She wasn’t the first person I met after the boxes were shoved through the door of our rambling ranch on McCain Road in February of ’87. That was Pat Olsen who lived behind us, introducing herself and bringing us a pie. She invited me over for coffee to meet her next door neighbor, an older lady named Mildred who remained my dear friend until her death 20 years later. Pat and Mildred were hashing over the disparity in the ages between the 3 of us when Pat snapped her fingers and said, “I know who you have to meet. Her name is Diane, she’s about your age and lives a couple houses down on McCain. I’ll give her a call.”
Another coffee date was set so I could meet Diane. This was the first time in my life where I felt an instant connection. When I reflect on how different we were, it’s hard to believe how close we became. She had been married (to the same guy) for 16 years, Hubs and I were jogging towards number 18. She had 2 kids, I had her beat by one, but that’s where the similarities ended. I was the baby of the family and for the most part an only child since I was 10. Diane was second oldest (first girl) in her large Catholic family. And I do mean LARGE. There were 12 kids. Seems like several times a year, at least 2 of them were the same age for a couple months. Yikes. Diane did a lot of sib-raising while she was growing up. I was spoiled and did nothing.
During our 2 hour yak-fest, a special friendship sprouted and grew to epic proportions over the years. We were talking about our ‘new’ house and yard (house was about 30 years old, all shrubs and trees overgrown and unsightly). Every yard in the housing division was an acre and our acre contained 40 trees. The boys (11 and 7) couldn’t play catch without running into a tree. I told Diane it was gonna take us a couple years to get rid of half of them. Not only for the kids to play football but to grow some grass. Too much shade. She said to pick a night and Fred would come over to help.
A couple nights later Fred ambled over-driving a BACKHOE! He and John were discussing which trees had to go when Diane (the foreman) piped in, “none of the shrubbery around the house can be saved. If you trim to get below the windows, you’ve removed everything green. Just yank it all out.” Three hours later, our acre plot looked as though a category 3 tornado had graced our yard. Twenty trees plus every shrub had been toppled, ripped, shredded and lay completely spent by our mini-man-made-hurricane. Fred hopped on the big rig one more time, gave a little nod and headed home. Diane walked in to say goodnight, adding, “don’t worry, we’ll be back tomorrow with the flat bed and haul everything away.” (Who were these people)? Three months later we were planting new dwarf shrubs, bonsai’s and one weeping cherry tree.
We invited them over for a barbecue to convey our thanks for all their hard work in transforming our dated, tired yard into a showplace. Diane offered to bring dessert. It was rainy and cool when the Smith’s showed up for supper. As she waltzed in my eyes immediately strayed to the flower pot of tulips she was carrying. Obviously there had been a miscommunication. Diane brought a centerpiece when I thought she was bringing dessert. (Now what am I gonna serve)? Diane noticed my disappointed face and quickly explained. “This IS dessert. It’s called Dirt. Crushed Oreo cookies, layered with a pudding/cream cheese/milk/cool whip/powdered sugar mixture. Complete with gummy worms throughout and artificial flowers. Isn’t it cute?” (This woman was incredible)
She walked over to admire our landscaping choices and suggested some ground cover to trim the new sidewalk leading to the front door. “It’s called pachysandra. I got it from my folk’s place when they put in new landscaping. It stays green all year, has tiny white flowers in April. You will have to edge it or it will spread. I’ll bring some over so you won’t have to buy any.” (She brought pachysandra with her when we moved to North Muskegon 7 years later. More pachysandra 22 years later when we moved back to Jackson. All from her mother’s abandoned crop that had been waiting to be hauled away when Diane rescued it in the early 80’s).
