As Steve drove us across I-74 West through Indianapolis and into Illinois, we took a “walk down Memory Lane.” (Of course I do that every time I go for a walk in our small town because our street is just off Memory Lane, but you understand.)
This was one that went back to 1968 when Steve got a job at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and began doctoral studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, 50 miles away. (Excuse me—he says it was 52 miles from our house.) We lived in Bloomington, Normal’s twin city.
We moved from the mountains of North Carolina to those flat, flat plains of central Illinois, covered with the black dirt we were told was the second richest in the world, the richest being the flood plain of the Nile. Farmers in McLean County were among the richest—and hardest working—people in the area.
He only had U. S. 150 to travel then and had to go through many small towns to get to the U of I. On Tuesday, we zoomed past those small towns, only seeing their familiar names on large green signs at exits off the interstate. Mahomet, Farmer City, LeRoy, Heyworth, Downs. All towns who no doubt have much less traffic since I-74 was the completed the year after Steve’s graduate work was completed.
I talked about the nights Enid Henninger and our friend Barb Thomas and I would ride together to the U of I because Enid had talked us into taking graduate classes there. She was passionate and persuasive about many things, especially education. Enid exemplified the term “life-long learner,” taking courses years later long after her peers were content to stay home and watch tv or doze. And sometimes, on the way home, she’d say, “Let’s stop here for a gin and tonic.” Of course we did.
Our trip was for Enid. We became friends in 1968 when I got a job teaching third grade at Oakland Elementary in Bloomington. At the time, she was twice my age, but that made no difference. I’d taught a year each in Tennessee, Kansas, and North Carolina with excellent teachers, but Enid was the one who taught me, in our four years together, that teaching could be fun. She taught me that just chatting with the children was an important as math and science. She also helped me see that leaving something undone might be the best decision. As her daughter, Janie, said, “She made everything fun.” Yes, she did.
For example, when Janie was first in school, she was often discouraged with her report card. Enid decided they should go shopping for a “report card present” every time Janie got one. What was on the card didn’t matter; she wanted to take the sting out of receiving a report card.
Enid was the first person we told that we were pregnant, even before our parents or other friends. The three of us were going somewhere in our car, back when bench seats accommodated three people in the front seat. I was in the middle and she was on the passenger side when I said, “We have news. We’re going to have a baby.” She was so excited for us! She and her husband, Louie, had about given up on having children when little Janie was born. Janie was in school at Oakland when I first started teaching there and Louie had died of cancer when Janie was 4, after they’d been married 20 years.
One day at school, Enid announced that she was cleaning house. I loved her big, brick house just down the street from the school, and I knew she was in a de-cluttering mode (long before Marie Kondo.) Then she added, “I just told Ernie [her handyman] to take that old hall tree out and put it on the street so I’d quit stacking magazines on it.”
“Hall tree?” I queried. “You don’t mean that big chair-like thing with a mirror?”
Yep, that was the one. I almost freaked out. “You can’t throw that out! I love that thing. My grandmother had one like that and I’d love to have it if you’re throwing it out.”
“Okay!” she said, palms up. “I had no idea. I’ll call Ernie and tell him to take it back inside. But you have to get it by tomorrow.” I promised that I would, and I got a friend with a station wagon to help me take it to my house. I still have that piece of furniture in my front hallway. (Turns out it’s very hard to take a picture of a mirror without being in it… Glad no one saw me on the floor in the closet to take this picture!)
Her explanation was that she bought it at an auction for two dollars when old Stevenson School was refurbished. The school was named for Adlai Stevenson, who was raised in Bloomington and of whom the folks there were very proud. Since he went to that school before it was named for him, I like to think he also sat on that “chair” while waiting for a visit to the principal’s office. As a Democrat, he ran for President twice and was defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. My maternal grandfather thought highly of Stevenson, so I did, too, and I am still proud of my hall tree.
When Enid learned that we were moving to the Cincinnati area, she brought me magazine articles about the newly refurbished Music Hall, the Cincinnati Reds new stadium, and the many cultural events of “The Queen City.” She read widely and always had something to contribute to any conversation. Before the internet, we could rely on Enid for good information.
A year or so after we moved from Bloomington in 1972, her best friend died and she was heart-broken. I’d heard so much about her friend over the years. She’d lived in Pekin, a suburb of Peoria, Illinois, so I hadn’t met her. Enid and her friend’s husband turned to each other in their grief over her death and ended up falling for each other. Eleven years after Louie died, Enid married Bob Woolsey, a kind and gentle man whom she adored.
She and Janie moved to Pekin and she lived in Pekin until 2015 when she moved to nearby Peoria. When Bob died in 2003, they had been married 30 years.
The last time I visited her, it was Janie’s birthday, so I got to eat out with the family to celebrate. Enid insisted that she drive, not I. I think she was 94 then.
She was a wonderful letter-writer. We loved getting her long, beautifully hand-written letters a couple of times a year. She would tell about her travels and her family—multiple generations from the blended family she and Bob formed, plus Janie’s daughter and step-children. At the funeral, forty children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren sat in the family section.
When Janie notified me Monday night that Enid had died, I was touched that she let me know right away. She messaged me, “I wanted you to know that Mom passed away Saturday. She was pain free and at peace. She cherished your friendship.”
Steve said quietly, “Will you go to the funeral? I’ll be glad to go with you.” At first I thought it was foolish to drive five hours just for a funeral.
But then I knew it wasn’t just a funeral. It was Enid’s funeral. I’d visited her in Pekin several times but not in her most recent home in Peoria. Perhaps I should visit her one last time.
Rearranging our Wednesday schedule is a challenge, but we got it done. We left Tuesday afternoon and stayed the night in Morton, Illinois.
If for no other reason, the trip was worth it when, upon entering the funeral home, I saw Janie turn to her husband, Jeff, and say, “Lanita and Steve Boyd are here!”
When I hugged her, she hugged long and tightly. “I never dreamed you’d come,” she said.
“I had to come to pay my respects,” I said. “She was such a special person to me.”
“You were special to her!” Janie said. “As I looked through Mom’s albums this week, I kept seeing you and your family.”
The minister’s sermon was excellent. The organ music was tasteful and, according to Janie, just what Enid wanted. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “It is Well with My Soul” were perfect reminders of her strong spiritual life. Her minister mentioned that she had been at church the Sunday before she died.
Steve later commented to Josh and Gina that there were lots of walkers at the funeral. Gina pictured people walking around the perimeter of the parking lot. When I told my friend Sally, she pictured a family named Walker. But no—there was an abundance of equipment—walkers—to help the elderly guests to get around. Enid would have loved the wordplay.
What a well-lived life! I remember that one of her favorite sayings was “living well is the best revenge.” This woman lived well to the end. She was 98.