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Sunday in the Park

by Teri Orr, Park Record columnist

I ended up rushing to my seat on the plane. After visiting my mother in Northern California, following her recent hospitalization, I was both frazzled and exhausted. I plopped down in my place in a flurry of bags and belongings. My seatmate turned to me and asked,"Is this your first flight, too?" And though the question annoyed me immediately, I looked over to see where it came from as I was forming a witty, sophisticated, slightly biting response in my head.

That’s when I saw Claire, as perfect a pre-teen as God still makes. Fresh faced, pony-tailed, no earrings or make-up or other signs of what I suspect will come soon enough. She was dressed in a cute little top and a flippy skirt and sandals. She told me this was her first airplane ride EVER. And she was headed to Salt Lake City to visit with relatives. She was as enthusiastic as I was weary. Armed with a personal listening device and a couple of teeny magazines she was ready for the adventure of her young life. "If I push this button will the stewardess bring me a Coke?" she asked reaching for the call button. She will, I assured her, but she won’t be very happy. In a few minutes, once we are in the air, she will serve drinks to everyone. Claire nodded and popped a big gob of watermelon bubble gum in her mouth. "My grandpa says this will help me on take-off. " And though the smell of that gum is the epicurean equivalent of fingernails on chalkboard to me, I nodded, ‘Grandpa is right,’ I said.

Then, as the engines roared in the little plane and her eyes grew wider, she asked if I thought we would fly inside a cloud. It was a bright, blue, cloudless day in California. I said, perhaps, as we were closer to Utah where thunderstorms were expected we might be in clouds then. "Good," she said. "I look up at the sky all the time and wonder what it would be like to be IN a cloud." The seasoned traveler, jaded me, thought, well, not very exciting but I, uncharacteristically, bit my tongue.

When the stewardess did come by with drinks, Claire asked if she could have both a coke and some coffee. The stewardess winked at me and poured her both. At some point, Claire pulled her earplugs out and told me she was listening to Avril Lavine. Did I know her music? Finding her the musical equivalent of the aforementioned bubblegum, I nodded. Then Claire settled in to read.

About half an hour outside of Salt Lake City the clouds started to appear in the sky, in the distance. And Claire got excited and pointed them out to me when all of a sudden we were engulfed in one. Ohhhhhhhh, she said, her eyes wide. And she stayed in the moment. And her face transformed as if she could feel something from that cloud through the airplane’s steel body. Then she looked over at me as we entered blue sky again. "I think heaven must feel just like that." And I looked at Claire with a bit of awe. Just who was this woman/child?

When we landed, I told her grandfather, she was a charming seatmate and he looked at me askew. Never mind. As I drove up the canyon the thunderstorms were exploding all over the darkened sky. At the summit, there were shards of light bursting through and a double rainbow somewhere just beyond Park City. I slept seamlessly.

In the morning the phone rang early and my dear friend told me our dear friend, JoAnn, had died last evening as the result of a bicycle accident on Brown’s Canyon. In minutes, another friend appeared at my door and we hugged and cried and hugged some more.

This week has been a bit of a blur as we all plan on ways to honor our friend and the actual remembering of our friend. JoAnn was so many people. A kind of renaissance woman, really. She was a gifted athlete— golfer, biker, horsewoman and a skier so beautiful, Olympic Gold Medalist Stein Eriksen was known to call her the beautiful woman skier he had ever seen. The consummate hostess, in the most unfussy way. The extraordinary gardener of easy natural plantings that belonged exactly where they were planted. A mother who adored her now-adult boys and passionately worked to create easy harmony in her home. A loving, independent and supportive wife/business partner whose inspired design work landed them on the pages of Architectural Digest. A lover of all the arts, it was JoAnn, who created with Claudia, the very first Arts Council here. JoAnn, who found a way to form a non-profit and buy, to preserve, the Egyptian Theater building. JoAnn who saved that performing organization. Repeatedly. Quietly. JoAnn, whom the Utah Film Commission trusted for years to handle the "do you know who I am" people? JoAnn, who saw the need for a Civic Center to complement the work of the Egyptian and formed the Park City Performing Arts Foundation in the early 90’s. And then proceeded to support it, not only with her resources but her time and talents. JoAnn, who had just been accepted to the prestigious TED conference, one of only four Utahns and one of only 1,500 curious thinkers worldwide.

JoAnn, my friend, loved books and long walks along the river where she lived in Peoa. She loved trying to find balance in her life and she was, what one calls, a seeker. She studied the physical and the metaphysical with equal enthusiasm. She loved her life and her God.

She was, a damn fine woman.

This week, over at her home I walked down to the river, just for a moment. The water crashed, hurrying still, over the rocks. The gardens have never looked so glorious. There were all manner of life teeming there. Humming birds and bees and barn swallows. Dragon flies on the river. And the hollyhocks. Sigh. Burgundy and pinks, climbing tall, against the fence. It was just as peaceful and powerful and vibrant as my friend’s very full life had been.

Inside in the living room, on the grand piano JoAnn played, was the sheet music for a piece she was learning by Debussy, Clair de Lune. Which, if my high school French still serves me, roughly translates to Moonlight. It is a feminine noun, lune. Complimented by the adjective, light. It seemed so fitting. But I felt a whack on the side of my head from the universe. Clair in the French and little Claire, my seatmate. Somewhere around the time we were flying in the clouds, JoAnn was snipping the thin silver thread that connected her to this earth. Claire, open to the moment, felt the cloud transform.

A gentle woman. JoAnn was a gentle woman. Talented, generous, funny, creative and kind. And gentle. Gentile and gentle. Gentle. Gentle.

Godspeed, my friend.


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