When I grow up...

One of the most fascinating people I’ll ever know died last Friday. We didn’t find out until yesterday because of distance.  I knew anyway from a sort of flatness in the space she’d always taken up so fully. My husband kept calling over the last ten days and she hadn’t picked up. Her grandson is working in Russia and his wife finally answered the phone at my friends house. The services will be held next month when her grandson gets home.

Emily was born early last century to a mother in her fifties, who died birthing her. Her father was much older, and he knew he wouldn’t be around to nurture Emily for long so when she was thirteen, he gave her a little pink convertible and she drove herself to classes at the university. By the time she was eighteen she was teaching at a medical school. As a young woman, she played concert piano until a physical condition made it too painful for her to perform.

She tried running off with a man when she was fourteen. Her father sent her much older brothers-in-law to bring her home. At eighteen, she married a man with two teen-aged boys in military school and had a son of her own by him. The man was aggressive toward her only once. In court, the judge asked her step-sons which parent they would rather be with. Not knowing how young she was, they chose Emily. Before the age of twenty, she was responsible for three sons, one still an infant.

The next man she married was the love and hero of her life. She met him at her sons’ school. He also had two sons enrolled there. He was a military officer and she giggled when she told me he ironed her petticoats for her. She’d been tended by a housekeeper her whole life and as a young woman, was fairly incompetent to daily chores. He told her she’d have to learn to do these things for herself and loved her enough to show her how. He died in a plane crash on the way to Korea. She now had five sons, kept up with them, outlived them.

Her birth son grew up and had five children of his own. Her son’s death and subsequent circumstances gave the children into her custody. She told me she had experience with boys and knew nothing about raising girls, so the two granddaughters went to boarding school.  She said the man she’d married moved North out of California so the grandsons could be raised in a better environment.  She nursed her husband until he died with cancer. I kept trying to gift her with blue things and she finally told me she hated the color because his mistress had ordered all of the linens for their pied-a-terre in blue from Sears on his charge card. After he died, she renewed a long distance romance with an old friend in California. She kept gowns and fancy things at his house for the parties they attended when she visited there. He wanted to marry her. She wouldn’t leave her home in the North. He died a few years ago. She called my husband “The Boyfriend” and enjoyed the company of intelligent and handsome men who loved to escort her – it didn’t matter to them if they were thirty years her junior.

I sat entranced for hours as she related stories of Bing Crosby as her block captain during WWII, Burl Ives bringing his guitar and entertaining for parties in her home and hanging out with Maureen O’Hara at the diner. There are pictures of her, petite and pencil slim on her yacht. She hated to mow the lawn and the homeowners association at some point was upset with her so she hauled in gravel and landscaped in rocks.

We met again when I moved back to town and wanted to examine a book I read as a child in the library there. An old tome of formulas for everything from face cream to dynamite.  At first, she was attracted to me because I reminded her of the granddaughter who had recently died in a terrible accident of Princess Di type injuries. Later, we settled into each other for who we were.

Emily hated wrapping Christmas presents, yet gifted so many people she had a mountain of packages to do every year. It became tradition for her to call me to come wrap her presents. She’d pick out and point and I’d tape and bow. She taught me the more gracious elements of a beautifully wrapped present, then how to correctly stuff a box to survive Fed Ex to the States. When we moved away, she’d send gifts for Christmas and birthdays. They weren’t wrapped. She said she was still mad because I’d left and she had to wrap on her own.

I know a thousand little things because of Emily. How to correctly tip the stem from strawberries without bruising the fruit.  How to knit as the Europeans do - she used to knit professionally for the department stores. I had my first and only artichoke at Emily’s house. She taught me to rubber band a book dropped in the bathtub and freeze it for a few weeks to restore the pages. She’d learned the hard way, falling asleep in her midnight bath was a given. She made a valiant effort not to wince when I started playing the violin and the nicest thing she could say was I played very confidently.

