“Did I ever tell you that I was born in the elevator of the old Harlan hospital on Thanksgiving Day?” Entering the world in such a dramatic fashion seemed to set the tone for her life. I’m talking, of course, about Miss Charlotte Nolan who recently departed her dear hometown.
Miss Nolan was a local legend, an actress, a teacher and much more to so many people. But to me, she was my best friend, adopted mother, as well as grandmother to my daughter Katharine. I wasn’t lucky enough to have her for a teacher, but we connected in 1990 when I moved back home from Texas and later opened the Main Street Cafe in the old Newberry’s building. Recently retired from teaching, Charlotte loved the atmosphere and came up with all sorts of plans to utilize the space. “We can do dinner theatre. We can have art shows and musicians” she said. And indeed, we did.
Charlotte could be difficult to work with since she demanded perfection and would settle for nothing less. Most times it was “her way or the highway.” But her guidance, knowledge and encouragement changed my life and the lives of my family. She called me a late-bloomer and praised my attempts at painting, pottery, cooking and quilting. Charlotte seemed to see the possibility of greatness in everyone and worked to bring those talents to fruition.
After she lost her dear sister, Datter, she “adopted” me and my daughter to whom she was the perfect grandmother. Charlotte loved her red-headed “Katharine-with-an-A” and directed her in her “stage debut” at the tender age of 3 as one of the “Red Yo-Yo Singers” performing at an Irish Ceili and dinner at the cafe. From that point forward, she never missed a piano recital, a dance performance, a band or choir concert or any other activity in which Katharine participated.
When Charlotte’s eyesight began to fail, I became her driver. She called me Hoke and I called her Miss Daisy. After attending “Of Mice and Men” at her precious Barter Theatre, she dubbed me “George” and herself “Lennie.” On our monthly trips to the eye doctor in Lexington, we would often play those roles and others, quoting lines from her favorite plays and movies, as well as singing along to all kinds of music. Practically everywhere we traveled, someone would yell “Miss Nolan” and a former student would reconnect with her, sharing a hug and a story from her middle school classroom or a play she had directed.
For the last few years, we traveled to the Corner Cafe in Evarts every Friday to write her column and have lunch. Sitting in “our” booth, she mused aloud as I typed on my laptop and tried to make sense of her rambling and sometimes repetitive stories. I was honored to be her eyes and fingers so she could continue her column which she told me was “all she had left” to be creative and remain relevant.
After surviving floods, heartaches, cancer and so many hardships during her 85 years, including the recent fire at her home, I think I was in denial that Charlotte would ever succumb, even to the grim reaper. We watched her grow weaker by the day, but she willed herself to maintain her routine, just recently attending Sunshine School graduation, as well as a Musettes concert. Through all her illnesses, she never lost her sense of humor. As we left the Corner Cafe from what would turn out to be our final Friday visit, she stumbled slightly even though she had hold of my arm. She paused, looked at me and said “I shouldn’t have had that last drink.” Her wit and timing were extraordinary.
Always in control, Charlotte wrote her own obituary and gave me specific instructions regarding her final wishes for her memorial service. As I held her hand last Thursday, she reminisced about trips, students, 1940s movies and fried chicken legs. We sang “Yellow Submarine” and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Her last words to me were “Set me free.”
I was privileged to call her friend and hope everyone experiences such a friendship at least once in their lifetime. I will miss my Fridays with Charlotte.