I was moving in at an early hour of the day, when Melinda appeared on my doorstep to welcome me. She was the president of the home owners’ association and would not fail in her role as a welcoming host. She gave me her card and told me I could call her if I needed any help. She also gave me the particulars of my two nearest neighbors and suggested that I get to know them.
Three days later, she again called to say that the annual meeting of the association would be the following week, and, as a new resident, it would be advantageous for me to come and meet all my neighbors. Toward the end of the meeting, Melinda, presiding over the proceedings, surprised me by introducing me and then asking me to say a few words about myself. I gave a short, facetious description of my current life and work and people laughed.
It must have gone down well, for the very next agenda item was the election of a new member of the association board and, before I could take another breath, my name was proposed and accepted. That is how I got to know Melinda well.
In the very first meeting I proposed modestly that it might be a good idea to computerize the association records. Melinda said that it was “the most hare-brained idea” she had heard. She had managed everything well with a typewriter and pen-and-paper, and saw no need for a change. In the next two meetings I suggested a few more things, each time evoking the ‘hair-brained’ appellation.
I realized, with clarity and without rancor, that my views were rather different from Melinda’s and the other board members dared not differ from her firm views. I pondered leaving the board, for I could contribute little that would not be discarded forthwith.
Then something curious occurred. I met Melinda on a trail one Saturday, while she was walking her dachshund, and I mentioned that I was recovering from the morning’s news that Richard Burton had died. I had loved his love of poetry and his recorded recitals, and owed him my understanding of John Donne. She responded warmly and our discussion stayed into histrionics. She discovered that I loved the theater and had read plays from Euripedes and Sophocles to Richard Albee and Arthur Miller. I found that she had been a Broadway star as a young woman and later an important entertainment manager in the US Army and a key figure in the Washington theater world. She knew most of the principal directors and producers of plays in the country.
After that there was no end to our discussions. I would come up to her home after dinner and split a bottle of Chivas Regal for hours while we talked. I would get complimentary box tickets for me and a friend for any local play I wanted to see. After we had talked about drama for hours, I might mention a proposal for the association. She would listen quietly and at the next board meeting suddenly say, “Nandy has come up with the curious idea…” Seldom anybody demurred.
Extremely fit and unusually active, Melinda was suddenly stricken with a breathing problem six years later. I took her to the nearest hospital for an examination. The doctor frowned when he saw the test reports and insisted that she be admitted immediately. Melinda was equally insistent that she was fine and would come back. I persuaded her to get admitted and promised to get her files, clothes and jewelry from home. I did, but she was too ill by then to use any of them.
Without her hair styled and the pearl necklace in place, she refused to meet any visitors. But she would see me every day. That is the first time I unearthed her real name; Melinda apparently was just a stage name. I also found she was fifteen years older than she looked. She was in agony and it was painful for me to see her daily decline. It was a relief when Melinda gave up her struggle and breathed her last. To the end, we talked about plays and the extraordinary things they had meant in our lives.
Her many admirers organized a memorial meeting. It was, as Melinda wanted, more a celebration: a star sang songs from Melinda’s favorite musicals accompanied by a famous pianist. I was asked to speak and there was room-wide uproarious laughter when I quoted Melinda’s oft-repeated phrase, “the most hare-brained idea.” Clearly a large majority of them had had to hear at some point that phrase from our common feisty friend.