Current Occupation: Salem, Oregon freelance writer/editor
Former Occupation: I worked for several years in corporate and marketing communications for a large insurance company.
Contact Information: After years of writing about loss ratios, risks, new products and dealing with organizational politics, I finally escaped the dreary, gray world of cubicles. I am now on a happy, new path of writing fiction and poetry. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com
As soon as I entered the doors of True Light Christian Church in the small town of Ricksdale for G. Ellen’s memorial service, a chubby young woman approached. “Thank you for coming,” she said, handing me a program. She stared at my fashionable gray pantsuit and Stuart Weitzman heels.
I extended my hand. “I’m Beth Terryjack. I used to work with Ellen at Braddock and Burdick Financial up at the Portland headquarters.”
She tucked the programs under the arm of her cotton blouse and clasped my hand with both of hers. “Ah yes,” she said. A warm smile lit her face. “Aunt Gwen was a shrewd business woman.”
- Ellen sat a few cubicles away from my windowed office in the Marketing Division. The G stood for Gwen, but she used the lone initial followed by her middle name at work. I guess she thought it made her sound more corporate, even though her physical appearance never matched the image she apparently had of herself.
She was a short, middle-aged, rosy-cheeked beach ball of a woman with chin-length brown hair streaked with gray. I knew from office scuttlebutt that G. Ellen suffered from diabetes, knee problems and, at times, hard-core depression. Climbing stairs left her winded. She never married.
She had landed in the maze of cubicles on the fifth floor of our company four years ago. The then new management relieved her of the marketing manager position she held in one of our branch offices and reassigned her. The big boss, the full-of-himself CEO, totally disregarded Ellen’s solid track record, her years of service, and her very likeable personality. In his mind, heavy-set people made poor company representatives. He made no bones about how he felt. Mr. Big would strut around the boardroom and make derisive comments about “land whales,” his term for obese women. People from accounting were “pencil necks,” janitors were “losers,” and some poor bloke from human resources “a pisser and moaner who couldn’t wipe his own butt.” I guess he never noticed his own jowls, his bald head, or the way his own gut obscured his belt.
- Ellen passed her days presenting canned training programs to the sales force and recording their continuing ed hours, so they could retain their licenses. Food became her opiate as she piled on more pounds.
A spray of white lilies and mums stood by the pulpit at the front of the church. I took a seat near the rear. There were no pews. We all sat on gray padded church chairs, which made the sanctuary seem more like a meeting room. I glanced around the half-filled room of ordinary folks—family, church people, a couple of crying babies, a lot of jeans, and no corporate suits. I didn’t see anyone else from work except Val, the friendly copy center gal, and Stella, the division secretary, who remembered everyone’s birthday and organized the anticipated “treat day” celebrations. I hadn’t known G. Ellen that well, but I considered her a worthy colleague. So where was Eric, her immediate supervisor, or the rest of her team⸻all those folks she interacted with on a daily basis?
The minister was a pleasant woman, somewhere in her fifties I’d guess, with dark-rimmed glasses and short, overly-permed auburn hair who punctuated her speech with distracting “ums.” From her, I learned, “Gwen’s parents … um … are no longer living. She … um … is survived by two sisters, a brother and several nieces and …um … nephews. She lived her last days alone in the cute house on Elm Street with her beloved cat, Groucho, and was supported by an adoring family who helped with the yard and housework, especially after her health started to decline. She … um … was sixty-two years old.”
Once the minister concluded her welcoming remarks and Ellen’s brief bio, she read scripture, and offered a prayer. She finished with, “Amen and Amen. Gwen wasn’t able to enjoy a long retirement, but she’s in God’s hands now.” After that, she introduced a young man from the church choir who sang “How Great Thou Art.”
Finally, it was time for open sharing. A somber nephew told how Aunt Gwen had read to him as a child and helped pay his college tuition. “Thank you, Auntie,” he said, looking up at the ceiling. He wiped away a tear. “I know you’re in heaven with Jesus.”
Friends from her high school class remembered her as a shining star, only they all referred to her as Gwen or Gwennie, never as G. Ellen. A ruddy-faced, heavy-browed man in baggy jeans told about the time they had all piled into Gwen’s old Falcon on senior skip day, chugged off to the coast, and got stuck in the sand. “It was a bucket of bolts,” he said, “but Gwen loved that car. We all got grounded for being late.” His story brought a low hum of laughter from the crowd.
A bent, gray-haired grandma-type shuffled to the microphone. She introduced herself as Gwen’s home ec teacher and described the fancy purple dress Gwen had made in her class. “Let me tell you, it was real pretty. It won a blue ribbon at the county fair.”
Choking back tears, other family members filled in more of her history. After graduating from college, Gwen traveled to Europe, taught high school English, became an expert on Chaucer, and then left teaching in her twenties to work for the corporation.
They said that word with such pride, as if Ellen had reached the Promised Land. “She was so organized,” her niece told the audience, pausing to swallow. “Aunt Gwennie used to paste those little sticky notes all over the place, including the fridge and the bathroom mirror. If you messed with one of Gwennie’s stickies, she knew it. Even when she quit work, she was a dyed-in-wool business woman.”
Odd. Maybe she was at one time, but that wasn’t the Ellen I knew. I recalled a meeting we’d had to plan the annual marketing convention—a big corporate deal. She came with a folder, which she accidentally dropped on the floor. When the papers scattered, she became discombobulated. I tried to help her put things back in order, but we were pressed for time, and I have to admit I’d left shaking my head. I wished now I had reached out to her.
