The philodendron dripping down the side of my red bookcase is more than 50 years old now. It came from a cutting Mrs. Walker (not her real name) gave me 32 years ago when we first met at the little museum I directed. She told me then her plant was ancient, perhaps 25 or more years old.
Mrs. Walker was the answer to an unspoken prayer. She lived across the street from the museum and took an early interest in the goings on there. As the opening neared, she volunteered her house plants to decorate the entryway, and, after seeing them, we gladly accepted.
I guess that’s how our friendship began. Mrs. Walker was about 68 at the time, a tiny woman, bowed by osteoporosis. She wore her hair in a bun on top of her head. Her hair was jet black, sometimes with a flush of red depending on what hair color she used.
Mrs. Walker carried her Bible with her everywhere she went. It was worn and underlined, crammed with bits of paper marking her favorite passages, yet I never once remember her “preaching” to me. I can’t even remember which church she went to, though I do remember she helped out at its thrift shop downtown.
After the museum opened, it was my job to see that it was staffed with volunteers each Saturday, otherwise I would have to fill in. After the first couple of weeks, the last-minute cancellations and no-shows became increasingly worrisome. When she realized my plight, Mrs. Walker volunteered to work every weekend. She loved the museum and she loved visiting with the people who came to tour it. She often stopped by during the week to catch me up on what happened while she was on duty.
Mrs. Walker didn’t have a car, so she walked everywhere she needed to go. Fortunately at that time, there were two grocery stores down the street. She said her doctor told her to keep moving or her arthritis would get worse. She kept moving. I was still in my 20s; I couldn’t begin to grasp what chronic pain meant.
Before I met her, Mrs. Walker had been hit by a car crossing the street in front of her house. She recovered.
While she was working with me, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought she would want to give up her volunteer duties, but I was wrong. As soon as she recovered from surgery, she was back at work.
One afternoon, she fell at the museum and broke her arm. She went back to work with her arm in a sling.
I began to see her as some otherworldly creature operating on reserves normal people didn’t possess. Surely her faith in God got her through some tough spots, but to my untried youthful self, her optimism seemed almost pathological.
Mrs. Walker was the widow of a man called Sparky. She often spoke of him fondly. It appears they had a good relationship and she still missed him.
One day I must have been griping about what a lousy cook I could be. I can see Mrs. Walker sitting at the desk, her Bible close by. “Well, I wasn’t a good cook when Sparky and I got married,” she said. “But he told me what I lacked in the kitchen, I made up for in the bedroom.”
We had a good laugh over that one. And many laughs to follow.
After I moved away from Athens and the museum, Mrs. Walker and I corresponded for awhile. Stupidly, I let life get in the way, and we lost touch. Then, years later, I heard she had died.
I still have the philodendron, though, begun with a cutting she gave me from one of her monstrous plants in the museum entry hall. It continues to flourish, perhaps fed on that otherworldly optimism Mrs. Walker shared with everyone around her.
Jan Hearne can be reached at