These are words that I never quite expected to hear come from my lips – “When you get to be my age”…
But they have. And they come not attached to wisdom or experience or knowledge, or any of those good things. These words, instead, come with the grief at having lost a friend. I know that death is a more frequent visitor when you get to be my age… it’s physiology and mathematics and the laws of the universe that make it so. But none of this makes sense in reconciling the grief. Even at my age.
Her name is Jane.
Jane, her husband Tom and their daughter Jessica lived directly across the street from my family for over 20 years. When we moved into our home, Keith was 6, Adam was 4 and Audrey was 6 months old. The very first day we were there, Jessica (who was 3), stood at the very edge of her driveway and asked if she could come play with our baby. Jane smiled her beautiful smile and laughed her beautiful laugh and told Jessica that they’d be plenty of time to “play.”
And she was right. Not too long after we moved in, “our Jane” came along. Barry and I had decided to name our new baby Jane for my love of Jane Austen, but the beauty and brilliance and kindness of our neighbor Jane made the name even more perfect. Our kids came to love each other and dashed back and forth from yard to yard for years and years. Both of our driveways accommodated chalk hopscotch drawings, jump rope marathons, basketball games… learning to ride 2-wheelers… graduating to drivers’ permits… photographs of proms and boys and dates and more boys and even more boys who came and who went. Our driveways saw so much. Jane and I stood at the edge of her driveway when she and Tom returned from taking Jessica off to college… and we hugged for a long time as Jane cried with both joy and sadness at this new journey in their lives. Jessica was like the “big” sister to Audrey and Jane… and they would study everything she wore. Everything she said. Everything she did. We went on family ski trips together. We celebrated birthdays. And Jane was always Jane. Kind. Patient. Perfect. Beautiful. Impeccably dressed (I will tell you more about this later!). Jane was a teacher in our town… and her reputation was beyond perfection. I don’t think I ever saw a moment when Jane was not smiling. Or laughing her beautiful laugh. And Jane was a fabulous cook, too. I can still taste her strawberry-rhubarb pie. I can still hear Tom calling, “Jane! Jane!”… from his garden or from his garage, where he tinkered and collected and stored his many “treasures,” many of which were definitely not treasures to Jane! Jane’s eyes would dance with feigned annoyance and calmly, always calmly, answer, “Yes, Tom?”
Jane was a voracious reader. A skier. A swimmer. A walker. Jane walked each day, way before it was popular. And she always wore the most exquisite gear… brilliant colors and textures and styles. She never tried to look beautiful. She just did. We lived within walking distance from our town beach, and Jane would take Jessica to that beach every summer day… pulling a little red wagon… loaded with everything they needed for an afternoon of fun. During the school year, Jane always had stuff… you know, things that made learning fun and interesting. And Jane always looked beautiful heading off to school. She always had the most lovely scarf or accessory or shoes that heightened the beauty of each outfit. Jane loved clothes. She loved dresses and suits and ski wear and coats. The funny thing is that Tom didn’t. Tom wore the same shirts and hats and boots and coats year after year… But one of the loves that Jane and Tom shared was their love of Maine. Jane came from Bangor, and she loved to return there. Tom spent long days and weeks hunting with Jane’s father… and Jane spent precious times with her family there. I never think of Maine without thinking of Jane. Jane from Maine.
In 1998, Barry and I moved to the next town over. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done is to tell Jane and Tom that we were moving. But “our Jane” had just graduated from high school and was heading off to college… and we had found a perfect home in a little harbor village. We still went out to dinner now and then, but soon our kids were getting married, and the grandkids started to arrive. Wedding showers and baby showers replaced our driveway meetings. Jessica, Audrey and Jane all became bridesmaids for each other. New beginning. Even newer journey.
Then, 3 years ago, Jane suffered a debilitating stroke. She would recover enough to go home, but she would never be the same. At Jessica’s baby shower for her first little girl, Jane didn’t know who I was at first. Then, when I explained that I had lived across the street… she immediately knew. As Jane being the gracious Jane she was, she apologized for not knowing me. We talked, but the day was busy and exhausting for her. I would see her again when “my Jane” and I stopped in for a visit last year, around this time. Jane sat up in bed and chatted. And fell to sleep. Chatted a bit more. And fell to sleep again.
In August, just days after my mother-in-law died… Jane died, peacefully at home. The time was such a blur for me. My heart was so broken already that my mind must have been in a latent state. I remember the day of Jane’s funeral was so warm. Nice warm. Her funeral Mass was beautiful, like Jane herself. Jane had been a lector in her church, and I had seen and heard her read many, many times… her soft voice and disarming grace. I remember seeing Tom and Jessica accompany Jane down the aisle, gripped with the grief of their loss. The world’s loss. I remember the cemetery and the flowers and the celebration of Jane’s life… but I didn’t process the loss. Not fully.
Not until two weeks ago, when I heard the song Burgundy Shoes, by Patty Griffin. It was the melody that captured me. The exquisite beauty. I just knew that this song meant something more than a song. Then I read the lyrics… and Jane and her life and her death and my grief came pouring to the surface. I could just see Jane heading off to Bangor with Jessica… her pretty little girl… a beautiful and graceful and kind and brilliant woman holding the hand of her child, so long, long ago. These are the words to Burgundy Shoes:
We wait for the bus that’s going to Bangor
In my plaid dress and burgundy shoes
In your red lipstick and lilac kerchief
You’re the most pretty lady in the world
The bus driver smiles a dime and a nickel
We climb on our seats
The vinyl is cold
“Michelle Ma Belle” a song that you loved then
You hold my hand and sing to yourself
The leaves are green and new like a baby
Tulips are red
Now I don’t miss the snow
It’s the first day I don’t wear my big boots
You hold my hand
I’ve got burgundy shoes
My heart realizes the earth’s emptiness at the loss of Jane’s smile and laugh and dancing eyes and exquisite colors and her “Yes, Tom?” and her strawberry-rhubarb pie. But my soul is touched by having known Jane and her great patience and grace and beauty… and especially her faith. Jane is the embodiment of faith. Today, as I was thinking of my dear neighbor and friend, Jane, I heard a church bell tolling in my little town… and I know that bell is Jane. I know it is Jane because it was a joyous sound cutting through a winter day. Warmth and beauty. That is Jane.
Jessica has 2 little girls that Jane certainly watches over every single day… and they see their grandmother. I am sure of it. There is a lady in red lipstick and lilac kerchief in their lives, and they will know her as the most pretty lady in the whole world.
When you get to be my age, maybe we really do see things a bit differently. And maybe that difference really is wisdom and experience and knowledge… mixed in with the grief. Maybe it is the beauty of a red tulip and the memory of a beautiful friend.
I will never see a red tulip again without thinking of Jane.