I’ve had a bent toward independence most of my life and kind of wrestled with the question of whether I had ever had a mentor. I had my mom – she was always my first “go to” person, but being mom was her job, a position all its own. There were a lot of other people I knew and I spent a lot of time thinking about their experiences. I did that in order to avoid their pitfalls. It seemed like a good idea not to learn firsthand what I could learn vicariously. But a mentor?
So I was a bit surprised when I did think of someone. I thought of Elaine and immediately knew why she came to mind.
It wasn’t because she had any kind of corrective role in my life. I don’t think she ever pointed out specifics about my child rearing or my work habits. She didn’t tell me to keep house better or spend more time with the kids. What she did do was make time for evenings playing cards with the husbands, and invite us to watch fireworks over the golf course from her nearby yard. She had tea parties with my young girls and met me for breakfast after my night shifts at the hospital. We went to a crazy restaurant where they had beaver on the menu and laughed while she tried it (she tried it). She loved people and was always telling me about the interesting ones she met. She wanted to be better at helping them and studied to be part of the Stephen ministry at her church. And the thing that fed my soul the most, she always acted like she enjoyed our times together.
Part of the attraction for me was the difference in our ages and stages of life. Elaine was already married to my cousin and living in her first home when I was a young teen. She hosted me and several of my same age cousins at a family wedding, putting up with our late night antics and endless harmonizing to “Moon River”. She was beautiful, but not arrogant. Years later when I was married, working, mothering and struggling to keep it all together, she was still beautiful and gracious in a way that time and experience had only magnified. She was honest about the parts of life that weren’t perfect, but didn’t dwell on them. She gave me the message that those imperfections didn’t have to define one’s life, that they offered opportunities for growth and satisfaction.
We moved away. For a couple of years I only saw Elaine when we came back to the hometown on vacation. I worried when she was diagnosed with leukemia, but she went through chemo, bought herself a wig and carried on as she always had. It was a shock when her disease took a turn for the worse. Within days she was gone. I did not get to say goodbye.
I did not fully realize how much I loved her until she was gone. Knowing her was a singular experience. I can’t think of anyone else who gave of herself and spent time with me in quite the same way, noticing the highs and lows of my life and responding with encouragement and love. And that, simply, was it. She loved.