Allow me to paint a picture in your head. It is 1988. The weather is typical for a May afternoon in Northwest Florida - hot, humid, very sunny. There are two folding lawn chairs - you know, the kind with woven fabric for the back and seat, metal frames - setup in the middle of a small front yard. A small plastic table sits between the two chairs and on its surface sit the following items: a half-empty bottle of Johnson's Baby Oil, two tall plastic glasses filled with ice and sweet tea, a pack of Marlboro Reds and a pink Bic lighter, and a well-worn deck of cards. To the rear of the chairs, there is a small rental house that is empty from June through December, but filled with laughter and silliness and Yankee-charm from January through May.
Two women make their way to the chairs. Both are on the shorter side and speak with New Hampshire accents that sound so strange to the Southern ear. One is very tan and thin, the other only slightly tan with shocking short, black hair. These two women are closer than sisters, although they are actually cousins. And these two women, my Grammie and her cousin Leone, taught me some of life's greatest lessons while they sunned themselves and smoked cigarettes and played cards.
When I was little, Leone was who I wanted to be when I grew up. She was funny, with such a quick wit. And even though she called me her "little Valerie," she didn't talk to me like I was child. Leone was the first person to let me drink coffee. She and I had gone to lunch at Ruby Tuesday's in the mall - I think I was around 8 or 9 at the time. Before the waiter came to take our order, I asked Leone "Do you think I could maybe have a cup of coffee with lunch?" Her response was, "Well, I don't see why not. Just don't tell your mother. Lord knows what she would do to me if she found out." We both got a cup of that addictive, delicious nectar and I mimicked her in preparing to drink it - 2 half-and-halfs and a packet of Sweet N Low. I sipped it slowly, savoring the drink, but also savoring the secret that Leone and I now shared.
I think about that lunch once in a while, usually while I'm sipping my second (or fourth) cup of coffee for the day.
Leone, and her husband Jerry, used to winter in Panama City, but for many years have gone to Wildwood, to a small home they purchased in a small community full of other winter guests. Mom and I took a road trip a few years ago to see them and had such an amazing time. They took us all over Wildwood and showed us the sights - we stopped by the Russell Stover's factory and store; we drove through a hoity-toity neighborhood/development that Leone and Jerry were fascinated by, mostly because of its audacity; and, the highlight of the trip for me, we went to a drive through convenience store. I had never seen such a thing, but the idea of being able to get milk, gum, and beer without having to get out of my car is so appealing to me. I was delighted, which tickled Jerry and Leone immensely. Jerry may have even said "You're a cheap date!"
On the last day of our trip, as we ate a breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs and toast, cooked expertly by Leone, I told the story of my first cup of coffee. Leone didn't seem to remember the lunch as vividly as I did, but she said it definitely sounded like the kind of thing the two of us would have done back then.
Earlier this week, Mom got a phone call saying that Leone had passed away. I still haven't fully processed the news yet. It doesn't seem possible for that lovely woman, the source of so much life and happiness, isn't around anymore. In the past 5 years or so, life has been hard for her. All of those days spent basking in the Florida sunshine did a number on her skin. She suffered through multiple surgeries to remove cancerous cells and skin chunks. The last time Mom talked to her, Leone said she was done - she was tired of people cutting on her and she was ready to move on to whatever happened next.
In my mind, the scene in Heaven on Wednesday looked something like the scene I described at the beginning of this post. Grammie was already sitting in one of the lawn chairs, glass of tea in hand, waving for Leone to join her for some gossip and girl time. I can hear the ice clinking in the background as Leone said "Well, hey Dot, thanks for saving me a space."