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October 12, 2015






She was not much larger than a child and barely reached my chest when standing, ninety pounds of wrinkled entitlement. Her name was Clotilde. Born in Portugal and schooled in France, she claimed her father was in the diplomatic corps—an ambassador. The childless widow of a wealthy industrialist, she was currently living in a retirement facility.            


Mrs. Chatterbox made her acquaintance after taking a citizen’s complaint about our city’s water, which ranks very high nationally. Curiosity about the old woman with the colorful accent prompted Mrs. C. to make a trip to the retirement home to meet her, and the two formed a friendship. Since the woman and I share Portuguese ancestry, Mrs. C. thought I might enjoy tagging along. So I went to meet Clotilde.


Having learned she loved modern art and was an admirer of The Fauves, I brought her a Matisse calendar, but when I gave it to her she smiled and said it was a shame I’d brought her a gift that underscored her diminishing eyesight and made her painfully aware that she was going blind. She told me to take the calendar with me when I left. I was sorry to learn she was losing her eyesight, but I thought her rejection of my gift impolite.


Perhaps it was a result of living a lifetime of entitlement, but Clotilde was surprisingly rude. She had little interest in anyone other than herself, and spoke nonstop about what a “beautiful creature” she’d been in her youth, how she’d studied at Paris’ Sorbonne, how handsome young men fought to scratch their names on her dance card.


Now, lacking servants, she enlisted others to do her bidding, creating friendships and using her new recruits as chauffeurs and to fetch groceries. The facility where Clotilde lived operated a bus that took residents anywhere they wanted to go, but Clotilde preferred being driven in a private car and having her groceries delivered. When Mrs. C. was kindhearted enough to bring her something from the store, she soon found herself being run ragged with errands.


Although she knew a lot about art, one of my favorite subjects, I avoided Clotilde whenever possible. But the time came when Mrs. C. was sent to fetch a special bread that could only be purchased across town. When we put the loaf in Clotilde’s hands, we were informed it wasn’t the right bread and told to take it with us when we left. But her antique clocks needed changing because of Daylight Savings, so Mrs. C. sat in the musty living room while I made the adjustments.


When finished, I also sank on the couch, and was soon caught in Clotilde’s web of tales about how magnificent she was. I was starting to daydream when I realized she was talking about a portrait, her portrait, painted by a handsome Cuban artist before Castro took over.


“I was so young and beautiful back then,” she said, pausing as if waiting for us to comment on how beautiful she remained. “Many artists wanted me to pose for them, but Francisco finally convinced me I owed it to the world to have my beauty recorded for posterity.”


My dislike for this vain woman was rapidly reaching DEFCON 1, but I finally asked, “So what happened to this portrait? Can I see it?”


“Of course.” Her gnarled hand, covered in dirty diamonds, pointed towards the dining room like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. “It hangs in there.”


I rose and wandered off to look at it.


The portrait had been painted on cardboard in gauche, an extremely fragile medium, and the framer had failed to place it under protective glass. Hanging it above a heating unit had caused the brittle paint to crack and peel; confetti-sized fragments littered the carpet below. Marks on the carpet indicated that housekeeping carefully avoided the spot while vacuuming. What little I could see proved that Clotilde had once been as beautiful as she’d claimed, and I was sad her portrait was beyond repair, lost along with her youth.


When I returned to the living room she beamed and said, “It captures me beautifully, don’t you think?”


I considered telling her the truth, a truth she’s been spared by diminished eyesight. I chose my words carefully. “It’s a perfect reflection of your beauty.”


I never saw her look happier.




Note: The woman in green was painted by Tamara Lempicka. The reclining lady above was painted by Diego Rivera. Both remind me of Clotilde.




