In my ongoing effort to live more courageously, I've decided to publish a short piece of fiction. I'm ever lacking in confidence when it comes to my fiction, hence the need for courage. I wrote this as an assignment for a writing class I took in 2010. Thank you to my teacher, Amy Weldon, for encouraging me to always stretch myself and my writing, good, bad or otherwise.
Adelaide Ivey was known for her hats and her notes. Neither were what you would expect from a 90 something woman. Her hats were rakish and broad rimmed, bedecked with bows and fussy trimmings, always in neon tones, making her look as if she were stepping out to Ascot or the Kentucky Derby rather than to church or the library board meeting.
And her notes? Her notes were not the kind that encouraged or praised or made you feel glad you were alive. Adelaide spent her life teaching school, and for 40 years fourth graders were sent to their first day with three admonitions: study hard, don’t eat your dessert first, and don’t do anything that would make Miss Ivey send home a note!
Adelaide’s notes covered all topics, from hygiene to finance to the downfalls of parents. A farm kid once received a note that said, “What a blessing it must be for you to have James helping around the farm. I’m sure he works very hard. Do you think, however, that he could wash a little more in the mornings before school? The smell of manure is fine in the barn but not in the classroom.”
One little girl who struggled to learn brought home a note that read, “I certainly am glad Delia is such a pretty girl. Perhaps a husband will be able to provide for her, as I don’t think she’ll ever be able to take care of herself in a manner that’s both respectable and Christian.”
Adelaide was an equal opportunity note writer. Rich children, poor children, smart, simple; they all eventually succumbed to Miss Ivey’s note writing wrath. And her notes weren’t reserved solely for her students. Neighbors, family members, even the few people she called friends, would warrant at least one note. But ministers were her favorite target. It usually took a month or so after a new minister arrived in town before a note appeared in his or her mailbox. Then Adelaide’s note writing zeal was unleashed!
She scolded them for prayers that were too long and sermons too short, or for using inappropriate words like “racism”, “social justice” or “politics” in that Sunday’s message. One hapless preacher spent all week working on a 25 minute sermon and two minute prayers only to receive a note the next week that read, “I was fascinated with the history of ancient Babylon that you presented in your sermon this past Sabbath. I could have listened to it forever. I didn’t even mind that my Sunday dinner was almost ruined because of how long the service ran. I’m sure the extra time you took for preaching was pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.”
And Adelaide didn’t hold her notes back from the minister’s families either. One young wife was told that, "she really should spend a little more time on the cuffs of her husband’s trousers. Certainly she wouldn’t want her husband to look shabby in the pulpit. Did she a need a sewing lesson or two?"
Another pastor’s husband got a note from Adelaide exclaiming how wonderful it was to have all three of their children in worship. In her words, “They certainly set a good example of making a joyful noise to the Lord!”
The irony of Adelaide’s notes wasn’t just that she couched her meanness in backhanded compliments; it was also the paper they were written on. Adelaide kept an ample supply of stationery and cards in the drawer of her bedside table. They were decorated with flowers and birds and snatches of simpering poetry and, worst of all, buoyant phrases from scripture. And always, always, they were scented. The aroma of lilacs, roses and lavender assaulted the unfortunate reader’s senses and hearkened them back to the days when Avon ladies roamed the earth like saber tooth tigers in lipstick, with purses that inexorably matched their shoes.
Still, Adelaide was considered one of the town’s good citizens. She went to church faithfully, knew all of her neighbors, voted, served on boards and brought her famous Chicken Italiano from her Family Circle recipe file to every potluck. To most folks her notes were seen as the town joke. The group of old men who gathered at the coffee shop every morning would watch her drive by on her way to the post office, hat on head, notes in hand.
Ralph Eklund was usually the first to comment in his tobacco stained rasp, “I just seen Adelaide go by. She’s the closest thing this town has to a drive by shooter. She’s a drive by noter!” Their wheezy guffaws flavored their coffee as sweetly as the cream and sugar.
Adelaide forgot her way home one day. The six short blocks from the post office to her house looked alien and strange. She drove around for two hours until her niece spotted her parked in a driveway crying and pounding on the steering wheel with arthritic fists. When she came to church in a flowered housecoat and slippers with a purple hat tipped drunkenly on the side of her head, everyone shook their heads and made tsking noises at her sad state. Predictions as to how long it would be before the nursing home claimed Adelaide zipped along the pews faster than the offering plates. It wasn’t long.
The minister went to see her under a heavy cloud of obligation and dislike. Adelaide’s notes had caused too many tears. But when the minister saw Adelaide, she stopped in the doorway and leaned against its frame for support. The sight of her felt like a blow to the gut. Adelaide sat in a wheelchair by the tiny window in her room. Her hatless hair was matted and the snow flocked cardinal on her sweat shirt was stained with food. Her black stretch pants bagged about her thin legs, and smelled slightly of urine. But it was her hands that held the minister’s eyes. Her knotted fingers moved back and forth, back and forth across invisible paper, still writing notes.
Adelaide died on a Wednesday. A few days after the funeral, her nephew stopped by the minister’s office with one last note to deliver.
“I don’t know when she wrote this, pastor, but we found it in her things. It has your name on it.”
The minister took it with a resigned sigh, smelled lilacs and felt her stomach twist. She opened it, expecting some criticism of her preaching or teaching or the way her two-year-olds hair was cut. But one lonely sentence stretched across the page in a weak, childish scrawl. “Please tell God I’m scared.”