Miss Melinda was a dear family friend. She passed away unexpectedly two weeks ago. It feels strange and sad to write about her in the past tense.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot.
There was always something glamorous about Miss Melinda. Everything about her was big and bold and bright. She had big hair, big eyeglasses, big jewelry, and big cursive handwriting. But it all worked perfectly for her, and was proportionate to her big, warm personality. Miss Melinda was always very put-together, very Southern, in her appearance and demeanor. She gave the impression of some kind of large, regal, maternal bird, one plumped and fluffed and coiffed and sitting tall on its nest, holding court and watching over everyone.
And Miss Melinda loved Christmas. She decorated every inch of her home with beautiful trees, ornaments, and lights. Her house was how I imagine a rabbit’s warren to be: long, low, and dim inside, and completely warm and snug. She had big, comfortable furniture and cozy circles of lamplight everywhere.
As a child, I remember being so impressed by the way Miss Melinda displayed a hardcover copy of The Polar Express as part of her Christmas decorations. It always stuck with me as a classy, creative thing to do. As an adult, I got my own copy of the book years ago with the same intention, but I always forget to set it out at Christmastime. I hope I remember to do so this December, as a little way to remember Miss Melinda.
It’s no surprise that Miss Melinda would decorate with books: She was a high school English teacher and she loved books and writing, especially all the classic young adult novels taught in school. As a kid, I always had a bit of a romantic, idealized view of Miss Melinda’s life, one with her spending her days reading and discussing good books, and then coming home at night to a cozy house and decadent meal, and then waking up the next day to do it all over again in another fabulous outfit. As an adult, I laugh at the idea of Miss Melinda living a life of ease. Being a teacher is hardly a cakewalk, plus Miss Melinda was raising two boys and often caring for seriously ill family members, including her mother and first husband.
But Miss Melinda always managed to keep it all together—her family, her home, her appearance, her thoughtfulness. She never arrived for a visit to our house empty-handed, and she never let you leave her house empty-handed. She always had gifts (books, journals), food, and a piece of décor (a potted poinsettia, a set of Christmas tree ornaments) to give.
But if you ever marveled at Miss Melinda’s prowess, or complimented her on her fabulous outfit, beautiful home, delicious cooking, or thoughtful gifts, she would just laugh with surprise and demur, with total self-deprecation. “Oh, Lordy,” I can just imagine her saying. “This poor deprived child doesn’t even know what she’s talking about, thinking that this is anything but a big ol’ mess.” Miss Melinda had a chuckle-y voice, with a kind of low, reverberating timbre, and she spoke with looooong, slow vowels and looooong, slow words.
And it’s funny the random things you will remember about a person. Miss Melinda once gave me a “Bridges of Madison County” book full of photographs of historic covered bridges in picturesque landscapes. (Why would a bridge be covered? To keep livestock from falling into the water? Ah—I just looked it up. The cover protects the structure from the weather and extends the bridge’s life.) It was an ambitious, flattering gift for a young girl, but I was not yet mature enough to appreciate it. And I remember that once Miss Melinda rented a house to a family of tenants and they completely destroyed the interior. The children drew on the walls and the family removed the wooden trim inside the house (baseboards, window and door frames) and burned them as firewood. Can you imagine?! And I remember that Miss Melinda always had the best party food, with every imaginable nibblet of every kind: cocktail meatballs in a tangy sauce, cheese straws, sugar cookies, etc. And I remember that once Miss Melinda’s storage shed of prized Christmas decorations caught fire and burned down, and she lost everything—her huge collection of beautiful decorations gathered over decades. She began to collect again, but she said it was harder to find things of same quality. I’m not sure if I would have the heart to start all over again, but Miss Melinda did.
I will miss and remember her.