March 29, 2010
The paper boy in our old neighborhood said she looked like a witch. She was barely five feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. She had few visitors and rarely ventured outside the house, so she didn’t trouble herself with wearing dentures. When her gray hair grew into wisps that blew into her eyes, she cut it with utility shears.
She spent weekdays simultaneously working crossword puzzles and flipping her TV remote control between talk shows and the home shopping network. Her scowl was divided equally between every adult, child, dog or cat who ventured too closely to the front door.
As I stood on her doorstep holding a foil-wrapped plate, I wondered if ringing her doorbell had been the right decision. When she opened the door, I babbled a few words and offered her the plate. Her icy blue eyes scrutinized me for almost a full minute before she accepted it and quietly closed the door.
The next day my son came in from play with the cleaned plate and a note that read, “It was pleasant dining on fresh beans this time of year.”
That’s how our friendship began — with a dinner that included my husband’s favorite sliced roast beef, mashed potatoes and green beans topped with sauteed mushrooms. Our plate exchange proved to be an ideal arrangement because I loved to cook big meals and had only a husband and son to feed. She didn’t much care for cooking but she had an adventuresome palate.
Soon, she began inviting me into her living room for chats. And as we got to know each other better, I learned of her childhood spent in a St. Joseph orphanage where she and the others were called “the poor orphans” by both teachers and students at the public school and where her happiest memories were of the orphanage cook who always hugged her and offered her almond-flavored butter cookies when she snuck down the back stairs before bedtime.
Once she showed me pictures of herself as a beautiful young woman with chestnut hair and a dazzling smile seated next to a dashing escort — taken at a Kansas City nightclub. And there was a photograph, about which she would later recount a sad story filled with regrets. It pictured her smiling, surrounded by four, well-dressed children.
BJ prized a scrapbook filled with clippings she kept during the years she had worked as a secretary for a state supreme court justice. I remember her beaming over the collection of snapshots taken during that time showing her dressed in smart business suits accessorized with coordinating high heels and handbags.
Over the course of four years, our conversations covered every imaginable topic. It was as if we had known each other for years. We found ourselves sharing our dreams, fears, hopes and disappointments. Most of all I remember her grave voice saying, “Don’t be afraid to take risks, kid. You don’t want to wind up an old lady with regrets.”
Our talks continued during her illness and during the last four months of her life, which she spent in a nursing home before her death two years ago next week.
I think of her every time I use the black-handled bread knife she was so excited to give me for my birthday — ordered from the Home Shopping Network. I think of her every time I’m nervous about looking foolish or taking a risk.
Most of all, I think of her each I’m tempted to judge a person based on their outside packaging or demeanor. If I had, I might have missed a dear friendship.
As I recall long ago conversations, Margery Williams’ book “The
Velveteen Rabbit” and the answer the Skin Horse gave the toy rabbit when asked how to become real comes to mind.
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Click here for the recipe I adapted based on the almond butter cookies BJ remembered from her childhood in the orphanage.