During my senior year of high school my gym teacher was Mrs. Gakle (pronounced Gay-klee). Mrs. Gakle definitely was the 'marching to a different drummer' type of person and I liked her. Cheerful in a way that some of my classmates called goofy, she was the only gym teacher I'd known who didn't wear a cranky mask. Only once do I recall her snapping at a group of girls, but they were acting snippy and deserved it. The rest of the time she flitted amongst us with joy and smiles, making each of us feel special for our abilities, however miniscule.
It was at this school where I earned my gold medal at a gymnastics meet in which both schools were so tiny and I was so average a gymnast (I couldn't even do a back handspring!). Yet Mrs. Gakle made me feel like Nadia Comăneci and Olga Korbut morphed into one. She gave all of us quiet nobodies, hope.
After graduation I went hundreds of miles away to college where I wrote probably 500 letters to folks out of extreme homesickness. I wrote to Mrs. Gakle and felt honored when her first letter arrived. College life was torturous for me, but Mrs. Gakle's letter cheered me and she praised my writing ability, making me feel like the next Emily Dickinson. (She was also an English teacher so I sent her my poems.) Thus began an intermittent exchanging of cards and letters which would last nearly 30 years.
I married that following November (I still have a serving bowl which Loana--as she signed her letters--gave us) and settled in that lovely mountain town where I'd graduated high school. Occasionally I'd spy Loana at the supermarket while wheeling my baby daughter around in the shopping cart and we'd chat a bit. She would tickle Naomi and make her laugh and once I discovered her in front of the dairy section where she exclaimed about how much she loved yogurt. From that day on, I loved yogurt, too.
When my daughter was four, I wrote to Loana and invited her to our home for lunch during her school lunch hour. Even today that boldness shocks me--I was a shy mouse who viewed teachers as Perfect People. But Loana accepted gladly and so I polished our new mobile home and set the table with the nicest of our wedding china. She brought me a sweet bouquet of flowers which I placed in a vase and we talked about our daughters (she ,too, had an only child, a daughter, age 12) and about the high school, but mostly about Life--what was good and right about it.
Tom and I bought a house in town and twice more I invited Loana to lunch. She always brought flowers and always our conversations made me feel unique. We'd speak of sowing good things in order to reap them and after her departures, a peaceful haze descended upon our rooms the remainder of the day.
Then Tom and I moved to Nevada, later New York, but Loana and I kept in-touch. Her Christmas cards were the photo kind, usually of her beautiful daughter and her enclosed letters described the exciting adventures she had alone, with a friend, or with her husband and Kathleen over the summers: visits to other states to meet with old friends or helping build houses for the needy or taking a dance class. She even traveled alone to New Mexico to snow ski and took a sailing class, later, where she almost got caught in the lines during her solo. She fed the wild animals in her yard, shoveled snow off her roof when necessary, sang in the community chorus and faithfully attended her church.
Always, she loved her job and the people she worked with now as a counselor, instead, first at the school where we'd met, later at two schools nearby (a difficult change at first, not her choice, but she wrote, "At any rate, I find out I love kids no matter where they go to school.")
Years passed (as they do) and Loana's daughter married a man with two small children and she was thrilled--instant grandmotherhood! And after 48 years in that school district, she retired. I still sent her Christmas cards and family letters, but I'd not heard from her the last few Decembers. Then a few months ago a friend from high school emailed me that Loana wasn't doing well physically so I sent her a card with an enclosed letter and wished her well and sent my prayers.
Yesterday I read on a hometown message board at Facebook that Loana passed away last week. I emailed my friend and she said, yes, sadly it was true.
It's hard to tell you how I feel... My memories of Loana are all happy ones, but I am sad. I wandered upstairs today and pulled out two faded hatboxes and searched for her old letters and read them. They were so alive! They read like old-fashioned books from the days when people were more into people rather than things. Every sentence rang with the vitality I think convinced me ages ago that Loana would always be here.... that she would always take those adventurous vacations, always be there for her daughter, her sister and her many friends, always be there in a community where everyone knew her and smiled when you mentioned her name.
The world is poorer now without Loana. Yet I think she'd want me and all who knew and loved her to take over for her--to carry joy around wherever we go, to never fear adventure and to enjoy living. To encourage those who feel invisible, to travel places, new and old, and to visit the people we love before they, too, leave us without another chance to share laughter and Life with them.