husband decided to raise the boy as their own. He grew into a young man and he was doing quite well, he had just poured our coffee for us.
A look of pride came over Margaret's face as she praised Nathan's handwriting and said he was real good with adding up the customer's bills in the café. She did admit she had to keep the old relic of a cash register and the inverted 'steel building-nail' filing system, as they were the only machines they could both handle.
Margaret's husband had moved the family to Fort Laramie when he was transferred there in his job with the railroad. Margaret had helped support the family by opening a café catering to the railroad employees and she had worked there for most of her life.
Then Margaret told us of the trouble she had with her husband toward the end, how he didn't know who she was and yet needed her constant attention. She wanted to keep him at home so she could take care of him and wouldn't let anyone take him to the hospital or a home.
At this point in her story Margaret started to look around the room instead of at us and I noticed her eyes start to mist as she told of her husband's last days. She continued how one night, out of the blue, he finally recognized her, held her close to him and told her she had been a good woman to him all his life. He said Nathan was a good boy too and would be all right. Margaret told us she should have known something was wrong but she was very tired from caring for him so she went to sleep. Some time later, something woke her up and she realized he wasn't breathing. She knew there wasn't a doctor within fifty miles so she frantically telephoned the volunteer ambulance number. They couldn't find a driver for the ambulance right away and they wanted her to stay on the phone while they called around but she threw it down and went back into the bedroom be with her husband.
As she told us how she held him in her arms she seemed to drift back to that dark room to try to hold on to that last memory of her lifelong mate.
By this time all of us were almost in tears. Our coffee had long been finished but we sat there mesmerized by this gentlewoman's story. Margaret stopped speaking and her gaze fixed somewhere to another time. We realized that she was at the end of her reverie and this wonderful experience was also coming to a close. With deep regret we left Margaret's café, saying sad goodbyes to our new friends Margaret and Nathan.
I couldn't get the memory of that experience out of my mind. I remember not wanting to leave, I wanted to go back and listen to more of this wonderful lady's memories. But then I knew we couldn't go back, that experience could never be repeated. I could never again re-live that warm morning in a small dusty town, sitting at the table listening to Margaret tell her story. I don't know what will happen to Nathan when Margaret joins her husband but I do know we will all share his loss with him.
A chance stop in a small town had led to this wonderful encounter with this very special lady and her adopted son. Margaret is living history and we were so fortunate to have met her. She is the essence of the pioneer spirit of America, a frontier woman who came west in a covered wagon.
We have met and spoken to a national treasure in a small town in Wyoming.
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