Last week I wrote about the inspiring entrepreneurial spirit of Austin, Texas. Small business is a subject near and dear to me. I grew up in a family-owned and operated clothing store named Leonard’s in Central New York.
Closing the business after 35 years was like a stake through the heart of my family. When I moved to Austin, I was overwhelmed by the locals’ support of mom and pop businesses. Would Leonard’s have had the same fate if it resided in Austin instead of the economically depressed Central New York?
I don’t think about Leonard’s often because the memory of its passing is too painful to dwell on. However, a former employee and friend, Gabrielle, died recently, and it stirred a wave of nostalgia.
I linger on the silkiness of my Grandma’s voice.
The faux aristocrat.
As though every time the phone rings, she’s expecting it to be the President.
I wait a beat.
Trying to make sure that what I’m about to say doesn’t explode out into a puddle of words and tears.
That ain’t gonna happen.
“Mom told me about Gabrielle. I’m so sorry, Grandma.” It all blurts out in one push of air.
My Grandma begins to talk and her voice cracks on the next word and that word only.
That’s all my Grandma will allow herself to cry.
Once. For a millisecond.
She immediately regains her stoicism.
“It wasn’t even the cancer that killed her. She had an infection, Lauren.“
“I know, Mom told me.“
We both are silent. A thousand little images of our past playing like a Lifetime movie montage through our heads.
“Her funeral is on Tuesday. Her daughter is having an open casket. Gabrielle didn’t want an open casket! I always remember her saying in the store, “Nan, when I die, I don’t want an open casket. She cared about her appearance, you know?“
I try to picture Gabrielle lying there, and I realize that my image of her was from 20 years ago. I had never seen the white-haired woman with the oxygen mask and placid skin. Gabrielle will always stay pristinely wrapped in my seven-year-old heart.
I try hard, but honestly can’t remember the last time I saw her.
It may have been the day we closed the store forever.
I get off the phone with my Grandma and can’t move.
They’re all gone, I think. Gabrielle, Monique, Isabel, Mamie. All these women who made up my childhood are dead. All these women who we saw every day and who worked for my Grandma for 35 years are just gone. Disappeared.
And the only people left of Leonard’s are my Grandmother, my Mother and me.