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It is a sad story stalled on her past. Her golden years are less than golden. While trying to relive her past she alienates the people that her path in the present. The final blow... a painting no more.
By: Daniel LaFrance on October 12, 2015
So sad to meet some one imprisoned by their past!
By: John on October 12, 2015
What's sad is she's still someone wrapped up in herself. She'll probably die very lonely. Your wife must be amazing if she actually made friends with the woman.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on October 12, 2015
So sad how a privileged person lives a life alone because she does not care about anyone except herself. It was a good thing she had money or she would have been not only blind but very lonely.
By: Tabor on October 12, 2015
It is said that as we age we become more of what we were when we were young. A loving person remains loving, even when senility sets in. The self-centered person who may have seemed interesting and even amusing when thirty becomes the old lady who screams, "Get out of my room, clumsy ox!!" and tries to strike her caretaker. This well-written piece, Steve, got me worried about my aging. Am I really as critical as my husband tells me sometimes? I used to be sweet. I think.
By: Jo Barney on October 12, 2015
what a sad story- instead of being in the present- she lived in the shadowy half-truth past. Instead of being curious about others she focused only on herself. Very sad. You and Mrs C were unbelievably patient and kind.
By: Kathe W. on October 12, 2015
Some people of "privlidge" just don't know any better, no one ever told them when they were rude. What a perfect response, you put her down without hurting her. Must have been satisfying.
By: cranky on October 12, 2015
You could have offered to paint a new one, maybe get a few bucks out of her.
By: PT Dilloway on October 12, 2015
I almost get a Jekyll & Hyde feel out of this!!
By: fishducky on October 12, 2015
How sad that such a beautiful (and arrogant) creature could be reduced the the life that she had left.
By: Catalyst on October 12, 2015
What a sad story. You answered her kindly yet satisfyingly for you. One would feel badly for her having lost everything but since she isn't aware of the loss, perhaps that is fortunate. Bless Mrs. C for her kindness that goes unrewarded except in her own heart. Mrs. C is a truly kind person. I often wonder about old movie stars now in nursing homes.What a come down.
By: Akansas Patti on October 12, 2015
um, quite the character?
By: TexWisGirl on October 12, 2015
She reminds me of Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd. There was a famous artist here who had been a daughter of a wealthy Russian aristocrat. Her father was killed, probably with the Czar, and she escaped with a sister to the US. She had a notable career and did magnificent work, but by the time we arrived in Cambria she was in early stages of dementia and was a most unpleasant person. I've known other such people who find that life's fleeting pace leaves them lonely, frightened and often bitter. Your Clotilde seems caught in that web of despair as well. Your response though was a kind act, a soothing balm on an emotional hurt.
By: Tom Cochrun on October 12, 2015
A poignant story. I know old ladies like that. I suppose she acted that way to keep her own spirits up. It's not easy for others but then it's not easy geting old.....
By: Jenny Woolf on October 12, 2015
You do a great job with stories that are poignant and just a tiny bit amusing. If she really thought herself better than everyone else, I suppose she had little to lose by bossing people around. What's the worst you could do, say no? Sigh.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on October 12, 2015
This woman has never learned and never will. If any of her tales are true, she is alone now and one can see why. I don;t care if she is old and has macular degeneration, she is negative personality which has driven anyone in her life away. What is more telling is the huge heart your wife has. Your wife is aware of how negative this lady is but she sees how alone she is so your wife sets time aside to be there for this woman when everyone else was driven away. It is a measure of your wife's generosity and humanity.
By: Birgit on October 12, 2015
I wish you could have taken a picture of her portrait. For even in its present state, it would still be something to see. While driving a cab in Joplin (MO) in the late 70s, I made a delivery of some groceries to an older couple. When I arrived at their place, the man informed me that his wife had dementia and still thought she was a movie star during the silent era. After seeing her in some posters with the likes of Mary Pickford that were hanging on their walls, it was clear to see that she was indeed a star, and I treated her as such, which made her husband very happy. Since she was very gracious toward me, it was very easy to do to. I regret not remembering her name.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on October 12, 2015
It sounds like life passed the poor woman by when she could no longer capture everyone with her looks.
By: mimi on October 12, 2015
Ths is a very interesting story and I enjoyed reading it. This woman sounds like a very spoiled and rude person and there's no excuse for it. It was rude to tell you to take the gift you brought her. She may have been something in her youth but she turned into a very cranky woman who isolated herself from true friendship and love.
By: Bouncin Barb on October 12, 2015
Some people live in their own imagination and drag others along in a support role.
By: red on October 12, 2015
Hmmm...she reminds me just a bit of your mother!
By: Pixel Peeper on October 12, 2015
I commend you on your excellent choice of words.
By: Val on October 12, 2015
I doubt I could have handled the situation as well as you.
By: Rick Watson on October 12, 2015
She sounds too vain to have ever been beautiful. Plus, he name sounds like...well, a female body part. But you're a man of integrity.
By: Robyn Engel on October 12, 2015
I really like the portrait by Tamara. It has such style! The one by Diego has style too, but the proportion conflicts would drive me crazy if I had to look at it for long. You and your wife were awfully nice to Clotilde. If I'd met her once, I'd never have returned.
By: Lexa Cain on October 13, 2015
Stephen: A heartfelt story and I commend you for being a gentleman! ;)
By: Michael Manning on October 13, 2015
I've had the same problem all my life: I owe to the world to have my beauty recorded for posterity. It's a terrible burden.
By: Mitchell is Moving on October 14, 2015

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