I remember her white hair and smiling blue eyes, the light on her face. She was goodness. Her laugh was musical, light and free. Eighty years of life and she would blush for the funniest of reasons. Innocent, yet wise. Most of all she was open, her heart a generous space where all who knew her were welcome. Even her name was old-fashioned: Clementine, and she was indeed a darling.
Life was no better or worse for Clem than for anyone else. She was a hard working secretary in an ordinary office. She had a happy marriage with her beloved Tom who was a department head at General Electric. Together they served the Salvation Army and aided their community in any way they could. Above all they wished for children of their own, fruitlessly trying to conceive.
Instead they were beloved by nieces and nephews. Clem’s sister Bea had an alcoholic abusive spouse with four children. Economic times were lean. When money supports an addiction, families struggle even harder. Yet bags of groceries would appear as if by magic when they were needed most. Clem would quietly supplement whatever she could. She listened, shared and loved. My father was an anxious teen, scarred by the turmoil at home. A week with Clem and Tom was an escape from chaos, a gift of time in which to process and recover, gain understanding and receive comfort. He treasured their home as an oasis of peace.
I remember Uncle Tom, a quiet man who loved carpentry. He built me a bookcase for my room. As a very young child I remember sitting patiently outside, my toes scrabbling in the grass, looking for four leaved clovers as I waited for Clem and Tom’s car to pull into the driveway. They would arrive with warm hugs and special treats, joyful at sharing our company. The happiness was tangible. I could literally feel their love.
Tom died when I was five, and my grandfather when I was seven. Clem lived alone on the top floor of her home and her sister sold her house and moved in on the bottom floor. Growing up I would spend weeks in the summers with the ladies as well as Thanksgiving and other random visits. Nana’s house was busy, but Clem’s space maintained an aura of sunshiny peace. I would skip on up the stairs and Clem would fold me into a warm hug and shower me with compliments. I babbled on a mile a minute but she was ever patient.
She would go to her pantry and take a small green glass and fill it with sparkling ginger ale. Next to it she would arrange Pepperidge Farm cookies on a green glass plate. We would take a tray onto her porch and sit in the shade. We would talk about my school friends and every other topic a growing child considers important. Clem listened. I mean, really listened and she cared. By virtue of her undivided attention you knew that you were important, that you truly mattered. It was quiet time away from my parents and brother and sister, moments shared that just belonged to the two of us. It was restful, connected and somehow magic.
Clem spoiled me in the best way possible. Though she was generous with whatever she had this was not an outpouring of toys or things. She shared time. She gave me respect. She gave me love. She gave herself. She opened her heart completely, holding nothing in reserve.
She was mildly horrified and secretly pleased when I chose the name Clementine on my confirmation day. It was an obvious choice for me, as in my life she most truly represented the Christian ideal. To date Clem is still the holiest person I have ever known, someone who always put others before herself. She would be embarrassed by thanks and praise. She was goodness without expectation.
A police officer arrived one Thanksgiving after someone had reported my grandmothers license plate as belonging to a vehicle that had bumped a car in the grocery parking lot. As always Clem endeavored to be helpful and supportive. “Officer,” she protested, “I am sure there was no damage done. Bea has hit cars much harder than that before.” Of course we all laughed. In fact the officer was so amused by her honesty that he himself laughed, shook his head and in the spirit of Thanksgiving let the incident go. Clem turned scarlet when she understood the implications of her statement and we gently ribbed her about the incident for years to come.
In the twenty-nine years I was lucky enough to know her, I never heard Clem utter an unkind word. She was fierce when it came to squishing spiders but that was the only violence I ever witnessed within her. Her innate sweetness made her lingering slow death that much harder to bear. I like to think that her last months earned her a higher classification of angel, as I am sure that was her destiny.
Technically Clem had no children and yet she had many. We all loved her and miss her. She taught through example, lessons quiet and consistent. She was not a brazen personality but soft and pure. I thank God for the gift of her in my life. Generosity, attentiveness, warmth and peace. Green glass plates and breezy afternoons. A little bit of heaven with an angel on earth.