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It’s a Sunday, and for many Sundays over many years I would put my grading aside, powder my nose, throw on whatever I’d been wearing the night before and dash out the door so I could drive the ten minutes it took to get from my house to my friend Flossie’s condo. If it was a nice morning—and more often than not it would be, here in sunny Arizona—Flossie would be outside by the street, sitting on the bench part of her walker, wearing her Stevie Wonder sunglasses and enjoying the fresh air. “You’re only seven minutes late!” she would call out, or, “Hey hey, you’re on time today—what’s the special occasion?”
If it was chilly or rainy, I’d ring her bell and wait for her to answer, trying to see through the security door. “You in there?” I’d say through the metal screen when the inside door would finally crack open. Always trying to save on the light bill…
“Where did you think I’d be?” a voice would say in the dark. “Timbuktu?”
Dressed in her church clothes—a colorful blazer with a brooch, a nice slacks outfit and attractive but sturdy shoes—she would let me load her walker into the back seat then tuck her into the front passenger seat and buckle her in. “Hands and feet,” I would say, remembering what my sisters would say to their children so nothing important would get slammed in the door. “Are you in?”
“I’m in!” Flossie would say, and we’d be off. Mimi’s Café and its French bistro atmosphere was our hands-down favorite place for lunch. We would sit over quiche and tea and visit about my men and my family, my students and her bridge circle, her husbands and her years living in Alaska, and then sometimes the juvenile delinquents she would chase out of the neighborhood park (“That’s private property!"). One time we didn’t make it to lunch because Flossie had a story to tell me when I arrived: “I heard noise in the alley last night and when I went out to get the paper this morning, I saw egg on my car.” I went outside and sure enough, her Lincoln had been egged. I went back inside. “You want to call the police?” I asked, and she nodded…so we did. The report was filed.
I washed the egg off her car and hosed down her parking space, and when she finally let the tears slip, I told her she was perfectly safe. “You have to stop yelling at those kids in the park though,” I said.
“They don’t belong there and they’re smoking pot!”
“Call the cops instead,” I said, wiping her tears. “Call me. I’m only ten minutes away.”
I met Flossie in 1998, when I bought the condo in front of hers. I was 30 and she was 75, a twice-widowed snowbird from Wisconsin. We lived in a single-story building, sharing one thin wall and the roof. Flossie called us “roofmates”. Her hearing was great back then and she started schooling me almost immediately:
“You don’t need to slam your cupboard doors to close them.”
“You don’t need to rip your shower curtain back to open it.”
“Tell your boyfriend not to let the toilet seat drop so hard every time he goes.”
When I got married and moved to another part of Phoenix, I saw Flossie less, but when I got divorced and moved back, we became even closer. She turned 80, then 85, and she was still living on her own in that condo.
Flossie took great pride in her appearance and always wanted me to do the same. “I used to have the same fingernail problems as you,” she said one time over lunch. “Thin, splitting—ugly. I would never go back to that!” This was her way of suggesting I try a manicure. “My hair used to be dry and frizzy like yours,” she said another time, sporting a fresh perm. “I’d never wear it long in a climate like this. If I did though,” she said, eyeing my long, dry, frizzy hair hanging in my food, “I’d always pull it back.”
And memorably at Mimi’s, her wine lips glossy and her cheeks rouged: “Why don’t you wear make-up? It would do you good.”
“I am wearing makeup,” I said. I got raised eyebrows in return for that.
Flossie had closets full of clothes: pastel pantsuits for spring, white slacks and red sweaters for Christmas, oranges and deep greens for fall, and jewelry to match it all. “You need to wear more color!” she’d scold me. I would take her to shop for shoes and she’d insist, “Leave me to look and go find yourself a colorful top! I want you to buy something colorful! Get going!” I would slink off in my matching browns or blacks and come back with a bright pink t-shirt two sizes too big because I never liked to wear tight clothes. “That’s the idea!” Flossy would say. “That will look great on you!”
She wasn’t always my biggest cheerleader. She wanted the best for me, but realized I needed her guidance (how many times did I hear, “I’ve never seen such a book-smart girl so lacking in common sense”). I brought her several cartons of strawberries once that I’d found on sale; she looked at them, thanked me, then set them aside. The following week when I picked her up for lunch, I asked her what she did with the strawberries. “I had to throw them out,” she said, and I could tell she was a little sorry.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they had too much white. They weren’t ripe. Don’t buy strawberries unless they smell like strawberries.” Now I know that, and it’s a good rule.
