I wrote this shortly after my friend, Rose White, died. I was unable to attend her memorial service. Her husband Bob read it to those gathered to remember her. There will never be another Rose.
In the ten years we spent as near neighbors, Rose always went first, and I was right behind her, cheering her on, ready to come right up behind her. Rose did not have my back, I had hers. She had my front and led the way. And it made all the difference.
We met through the contra dance world—I’d heard some negative reports about this pushy southern lady who had moved to New England and was ready to call contra dances. I was skeptical and not sure what I’d gotten into when Rose stepped in to substitute for a caller I’d hired for our local dance. But my skepticism was quickly replaced with wonder as I watched Rose work her dance calling magic on a motley group of beginner dancers, mixed with a few more experienced contra dancers. In no time she had people laughing, dancing, and having almost as much fun as she seemed to be having. Her basic instructions? After giving a short explanation about “ya’ll” and what southerners mean when using this term, she’d announce, “When I say, ‘all ya’ll’ I mean, ALL of you,” as she waved her hand from her head down to her toes. She encouraged us to dance with our whole bodies, not just our feet. And by golly, when dancing with Rose, we danced with our whole hearts.
Soon Rose and her husband Bob were driving with me to dances all over New England, and we found much to laugh about on the way. These road trips soon became outings to spend holidays with my family in New Hampshire. Rose cooked up amazing dishes to share at these family meals. On one trip Rose pulled out a copy of Reader’s Digest and we went through the “Word Power” section of the magazine, talking about words, and laughing over definitions we did or didn’t know. We had so much fun we missed the turn to my sister’s house and drove all the way to the end of the highway before we realized we’d missed the road, oh, 25 miles back.
Rose loved words, composed many, many poems, and jumped in feet first with me when I joined a local writing group. Her musical ear, manifested in the songs she composed, the singing she reveled in, and the 4 part-harmonies she loved join in on, were all of a piece with her gift of taking a thought or feeling and conveying it in compact form into verse.
Cooking with Rose was always an adventure. One night Rose had purchased fancy pork chops, and reached into her cabinet to grab some flour for breading the chops. It took a little while to realize she had coated the meat, not with flour, but with xanthum gum. Rose tried to wash the xanthum gum off, which made things gummy, sticky, even worse. Finally Rose simply looked at the mess she had made, tossed the entire chop (or two or three) into the trash and announced, “Well, that didn’t work!” Whenever we did something in later years that got messed up, one or the other of us would say, “Well, it could have been xanthum gum.” Indeed, it could have been, but it never was again.
I brought ingredients to make hot fudge sauce for dessert at Bob and Rose’s house one night. All it needed was a little milk, which I planned to add when I put it in the microwave. The trouble was, I forgot the milk. 30 seconds into the cooking, we started smelling something burning. Bob asked, “Does it need some milk?” I assured him it was fine. 60 seconds later the smoke alarm was set off, Rose pulled the carbonized mess out of the microwave, and we settled for ice cream and no fudge sauce. But I never again forgot to add milk when making chocolate sauce, and neither Bob nor Rose could resist gently teasing me about “Should you add some milk this time?”
What I grew to understand in the years Rose and I shared a deep friendship, was that Bob was the strength behind Rose, the one who had “her” back. He provided the emotional stability, the financial stability and more that only the two of them will ever know. If ever there was a marriage that represented a relationship that was mutual in its best sense of the word, it was the combination of Bob and Rose together.
When I was grieving the loss of another dear friend, Rose heard that I struggled to get out of bed and headed over to my house. My family had recently given me a kayak, and Rose announced, “You’re going to show me your boat.” Well, if Rose was coming, I for sure had to get up. We ventured down to Silver Lake, and Rose gamely climbed into the kayak, weight limit 225 pounds. Well, that little kayak floated quite near the water’s surface but held Rose up and she paddled about with a grin on her face. She then insisted I get in and pushed me out into the water, where I floated in that bright red kayak, and let the water and the little craft worked its healing magic on me.
