Eleven years after her death at 97, the executor of my godmother Clara’s estate finally sent me the things she left me. She was a poet — a humorist — and the first female deputy sheriff in the United States allowed to carry a weapon. Among the things she wanted me to have were some of her books of poetry (and limericks), a glorious black portable typewriter, circa 1939 (we guess), some artwork my parents gave her which she felt I should have back, as well as an old stuffed bass. She’d caught the bass her first time out fishing and the guide told her it was the biggest caught in recent memory. She had it stuffed and it had pride of place above a door in her den. She often threatened to leave it to me, and lo…she did!
It seems auspicious that the goods she wanted me to have arrived this month. After my parents died, I visited Clara every October to celebrate my birthday in her glorious blue house in the tiny Ohio village where she and my father grew up, seventy miles from Cleveland. (She painted the house blue in the 1950s, shocking the whole town!) If I had any home in the United States, I was hers.
There was not the vaguest transportation from Cleveland to the village. It was usually dark by the time I got there in a rental car I’d wheeled around several wrong turns into other towns, alarmed livestock as I u-turned in farm driveways, narrowly missed wild turkey crossing the road, and once, wound up in an empty drive-in movie theatre.
At Clara’s house I slept like a log, as if I were under a spell. Rain thumped all night on the slate roof and thunder drove me burrowing under homespun blankets. Clara refused to believe I’m not really a late sleeper.
Three days or so into my visit, I would be awakened by a screechy tootle. Biddy — Clara’s widowed companion, always dressed to the nines in high heels – and Clara – leaning on her walker, blowing a miniature harmonica – croaked the Happy Birthday song outside my door. Then a hearty Ohio breakfast after which Pootsie Wilson from down the road, whose birthday it was too, dropped by and we exchanged chocolate bars.
In the resplendent Ohio fall afternoon, while Biddy and Clara napped, I took my annual walk to the town cemetery, past Clara’s woods, past ugly new houses, and across a highway. I picked leaves tinted vermilion, claret, maroon, chartreuse, and foxy cinnamon. In the cemetery, the hydrangea trees were blooming.
I found the family plot, a neighborhood in itself, way at the back of the grounds, in mossy shade. I tidied the fading impatiens and geraniums Clara planted every Memorial Day. Then I went from stone to stone composing leaf arrangements on each grave, anchoring them with acorns. Now Clara is buried there, too.
October afternoons were sunny. Clara and I wandered the garden, all the rush and busyness I’m prone to sedated by her crippling arthritis. We made our way slowly to the places where her mother, Sarah Jane, planted bedding flowers, many still thriving. At some point during the visit, I climbed the ladder to prune the century-old lilac, then cut back the roses on the well house.
Clara’s handyman Ted, almost as old as she, came by several times a week to do odd jobs and chores. He’d been coming here since I was a tot. Strong as he still was, there were tasks that simply didn’t get done anymore.
At night, Biddy and I took a few turns around the living room to Clara’s old jazz preserved on pristine 78s. In Biddy’s octogenarian heart, there was a flapper kicking her heels and waving her hands through a Black Bottom. After we’d “cut a rug” awhile, she settled in to watch “Jeopardy,” shouting for Clara to come best the contestants. Which she did. Clara hated TV.
Bedtime was never early – “We’ll soon have plenty of time to sleep,” Clara and Biddy chorused. Next morning, we climbed in the car to traverse the countryside for Clara’s favorite roadside stands and cross the Pennsylvania border to a favorite Amish farm to buy pies and unpasteurized milk.