REMEMBERING LOUISE McNEELEY
For The Observer
It seems like most towns like La Grande have a lot of little old ladies. We see them here and there, and never really know who they are.
Louise McNeeley was one of those, a lady who most everyone in town over the years had seen and recognized, and yet never knew her name, a lady in line at Safeway who handed her change purse to the clerk and said, "Here, pick out which coins you need," the lady who gave the druggist her blank checkbook to fill out, then had him point out the line where she was to sign, the lady who went to Mass every Sunday for most of 100 years, and never stayed to eat lunch with the ladies.
"Oh, we didn't know each other too well," she told me.
She was the old lady with the white cane who crossed against the light since she listened and went when the lights clicked, instead of using the red and green signals.
"I can't tell green from red anyway in the sun," she said.
She was the old lady who went up Washington every day once or twice or three times to check her post office box even in the snow just to give her something to do, and get out of the house.
Louise was one of those people who never complained because you hadn't been there lately, even if months had passed. She just accepted you for today, and was glad to see you. Her house never changed much. Because of poor eyesight, she kept things pretty much the same.
An old square of faded blue-flowered oilcloth always covered the small kitchen table, and it never looked very clean. A plastic flower in a tall vase, a dish or two and her false teeth, usually just where she'd laid them as far as her right arm would reach.
And then there was her pipe, always the pipe, there on the table. That is, unless she was smoking it. I was fascinated as I watched her. The only woman I'd ever seen smoke a pipe was Mammy Yokum in "Li'l Abner" comics. Actually, Louise was a lot like her, a transplant from another time and another place.
She had a radio, a real old one, that had pretty good reception, but she never changed the station, true to KLBM through the years. It was not because of their quality or variety, but because to move the dial might lose her only contact with the outside world. She couldn't see to find the right numbers again.
One day I took a small TV for Louise to try, hoping to give her something new to listen to. Even though we got a couple of stations to come in, she said it was mostly too noisy, and after a week I took it back home.
Louise lived in the 20th century, but she was never much a part of it, as far as modern conveniences go. She never had a lot of things most people consider necessities. She and her parents never owned a car or a washer or a dryer or a telephone. Well, actually she did have a phone once, in the 1950s. She told me she had it installed.
"But I gave it up as a bad investment. You know it was there on the wall for a day and a half and didn't ring once! So I thought, why waste the money, and I told them to come get it."
She didn't have those necessities, but she had what most of us don't have. She had the luxury of not having to care for them. She had a single clothesline in back where she hung the few things she washed out in the kitchen sink, even her sheets.
On June 7, 1985, I was in town and saw Louise walking along Adams Avenue. I picked her up in my car, and we decided to go out to the mall. She told me it was her birthday, and so we stopped at the ice cream store for a sundae.
She told me what to order. We both got hot fudge sundaes. It was her first hot-fudge sundae ever.
I could barely comprehend it. Here we were in the 1980s, she was in her 80s and she'd never had a hot fudge sundae. After that, whenever we had ice-cream cones, she always got vanilla, saying, "That was my first kind, and it's still best."
I learned a lot from Louise about the problems of being blind or almost blind. It's hard to go to a restaurant if you can't read the menu. She liked to go to Denny's because it was out of her usual walking range. We always ordered burgers and fries with maybe a milkshake.
She was kind of wanting to buy a new coat, and we spent a lot of fun days trying on coats through two spring seasons. We never found any she liked, or if she liked them they cost too much,since she was still looking for 1930 prices.
I tried to get her to buy some pants, but she'd never worn them and "it's too late to start now." I thought she'd be lots warmer out on her winter walks, but no. She did buy some new men's galoshes once, large size to slip over her shoes easily.
Louise liked summer because it gave her freedom, but the bright sun was a constant pain for her eyes. She'd been to every eye doctor in town, hoping for better glasses or some help with her failing vision but to no avail. The macular degeneration was in the family. Her father went blind also.
She was seldom seen on Adams Avenue without her dark glasses and of course the wig. It was dark brown and usually quite neat, often tied on with a silk scarf.
Whenever I stopped to get her, she'd make the last minute check get her teeth from the table, get the wig, tucking in a few of those long gray stragglers over the ears, pick up her purse and then say, "Now, where are my keys?"
Whether because of age and years of living alone, or if indeed someone had come in and taken or moved things, she had a fear that as soon as we left, a lady named Betty would be there going through her things.
Over the years she changed locks, moved locks, added locks, and finally the last year even got an entire new door with new locks installed.
In the past, I have worn a wig, and I never felt quite like myself, sort of like I was hiding a part of my real self. So I thought if Louise could get rid of the wig, she might feel better. I tried to get her to cut her hair, maybe get a perm, but no, she wasn't interested.
One day I was at a yard sale and saw a good looking curly wig. It was gray, just the shade of Louise's hair. I paid $1 for it, and stopped by to give Louise my treasure. I helped her put it on, and I was right. lt was just her color, and I thought it looked great.
She went into the bathroom where the small mirror was, took a squinting look and pulled it off. "Naw, that makes me look old. Why do you think I wear a wig? I don't want to be gray. My hair's gray already."
I had been a little slow to understand. Her own hair, coarse and thick, gray white, peeked out around all edges of the brown wig. Even though we outsiders thought the wig made her look kind of funny, to Louise's unseeing eyes, the brown wig made her feel young.
I could already see that my problem was that I wanted to change Louise, to bring her into our world, which I never should have done. She belonged to the world she was in.
She told me she'd been to Portland once years before, but rarely was out of town since. She recalled many years past when she caught a bus "Cost me 10 cents" and went out to Hot Lake for some kind of medical treatment.
Twice I took Louise to Baker City to spend the day with my parents. We had a visit and ate lunch with them at the kitchen table. My dad showed her photos and told her stories about my childhood, spent in Baker.
