Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Allene and me

I will always remember Allene's laugh. It was a laugh that came from down deep inside of her, not quite a chuckle, not quite a chortle, but definitely infectious. Though it's been over 18 years since I worked with her at the public library, I can recall it like it was yesterday. In part because it was usually something naïve I did or said to cause it.

Like the time I got promoted to desk clerk. After spending my teen years shelving books, I was finally allowed behind the coveted front desk. Allene was working with me and, like she always did, showing me the ropes. It was late on a Thursday night, and the phone rang.

"OK, now you answer it," she said after giving me a few quick lessons.

I picked it up and answered as I was taught while she nodded approval.

"Public library," I said, and Allene winked at me. So far, so good.

"My son is coming after me! I don't know what to do!" said the quivering voice of a woman on the other end of the line. I glanced around to ask for guidance and noticed Allene had gone to the back to retrieve a book for a customer. I was on my own and felt sure I knew the best way to handle it.

"Ma'am, this is the library!" I said and slammed the phone down.

About that time, Allene came from the back, "How did it go?"

"Well ..." I began, red-faced and outraged, "the lady wanted to know what to do about her son who was coming after her, and I told her."

"What did you tell her?" Allene said, growing concerned.

"I told her, 'Ma'am, this is the library!'"

At that point, Allene's eyes widened, she clasped her hand to her mouth, and I knew I was in big trouble. Then she bowed her head, and the next thing I know her body was shaking.

Boy, had I messed up.

"Leigh, what if she were in danger, and this was the only number she had to call?" she said.

"Well, it's still the library!" I said.

At which point, Allene bowed her head and shook it left and right. Her body shook harder, and I saw tears flow down her face. I was about to be fired, and, on top of that, I had probably killed somebody. I knew I was going to be relegated to re-shelving books after laptime from here to eternity.

And then I heard it -- Allene's laugh, and, though I was embarrassed, it was music to my ears.

"Ma'am, this is the library?" Allene repeated and then got so tickled, she put her hand on my shoulder, shook silently with laughter and then walked down the hall and back, trying to gain her composure but laughing at me every time she glanced my way.

I'd like to say this was the only faux pas I made, but it wasn't. Allene was there for many of them -- at the front desk and in life. Throughout both, she managed to offer advice and laugh with me as if I were her equal, though we were 28 years apart.

One day as I worked the front desk, a lady came in to apply for a library card. I tried to take down her name, but I could not spell it. She called the letters out to me, but I couldn't form them on paper. I looked up at her face and could only see half of it. I was young and expecting my first child in a month, and something was wrong. I went to Allene for help. By this time, my left arm and fingers had gone completely numb.

Allene rushed me out back, put me in her car and drove me -- terrified, but calmed by her presence -- to the hospital. She stayed with me while I was admitted. A week and dozens of tests later, it turned out to be nothing more than a complicated migraine.

Allene would later joke that she "practically delivered my first-born."

Had my older daughter been born that day, Allene would have never said, "Ma'am, this is the library!" though she probably would have joked about it. No, Allene would have done what needed to be done, and I would have been in great hands.

Today, Allene is in God's hands. She passed away last week in her sleep after working all day at the front desk. It was a very sad day for me, and I can't imagine what her family is going through. I just know that I lost a great ally that day -- one that can't be replaced.

Allene looked after me during those years -- from giving rides to and from work to advise to company. She kept up with me even as I moved on to other things. In fact, she called the day my first column was published and left a sweet message. I'm sad that I never called her back. I hope she forgave me. But then again, perhaps, knowing all about my phone skills, she just shook her head and laughed. At least, that's how I'd like to remember her.

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