I’m staring out my office window, watching the school children head towards their moms, dogs by their sides, cars ready and reflecting on my early years. I can’t help but think of Thelma. In thirty minutes I’ll leave to pick up my mom. We’re going to see Selma. If those names aren’t coincidence enough, I don’t know what is. Between the movie and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m reminded of Thelma, the very special woman who took care of me and my older sister, as a mother would her own child.
My very first memory in life, in life, was when I danced with Thelma to “Spinning Wheels,” her wild Zebra print couch in the background. I felt my feet bury in to her thick, shag rug as I attempted to mimic her dance moves and groove to the music. She looked over at me, let out periodic giggles and went back to dancing. Thelma was always chuckling, her pudgy, mahogany cheeks filled with freckles and love. Lots and lots of love. I remember thinking somewhere during the song, at that moment, that I wanted nothing more than to be as be funky and cool as Thelma.
“Spinning Wheels” would never be the same.
Thelma was cool before I knew what cool was, the perfect blend of laid back, a pinch of tough and with overflowing love.
Another early memory was when I stood in her kitchen and watched her reach for a glass, a “real glass” to pour me Coke. Coke! That was not on the menu at home, a real treat. I still remember how grown up I felt with my hands wrapped around the tall, cold glass.
Who could forget Thelma’s dog Fritz? The huge German Shepherd should have scared me I suppose, but not Fritz. Fritz was a friend. We spoke the same unspoken, imaginary child-dog language, our eyes level, his hungry smile greeted me hello. Fritz stood forever at Thelma’s side as he followed her from room to room. I don’t remember barking. And those dogs bark.
One of my favorite times of the day was riding home in Thelma’s enormous, red Cadillac that commanded the highway. I remember that look in her eye in the rear view mirror, the look of self-assuredness I know now. I loved her car’s luxurious, smooth ride and decided I wanted a car like hers someday.
The Cadillac couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to my mom’s very unglamorous pea green, tank-like Chevy, with its unforgiving, vinyl seats that stuck to you to it all four seasons. Our car was a single mom’s pin-up and one she worked very hard for.
Sometimes it made my mom sad that I never wanted to leave Thelma, her house, Fritz, not even her car. Who could blame me? It was a party, with music and soda and animals and fast cars. A children’s paradise! We learned our manners though, this wasn’t all fun and games. Thelma could be tough and took no bull. She was not a woman you wanted to piss off. Even my mom could be intimidated by her and my mom is not easily so.
The interesting thing was Thelma didn’t need our gig, yet she did it anyway. I imagine it was to have some independence, buy nice things and keep her life top shelf where it belonged. Thelma had style, you see. She was probably a bit of a diva, I could see that. I only wish I remembered more of her clothes, music and most importantly, how her hugs felt. I bet they felt amazing! I wonder what silly phrases she said, the advice she would give me now and if I’ve made her proud.
I do remember how her face lit, mushing her cheeks up. I’ll always have that vivid memory, my first, dancing with Thelma, trying to learn how to groove. I can go there anytime I want. I will always have the indelible image, her smile clear as crystal and the feeling of her Cadillac, her glowing, ageless skin and Fritz’s happy face. I know that even though she didn’t need the money, she helped out a single mom and her two kids at a time when they needed a stand-in father. Or, correction, when they needed a second mother.
My mom told me I was Thelma’s favorite and of course I love this. Who wouldn’t? Maybe it was because I danced and laughed with her and loved Fritz. Or, maybe it’s because we had a bond, a love for music and sweets and dogs. And we really loved each other. It was probably all of it, actually.
Thelma didn’t have any kids — we were it — not that it occurred to me anything was missing. Maybe that’s why she had so much love to give. I was happy to be a ‘substitute child’ to her.
I hope you’re driving the latest model Cadillac, Thelma, as fast as you want. I’m sure Fritz is fetching endless bones and your husband is enjoying retirement. No doubt you’re grooving 24/7. Maybe you’ve met Dr. King?
I’m sure he has a very, very long line!
I miss you. I wish we could go out dancing. Please know I’ll forever be grateful for the love you gave me.
Here’s to you Thelma. I honor you as we all honor the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, a movement starts with one person.
So I’m raising my glass of Coke to you both.