Remembering A Free-Spirited Friend
It was too hard to say goodbye to Tess
I wish Tess was with me now, right here on my couch, watching CNN, all fired up. Tess vs. Trump — what a show!
Long before we met, she established the first NOW chapter in West Virginia where she was raising a family with her husband Jack. Predating that, their front lawn in Charleston, W. Va. was torched because they had invited a mixed-race couple over for dinner; the next day she knocked on doors and gave every neighbor hell. Don’t mess with Tess.
Politics aside, that’s not really why I wished she was still here. I just wished I’d said goodbye. My emotions for this outspoken feminist who lived through the Depression without a mother, whose Irish wit — her Tessisms — zinged by me so fast I never caught a single one, ran so deeply in me that frankly it was preternatural. If I tried to figure out why, I’d fail, because some things aren’t meant to be dissected and analyzed, only whittled down to this: She was my friend.
For the past five years, at any given moment, I was contemplating making the 200-mile drive from my chocolate shop in Washington, D.C. to the Mapleshire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Morgantown, W. Va. to see Tess one last time. Go see Tess, go see Tess. And yet I never did.
A Glorious Patchwork
Like some exotic bird, Tess flew into my life one lunch hour in 1987, more spirited than your average customer in the middle of a work day. Later I’d learn that was just her style. Avant-garde and hell-bent on making her presence known.
“One Grand Marnier truffle, please. I’ve tried them all but these are my favorites,” Tess said. “Must be the booze! It’s the Irish in me!”
I recall wondering whether this woman was an aging starlet or a lady-of-leisure who came downtown once a week to get her hair done. Neither was her story.
Her story was a glorious patchwork of ragged, tragic and triumphant scraps. In the fifties, she married Jack in Springfield, Mass. and the couple moved to Charleston for his job with the phone company.
In the sixties — because it’s hard to keep a Tess down, even after four kids — she went to work first in the state Senate and then the state Supreme Court. Following a crushing divorce, she left everything behind to start life over in the D.C. area where she didn’t know a soul. Her decision was gutsy and rash, but at least it brought 60-year-old Tess to a world of politics, art and culture which she could (sort of) see from a book-cramped apartment that (sort of) overlooked the Potomac River. And that’s where our story began.
In age and optics, we were night and day. Yet together, we were that perfect moment at dusk.
She knew that I, having lost my dad too young, had a hole in my heart and walked on the spiritual side of things. I knew that she, despite her fierce fight for equal rights, yearned for those days as a wife and a mother. She knew I had an often reckless love life; I knew she was still in love with Jack. That aside, the attraction of souls is a cosmic mystery.
In the late ‘90s, Tess took a bad fall in her bedroom, shattering her hip and leg. My dynamo was down and would never regain her free-spirited step — the neighborhood’s cobblestone streets made life hell for an old goddess with a cane. Before too long, Tess returned home to West Virginia to be near her kids.
To Charleston, then Morgantown, the years to come would prove trying. When I said Tess was spirited, I meant like Jack Daniels, not in a spiritual sense. A self-proclaimed recovering Catholic, she never came off as even remotely religious. But then she began attending an occasional Mass. It was so un-Tess.
“Now that I’m almost there, Frances, I gotta cover all my bases,” she said.
In 2004, I did visit Tess once, in Charleston. She met me at the airport, aged and puffier. Walking was still a nightmare for her, but she drove us to her place like she owned the West Virginia mountainside.
That night, I slept on her couch. Her bedroom door was ajar and in the dark I became aware of her presence like a nearby candle. Aglow. Burning.
I once asked Tess a question that was probably like voodoo to her ears: If she did die, and if she could, would she leave me signs so I’d know she was still here? Make something appear out-of-the-blue? They could be feathers or pennies, but placed unexpectedly. Her choice.
Mystical talk baffled Tess and her reply was a bit absent. “Oh, I don’t know… oranges?” Oranges — noted. It never came up again.
Go see Tess, go see Tess. The mere thought made me spasm from some deep, skeletal fear. Once I said goodbye, it was over.
Her son Mike sent me a half-minute video of Tess, frail but alert. After thanking me for the Easter chocolates, she recounted how she used to come into the shop every day for her bonbon du jour, then expressed her love. I teared up.
Bye-bye, Frances were her last words.
I put it on my calendar to call Tess the following week; Friday, in fact. But Wednesday morning, Tess passed away. No goodbyes.
The following day, I was reading a story that opens up with the narrator’s dead mom, a ghost, arriving at his table in Berlin with a bag of oranges. A ghost. With oranges. A coincidence, I’m sure. But I like to connect dots; some might even say I connect dots and create constellations that aren’t there. That’s how I make sense of my universe.