It was with a heavy heart that I sat down on Monday to write the article about Charlotte Stafford’s death. I just couldn’t shake the sadness that had clung with me since I learned of her passing on Friday. And it seemed that with each sentence I wrote, the tears fell harder.
As heavily as the task weighed on me, I wouldn’t have shirked this particular duty for the world. Charlotte had a special place in my heart, and I cherished the opportunity to pay tribute to this remarkable woman, who was a living part of the richly woven tapestry of Oxford’s history. And it was an honor to know that the lady historian herself had asked that I pen her final memorial.
It was almost two years ago that Charlotte first welcomed me into her home. The very house, constructed by her grandfather, where she was born and, on Friday, surrounded by the community she loved, died.
I was still in my first week at The Evening Sun, and I’d been assigned to write a feature on Charlotte to complement our coverage of Oxford’s bicentennial. It will come as no surprise to those who had the privilege of knowing her – for it was indeed a privilege – that what was originally intended to be a brief interview stretched into more than two hours.
I hardly noticed the passing of the time, however, lost as I was in Charlotte’s stories of Oxford’s past. I was simply enthralled – and awed – by all she knew about the community we both called home. I couldn’t take it in or take it down fast enough. When I remembered I was supposed to be taking notes, that is.
As she regaled me with tales of famed paleontologist Barnum Brown, little Merritt Beardsely, the Merrill sisters and her own family’s history, I also got a sense of Charlotte herself. She was inquisitive, intelligent, dignified, elegant, kind although not overly affectionate, independent, opinionated, witty, wise and wonderful. I imagine she would have been a force to be reckoned with if you had the misfortune of crossing her, because she was also fiercely independent, despite her failing health, and could be opinionated and obstinate, too. But those were all things that added up to the whole package. The human being who was, so uniquely, Charlotte.
When I’ve asked people to describe her, I’ve heard the same phrase over and over.
“Charlotte was something else,” they’d tell me, and I’d have to chuckle a little. Because it really was so fitting, and so very Charlotte.
There were other afternoons spent sitting in that same living room, listening to her tales of Oxford’s history. When I couldn’t make it down to see her, I kept up to date on her projects by exchanging emails with Vicky House, who was, as I described her in my Monday article, the historian’s caregiver, companion and friend. But she was also so much more than that to Charlotte.
Last April, the two embarked on a trans-atlantic voyage aboard the Queen Mary 2, to celebrate Charlotte’s ninetieth birthday. My favorite photo of Charlotte was taken in the wood paneled library of that ship. And I think of it every time I make use of the Queen Mary 2 mug she brought back for me as a souvenir of the trip. (I imagine she must have bought cases of them, since I know I wasn’t the only one who received one to commemorate the occasion.)
I knew something was wrong when Vicky showed up at my office one morning a few months later. I cried when she told me of Charlotte’s stroke. We put out a call to those who knew Charlotte, asking for cards and notes to both bolster her spirits. Within a few short days, they started flooding in. Vicky told me how much that meant to Charlotte, and how much they had aided in her recovery.
My communications had become more and more infrequent with Charlotte and Vicky over the last months, as Charlotte required more care. But a little over two weeks ago I got a phone call from Vicky, saying that Charlotte had been asking for me. And a few days later, I found myself once more in that downstairs living room. In my heart, I knew I was there to say good-bye.
Miss Charlotte, you will be so dearly missed. May the Lord bless you and keep you. Rest in peace.