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September 26, 2022

LaDora and Dennis

By Harvey Silverman

They had nothing in common. They never met and almost certainly did not know of the other's existence unless perhaps we mentioned something about one to the other.

LaDora was a remarkable and lovely lady with a certain dignity carried in so leisurely a fashion one hardly noticed. She knew everyone in the hospital, senior physicians and housekeepers, students and nurses.

"Hey, how you doin' today?" she would say, usually addressing the person by name.

Culture shock is what Gretchen and I experienced upon beginning residency training in that Philadelphia emergency department. Shootings, stabbings, beatings, unconscious persons pushed out of automobiles in front of the entrance as the cars sped off. Frank Rizzo's police officers dressed in high black boots and heavy black leather jackets, large men with no apparent patience or empathy as they questioned victims and suspects even as they were being treated. Black and white, a patient population of working class or often not working at all.

LaDora moved at her own pace, never in a rush, always completing her task on time, speaking in a gentle and melodious voice with a soft accent suggesting the South. A large woman, probably entering her fifties, always groomed, black, she functioned effortlessly as a Nurse's Aide in the ER. She never displayed anger except when a patient became unruly or threatening and even then more often shaming rather than intimidating. For us, she was a protector, a confidant, a friend.

LaDora was a woman of the city, living a long bus ride away from the hospital. She had come from elsewhere, New York it was said. I do not know how she came to be in Philadelphia but she had been there some years. She was a single parent without a man in her life at the time, but recalled for us one day a gentleman with whom she had, as she put it, "set up heavy housekeepin'."

Old enough to be the mother of most she sometimes attended the parties of the young doctors and nurses, always welcome, never inhibiting, relaxed and chatty. We said goodbye when we left Philadelphia in 1975 and then said hello when we found ourselves returning in 1977. Leaving for the final time in 1978 we promised to stay in touch and a year or two later she was visiting us in the rural New Hampshire town in which we then lived.

LaDora enjoyed the quiet and peace of the country life, appreciated the workings of the wood stove which took away the morning's chill, stepped out the kitchen door wide-eyed when she heard my shotgun chase off a varmint that was eating pears off of one of our fruit trees. One evening she cooked for us the most delicious fried chicken which she somehow made wonderful by vigorously shaking it in a brown paper grocery bag into which she had placed flour and seasoning, then frying it in a large cast iron pan.

Late one morning she sat out in a chair on the front lawn smoking the remains of a marijuana cigarette, the roach held in a surgical hemostat, waving to the elderly neighbors who lived across the country road from us as they drove by.

"Hi, good mornin'. How you doin' today?"

We could only imagine what our neighbors must have thought when they saw this large middle aged black woman sitting in front of our house smoking away, but they never mentioned it.

Dennis was a Vermonter, born and raised. An honest and decent man without pretension. He spoke with a modest country accent and lived a country life, owning Coonhounds, hunting, fishing, growing. He was a few years older than we were, married to Trudy, as Vermont as he was.

At the end of our first time through Philadelphia the idea of a peaceful life in the country, working at small community hospitals where there were no shootings or stabbings, brought us to southeastern Vermont. There we met Dennis and Trudy, each a nurse, and we became friends.

Dennis took us by our figurative hands and brought us along raccoon hunting -- driving in the dark on dirt roads through the woods, the two dogs with their heads out the windows seeking the scent of coon while we took sips from the bottle of Jack Daniels that passed around. When the dogs picked up a scent they began barking, were let out of the car, and having found and treed their quarry changed the sound of their bark. We followed the new sound through the darkness until getting to the tree where Dennis shone a flashlight into the upper branches, saw the reflection of the animal's eyes, and killed the raccoon with a single shot from his .22 rifle. It was brought home, skinned, the fur stretched out to dry and then to be sold to a dealer.

"If you're not gonna use it or eat it don't kill it," Dennis, referring to all fish and game, told us.

In the mid-winter we went ice fishing on Lake Champlain. Dennis brought along a heavy iron pole to which he had welded a heavy metal wedge. This homemade contraption was used to chop a hole in the ice, a slow and tiring process of pound, pound, pound. It was bitterly cold that day with the wind blowing across the lake, even the work of chopping open a hole through a foot of ice hardly warming. Nearby a fellow with a gas powered ice auger was persuaded with innocent smiles from Trudy and Gretchen to create a few holes in the ice for us, something he did in less than a minute as Dennis and I watched and the ladies stood silent and entirely pleased with themselves.

