My fingers trailed over the white woven clutch purse and lingered on the gold clasp. It’s an elegant thing, something a lady might carry for an evening at the symphony, certainly too refined for a rawboned woman like me. My friend Jeannie sent it to me as a birthday gift after I moved to the ranch in Arizona. I remembered smiling when I pulled it out of the box and slipped it out of its plastic wrapping. This will look great with my steel toed shoes, I thought. I’d left the corporate world of skirts and heels behind, but in Jeannie’s eyes I was still polished and professional. We used to joke how we looked forward to Saturdays. Jungle Rules, she’d say, meaning no make-up, hair pulled back, sloppy jeans and sweatshirts, but I never for a second believed Jeannie would stoop so low. On casual Fridays, I’d waltz into the office in jeans, sweater and comfy loafers. Jeannie breezed in wearing slacks, a crisp blouse and jacket, a bright scarf slung around her neck, gold earrings, and low heels. I’d tease that she was too dressed up; she’d peer over her reading glasses at me and pluck the one piece of lint clinging to my sweater.
I found out yesterday that Jeannie passed away and have been on the edge of tears ever since. Tom sat quietly and listened while the memories poured out of me. Work was our stomping ground and formed the basis of our friendship. We were the same age, although when she irked me, I reminded her from time to time that she was six months older. We compared recipes and men, commiserated over raising our kids and office politics, and laughed our way through it all. Holidays and family were important to Jeannie. I marveled at her Franklin Planner overflowing with business appointments and copious notes on birthdays and events. Everyone was family, from her two sons to the neighbor who watched her cats to the receptionist at the office. Together Jeannie and I kicked off every Christmas season by attending the One-Of– Kind Art & Craft Show in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. I’d whip out an old envelope with a few names penciled on the back, but Jeannie’s list rolled like a tape from an old adding machine, a list to rival Santa’s. The show featured over 500 vendors and we’d arrive a half hour before the doors opened, cups of hot coffee and tea in hand. We’d plot shopping strategies while we stood in line, but in the end, we’d careen up and down the aisles, bouncing from booth to booth like ping pong balls, filling our canvass shopping bags to overflowing. All the time Jeannie watched carefully to see what caught my eye, maybe a pair of earrings or a pottery bowl, and somehow the piece always found its way into her bag and into my gift for the holiday.
The last few years we worked together, Jeannie developed uterine cancer. She struggled through with surgery and chemo. She never lost heart and managed to beat back the disease but her battle prompted us all to take a hard look at our lifestyles. As a result, a group of co-workers decided to ditch the afternoon Snickers bar for a healthy glass of fresh juice. We pitched in to buy a Jack LaLanne juicer and had the local grocery store deliver a standing order of fresh produce every Monday morning: carrots, celery, apples, parsley, pineapple, cucumbers…. Around two in the afternoon, Jeannie, our coworker Sue, and I would gather in the office kitchen and make juice. We cut arm and neck holes out of garbage bags and slipped them over our clothing to use as aprons. It was the only time I ever saw Jeannie looking less than perfect. We’d finish, whip off our bags, and then walk around the office delivering cups of fresh juice to pep everyone up.
Shortly after I moved to Arizona, the company we worked for was sold and, like me, Jeannie moved on to another life. After Tom and I married, we traveled to Missouri and spent a day with her and her Dave at their house on Lake of the Ozarks. Jeannie and I floated side by side on rafts, holding hands to keep from drifting apart while we chatted and splashed. You look happy, she said and I replied, so do you. Divorce, job changes, raising kids, living life on our own terms…we were both survivors and we knew it.
I popped open the clasp on the clutch purse. A piece of stiff cardboard was still tucked inside and shame washed over me. The clutch was still brand new; I’d never once used this gift from my friend. Yet, I’d kept it. Even though it didn’t fit my new lifestyle, I never could bring myself to give it away. I removed the cardboard and left it open on my lap. It still doesn’t quite fit my life, but it fits my memories of my dear friend. I placed a few things inside it, things I’ll need the next time I go out.