In a quavering voice, her sister, a stocky but taller version of G. Ellen, presented a slide show of memories. Gwen’s mother had been a stay-at-home mom, and her father pulled green chain in a mill outside Ricksdale where they all grew up. Gwen was valedictorian for her graduating class, was elected president of this and that, and even sported a crown as a May Day princess, wearing what else⸻the award-winning purple dress.
Back then, she was chubby, but in the flush of youth, it looked more like baby fat minus the rolls and thick calves that came later. Her brown hair was shoulder length, and she had this radiant, young smile. That smile gleamed in the photo of her receiving a scholarship to Oregon State. Ellen was the first one in her family to complete college. They were darned proud of that too.
Such bright hope, I thought, such a promising start for a young woman any parent would be honored to claim and any company would be proud to hire. Sadly, like a wounded songbird falling from the sky, it all ended in a downward spiral. I dabbed my eyes.
After becoming pigeonholed at work, G. Ellen never smiled much, and she was sick a lot. Maybe that happens when one minute you’re a star, the next an also-ran, when you’re undervalued, putting in time, and your unchallenged mind sprouts weeds.
“What happened to Ellen?” I had asked Charlotte, a marketing research analyst, and the company “knower-of-all-things.” I’d suddenly realized G. Ellen’s cubicle had been empty for some time and looked “picked over ”⸻an unseemly practice of co-workers descending like buzzards on a former employee’s office space in search of a better chair, stapler, or calculator.
After twenty-five years with the company, I knew Ellen was eligible for early retirement, but I didn’t remember a party.
Charlotte constantly checked new employee directories against old ones, so she could keep track of people who mysteriously “went missing” from the corporation. She reached for the small three-ring binder on her desk, flipped it open, and announced, “Ellen’s not in it anymore,” as if quoting scripture.
“So, she actually did retire then,” I said. “Was it because of the diabetes?”
“Who knows?” Charlotte said. “Stuff like that is confidential. She had a lot of problems.”
“You’d think there would’ve been a card, a farewell lunch . . . something. I mean after all those years.”
Charlotte stared at me over the blue-framed reading glasses resting on the tip of her large, hooked nose, making her look like an educated parrot. “You should check with Stella about that. She’s the party queen.”
“I already did. She was clueless.”
“Look, whenever there’s a regime change, everything shifts. They’re always looking for new blood or have cronies that need jobs. It’s best to keep your ears open and your head down. Wait for the next czar to make things better.”
“I’m fifty-eight. That’s not going to happen in my lifetime.” My shoulders drooped.
She waved me off. “Just sayin’.”
When the slide show finished, the minister announced a “celebration of life” reception. “It will be in the church social hall, following our closing prayer … um … there will be coffee, punch, snacks and … um … Gwen’s favorite blueberry cheesecake.”
While waiting for the service to wind down, my mind shifted to an ending of my own. In fact, it wasn’t long after Ellen had “disappeared” from the corporation, that Hastings, the marketing veep, called me into his office and showed me a draft of his new “reorganization” plan, all the time checking his watch. I had taken in my notepad expecting to get an assignment, but instead, he drew a line through my management position on the Marketing Division organization chart, claiming the department had to downsize. “You do a great job, okay?” he said, his beefy face reddening. “It’s just that with this economy, well … the big boss wants to flatten the organization, okay?”
“So, you’re flattening me?” I set the notepad on my lap, so he wouldn’t see my shaking hands.
“Not exactly. We’re … uh … moving you over to special projects.” He forced a smile exposing the small gap between his two front teeth. “You’ll still be reporting to me,” he said, as if that were some prize. He penciled in another awkward box for me somewhere off to the side and down, but with a dotted line. He checked our meeting off his “to do” list, ran his hand through his thinning, see-through hair, and ushered me out, never looking me in the eye.
I stood for a moment in the hallway stunned, my armpits wet. What had just happened? Who was I now? Being pushed out and down was tough news for anyone, but especially for me—a middle-aged woman. The world wasn’t exactly waiting for us. Special projects? That was the corporate graveyard.
Six months later, the CEO’s snappy, young son-in-law, Richard, (slicked back hair, three-piece suits, methodical brain, brown-nosing ass kisser) showed up to do my “old” job; only it had a different title, so how could it have been mine?
“You’re still in the directory,” Charlotte had said, trying her best to console me. “That’s something.”
The congregation sang, “When We All Get to Heaven.” I sat there like a sack of flour unable to join in. Afterward, the minister offered a prayer.
As people slowly filed out to attend G. Ellen’s reception, I saw Stella and Val slip out a side door. I followed the crowd to the church basement, but not knowing anyone, stood in the corner sipping a glass of tasteless red punch from a Styrofoam cup.
That’s something,” I heard a male voice in the distance say.
Something. I had no idea what he was talking about, but hearing that word triggered memories of my awful meeting with Hastings. A queasy feeling crept into my gut. My face flushed. The crowded room seemed to close in like I was wrapped in a giant rug. I crushed the empty cup in my hand and tossed it into the trash. Before leaving, I glanced at the photos of Ellen’s life displayed on a memory table near the entrance. Off to one side was a colorful bouquet of paper roses made out of Post-it Notes, a final tribute to a much loved aunt and sister. I mouthed, “Goodbye G. Ellen, I never knew the real you.” I fingered the edge of one of the roses. “I truly wish I had.”
Outside in the cool air, I took several deep breaths, glad I’d come and pleased to have represented the employment side of G. Ellen’s life to her family. But as I hurried toward my car, it became clear to me—I had to leave the corporation before it killed me, too.