The bridges of Madison County ( Chapter 8)
A Leffer from Francesca
Francesca Johnson died in January of 1989. She was sixty-nine years old at the time of her death. Robert Kincaid would have been
seventy-six that year. The cause of death was listed as “natural.” “She just died,” the doctor told Michael and Carolyn. “Actually, we’re a little perplexed. We can find no specific cause for her death. A neighbor found her slumped over the kitchen table.”
In a 1982 letter to her attorney, she had requested that her remains be cremated and her ashes scattered at Roseman Bridge. Cremation was an uncommon practice in Madison County— viewed as slightly radical in some undefined way— and her wish generated considerable discussion at the cafe, the Texaco station, and the implement dealership. The disposition of her ashes was not made public.
Following the memorial service, Michael and Carolyn drove slowly to Roseman Bridge and carried out Francesca’s instructions. Though it was nearby, the bridge had never been special to the Johnson family, and they wondered, and wondered again, why their rather sensible mother would behave in such an enigmatic way and why she had not asked to be buried by their father,as was customary.
Following that, Michael and Carolyn began the long process of sorting through the house and brought home the materials from the safe deposit box after they were examined by the local attorney for estate purposes and released.
They divided the materials from the box and began looking through them. The manila envelope was in Carolyn’s stack, about a third of the way down. She was puzzled when she opened it and removed the contents. She read Robert Kincaid’s 1965 letter to Francesca. After that she read his 1978 letter,then the 1982 letter from the Seattle attorney. Finally she studied the magazine clippings.
He caught the mixture of surprise and pensiveness in her voice and looked up immediately. “What is it?”
Carolyn had tears in her eyes, and her voice became unsteady. “Mother was in love with a man named Robert Kincaid. He was a photographer.Remember when we all had to see the copy of National Geographic with the bridge story in it? He was the one who took the pictures of the bridges here. And remember all the kids talking about the strange-looking guy with the cameras back then? That was him.”
M i c h a e l s a t a c r o s s f r o m her , h i s t i e loosened, collar open. “Say that again, slowly. I can’t believe I heard you correctly.”
After reading the letters, Michael searched the downstairs closet, then went upstairs to Francesca’s bedroom. He had never noticed the walnut box before and opened it. He carried it down to the kitchen table. “Carolyn, here are his cameras.”
Tuckedin one end of the box was a sealed envelope with “Carolyn or Michael” written on it in Francesca’s script, and lying between the cameras were three leather-bound notebooks.
“I’m not sure I’m capable of reading what’s in that envelope,” said Michael. “Read it out loud to me, if you can handle it.”
She opened the envelope and read aloud.
January 7, 1987
Dear Carolyn and Michael,
Though I’m feeling just fine, I think it’s time for me to get my affairs in order (as they say).
There is something, something very important, you need to know about. That’s why I’m writing this.
After looking through the safe deposit box
and finding the large manila envelope addressed to me with a 1965 postmark, I’m sure you’ll eventually come to this letter. If possible, please sit at the old kitchen table to read it. Y ou’ll understand that request shortly.
It’s hard for me to write this to my own that’ children, but I must. There’s something here too strong, too beautiful, to die with me. And if you are to know who your mother was, all the goods and bads, you need to know what I’m about to say. Brace yourself.
As you’ve already discovered, his name was Robert Kincaid. His middle initial was “L,” but I never knew what the L represented. He was a photographer, and he was here in 1965 pho- tographing the covered bridges.
Remember how excited the town was when
the pictures appeared in National Geographic You may also recall that I began receiving the magazine about that time. Now you know the reason for my sudden interest in it. By the way, I was with him (carrying one of his camera knapsacks) when the photo of Cedar Bridge was taken.
Understand, I loved your father in a quiet fashion. I knew it then, I know it now. He was good to me and gave me the two of you, who
I treasure. Don’t forget that.
But Robert Kincaid was something quite dif- ferent, like nobody I’ve ever seen or heard or read about through my entire life. To make you understand him completely is impossible. First of all, you are not me. Second, you would have had to have been around him, to watch him move, to hear him talk about being on a dead- end branch of evolution. Maybe the notebooks and magazine clippings will help, but even those will not be enough.
In a way, he was not of this earth. That’s about as clear as I can say it. I’ve always thought of him as a leopardlike creature who rode in on the tail of a comet. He moved that way, his body was like that. He somehow cou- pled enormous intensity with warmth and kind- ness, and there was a vague sense of tragedy about him. He felt he was becoming obsolete in a world of computers and robots and organized living in general. He saw himself as one of the last cowboys, as he put it, and called himself old fangled.
