The other day, I asked my mom whether she'd spoken to Gretchen, lately. Gretchen Cruthirds was one of my mom's elementary school teachers in DeRidder, and a close buddy of Brother, my great uncle. The two of them used to call one another every morning to make sure the other one was okay. Brother died years ago, but Gretchen, who seemed much frailer, kept plugging along despite many health problems. My mother sent her candy at Christmas and called her occasionally.
Paul and I went down to Louisiana about six or seven years ago and stayed with her for a night. She offered to give us a tour around town--no small feat since she wasn't too spry and could barely see. No problem, though, as it turned out. She sat in the front seat and told us at what light to turn and described, from memory, and in detail, what stood or had stood on every inch of every block in DeRidder.
She'd lived in DeRidder most of her life--in fact she'd been born in the house we visited her in on Christmas Day. Her parents put a bow on her and placed her under the tree as a present for her older brother. She had the place pretty well memorized. It was amazing to me--the idea of living that long in one place, of knowing it so well. I thought, for the eighteen thousandth time, about how rare it is for people in our country to stay in one place throughout their lifetime.
That night, we went out to dinner at a local restaurant that featured a southern buffet (which I'd love to be partaking of right now). The next day, Gretchen looked at Paul and said, "They've been talking about this big and tasty burger..." I don't know if "they" were friends of hers or ads she'd heard, but she was referring to a new burger at McDonald's. She wanted to go try one out, so we all went and she took us to lunch. (She wasn't all that impressed by the burger, as it turned out.) If the burger wasn't memorable, however, the line was. For some reason, both Paul and I occasionally pop up with that line. "They've been talking about this big and tasty burger..."
Other notable moments during our stay with Gretchen: Her recoil when we offered her boudin (I thought all Louisianans lived on the stuff, but she despised it); and a story she told us about her father being operated upon by the famous heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey in Lake Charles. Turns out DeBakey was born in Lake Charles. Gretchen's father didn't have heart disease--in fact I think it was some sort of G.I. problem. Maybe it was before DeBakey specialized. At any rate, Debakey had a reputation for being a fast and efficient surgeon even then.
When we left, Gretchen told me to have my mom come down soon--something she often said to my mom on the phone, as well. When I asked my mother about her just recently, she said she hadn't talked to her recently. "I don't even know if she's alive," she said, a little fretfully. When Gretchen's name came up, there was always a little frisson of worry....she was so frail, how did she keep going, was she still alive?
This time, I had my blackberry in my hand and typed her name into Google. Unfortunately, her obituary popped right up. She'd died only a week earlier.
I didn't know Gretchen well, but I was very fond of her--not only because I thought she was smart, kind, lovely, and tough in that genteel southern woman kind of way, but because she had been such a good friend to Brother. I will miss knowing she's down there, puttering around in the house she was born in in the same way I miss knowing that Brother is down there in the house he built, anchoring me to a place to which I am so perplexingly connected.
4 years ago