I got the bad news this week that Wanda Baker died. Wanda graduated from Thayer High with my father, and was probably 93 years old. But to me, she was never older than about 50.
Wanda and her husband Gerald lived in our neighborhood, which was kind of a horseshoe shape. People could drive in one entrance and, following a big curve, could drive by every house in the neighborhood, exiting about 100 yards from where they entered. Wanda and Gerald’s house was right off the highway and the first house in the horseshoe.
My father, who worried about everything, told Libby and me not to ride our bicycles around the bend that took us in front of Wanda and Gerald’s house and next to the highway. “Someone,” he said, “is going to drive too fast on the highway, flip a car, and kill someone.” Libby and I rolled our eyes. We wanted to go around that bend, not because Daddy said not to, but because Wanda and Gerald had a log rail fence around their property, and the part around the bend was the best place in the summer. Huge oak trees shaded part of the fence; we called it “The Shady Spot.”
Nothing felt better on a summer day than to ride our bikes there, jump off and set our kickstands, and just sit on that fence, enjoying the shade and a breeze that cooled us in the heat of August – even though we were forbidden to do so. Sometimes, Wanda even brought us Kool-Aid.
To my father’s righteous satisfaction, someone, our neighbor Billy Ray Johnson, eventually did take a curve too fast, flipped a car, and ended up upside down in a vacant lot diagonal to Wanda and Gerald’s house. Fortunately, no one, not even Billy Ray, was killed, and The Shady Spot turned out to be safe.
As I grew up, Wanda played another part in my life. Wanda and Gerald’s daughter, Donna, played the organ at our church during the summer. The regular organist, Marguerite Pierce, was the vocal music teacher at school, and when school let out for the summer, she said she was through with kids for three months. So Donna picked up the slack.
But the year I was 13, Donna got married, leaving the church without a summer organist. Wanda called me, saying that Donna would teach me how to play if I would fill in. So I learned to play the organ after a fashion; however, I was very nervous about playing the bass pedals. I could move my hands on the keyboard just fine, but adding my feet to the equation was terrifying. Wanda agreed to play the hymns with me so that I would feel more comfortable. Eventually, Mrs. Pierce retired, and I became the regular organist until I graduated from in high school, the year my family left Thayer and moved north to Kansas City. But Wanda always asked if I needed her to play those hymns. Most of the time, I felt better when she was there with me.
But the best story about Wanda? Libby and I were in Thayer for some event a few years ago and saw her. We hugged and we talked, and then she spilled the beans.
“You know,” she said, “your daddy and I almost got married.”
Libby and I froze.
She smiled her gentle smile. “We were on our senior trip, and we were in love, so we decided that we would run off and get married.”
Libby and I looked at each other. “What happened?,” one of us asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t really remember,” she said. “I just remember that we didn’t do it. Just think, girls! Things could really have been different!”
Of course, by the time we heard the story, Daddy was long gone, so we were left to wonder what could have interrupted their plans.
Wanda was obviously more than a neighborhood mom. The last time I saw her, she looked the same, but a little older – just like me. I know I will miss her – but more than that, she will always hold a place in my heart.