I had a friend for a year, but I never knew her real name. She said, after several months of touch-and-go, trepidatious encounters, “You can call me Gwen.”
Good enough, I thought. I met her on campus. She had a routine of visiting the piano practice rooms, in a deserted hallway adjacent to the music dept. The seldom-used side entrance made it easy for her to slide in, unnoticed.
Even so, “Gwen” was well-known as the 60-something “sweater lady”. Out of necessity, her warmest clothes were always worn layer, on top of layer. Handcrafted and stunning, I eventually learned she was a knitter and couldn’t bear to part with her creations. Needing to keep her small cart free for other possessions, her prized loopy cardigans and pullovers became her uniform. She was a kaleidoscope; every shade of rich purple, pink, saturated yellows and greens were presented in her magnificent knitwear. Maybe more of a rainbow, actually.
For several weeks, Gwen didn’t make eye contact. She wore a wide-brimmed canvas hat that was easily situated to mask her eyes if she wanted to be incognito. Hard to be stealth, given her colorful attire – hat or no hat – but you get the picture. She’d wheel in her rickety wire cart, head down, and roll toward a practice room. Every Mon, Wed and Fri, just after the bus dropped off students by the quad. Around 11:30 am.
Campus police knew Gwen well, offering her rides to shelters and a few of us in the counseling area were consulted to see if we could ‘reach her’ and help her find temporary housing, or services of any sort. She’d nod when someone spoke to her directly, but still with her head down, she’d typically respond: “Thank you kindly. I’m just here to play piano.” Technically, she wasn’t a student, but my kind colleagues in the police department were the best. They knew when to look the other way – quite literally – but they also knew I was keeping an eye on Gwen.
We worried she would fall, especially when the weather cooled, and snow arrived. (I know, I know – liability issues. Be risk-averse, Vicki…but still…she just wanted to play piano for an hour in an empty practice room. No skin off anyone’s nose. Judgment call on my part.)
Why the falling concerns? Gwen limped and we supposed it was arthritis or maybe bad footwear? She wore boots year-round, even on 90-degree days, and they were wildly mismatched, contributing to an off-kilter gait. The boot on her right foot was a suede-looking brown Ugg style but the mod, floral rainboot on her left foot was entirely different. Black and knee-high, bursting with color.
After a few weeks, Gwen became accustomed to seeing me in the music wing, around the time she’d arrive. I’d eat my lunch in the hallway on those days and eventually, I convinced her that I had a chronic problem of over-estimating my own appetite in order to offer her a sandwich and an apple, while preserving her dignity.
Every offer of transport to a shelter or inquiries about food pantries was always met with a ‘thank you kindly but no’ but when I realized a sharing of food, a literal breaking bread with me, was met with ‘Sure, it shouldn’t go to waste’ I knew I’d found an opening.
Gwen was homeless – by choice. The unfolding of her story was slow, but I learned she was a widow and through a horrible, awful, terrible life twist, her husband died unexpectedly and left her with a mountain of gambling debt. Gwen never worked outside the home. As a classically trained pianist, she always imagined a role, one day, as a teacher – not a performer – and the loss of her husband, her house, her possessions (including her beloved piano) were life blows she couldn’t recover from. At least not in the way most of us think of recovery.
For Gwen, moving from one shelter to another and/or bunking with her grown children (when she could stand them, she said) was okay. She didn’t want to be attached to things, people, or stuff. She valued her sweaters, her music, and the rest of it? Worries that others tried to place upon her.
Gwen had her script. The one she used when we, the well-intended, tried to intervene:
“I know you’re all trying to help. I know I’m different but I’m okay. I choose this. My days are full and I’m not sad.”
Still, I felt I made progress with her, building trust slowly. Gwen finally agreed to meet with my friend Maggie who worked at a local women’s shelter that was well-resourced, both from a housing and social services perspective. Maggie joined us on the phone multiple times so Gwen could get a ‘read’ of her — confirm she wasn’t someone who would force Gwen into something she didn’t want. “A look-see” Gwen said. “That’s all.” That was the last time I had contact with Gwen, that cold February day three years ago when she begrudgingly agreed to ride-share her way to a meeting with Maggie.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, unfinished business haunts me, in the form of people who’ve crossed my path. They flood my head and heart. Where are they now? It’s an occupational hazard for helping folks and I get that. When I woke yesterday, I was unprepared for the wave of Gwen that greeted me. Does this happen to you? People you care about just popping in? Why, I wondered?
Maybe it’s just this: Gwen’s story is unfinished and some of you know I hate that. Ever hopeful that closure will come, one way or another, no matter the issue, challenge, or dilemma. Maybe Gwen was on my mind because we’re headed into winter here in the Midwest? Tough times for those who face housing insecurity.
As I sat with my cup of tea yesterday, unable to answer my own questions, I allowed myself to remember Gwen. Remember how charming and talented she was, despite her circumstance and fragility.
No – she never made it to her appointment with Maggie. In the years since, anytime I check-in with Maggie, she knows I’m going to ask: “Any sign of Gwen?”. ‘Not yet’, she says. Wherever Gwen is, I hope she’s wearing her rainbow of sweaters and her fingers are either knitting or they’re on a keyboard.