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Saint Dorothy

Feast of All Saints - Pentecost XXIV - November 7, 2021

Dorothy Osborn

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Wisdom 3:1-9 + Psalm 24 + Revelation 22:1-5 + John 11:32-44

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.

In the early 1990’s I spent several years living in Madison Wisconsin, where I worked at the University Newman Center as part of a pastoral team serving the Catholic students of UW Madison. I lived in a small apartment on Langdon Street—otherwise known as “Fraternity Row,” with my friend Allen. The landlord of our building was a woman who had, over time, become a dear and treasured friend of ours. Her name was Dorothy. Dorothy Osborn.

When I met her, she was already in her late 80s, petite in stature (I don’t think she stood more than an inch or so over 5 feet). Her voice had grown raspy with age, and but for a slight hunch and a bit of a wobble in her gait, she carried herself with a genteel dignity and old-world social grace. But underneath all of that: she was a spitfire.

When she wasn’t in her “house dress”—of which she had many— she always presented herself stylish clothing—at least in what would have been stylish several decades earlier when she was in her prime. Polyester suits, blouses, and an occasional shawl that sometimes carried with it the delicate aroma of moth balls.

She wouldn’t leave the house without her bright red lipstick and rouge perfectly applied, and her hair set just right, teased out from the oversized curlers she had slept in the night before. Sometimes, when she was feeling a little sassy, she would even agree to let us dye her hair. We would sit her on a chair in her bedroom, Allen working the dye throughout her scalp while I sat on the bed watching the makeover—all of us giggling at the prospect of accidentally turning her hair purple or blue…or worse causing it fall out altogether. But the worst that ever resulted from our efforts was toe-head blonde.

She told us once, “I still feel like a 16-year-old in my head…I just don’t know what happened to my body!” And she meant it. The only thing “old” about Dorothy was her body. The rest of her—every bit of her—exuded the zest of a teenager…and we loved her for it.

Whether by chance or design, many of the tenants in Dorothy’s building happened to be 20-somethings—most of us friends who never bothered to lock our doors, and often passed in and out of one another’s apartments as if walking from one room to the next of the same house. There was indeed a social web of friendship among us—very often with Dorothy at the hub—a kind of communal life that I look back upon now with no small bit of nostalgia.

It was not uncommon for Allen and I to start cooking a meal before another friend, and then another, and another, would walk through the door with a bag of frozen peas, a leftover salad, or some potatoes for mashing: all wanting to know “What’s for dinner?” And so, what often started as a simple meal ended up a kind of pot luck social, comprised of whatever others had to offer that evening.

But none of us cooked like Dorothy, with her old family recipes scribbled on tattered index cards or lined notebook paper, now yellowed and grease-stained from age and repeated use – some, no doubt, from decades long before I was even born. Among my favorites was her beef stew, which admittedly, she always over salted. Always. It was a function of her aging tastebuds that did not work quite as well as they used to. Over time, she became more and more heavy-handed with salt and other seasonings which for her was the only way to get a sense of flavor in her food.

She also made this thing she called “pasty”— little pastry pockets filled with meat, potatoes and vegetables – very hardy and very Midwestern, and yes, over salted, but she did how to pull them together just right. Indeed, so much of our life with Dorothy revolved around food. Quiet meals together reminiscing about her childhood memories, like the fact that she knew Frank Lloyd Wright – whom she remembered as a little girl for his arrogance and reputation for being a womanizer.

Or sometimes we would just share our philosophical, political or spiritual views on life. And on Sundays, we would often accompany her to St Stephen’s Lutheran church followed by an outing to one of the breakfast eateries in town. Invariably, she would wear her best Sunday polyester pant suit and hat –looking dapper as ever. It was not infrequent that someone in our apartment would throw a dinner party where no one needed an invitation. We all learned of it by word of mouth, and would all just show up – including Dorothy.

If you can picture it: A cramped urban apartment, wall-to-wall with 20-something year-olds, all fawning over a 90-year-old Dorothy like she was the belle of the ball. Several years before we met her, she felt she was in the twilight of her life, but now, she hardly knew what hit her. All of us young kids taking her in under our wing and giving her a new lease on life.

