Maxine was Belle’s friend as well as a friend to my parents. She kept a lovely, immaculate home full of antiques, fresh flowers and birds. I’d never met anyone who had birds, and would often wander off into the room where they sat in their cages and listen to their singing. Being a firm cat-person by nature, I can’t say I ever got used to those birds.
In my early 20s, I had a physical breakdown that left me hospitalized and unable to stand up without passing out. I had been tested for a mysterious illness for several years, and would continue to fight the unknown until diagnosed in my 30s with severe sleep apnea. Stress of caring for my mother after her divorce combined with working and going to college had taken its toll on my system. I overheard a doctor explaining to Maxine and my mother that they did not know how long it would be before I could walk again. School was out of the question. I was to withdraw from my classes immediately.
Of course, I did not. Thankfully, I had taken a relatively light load among which was a Science Fiction as Literature class. My mother’s lack of understanding of what was schoolwork and what was not worked to my advantage and I managed to get her to bring all of my reading books to the hospital. Maxine caught on fairly quickly, but kept my secret. In the end, she had seen too much of my interaction with Mom, and decided a coup was in order. "You’re coming home with me," she announced.
"Oh, I don’t think Mom would like that."
"Your mother doesn’t have a choice in the matter. You’re sick because she doesn’t know how to take care of you. I do. You’re coming home with me and that is all there is to it."
My mother did try to protest, but no one argued with Maxine once her mind was made up. I was taken to her home and placed in a room fit for a princess, the sort of room I’d daydreamed of ever since I was a little girl. Maxine had never been able to have children. She had adopted a daughter, but they’d become estranged over some argument in which neither of them would budge. Upstairs in her home, Maxine kept a small room all made up for her grand-children to come and visit, but the daughter refused to allow them to come. That room was sad, but the room she placed me in was full of sunshine. Every morning, she would get up and pick fresh flowers and put them in a vase where I could see them.The walls were a light lavendar, and I still have an impression of billowing sheer white curtains on windows that opened to her garden.
Maxine broke every rule the doctors set for me. She allowed my friends to come visit, and she allowed me to study. She set a mean pace on my recovery and had me walking to the garden before the week was out. You see, Maxine had severe health issues. Diabetes combined with lupus had left her theoretically bed-ridden for many years at this point, even though she accomplished more in a day that most women would in a week. She routinely baked cookies and goodies not only for her husband, but for her church and all of her neighbors. She is the only person I have ever known who wore out an oven. The bottom fell out from use and she was forced to replace it…something that left her traumatized because she’d known the old oven so perfectly that the new oven could never hold the temperature the way she wanted it to create the ideal baked goods. None of the rest of us noticed the change, however. Her food was always rich and delicious.
Maxine taught me to love roses and gardening. Even when she was very ill, Maxine would lay down and crawl along her carefully tended garden paths, making sure each plant was healthy. I have planted an abundance of roses in my own garden, and I find I can not walk a garden path without hearing her voice.
"It doesn’t matter whether you feel like it or not," she’d say. "You just have to find a way to do it…and yet, you have to be reasonable." She’d pull a stool into the kitchen so she could sit and chop vegetables. As soon as I was up and about, she’d bring me in to sit with her and learn how to function without passing out. "Fine. If you can’t stand, you sit. You still work."
Over the next few years, whenever I needed a place to stay, I’d live with Maxine. We fought terribly, because she always knew what was best for me and wanted that best…but I was young and wanted to make my own mistakes. There have been many times I wish I’d listened to her.
From Maxine, I learned that you can love someone even if you disagree with them. I know that had her daughter ever come home, she would have been welcomed with the same love she lavished on me in her stead. She taught me that strength comes in different forms and that there is a very feminine strength that can show up in weakness.
One day, we were talking about Belle. She told me that Belle had been concerned that there would be some issues regarding her death, her will, and her heirs. Belle had always been a wise woman. She said that Belle had left me something that I was to be given when I had a home of my own. On that day, Maxine gave me a beautiful set of china — the same china that Belle had served me sandwiches on during my visits to her house.
As I tried to find my way as a young bride, Maxine would often come over and cluck at my attempts at decorating. "Oh, that will never do," she’d mutter. Before long, I’d be given a knick-knack or trinket to decorate a mantle, or some other bit of bric-brac to complete a room. She taught me to decorate, emphasiaing warmth and grace. "The most important thing is that people feel welcome in your home!"
I’m sure I didn’t learn all she had to teach me before we were separated by a niece who was very protective of Maxine. I’m sure she thought I was after her inheritance, but all I wanted was that woman’s love and wisdom.
My boys learned to read from the same old books that Maxine had learned to read from as a child. When she heard that we were homeschooling, she initially was as concerned as so many others, but when I mentioned I was starting with the McGuffy Readers, she decided it was acceptible on one condition. I must bring the boys over and let them read to her from their readers. The end result was that my children learned to read sitting on a shaded porch swing in a rose scented garden filled with bird song. They’d sit next to "Auntie Max" and read so carefully…and she doted on them.
When I find myself confused and overwhelmed with life, when my health becomes unstable, I try to think about Maxine and figure out what she would have done. I can still hear her self-deprecating laugh, and know she’d find the thought of me wanting to be like her absolutely hilarious.