Memories of Belle – Update

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Annie died Monday 08 February 2016.

The following love note to her was originally published 05 July 2015.

 

memories lost friendship AlzheimersPictures of her adorn my house still, though we haven’t been friends for some years. Or we haven’t behaved as friends. I continue to think of her as one.

My friend—let’s call her “Belle”—she’s bright and lovely, so much more gracious than I, the perfect Southern lady I will never be. Belle came to me by word of mouth, I can’t recall whose. Don’t you love that sort of thing? Someone thought we’d like each other. Someone I’d thank, if I could remember.

In a photograph on the fridge, Belle and I are posed at a Halloween party, long forgotten—but not the captured moment. She stands behind me, in a flapper dress; I, in my husband’s cammies and flak jacket, helmet under my arm, fat cigar in hand. She has wrapped herself around me, rested her pretty face on my armored shoulder. That’s how we spent our years together, the years we behaved as friends.

Belle wrapped herself around my life and became a family fixture, expected, without need for invitation, at high days and holidays. She’d arrive other times, unannounced—a welcomed breach of Southern etiquette—to flop on the sofa, peruse the bookshelves, comment on the latest piece of art. She’d pour herself some wine, raid the fridge, have an occasional case of the vapors—venting the sorrow of an ill-kempt marriage, a clash of faiths, fears for a beloved son, things darker.

Mostly, though, we’d while away hours in conversation while my family snored—a duet of Southern twang and remnants of Baltimorese. We’d muse on the unfathomable, cry at the cruel, mourn our losses. Laughter sometimes trumped the darkness, not always, but we were sisters. We could survive anything. We’d always find a way to make the other laugh. At some point. We knew each other, really knew.

I wonder how many times it was that she concluded a moment of relationship frustration with “If only we were lesbians.”

We could have been lovers. If we’d been a bit more bi. If we hadn’t had husbands. If she hadn’t remembered the miasmic hurt of oppressive Southern nights, hairbrush handles and gentleman callers invading her childhood bed. If she hadn’t been guided to remember.

I never questioned her memories. Her feelings were real. She needed to express them, sometimes more virulently than others. When the need was great, Belle would wail at the “vile mother monster” who offered her up, while the torches of white-sheeted men flickered across her bedroom window. That’s how Belle recalled it.

Other times, she held the need quiet and clenched: “My mother was an evil bitch.”

My aches seemed relatively trivial. My dear mother was just a wee bit of a bitch—in my teen years, I suppose. But Belle and I held and rocked each other, encouraged and scolded, mothered and sistered as the need arose, without condition. I was grateful that she fled the South and found her way to a place in my California home.

One day, though, one moment, Belle and I changed. It happened in my living room, amid a gathering of friends. It was so sudden, so simple, so devastating. I failed to honor her memories, to defend them from a curious other, an inquisitor asking for proof of her pain, and Belle left my sofa, my family, my life. She never returned.

I mused over the cause. I cried into her void. I mourned the loss of my dearest friend. And she was not there to make me laugh. Instead, I hung the pictures, so I’d never forget, and some years passed.

Not long ago, a friend of Belle’s contacted me. He thought I’d like to know what had become of her—she had so often spoken of me, he said.

He told me she’s living in an institution, a home for the forgetful. She has early onset Alzheimer’s, rapidly progressing.

I drove to the distant corner of the county to see Belle, to hold and rock her if she wished, to make her laugh if I could.

She rose from a table in the common dining room, bumped her way through wheelchairs, sidestepped fallen lettuce on the linoleum floor. She greeted me with her lovely smile, shook my hand warmly, but she did not know me.

We walked to the porch, commenting on the weather, and sat on a wicker love seat, the cushion protected with plastic. We did none of that pleasant catching up, prelude to more intimate talk. She couldn’t. Every other sentence was the start of a new conversation.

She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to write my name and phone number—a polite trick of the trade perhaps?

When I returned the paper, she held it out as far as she could reach—"Can't imagine where I left my glasses"—read it, and jumped from the seat.

“Kit-Bacon? Kit-Bacon Gressitt?”

“Yes, that is I, it’s me, c’est moi.”

She clapped her hands and laughed. “Kit-Bacon, Kit-Bacon—how wonderful to see you!” She tucked the paper in her pocket, took my hand, sat back down and hugged me, laughing and repeating my name.

I had forgotten that laugh, Belle’s wild, ribald laugh, so unlike her gracious demeanor. It’s one of those small, dichotomous things I love about her. And with her moment of recognition, I hoped we might revisit our shared history. But in the next moment, she forgot who I am.

I lingered for a bit. We sat in the sun. I  asked Belle what she could remember. She mentioned her son, her “precious boy.” She mentioned her mother.

“Oh, I remember moving to California,” she said. “My dear, sweet mother, she helped me pack. She wrapped up all my favorite things for the road. What a sweet, sweet woman.”

I love you, Belle, Kit-Bacon ...................................

 

About Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Spawned by a Southern Baptist creationist and a liberal social worker, I inherited the requisite sense of humor to survive family dinner-table debates and the imagination to avoid them.

As the Sunday political columnist at the San Diego North County Times, I won awards, a Pulitzer Prize submission, a fan club, and death threats from angry readers—but the sales department loved me. More recently, I wrote book reviews for the paper, which is no longer: The U-T ate it.

In the last few years, the San Diego Poetry Annual has published some of my late-night poetry, and my creative nonfiction has been published by Trivia: Voices of Feminism and Ms. Magazine blog among others.

Today, the pocket gophers and hummingbirds keep me company while I write—yippee!