Yearning for Wonderland
Sometimes bad news arrives without a hint of warning, during a comfortably pedestrian evening, after a glut of hash brown casserole and bacon. A terrible thought strikes you. And then, before you know it, you’ve confirmed it and everything falls apart.
I’d been worried about my friend Louise. She was back in Louisville, living on her own, getting more fragile. I’d said goodbye to her in June, took her out for lunch and to help her run errands, told her that Austin was the best place for me right now. She hugged me tight, twice, and let me go with tears in her eyes. If I am honest with myself, I knew then that I might not see her again. She was having more health problems, slowing down, but she had such an indefatigable spirit that I couldn’t even conceive of her not being in this world. Fast forward to December. I called her and got no answer, voicemail was full. I was mildly worried, but tried again on New Year’s. Same full voicemail message. It’s not uncommon for people to be absent-minded about their voicemail, but I was getting more nervous. I tried her cell phone. The number had been assigned to someone else. So I tried emailing her, convincing myself that people cancel their cell phone numbers for a variety of reasons. And then, and then.
I did what I probably should have done in the first place, exactly what I was afraid to do. I googled ‘Louise Russell Louisville’. It even popped up ‘Louise Russell obituary’ as one of the helpfully provided Google search terms. And even /then/, I told myself that it wasn’t that uncommon of a name. But then I came to this page and I knew.
She’d died November 6th. I’d missed her funeral, her memorial. I didn’t get to send her flowers. No one told me because almost no one knew how much I loved this woman.
This is how a heart breaks.
I was barely able to function, couldn’t even see, paid the check in a haze, stumbled out to the parking lot. Luckily, Brian was with me and could drive me home.
To explain all this, I’d have to go back eleven years, to 2004. I was a newly minted manager at J. Jill’s at the Mall St. Matthews in Louisville. I was a little nervous – it was my first retail management job – and most of the ladies I was managing had a decade on me, if not more. There was one employee, though, that I especially wanted to know better. She had sass, personality…I would’ve called her a spunky old lady if it weren’t patently disrespectful. She was 67, she went by Louise and NOT Ethel, and she could run rings around all of us. The older ladies loved her – hell, I’m pretty sure most of our customers preferred her. She just had the touch. She was always dressed beautifully, with her hair and makeup done.
One night, we were closing together, and chatting as we straightened the tables. We were already friends, but I didn’t know how that evening would change my life. She’d mentioned that she’d worked at Bacon’s Department store, when it was still opened. My head snapped up and I grinned.
“Oh wow, my grandma was a manager there for a long time. Did you know Josephine Paris?”
I will never forget her voice and her glee, “Jo? Jo PARIS?”
Not only had she known her, she’d been supervised by her, had loved her. She had such stories of the two of them and their hijinks, left me dazzled with visions of a younger, more mischievous grandma than I’d ever known. Such stories, it was like my beloved lost grandmother blazed back into life at that exact moment, fueled by the strength of her memories.
And so that was that. We were fast friends before we’d even cashed out for the night. We stayed in touch even after I left the store, moved to Florida. I was in Florida for seven years, but I still called her from time to time. Every time we spoke it was if we’d never stopped. She was a touchstone for Louisville, for my grandma, for a lot that was now lost to me.
When I came back, I got to see her again and oh was it wonderful. She came to my wedding. I have a wonderful, priceless picture of the two of us there that I will have to dig out. Time had taken some toll, but she still kept a lot of what made her Louise. She was in a lot of chronic pain, had several surgeries. After my divorce, one of the first things I did was go see her again. And again. It was never anything fancy. One day we went to Paul’s Fruit Market and picked up a sandwich. I drove her to get her medicine from the pharmacy and one other errand. She kept thanking me, as if it weren’t a gift to me to see her.
Just before I moved to Texas, I saw her one last time. I’m haunted by that visit. She seemed sad throughout, but I thought it was just because I was leaving. I hugged her twice, took her cell phone number, told her to PLEASE put me on a list of people to call if anything happened. I was worried she’d end up in the hospital and I wouldn’t know about it. I didn’t know any of her family and was going to be half a country away. As always, I told her I loved her and she started crying. I don’t know if she knew then I wouldn’t see her again or if it was just an emotional moment.
It’s easy to blame myself, scold myself about calling her more often. But she knew I loved her. I told her every time we spoke. She knew that she was one of the stars in my sky, my connection to my grandmother gone, a little piece of my soul. Her kindness and love and friendship meant the world. And I will miss her so very, very much. I know I have to let her go, but it’s so hard. As long as I knew she was out there, I knew there was a soul who loved me the way my grandma did.
Goodbye, Louise. There’s at least one person in this world who will never forget you.
- Do not stand at my grave and weep.
- I am not there; I do not sleep.
- I am a thousand winds that blow.
- I am the diamond glints on snow.
- I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
- I am the gentle autumn rain.
- When you awaken in the morning’s hush
- I am the swift uplifting rush
- Of quiet birds in circled flight.
- I am the soft stars that shine at night.
- Do not stand at my grave and cry;
- I am not there; I did not die.
- – Mary E. Frye, 1932