A Friend I Never Met

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Isabel's chair

My mother-in-law, Pat, told me more than once about an interesting elderly lady who lived near Matfield Green, Kansas. Pat thought I would love Isobel. Naturally I did nothing with that information, and then it was too late. After Isobel passed on, Pat agreed to sort the kitchen and take whatever foods were suitable for the county food pantry. The kids were on spring break from school, so we all went down to help out.

Part of the reason Isobel had so much food stored in her home was that she lived really far out in the country, on a farm, I’d guess more than thirty miles from the nearest grocery store. She canned jellies, salsas, relishes, pickles, and beets. She kept a phenomenal quantity of food in her little kitchen: boxes of pasta, bags of flour and rice, cans of vegetables and juice. We took several boxes to the food pantry, to be redistributed; and we threw out a couple big garbage bags of food that was too long past date.

The house was typically small, about a third of the size of the barn. The chicken coop was bigger than the bedrooms. It looked like it’d been a long time since there had been any domesticated animals there. The outdoor cellar was caved in. The plastic-sheet greenhouse was in tatters, pots strewn about in the weeds.

When I looked at her books, I knew that indeed I would have loved to have known this woman. She read widely, from classics to science, history, art, the Kama Sutra. Charles Dickens shared shelf space with Isabel Allende, Kelly Kindscher, and Crescent Dragonwagon. She had encyclopedias, several dictionaries including Spanish and Latin, three shelves of cookbooks of every style of cooking you could think of, at least one book in Chinese, and a basic physics textbook which had formerly belonged to a man who had been a colleague of my father. We had been asked to keep an eye out for a book on Scottish dancing, which was on loan from a friend at the time of Isobel’s demise. Sorry, Carol, we didn’t see it.

Also typical of rural midwesterners was her propensity to keep old things. When you’re more than a day’s walk from the nearest store, it’s the middle of winter and you have no way of knowing if the money will hold out until spring, repairing that old broken chair in the barn might seem a lot more appealing than going all the way to town to buy a new one. So keep the broken chair, in case that happens.

But what a life it was, and what a person she must have been, living with a degree of self-sufficiency rarely dreamt of today; in a place where human activity is miniscule compared to the enormity of the prairie; yet still she was willing to expose her mind to the diversity and richness of human culture and experience.

If friends can be apart for long periods and still call one another friend, can we extend that boundary a bit farther, to those whom we haven’t met, but surely would greatly enjoy if we did? I think I will. Goodbye, Isobel, and happy travels, wherever you are, my friend whom I never met.