“I was thinking about going over to visit Diane Smith this afternoon. Do you want to come along?”
I turned my eyes from the window, where I had been watching the Appalachian hills of southern Kentucky slide by.
“You know what….yeah! I think I would.”
Diane Smith was a woman who had worked in the same building as me when I volunteered with an after-school program in Kentucky. I had my doubts as to whether or not she would remember me, but I certainly remembered her.
She was one of the first people I ever met in Kentucky. I was at the community center where she worked for my initial interview and to check out the place to see how I liked it. She was taking a smoke break in the summer sunshine outside of her office. A smile creased her face below iron gray hair as I walked by.
“Well,” she drew out the middle of the word, southern Kentucky style, and turned to see me. “Are you coming down here to work with us?”
Me, the shy, ever-hesitant Northerner, smiled nervously. “Maybe. I’m not sure yet.”
“Well, you should come. We’d love to have you.”
I smiled again, in a noncommittal way. “Maybe.”
Luckily that “maybe” did turn into a “yes”….and I found myself working there, just a walk through the gym and down the hall from Diane, surrounded by the trees of the Daniel Boone National Forest. While I neither worked directly with Diane, nor saw her on a regular basis, she soon created an unforgettable place in my memory. CAP once wrote an article about her that described her as a woman of faith, and when I read that for the first time, I said (out loud, to no one in particular): “That is soooo Diane.” And it is. Diane has a deeply-rooted faith that shines through her interactions with everyone.
(“I coughed a little today,” my housemate Kate plopped some spaghetti on her plate. “And Diane heard me from her office and came over to see if I was okay. When I told her that I thought I was getting a cold, she went back into her office, got out a prayer cloth, and immediately said a prayer for me.”)
Her faith shown through so strongly that it gave her words an added weight. Diane could describe two ghosts that she had seen in the community center where we worked (which was in an old elementary school building). If anyone else had told me about said ghosts, I probably would have lowered my eyebrows into the skeptic mode, cracked a half smile, and very dryly responded with a “Yeah. Sure. Okay.”
…but if Diane said there were ghosts in the school….well….I shrugged my shoulders. It might be true; Diane wouldn’t say something if she didn’t believe it.
(“Diane just told me that I’m going to have a baby.” Julianna (one of my fellow volunteers) stood in the doorway to the SPARK room, hand leaning against bright blue trim, purple streak in her sandy brown hair, looking at her husband Mike. “Well, we will. Someday.” Mike looked up from his computer.” “Yeah, but she meant, like, now!” I laughed to myself: Diane had said it, so Julianna, like the rest of us, couldn’t help but wonder if it was true.)
Yes, Diane was certainly memorable. And this is why, when Janean asked, six years down the road from the last time I had seen Diane, if I would like to accompany her on a visit, I said yes. I was back in Kentucky for a brief two-week volunteer stint and had spent the first week battling an ever-drifting soul fog. I was at the beginning of the only weekend that I would get to spend here, in my second home state.
“Diane’s husband died a couple weeks ago, and she was just in the hospital, so I don’t know if this’ll be a good time for a visit or not, but we’ll try.” Janean turned up the gravel driveway. Ahead of us was a house fronted by a ramp that wound up to the front porch. That was another change that had come into Diane’s life since I had last seen her: she was now in a wheelchair.
I approached the door with some trepidation – after all, her husband had just died – she was having health troubles – she might be feeling pretty low. Janean knocked at the door and a voice came steady and clear through the curtained glass. “Come on in.”
We walked in the door to the yaps of a very round and graying Chihuahua. Diane was there in her kitchen, her hair smoothed back with a head band. She smiled and laughed as Janean entered, opening her arms for a hug.
“Well, well, it’s so nice to see you, girl! I’m so glad you had time to come over here and see me.” She scooted her wheelchair up to the table, sweeping a pile of mail to the side with her hands. “Sit down, girls. Sit down.”
