My Friend, Sheila

 

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Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash

When I was six years old, I had a friend named Sheila. Sheila wore dresses every day. Her favorite one was the color of a mimosa blossom. A magenta satin sash with a rhinestone placed in the center accented her waist, but also got in the way when she lifted buildings. One late summer afternoon, Sheila lifted – a full two feet off the ground – the garage behind the United Methodist Church downtown. She strained and grunted to hold it up for about five seconds before gently setting it back down.

 

Even though Sheila and I were good friends, no one else had ever met her.  I had spoken proudly of Sheila and her weight-lifting feats to my mother and my older sister, but they never had the pleasure of meeting her. She was my own secret, elusive – and muscular –friend.

Two months passed after she lifted the garage. School started and Halloween came around again. The Saturday before Halloween, my mother, sister, and I went to Whitson’s Grocery. As we drove down Judson in our big, red Bonneville, I saw a house I had never noticed before. I blurted out, “Sheila’s grandma lives in that house.”

My mother turned and looked at me intently. “She does?”

“Yup.”

“Which house?” she asked.

“That one. The plain one.” Peering from the back seat, I pointed to a small, white bungalow sitting squarely in an unkempt yard. The shades were pulled in the windows and an empty swing hung at one end of the porch.  I justified the home’s bland appearance. “Her grandma is really old and likes plain houses. And she uses a cane.”  My mother rubbed her forehead as she stopped at the corner and checked for oncoming cars.  I decided to press on.“We should go trick-or-treating there on Friday.”

“Well, I guess . . . we could do that,” she hesitated, and then glanced over her shoulder to my sister riding next to her in the passenger seat. My sister shook her head.

The week continued and the thought of my impending visit to Sheila’s grandmother’s house crossed my mind often. Friday arrived. We donned our hand-me-down clown and hobo costumes that we had dug out of the trunk in my mother’s sewing room.

At dusk, we followed our regular trick-or-treating route, walking door-to-door to neighbor’s houses, then driving to our friend’s houses beyond our neighborhood. As I climbed back into the car after our last stop, I reminded my mother that we still needed to visit Sheila’s grandma. “Well, let’s go before it rains,” she said.

Just then, a gust of wind rattled the leaves in the oak trees, the cool freshness of an approaching storm entered the car, and I suddenly dreaded the idea. Sheila’s grandmother was a real person, after all.  We ventured down Judson anyway, looking for the plain white bungalow in the dark. “There it is,” I said.

My mother applied the brakes, pulled over to the curb, and put the car in park.  “Make it quick.”  Thunder rumbled from east of town.

My sister and I climbed out, carrying our bright orange plastic pumpkins.  We trudged across the yard. My plastic clown mask, still wet with sweat from our last stop, dangled around my neck as we strode up the sidewalk and ascended the steps. The windows were dark, but the porch light was on. Apparently, Sheila’s grandmother did not observe Halloween. There was no jack-o-lantern. No colorful fall cut-outs taped to the windows like we had at home.

Standing on the porch, I looked down at our car to see my mother leaning over in the seat watching us. I pressed the doorbell. We waited. The house was quiet. My sister rolled her eyes, set her pumpkin down, and crossed her arms. She had had enough. “Sheila’s grandmother doesn’t live here,” she said aloud. “Come on. This is dumb. Sheila’s not even real.”

But then the porcelain knob rattled and the door opened. A woman stared blankly back at us. “Yes?”

“Trick-or-treat,” I said meekly.  My sister was silent, forcing me to follow through. Without a cane, the woman stepped toward us over the threshold, into the glare of the porch light. Her thin lips glowed an unnatural poppy red color. She wore a gray cotton house dress and her hair, stiff and dark and streaked with gray, was fashioned in a youthful flip.