That summer Diane carted me all over Jackson county. We picked strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, apples and pumpkins. She loved fresh fruit and veggies and knew where and when every crop was at its peak. She taught me how to make freezer jams. During July she took me to a place called Gee Farms. She was picking up a specific size cucumber she had ordered. (Up to this point, in nearly 20 years of marriage, I had never bought one single cucumber-and I was ok with that). Diane asked if I would come over the next night and help make Bread & Butter Pickles because her sister Karen couldn’t make it. I had no idea what this pickle making business entailed but I was game. We canned 55 pints of pickles by midnight (we were both under 40 and didn’t require a lot of sleep back then to function the next morning. Besides, it was summer and the kids slept in. Ok, my ass was dragging. Didn’t this woman ever get tired? Was there nothing she was incapable of excelling in? No & no. These are the things I pondered, lugging home 8 perfect pints of the best pickles known to mankind). Make that 7 pints, I ate an entire pint before hitting the hay. This ‘by chance’ invitation to help with Bread & Butter pickles would inspire me to learn how to ‘can’ pickled beets, jams, fruit, meat, plus her signature bread and butters every year since 1988, and I have Diane to thank for that. She also got me hooked on Lladro figurines and Longaberger Baskets. She had great (but expensive) tastes.
Diane’s idea of decorating was different/unusual and she loved decorating for the holidays. Any holiday. She was never content to just put up a Christmas tree. Her whole house was decorated, laundry room and bathrooms included. Next to her stunning tree stood Mr. & Mrs. Claus, about 3 feet tall. Her mom was throwing them out so it was up to ‘Diane the Rescuer’ to find them a safe haven. They were made out of felt with hand painted, one of a kind faces, stuffed and standing-supported with a wire base. I thought they were adorable, so of course we headed for the store where their large Anna Lee inventory was whimsically featured. (Over the years I collected a couple dozen larger figurines for various holidays, and at least that many Christmas decorations. Not one member of my family think they’re cute. My cross to bear).
Diane was the most talented woman I have ever known. She sewed lined suits, dresses and drapes. She could knit or crochet any pattern, no matter how complicated. Her cross stitching pillows and framed scene pieces were really works of art. She made deer out of birch trees for lawn decor. She decorated custom wreaths, garland and did I mention bows? Fancy, frilly, small, large bows were her specialty. You never just got a gift from Diane. It was a decorated package that was too pretty to open, usually containing something she’d made herself. Ever know someone you love with all your heart, but were kinda jealous of and intimidated by? Diane literally could do anything. She worked in advertising, selling logos on pens, clothing, paper products etc. She could sell ice to an Eskimo. With all that talent oozing from her pores, it was hard not to question God, “are you kidding me? Bows? You couldn’t just let me have one small talent to make frilly bows?” And God said, “nope, sorry. It really is a God given talent and she’s got it all and you got zip. Go bake something. It’ll make you feel better.”
In 35 years of friendship there’s not many area restaurants where we haven’t met to share a meal in mid Michigan. She loved eating out for breakfast and our go-to place for many years was Jacobson’s (a local chain of pricey clothing/home stores in between Macy’s and Lord and Taylor). Diane’s cholesterol ran very high and she did everything she could to curb it, often ordering oatmeal which came with the tiniest 3 containers of brown sugar, raisins and milk. When she splurged and ordered an egg, it was over easy and always accompanied by 2 slices of bacon which she would dip into the yolk, for the good part.
In early November of 1987, John’s dad passed away so we were in Iowa for a week. We decided we would stay in Michigan for Thanksgiving and not make another Iowa trip until Christmas. When Diane found out we were celebrating without family she invited us to join hers for turkey time. (We did not realize the extent of their ‘immediate family’ which was the size of a small Iowa town). It was like renting an event center and filling it to capacity. I think we probably went unnoticed by at least 50 people.
Sad to say over the last couple years I’ve not seen Diane very often. She hadn’t been feeling well and had quite a few appointments with different specialists. We texted, talked on the phone and I wrote cards to let her know that without talking/canning/shopping/eating out, she remained an important part of my life and was thought about/prayed over and loved. We had breakfast for her birthday around Halloween. We talked and texted a few times about testing/biopsies/diagnosis she was going through. She sent me a birthday card and suggested lunch after we got back from Alabama. Her daughter Tracy let me know Diane went into Hospice care a couple weeks before we came home. Just after we got home Tracy texted her mom had been unconscious for a day and had slipped away during the night.
To friends and family in Diane’s life, the loss of such a wonderful, kind, dynamic, talented person cannot be replaced. But it’s our loss and heaven’s gain. Everyone knows she’s busier than a one-armed paper hanger (of course she could wallpaper) in heaven, adding beautiful baskets of hanging flowers, painted murals, decorations for the appropriate holiday and willowy bows to every Angel’s wings. Diane Marie Dunigan Smith, you are loved and missed…