LaDora and Dennis
They had nothing in common. They never met and almost certainly did not know of the other’s existence unless perhaps we mentioned something about one to the other.
LaDora was a remarkable and lovely lady with a certain dignity carried in so leisurely a fashion, one hardly noticed. She knew everyone in the hospital, senior physicians and housekeepers, students and nurses.
“Hey, how you doin’ today?” she would say, usually addressing the person by name.
Culture shock is what Gretchen and I experienced upon beginning residency training in that Philadelphia emergency department. Shootings, stabbings, beatings, unconscious persons pushed out of automobiles in front of the entrance as the cars sped off. Frank Rizzo’s police officers dressed in high black boots and heavy black leather jackets, large men with no apparent patience or empathy as they questioned victims and suspects even as they were being treated. Black and white, a patient population of working class or often not working at all.
LaDora moved at her own pace, never in a rush, always completing her task on time, speaking in a gentle and melodious voice with a soft accent suggesting the South. A large woman, probably entering her fifties, always groomed, black, she functioned effortlessly as a nurse’s aide in the ER. She never displayed anger except when a patient became unruly or threatening and even then, more often shaming rather than intimidating. For us, she was a protector, a confidant, a friend.
LaDora was a woman of the city, living a long bus ride away from the hospital. She had come from elsewhere, New York it was said. I do not know how she came to be in Philadelphia but she had been there some years. She was a single parent without a man in her life at the time, but recalled for us a gentleman with whom she had, as she put it, “set up heavy housekeepin’.”
Old enough to be the mother of most, she sometimes attended the parties of the young doctors and nurses. She was always welcome, never inhibiting, relaxed and chatty. We said goodbye when we left Philadelphia in 1975 and then said hello when we found ourselves returning in 1977. Leaving for the final time in 1978, we promised to stay in touch. A year or two later, she was visiting us in the rural New Hampshire town in which we then lived.
LaDora enjoyed the quiet and peace of the country life, appreciated the workings of the wood stove which took away the morning’s chill. She stepped out the kitchen door, wide-eyed, when she heard my shotgun chase off a varmint that was eating pears off of one of our fruit trees. One evening, she cooked for us the most delicious fried chicken. Made wonderful, somehow, by vigorously shaking the chicken pieces in a brown paper grocery bag into which she had placed flour and seasoning, she fried it in a large cast iron pan.
Late one morning, she sat out in a chair on the front lawn smoking the remains of a marijuana cigarette in a surgical hemostat. With her free hand, she waved to the elderly neighbors, who lived across the country road from us, as they drove by.
“Hi, good mornin’. How you doin’ today?”
We could only imagine what our neighbors must have thought when they saw a large, middle-aged black woman sitting in front of our house, smoking away. But they never mentioned it.
Dennis was a Vermonter, born and raised. An honest and decent man without pretension. He spoke with a modest Vermont accent and lived a country life, owning coonhounds, hunting, fishing, growing. He was a few years older than we were, married to Trudy, as Vermont as he was.
At the end of our first time through Philadelphia, the idea of a peaceful life in the country working at small community hospitals where there were no shootings or stabbings, brought us to southeastern Vermont. There we met Dennis and Trudy; each was a nurse. We became friends.
Dennis took us by our figurative hands and brought us along raccoon hunting – driving in the dark on dirt roads through the woods. The two dogs with their heads out the windows, sought the scent of coon while we took sips from the bottle of Jack Daniels we passed around. When the dogs picked up a scent, they began to bark and were let out of the car, and having found and treed their quarry, they changed the sound of their bark. We followed the new sound through the darkness until we arrived at the tree. We watched Dennis shine a flashlight into the upper branches and though he was able to see the reflection of the animal’s eyes, we could not. Dennis killed the raccoon with a single shot from his .22 rifle. It was brought home, skinned, the fur stretched out to dry and then sold to a dealer.
“If you’re not gonna’ use it or eat it, don’t kill it,” Dennis told us, referring to all fish and game.
In the mid-winter we went ice fishing on Lake Champlain. Dennis brought along a solid iron pole to which he had welded a heavy metal wedge. The homemade contraption was used to chop a hole in the ice, a slow and tiring process of pound, pound, pound. It was bitterly cold, the wind blowing across the lake. Even the hard work of chopping open a hole through a foot of ice was hardly warming. Nearby, a fellow with a gas powered ice auger was persuaded with innocent smiles from Trudy and Gretchen to create a few holes in the ice for us. He did it in less than a minute as Dennis and I watched. The ladies stood silently and entirely pleased with themselves.
