My babysitter, Pat, was the neighbor on the 2nd floor of the building I grew up in. I remember her as a big, tall woman, smoking a cigarette, all in black, and she had long dark hair she’d wear pulled into a ponytail at the base of her head and she always walked with a hunch, carrying her over-sized canvas bags over her back like a desert explorer might when the camel died of thirst. Pat used to be a Montessori tutor, so my Mom figured she’d be a good match for my sister and I when we were done with school and had several hours to kill before our parents got home.
Pat’s apartment was unlike any other apartment I had or ever have been in since. Her husband, Bill, had painted the entire place from floor to ceiling, furniture included: with renaissance style murals. There were leaves and faces and trees and birds and white fences and flowers and clouds all over. The unit got very little sunlight so everything was shrouded in a twilight when one walked in, and because Pat and Bill smoked constantly the air had a heavy tobacco presence, giving the dimly lit murals even more of a mysterious air when, in the long afternoons, my sister and I would go exploring, tracing our fingers over the brush stokes and envisioning ourselves mapping out new territory.
The living room is where we spent the majority of our time. Pat and Bill had big maroon velvet sofas planted underneath victorian-tasseled lamps that were hand made. Because of all the cigarettes, everything stank of tobacco, including my clothes, which always had to be washed after a visit. I remember one day, while tracing a mural, I discovered a basket of crystals trucked behind the love seat I had been sitting on. In my young age, I thought I had discovered a basket of diamonds, and remembering that someone had told me diamonds were the hardest substance on earth: I stole a crystal, coveting its smooth, hard surface and wondering how I could test that claim. Later that evening, after I had been brought home for the night, I stole into our bathroom and after a few minutes of debate, dropped the crystal into the porcelain tub where it promptly cracked into 3 pieces. I stared in horror at what I had done: not only was that theory not correct, but now I could never return that diamond without someone knowing it was broken! I still feels pangs of guilt 20 years later when I think of how I carefully placed the pieces back in the basket of crystals and prayed no one would notice.
Pat and I spent long hours with each other. I remember Pat’s low gravely voice, her southern drawl and her smoky breath. She always had new projects for me, pulling materials magically out of the shelves that lined the long hallway of the apartment. “Today we’re using popsicle sticks, Honey.” She’d announce. Or: “Draw with these crayons, they’re brand new!” One day she said we were going to sew. She pulled out a bag of fabric and asked me to choose my favorite piece. I picked a lovely pink silk. I watched in awe as she cut the piece and then fitted it onto a wooden frame. “We’ll be sewing on this, Honey.” We spent hours hunched over the fabric, my young fingers clumsily working with the blue embroidery floss, Pat untangling knots and patiently rethreading my needle. I had gotten ambitious and wanted to sew “Daddy”, but after the last curl of the second ‘D’ stopped at Dad. Pat taught me to embellish the word with a couple of flowers and I suddenly had the best present I had ever made sitting in my lap like a prized trophy. She looked over my shoulder at the cursive and smiled. “Great jawb, he’s gonna luv it.” She moved to get off the couch and then yelped. I jumped about six feet, I’d never seen a grown-up yell like that before! “Heavens!” She chuckled, pulling my needle out of the palm of her hand. “I must have scared you half to death!”
It was about a year later, as I was running down the staircase of my building to get to the lobby when I stopped suddenly at the door to Pat’s apartment, my eyes drawn there by a white piece of paper. The paper announced Pat had died. I knew she had been sick, in the hospital with a brain tumor for a few months. But, there, taped on her door in a tiny matter-of-fact way was an announcement that Pat was no longer a person I would ever see again. I stood in the hallway for a minute processing this news. Pat was the first person I had ever known, ever really had a relationship with, who had died. I stayed rooted to the marble of the hall for a couple seconds before running on, as if by running faster I could pretend that the news I had just read wasn’t true. She was dead. I thought only fish and gerbils died, not people, not Pat: the cigarette smoking, dark haired lady on the 2nd floor! It wasn’t until her funeral did I really understand that death meant forever. I’ll never forget Pat, and sometimes when I’m coloring a picture in, or threading a needle I think of her as a chapter of my childhood that even 20 years later I go back and re-read from time to time.
July 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm by Natalie Allen