Sunday, November 7, 2010

Clevel Sluder, 1918-2010

I just received the sad news that an elderly woman I lived with back in Corpus Christi died yesterday at age 91. Her name was Clevel Sluder, and she was very sweet and grandmotherly.

Back in Corpus, where I was working at the newspaper, a co-worker came to know Clevel when writing a story on her extensive volunteer efforts. She was a widow and retired home-economics teacher. Not long after the piece ran, a bizarre tragedy befell her when a man who was renting a room in her home fell into a coma after a bar fight. She was mortified to discover him in the room, surrounded by blood and nearly dead. She wasn't sure what to do and contacted this reporter, who, along with my friend Matt, helped her take care of the situation properly. Then they repainted and freshened the room. I assume that man died, but I never asked. Matt would then go on to rent the room. When he left for grad school, I rented the room.

This was a sweet deal -- $100/month, utilities and cable TV included. The room was simple and had a bathroom and a walk-in closet I used an as office. (Trivia: It was from this closet that I posted and updated the story our paper broke in 2006 that Dick Cheney had shot his friend on a hunting trip.) She clearly wasn't renting the room for the money; she wanted company, security and maybe an extra hand around the house. When Matt lived there, he did several amusing tasks he felt ill-suited to do, like rewire stereo hookups, clean rooftop gutters and haul bags of birdseed. But when I moved in, she never asked me to do anything like that. I think she saw me more as someone who needed to be taken care of, perhaps because when we met, I was a bit frazzled and lost. It was the summer of 2005, and five of my best friends -- basically my entire clique, which because I was so far from my hometown had come to be my family -- had moved away over the previous few months. When I moved into Clevel's I was deep into taking personal stock and trying to transform my lifestyle. I shaved my head, bought all new clothes, quit smoking, started surfing every week, and running every day, and spent a lot of spare time reading books and writing songs. Basically I was worried I wasn't ever going to have permanent personal connections, since my family and friends were scattered and forever relocating, and that I needed to make sure I was someone whose company I enjoyed in the not-so-farfetched event I would be spending some or most of my life alone.

We lived together for nine months and had dinner together most nights. Then she sold the house, which she'd lived in for about 40 years, and moved to a retirement complex in Abilene, closer to her family. I moved to Fort Worth a couple months later and visited her once. It was the last time I saw her, although we e-mailed occasionally over the years.

Clevel was tiny and remarkable. She grew up as an eldest child on a farm during the Dust Bowl, so she had a lot of responsibilities and got pretty tough at a young age. She lost her youngest daughter in a freak accident, and lost her husband when she was in her 50s. She mentioned him, and how much she missed him, just about every day. For a small-town teacher in Texas, she was surprisingly well-traveled; there was a world map in her living room covered in pins, marking the places she had visited. She was somewhat conservative, but not judgmental.

She touched many people in a variety of ways, and I knew her for a period that, relative to her long life, was brief. But what I take away from her is that people, even people who may seem oddly mismatched, can impart upon each other some bits of wisdom or perspective that, if they're listening, can have a long-lasting impact. She's someone who didn't know a lot of people like me but also seemed to entirely understand me immediately. And even though she was technically just a landlady, she treated me like family, even cooking a big dinner for my friends on my birthday. She could have just collected my check and told me to stay out of her way, but she didn't. I'm not going to pretend to know why, but it meant a lot to me.

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