It seems my co-worker Inge and her hubby almost-accidentally discovered sand on their land north of the city “just like the Beverly Hillbillies struck oil,” she'd laughed. (She saw herself as Ellie May. I told her she was more Granny or Miss Jane. She hated that.)
They’d signed a ten-year contract with some sand people who’d be trucking the stuff off-site for big bucks, affording them the luxury of abandoning the 9-to-5. Previously only hobby horsepeople, they'd now be able to devote all their time to equestrian pursuits.
Initially, her impending departure delighted me - because goddammit, her work habits were so bloody irritating. She was like an over-grown teenager, lacking a concept of what’s supposed to happen in a workplace. I could hardly wait to be free of her.
See, I’m more of a Protestant Work Ethic kinda guy and Inge was whatever is the opposite of that. Only occasionally on time in the morning, her arrival was contingent on external factors like weather, traffic, family obligations, her son’s school bus etc etc.
Cigarette breaks, snack breaks, schmoozing-with-the-supervisor breaks, taking off midday to move her car from one side of the street to the other; you get the picture. There was always something coming between the girl and her duties.
When she didn’t happen to be speaking to anyone in particular, she’d be talking to herself or making random sounds, sequestered in her corner cubicle. And I’m sorry but I like my quiet.
One afternoon, for example, she was back in her little space, out of view and yammering away about her agitation over the different pronunciations of the word 'tomato': “How come some people say toMAYto and others say toMAHto???” she grumbled, “It’s madness. Why do folks have to bicker about the most trivial things? It’s a complete waste of time. Is arguing about it so necessary? Can’t people agree on anything???” And thus she carried on, bemoaning variant tomato pronunciations.
I turned to another colleague and said, with a wink and so all could hear, “Oh Inge, I do think there’s something we can all agree on…”
Well you had to be there. But trust me when I tell you it was a brilliant moment. Everyone laughed and Inge shut up. She was furious, but only in the transitory way an older sister might feel towards her younger bro. She never got deeply angry or held a grudge. She didn’t know how.
I loved teasing Inge for the sport of it, partly because she deserved it and partly because it was just so darn easy. She set herself up for it by flagrantly spurning workplace standards of conduct and remaining true to her own natural impulses.
Her reactions to my jabs were invariably dramatic - supreme reinforcement for an upstart like me: first she’d flare up and get red in the face and then she’d pout. Oh, how I loved to make Inge pout.
She was a dream target. I used to tell her she wasn’t really a co-worker; she was more like an office mascot, on the payroll for the entertainment of others. This, of course, would infuriate her. Privately, I’d advise her to tone down the dramatic responses and not encourage me by getting all hysterical, but that only made her angrier still. Of course she didn't follow my advice - she probably couldn't.
I gave her every opportunity to shut me down, but underneath it all, I'm sure she loved my antics as much as she loved me. I know she did. How could she not? I was her baby brother and she thought I was cute. And I loved her back, I have to admit. She was the ornery sis' I never had.
Everyone subscribed to The Inge Show - even the boss - partly because she gave him cigarettes but mainly because she was so likeable. She knew no strangers. Newcomers warmed up to her immediately. She was the girl-next-door who made everyone feel comfortable in their shoes. And she wouldn’t gossip, as much as one might try to wrangle confidential bits out of her. God knows I tried.
Underneath her adolescent tendencies, she was a good egg. You couldn’t help but be charmed by Inge. She made it fun to go to work in the morning. I miss her cubicle cacophony more than I ever thought possible.
After thirty-plus years of university employment, Inge’d attended plenty of farewell dinners. She anticipated it'd be real peculiar being the guest of honor at such an event. She could hardly take it seriously since the sand windfall had been pretty much a fluke and she was awfully young to be retiring. So she mocked the whole affair - tongue-in-cheek, mind you - and told the boss she'd agree to be the princess for a dinner out on the town, but only reluctantly.
So the boss went out to the Dollar Store and purchased a tiara for Princess Inge and presented it at the restaurant along with the other farewell gifts. She wore it for the duration of the meal, good sport that she is – then to work the next day too, which was her last.
And I bawled like a schoolgirl.
(photos by Kathleen VanderNoot-Resch)