essays by shé

Essay #31: Elizabeth Kuehnoel

“I want to speak to god,” said the dark-haired woman, backstage after the show. I was dressed in crimson, with red gladiolus blossoms and white orchids in my hair. I had just sprinkled the audience with rose petals and performed “Can You Surf?” – a poem about god and love I’d adapted for a trio. One of my lines? “God is speaking to you now!”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’m Elizabeth Kuehnoel’s granddaughter,” she said.
I looked at her, astonished, and burst out crying.

Elizabeth Kuehnoel (pronounced keeno) lived to 105. I never met her in person. She was two hundred miles away, so I interviewed her by phone. She kick-started a column I wrote called Centenarians Speak Out: 100 words of wisdom by 100-year-olds.

Her granddaughter saw my name in the paper and came to the show. She brought a picture of Mrs. Kuehnoel, also dressed in red. “She kept your letters,” she said, “and talked about you. She was proud to know you. You made a difference in her life.”

This floored me. I made a difference to her? She made a difference to me! Her intelligence, humor, and energy crackled over the phone. She was more alive than people half her age. Back in 2006 she said, “Anybody can, if they have a grain of sense, keep living. But are they alive?”

We kept in touch after the interview, and I quoted her in other publications. She was a lively conversationalist, with interests ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Shakespeare to Star Trek: the Next Generation. She made me laugh every time we talked. “Don’t ever lose your sense of humor,” she said. “There’s always a funny side. If you can see it, you’ve got it made.”

Mrs. Kuehnoel never stopped teaching, even after she officially retired. Her classes varied from geology to psychology to critical reading. “You have to have many interests,” she said. “I try to keep them on the educational, entertaining, delightful plane.”

She called me a few years before she died. To my everlasting shame, I did not return her call immediately. Even though the sound of her voice made me happy, I could not bring myself to do it. I had quit my job and Emmett was fatally ill. I had nothing good to report, and so reported nothing. I called once, months later, but no one answered.

“People don’t get old through years,” she told me, “they get old through loneliness.” By this reckoning, I was ancient. I hadn’t yet written the following poem:

Land of Ahas
You’re not supposed to do it alone.
Dorothy needed the Scarecrow, Tinman, Cowardly Lion, Toto,
the Wizard, and a few witches to help her find her way home.

I placed the photo of Mrs. Kuehnoel on my desk, next to a vase of flowers and a candle. She looks directly at the camera, clear-eyed and curly-haired. Smiling.




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