We came back to my house after brunch one Sunday, to see my new landscaping and to visit. I stretched out on the couch while she rocked in my recliner. My cat jumped up to cuddle with me.
“You should do that more often, Kate,” she said.
“Relax,” she said. How did she know I didn’t relax all the time?
I think of Flossie and I think of the six-pack of Grolsch beer she’d ask me to pick up for her every now and then. I think of her carefully selecting Christmas ornaments for her bazillion grandchildren while I waited for her in a store, plucking my arm hair out one by one to stay awake. I think of the time she wouldn’t let me back into her condo when I asked for one more hug goodbye. “Why not?” I asked through the security door.
“I farted,” she said.
I assembled her Christmas tree every December and took it down every January. It came in three pieces she kept stored in the closet. The entire process took about three hours from start to finish and necessitated the rearranging of furniture, the precise stringing of lights, and clean-up. She directed this production from her chair, and cried every year when we were done. “You’re so good to me!” she’d sniffle. “I can’t do anything for you in return!”
“Haven’t you spent your life helping others?” I’d ask.
“Isn’t it your turn to let others help you now?”
It was. More tears. Then she’d shoo me out so she could nap before “the girls” came by to pick her up for cards.
Flossie always hand-mopped her own kitchen floor, sitting on a stool and scooting it around until she was done. She left sacks of potatoes in her car trunk and brought them in one by one as needed. If it took her all week to get one load of laundry cleaned and put away, “no great shakes, Kate”. Up until the last two years of her life, she refused any help in closing down the condo and packing up for her annual return trip to Wisconsin: “I like to do it myself. I have my own way.”
That she did.
On perhaps my most memorable outing with Floss, we had gone to our favorite discount shoe warehouse after lunch. I would have happily shopped alongside her, but she had her walker with the fold-down seat in case she wanted to rest, so she shooed me away as usual. Though the store was huge, I could see her across it: her fluffy white hair, her floral sundress, her big black purse hanging off the walker. When I noticed she hadn’t moved from one spot in awhile, I went back to check in with her. “Why aren’t you looking around?” I asked.
“I’m tired,” she said.
“Well then, let’s go,” I said.
“No, you’re not done shopping,” she said. “I can wait.”
“Well…,” I started, knowing she wouldn’t change her mind. “How about we find a comfortable place for you to sit then?” I looked around for the lounge area.
“I can’t sit down,” she said.
“I peed my pants,” she stated matter-of-factly.
At this point there was a football-field long row of shoes between us, so I hustled down to the end and came up on her side. “If you peed, then we can go, really,” I whispered.
“No, I’ll just stand right here and wait.”
Usually I wouldn’t have argued with her, but this time I had no choice. “I’m not shopping for shoes if you peed your pants,” I said. “We’re leaving.”
She acquiesced. We made our way out of the store and towards my car, parked close by in a handicap-accessible spot because Flossie had remembered her decal this time. As usual, I opened the door for her, but she didn’t get in. “I don’t want to mess up your seat,” she said, looking up at me with those owl eyes that could be gray or green or blue, all depending. “You keep your car so nice.”
“I’m not strapping you to the top,” I said, reaching for my sun shade. “Sit on this. It’s waterproof.” So she did, and that was that. No complaining, no fuss.
Flossie always laughed more than I did. She had more friends, a better social life, a better outlook. She always chit-chatted with people in lines, much to my eye-rolling. “Kate! That might be the only smile or kind word that person gets all day! Loosen up!” She made me buy a throw pillow one day that I never in a million years would have bought for myself. “I can’t believe you like this pillow!” I said. “What do you like about it!?”
“The fake fur in the middle,” she said.
“Fine,” I said, putting it in the cart. “But this is your pillow at my house. I’m buying this for you.”
She clapped her hands like a girl.
If today were the type of Sunday I had grown used to, I would be driving home from Flossie’s condo right now, having put her leftovers in the fridge and gotten her settled in her chair so she could field phone calls from her kids back in Wisconsin. Her eyes would have welled up with tears and she would have thanked me for being so good to her.
She’s been gone now for one year and one day.
My sweet ex roofmate, your pillow awaits.