Living, loving and leaving

Published 11:16 pm Monday, September 24, 2012

If the phone rang late at night, a good guess was that Blanche Aldrich was on the other end, waiting to commiserate about politics. She loved to talk politics, and we agreed on most. During the Bush years, she called a lot.

Two years fly by in an instant, especially if you are 104. Blanche Aldrich died last month, and it surprised me that it had been almost two years since I’d seen her — at her 102nd birthday party. I left her that day with a live band playing “Corrina, Corrina” and a happy room full of guests sipping wine.

I knew her for only 30 years, which meant I missed a lot. Long before I met Blanche, she had a long teaching career in the South, including in an old Michigan City, Miss., one-room schoolhouse that eventually she’d call home. After teaching all over Europe at American military bases, she ended her career in Spain.

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But Blanche Aldrich wasn’t done.

She went to Honduras with the Peace Corps at age 79, traveled each year to France, renewed her driver’s license at age 96 to keep driving the Volkswagen bug that she loved. In 1984 she began an annual Flag Day celebration at her home, inviting former students and other friends to remember a day most forget. It was wrong, she said, to let right-wingers co-opt patriotism.

When she felt it was time to downsize, she left the old schoolhouse and moved herself into assisted living in Memphis.

I have lots of occasions on my way to Memphis to pass the road that turns to Michigan City. I’ve never driven by it and not thought about our first meeting three decades ago.

The Memphis newspaper for which I worked ran a section each week about homes. Most houses we featured were fancy, typical Southern Living-style homes where decorators had had their way and wealthy people lived.

Someone had told me about the retired teacher who lived in the one-room schoolhouse she called Washington Oaks. I thought it might be a change of pace for the home section.

I was overwhelmed by the creative joy with which Blanche fixed up the storybook structure. She named the two big oaks that flanked it Martha and George. The windows and door she had shipped from Europe, and tiles around a big stove came from every country she’d ever visited. Her bedroom was the old school stage.

Whenever she’d leave for Europe, Blanche would invite friends over the night before her departure for a “clean out the refrigerator” party. The hostess would throw pillows on the floor and invite neighbors to eat leftovers.

A modest shed of a guest house she built much later was adorned by a sign that said Taj Mahal. If a home can have both style and humor, hers did. There was color and artistic flair.

It must have been hard to leave willingly that wonderful schoolhouse home where fun and function intersected in a showplace. But Blanche had a practical side, and she lived her life the same way she decorated. She must have known leaving was a part of living.

(To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit