Thursday, December 22, 2011

Billie Houtman Caselli Clark 1933 - 2011

Billie died yesterday.

Billie was Valery's mother, of course, but she was much more than that to me.  Billie was a good friend.  She was also the Other Reader of this little journal, leaving just you, Dear Reader, to carry on here, alas.  As I was to her, I am grateful for your eyes.  I cherish yours even as I shall ever miss hers.

There is no rule that says one has to love or even like one's on-laws, but I sure loved Billie.  It is a happy circumstance for me that I met Billie twenty-eight years ago.  I was privileged during those many years--through moments happy and sad-- to love her as a son and, even better, to know her and like her as a friend.  For her part, she accepted me as both from the first moment that we met, and for that I am grateful.  She loved me as one of her own children and, as a friend, liked me enough to ask me to come see her in her final days.  I did, and it was a privilege, much as it will be to deliver a eulogy for her at the Austin memorial we plan to hold for her in the New Year.

Because she was in agreement with Lynda that I am a man of too many words, I am sure that Billie will expect me to keep my eulogy light, loving and above all, short.  Consequently, I am struggling to find not only the right words, but just the right quantity of them as well.  One strategy I have for crafting this short-but-meaningful bit of prose is to go at it several times, trying different techniques to say the things I don't even really know just yet.

One particular difficulty I have with the task is essentially self-inflicted.  Keeping with the notion that I should not do what I cannot stand to see done, I have concluded that the last thing I should talk about in Billie's eulogy would be myself.  Nonetheless, I have a story about how I met Billie that is worth writing about, even if it isn't worthy of mentioning in the eulogy.   Since this journal is about me, I think it is fair, in this context, to be a little self-indulgent.  Besides that, it does have something to say about Billie after all.

I met Billie delivering her daughter to her in a shopping cart.

Valery and I started dating shortly after Billie started dating John, sometime back in 1983.  Billie and John had known each other long before they became a couple, but by the time I met Valery, John was Billie's boyfriend.  He and I did not meet until after I met Billie, but it was indirectly because of him that I had the opportunity to roll up to her for our first encounter with Valery in a shopping cart.

John's family was in the car business in Dallas, and at the time I met him, he was working for a series of Ford dealers across the state, helping them with recruiting and training.  He was on the road a lot, traveling from dealer to dealer.  Because of his position, he was always finding good used cars that he could buy for a song and use as a road warrior car until it was used up.

Then, he'd sell it to a dealer for the remainder and move on to the next one.  He often had more than one car like this on hand, and sometimes he left them at Billie's house, for her use or for Valery or Chris--both of whom had cars of questionable reliability at best--to use.  The cars were always Ford or its upscale cousin, Mercury.  It was, I believe, a Mercury that Valery had borrowed and that she and I were driving when it gave us the chance to meet Billie for the first time.

In fact, it was Valery who was driving, so at first, I did not notice the plume of white smoke that was trailing us down Bee Cave Road as we headed toward MoPac.  But when we got down just past Westlake drive, the engine began to sputter and the now noticeable smoke turned from an ominous grey to a deadly black.  Before long we coasted to the side of the road right in front of a newly built shopping center on Bee Cave Road.  This being Westlake, it was a strip mall, and we were fortunate enough to coax the ailing Merc into a parking space at the far edge of the parking lot.

For some reason, Valery knew that this was the very place where her mother happened to be working that day, painting a sign on a dentist's door in the mall.  How she knew this, I don't know.  How we came to be at that particular mall on the very morning when Billie was there at work, I do know.

It's called synchronicity, and I've written about it often enough not to have to bore you with an explanation.  It's enough to say here that synchronicity was central to my life prior to this meeting, and that this encounter certainly served to provide further support for my belief.

It's worth mentioning that the reason Billie was at this particular mall, painting on this particular day was because that was what she did for a living.  She had an art studio, which she called the Message Parlour in small house (in which she also lived) on Bee Cave Road.  The name of the studio often led to confusion, especially to the men who would stop to partake of her services only to discover to their surprise and chagrin that those services did not extend to the laying on of hands (so to speak) that was expected.

So it was that Billie happened to be hand lettering a sign on the glass door of one of the outlying spaces in the mall when our dying Mercury delivered us to within meeting distance that day.  The distance, though small by comparison with that which had separated us previously, seemed too great for our impatient youth, so we commandeered an empty shopping cart that had been abandoned in the parking lot, loaded Valery into the basket and rolled off in search of her Mom.  When we roared up, laughing and screaming, Billie was just finishing the job, and looked up incredulously at the sight.

I don't recall much about what we said, but I can recall my first impressions.  First of all, she was nice.  I can recall her wonderful smile and welcoming attitude.  I don't know how much she knew about me, but it was probably nothing.  Valery had had a number of suitors in her day, so it was no surprise to Billie to see her with a new guy, I am sure.  She didn't treat me like that, however.  She was open and kind, curious but not prying.  She treated me with such respect that I was encouraged to think that I could meet with her approval as a mate for her daughter.  Good news for the new guy.

I was also impressed with her beauty.  It is fair to say that her profoundly kind and welcoming nature reinforced and compounded that beauty, but in all honesty, Billie's was the kind of pure and natural physical beauty that could take a man's breath away.  And so it did with me.

This experience was not new to me, though I confess that it had only happened to me with such force only once before, rather recently, when I met Valery for the first time.  You'll recall, Dear Reader, of the day when my life changed forever, but until I met Billie, I did not know of the source of Valery's captivating beauty.  Then, all of a sudden, I was face to face with a vision of Valery thirty years on.  And what a fabulous vision it was.

It's safe to say that had Valery had the same experience seeing my father Bill, she would not have been impressed with what was to come for me, physically.  Suffice it to say that although it wasn't much, I had a bit more hair than I do today.  Though I had some semblance of good looks in those youthful days, I doubt that Valery had any expectation of my getting better looking with age.

Seeing Billie, however, I concluded just the opposite about my future Bride.  I knew that as beautiful as she already was, Valery was going to become more beautiful as she got older.  Honestly, it wasn't until I met Billie that I knew just how much Valery would change for the better.  Valery will, of course, disagree with me on this point.  She is not happy about the effect that time has had on her countenance, but in truth, she is even more beautiful and captivating today than she was as a mere youth.

So on that day, as we rolled up to our first encounter, Billie and me, I was doubly fortunate in that delightful vision.  And so it is that today, even though I have lost one half of that vision, I will take some comfort knowing I'll see Billie every day, in her daughter's hands, her face, and in her smile.