In Memoriam: Eleanor Chambliss

Elliot home from college, with Papa and Mimi

Our Mimi died yesterday. She wasn’t our grandmother. Or our aunt. Or the kind of friend who becomes family over years of gatherings. But had she and her husband not come into our lives, we would not be where we are today. In fact we wouldn’t have lived the lives we have lived and continue to live in this solid brick home on a quiet leafy street.

We were to be transferred to Michigan come my ninth month of pregnancy. Well before the due date, Martin and I  headed to Michigan to house hunt. Day after day I felt like Goldilocks. This house was too big; this one was too small. This one was too noisy; that one was too isolated.  Forget about feathering a nest; it looked like we might not even find a nest to feather.  Then our real estate agent remembered a couple in her church were splitting their lot and building a new house next door. Maybe they’d move out before the new house was ready?  She’d ask.  That’s how we met Eleanor and Ed Chambliss.  The deal was sealed. Come June, we would move into their old house and they would rent an apartment until their new home was ready.

Eleanor was the epitome of Southern grace. She was slender and elegant. Her white blonde hair was  done up in a French twist.  There was the softest Charleston lilt in her voice.  Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was often. Eleanor gardened in crisp beige chinos that never showed streak of dirt.

Concretia watching over Elliot as he learns to crawl.

“I planted the beds for you,” she said soon after we moved in.  “I didn’t think you’d be up to gardening this summer.” True to her word, there were gentle spots of color hinting at the beauty to come. I liked her assumption that in a year or so I would be out in the dirt planting, too.  Eleanor left behind a little stone angel that I named Concretia. A master gardener, Eleanor transplanted as much as she could from the lot upon which the new was being built. That’s how there came to bloom two dogwoods, one white and one pink, treasured echoes of my own Georgia childhood.

Ed, Eleanor’s husband, was a giant gentle bear of a man. Ruddy cheeked with a shock of white hair, he was easy with hugs and exuded the kind of resolute optimism born of hardship and hard work. Where Eleanor’s voice was light and lilty, Ed’s was sonorous. HIs eyes were blue as Eleanor’s, the ocean of his reflecting the sky of hers. You couldn’t help but feel safe in Ed’s presence. That’s the kind of man he was. 

We moved in and three weeks later I went into labor. The day of Elliot’s bris, Eleanor stood with me in the doorway of his room and held my hand as the mohel did what mohels are trained to do.”Did you ever think you could love anything so much?” she asked, distracting me, keeping my knees from buckling when my infant son cried out and then quieted.  She had seen straight into my heart. “No,” I said, in awe of the emotions swirling within — relief, pride, gratitude, and above all, yes, the biggest, fiercest love I had ever felt.

Before long, Elliot was toddling around. “Call us Mimi and Papa,” Eleanor said.  Elliot followed Papa whenever he could. One day the two sat down to make a huge Lego pirate ship. Other times they raked leaves.  Come Halloween, Mimi and Papa’s house was our first stop.

They moved on a few years later to build a house that was even bigger than the one next door.  They were in the spring of their retirement years and wanted a home that could accommodate their growing brood of grandchildren. We visited them once or twice in this new lakeside home and then became caught up in blur of our separate lives. They downsized into a condo and then moved back to Charleston, building a house in a small community not far from the ocean.  We visited them a time or two the summers we vacationed in South Carolina.  It was wonderful to see them, wonderful to have them see how our kids were growing up. Our last visit there we could see the subtle signs of the dementia that would eventually commandeer Ed’s life.

When Ed died, their kids convinced Eleanor that it was time to return to Michigan.  I visited her soon after she settled in. Her apartment was elegant though much pared down. She had culled the best of her antiques and beautiful rugs. Ed’s portrait was the first thing you saw when entering her bedroom. She had hung it so that it was the last thing she saw before closing her eyes to sleep. “It was an honor to be his wife,” she said, longing and sorrow threading through her words.

We settled in for a long-overdue visit.  “You were such a bright and special one,” she said, seeing in her mind’s eye a girl of 29 I can’t even recall, if indeed I ever knew her.

“What did you see in me, Eleanor?” I asked  “I’m not fishing for complements.  I just want to know who I was then.” I thought of Robert Burns’ poem and the gift to see ourselves as “ithers” see us. 

“You were sweet,” she said. “So very sweet and loving. You were special.  You still are.”

We visited for a while and then it was time to go.  Mimi and I shared a long hug. I thanked her for all she had given us. I promised to bring Elliot by.  I wanted her to have the joy in seeing the little boy grown up with his beautiful wife and toddler. 

It never happened.  Life got away from us. The calendar pages blurred together once again. Newly retired ourselves, Martin and I  began to travel much as Eleanor and Ed had decades before. I tried to call, but could not reach her.  Trying again months later, I learned Eleanor was no longer residing in the beautiful apartment she had feathered with a lifetime of mementos. Hoping she hadn’t died but figuring she had begun the descent we will all make in one way or another, I stepped back not wanting to intrude into whatever the family was doing to care for their wonderful mother.

Her son emailed yesterday. Going through Eleanor’s old AOL account,  he came across an email I had sent her, inviting her to get together.  “Mom died this morning,” he wrote.

I move through my house and imagine her beside me. I imagine her walking across the green slate tiles of our foyer. I envision her looking down at the garden from the bedroom window each morning. She feels closer to me now, more intimately near, than ever before. I am so very very sad.  Our Mimi blessed our lives with so much. I’d like to imagine that in addition to Concretia, come spring there will be a new angel in our garden watching over us as we get to weeding and planting.

4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Laura says:

    Such a beautiful story Debra! I’m sorry for your loss but thank you for sharing.

  2. Debi says:

    Your writing is always so sensitive and loving. I think I remember meeting her. I miss you.


    • Debi,

      I just saw this! Thank you so much. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      I miss you too. I’ll be sending out an essay
      in the new year. I thought of you as I wrote it.
      We of the difficult mothers. Stay tuned.

      Much love,


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