Loss of Madeira friend takes bit of city’s history

By Regina Villiers. Originally published January 11, 1995 in The Suburban Life, added August 14, 2014.

Miss Cleo Hosbrook

Miss Cleo Hosbrook


She was a remarkable woman and a most unique friend to me.  Her name was Cleo J. Hosbrook.

I think the “J” in her name stood for Jeanette, after her Aunt Jeanette, but I’m not sure about that.  I only know that it was important to her, and she always insisted that it be used in her name.

All little things were important to her, things like courtesy and dignity.  Oh, she could be as irascible as the next curmudgeon at times, but mostly she was a genteel woman who came from an era when you didn’t address your elders or teachers by first names.

Being both, she expected to be called “Miss Hosbrook.”  I once heard her correct someone who called her otherwise.  She was always addressed as “Miss Hosbrook,” until she went into the nursing home.

She was extremely intelligent, and she was always seeking the Grail of learning.  After her retirement, she spent much of her time reading, and we met regularly at the library, where she’d be reading poetry, or searching out the meaning of some phrase or term she’d heard, like “boondocks.”  At English, she was an expert.  Modern slang sometimes fazed her.

She was a caring person.  She cared about countless things, both great and small.  No cause or creature was too small for her to champion.  No subject or person too big for her to challenge.

She cared about all animals, but especially about cats that strayed up around her home.  All cats there landed in a home where they were treated royally.

Surely her house and grounds today are haunted by nuzzling noses and whispering paws, for many are buried there.  From “Yelly” to “Mama” and “Baby,” all were loved.

The ones who lived longest and were loved the most were “Kitsy,” “Bibby,” and then “Bibby Two,” who was the last love of her life.

She cared about her friends.  She was a shy person who did not reach out to people.  She chose her friends carefully, and could count her true friends on the fingers of one hand, with maybe a finger to spare.

But when she did decide you were a friend, her loyalty and generosity knew no bounds.  She was a friend who let you know you mattered, and she knew how to give you gifts.

Throughout my house are bits and pieces of her – paperweights, pictures, dried gourds from her yard, a black, velveteen cat with a tag around his neck that says, in her handwriting, “I sat on the window sill at Condon School for 25 years.”

Shortly after she went into the nursing home, a small box was delivered to my home with a message that she wanted me to have the contents.  Inside it were trinkets and small personal items of hers, including a ring.

It’s a bold, carved, silver ring, carved with the faces of comedy and tragedy.  It’s an unusual ring, and I traced down its history.  It was made in 1973 by a California artist, Guglielmo Cini, whose wife was the mother of Martin Milner, the actor.

I love this ring.  It never leaves my hand.

She cared about her students when she taught second-grade at Condon School, and her students cared about her.  Some of them, like Betty Jean Frush in Michigan and Jean Neska in Georgia, have written to her and kept in close contact for all the years after they grew up.

She cared about self-reliance.  Long before “Women’s Lib,” she was my model for independence.  After she quit teaching and got older, she quit driving.  But she kept her car.  It sat in her barn, and she kept her drivers license current.  She would walk to Montgomery to renew it.

She would also walk to Dr. Johnston’s office, carrying Kitsy and Bibby Two for their doctor’s appointments, a separate trip for each in their quaint little pet carriers.  She’d turn down any offers of assistance with a “maybe next year.”  Next year never would come.

She cared about her individuality.  She never pretended to be anything other than what she was, and she did what felt right for her.  I once saw her on a snowy Sunday, bundled in coat and hat, sitting on a bench in her yard, reading the Sunday newspaper.  She was delighted about the new snow sand wanted to enjoy it firsthand.

She cared about her yard.  She loved flowers and all growing things.  She loved pointing out all the old plants growing in her yards – rhubarb planted by her grandfather, the hostas, the white violets, the antique rose by the front gate, the hens and chickens succulents on the old stone well, and dug by her father.  She gave me “starts” of them all, and now they grow in my yard.

She cared about Madeira.  When she gave her home and her property to Madeira, she never expected nor wanted the controversy that followed.  The controversy made her last years unhappy.

She had always given gifts of herself to her friends, and so she gave what she loved most to the town she loved most.  She loved this town with a love few can understand.

She was fiercely proud of its history and wanted it to last forever.  And she had every right to feel that way.  Her family on both sides built this town and helped make it what it is.

She cared about fun and laughter.  She liked to tease my son, Kelly, about eating what she called “ketchup sandwiches,” their little joke.  They like each other and were two of a kind, two kindred spirits marching to beats that no one else ever hears.

She wasn’t all sweetness and light.  She had a dry wit and a caustic tongue for anyone who invaded her privacy without being invited, or anyone who brought up the subject of her age, and you won’t hear it from me now.

Let’s just say she lived a long, happy, full life, in her own fashion, up until recent years.  She was not a woman who could easily give up her pride, her dignity, and the sense of privacy and independence she had fought all her life to maintain, in exchange for nursing home life.

She is the last of the Madeira Hosbrooks.  We will not see the likes of her again.  But I am grateful for the time she was here and that she was a friend who graced my life, and whose memory lives on in the sunlight sparkling through the antique glass paperweights on my desk, and the geode on my kitchen windowsill.

Rest easy, good friend.

Miss Cleo J. Hosbrook died at 10 p.m. Friday Jan. 6, at the Madeira Nursing Home.