Carole, the Collector

Carole and kitties

Carole with her kitties


In the early days of my teaching career, I wondered if I had made a mistake in taking a position at UCLA. It was fall quarter 1988, and I felt like an imposter because I lacked the urban sophistication and polysyllabic vocabulary of my faculty colleagues at UCLA. Far away from family and friends in the Midwest, I went home to my near-empty lodging and spent wordless weekends prepping for classes, walking the streets of Westwood, and escaping into novels.

Then Carole came to my rescue. A staff member at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, she heard about my lack of furnishings and announced she would take me shopping for used furniture. A few days later I stood waiting in front of my building when a battered light blue two-door sedan slowed to a stop beside me. I looked away, confident I didn’t know the driver.

“Joanne!” Peering through the open passenger window, I saw Carole, a grin spreading from ear to ear and a bird feather tucked in her salt and pepper hair. When I climbed inside, I couldn’t help but notice the sagging roof liner, stuffing spilling out of cracks in the blue vinyl upholstery, and a back seat piled high with black garbage bags and cardboard boxes overflowing with used clothing.

“My friends call it the rolling wardrobe,” Carole laughed as we glided into traffic and headed to her favorite bakery for a fruit tart. “I use it to store things for my friends at the pueblo.”

“The what?”

“The San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.” As we drove down the street, Carole told me about the time she took a pottery course at UCLA extension and fell in love with the work of Santana Martinez. Friendship blossomed from a fan letter, and soon after Carole started collecting bird feathers, shells, art supplies, and clothing for the Martinez family. She shipped packages to the pueblo when the backseat of her car overflowed.

At the bakery, Carole greeted everyone by first name, inquiring about the cashier’s children and another customer’s pet. Continuing on to the Wertz Brothers parking lot, she maneuvered her car into a tight space and we entered the cavernous furniture store. “You should get this!” she exclaimed as I sat at a table and four chairs. “It’s a great price, and perfect for your apartment.” When the clerk asked if I needed the furniture delivered, Carole shook her head. “My car’s outside.” While I paid for the purchase, two dubious employees strapped my table, four chairs, and a settee to the top of her car. Pulling out of the parking lot, we turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard. “Would you like to go anywhere else?” Carole inquired. I shook my head, trying to avoid eye contact with drivers of the Mercedes, BMWs, and Porches passing by us.

From that day forward, Carole made it her duty to ensure I enjoyed life in L.A. Confident she knew me better than I knew myself, she filled my calendar with museum exhibit openings, excursions to used book shops and fabric stores, and sales at Trader Joes.  One day, she invited me home for dinner.

Carole had lived in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica for more than two decades. Climbing the stairs, I found five cats sunning on a plant-filled patio—Walks-a-Lot, Ralphie, Gertrude, Blackie, and Turtle. The living room overflowed with baskets, piles of books, Indian blankets, pottery, and plants. There were piles of tins for sending cookies to soldiers in Iraq, and stacks of fabric used to make quilts for AIDS babies.

In the kitchen, anti-war posters covered the windows and plastic bags of recyclables hung from the ceiling. Peanuts cartoon strips, children’s drawings, photos of friends, and birthday cards covered the refrigerator door. Thrift store finds spilled out of cupboards onto her—NPR and Kerckhoff coffee cups, silverware in many different patterns, and English bone china. Carole no longer ate at her kitchen table, piled high with cans of cat food, tins of cookie cutters, and old Kleenex boxes stuffed with coupons and recipes clipped from the Los Angeles Times.

Carol banished me to the kitchen while she put the finishing touches on our meal.  A short while later she spooned bowls of beef stew from a cast iron kettle and handed them to me through the window connecting her kitchen to the patio. Humming birds darted back and forth among her hanging baskets as we ate on faded plastic chairs. Below us, in the alley, a woman tossed a box of household goods into the trash. “You never know what you’ll find,” Carole said, tearing downstairs and returning a few minutes later with a blue lava lamp. “I can’t believe she threw this away!” Plugging it in, we sat mesmerized by the blob of blue bubbles rising from the lamp’s base until I went home, my arms loaded with must-read books—a British mystery, feminist tract, and self-help manual.

I returned to the Midwest in 1990, but remained in regular contact with Carole. Envelopes covered with colorful stamps in a variety of denominations breathed life into my mailbox, but she didn’t stop with me. Before I knew it, she had started corresponding with my elderly mother, sending her books and home-made biscotti that Mom mistook for dog biscuits. She signed her letters with “Peace” or “Love and Hugs, Carole.”

Carole found peace on June 17, 2008, after a two-year battle with cancer. In late summer I flew to L.A. for the memorial service, a diverse gathering of people whose lives she had touched. “She was a collector,” one friend said as we went around the room sharing Carole stories. Those of us who spent time in Carole’s apartment laughed. “Sure, she acquired stuff,” the woman continued, “but her most treasured collection was her friends. She took good care of us, and never threw anyone away. We are the living proof.”

In looking back over my life, I’m grateful for my two years in southern California because it allowed me to meet Carole. The L.A. Times described her as “a woman of grace and indomitable spirit” whose simple life enlightened others. I am one of those “others.” Thanks to Carole, I have read books I never would have taken off the shelf and reflected on subjects I wouldn’t have given a second thought. I visited the San Ildefonso pueblo and bought a pot from the Martinez family. I’ve met people, now friends despite the distance separating us.  I’ve taken up charity knitting, and derive great joy in purple, one of Carole’s favorite colors. I bake cookies and biscotti, and share them with others. I may never be as generous of heart or as optimistic as Carole, but in the words of the “Wicked” lyrics, “because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

About JP in B-town

JP grew up on a sheep farm in northwest Ohio. She learned to knit by the age of ten, and loves the smell of wool. She fell in love with reading, a habit she fed with weekly visits to a nearby Carnegie Public Library. Reading fed her desire to become a writer, and her dream of traveling the world. She resides in Bloomington, Indiana, where she continues to knit and write.
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