By Barb Arland-Fye
On the other side of the glass door at The Alverno in Clinton where she lives, my friend Elise King and I celebrated her 90th birthday trying to listen to each other through the thick glass. We had not seen one another in person for perhaps a year. I thought she looked terrific. She had a new haircut and sported two badges on her turtleneck top, one of which read “Quarantined Birthday Queen” and the other, “Party like it’s 1930.” On her pinky finger she wore a “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” ring.
The coronavirus pandemic prevented us from a truly in-person visit, but I think both of us enjoyed seeing each other in the flesh — live and not on a computer screen. Muffled conversation or not, I missed my friend who has been a part of my daily prayers for years. We go way back, to the time when I was a young reporter in Clinton looking for good feature stories.
Elise and her late husband, Al, immersed themselves in theatre at the local, state and national level. They sent me press releases about the latest show on the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre and provided me with opportunities to nurture my love of theatre.
We lost touch for a while when I left Clinton to cover other assignments for my newspaper but reconnected because of our ties to that river town and the lure of the Clinton Showboat. Al and Elise’s love for theatre brought them together in friendship and in marriage when both were in their middle years. It was a first and only marriage for both.
Our relationship developed more fully after I began working for The Catholic Messenger. Elise subscribes to the diocesan newspaper and sends notes periodically commenting on a story or column and sharing tidbits about her life. I learned that Al, who retired from Clinton National Bank, and Elise, a retired school teacher, enjoyed a wonderful, ecumenical marriage.
Al was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and Elise, a lifelong Catholic who grew up in Burlington. “He went to church with me on Saturday night and I went with him on Sunday morning,” Elise told me. Al couldn’t get himself to accept a pope leading the Catholic Church, but still appreciated the church. “We worked it out. We got along at both churches very much,” Elise said. “Many at St. Mary thought he was Catholic.” Al died in 2011.
Elise remained busy and continued to serve as a lector at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton until falling in her garage on the way to church one morning in 2018. She broke her hip. A second fall a few months later resulted in a concussion, after which she moved into The Alverno.
When she sent a card to my husband Steve and me last month, wishing us a happy anniversary, she mentioned that her 90th birthday was coming up. I wrote back, asking if I could visit her, even outside her window. We worked out the details.
Later that evening after our visit, I called Elise to tell her I enjoyed seeing her, even if talking through a doorway made the celebration a little awkward. At my request, she shared more memories about the adventures she has experienced in 90 years on this earth. Her stories of teaching in Germany for seven years and traveling to 26 countries during that time enthralled me.
The theatre still lives in Elise, in her storytelling, her love for activities like “crazy socks day” at the nursing home and wearing badges that declare she is a “Quarantined Birthday Queen” who is partying like it’s 1930!
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at email@example.com)