Putsy Ford was a tall, slim girl with a lighthouse-strength smile. Her laugh was at her expense, and there was always a little edge of pain in it. Elizabeth was her real name. I'm not sure where she got the name Putsy, but that's what everyone called her, and that never changed. She lived in that same neighborhood as I did in Virginia Beach, Virginia in the 1960s. We were teenagers together. She and my younger sister were best friends and stayed best friends their entire lives. I got to know her when she would come over to visit my sister and, later, when she dated one of my best friends.
There was an element of sadness about her. She didn’t think she was smart. She would joke about that, even say, “I’m not very smart.” Then that painful laugh. She was better than smart. She was kind, compassionate and generous. And she was smart. At a certain point, her parents bought a motel. Putsy had to work there when she was in high school on the weekends. She always worked. She had three younger sisters, and if she wasn’t working at the motel, she was babysitting one or more of those sisters. While my teenage friends and I lazed around, she worked.
Putsy went to college and then, soon after, married a Richmond lawyer. She moved to Richmond, had two sons, and raised them in that most conservative of cities. She and her husband bought a summer house at Virginia Beach. Putsy would bring her sons there in the summer, and her husband would join them on the weekends. I would see them from time to time. Putsy was always the same—laughing, self-deprecating, with a shoulder shrug at the curves life threw her. She and my sister had in common a strong selflessness, and they never complained.
Years later, I remember going to her older son’s wedding in Richmond. She had become a florist, and a highly sought-after one. I remember the breathtaking stairway she created for the wedding, with flowers curling around the banisters, like they had grown that way, all the way to the top. When I complemented her, she said with a bemused resignation that she had to do it all herself at the last minute because the florist she hired didn’t show up. She was a natural with flowers, and all Richmond came to know that.
Putsy (l) and my sister
After her sons were grown, she left her marriage and went to live in Montana where her parents had a vacation house. That’s where she met her second husband. The last time I saw her was at my nephew’s wedding in Colorado in 2012. It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. She was with her new husband, an older man who was in a wheelchair. Putsy guided him around the festivities with care and humor. She looked happy, and I thought that her husband was lucky to have her in his life. They lived in western Pennsylvania where he was from. By then her name had changed a few times, but I always thought of her as Putsy Ford.
A few years ago, my sister told me that Putsy had brain cancer. Then, one day, I got an e-mail from my sister telling me that Putsy had died. That sweet, sunny spirit, gone. The preciousness of friends becomes more apparent as you grow older. As does the idea of living graciously and courageously. This is how Putsy went through life. Graciously. Courageously. I hope, with the time I have left, to live by her example.