She was a tiny little old white-haired lady from New Jersey whose energy defied her age despite her occasional smoking and addiction to daytime television. And she was my first best friend in Arkansas.
The memory of how I came to meet Francie is murky but it feels like it was somewhere on the upstairs front balcony of the old white house on 2nd Street next to the post office in Bentonville midway through 1973. This house was where my mother would be setting up a new real estate business for my parents and she alone would live for a year up above the office while my father and I stayed in Colorado so he could finish out his 20 years at the university. Francie was the occupant of the other upstairs apartment across from my mother.
Francie was and is the only person I’ve ever known from New Jersey. Or for that matter, the only person I know who’s ever stepped foot in New Jersey. Raise your hand if you can correct me on this, please.
I’m sure someone gave me details about her life and how her home came to be up above a fledgling real estate office in an old house in Arkansas late in her life after living most of her years back east, but, as usual, the information was filtered through the flopping fan blades of a whirring 12-year old brain mechanism and spat out the other side. I remember none of them. Man, if I had a database of all the facts I’ve either forgotten or never listened to in the first place, I might know a thing or two.
Each of the two upstairs apartments had a front door that led from the balcony. Mom’s to the left. Francie’s to the right. One tiny bit of non-essential information is that there was a closet under those front stairs that I hid in for my first Arkansas tornado warning. Lovely.
My mother fixed up her own little place with pink hanging beads ( ala early 70’s) to separate her sleeping area from her living space. In her microscopic avocado green eating area, across from a two-seater table, she installed one of the world’s first microwave ovens, a monstrous Amana Radar Range that leaked hot air — seems safe doesn’t it? — and dwarfed every other living or non-living thing in the apartment. Seriously. In her tangerine colored kitchen (paint also purposely chosen and contracted by her) I recall a teeny fridge and a teenier sink. There were ceramic polka dot mushrooms mounted on the wall as another nod to the inexplicable 70’s decor theme. That “kitchen” measured about 5 x 6 I kid you not.
Through a door out the back from Mom’s was a second story screened porch hallway (“mysterious passageway” if you’re a bookish 12-year old) that boasted three more doors: a bathroom, a shared laundry with Francie, and Francie’s back apartment door.
I came to love entering her apartment from this back way. It seemed homier and pleasant. It felt good and comfortable. Like family. Even when my final destination would be Francie’s apartment when I entered the front of the building from off the street, I would go up the main stairs, through my mother’s place, out her tangerine kitchen door, along the screened upstairs porch (mysterious passageway), and directly into Francie’s kitchen via her crooked back door to see what my friend was up to, which most times was watching Match Game ’73 (I learned lots of marginally bad stuff from that show) or The Price is Right, The Young and the Restless or All My Children. General Hospital was not her bag–Luke and Laura–who needs ’em.
This apartment was not decorated or furnished like my mother’s. It was done in “Old Lady Deluxe.” So so great. I loved it.
At that point Arkansas was not my home. Most of my time was spent at our Colorado house on Lashley Lane or at Baseline Junior High (go Dragons) except for holidays when Dad and I would speed off (I’m not kidding) across I-70 toward Arkansas for Thanksgiving or Christmas/New Year’s with Mom. I got to see Francie during those breaks. Since I wouldn’t start school down south until the following fall, I didn’t have any buddies my own age. So I went with the 85 year old option. Seemed reasonable. And she made food for me. Chicken salad. Oh MY.
It’s funny how particular menu items are staples in some homes and other families have never heard of them. Maybe you grew up with chicken salad. It was never on the table at my house. So it could be that Francie’s was nothing special.
No, it was. It really was.
At my age now and with all my vast experience of trying to duplicate that wonderful stuff, I’ve come to a conclusion. It most likely had four ingredients.
Chicken, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.
More than the chicken salad though, I was probably just in love with Francie and hanging around with her. It was easy between us. Not everybody can stand a 12 year old. And 12 year olds can sense that.
One day she announced that she would be crocheting me an afghan. I knew neither what “crocheting” nor “afghan” meant but okay. And when she asked me my favorite colors, I had no idea. What a blank kid. Good grief. So apparently she asked my mother, and according to how my life goes and the color that everybody seems to pick out for me, I ended up with an orange one. People just choose orange for me. I’ve come to embrace it.
I still have that solidly crocheted beautiful creation and, though some of you may wonder if this dishonors it, I use it for my dog Phoebe to sleep on. I think Francie would be pleased that I’ve still got it this many decades later, know its provenance and that it’s part of my daily life. Phoebe’s perfect anyway, so yeah.
Looking back I wonder what drew me to Francie. It’s hard to say. Maybe if we knew each other as adults the connection wouldn’t be as strong. I’m different. More experienced with people. Sadly, we might question each other’s motives as grownups sometimes do. Thankfully that was not the case in 1973. I cannot imagine what she possibly could have gained back then, though, from befriending a very average, occasionally obnoxious young girl who probably showed up at inopportune moments and was never quite thankful enough or knew how to ask the correct questions or show interest in others. What was in it for her?
I think Francie just enjoyed life. She was simply happy. And it rubbed off.
People who go through life cheerful are oftentimes the ones who have had it the hardest. Live a long time and you’ll see what I mean. It’s true that difficulties, sorrows and losses can turn a person sour, twisting their sight to see only the bitterest of what the world has to offer. That does indeed happen. And when I try to imagine what Francie came from, like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular when my kids were little, I write her story in my mind as one that she rose above. Could be I’m wrong about that. Possibly very wrong. For the sake of my memory of her though, that’s what I’m going with. She was a conqueror.
Francie enjoyed her life in that little upstairs apartment not far from the square in a little southern town where she crocheted afghans, concocted the World’s Greatest Chicken Salad, and stayed up late to celebrate the onset of 1974 with a girl she knew for only a snippet of her long life.
Whether Francie knew Jesus I don’t know. It was not part of my perspective or vocabulary at the time. She certainly displayed characteristics of someone who might. I don’t have anyone left to ask. She was cheerful, accepting, and interested. Whatever was on her heart or in her memories, she lived in the moment and lived life in front of a girl who was privileged to get a glimpse, a snippet of time with her.
Makes one think. We don’t know, in fact, who might be getting glimpses of us, good or bad, and storing them up permanently. Memory banks are mighty secure. Am I representing Jesus in my interactions and seemingly minor meetings? A good ponderism to tuck away.
Each of us has deep long-lasting relationships with far fewer folks than the multitudinous passing, impermanent ones. It’s amazing though how my momentary friend left a stamp of memory so strong, so influential. Orange afghans, New Year’s balloons, and the best, impossible-to-replicate chicken salad on the planet.
Thanks, Francie. I wish you knew I loved you.
Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
1 Thessalonians 5:16 The Message