Home > Uncategorized > A Cemetery Walk on a Snowy Day with Lou Kelly

A Cemetery Walk on a Snowy Day with Lou Kelly

February 15, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

LK BW3cIf you had known her as a child, maybe you would have called her Louise as it says on her birth certificate. But I doubt Lou has let anyone call her Louise since Franklin Roosevelt was president. She is 92 now, retired for a quarter of a century. Before that, she was the kind of teacher who would look up into the faces of the university’s least domesticated football and basketball players and tell them to get their lives in order and to take their educations seriously. And when students were serious, she would help them accomplish any worthy goal.

I was visiting for the day. After a nice lunch out, we drove in the country, then toured the town’s landmarks—the great bookstore, the peaceful river that raged through the heart of campus just a few years ago, even the town’s hilltop cemetery, where a huge bronze statue of a black angel has drooped its wings over a certain grave for a century. Our conversation leaped about in time—back to the decades of teaching and ahead to her planned flight out to California to see those beloved creatures she calls her grand-younguns. Lou mentioned her frustration that the university had recently changed her name on the retired faculty list to Louise. In the snowy cemetery I remembered the way she taught writing.

Lou believed that young people who reflected on their memories and values in writing would be in a better position to succeed in life. Talk to me on paper, she would say to her student writers.  Tell me what you’ve seen, tell me who you want to be. It was as though she was saying to each of them, I want to be called Lou.  Now you tell me who you are and what you want to be called.

Beyond the Black Angel, in a new section of the cemetery, Lou pointed out a large stone some distance from the road. She was determined to take a look, and I knew the power of her determination, so I offered her my arm. She held her cane in the other hand, and we headed into the snow and the rows of stones.

It was a highly polished black stone, about four feet tall, with the large portrait of a smiling man etched in gold on it, and his name and the words “Iowa’s First All-American Swimmer.” The thing was not so much gaudy as it was just plain odd and distracting. It bothered Lou because this was just inches from where her own stone would someday be. How is a visitor going to attend to her name and her memory with this crazy stone right there?

We turned and walked carefully along the rows. She was looking for a stone that might hold its own next to the black thing, something distinctive and substantial, maybe even a small sculpture that would someday proclaim, on her behalf, “This is who I was.” So we were, I realized, shopping for tombstones. I turned and said, “Lou, I’ll bet you a nickel that today you are the only 92 year old in all of North America taking a 100-yard cross-country hike in the snow.” She laughed her big laugh, and agreed. Back in the car, I cranked up the heater. We put the cemetery behind us, and conversation turned to her hopes for great-grand-younguns. That evening, as my visit drew to a close, Lou settled into the armchair by her bay window and watched the sun, which she loves, redden brilliantly through the trees.

Broadcast on 88.1 WVPE by Ken Smith on February 18, 2011.

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