Mrs. Fitzpatrick

Whenever someone dies, it rains.

Or at least that’s what I decided that day in 1974.

We lived in a big, green house in south Minneapolis—across the street from Seward Elementary School—back then, and Mrs. Fitzpatrick and her sister Inez lived next door.

To my preschool eye, our two neighbor ladies looked ancient. Mrs. Fitzpatrick wore smock tops, and half-moon eyeglasses hung from her neck on a jeweled lanyard. Her fingers dripped with splashy rings, and when she laughed in her gravelly voice, she flashed silver-capped teeth.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick was good to us kids and allowed us inside her house for visits. The place brimmed with musty knick-knacks and heirlooms, but I was drawn to one picture on her wall: a peacock—its splayed feathers done in shimmering threads—laid to rest on black velvet and framed in ornate gold.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick was the only adult I knew who smoked, and I thought the habit was otherworldly and matched her velvet art. She owned a beaded coin purse, made especially for her pack of cigarettes. And pedestal ashtrays stood at attention by the sofa and chairs in her living room like servants awaiting their lady’s orders.

On Halloween, Mrs. Fitzpatrick treated us kids as guests and not like front-stoop beggars in costume. With a flourish, she swept us into her home so we could choose the candy we wanted. And my older sister Coco counted the old woman as her friend.

While Mrs. Fitzpatrick watered her lawn one day, Coco modeled all her summer clothes for her in an impromptu fashion show. As my sister flounced outside in each new combination, the woman threw back her head and laughed. Some days, after Coco returned home from her school across the street, she went over to visit Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and the two of them chatted while they worked crossword puzzles on the porch.

Then one morning in 1974, a paramedic van with its lights flashing pulled up in front of Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s house. My two-year-old brother Fred and I scrambled up to our perches on the back of the brown couch and watched the activity through the picture window. Several men from the vehicle traipsed into our neighbors’ home, but the rain pelted the glass, obscuring our view. So Fred—wearing nothing but a diaper—scooted from his post, pulled on a coat, and stepped into Dad’s galoshes by the front door. Then he tromped outside in the thigh-high boots, and I followed him. We stood side by side in the rain in our front yard until the men emerged from the house, carrying out a body in a bag on a gurney.

Coco came home early from school that day. She had spotted the emergency vehicle when she was outside for recess, and she told her teacher she felt sick. Then Mom announced the sad news to us kids: Inez had found her sister in bed that morning. Mrs. Fitzpatrick had died in her sleep.

A year later, I watched the episode of Little House on the Prairie where the widow passed away, leaving behind her three children. The woman’s voice had been raspy—just like Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s—and rain poured down at her graveside funeral. I again thought of our neighbor’s showy accessories and generous candy dish, her smoke-staled furniture and Coco’s frequent visits. I recalled the scratch of the upholstery on the backs of my legs as I sat with Fred on the couch that last morning and the feel of the rain that greened the grass but washed away our friend next door.

Because back then, it always rained when someone died.


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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.