Before Her Time
Mrs. Jordan was our next door neighbor during my years of growing up in Edgevale. She was also the mother of my childhood best friend. Her daughter Jenny and I, though close, were as different as night and day in how we looked and behaved. Jenny was tan and blonde and I was fair and brunette. When we were out together, people frequently assumed I was Mrs. Jordan's daughter because she, too, had dark brown hair.
Jenny was adventurous and daring. I had not a risk-taking bone in my body, though I dreamed of becoming daring as I plowed through the entire set of Nancy Drew volumes at my school library. We had matching Barbie dolls with bouffants whose hair color and skin tone corresponded to our own.
Since her parents were divorced, Jenny lived with her mother during the school year and with her father in another city during the summer. She and I spent every waking moment together after school and on weekends. Jenny attended an exclusive private school and I went to the parish grade school. The Jordans were Catholic but didn't attend Mass with the predictable regularity of my family.
Jenny and I forged each other's childhoods through imaginative play, the dramatic play young girls often engage in, as well as through the pick-up games of football, basketball, kickball, volleyball, and baseball we enjoyed with the rowdy family of boys who lived across the street.
Our dramatic play involved pretending her entire house was another universe where each bedroom was an apartment, the kitchen was a restaurant, the living room a store, and her mother's office a design studio, which it actually was.
We created different characters whose persona we could assume for the day: always young single women with interesting lives and careers of travel and adventure. We skillfully navigated the social waters of our imagined world, negotiating first who got to play which character and with which selected attributes and circumstances, and then, within the play itself, the conflicts that arose through the interactions of these characters. I can't imagine a better rehearsal for real life.
We rode bikes together all over the neighborhood and to the small retail area nearby. Hers was a classic Schwinn, deep lavender and white, with a wicker basket fastened by leather straps to the handlebars, and mine was a pearlized blue-green model from Sears with a metal platform secured to the back fender for packages or a rider. We hung miniature license plates bearing our names from the seats and planted city license decals on the frames.
We would bother the mailman on his walking route and tag along uninvited when the neighbor from around the corner walked her dog. We spied on the teenagers who lived on our block whenever they offered public displays of affection on a front porch. We knew which elderly widows were likely to chastise us if we ran through their yards.
We ventured off of our block occasionally and without parental permission to discover uncharted areas of the neighborhood since we could disappear for hours back then without anyone wondering where we were.
We also knew intimately the terrain of each yard, front and back, and would take this into account when making rules for outdoor games. Every crack in a sidewalk or driveway, every hole in the asphalt, every shrub on a terrace, and every tree on an easement was known by heart and warranted a slight alteration in the rules governing any given sport.
Our travels led us sometimes to a large triangle lot on the the next block up. The entire city was laid out in a grid, making it easy to find your way around and maintain a sense of direction. Sometimes a street curved to preserve a hill or offer visual interest and would create a triangle rather than the typical rectangular plat of most city blocks. This large flat lot behind the houses lured children to play because it was imperceptible from every kitchen window that faced it thanks to the tall bushes growing along the fence lines, making it a private space where we could meet other neighborhood kids, like the large family of a classmate whose property abutted the lot.
Jenny's bedroom window faced mine and we would talk to each other through them on summer nights after we went to bed. Since her window swung open at the top and had no screen, Jenny would sometimes crawl onto the roof over her mother's office and come to the gutter a few feet from my window to chat into the night.
I was ferociously allergic to cats, then and now. Their dander incited minutes-long sneezing fits and itching eyes. The Jordans were definitely cat people and owned three cats whose glowing neon eyes could be detected for miles in the pitch black of night. These felines had an other-worldliness and certain beauty: Fanny, a plump matronly cat with fluffy black fur, content to plop for hours and take in the world; Josephine, sleek of body with glossy black fur, moving furtively throughout the two-story house as if dispatched by some covert spy ring; and the youngest, Gwendolyn, the classically featured, grey, blue-eyed, aloof princess among the matriarchy.
The presence of cats did not deter me in the least. In my mind, the Jordan home was a country estate. Spending time at their house felt like a vacation regardless of how my cat allergy pained me: no little brother or sister trailing me, no chores to do, no mundane errands like grocery shopping and picking up laundry; it was an impeccably appointed retreat and free from the clutter four kids could generate at the drop of a hat.
Mrs. Jordan was a divorcee and single mother and professional, three strikes against a woman in the early 1960s, most especially if she were Catholic. Her circumstances were somewhat unusual in that Jenny's father was a movie producer in a western state and owned a location where many TV shows and movies were filmed. He was movie-star handsome and counted John Wayne among his close friends. I suspect Mrs. Jordan relied on some financial support from Jenny's father, but she still carved out a career for herself as an interior decorator.