We kept the local restaurants in business. No matter how many times I tried to get the check or make arrangements to treat her before we came in, the wait staff always said they were more afraid of Emily than me and carried out her instructions over my protests. She got the check. Eating out frequently may have been the reason we both got so chubby. I still wear clothes she gave me when she “outgrew” them. Emily was always turned out very elegantly unless we were home and then she favored outsized tee’s.  She wore hundreds of versions of ridiculous mules with towering heels even in dead winter and Imelda would have been jealous of her shoe cupboards.

Emily had two enormous German shepherd dogs, siblings she rescued as starved and abandoned puppies. They adored her and were gentle companions for her in the same respect elephants would be gentle if they could. They had a twin bed mattress to sleep on. Gladys and George got home cooked dog food of burger and rice with vegetables mixed with the regular store stuff, served up in two 9x13 pans. Every scrap left from our restaurant excursions went to the dogs.

Emily drove a red Ford Probe in the winter and a 51 white jag in the summer. She’d laugh about the “boy cops” who tried to overtake her when she was going a “tad” over the speed limit. She’d known most of them since they were children. They gave her warnings when they finally caught up with her – the only way they could – when she was on foot, usually at the library.  Until recently, she’d hop in the car and drive three hours on treacherous winter roads to the city for a play and some shopping. We went together many times and I knew she really loved me when she’d relax enough to sing along with one of the ever present CD’s. I told her she sang very confidently. She had season tickets for most of the classical venues. She and her knitting were a constant presence at city council meetings.  She attended civic lunches and served on the historical commission and art council. She went to church until it was hard for her to walk last year. Emily loved movies, musicals and the crime detective shows on television, puzzles of any kind, unusual jewelry, books and she never traveled anywhere without knitting needles “in case”.  She played Free Cell until my eyes crossed. She wasn’t perfect by any means. There’s always the story of how she outran the military police helicopters racing across a restricted area in Nevada.

Moving away from Emily was a wrenching experience. She was part sister, part mother, part girlfriend, and always partner in crime despite the differences in our ages. Every summer we stayed for several weeks with her when we went home to play in the String Festival. She’d have a list for us of repairs and things she needed done. She kept her last husband’s ashes on a shelf in the closet of the guest room. They lent an unusual spicy scent to the clothing and I never really took the time to figure out how I felt about him hanging so close. I didn’t want to think about the point of stashing his ashes. She wanted to join him eventually and be buried together.

Emily was one of the most fully human beings I’ve ever met. Her life magnified love and affection for those fortunate enough to meet her along the way. Several generations in town credit her with a love of books and great literature. She was my first employer when I was twelve and had an after school job accessioning books in the one room library next to the old jail. In her thirty plus years as the city librarian, she built the library to one of the finest smaller libraries in the United States and received numerous awards for her contributions. She was constantly invited to conferences or workshops. The governor acknowledged her achievements at her retirement, and then Social Security gave her a hassle about getting her payments because she’d worked twenty years past the usual age to apply for benefits.

Over a decade ago, I accompanied her to the hospital to see her first great, great grandchild. I witnessed her will. I pressed the things she still hates to iron when she had a hot date, repaired her broken jewelry and coveted her shoes even though trying to fit one would be like a step-sister trying to fold her foot into Cinderella’s glass slipper.

She hadn’t been to visit in awhile because the last time I’d taken her to the emergency room and she was hospitalized for several days. She said she wouldn’t put me through that again, although the real truth was, it was getting increasingly uncomfortable for her to fly. She had health issues since she was a young woman and still went a hundred miles an hour. Hospitals intruded in her way of life frequently and much too often lately. Emily was crusty and feisty and the last thing she said to me was she appreciated her Lord Jesus more and more every day. That’s when I knew she was going.

I have to get in a long line because Emily belongs to a community and a state that love her.  She made the place around her bright with light and hope, even when her life was a personal struggle a great deal of the time. She left people and places better than she found them. She left me better.

I always told her I want to be just like her when I grow up.