For writer Ellen Denton, life was good when her friend Carmen came into her life, when they baked together, played cards together, and above all, good when they cared about each other. Theirs was not a tie of blood kinship, but of kindred spirits, a tie that we can still feel unbroken as we read this story about a special woman, whose strength and goodness were never conquered by life's hardships.
I never knew my grandparents, and my own mother was long dead, so Carmen was very special to me, and times were good when I spent them with her. She became as much family to me as any blood kin I had.
I've never been much of a cook and I’d never baked, that is, until I met Carmen several years ago. She was 94 at the time and living in a senior care center. She had come to the town of Alpine, Wyoming, around 60 years earlier with her husband and 3 children, bringing the population of Alpine to 12. The diner she ran with her husband survived only because on the weekends, people would come from far and wide to buy her extraordinary, homemade pies. When I first met her at the care center, she told me that her one wish was that she could bake pies one more time before she died. So, I brought her to my house, and bake pies we did. I can, even now, still botch making scrambled eggs, but I can bake a blue-ribbon-winning quality blueberry pie, thanks to Carmen.
Her culinary skills weren't the reason I liked her so much though. It was this: shortly after I met her, she asked me to play a card game. I did. She sat in a chair in her room, and I sat on the edge of her bed with a little table between us. Before we started playing, I took a look around at her impeccably neat room and then I took a good, hard, searching look at her. She was in an old-age home that seemed to be dripping with death and despair. There were many people circling solicitously around her, like vultures waiting patiently for a dying body to finally stop moving, but she was so ALIVE and young, like a child inside an old body.
I could see this, so I said to her: “Carmen, I'm really good at games and I'm probably going to beat you at this. When I do, you're not gonna try and pull something, like crying, whining or pouting, are you, just because you're really old, and you don't have much going for you right now?” She ROARED with laughter. I thought she was going to piss in her pants, she laughed so hard. Then, she leaned forward, fixed me with a steely gaze and said, "BRING IT ON!" Then I was the one who almost fell over laughing.
It was that “games-y” spirit, ever-present with her, that resulted in our soon becoming fast friends. Despite surviving five separate bouts with cancer, and having many children who rarely visited or called her, I never heard her speak ill of anyone or anything, and she somehow always knew how to smile.
On Christmas of 2010, I learned that her family (including a daughter who lives here in town) didn't even so much as call her on Christmas Day. When I found this out, I went to see her. She was as upbeat and high-spirited as ever. She wanted me to play a card game with her. I did, and we laughed, swapped stories, generally fooled around, and ate decadently delicious dark chocolate. She told me she wanted to come to my house again to bake pies. I agreed that it was a great idea and we would do it soon. That was on December 26th.
Two days later, in the morning, I got a call that Carmen died the previous night.
Several days after that, a dear friend of hers, Maxine, who’s an expert on makeup, went to where Carmen's body awaited memorial services and burial, so that she could lovingly touch up what the mortician has done. Carmen rarely wore makeup, but in keeping with her youthful spirit, she did occasionally like a touch of girlish color in her cheeks. Maxine fixed her up the way she would have wanted it to be.
Some people move around in your life like ghosts. Carmen, even dead, is more alive to me than many people that still walk this earth, and always will be. I know that if she could have said one thing to me after she died, it would have been: “Turn off that open faucet of inner tears, girl. The tides of life may take something away, but they always bring something new in the morning.”
The one thing Carmen did not get to do before she died was to come to my house again to bake pies. Maxine and I held our own special memorial pie-baking service for Carmen, as a tribute to her, a grand lady with the heart of a child, an icon of the Wyoming wilderness, and a beautiful, young spark, now gone from the world of man.
Ellen Denton's work has been published in the anthology Dark Moons and in Underground Voices, You and Me, Things Japanese, Words about Work, Greenprints, Animal Wellness, and Vampires2. She has work forthcoming in Horror on the Installment Plan, a Spruce Mountain Press anthology, and a Treasures Beyond Measures anthology. She was awarded 4th place in Echoes of the Right to God, an international essay contest, an honorable mention in Reading Writers’ suspense fiction contest, was a short-listed finalist in the Smories short-story and PK 2010 poetry competitions, and was a two-time finalist in a Scinti story contest.
Text copyright Ellen Denton 2012, all rights reserved.
Photo in Post Heading by IdeaBug, iStock Photo.