She had exquisite taste in home furnishings and clothes and crafted rooms according to her clients' tastes but always with her own elegant flair. Her office was packed with samples of rugs and fabrics and paint, dangling from giant metal hooks and arranged by color. Jenny and I spent hours with her mother in upholstery shops, furniture stores, fabric studios and luxurious homes. These excursions were a world away from mine and I always jumped at the chance to accompany them.
And then there was her car: a 1966 pale yellow Ford Mustang hardtop with white leather interior and an automatic transmission in the floor. It was sporty in image, yet demure in design. Quite a departure from the wood-panel station wagons the other mothers drove.
She would occasionally take in borders to supplement her income, all young female college students from the nearby dental school who stayed in the guest room and spent their spare time studying the intricacies of plaster impressions and scribbling in enormous lab books to master the principles of dental hygiene.
When I was young, I had no idea how unusual Mrs. Jordan was: strong, independent, self-sufficient, attractive, smart, sophisticated in her taste and demeanor. Today perhaps you wouldn't notice her as much for these traits, but back then she was a woman before her time. She dated off and on over the years, but never married again. She spent considerably more time engaging with friends and family than she did dating or exhibiting any anxiety about not dating.
One interest of hers I found curious was that of astrology. She purchased large horoscope magazines and mini booklets from racks in the grocery check-out line and devoted her leisure time to the study of them. I could never quite reconcile her astuteness and intelligence with what seemed to me the stuff of fatalism and random chance. Maybe this avocation helped her impose order on her world or perhaps it simply delighted her to ponder the fact that both she and Jenny were Leos.
Within popular culture, there was definitely a surge of interest in all things astrological by the time I was in junior high. I had plenty of zodiac jewelry and room accoutrements representing my own water sign, Pisces, the fish. It was fun and novel then to celebrate your sign with tokens like these and to consider the irony of certain horoscopes published daily in the newspaper.
But by the time I was in high school, it struck me as absurdly illogical. I was busy watching gavel to gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, probing current events for their political significance, and nurturing a passing interest in journalism. Though planetary alignment might have been a great excuse for much of what occurred in those now historical realms, the events could hardly be touted as destiny when adults overtly chose to behave badly.
Throughout my youth, she would frequently entrust me with the keys to her house whenever she went away for a weekend. I was her official pet-sitter. In addition to the cats, they had a pudgy and squat black mutt named "Henrietta," the first dog I was ever attached to as my family owned no pets. Henrietta was a great neighborhood dog and routinely followed Jenny and me on our adventures, long before leash laws were enacted. This was my first job before I was old enough to babysit. I would follow her instructions to the letter; I felt responsible and important and she paid me well.
After Jenny grew up, Mrs. Jordan used her design savvy to flip a few houses in the area where my family still lived. This, mind you, was a good 25 years before HGTV and other cable programs popularized this practice. I used to bump into her now and again in the retail area near our old neighborhood and catch up with her on news of Jenny and other folks we knew. She attended my wedding in the early 1980s and appears in a few photos from the reception, elegantly dressed, smiling, and obviously enjoying herself.
Last fall I attended an annual handcrafters fair I've been attending for years where talented crafters exhibit their unique wares. I see some of the same crafters each year, but most come from out of town and every year there are new faces. This year, I observed a tiny, vaguely familiar woman whose booth displayed gorgeous silk jackets and colorful handbags she sewed from fabric she purchased in France. As I bought a lovely sachet with lavender from Provence, I recognized her voice as that of one of Mrs. Jordan's friends.
I introduced myself, knowing full well she wouldn't remember me but with the intention of reminiscing about Mrs. Jordan. She spoke fondly about her friendship with Mrs. Jordan as she rearranged some of the purses on the table and then turned directly toward me to say: "You know, she died far too young, really, before her time." I nodded in agreement and responded, "She definitely did. Way before her time."
Mrs. Jordan had died of cancer quickly and quite brutally over twenty years ago. The disease was found too late for her to launch an attack against it or make any attempts at a valiant recovery. She had been a lifelong smoker. Even now I can see her dropped wrist, the cigarette perched between her perfectly manicured fingers bearing the frosted peach nail polish popular at the time.
She smoked as did nearly every adult I knew, including my parents. Cancer claimed her lungs, then, rather quickly, her brain. I never got the chance to fully grasp the scope of her illness or say goodbye. Her funeral and burial were private and for family only. The week after Mrs. Jordan died, my mother and I visited Jenny at her mother's house to express our profound sorrow. Jenny lives out of town and I haven't seen her since.
But I continue to think often of Mrs. Jordan and what a powerful influence she was in my life without either of us ever really knowing, much less acknowledging. When my only daughter now communicates her aspirations to be a professional designer some day, I smile and remember what an extraordinary life that could be.
Flat Rock Creek Notebook: Memoirs of the Here and Now