“Oh, I don’t have anything to give you,” she replied in a no-nonsense way, her eyes studying our tired, well-worn costumes. She craned her neck forward, and squinted beyond us to the street to see who on earth had brought us to her home late on Halloween night.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well . . .  bye.” I decided not to mention her granddaughter and our unique friendship. My sister swiped her pumpkin off the porch, pivoted, and ran down the steps to the car. I followed. Behind me, I heard the woman close the door, and turn the deadbolt with a click.  I tumbled into the backseat, relief washing over me.

“She wasn’t ready for trick-or-treaters,” I said.

My mother smiled knowingly and shifted the car into drive. “You girls have plenty of candy anyway. Let’s get home and sort it out. Hot chocolate sound good?” We both nodded.

As we headed back toward home, I stirred the mound of candy in my pumpkin, feeling the crinkly foil, plastic, and paper wrappers, envisioning how much floor space it would occupy when I dumped it out later on the carpet.

It was the first and last time I ever saw the woman I called Sheila’s grandmother. Over the next month, whenever I passed by the plain white bungalow, I thought of how meeting her had allowed me to separate from Sheila. Sometime around Thanksgiving, I just told everyone that Sheila had moved to California. I haven’t heard from her since.

 

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How Not to Live in the Southwest

 

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Photo: AZcentral.com

One day in 1992, my husband and I were invited to visit an acquaintance who happened to be occupying a house designed by the world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. We had seen the house from a distance and had admired its unusual appearance with its exterior winding walkways, circular windows, and austere concrete masonry. It was intriguing and beckoned a closer look.

 

Wright originally designed the 2,200 square foot structure for his son, David, and his wife, Gladys. It was built in 1952. We’re not sure about the arrangement between the homeowners and our acquaintance. We can’t even recall her name now. Maybe she was renting it or acting as caretakers while the owners were away temporarily. We accepted our acquaintance’s  invitation to visit the historic home and stopped by one sunny afternoon for a tour.

Perched near Camelback Mountain, the spiral home was indeed stunning and modern and magical. It was also trashed. Our acquaintance, who was fortunate to occupy Wright’s last residential masterpiece named ironically, “How to Live in the Southwest,”  was, in short, a slob.

Bedroom floors held oceans of wadded-up loads of laundry. Dirty dishes lined the kitchen counters. Smudges and stains sullied the bathroom mirrors and floors. Crumpled junk mail littered the hallways. We were dumbfounded. All this disappointment obscured the home’s jaw-dropping features: an entrance preceded by a winding walkway ramp; Philippine mahogany ceilings, cabinetry, and furniture; ubiquitous concealed built-ins; custom carpets; a rooftop deck; panoramic views of the rocky desert terrain. Without a doubt, we had seen it at its worst and even then, it was beautiful.

As we roamed through the home, with its desert views, calming circular structure, and ingenious use of space, our acquaintance apologized for her poor housekeeping habits. “Oh, well… yeah,” we answered, laughing nervously, embarrassed for her — and the house.

Not too long ago, I was curious as to the status of the home and wanted to see what had become of it since our move to Missouri about a year later. So I googled the house  while my husband and I reminisced about our Phoenix experiences. Yes, the house did survive that messy time.

And somebody, many people in fact, care about the house’s existence and condition today. After their deaths, the Wrights passed on the house to a granddaughter, who later sold it to a developer who wanted to demolish it. Concerned citizens stepped in, and the house was eventually saved. In fact, another developer is now devising a strategy to preserve and operate the home and grounds for tours, weddings, and cultural performances. It seems a fitting purpose for the architectural gem now known as the David & Gladys Wright House. Still, there is controversy surrounding the whole ordeal, which I likely don’t fully appreciate or understand, since I no longer live in the area. To find out more, go here. As I understand it, the developer wants to expand his concept and residents of the surrounding neighborhood are upset about the increased traffic and congestion they expect to occur.

I hope, even though they disagree on a number of points, that the developers, area residents and preservationists are united in their gratitude that the house previously survived a greater controversy: the disrepair and poor treatment it received when it was in the care of our acquaintance.