I’m grieving right now. A dear, dear friend of mine passed away last week. Her death was sudden, but made to her order. Well into her 70’s, my friend Nancy never planned to retire. She told people she was going to die behind her desk at the sweet little independent school she helped run. Although her obit will undoubtedly say she was the receptionist at Harding Academy, everybody knows that Nancy governed the school. Nothing escaped her watchful eye and nobody got past her. She ran Harding Academy with an iron fist and a soft heart. She fell ill sitting behind her desk and passed shortly thereafter. Made to her order.
Nancy’s world was fairly simple. You didn’t wear white before Easter or after Labor Day. You looked your best and you did your best. You used good manners. For example, only if one asked politely for a piece of candy from the magic jar on her desk did one receive a piece of candy from the magic jar on her desk. One certainly said thank you after retrieving the candy. And then one got, not only candy, but a hug. And in Nancy’s world, if you really knew what life was about, you loved Jesus and voted Republican.
Nancy loved fiercely and she lovely wholely. You didn’t have to “be somebody” to be loved by Nancy. I’m not somebody and Nancy loved me. I don’t know if she loved me despite my faults, or because of them. Unlike a lot of folk who think I’m a diamond in the rough, Nancy didn’t try to polish me. She did, however, give advice when it was sought.
One day, I was bopping around Harding, helping out with the author’s program, Kaleidoscope. Because I want to be a writer when I grow up, but am too undisciplined to actually do it, I glom onto whatever writer shows up within my reach. I’m a writer groupie. The author who was visiting was MY kind of gal. Liberal. Funny. Accessible. Published. I clung to her like golden retriever hair on black pants. At one point, somebody asked me how I was and I blurted, with all honesty, “I’m as happy as a pig in shit.”
The librarian looked at me as if I had pulled a piece of chewed gum from under the desk and popped it into my mouth. I smiled and kept passing books to the author for her to sign. Then, I slithered out the door and searched for respite. I found Nancy making copies.
“Nancy,” I whispered, my face red, sweat pouring down my back. Humiliation breeds hot flashes. “I just screwed up.”
“Well, what happened, honey?” She didn’t miss a beat making copies.
“I just told everybody in the library I was as happy as a pig in shit. I think they’re appalled. In fact, I KNOW they’re appalled.”
She continued feeding the copier. I’d done it this time. Even Nancy wasn’t going to be able to help with this one, because she was appalled as well.
“Oh, Tina,” she said, turning to face me. “Don’t you know that down here, it’s a pig in slop? You’re as happy as a pig in slop.” She went back to the copier. “Besides, you don’t care what those people think.”
She’s right. I don’t care what those people think, but I will always care what Nancy thought. As soon as I heard that she was nearing death, I called our mutual friend and hairdresser. I wanted to make sure he knew what was going on and of course, he did. We hung up. I thought for a moment and texted him. “Mike, you have GOT to work me in. If I go to Nancy’s funeral with this hair, she will rise from the dead and SMACK me.” He called back and squeezed me into his busy schedule. Later I learned that he gave me Nancy’s regular Tuesday slot. It felt like prayer, sitting in the chair during the time Nancy should have been there.
Although Nancy believed that beauty is more than skin deep, she also believed that appearances matter. Never did I see her without her hair beautifully coiffed, her outfit perfectly accessorized and her makeup flawlessly applied. A few years ago, Nancy had a major cardiac incident, as the professionals call it. We were scared, but she was tough. And we knew everything was going to be okay when she summoned Mike to the hospital to fix her hair. During her recuperation, she lost some weight, which, of course, demanded new clothes. She called me up and asked if I wanted her old ones. I still wear them. I will wear the black skirt to her Celebration of Life.
So many Nancy stories. I have so many. I co-chaired the school’s care committee for a while and between 15 and 30 of us would gather in somebody’s kitchen two or three times a year to drink wine and make casseroles. We called these gatherings “Casserolaramas.” The completed meals would be frozen and then given to families who had significant life events (death in the family, birth of a baby, etc.) As any good southern cook knows, casseroles take a lot of onions and Nancy always volunteered to dice them. Bless her heart. Nobody else wanted mascara dripping down her face, but Nancy did what Nancy always did. Saw a need and filled it. She would sit at a counter, chopping away, tears running down her face and we would catch up.
Nancy knew there’s a fine line between a prayer chain and a grapevine and discreetly served as my number one mole for the committee. “Tina, I saw so and so on crutches. Do you want me to send them a Sweet Cece’s card?” She respected people’s privacy, though and never once did we provide a casserole for a boob job.
She loved the people at her workplace. The school was her community. She loved her family so much more. With decades of marriage behind them, Fred was her constant companion, her sidekick. We all knew their kids Elizabeth and Rick as if we had grown up with them. Of course, THEIR kids were without flaw. Nancy was the kind of grandmother my mother is: the annoying kind. I had lunch with Nancy a week before she left us. She invited another of my favorite dames along, the widow of the school’s previous headmaster. Alice is more like me. We agree on politics, comfortable clothes and plain talk. We caught up on a few things, then Nancy started bragging about her granddaughter’s Air Force award, one that got her a scholarship to nursing school. I’m still not sure of the details, because it sounded a lot like she’d won the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Prize. Nancy was that proud. Alice and I listened. Grinned. And ate our soup. We weren’t going to get a word in edgewise if Nancy was talking about a grandkid.
There are two things I can’t believe right now. The first is that Nancy is gone. The waves of accepting her death will continue to slap at me for a long time to come. I will miss her when I want to grouse about “the young parents these days.” Generation X and Millennials simply don’t volunteer their time like we old farts did, I would tell her. Don’t you imagine in the 35 years of her employment at Harding Academy, she heard from several generations of mothers grousing about the next generation not giving like they had? I’m sure she nodded her head to each generation and smiled, knowing that everybody gives what they can when they can, just in different ways.
I will miss her when I want to ask her if something is normal, when I need a reality check. Is it really okay that the college boy is doing this and that the high school girl wants that? She would advise through parable, telling me a story of her kids or grandkids and how a situation with them was resolved.
I will miss her smell. I will miss her hug. I will miss her southern drawl and the sing song pattern of her voice. Oh my God, I will miss those crystal blue eyes that crinkled up in the corners and flashed with love, anger, mischief and possibility.
The second thing I find hard to believe is that this woman was my friend. This source of light and laughter, determination and verve was my FRIEND. This elegant, brilliant, transcendent woman loved ME. If ever there were proof of grace, Nancy’s friendship with me is it.
Thank you for being my friend Nancy Turner and for allowing me to be yours. Just in case you wonder, our friendship made me as happy as a pig in slop.