The next time we went ice fishing we rented a bob house that had been pulled onto the ice by an enterprising farmer, a kerosene stove keeping the interior comfortable. We caught a large number of smelt that day, returned to Dennis's home and fried the smelt which had been lightly rolled in corn meal. Along with fried potatoes and sufficient beer it was a meal that I would choose again over any offered by the finest restaurant.

At the end of that year we left Vermont and after a bit found our way back to Philadelphia. Eventually we lost touch with Dennis and Trudy when they left Vermont to move to Gillette, Wyoming, where an oil boom offered them unreasonably high salaries to nurse.

In 1985, a homemade invitation to what was titled by Dennis an Adult Bash arrived without warning in the mail. Dennis and Trudy had returned to Vermont and were hosting a pig roast at their home. Of course we would go.

We cheerfully reunited with Dennis and Trudy and met many of their friends who would become ours, lifelong Vermonters and flatlanders alike, young and old. Beer and pork, swimming and volleyball, baked beans and brown bread. And all easy, comfortable, blissful. As we left to return home an elderly native lady warned me that, having enjoyed a very large amount of Trudy's homemade baked beans, I would certainly be "supercharged" for the ride home.

The pig roast was repeated the following two summers, the invitations simply recycled with the new date. We went to each, renewing friendships with the folks we had met at the first one, receiving the usual warning about being "supercharged", so very thankful to be with Dennis and Trudy again. Contact with them thereafter was sporadic and irregular, simply due to circumstance, but our bond remained.

A year or two after LaDora had been with us we received a phone call from a mutual friend in Philadelphia. LaDora had suddenly died, her heart failed. The funeral was scheduled for the following day in the Flushing area of New York City.

The next morning we left early, drove several hours, found the church and entered just before the service was to start. We sat down next to the friend who had called, she and her adult son along with us the only Caucasians in the crowded church. At the front of the church was LaDora, the coffin open as the Reverend began his eulogy.

He spoke of the beauty of her name, his careful diction delivered in a stentorian voice, the articulation perfect, the entirety of his delivery suggestive of a tenured Harvard professor. Suddenly, abruptly, he changed to jive, his voice high and low, his careful pronunciations abandoned as the choir began to sing, the congregation clapping along, the music joyful. Then a crank was turned on the coffin and LaDora was sitting up facing the congregation.

I imagined LaDora would have said, "They got me all dressed up real fine, like a fancy lady."

When the service was over we lingered a few minutes outside the church, speaking with LaDora's daughter and son-in-law. We promised each other to keep in touch even as we all knew that we would not. The ride home was long and quiet.

A pig roast friend called a few years after the last Adult Bash. Trudy had come home from work and found Dennis dead; he had stayed home that day with what he thought was stomach discomfort but it was his heart.

The next day we arrived at the small church on the main street of their small town. It was not the idyllic town one sees in Vermont Life calendars but working class worn. The church service was somber and at its end as the coffin, its lid closed, was taken out the front door to the street; four middle aged men in VFW caps and carrying rifles stood on each side and fired a volley in salute.

I thought Dennis would have gotten a big kick out of that.

We returned for a while to Dennis and Trudy's home, spoke quietly with her and our friends. People told Dennis stories but nobody laughed. We left for home, again promising to keep in touch but without Dennis there was nobody to bring us together. A few months later our Christmas card to Trudy went unanswered; she had left town without a forwarding address.

Two wonderful people so unlike in life and in death. Each decent and genuine. Perhaps they did have something in common after all; an elegantly casual way of holding life's joy that drew us to each of them. And the laughter we shared; LaDora's hearty but not loud, joyful and welcoming in a way that invited others to join in with her, Dennis's expressed with a Northern New England accent, starting as a chuckle and building from there, the sort of laughter one might hear when helping a friend push a car that has run out of gas. They had not met but were kindred.

Love and friendship are separate from each other though they share some similar elements; the greater the friendship the more elements shared, the more elements shared, the blurrier the boundary between friendship and love becomes. When some random thought or word or object prompts me to think of LaDora or of Dennis I most often smile at the memory. After all these years the pain of their deaths is long past while a quiet and empty space remains.




Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-05-24
Image(s) are public domain.
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