For the longest time, I had no idea who Boots Condrey was, other than a tiny sprite of a woman, delicate-featured, always beautifully dressed, quiet-spoken — a Southern lady with whom I had nothing in common. Or so I imagined. The first time I remember talking to her at any length was in February, during the planning stages of our church’s first annual art exhibit. Toward the end of that initial conversation Boots mentioned something about painting.
“You paint?” I asked with surprise.
She smiled, laughed a bit, and nodded. “Yes,” she replied.
And thus our friendship began.
The occasion for my first “official” visit to Boots’ house was to help her select three pieces for the art show, which was coming up in April. There were so many paintings to choose from and I had so many favorites that I had to call another friend to help with the selection. There were still lifes, country scenes, birds, cotton fields, snowmen, tango dancers, and many, many more. When she told me she had only been painting for four years, I could hardly believe it. How could she have created so many beautiful works in so short a time?
If I had known Boots better, I wouldn’t have been surprised. She dives into life with a joy and zest that dazzles me. She began studying classical piano when her son Ronnie was in high school and was learning to play guitar. Since she was already giving Ronnie a ride to music lessons, she figured she may as well learn how to play an instrument herself. One of my favorite Boots stories took place when her granddaughter came down for a visit.
“Play for me, Granny Boots,” she begged.
“No,” was the answer. “You don’t want to hear me.”
“Yes, I do!” insisted the granddaughter.
Finally, Boots gave in, but she didn’t choose a flowing, sedate classical piece. I can imagine the twinkle in her eye when she sat down at that piano bench and pounded out Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire!
For years, Boots designed and sewed her own clothes, including the fancy gowns she wore when she and her first husband Joe (and later Bill) went ballroom dancing. Quite the dancer, she and her partners have won numerous competitions since she began in 1967.
She and husband Joe had one child, Ronnie, who grew up to marry his high school sweetheart.
“We all laughed a lot. We had so much fun,” Boots recalls.
Boots and Joe had been married for twenty years when he was killed in a car crash. Devastated, she returned to Arkansas to spend some time with her parents. “After I got back to Memphis, a girl from work came over and stayed with me at night for a while. She could tell I wasn’t doing too well, and she finally said, “Boots, you need to get back to dancing”, so I did.
Several years later, Boots met Bill. “He and Joe were so different,” she muses, “but they were both wonderful. I’ve had two very good husbands.”
Boots always keeps a bowl of candy on her kitchen counter. Help yourself to a piece of butterscotch and then step out the door into her back yard. Walkways turn this way and that and are bordered by flowers, stone figures, gazing balls, garden benches, tables, and whimsical metal sculptures. Everywhere you look there are surprises. She keeps it immaculate too. If the patio needs pressure washing, she rents a machine and takes care of it herself. If a stray branch needs to be cut up and hauled to the street, she whips out her chainsaw and makes quick work of it.
“I’m a farm girl. I can do anything,” she declares. “Besides, who else is going to do it? People always say, ‘Honey, why don’t you just sit down?’ But I can’t. I’m just wired, I guess. My daddy never let us sit down. We were always busy.”
Joyful too, I would add, and quick to both tears and laughter. She has suffered great losses through the years: her beloved father died five months after she lost Joe. Later, her only child Ronnie and his wife passed away, and Bill’s funeral was just a few months ago. She credits God and friends with helping her get through the hard times. “Even with all the sorrow I’ve had in my life, I still laugh a lot,” she says. “When we were children, my sister and I used to laugh so much at the dinner table that Daddy sometimes had to make one of us leave.”
Lula (or “Boots” – her father’s nickname for her) moved from her parents’ farm in Williford, Arkansas, to Memphis when she was 21 years old, worked for Hillhaven Nursing Home for a while, then spent 25 years with a brokerage firm before her retirement. Besides working out regularly at the Y, she takes art lessons, piano, and yoga every week.
What’s next? Boots, her eyes sparkling, doesn’t miss a beat before she answers, “I’m thinking of taking up the violin.”