The first time l ever saw him was when he stopped and asked directions to Roseman Bridge. The three of you were at the Illinois State Fair. Believe me, I was not scouting around for any adventure. That was the furthest thing from my mind. But I looked at him for less than five seconds, and I knew I wanted him, though not as much as I eventually came to want him.
And please don’t think of him as some Ca- sanova running around taking advantage of country girls. He wasn’t like that at all. In fact, he was a little shy, and I had as much to do with what happened as he did. More, in fact. The note tucked in with his bracelet is one I posted on Roseman Bridge so he would see it the morning after we first met. Aside from his pho- tographs of me, it’s the only piece of evidence he had over the years that I actually existed, that I was not just some dream he had.
I know children have a tendency to think of their parents as rather asexual, so I hope what I’m going to say won’t shock you, and I cer- tainly hope it won’t destroy your memory of me.
In our old kitchen, Robert and I spent hours together.We talked and danced by candlelight. And, yes, we made love there and in the bedroom and in the pasture grass and just about anywhere else you can think of. It was incredible, powerful, transcending lovemaking, and it went on for days, almost without stopping. I always have used the word “powerful” a lot in thinking about him. For that’s what he had become by the time we met.
He was like an arrow in his intensity. I
simply was helpless when he made love to me. Not weak; that’s not what I felt. Just, well, overwhelmed by his sheer emotional and physical
power. Once when I whispered that to him, he simply said, “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.”
I checked the dictionary later. The first thing people think of when they hear the word “peregrine” is a falcon. But there are other
meanings of the word, and he would have been aware of that. One is ‘foreigner, alien.” A second is “roving or wandering, migratory.” The Latin peregrinus, which is one root of the word, means a stranger. He was all of those things— a stranger, a foreigner in the more general sense
of not the word, a wanderer, and he also was falconlike, now that I think of it.
Children, understand I am trying to express what cannot be put into words. l only wish that someday you each might have what I experi- enced; however, I’m beginning to think that’s likely. Though I suppose it’s not fashionable to say such things in these more enlightened times, I don’t think it’s possible for a woman to possess the peculiar kind of power Robert Kincaid had. So, Michael, that lets you out. As for Carolyn, I’m afraid the bad news is that there was only one of him, and no more.
If not for your father and the two of you, I would have gone anywhere with him, instantly. He asked me to go, begged me to go. But I wouldn’t, and he was too much of a sensitive and caring person to ever interfere in our lives after that.
The paradox is this: If it hadn’t been for Robert Kincaid, I’m not sure I could have stayed on the farm all these years. In four days, he gave me a lifetime, a universe, and made the separate parts of me into a whole. I have never stopped thinking of him, not for a moment. Even when he was not in my conscious mind, I could feel him somewhere, always he was there.
But it never took away from anything I felt for the two of you or your father. Thinking only of myself for a moment, I’m not sure I made the right decision. But taking the family into account, I’m pretty sure I did.
Though I must be honest and tell you that, right from the outset, Robert understood better than I what it was the two of us formed with each other. I think I only began to grasp its significance over time, gradually. Had I truly understood that, when he was face to face with me and asking me to go, I probably would have left with him.
Robert believed the world had become too rational, had stopped trusting in magic as much as it should. I’ve often wondered if I was too rational in making my decision.
I’m sure you found my burial request incom- prehensible, thinking perhaps it was the product of a confused old woman. After reading the 1982 Seattle attorney’s letter and my notebooks, you’ll understand why I made that request. I gave my family my life; I gave Robert Kincaid what was left of me.
I think Richard knew there was something in me he could not reach, and I sometimes wonder if he found the manila envelope when I kept it at home in the bureau. Just before he died, I was sitting by him in a Des Moines hospital, and he said this to me: “Francesca, I know you had your own dreams, too. I’m sorry I couldn’t give them to you.” That was the most touching moment of our lives together.
I don’t want to make you feel guilt or pity or any of those things. That’s not my purpose here. I only want you to know how much I loved Robert Kincaid. I dealt with it day by day, all these years, just as he did.
Though we never spoke again to one another, we remained bound together as tightly as it’s possible for two people to be bound. I cannot find the words to express this adequately. He said it best when he told me we had ceased being separate beings and, instead, had become a third being formed by the two of us. Neither of us existed independent of that being. And that being was left to wander.
Carolyn, remember the horrible argument we had once about the light pink dress in my closet? You had seen it and wanted to wear it. You
said you never remembered me wearing it, so why couldn’t it be made over to fit you. That
was the dress I wore the first night Robert and
I made love. I’ve never looked as good in my entire life as I did that night. The dress was my small and foolish memory of that time. That’s why I never wore it again and why I refused to let you wear it.
