Monday, June 25, 2012

Tribute to a Great Lady

On September 1, 1990, Wilma Sehnert died. I was asked to speak at her service. She lived two doors down from us in Alhambra and became our second mother. Here’s what I said that day:

There’s hardly a significant event of my youth that Wilma was not part of. Looking back, I can remember the beautiful woman with the dark, shiny hair, the ever-present bangs, the warm twinkling eyes, the mischievous smile, and that contagious, throaty laugh.
I remember scorching summer afternoons before the advent of air conditioning, where the only breath of air was expelled from our seared lungs, and the only hope of relief lay in the Sehnerts’ backyard under the shade of a tree in the few inches of cool water contained in Dan’s small wading pool. And I remember our childish amusement when our mothers dared to share our little oasis of comfort. And amidst it all was Wilma—bringing sweat-frosted glasses of lemonade and iced tea. She refilled the little pool as fast as we emptied it with our games and always made us feel as though she enjoyed our play as much as we did.

I remember days which, with the magic of time, have taken unto themselves a sort of mythic unreality. Were we ever really that serene? Was life ever that pure and untouched?

During those lovely summers of our innocence, our families took turns hosting neighborhood potluck suppers. The Grahams, Sehnerts, and our family rotated these weekly events. But I remember the evenings at the Sehnerts with particular fondness. Perhaps it was their wonderful patio, which my dad helped build. At one end was an edifice of brick—a magnificent structure which was the equivalent of today’s outdoor kitchen. On the nights of the potlucks the built-in barbeque was put into service. During our play, however, it might be used as a walled fortress or a mountain to be climbed or a bunker.

Perhaps I remember best the quiet times after our meal when ancient grey-covered songbooks with yellowing pages would be passed around and the singing began. I can recall falling asleep to the strains of “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “Good Night Irene.” The latter may have been Wilma’s favorite, as I can’t recall a single time when it was skipped. Or perhaps I remember it best because of her enthusiasm in singing it. While she may have lacked a bit in technical ability, she made up for it in enthusiasm! Sometimes Laura Lee Graham or my mother would add harmony, and the sweet sound of those female voices still rings in my memory.

I remember the wonder of the first television I ever saw—in the Sehnerts’ living room. At the center of a massive wooden cabinet was a small, slightly blurred screen on which real people moved and talked! The Hollywood Christmas Parade was an annual tradition. We kids sat on the floor as close to the set as our parents would allow and watched the parade. Don would build a fire in the fireplace, and in the background was Wilma, serving up mugs of delicious steaming hot chocolate. Sometimes there was also popcorn or cookies. It was the official beginning of the holiday season for many years and a memory my brother and I both cherish.

I remember Wilma during the hard times, too.

She was there for Mom, too. She was the first one at the house when Mom got the news of my father’s death, and was a constant fixture for the following weeks and months. She took care of us kids and saw to it that we had a second home to go to if we needed it. My brother, Ron, and I counted on that assurance and probably took advantage of her generosity far too often.

One of the most vivid pictures in my recollection is of Wilma dragging Dan’s little wagon, filled to overflowing with good food, up the street to our house each night after my dad died when I was seven. She’d arranged with all the neighbors to prepare the dishes, and then delivered these feasts herself.

Since Mom didn’t drive, Wilma was generous about taking us wherever we needed to go and helped her practice driving.

Since there was no money in our budget for extras, I had to pay for my own bicycle: the enormous sum of sixty dollars. (To me at ten-years-old, it might has well have been a thousand!) Wilma was there again. She invented excuses to have me run to the store for her so she so she could tip me more than was required when I returned. She ‘hired’ me to help her clean her house and overpaid me for the job. (When I was older, I realized that she probably had a cleaning service and didn’t really need any help.) I don’t know how much of that bicycle was purchased through her generosity, but I do know that without her, I never would have gotten it!

During my high school years, she was there for me, too. I remember once when a particularly important occasion arrived (so important that the particulars have escaped me) and as always, there was no money in our tight budget for a new dress. I had nothing close to appropriate in my wardrobe. But Wilma loaned me one of her dresses. It was a favorite of hers and mine. I can picture it clearly: white pique cotton with a V-neck, tight bodice, low back, and flared skirt. I felt like a princess wearing it! And I was frightened throughout the evening of soiling it.

She saved me the night of my senior prom, too. A girlfriend had offered to do my hair and makeup the afternoon of the dance. By the time she left my house, my hair looked like a huge rat’s nest and I was hysterical. Mom did the only sensible thing she could think of: she called Wilma. Still sobbing, I went to her house where, in a very short time, she transformed the disaster into perfection. She styled my hair into a sleek and sophisticated French twist with wispy bangs and fragile curls in front of my ears. Then she added her own lovely hair band of tortoiseshell, to match my hair, studded with rhinestones. It looked as though someone had sprinkled stars in my hair. She redid my makeup, and when she was through, I felt like Cinderella with my very own fairy godmother.

As I grew older and moved away from the neighborhood, I didn’t see as much of Wilma as I probably should have. But I always knew she was there. We met several times for lunch, and I’d stop by if I was visiting my mother.

She was always such a constant in my life—rock-solid and dependable. When I try to picture the world without her, I know that much of its sparkle and energy would be dimmed. What a bright light she was to so many of us!

She took in all of us strays and gave generously—of her possessions, but mostly she gave of herself. She was never easy on us. Quite the contrary. She expected the best from each one, and we did our best not to disappoint her.

One of her most memorable phrases to us kids was, “come on, you can do it!” And, although I know it would embarrass her terribly to hear it, much of what I learned about the kind of love they tried to teach in Sunday school came not from that source but from the example she set. Through her faithful and constant acts of selfless love, I observed what commitment and unconditional love were all about.

Love is a verb, and Wilma put it clearly into action. Those acts of love are very real and precious to each of us who was blessed to be a recipient of them and had Wilma touch our lives.

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