In late August, the world lost a treasure and I lost a friend. Because I don’t read the local newspaper and rarely drive the half hour back home, I didn’t know it until late October, and ever since, I’ve been putting off sitting down to say all of this. I wish I could have held her hand one more time, that’s the thing. And although I’ve told her all of this stuff before, I wish I could’ve said it again.
When I introduced Gwyn to other people, I always had a hard time defining for them who she was to me. I’d say we went to church together and she was one of my teachers in junior high, but that description did her so little justice that I’d have to start again. I’d known her since I was small, I’d say, when first my family started attending my childhood church. But mostly, the remainder of my description depended on who I was describing her to–did they get the whole truth or the whitewashed version? Did they get to hear that she and her husband anonymously bought me the first makeup I ever owned when I was an increasingly heavy tween about to enter junior high? Did they need to know that for years, at Christmastime, they took me to the city to shop for myself and to eat in fancy restaurants that I had never before heard of, let alone set foot in? Did they get the whole and shameful truth that despite having never completed the assigned end-of-class apron project, I nevertheless made a very nice grade in her Home Economics class? Did I ever give anyone the real truth, the one that she and I both readily acknowledged when we hugged one another every Sunday for years? Did I say “she’s the grandmother I chose?”
I did, I think, to the people who mattered, as well as to those who knew us both and witnessed our affection for one another firsthand. There was no denying it, after all, especially once they heard her say (as everyone eventually did) that I was one of the few students she’d had over the years who could’ve done anything in the world. “You’re so smart and so talented, Angie, you can do anything you choose, but please do something. I love you so much and I want absolutely everything for you.” In her dreams for me, I think she saw me writing or singing or teaching. Of course, both music and writing are forever a part of who I am, but I’m sure not in the conventional ways that she might have imagined; neither are likely to make me any money any time soon. They both bring me joy, and for me, at least, that is enough.
Nevertheless, I content myself with the thought that I did finally manage to take after her in the most important of ways. I married a man I adored, and our separate families became one–bottom line, end of story, no questions asked. This, I think–regardless of all of her professional and educational honors–was the greatest accomplishment of Gwyn’s own life. All of her and Jim’s children and grandchildren were hers. I was hers, as were (I’m sure) many of the other children at church and in her classes. And yet, she had enough love and kindness left over for everyone she encountered, and she gave it freely. In fact, in the thirty-some years I knew her, I only ever heard her speak ill of another person once. (It was deserved, and although I could see the anger in her eyes as she spoke between bites of her sandwich, I found it really hard not to smile because that moment of not-niceness was so very out of character for her.)
It only made me love her more. For much of the time I knew her, I hesitated to tell her about the big screw-ups in my life, even though it all eventually came out. I think my hesitation was born of the fact that she was so wonderful; I couldn’t imagine that she’d understand. She did, it turns out. Sometimes, I think her smiling and nodding along with whatever story I was telling was her just biding her time, waiting for me to be who she knew I was. She was wise enough to know that nothing she had to say would change anything, so she just kept saying what she always had: “You can do anything. I love you so much.”
I’m happy she got to see me being that person in the last few years, although I’ll never stop wishing that she and my sweet husband could’ve met. I think she would’ve recognized him right away, one dear heart to another.
**That yucky signed black and white photo up there is from my 8th grade yearbook, because this moment seems to be the one time in the past twenty years that I can’t find any of the other pictures I have of her or us.