I’ve been thinking about Mrs. Strauss.
Margaret Strauss was a intelligent woman with common sense and a spartan style in both speech and design.
A formidable force in my narrow young world, her friends called her ‘Lady’,a gift from her Papa after the early demise of her mother. She carried that name throughout her life but I never called her anything but Mrs. Strauss, no matter how old we both became.
She and I first became acquainted when my mother went to work at her daycare center. Childless, widowed, a retired school teacher as well as former legal secretary, she decided to open a daycare where children would be properly cared for as well as started on the right road to learning. Forever into a project, She purchased and renovated a house across from the local grade school for her dream of the perfect early learning environment. She also lived in the house directly behind the school, her way of being close . The whole deal was revolutionary in our small Texas town and quickly drew many parents wanting an alternative to the norm of daycare as they knew it.
The Carousel Child Care Center was open for many years, but I think ultimately she lost too much money just trying to do it right.
I have no idea why she chose me as one of her projects, or if she was even aware of the huge impact she would have on my life, but one day she asked my mother if I could come help her with a project. Mother, a formidable woman in her own right, was terrified of Mrs. S. and quickly acquiesced. That’s how people were around her. Lady was so kind to her little cadre of employees that one could overlook her quickly sparked flares of temper and she always got what she wanted.
Mother would drive me into town early on a Saturday or, during the summer months, a weekday. I was accustomed to rising early, living on a farm. Our animals needed tending and I had my share of chores – besides my horse, which was my responsibility anyway. I’ve always been a morning person, enjoying the beginning of the day. It was such a different beginning at Mrs. Strauss’ than it was out at the farm, but just as hopeful. The air just as humid and filled with promise.
Though everyone else on God’s green earth shortened my name, not Mrs. S., who enunciated every syllable of every word she ever spoke. She rolled the entire thing out of her mouth every time, making it into 3 syllables; making it, I suppose, hers alone.
Usually unhurried, I would sit across the table from her while Mrs. S. lay out our plan of action for the day over a cup of coffee. It could have been painting shutters, painting shelves or any derivative of each. Rarely did I do anything but paint. I painted more shutters in my youth than some professionals have in their entire career, for one of her favorite projects was covering things up with shutters. She’d build a set of shelves, I’d paint them; she’d go buy the shutters to cover the shelves… and I would paint those as well. When she moved we’d start all over on the new house, making cubbyholes into glorified closets; the woman knew how to organize. She moved three times, keeping me very busy. Never did she ask me to clean her home, wash the windows, or anything remotely approaching housework. I did sweep outside now and again, as I became as comfortable in her home over the years as I was in my own.
About halfway through the day we’d ride up to the drive-through window at the local chicken place and get fried chicken livers. After I got my driver’s license we kept the tradition, though I went and brought it back to the house. It always seemed preferable to both of us to eat together there by ourselves, chatting companionably about all manner of things against a backdrop of music.
When MacNeil/Lehrer wasn’t on the stereo usually was, carrying classical music to every nook and cranny of the house. I awakened every morning to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, echoing my parent’s taste in tunes. I swung wildly the other way, as children are wont to do, giving my heart to James Taylor. But the classical music opened a door in me; it felt ancient and pure. To this day it’s my favorite music; not that I know anything about it…but we don’t have to understand something to experience the bliss it creates; that would almost ruin the whole thing.
I always hated to leave her when the day’s work was over, even if I knew that another day of painting shutters followed the one I’d just completed. Sometimes I’d sit with her for an hour or two while she told stories about her life. That became tradition as well, and continued for years, even after I was grown and gone from the area. I’d come back into town and my first stop would be a visit to Mrs. Strauss. She’d light up like an overly decorated tree on Christmas eve, and say “Come in this house!” Her second words were always “Have you been to see your mother?” But she already knew the answer; she was first.
Her tales became legend in our family; for my mother and I both knew exactly when one was coming by the glint in Lady’s eye and the resolute, clipped manner of her speech. I loved those times, and would settle in for a history lesson into the soul of the woman I respected and loved so much.
“‘Lady’, Papa would say…” And we were off.
My favorites were the Pete stories. Pete was not her first husband, he’s the one that stuck. He was older than she, and I don’t know the exact circumstances of his death.
I know better now what it must be to mourn the loss of someone you not only love, but belong to completely in body and soul. A mate. After she lost Pete, that was it for her. She carried on with life, but most of her heart was shuttered up, waiting for their next meeting. He called her “firecracker” and those stories often started: “‘Firecracker’, Pete would say…”
There was a large portrait of Pete in her bedroom and I’d sit and look at it for half an hour or more, trying to understand that kind of love and recalling the stories she’d told me of their lives together. I can recall every detail of his likeness, down to his clothing and the rolled up newspaper he was holding.
She also started me on another career path besides shutter painting: dog and house sitting. I started with her dogs and pretty soon she had most of her bridge playing buddies calling me with jobs. I was trustworthy and reliable and had all the sitting jobs I could have wanted. It was simple, enjoyable work and I was again in her debt, though she never took credit for that or anything she did for me… except maybe my vocabulary. I had been a voracious reader since the age of four and had a good hand on modern verbiage, with few flaws, among those being the use of ‘lay’ and ‘lie’. Under her tutelage I had to physically lie on the couch and lay a book on the table. But I never again forgot their proper usage. That made her smile.
One day years later I came back into town and stopped by her house as usual. She was herself, yet not quite. Tired, I thought. Too many projects. She shocked me to the roots by casually telling me to pick out something of hers for myself. I protested vigorously, for she was going nowhere, dammit. I’ve always regretted declining the offer, for she knew what I didn’t, what I couldn’t face.
Six months later when she didn’t answer her phone I sent a friend over to see about her, as I lived across the country by that time… but she was in a nursing home and all her belongings had been sold to a local resale shop to help cover her debts. It felt as if those things were mine and they had been stolen; I would have paid any amount of money to get them back and to get her sitting among them again, sipping coffee and spinning stories about Pete. I was 2,000 miles away, and powerless.
If she only knew what effect she had on my life. But, I bet she does.
Margaret Glass Strauss, 3.28.09 – 6.28.94