She wanted to be near the grass. We liberated her from the confines of a cane wheelchair and settled her on the edge of a red and green plaid wool blanket spread at the base of an oak tree. Propped up against the trunk-a cardigan sweater cushioning her back-her fingers could idly seek and explore the verdant bladed coolness of the lawn while she read from the thick volume of Hemingway balanced on her lap.
Her name was Josephine, though we called her “Little Jo.” The nickname had nothing to do with her reduced stature as she sat in her chair-the consequence of having suffered a severe case of childhood polio-but innocently enough because she was the youngest among our newly formed circle of freshman-year friends.
On that Saturday in late September, we’d decided to picnic beside the small river that meandered enchantingly through the middle of campus. Trees were turning, and the noonday sun was friendly, though not blistering as we ate our lunch, and then ambled along the river’s banks tossing stones and feeding leftover pieces of bread to the ducks. Little Jo, hatching a spot on the blanket, seemed, in those gilded moments, to be genuinely happy.
I’ll never know.
More than a score of years have bloomed and withered since that day-the searing burn of senselessness smoldered to ashes of sadness-and I realize now what a bitter awakening it may have been for Josephine. In the sheltered town she’d come from, she might not have felt her limitations as keenly. But looking on from her patch of plaid wool, our strong and supple limbs a mocking picture of grace and unencumbered potential she would never have, she could not ignore the harsh truth. Perhaps the world was really only going to open up for the rest of us.
Somewhere, in the space between our goodbyes of that autumn afternoon and Sunday morning, she cradled a four-leafed clover she’d found, and wished herself away.