Let me introduce you to my neighbor, sweet Rose Marie. She and I live only yards apart. Her home and mine are separated by a meadow which is cut into two halves by a country lane used only by farming equipment or the occasional gas company truck. A slight rise in the terrain prevents me from actually seeing her house from my windows, which is nice, because we both like our privacy. At any rate, we like being neighbors, she and I. On occasion, she comes walking across the grassy meadow to visit, always with a gift or a treat of some sort. In July, she comes bearing a gallon of blackberries she has picked to share with me. Sometimes in October, she walks over to show me her flea market finds and makes presents of her trinkets to my young children. Yet again, in December, she sloshes through the mud and snow to bring festively wrapped Christmas gifts to all of us. My children grin and hug her waist, and she beams right back at them looking as if she had a hundred-watt bulb behind her eyes. She is so thoughtful, so giving, and unbelievably loving. But, there is so much more to Rose Marie, and if you will bear with me, I will explain why she cares for my children so much, and why she is so very important to our community.
Rose Marie was born and raised near a little bend in the road called Slocum’s Mill. As you may surmise from the name, ages ago, a man called Slocum once had a grinding mill on a little plot by a creek. Now, the mill is gone, but the name still holds people together. As time passed, the creek was dammed into a lake, and the old covered bridge, the pride and identity of the community, was removed and replaced with a taller, larger bridge in the name of progress. However, today the vestiges of the once-busy mill still remain. A small country store stands on one side of the road, while an old, steepled church graces the lake’s opposite bank. A campground is nestled beside the church cemetery, overlooking the dark green water. These are the monuments of Rose Marie’s childhood. This is the place she calls home. This is the community that looked after her, watched over her, and took an interest in her life.
“So, what makes Rose Marie so special?” you ask. Well, she is kind, quiet, hardworking, and shy. Rose Marie is now all grown up, a tall, bulky woman with dark hair and steel blue eyes. “Why did she need watching over or looking after?” you ask. Simply put, it is because Rose Marie is a 48 year old woman with the mind of a twelve-year-old girl. So, you see, she is special in that sense of the word, but she is also extraordinary.
Rose Marie belonged to a family, a poor man and his wife who, with their brood of eight children, lived isolated from the world in rural Appalachia. When I say isolated, I mean it in the strictest sense of the word. This family rarely saw another human being, excepting their clan. Only their father ventured out once or twice a month to the little country store to purchase, in bulk, food and necessities for the family. Years went by with the children only knowing one another, only speaking to each other, only understanding the confines of their tiny shack in the woods. Now, from this description, you might think that I am speaking of a family during the pioneer era, say 1800 or so. Wrong. Rose Marie’s family lived a nineteenth century life right in the middle of the twentieth century, all through the 1960s and 1970s. Rose Marie, her brothers James, Jacob, Jesse, Bart, Roger, and her sisters, Lula Belle and Mabel, were brought up in great naïveté. Only Lula Belle was saved from abnormal isolation, as she was adopted away from the family at a young age. The rest were left in the woods with their mother, who could not teach them anything. Unfortunately, the matriarch was not of great intelligence and spoke with speech impediments. Her development had been stunted, and so Rose Marie and the others were without education or social contact. This affected them in such a way that their language devolved into a dialect of their very own, often unintelligible to the ear of any stranger passing by. Their father, Bert, talked plainly enough, but as for his children, only the locals of the area were practiced enough to be able to understand and communicate with Rose Marie and her siblings.
As time passed, Bert began bringing his children with him on visits to the store. Ever so slowly, Rose Marie became accustomed to meeting with people other than her immediate family. However, it was too late to train her to speak well, and there wasn’t much that could be done about her stunted emotional age, either. In physicality, she grew into a robust young woman. When compared with some of my short statured acquaintances, Rose Marie was downright Amazonian. She was blessed with raven hair and beautiful steel blue eyes. Her heart remained shy, innocent and childlike.
In her late teen years, Rose Marie became acquainted with many locals who frequented the little country store. The tiny community did what it could for her family, always asking if they had enough food at home, giving them odd jobs to do, paying them to help bale hay, to help with livestock, or to harvest crops. In many ways, the village adopted Rose Marie, as well as the most dependent of her brothers. One local visitor to the store became particularly important to Rose Marie. “Art” was a true mountain man, grizzled and stout. He took great interest in Rose Marie, who eventually consented to be his wife, although he was at least 50 years her senior. They were married under the old covered bridge with many local witnesses. Despite their great age difference, people say that he and Rose Marie had a very happy relationship. Art could understand her garbled speech more easily than most, and he treated her quite well. He gave her the rustic comforts and necessities she required, while at the same time, Rose Marie gave the old man a companion to cure his loneliness.
