A few years earlier: I'm taking my babysitter home when I run into Lynn. She's trimming a gorgeous, purple-leafed tree in the corner of her front yard. It's a smoke tree, known for showstopping white flowers that look like puffy clouds of smoke. I've long coveted the ornamental tree but haven't been able to find one to buy.
Lynn rattles off the store where she bought hers, the price, and even its Latin name: Cotinus obovatus. We agree that the tree offers more bang for the buck because its color spectrum shifts between blue-green, purple, and vibrant red, all punctuated by those ethereal, smoky plumes.
She offers to call me if she spots another one for sale, but for the next year or so we communicate solely for professional reasons and always by e-mail. She likes a story I wrote on a pair of teenage trash-diving brothers, but shouldn't I know by now that Dumpster is a brand name and therefore begins with a capital D?
Words—the right words—have always been Lynn's religion, her saving grace. It's been that way since she was a young single mother in the mid-'60s. She and her husband split up when her son and daughter were small, and she went to work first as a typesetter, then answering phones and writing obits for her hometown paper in Janesville, Wisconsin. For a time she worked four jobs at once so she could pay the bills.
Her anger tended to assert itself in unsparing, comedic jabs. In a newspaper essay about quitting smoking, she wrote: "I used to smoke three packs a day. Now I chew three packs a day. Gum, that is. I hate Doublemint gum. I hate people." Later, working as a copy editor in St. Petersburg, Florida, for the Evening Independent, she also reviewed nightclub entertainers, once writing that Milton Berle needed to get a new shtick, another time excoriating Neil Diamond for his "annoying, gravelly voice."
She played bridge with a vengeance, traveled the world, and once brandished a red cape inside a Mexican bullfighting ring. (The bull fortunately just stood and stared, but in a photograph taken moments before its release, Lynn looks regal, gutsy, and downright glorious.) She collected antiques and designer clothes, and gave money to medical charities at Christmas—but only those dedicated to curing illnesses she thought she might get. Lewy body disease, thought to be the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's, was not on the list.
In 1993 she applied for the chief copy editor job at my midsize newspaper, to be closer to Larry, her investment-counselor son, and his wife, Katie; they were expecting their first child. The editors were lucky to get someone with her experience, and she didn't hesitate to remind them of it. If an airplane crashed in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, it was Lynn's job to keep copy flowing at night after the daytime editors went home. She thrived on deadline adrenaline, over the years wresting reporters from their sleep to demand attribution of a fact or to double-check the spelling of a name.
But sometime around her 62nd birthday, the Queen's words begin to falter: "Cafeteria" comes out as "mess hall." At first, miscues and minor mistakes are scattered, like flickering lights in a storm. And because she's the Queen, her coworkers on the copy desk bow down, patiently reminding her of passwords and copy-flow procedures. Their worry grows, though, each time she bungles a phone-call transfer or forgets a Healthy Choice dinner that hours later someone else finds congealed in the company microwave. One editor even phones Larry to express his concern.
But when Larry sees his mom, she still seems sharp, as she is much of the time. He suggests ginkgo biloba supplements, and mother and son continue writing off the lapses. It's not Lynn, it's the technology: damn phones, damn computers, damn microwave.
When I arrive home one day in 2004 and hear her voice on my answering machine, my stomach sinks. I imagine I've missed a critical fact in a story. But no, Lynn was out shopping that morning and ran across a smoke tree. There are two left at the nursery, and they're a steal, on sale for 20 bucks. If I still want my Co-ti-nus o-bo-va-tus, she says, hyperenunciating the Latin name—I'd better get out there quick.
It had been a year since we last discussed the tree.
We Hear You!