Into the lobby of Greenfield Assisted Living stepped a vision of sassy Christmas cheer. She was bedazzled in glitz, animal prints and smiles with a blinking holiday-light necklace draped around her neck and antlers sprouting from her head. Now burned into my memory like some nuclear-powered yule log, this was my first glimpse of the force of nature that was Colleen Black.
Colleen entered my life as a potential interview subject for the book I was writing at the time, The Girls of Atomic City. She was surprised I wanted to talk to her about her role in the Manhattan Project. After all, she assured me, she had no idea what she was working on at the time. While she couldn't imagine why I would want to hear about her adventures as an 18-year-old single gal living and working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, I couldn't imagine this vibrant 80-something-year-old not having plenty to say once I'd sat with her for a bit. Boy, was I right.
Long after interviews were logged and the manuscript edited, Colleen and I stayed in touch. We wrote and called, and I often visited whenever I was in town for an event. If I didn't get a hold of her beforehand, I always knew I could find her holding court at Panera's after morning mass, where their old-timer's coffee klatch often turned into impromptu book signings for Colleen. Friends and strangers often approached and asked her to sign their copies of The Girls of Atomic City. Colleen would write to tell me about these and other "celebrity" experiences, as she called them. She was Skyping with book clubs across the country, speaking to school kids down the road, and charming everyone in her path with her ration tales, wartime songs and Irish country wit, all wrapped up in that Tennessee twang.
I have a collection of collages Colleen has sent me over the years, most of them given to me long after the work on my book was done. Photos casually snapped in her apartment showed up in my inbox and mailbox, draped with historic news clippings and photos of the other atomic city "girls." She was always there with a daily joke or up-by-your-bootstraps encouragement, with remembrances and prayers for my own mother, who is next to me as I type this, sleeping, waking and sleeping again, nearing the end of her own time with me. Colleen's daughter Suzanne called me earlier today to tell me that Colleen had died this morning. We had been in touch, Suzanne and I, two daughters waiting and watching as the mothers they loved began to move on from this world.
She is a collage all her own now, my Colleen. My mind today is a visual mish-mash of leopard-spotted, fuzzy-slippered, sing-songy snippets of chats—both on the record and off— and babblings over cheap wines with goofy or naughty names that gave her a giggle. (Fat Bastard was a house favorite.) Colleen died as she lived, surrounded by family and song and love, held close in the hearts of many of us who knew the joys of her friendship. I will lift a glass of Marilyn Merlot in her honor. I can almost hear her laughing.