When my son and his wife lost their firstborn child at birth, Rose’s response was to head over to their farm in Coalmont, TN as these grieving parents prepared to move to their new home. Rose scrubbed, cleaned, packed, and brought loving energy to their family when they sorely needed it. She knew I was unable to be there for them, and stepped right in.
In fact, Rose loved to help people move. She’d say, “Moving is something I’ve done so many times, I’m really good at it.” Her gift for packing, organizing, getting things packed up, then unpacked and put away was remarkable. Despite numerous ailments that caused her serious pain, she was always, always ready to do what was needed when she saw there was something she could do.
Rose trusted me enough to allow me into some of her deepest struggles. She had “spells” of confusion; she could get lost in the produce section of the supermarket. She learned to swallow her pride and ask for help. Watching Rose struggle and set aside her pride and make herself vulnerable was a treasured gift she shared with me. Sometimes these spells would occur when she was driving, but as she said, “Somehow I always end up at your house, Marjorie.” When this happened, we got her home. If she called me when driving and said she didn’t know where she was, she could tell me what she saw, and we talked her home. This is not to say Rose was stupid. Far from it! When she was well, her sense of direction was unerring; her intelligence was always without question.
When I married, Rose insisted on helping me find a brand new dress for my wedding, and took me dress shopping. Her taste in clothing was superb, and I joyfully wore the dress she’d helped me find as I married my sweet husband Jon. Rose also insisted on creating the bouquet I carried, filling my arms with flowers she’d artfully arranged herself.
One day Rose came across a book she wanted to explore with me. I wish I could recall the title, it talked of faith, and we spent probably a month or two reading it together every Wednesday evening. She’d arrive at my house, and we’d get right down to it. I’d start reading a chapter, and we’d stop whenever the author said something either of us wanted to reflect on. Rose had clear thoughts about where she stood, and challenged my faith in so many ways. She was bright, logical, compassionate, and ready to listen.
Rose grew up in the church, a church her family had helped found. When she found herself pregnant, an unwed teen, she chose to carry this baby, her beloved son Mickey. But the pastor of that church told Rose she was no longer welcome. Rose never forgot this terrible rejection. She was pretty clear about her rejection of this faith. But I also know that when we sang old hymns together she wept. When we shared meals together she eagerly reached out her hand, before I even offered mine, for me to pray a blessing over our shared meal. Rather than looking for Rose to pass a litmus test about her faith, I watched her actions, and I saw faith at work through her hands, and through her heart.
After she and Bob moved to Tennessee Rose’s life quickly filled with neighbors and red hat ladies and bunco groups, folks who brought her much joy, and gathered around her in need. From what Rose shared with me, she found friends who were able to help her find her way home when her “spells” occurred, and she made friends with the people at her local supermarket who were able to help her find her way out of the store when she got confused. New England had been a hard place for Rose to live, and she had made the best of a difficult time. But now that she was back in her beloved south, she knew she was home. I missed her, but never felt sad about the comfort she took from being back home, from being closer to her beloved grandson, her pride and joy, Nicholas.
When I think of the life Rose lived, and shared with Bob, I think of them opening their home to John, a developmentally disabled man who needed a home for a time until he was able to live in a protected housing situation. She became a caseworker for Joey, another developmentally disabled man. Long after Rose moved on to other work, she remained an advocate for Joey, and when she moved to Tennessee she kept her cell phone with a Rhode Island exchange, simply so Joey could call her at a local number. In the last conversation she had with me, she asked that I go to see Joey, to allow him to grieve with me. She worried about Bob, and what he would do without her. She was not afraid to die.
There was only one Rose White. There was only one “Bob and Rose.” We who were blessed with having her in our lives feel a gigantic Rose-shaped hole. There is no filling it, only the job of living the lives we’ve been given, taking the lessons we learned from Rose and passing them on as best we can. Rose is no longer here to lead the way. But the trails she blazed remain. It’s up to each of us to follow those trails, and make our own, as best we can without her here to cheer us on.
Marjorie Turner Hollman