The house across the street stares back at me from my kitchen window. Though newly occupied, there is still a familiar potted bougainvillea on the porch – a reminder of my friend Gay and her husband, Rex.
They hailed from Paris, Arkansas – a tiny wisp of a town. Gay’s father was a hard-drinking man who worked in the coal mines. People warned her delicate, soft-spoken mother off him – but she was determined. Stubbornness ran in the family.
Gay was the apple of their eye. Her older brother just could not compete with the family’s only girl for their affection. She loved her father, and he spoiled her. But he scared her, too, when he drank. The bond between Gay and her mother was as deep as a lake.
Gay met Rex when she was young. When she went to college in Memphis for a time, they dated. But her father wanted her close, and Gay was called back home.
It was war time: World War II. Rex enlisted and took his basic training at Fort Hood, TX. Before shipping out, this girl who had led such a sheltered life, drove with girlfriends to Texas where she and Rex eloped. Her parents none too pleased. She returned to Arkansas and waited for Rex’s return. Thankfully, he did.
Rex adjusted to life after the war, although Gay said there were some things he just wouldn’t talk about. He went to work at the family’s auto dealership but preferred fishing over selling cars. Rex preferred fishing over just about everything except Gay’s southern cooking. When the dealership burned down, they moved to California with Gay’s parents. The coal mines had left her father with black lung. She cared for him until he passed.
They lived in a small house on Redondo Beach. Gay’s mother helped to raise their son, as they both worked. When Rex developed heart issues and was forced to retire, Gay became the breadwinner. Together, they cared for her aging mother until she died at the age of 91.
When Gay finally retired, they moved to Sacramento. Rex had a heart attack shortly after they arrived; his third. By all rights, he should not have been around for me to meet. A sweet, charming man who had every tool I ever needed, helped me break into my house when I was accidentally locked out and snuck cookies to my dogs when he thought I wasn’t looking. When they quarreled – which was rare – they would each tell me their side of the story like kids running to mom.
Gay and I shared a love of dogs and gardens. She could be seen walking all over the neighborhood and through the nearby park with her little dog, Blossom. In an instant, this shy, private woman would turn into a social butterfly with Blossom as the catalyst. A few years after we moved in, she traded her giant Cadillac for a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. She would drive around town in that yellow bug of a car with her yellow 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics baseball cap and Blossom raised high on a pillow in the passenger’s seat. “She likes to see the world go by.”
I could spend hours with Gay in her backyard, drinking coffee, devouring shortbread cookies, admiring the birds and dreaming up plans for our respective gardens. As things became harder for her, I would tend to her yard and keep her giant potted orchids watered. They live at my house now.
Rex was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his early 80’s – although Gay suspected it began long before that. She saw him through every horrible stage for a decade. Forgetfulness; anger; frustration; wandering; and eventually, helplessness. Stubborn as the day was long, she refused even the help hired for them. In her exhaustion, she fell down the stairs which led to placing Rex in a small care home where his extreme needs could be met. She naturally went with him.
She never left his side until he left hers about a year later in 2012.
The house was sold, and she moved to a huge and well-appointed assisted living apartment – but all she wanted was to be home in her garden. After caring for her father, her mother, and Rex – she had no one left to care for. She couldn’t wait to be reunited with Rex, and for two years, she cursed her body for not failing her as she commanded it. A few days before Christmas in 2014, she got her way. She left us at the age of 93.
I loved that woman. I was able to kiss her goodbye a few hours before she passed. I will be forever grateful for that.
On Christmas, my neighbor brought me a package. Inside was a gift I will always cherish, purchased at the estate sale I couldn’t bear to attend.
“No spring nor summer’s beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one Autumnal face….”
~ John Donne, Elegy IX: The Autumnal