My Tale Is Told
I’ve been blessed in my life with some really remarkable friends along the way. Each one deserves a special chapter in my own story. This is one of them.
On this blustery 1970 October day in Southern Indiana, I had stoked the fireplace, shallow thing that it was. After every log burned singly, so small was the grate, that any ashes that had tumbled out onto the hearth had to be kept swept up and taken out. It was one of my chores to keep the fire going and the old pine floors safe from embers when all the others in my family were away at school. It was a chore which usually extended on throughout the evening, while homework was being done and papers graded.
It was a very old farmhouse with very old fireplaces. The two of them, in fact, were back to back in the dining room and living room common wall. Small, yes, but they provided good warmth against the slicing cold of the northern weather which seemed to begin too early in the fall and last too well into the spring. Being a native Texan and learning to handle the cold after I'd reached the ripe old age of 25, I never got fully used to the interminable duration of it and it was but one of the challenges of the place.
But on this day when I hadn’t heard from my dear friend Jan in awhile, I’d been thinking how much colder it must be for her and her darling Dallas and Linc in Colorado. I was hoping I'd hear from her that all was well. I hadn’t heard the weather news, but I was aware that it was usual for their weather to surpass ours in low temperatures and icy conditions. Not a contest I especially wanted to win, I was thinking!
We’d corresponded regularly and she’d been telling me about art classes she was taking to improve her considerable skills as well as mentioning a bit of physical symptoms she had been experiencing. But her enthusiasm always set the tone of her letters, rather than any gloom or anxiety. An aspiring artist, lately she was focused on mastering oils. Such a creature of creative activity! Of course, she would do it and I wanted to hear all about her progress!
In 1967, she’d made me a gift of the most charming sketches of my two children, pencilled onto a kind of textured building material. Each of these was cut into a matching circle with its edges bound by a strip of blue velvet ribbon to make the set of attractive wall plaques. They were so unique. It was the kind of gift which had lasted a long time, just as our friendship had.
Dallas had been one of the groomsmen – the military swordsmen - at our 1954 wedding. He’d gone through cadet training with my groom and had been hoping to find his soul mate. It was in Waco where our wedding had taken place and where he and my husband were stationed after being commissioned that, at last, he met her! They were married shortly before the guys got out of the service and we all left Waco in the summer of 1957.
After we all went our separate ways, Dallas finished college and became a brilliant engineer whose specialty was extremely unique; so unique that only a few engineers in the country then held jobs using the specialty, new in the developing electronics field. He had been the one specialist at Texas Instruments, in fact, when some of the earliest work on calculators and computers was rapidly being developed in the 1960s.
He and his willowy Jan adopted a precious little son they both doted on and they named him Lincoln, calling him Linc. Jan became my very dear friend, mostly through long-distance correspondence. He flew his own light plane and early on, occasionally they'd pop over to see us in various locations as time permitted. She and I had much in common and it was such fun.
But reverses in their fortune in the meantime when a situation had forced them into dire straits had occurred by the time I received that fateful letter that day in late autumn.
You see, she'd become involved in one of the earliest cosmetic pyramid schemes. The magic ingredient this product claimed was mink oil. It had looked like the opportunity of a lifetime to them. They could be in on the "ground floor", be their own bosses and nothing but their own efforts would limit the “top” echelons they could reach! They were bedazzled.
They had become so enthusiastic about it, they focused all their career hopes on it. He left his position at TI and they invested their life savings in a large product inventory and set off to build their fortune. We visited them on one trip to Texas and could see the extent of their inventory and the business plans which dominated their entire focus. They invited us join in it, but we declined, fortunately, as it turned out.
Though they set up their business as prescribed for success and earnestly tried, it didn't go according to plan. The main company was not on solid foundations. Eventually they had to admit defeat and throw in the towel, at a huge loss.
Unfortunately, the timing was doubly poor, as it coincided simultaneously with a glut of engineers just graduating from college and jobs in the profession were almost non-existent. New graduates claiming Dallas’ credentials were to be hired by the companies at substantially lower salaries than he’d have commanded and he was way over-qualified for a lesser job at a plant where he might have once been the star. But he finally found some sort of work in Denver, enough to get a new start on which to rebuild their lives. They couldn't afford even to rent a house in Denver, so they had parked a trailer home out from town a ways.
But, true to form, Jan painted and made their little trailer a home full of beauty and love for her beloved husband and son. She never succumbed to a “poverty mentality”, but remained her cheery self and continued to pursue her artistic interests and inspire hope.
