The ghost of her memory

“I’ll be your driver today, Mrs. Penn,” I said when she answered the door, this tiny white-haired woman with a nasty dog at her heels.

She grinned and said, “It’s Miss, not Missus, and you can call me Shirlee.”

She’d grown up with an unusually-spelled name back in the days when you just didn’t do that. (I’ve changed it, by the way — a google search on her real name turns up her, and only her.) Over time, as I drove her to various appointments, I learned more about her life, how she’d been born in that same house where I’d picked her up, how she’d never married — and bits and pieces I found myself fitting together even when she herself didn’t. Relentlessly cheerful, she never spoke badly of her family, and I didn’t yet know the word “toxic.” I knew she was alone, but I also knew she had family in the area. I met her sister once, a bitter woman who showed up only because a doctor wanted a family member there.

Shirlee annoyed me sometimes, and I didn’t let it show. She didn’t get why I wanted to stick to a schedule, or why she shouldn’t spend twenty minutes in the house after saying “I’ll be one minute — I just need to get my purse.” She liked that I brought a baby with me to her appointments. At some point, I believe her nephew moved in with her, into that crumbling house crammed with a lifetime of junk and darkness.

I don’t know why I’m thinking of her. The ghost of her memory came to me while I was knitting another shawl.

It would have been Christmas 1999 that I bought her a gift. It wasn’t much — a pretty sachet and some scented soaps, and then I wasn’t sure how to get it to her. But of course, God looks out for fools, drunks, the United States of America, and me: the dispatcher called a week before Christmas with a same-day appointment, so I tucked the gift in the back seat. After her appointment, Shirlee asked me to stop at Walgreens, and I figured she wanted to get a prescription. No, she spent an interminable forever wandering the aisles and then bought a gianormous teddy bear for one of her nieces or nephews. Irritated, I still helped her back to the car with a smile and an assurance that no, I really had nothing else to do today.

When we got to her house, she gave Kiddo 1 the teddy bear. He hugged it, and I thanked her and said she hadn’t had to do it, and then I reached into the back and handed over her gift and card.

She said, “Oh, you didn’t have to — ” and then stopped. It was wrapped. There was a card. Her eyes widened. “You didn’t know I was going to give him that!” And in that moment, she realized I’d actually bought a gift for her, planned it out and meant to do it.

And she started to cry.

I felt like garbage afterward, that maybe this lonely woman got one Christmas gift that year, and it was a lousy sachet and some soap. Wendy told me, “At least she got something,” and my Patient Husband said, “You can’t make up for a lifetime of unkindness.” But I never expected her to cry.

I just felt so helpless.

Some time later, it might have been my last trip driving her when she asked if we could go visit her old school house, so we wandered down this rural road I’d never been, in a backwoods between two thriving towns; widing alongside a lake, she told me about how cold it used to be to walk a couple miles to a one-room schoolhouse, told me about woodstoves and other students. And then after we found the spot her school used to stand, I dropped her off at home, and I don’t think I ever saw her again.

I did go to her wake. Her nasty sister glared at me, like how dare someone come to the wake because they liked Shirlee. As my Patient Husband said, you can’t make up for a lifetime of unkindness.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of that teddy bear.


  1. Normandie

    Thank you, Jane, for a reminder that the little things matter. In our busy schedules, they should matter, because we may have the only gift Shirlee will ever receive.

  2. Mom

    Yes thank you. We all have Shirlees. Some are in our own families. And if we are very fortunate, we will allow them to change us 🙂

  3. Pingback: I wanna be her when I grow up « Seven angels, four kids, one family