“Do you remember Elizabeth?” Janean nodded her head towards me as we took a seat at the table.
“Well, now, I recognize the face. I don’t always remember names, but I remember faces.”
“Yeah, I volunteered with CAP here about six years ago.” I settled down into my chair. Diane nodded her head. The dog still stared at us with distrust and gave out an occasional yap.
“Don’t mind Pinto Bean there. He’s just protective of me. It’s alright Pinto Bean, these are friends!” The dog turned and went back to his seat, walking stiffly on his rheumatic legs. “Yes, we’re growing old together, aren’t we, Pinto Bean? It’s just us two left here now. I was looking through some old pictures of Randy today. You want to see them? I’ll go get them.” She left the table and came back, a stack of pictures in her hand. We flipped through them as she told us stories about her husband. As we listened, our smiles grew as we became acquainted with a younger (and slightly wilder) Diane.
“You know, I didn’t really like him when I first met him. I was playing drums, wearing my blonde wig. I used to wear that wig a lot – kind of to hide myself from the cops. I had a Mustang back then, and woah, was she fast. There wasn’t a car around that could beat it. The cops didn’t like it, but I had a lot of fun.” She paused, a smile parting her lips, her eyes looking back over the years.
“But, anyway, I was wearing my wig and a camo jacket, and he and his friend Buck thought I was a boy. So when I stood up and they saw my mini skirt, Randy hollered out “Well! It’s a girl!” I said “You’re darn right I’m a girl!” and I punched Buck. I meant to punch Randy, but he ducked.” Diane chuckled to herself. “Yeah, I didn’t like him much then. He was crazy.” She laughed to herself. “I guess I just got used to him. Would you girls like a drink? I’ve got some Mountain Dew over there.”
Janean and I split a can, pouring one half into an old diner coffee cup pulled out of Diane’s cupboard.
“Oh, you know who I saw last week? Tom Vickers. He said he knew you way back when.” Janean took a sip from her cup.
“Oh, yes, Tom. We used to hang around each other a lot. He used to be a bit wild, but he’s a real good man now, helps a lot of people. He stole a road sign once, and he came to me, all nervous because he was afraid of getting into trouble and he didn’t know what to do with it. So I told him, “paint it!” Well, we thought about what to paint on it, and we thought about Jesus hill – you know, that steep hill by the Catholic church. It’s so steep, that when you go over it, you can’t help but say “Oh, Jesus!”. So we decided to paint “Jesus Hill” on it and we went out late one night and put it up at the top of the hill. The city thought the Catholic church put it up. The Catholic church thought the city put it up. So no one ever knew.”
Janean and I laughed in disbelief – we knew Jesus Hill well. “You named Jesus Hill?! Oh my gosh!”
“Yes, yes, I did. Tom and I had a lot of fun back then.” She turned to Janean. “If you see him again, though, please don’t tell him about me being in a wheelchair. I’d rather he not know I’m like this…better he think of me the way I was.”
I smiled sadly. How strange it is…the things that we think take away from our value…as if being in a wheelchair could make her soul shine any less brighter than it did.
We sat there for while longer, while she mixed stories of her younger years with bits of advice for us…from financials to what pills not to take if you didn’t want your hair to fall out. Soon enough though…that good-bye time came and we stood up to leave.
“Just a minute, girls – I want to show you this.” She scooted over to her living room and picked up a blanket. “My kids got me this.” She spread it out for us to see, a throw blanket scrawled with words from the Bible: Be still, and know that I am God. “They got me this, because that’s what I always used to tell them. They’d be sitting there, fretting over this or that, and I’d tell them ‘just be still, be still.'”
We smiled, said our final good-byes and stepped out the door and back into the early spring air. The sky was blue, pillowed here and there with the touch of a cloud. The hills of Appalachia were curving up to meet it. And I was standing there, with gravel underneath my feet, and a soul fog lifting from my heart.
Just be still.