She loved to paint the Colorado mountains in all their glory and in all kinds of weather. That same year – 1970 - she’d sent me a small oil sketch of the Rockies in the spring as a little gift. It was so typical of her. I still treasure it.
She sparkled when she entered a room and the room lit up in response. It was unselfconscious on her part. Everyone simply loved and responded to her. There was always something delicate about her demeanor and, though slim as a fashion model, she’d become diabetic during the ordeal of the financial stress.
On this particular day in Indiana, with October well underway and winter’s fingers toying with the fields and hillsides in my location, the “real cold” was yet to arrive in its full regalia. I'd already begun to perform the routine wintry chore of tossing down bales of hay from the barn loft to the cattle as the pastures had rapidly succumbed to the cold. But on this particular day, I'd done it earlier in the morning, concluding my outdoors duties, leaving me free to do my preferred activities, including choosing from among my own special pleasures of reading, playing the piano, writing, painting, sewing and, of course, choosing which of the domestic duties to take care of that day - always to a music background from favorite records.
With all the remaining chores indoors. I was merely tending to the fireplaces, waiting for my bread to rise on top of the hot-water heater in its closet where it took advantage of the mellow warmth while I baked the day’s cookies in anticipation of my kids' return from school. They'd soon be rushing up the driveway from the big yellow school bus which deposited them at the foot of our lane, right beside where our mailbox stood.
I decided to take a break from cooking, untied my apron, donned a warm coat and boots and headed down to the end of the lane to get the mail from the box before their arrival.
It was brisk out, and how pleasant to feel the cold air nip my cheeks after tending fireplaces and ovens, yet still to be cuddly warm inside my coat. The air was crisp and clean with the sun at its slanted angle of late Autumn and on the down-side of the afternoon, twinkling through the now bare tall trees atop the hill beyond the creek which followed along the narrow farm road which was my destination that afternoon.
Among the journals, bills and notices stuffed into the mailbox, there was the awaited letter from Colorado! I could hardly wait to get back to the house and read it. Jan was always creative in her writing, with her sly sense of humour. On this missive she'd drawn one of her funny little last-minute ball-point ink sketches on the back of the envelope. It depicted a girl with a ponytail, viewed from the back, with a little naked butt sitting on a block of ice above an inscription: “My Tale Is Told” – full of double meaning, of course. I smiled, thinking of her writing it with a sort of "baby talk" inflection.
Right then, little did I know its terrible true significance as I skipped back up the driveway lane to the cozy warmth of my house and fireplaces to pour myself a cup of coffee and settle down to read the contents of the letter.
Because, unbeknownst to me, as this was all unfolding in Indiana, over in Colorado there was a massive blizzard raging and Jan was marooned alone in their trailer. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock and grief that would follow upon the last smiles from reading her letter.
Dallas was unable to get out to her while the storm was raging to bring her refill of medicine which she had depleted. The prescription was waiting at the pharmacy and he had picked it up before finding the road blocked till it could be cleared.
In this desolate scenario, our darling Jan went into insulin shock, never to regain consciousness before she died too late for the medicine and for her Dallas to reach her.
At the moment when I was finding that letter from her, she was lying on the cold floor of their trailer in a coma, cut off from help. It gives me goosebumps now, writing about it 40 years later.
There is no way to describe the contrast of the nearly flippant cheer of her letter and the tragic timing of the reality of her death; and no way to account for the nearly supernatural aspect and impact of that message, “My tale is told’. Her cheerfulness, her creativity and her wit were all almost pulsating in my hand in her letter when they’d already ended in reality. It was devastating.
We received the phone call from her grieving Dallas that very evening.
I guess that, next to the news of my sister Harriet’s and her entire family's death in 1953, and learning of that incomprehensible accident over the radio, nothing had ever shaken me to the core, nor possibly could it ever again shake me to my core as Jan’s passing did that day. Her passing while so young and vibrant, was tragic enough, but that poignant "My Tale is Told" underlined it and haunted me deeply for a long time thereafter, and still does, if truth be told.
I don’t want this to be morbid, though. It’s a fact of life that death comes. There could be no life as we know it without death as we know it.
It’s up to the living to both live on courageously and to remember those who are gone, though usually it’s come to them more naturally in time at an older age. To lose a dear person at quite a young age is even the more poignant. And it has happened more often than otherwise in my lifetime. Jan and Harriet were both in their mid-30s. Harriet’s three little sons were all under 6.
Others I love have left Earth at various other ages of life. It's never easy, of course, and each of them is sorely missed and well-remembered.
RIP, my darlings, till we meet again.
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