Art watched after Rose Marie. The old gentleman and his young bride would ride down from the mountain on his horse whenever it pleased them. There were times when he would ride to the store earlier than Rose Marie, so he and a neighbor once tried to teach her to ride an ATV, as he thought she might enjoy riding rather than always walking to the little store. Despite good intentions, the driving lessons ended in disaster. One sunny morning, Rose Marie came tearing down the road on the three-wheeled cycle with almost no experience turning from paved road to graveled lot. The poor thing took the curve too quickly, turned the ATV over, and in scant seconds was thrown from the machine onto the hard, sharp stones near the store entrance. Banged, bruised, and bleeding from her arms and chin, young Rose Marie found herself surrounded by the store proprietors and patrons alike. They hoisted her from the ground and placed her onto one of the wooden benches at the storefront. They cleaned her wounds, comforted and nursed her as if she were one of their own children. It was proclaimed a miracle that she was not in need of a hospital, and that was the end of Rose Marie’s career as a driver of any kind.
Art was nearly eighty years old when he finally died, leaving Rose Marie a young widow. For years after his death, she stayed in Art’s little cabin on the mountain that was her home. There was no running water or toilet, but Rose Marie was quite used to rough living and seemed very happy. She often walked alone back and forth between the cabin and the store. Locals say that she was probably followed and cornered one evening. Most people could even put a name to the evil man, but no one could prove anything.
In short, Rose Marie was expecting a baby. Her childlike innocence could neither comprehend nor communicate her situation until the condition began to show prominently. Several women of the community again took her under their wing, took her to regular doctor appointments, and made sure she had vitamins and necessities. Rose Marie showed no sadness or hurt through her surprise pregnancy, always smiling despite an absence of front teeth, having been pulled years earlier due to decay. She had no complaints, and she continued to live in the old cabin on the mountain despite many a person’s fear that she would go into labor alone.
The ladies of the area counseled Rose Marie on what to expect when having a child. They could not be sure how much her childish heart comprehended, but they explained that she should come and tell someone immediately if she began to have any pains. Rose Marie obeyed, showing up on a doorstep in the middle of the night, frightened and unsure of herself. She was whisked to the hospital, and a baby girl was born several hours later. I am told that she saw the child, that she held the child in her arms before giving it up for adoption. Imagine the physical and emotional fortitude of this woman. She walked several miles while in labor and endured hours of pain, only to give up a child that her twelve-year-old mind knew she could not care for.
One afternoon several years later, Rose Marie walked across the meadow to see my second child as a tiny newborn. She held him so lovingly and mentioned to me, again in garbled English, that once, a long time ago, she had had a child. I replied, “I know, Rose Marie, that you did have a baby.” She continued as I listened carefully to understand her words, “It was a girl. She be 13 now.” A lump hit my throat, and I knew then, that despite her emotional age, she completely understood what she had given up. Rose Marie’s final words of the conversation were, “I could not take care of it.” Those steel blue eyes looked very sad for a moment, and I patted her large, farm-worked hands to comfort her. I am sure you agree with me. Rose Marie is something very special.
Rose Marie’s acts of selflessness and love do not stop with being a good neighbor, or with bringing gifts to my children. She is also a regular attendee at the community church, where her quiet presence is felt in so many ways. As explained, Rose Marie does not do any driving of any kind, so she relies on the people of the little church to collect her on Sunday mornings, along with Miss Joyce, a faithful member (now frail and stroke-weakened) who showed kindness to Rose Marie in her better years. Now, Rose Marie is her walking buddy. She steadies Miss Joyce’s every step into and out of the church. Together, they sit in the back pew, both silent- one due to a stroke, the other due to impeded speech. They seem to have a telepathy. Rose Marie never allows Miss Joyce to take a false step, and she never allows any hurting church member to go without a big, bear hug.
The children of the church know Rose Marie’s sweet and silent disposition. She hands them bubble gum and they take turns sitting on her lap while she warmly wraps massive arms around them, showing her delight with them through a blissful and toothless grin. I often wonder what she is thinking when she hugs them. Is she thinking of her own baby? Does she wonder about her little girl? Does she feel deep grief? If so, she never allows it to overshadow her smile.
Now I am sure you see why Rose Marie is so extraordinary. Because of her, the little church on the banks of the lake is truly blessed, and the tiny village of Slocum’s Mill is so much stronger. Because of her, my children see a quiet strength and a purity of spirit that they would otherwise not understand. When Rose Marie smiles at my kids, she doesn’t have to say a word. They do not need to listen carefully to decipher the message. Through her gentle kindness and pure motives, through that beautiful smile that we love so dearly, my children hear the language she is speaking. They hear the language of love.
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