After Robert left here in 1965, I realized I knew very little about him, in terms of his family history. Though I think I learned almost every- thing else about him— everything that really counted— in those few short days. He was an only child, both his parents were dead, and he was born in a small town in Ohio.
I’m not even sure if he went to college or even high school, but he had an intelligence that was brilliant in a raw, primitive, almost mystical fashion. Oh yes, he was a combat photographer with the marines in the South Pacific during WorldWar II.
He was married once and divorced, a long time before he met me. There were no children. His wife had been a musician of some kind, a folksinger I think he said, and his long absences on photographic expeditions were just too hard on the marriage. He took the blame for the breakup.
Other than that, Robert had no family, as far as I know. I am asking you to make him part of ours, however difficult that may seem to you at first. At least I had a family, a life with others. Robert was alone. That was not fair, and I knew it.
I prefer, at least I think I do, because of Richard’s memory and the way people talk, that all of this be kept within the Johnson family, somehow. I’ll leave it to your judgment, though. In any case, I’m certainly not ashamed of
what Robert Kincaid and I had together. On
the contrary. I loved him desperately throughout all these years, though, for my own reasons, I tried to contact him only once. That was after your father died. The attempt failed, and I was never afraid something had happened to him, so I tried again out of that fear. I simply couldn’t face that reality. So you can imagine how I felt when the package with the attorney’s letter ar- rived in 1982.
As I said, I hope you understand and don’t think ill of me. If you love me, then you must love what I have done.
Robert Kincaid taught me what it was like
to be a woman in a way that few women, maybe none, will ever experience. He was fine and
warm, and he deserves, certainly, your respect and maybe your love. I hope you can give him both of those. In his own way, through me, he was good to you.
Go well, my children. Mother
There was silence in the old kitchen. Michael took a deep breath and looked out the window. Carolyn looked around her, at the sink,
the floor, at the table, at everything. When she spoke, her voice was almost a whisper.”Oh, Michael, Michael, think of them all those years, wanting each other so desperately. She gave him up for us and for Dad. And Robert Kincaid stayed away out of respect for her feelings about us. Michael, I can hardly deal with the thought of it. We treat our marriages so casually, and we were part of the reason that an incredible love affair ended the way it did.
“They had four days together,just four. Out of a lifetime. It was when we went to that ridiculous state fair in Illinois. Look at the picture of Mom. I never saw her like that. She’s so beautiful, and it’s not the photograph. It’s what he did for her. Just look at her; she’s wild and free. Her hair’s blowing in the wind, her face is alive. She just looks wonderful.”
“Jesus,” was all Michael could say, wiping his forehead with the kitchen towel and dabbing at his eyes when Carolyn wasn’t looking.
Carolyn spoke again. “Apparently he never tried to contact her all these years. And he must have died alone; that’s why he had the cameras sent to her.
“I remember the fight Mom and I had over the pink dress. It went on for days. I whined and asked why.Then I refused to speak to her. All she ever said was, ‘No, Carolyn, not that one.’ ”
And Michael remembered the old table at which they were sitting. That’s why Francesca had asked him to bring it back into the kitchen after their father died.
Carolyn opened the small padded envelope. “Here’s his bracelet and his silver chain and medallion. And here’s the note Mother mentioned in her letter, the one she put on Roseman Bridge. That’s why the photo he sent of the bridge shows the piece of paper tacked
“Michael, what are we going to do? Think about it for a moment; I’ll be right back.”
She ran up the stairs and returned in a few minutes carrying the pink dress folded carefully in plastic. She shook it out and held it
up for Michael to see.
“Just imagine her wearing this and dancing with him here in the kitchen. Think of all the time we’ve spent here and the images she must have seen while cooking and sitting here with us, talking about our problems, about where to go to college, about how hard it is to have a successful marriage. God, we’re so innocent and immature compared to her.”
Michael nodded and turned to the cupboards above the sink. “Do you suppose Mother kept anything to drink around here?
Lord knows I can use it. And, to answer your question, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
He rummaged through the cupboards and found a bottle of brandy , almost empty . “There’s enough for two drinks here, Carolyn. Want one?”
Michael took the only two brandy glasses from the cupboard and set them on the yellow Formica table. He emptied Francesca’s last bottle of brandy into them, while Carolyn silently began reading volume one of the notebooks. “Robert Kincaid came to me on the sixteenth of August, a Monday, in 1965. He was trying to find Roseman Bridge. It was late afternoon, hot, and he was driving a pickup truck he called Harry….”