I believe it was at one of those parties, just after I had been accepted to Boston College for a Master’s degree that Allen and I conceived the idea of bringing Dorothy along with us on a cross-country adventure from Madison to Boston in a rented U-Haul. We planned our adventure in a local burger joint – “Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry” where the boot leg of beer she ordered stood on the table clear over her head, as she sat in the corner of the booth, tiny as ever, eyes twinkling at the thought of the journey that lie ahead. By the time she downed that beer she was more than a little giddy, and a bit more wobbly than usual, but no less excited about the future as she giggled all the way home from the restaurant.

“I don’t understand you kids….” She would say, “that you would want to spend time with the likes of me….” She really could not conceive the admiration we had for her. The truth is, we all hoped to be just like her at age 90. In that sense she was timeless to us. And an inspiration. She was just one of us and her age mattered little because she made a decision not to make it matter.

The car she still drove around town was about as long as the QE-2 and almost as wide. Don’t ask me the make and model but I am pretty sure it got at least 25 feet to the gallon and no doubt dated to 1972! But it sure did look like she bought it yesterday. Perfectly maintained.

One day while driving past the local cemetery, she would tell us later, she thought to herself “Boy, I’m glad not in there!” only to see moments later the red and blue flashes of a cop car speeding up behind her. Turns out, she got a ticket for speeding that day, even though once the cop saw how old she was, she practically had to insist he was just doing his job and he should administer the ticket all the same.

Our trip to Boston in the U-Haul was every bit as crazy as one might imagine. The three of us were a motley crew, stopping at tacky tourist destinations or trucker gas stations along the way; our friends imagining that when she had had enough, she would take out her bright red lipstick at a busy rest stop somewhere along the 80, and while no one was looking write “Help Me” backwards on the passenger window in hopes of being rescued from these two young men who were dragging her unwittingly across the country.

In her final years, Dorothy began to struggle with two ominous health conditions. Mini-strokes and congestive heart failure. We began to notice times when she would unexpectedly become disoriented and forgetful for a few hours even though she always seem to make a full recovery.

I remember going to pay her a visit one afternoon when I could tell something was wrong. Dorothy wasn’t quite there. After taking much longer than usual to answer the door, she stood there, dazed and confused, trying to speak but not able to say much – or at least not much that made sense. We called 911 and after a few hours she regained her sense of clarity. I remember being filled with a sense of inevitability. A sadness as I watched her aging body slowly betray the 16-year-old she still was inside. Trying to lighten the mood, I told her she could easily prevent these little strokes if she would just stop putting her curlers in so tight. Her roaring, uncontrolled laughter convinced me she would be alright. At least for a time. At least this time. As a precaution, Dorothy and her family gave us a key to her apartment so we could get in should she need help at some point in the future.

But it was not the strokes that would prove the worst of her health concerns. It was ever-worsening episodes of congestive heart failure that began to land her in the hospital for long evenings of forced oxygen treatments or sometimes for overnight stays. The frequency of these occurrences was making it clear: new horizon was in view and we had to begin to face it.

On one such occasion she took Allen and I on a walk down the hospital corridor, holding each of our hands – me on her right, Allen to her left. The long hallway terminated in a picture window that stood from floor to ceiling, boasting a beautiful view of the little city of Madison below. After pensively looking out over the horizon, the twinkling lights, and the dark lakes of the isthmus, she told us in an uncharacteristically serious tone: “A hundred years from now,” she said, “all the people you see down there will be gone. And a new generation who never heard of us will be there in our place.”

She was right, of course. But unable to face the truth of what she was telling us, we all stood there, holding hands at the end of that long corridor, peering silently out the window as twilight settled on our little city below. She wasn’t, of course, talking about “them.” She was talking about herself. She was telling us that sooner rather than later she would be gone – and we needed to understand that her own mortality was the way of things, and we needed to face it. That in our youth, where death seemed still an infinity away, we needed to acquiescence to the inevitable – as she had. And indeed as she spoke to us – solemnly even if not morbidly – something of her youthful spark seemed to have finally caught up with her years.

