Sometimes, when a large character in the small drama of our lives dies suddenly, unexpectedly, the loss is so shocking events following it seem almost surreal. After all, reality is a sketchy thing given the faulty observational/comprehension skills of us poor mortals. Andie Ray was just such a character; she crafted such an indelible public persona she might have existed on another plane, maybe in another era, another country.
I first met Andie in Maplehurst, that tiny enclave near downtown that, for a time, exemplified to many of us the closest thing to an artists’ colony Knoxville has ever had. The area had a certain mystique, its artist/writer residents a Bloomsbury aura. It was late 90s, a party in the Kristopher, a 5-story apartment building with a European feel, an Old World elegance. I don’t remember much about the party, but I remember Andie’s bedroom, her old iron bed with a white coverlet placed catty-corner between two bare windows overlooking the Tennessee River and strings of tiny white lights like stars overhead. It was magical.
I think Andie found her identity in Maplehurst, first in the paintings of turn-of-the-century women by her friend and neighbor there, Cynthia Markert, and then when she fell in love with a man who lives mostly in 1920s Paris. Together, they created a romantic, literary residence above Andie’s boutique on Market Square, then later built a house in an old design in Old North, a house that perpetuated the myth—French doors, lots of wood, art, books, a fireplace, always a dog and 2 or 3 cats, fresh flowers, a bottle of wine to share with friends.
You rarely saw Andie without a hat or wearing anything but long, slim skirts and coats, styles Colette or Zelda Fitzgerald might have worn. Sometimes, riding her pink bicycle across town, skirt and scarf flying, her woven basket full of flowers, a kid would call out, “Mary Poppins!” That, too, was a true comparison, not just a superficial resemblance but one of character–Andie Ray could talk to animals, was bold, smart, firm and persuasive in a showdown, and, if medicine was called for, made it go down easily.
Andie could have succeeded at any number of things. She had political instincts, a strong civic sense, and was always active in city and community organizations. Friends say she should have been on City Council, she would have made a great mayor or state representative, or, just as believable, she was meant for the stage. What struck me most was her love of animals. She was always rescuing cats and finding homes for them—one kitten, nearly frozen, she plucked from a snowbank along a mountain road, a few she nabbed from around restaurant garbage bins, several others from the dilapidated structures near the railroad tracks in Old City. She was good at convincing you that a cat was what was missing from your life. When my husband was living in a 3-story, 12,000 square foot building with a gray kitten named Wiggin, Andie coaxed him over to see a new litter. “Wiggin must be lonely all day in that big building,” she said, “why don’t you take two girls home and see which one he likes?” Well, you can imagine how far she would have gone with her recently acquired realtor’s license.
How to process such a loss, a loss that contains other losses, and, yes, our own eventual end? There are no words for something so incomprehensible. Emily Dickinson came close with her floundering dashes:
There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye–
Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.
No, we say at first, this can’t be; then, Stop all the clocks; and, finally, Come back, come back, even as a shadow, a dream. And that will be our comfort now, because Andie Ray will surely come back in our remembering. For those lucky enough to have known her, there is much to remember. Now, when we walk in Market Square, we will point to the building that is now gray and say, “It was once yellow, with flowers spilling from the window boxes and cat baskets below the display mannequins, a black Lab by the water bowl, an Art-Deco scroll above the front door announcing, Vagabondia, and when you walked inside, you were in another city, another country. It was like Paris in the Twenties.”