The next time we went ice fishing, we rented a bob house that had been pulled onto the ice by an enterprising farmer. A kerosene stove kept the interior comfortable. We caught a large number of smelt that day. When we returned to Dennis’s home, the smelt were lightly rolled in corn meal and fried. Along with fried potatoes and sufficient beer, it was a meal that I would choose again over any offered by the finest restaurant.
At the end of that year, we left Vermont and, after a bit, found our way back to Philadelphia. Eventually, we lost touch with Dennis and Trudy. They left Vermont and moved to Gillette, Wyoming, where an oil boom offered them unreasonably high nursing salaries.
In 1985, a homemade invitation from Dennis to an Adult Bash, arrived unexpectedly in the mail. Dennis and Trudy had returned to Vermont and were hosting a pig roast at their home. Of course, we would go.
We cheerfully reunited with Dennis and Trudy. Beer and pork, swimming and volleyball, baked beans and brown bread. And all easy, comfortable, blissful. We met many of their friends, who would become ours as well; lifelong Vermonters and flatlanders alike, young and old. As we left to return home, an elderly native lady warned me that, having enjoyed a very large amount of Trudy’s homemade baked beans, I would certainly be “supercharged” for the ride home.
The pig roast was repeated the following two summers, the invitations simply recycled with the new date. We went to each, renewing friendships with the folks we had met at the first one, receiving the usual warning about being “supercharged.” We were so very thankful to be with Dennis and Trudy again. Thereafter, simply due to circumstance, our contact with them was sporadic and irregular, but our bond remained.
A year or two after LaDora had been with us, we received a phone call from a mutual friend in Philadelphia. LaDora had suddenly died, her heart failed. The funeral was scheduled for the following day in the Flushing area of New York City.
The next morning, we left early. We drove several hours, found the church and entered just before the service was to start. We joined the friend who had called us. She was sitting with her adult son. We four were the only Caucasians in the crowded church. At the front of the church was LaDora in an open coffin.
The reverend began his eulogy.
He spoke of the beauty of her name, his careful diction delivered in a stentorian voice. His articulation was perfect, the entirety of his delivery suggestive of a tenured Harvard professor. Suddenly, abruptly, he changed to jive, his voice high and low, his careful pronunciations abandoned. The choir began to sing and the congregation clapped along, the music joyful.
Then a crank was turned on the coffin and LaDora was sitting up facing the congregation.
I imagined LaDora would have said, “They got me all dressed up real fine, like a fancy lady.”
When the service ended, we lingered a few minutes outside the church, speaking with LaDora’s daughter and son-in-law. We promised each other to keep in touch, even as we all knew that we would not. The ride home was long and quiet.
A pig roast friend called a few years after the last Adult Bash. Trudy had come home from work and found Dennis dead; he had stayed home that day with what he thought was stomach discomfort. But it was his heart.
The next day we arrived at the small church on the main street of their little town. It was not the idyllic town one sees in Vermont Life calendars, but working class worn. The church service was somber and Dennis’s coffin was closed. When the service ended and the coffin was taken out the front door, four middle-aged men in VFW caps, stood with rifles on each side of the street and fired a volley in salute.
I thought Dennis would have gotten a big kick out of that.
We returned to Dennis and Trudy’s home, to speak quietly with her and our friends. People told Dennis stories, but nobody laughed. We left for home, again promising to keep in touch. Without Dennis, though, there was nobody to bring us together. A few months later our Christmas card to Trudy went unanswered; she had left town without a forwarding address.
They were two wonderful people so unlike in life and in death. Each was decent and genuine. Perhaps they did have something in common after all; an elegantly casual way of holding life’s joy that drew us to each of them. And the laughter we shared; LaDora’s was hearty but not loud. Joyful and welcoming in a way that invited others to join in with her. Dennis’s laugh, expressed with a Northern New England accent, started as a chuckle and built from there. He had the sort of laughter one might hear when helping a friend push a car that has run out of gas.
They had not met but were kindred.
Love and friendship are separate, though they share similar qualities. The closer the relationship, the more love and friendship blend together and the boundary between friendship and love blurs. When some random thought, word or object prompts me to think of LaDora or of Dennis, I often smile. After all these years, the pain of their deaths has past, but a quiet and emptiness remains.
© Harvey Silverman
Harvey Silverman is a retired physician who writes nonfiction primarily for his own enjoyment. His work has been published in Ocotillo Review, Avalon Literary Review, Evening Street Review, and West Texas Literary Review, among others.