On the way home, she said, "It must have been nice to be part of a real family with lots of kids. My one sister wasn't close to my age, and she died years ago, so there was just my folks and me."
By the time Louise was in high school, her vision was failing and her father's health was bad, so she chose to stay home and help her mother care for him. After he died at the age of 96 in a hospital in Pendleton, Louise just stayed on there, in the little back apartment. It felt safe and secure as the light faded and her eyesight grew dimmer.
Some years she had someone living in the front apartment, but she seldom charged them. She liked the company and they helped her a little. She owned some farmland out on Cove and McAllister, where she'd lived as a child, which she also rented out for a small amount to the same man for many years. She said she knew she could charge more, but he was taking good care of it.
She remembered when the first cars came to town. One was owned by a real estate man. By then her mother was tired of living clear out in Island City, so one day Louise and her mother went for a ride in his car, and ended up buying a house up on the hill, above C Street and Walnut.
It hadn't seemed far at all in the car, but when they got moved without even having her Louise's father check it out he was quite upset because of the distance they now had to walk to get into town on dirt roads with maybe a wooden sidewalk or two.
Louise was the shopper of the family since she was 9 or 10 years old. Her mother would make a list and send her off with a coin purse to buy the weekly groceries. They did have a bank account, but usually only wrote one or two checks a month.
So what happened to Louise and her money in the end was a real shame, since she'd been in charge all her life. As with most of us, age changes things.
When it came right down to it, and the court appointed a guardian for her own safety as much as anything, and they decided she was too old to live alone, I think the pipe was the real reason she refused to move.
She had been taken around, and she even had some old friends at the Grande Ronde Retirement Residence, but she was very reluctant. One day I said, "Louise, you'd even have someone to come in and clean up for you" and she said, "Yea, that's just the trouble. Things would have to be clean and I'll bet they wouldn't let me smoke my pipe."
Which was true. So the people from HELP came in and cleaned up and fixed up and painted and she hated it. They moved everything around, and she couldn't find a thing.
Louise knew a lot of swear words. She'd been around during the years she was receptionist at the old Foley Hotel. She was a bit crusty when she wanted to be, but she seldom used those words around me.
Never in all the years I knew her did she ever pay or offer to pay for anything. Nor would I have let her. She was like a mother. You just don't charge mothers for anything. It seemed like when I was with her, money had nothing to do with her world. Yet I know she had a lot of accounts here and there because investing was her hobby. To Louise, money was something you saved.
AFFECTION FOR CATS
Louise loved cats. She couldn't have one here, on the busy street where it wasn't safe, but she'd always had a cat. She told me a story from her childhood.
She didn't have anyone to play with. Of course there was her mother and her father, but there were no other children to play with. The old cat who lived out in their yard had kittens. The only trouble was, those kittens didn't want to be caught. They didn't even want to be seen.
Every morning when she got up, she'd go outside to look for those kittens. Her mother always gave her a piece of homemade bread and jam to eat, and she'd take it outside to hunt. She looked everywhere, in the garden, under the bushes, and every morning the same thing would happen.Their big old pig would be out in the back yard looking for breakfast. And every morning that pig would see Louise and smell the bread and jam and come running straight towards her.
She was scared of him, so every morning she'd give him the bread and jam. She was afraid to tell anyone, even her mother, about the pig for fear they wouldn't let her go out.
So she didn't get to eat her bread and jam, and she never found the kittens, but every day she looked. She decided then that when she got big, she'd have a cat. And she did most of the time. She liked cats.
After the court appointed her long-time friend, Marguerite, as her guardian, Louise just never understood the system. All she knew was that "some judge up at the court house has all my money" and she refused the amount allotted to her.
It was a time of great trial for Marguerite, who loved Louise like a sister and wanted only to help preserve the funds she'd seen Louise gather over the years. It was hard to have Louise yell at her and accuse her of taking her money.
The week they repainted her house, Louise stayed next door in the motel. She hated that and acted like a child, making life miserable for everyone. Maybe it was part senility and part misunderstanding, but it caused a lot of pain.
Louise only got sick twice that I remember during the 10 years I knew her. Once in December 1988 she was in the hospital and hated it. She'd never been sick as a child and she'd never learned how to be a patient.
When she got sick for the last time, in the fall of 1989, she didn't want to go for care, and put it off until her cancer had spread. Probably she planned it that way so she wouldn't have to hang around in her 90s like her dad.
In January 1990 when she died, it was the same week that my mother died in Baker, so I wasn't able to go to her funeral. I heard it was a graveside service and there were about 12 people there on a cold snowy winter day.
Money divided three ways
Her will said that she wanted her money divided up three ways. One-third to the Catholic church, one-third to the Shriners' hospital, and one-third to help build a new shelter for animals in town, especially for the cats she always loved.
It seemed that while she was alive hardly anyone knew her but now she's almost famous, with her name mentioned every time we speak of the Louise McNeeley Animal Shelter.
It was a surprise to everyone in town when the article appeared in the Observer, "Woman's will provides animal shelter funds."
Louise McNeeley left almost a third of her $410,000 estate.
I suppose even now most people in town have no idea who Louise McNeeley was. When the paper carried a small notice "estate sale, 1505 Washington Ave., some might have expected antiques and treasures.
A small cardboard sign, "estate sale rear apartment" led to her quite meager possessions. There were about 20 dresses, mostly polyester, three or four coats, a few pans, odds and ends of silverware and dishes, and a card table filled with 14 wigs.
I bought her green-handled dust mop and a small can opener, just so I have something of hers that I could hold onto, along with my memories.
Now whenever you hear her name, you'll know who Louise McNeeley was. Louise was a lady who loved cats.