It was not long after that, she, back home again, invited us for dinner. Her famous beef stew was on the menu. And we ate and talked with a new intentionality. I savored those moments as much as I savored the salty beef stew that her hands had so lovingly made for us. When dinner was over, we helped her clean the kitchen as she diligently packed the leftovers in Tupperware and put them in her freezer for another day.

It was shortly thereafter on Christmas, while we were celebrating the holiday with Allen’s family some two hours north of Madison in Wausau, that we received the call. After a lovely day with her family, and a Christmas dinner of ham and all the fixings, Dorothy suffered what would be her last congestive heart failure. She began to have difficulty breathing, then coughing up exorbitant amounts of blood, and shortly after losing consciousness altogether. We were told by her family that, in the midst of it all, her last words were “This is it.”

I will never know whether she uttered those words in fear, acceptance, or an attempt to comfort the panic-stricken family members who surrounded her, like she tried to comfort us not long before in that dark hospital corridor. But regardless, she was right.

As Allen and I sped back to Madison, we arrived at the hospital just moments after the entire family had left her bedside. The nurses gave us permission to enter the room where she had passed to say our goodbyes. Her body, now frail as ever, was still warm, but the 16-year-old was gone. Her eyes – now bereft of their youthful mischievous twinkle -- stared vacantly at the ceiling. And for the first time she, indeed, looked old.

Friends who tried to console us in the days that followed reminded us that at 93 she had lived a good life, made better by the friendship we all shared with her in her final years. And yes, dying at 93 sure beats dying at 23, but it doesn’t lessen the sense of loss, the bereavement of the friendship itself. I remember talking with a nun whom I worked with at the time. Maybe only 10 years my senior, bubbly and full of joy, and having a pastor’s heart. As I poured out my feelings of loss and sadness, she listened long and thoughtfully. And then shared something I will never forget: “Now,” she said, “you need to ask yourself how Dorothy will continue to be present to you.”

Taking her admonishment to heart, I found myself on a long walk along the shores of Lake Mendota later that day. As tears streamed down my face, one of them inadvertently made its way to the corner of my mouth. “Ach! That’s salty!” I thought. “Wait! Salty??” I quickened my pace, making my way back to our small apartment on Langdon Street. As I entered the building the darkness on the other side of the windows in Dorothy’s apartment drove home the reality of her absence.

Grabbing the key to her flat that we had tucked away in a drawer, I let myself in, searching for the little treasure I hoped would still be there: a small Tupperware container, still full of now-frozen beef stew.

That evening Allen and I quietly set the small table in our kitchen, this time discretely locking the door to our apartment. This meal would not be a community-wide pot luck extravaganza, but an intimate Last Supper. Just the three of us. We set out our best place mats and dishes. Lit candles and poured wine as the aroma of beef stew reheating on the stove filled our small apartment, steaming up the windows against the cold Wisconsin winter outside.

We sat together, solemnly at first. Tearful at a loss that was still so palpable to both of us. But quickly our sadness turned to joyful memories, intimate conversations we shared with Dorothy, bits of wisdom she had imparted over the years, and stories of wild parties and U-Haul treks across the country. “This,” I realized, “is Eucharist.” Her very hands, her youthful energy, her zest for life and love for us prepared the very meal we were now eating together with Dorothy now counted among the communion of saints.

And yet there she was, still present to us in beef stew and red wine, in the flicker of candlelight and the telling of stories, but perhaps most of all then as now she will forever be present to me in salt! The salt of our tears that mourned her death; the salty beef stew that celebrated her life. And above all the salt that was Dorothy herself – seasoned, as she was by the many years of her long life, yet full of zest and joy that kept her youthful till the end.

And while her beef stew is long gone, gone forever. It is the saltiness that will remain and remain forever, as her way of being present to me. And for that she will never be forgotten. Rest in Peace, Saint Dorothy. And may your life teach us all what it means to forever be salty.

+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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