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The best pictures are often the ones in your mind
Gladys was the white-haired lady who lived in the white house on the corner near where I grew up. She had no children, and her husband, Ray, died a couple years after they moved in. But I never thought of her as a widow. She was just Gladys – always happy to have me stop by, which I did often.
For many years she worked in the Tonawanda City Hall as the mayor’s secretary. Mayors came and went, but Gladys was a constant. When I visited her office, she would let me sit at the mayor’s desk (if he wasn’t there). That was pretty cool for a little kid. I had a friend in high places, at least the high places in Tonawanda, N.Y.
She was one of the very few people I would not correct when she called me Johnnie. And that was what she always called me. It was all right because even though she called me Johnnie, she never treated me like a little boy.
The year before Ray died, they bought a brand new, cream-colored Cadillac. It had white sidewall tires and four headlights, and fins like airplane wings rose up from the rear fenders. I remember summer days helping her wash it. Sometimes she would let me sit in the driver’s seat. That was even better than sitting at the mayor’s desk.
I remember mowing her lawn and helping her tend her many flowers. I remember the glass jars in her basement and Ray’s old model airplanes in the attic. Most of all, I remember lemonade and conversations while sitting on the veranda that connected her house and garage.
When I moved away from Tonawanda, Gladys kept up with my life through reports from my mother. Every time I returned to Western New York, Gladys would be one of my stops. It was the place where nothing changed. The house was always white, the cream-colored Cadillac always looked shiny and new, and I was always Johnnie.
As I got older, visits to Western New York became less frequent. From my mother I heard that the Cadillac finally stopped running and had to be replaced. I heard that Gladys’s health was slowing her down, and she moved into a nursing home. I heard that a family had moved into her house on the corner.
It felt odd to drive by and think of someone else in Gladys’s house. It felt odd to be in Tonawanda and not see her, yet know that she was there, in that nursing home. I was told that it was all right not to go see here, she wouldn’t know me anyway. Her health was very bad.
So I didn’t go. I just thought about it. I just thought about it and let my life go on knowing that someday there would be a letter from my mother mentioning that Gladys had died.
I sent her a note once, but never heard anything back.
Then I decided I needed to go see her.
The nursing home was sterile, odd smelling, fluorescent lights and quiet except for televisions all tuned to Lawrence Welk or The Dating Game. There was no veranda, or Cadillac or lemonade. A nurse pointed me down the hall to her room.
I walked toward the open door not sure what I would find, scared of what I would find, wondering why I was doing this. But I didn’t stop.
She was sitting in a chair, sound asleep, looking older, tired, but not different. I gently put my hand on her shoulder and said hello. Without opening her eyes she blurted out, “Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
My mother was right. I shouldn’t have come. But there I was.
I decided to just sit with her for a while, to keep her company as she slept. Maybe she would feel my presence. Maybe it seemed easier than trying to wake her and discovering I couldn’t.
We sat in silence except for her snoring. My eyes looked around the place that was now her home. It was a room for the transitory, a last stop before heaven. A bed, a chair, a bureau and a lamp pretty much covered the furnishing. I wondered if there were notches on the door frame to mark those who had passed through before Gladys.
I thought of her house on the corner a few miles away, still white, still surrounded by flowers. Only a few minutes earlier I had driven by it. I remembered the spinning wheel in the front room, the French doors that led to the veranda, the trellis full of roses, the braided rug under the dining table, the way the light shone in through white lace curtains, the pictures on the mantle of her and Ray, and Ray’s model airplanes in the attic.
A nurse walking by saw me sitting on the bed and came in. Let me wake her up for you, she offered. I said no, it was all right. Still, she insisted and began to shake Gladys, who again hollered out, “Leave me alone. What the hell do you want?”
The nurse persisted. “You have a visitor,” she said.
“Well who the hell is it?” Gladys blurted back, still not opening her eyes. That was when I finally said something, “It’s John Gfroerer.”
She seemed to stop her resistance. Her face changed, her eyes opened, she looked up and said, “Johnnie.”
“Sit down in the light so I can see you.” she said. And I did.
For the next hour we talked. We talked about the neighborhood, the neighbors, the kids, the kids now grown, me now grown. We remembered sunny days on the veranda drinking lemonade and my favorite wicker recliner. Then she asked me about her house.
“Johnnie,” she said, “I heard they sold it. Do you think that it’s true? Do you think they sold my house?”
It was the only time I lied. I said I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know that there was a new family in that house, even though I did. It will always be Gladys’s house to me. It will forever be the white house on the corner that always welcomed me to be me and by that simple act, helped me to become me.
A few months after my visit I finally got the letter from my mother: Gladys had passed away.
Like all who have touched my life, I carry her with me in ways I never fully know. Somewhere I have a picture of her washing that Cadillac in her driveway. Somewhere I might even have another picture or two of her and that white house. But that would be about it. The best pictures are the ones stored in my brain that I can only tell you about.
Somewhere, I know, there are other white houses on corners with white-haired people inside welcoming other little boys like I once was.
(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)