Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tiny but Mighty

Have you ever met someone who is so different from your family and friends and more like a character from a wild west show?   Well, I have to write about this little lady...Lena Oliver Ray...born in 1916 and died in 2002.  I call her little because she was less than five feet tall.  She was my friend, Rae's, mom.

Early picture of Lena

Rae with her parents, Lena and Ray at
college graduation
 I did not meet Lena until my mid twenties...after I had been teaching a few years.  Rae and I were driving back from a class and she said she needed to stop by her mother's.  Those of you who have read any of my posts know that my mother, Maxine, was (or tried to be) a prim and proper lady...did not smoke and never let a drop of liquor pass her lips.  You can imagine my surprise when we walked in Lena's door and I was greeted with a huge hug and kiss from this tiny woman holding a cigarette in one hand and reaching for a beer with the other.

But that was just the shell of who Lean really was.  Her heart was open to well as her home.  She housed at least six of us during the Blizzard of 78.  I remember not being able to drive my jeep because the tires were frozen in inches of ice.  The National Guard had told us to evacuate because there was no power.  The phone did work though and when Lena found we were homeless she sent her neighbor (who smelled a bit of Jack Daniels) to pick us up.  After a few doughnuts in the snow...we made it to Lena's.   I will always remember the aroma of her vegetable soup...a big pot on the stove and homemade apple pie.
Lena at her table eating soup...ashtray and glass full of Coke
(her favorite soft drink) nearby

 We were there for weeks...that blizzard just about closed down central Ohio for a month.  We entertained ourselves by playing an ancient nickel slot machine.  Lena had a bucket full of nickels for us to use.  We also played Scrabble, Yahtzee, Rummikub, and various card games.  The television was on 24 hours a day as it seemed that someone was always awake.  We were able to walk to the Big Bear store to get groceries...and we took turns cooking our own specialties....but Lena was still Queen of her kitchen.

I remember picking Lena up from Westland Mall on a Valentine's Day.  She was with her sister, Thelma. (There were two other sisters, Ethel and Marcella...but they lived in New Boston, OH.)  Their arms were loaded with prizes they had won.  Thelma had a beautiful vase and I can't even remember what Lena had.  When I asked them how they won these they told me that they had been married longer than anyone else....there was some contest held in the middle of the mall.
Lena and Thelma with their Cabbage Patch Dolls

"But, Thelma, I have never seen your husband." I said. (I did not know that she never divorced him.)
"They did not ask if I lived with him," was the reply. "I haven't seen him in fifty years."
"What about you, Lena.  You and Al have not been married over fifteen years."  I knew there had to have been someone else at the mall that had been married longer.
"Well, they didn't ask me how many I counted both of mine."  Lena's first husband had Al was her second husband.

One afternoon Lena called me to see if I could take her to Bingo....she had tried everyone else and I think I was her last I agreed.  The last time I had played Bingo was in grade school when we would dip our hands into a basket full of dried beans to use as markers.  When I got to Lena's she asked me if I had my daubers.  My perplexed expression must have clued her in that I had no idea what she meant.  So...she found me a few of her daubers and off we went.  I was to use these to mark my Bingo sheets because they were just made of paper and would be thrown away after each game. 

We get to the Bingo place....I think it was in a church.  I could see the smoke drifting from the windows and knew I was in for a smoky evening.  Lena bought a pile of cards...or paper game cards, and asked how many I wanted.  "You better start off with four."  That sounded fine.  I figured I could watch four games easily...only to find that each card had four games on it!  I placed the cards in front of me...sitting across from Lena as she placed her eight cards on the table. 

One hundred percent of my focus was direct to my 16 games as the letters and numbers were announced.  I frantically searched for each number, quickly daubing before the next number was announced.  Panic ensued when I was just to my tenth card and the next number was announced.  This was not fun!  Lena was calmly daubing her cards when she looked at me...reached over...daubed one of my numbers and said..."You missed N-42."...and then back to her own 32 games.

These are just a few Lena stories that endeared her to me and others.  She smoked too much....sometimes drank too much beer...but her home was always open for anyone in need and there was always a place at her table for a good home cooked meal.   Once when she had a bit too much to drink...she looked at me...cigarette hanging from her mouth and said..."You are going to sing The Rose at my funeral."  I let the comment pass...hoping she would not remember.  But after her death, Rae informed me that that was one of Lena's wishes.  I was fortunate that my friend Stephanie, music teacher and choral director, agreed to sing with me.   I really didn't want to...but for Lena I did.  It was really impossible to refuse Lena....such a hard headed, stubborn, loving woman.
Lena with her great-grandsons, Shane and Zac


  1. What a lovely tribute to a giant of a woman :)

  2. I love your family stories! What a wonderful woman - I love 'true life' women.Thanks for sharing!

  3. You do write with such attention to details that make the person come alive. I could almost smell the cigarette smoke. Your appreciation of Lena is apparent through out and I love that you included pictures.

  4. You have such a talent for bringing people to life with your words. Lena sounds like hoot to be around. Is everyone you know a character? :-)

  5. I really enjoy the photos you include in your posts. It brings back memories of my chain smoking, beer guzzling grandma. She gave the best hugs ever. Her early photos were beautiful, just like Lena's.

  6. What a neat lady, that Lena! Thanks for sharing her story. You can tell how special she is to you! I think Lena shows us to live life to the fullest.

  7. What a fine tribute to a special lady. Loved to read about your Bingo stress while Lena calmly played not only all her cards, but yours as well! You really illustrated the character of the woman!

  8. I'm not surprised Rae's mom was spunky. I hadn't heard stories of Lena before and enjoyed getting to know her.