Rune Rofke - Glenn Emery
Of all the people I’ve met doing home church, Eleanor Lockwood is by far the most interesting. Technically she’s in Carol’s home church area, which borders mine. She’s literally one block over. But the truth is Eleanor and I have become good friends. I’m not sure why that it, but she is a dear and lovely woman.
Eleanor lives alone in a fashionable two-story brick home, just like all the others in the neighborhood. She has a small tidy yard with a one-car garage in the back. Everything from the outside looks as plain and ordinary as every other house for blocks around. There’s not a single outward clue about the surprises and treasures that await beyond the front door.
I don’t know how old Eleanor is, but probably in her early seventies. She’s skinny as stick, not very tall, with short white hair. But her eyes are bright and she’s physically very active. She never stops moving. The treadmill in her living room logs five miles a day. I glanced at the odometer and I was astounded how many miles it had. I believe her.
In the dozen or so times I have been to Eleanor’s house so far, usually for several hours at a time, I never saw any food except a box of Wheat Thins. But in the kitchen and on the back porch she has cases and cases of Coke stacked up, the small green bottles. She must have them delivered by truck. I never saw so much soda in one person’s possession. There is always one open on the kitchen counter or on the kitchen table or wherever she was. And next to it is an assortment of pills: vitamins and herbs that she swallows periodically. Perhaps she eats real food, but I never saw it. Only Coke and vitamins.
By all appearances, Eleanor is a recluse. Yet she's not at all antisocial. The first time Carol and I met her she invited us right in. She seemed totally laid back, not uptight in the least about two strangers in her house.
What I noticed immediately is Eleanor has a lot of time and a lot of money that she doesn’t know what to do with. She spends almost every waking moment poring over stacks of catalogs and buying page after page of collectibles. Within just a few minutes of meeting her I understood this wasn’t a mere hobby. She was obsessed with buying stuff. It was an addiction. She was single-handedly keeping the Franklin Mint in business.
Her house was filled -- stuffed -- with expensive knickknacks. Hummels, antique spoons and thimbles, rare coins, miniature pewter cars -- you name it. All kinds and descriptions. Her house was like a museum. Every room and bedroom was dedicated to something she had collected. She had very little furniture, but the walls were lined with shelves, and glass display cases filled the floors. In one upstairs bedroom was nothing but dolls of all kinds: Everything from Barbies and Kens and all their friends, all of them originals and still in the boxes, to ultra-expensive Alexander dolls. There were so many I couldn’t take it all in. It wasn’t like Mrs. Clingman’s collection though. I didn’t feel creeped out, just overwhelmed.
Across the hall in another bedroom was the music box collection. There were hundreds of them in all shapes, sizes and descriptions. Some looked very fragile and expensive. On the day Carol and I first met her, she took us into this room and waited a minute for it all to sink in. Then she said, “C’mon.”
She began winding them up, one after another, just a few cranks each, as fast as she could. Carol and I joined in, racing along the shelves, winding them up as quickly as we could. Within moments the room was filled with the most incredible sound I could ever imagine. You would think it would be a cacophonous mess, but it wasn’t. Somehow all those little music boxes going at the same time produced a sound I’ve never heard before. I can’t even describe it. Eleanor just looked at me and Carol. She was beaming. The stunned amazement on our faces was exactly what she knew it would be. Clearly she derived a huge amount of joy in sharing this rare experience with other people, something she probably hadn’t done in a very long time.
But what gave me pause, made me think Eleanor was perhaps losing her grip on reality, was the stuff she was collecting now. After years of accumulating things of obvious value, now she was obsessed with collecting cheap plastic toys. She had all kinds of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” action figures and currently she was hunting down every available “Battlestar Galactica” toy. She had all the action figures and a whole lot of paraphernalia. All this stuff occupied the dining room table, along with unopened boxes that had just arrived in the mail. I couldn't imagine any of this crap ever being worth anything, but she was totally into it and unapologetic.
This bizarre dichotomy ran through the house like a schizophrenic child. Alongside museum-quality displays, she now proudly showcased cheap merchandizing spin-offs. Yet there was no hint of embarrassment or irony in Eleanor.
She showed me her latest art project: She’d been gluing pennies to the inside of an egg carton, which struck me as nonsensical. All alone in this big house with no family or relatives nearby, with way too much time and money at her disposal, and her innate creative energy had been reduced to gluing pennies to egg cartons and calling it art.
After that first visit I started going over to visit Eleanor by myself. Carol had other people in her home church area that she was more comfortable hanging out with. I felt Eleanor needed more human contact, so I tried to get over to see her at least once a week.
Eleanor had a painting project for me, so of course I immediately thought it would be something I could do. She took me upstairs to the bathroom. The room had not been updated since the house had been built in the 1940s. At that time the puke green of the accent tiles and fixtures was probably considered very tasteful and elegant. But now it looked ugly and tired. Eleanor asked me if I could paint them blue. She had even bought epoxy paint to do the job -- two cans that had to be mixed together. It would be a tedious job that would take several days, because I’d have to use a fairly small brush and paint each tile individually and not get any on the grout.
I knew I could do it. She asked me if I needed tape or something to cover up the white grout, but I said no. I promised her I would be very neat. For several days I went over to her house for a few hours at a time, painted the offending tiles on one bathroom wall, cleaned up, and then left. By the end of the week it was done. Eleanor was thrilled. It looked exactly the way she had hoped, and I admit it looked much better than I had imagined when she first proposed the project.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked.
“Surely I can give you something. You did a beautiful job.”
“I really don’t want anything,”
“You must need something. Think.”
She was very serious, so I thought about it for a second and it hit me. Street skates. For weeks I’d been wanting skates so I could get from the center to my home church area faster.
“What? Tell me.”
“I was thinking of getting a pair of roller skates so I could get around the neighborhood easier.”
Before I knew it, Eleanor had me in the car and we were at Glendale Mall with a pair of street skates on my feet. Blue with white stripes and fat yellow wheels. I propelled myself sluggishly across the carpet. I couldn’t wait to try them outside.
“Are those what you want?” Eleanor was standing by the cash register with her purse open.
“Yes, ma’am. These are perfect.” I tried to pack as much sincerity and gratitude as I could into five words.
“Yes.” I dared not tell her I could not skate.
When we got back to her house, she told me to run along and enjoy the rest of the day. I thanked her again and she went back inside her house to pore over more catalogs to buy things she did not need but felt she must have.
For reasons I cannot explain, I headed directly to Butler College. Specifically, I was heading to the paved road that leads down to the school’s carillon. I was a little shaky at first, but gradually I gained my confidence and balance and I managed to make the trip without falling.
Now I was poised at the top of the steep driveway leading down to the botanical garden. I knew I was about to propel myself down the asphalt hill, but I didn’t know why. Logically it was suicidal. Yet something compelled me to come here and do it.
The sum total of my roller skating experience prior to this moment, besides the halting journey from Eleanor’s house to here, was when I was eight. I had attended a birthday party at a roller rink. I thought it would be a blast and I couldn’t wait to go, but when I got there and put the skates on I discovered I was terrified. I spent the next two hours on the verge of tears, a death grip on the railing, cursing the smooth wooden floor and the wheels that just rolled too easily and wouldn’t even let me stand up. All the other kids just zipped by me over and over, having the time of their lives. They didn’t even care if they fell. They laughed maniacally the whole way down and then jumped back up like there was nothing to it. That was the worst birthday party I ever attended. I hated it. I never went roller skating again.
Until now. No helmet, pads, gloves, and apparently, no common sense. Just gravity and my new skates. I leaned forward and in the blink of an eye I was speeding dangerously fast down the hill. If I were to fall, it would be a nasty, bloody wipeout. But I didn’t think about that. I just crouched lower and by the time I got to the bottom I was streaking.
It never occurred to me how to stop, and there was a greenhouse coming up on me very quickly. I didn’t think slamming into glass would be a great way to end. So I steered to the grass and ended up running at top speed in my skates across the lawn until I could stop. I looked back up the hill. I couldn’t believe what I had just done. I was still standing. I didn’t wipe out.
It was a crazy, foolish stunt. I should have left well enough alone, but I didn’t. I went back to the top and went down two more times, making it to the bottom each time without falling. It was a miracle. There were lots of little stones and cracks and other hazards that could have easily tripped me up and sent me face-first into the street. But nothing bad happened.
On my way home, I skated over to the Illinois Street Emporium for a celebratory piece of cherry pie. And when I got home, I spent the rest of the evening in the center parking lot. By the time I went in, I had taught myself to skate backwards in a tight graceful circle.
I proved something. I don’t know exactly what.