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Rosie the Bag Lady


Janet Owenby

If you ever visit the small town of Waynesville, North Carolina, chances are you will see an old lady pushing a cart down Main Street. Most folks around here know her as Rosie the bag lady. Rosie is a short, white-haired lady, in her late eighties. Her only prized possession is the shopping cart she pushes around daily. The contents she carries within her shopping cart have become the prize possessions of many in this town and in many tourist homes across the United States. Rosie is not your ordinary bag lady, her shopping cart is filled with handmade quilts. Quilts she trades for food and shelter or sells for a very minimal price.

Rosie collects the cloth for her patchwork quilts from old clothing donated to her from yard sales. Sometimes Rosie collects old clothing from people's trash bins as well. She carefully pushes her loaded cart of her daily collections to the laundry matt, washing and sorting for the finest material that she can salvage from each old piece of clothing. This is her daily routine through the months of Summer and Spring. When the first colorful leaves of fall appear, Rosie disappears.

When the first fall of winter's snow lays upon the ground, Rosie will be seen again pushing a loaded cart, carefully covered with thick black plastic. People flock around the loaded cart waiting for Rosie to unveil her latest works of art. Rosie carefully holds up each lovely quilt for her audience. Rosie proudly explains each new design and where each tiny piece of material was found. Her customers often argue over who would be the first to own one of Rosie's fine handmade quilts.

During the blizzard of 1993, when the whole town was without power and heat, a little old white-haired lady was desperately trying to push a loaded cart through the snow heaps. A law enforcement officer concerned for her welfare, in the freezing blizzard, stopped to offer his assistance. "Ma'am I need to take you somewhere out of the cold," the officer stated pulling up along side the elderly lady.

"No, Thank-you sir that will not be necessary," Rosie replied, I have to deliver these quilts to the elderly.

"Quilts," the officer asked, "is that what you have in that shopping cart?"

"Yes sir," Rosie replied, nodding her head.

"Where did you get so many quilts?" asked the officer.

"Why sir, I made them with these two old hands of mine," replied Rosie.

"Well, I am going to have to get you and that cart out of the cold," said the officer.

"Look here officer, I ain't bothering no one and you have no right to take me anywhere," Rosie stated firmly. "Now if you would kindly move along sir, I need to get these quilts to the elderly before they freeze."

"What about you, aren't you concerned about yourself freezing to death in this blizzard?" asked the officer, with a sincere look upon his face.

"Do I look concerned?" asked Rosie, staring directly into the officer's eyes with a defiant look.

"I will make a deal with you Ma'am," said the officer. ‘I will take you wherever it is you need to deliver those quilts, if afterwards, you promise to let me take you somewhere out of the cold."

"Deal," said Rosie with a wide grin pasted on her weather beaten face.

The officer stepped out of his vehicle to help Rosie unload the quilts from the shopping cart. He carefully removed the thick, black plastic covering, Rosie had carefully tied around the high stack of quilts. He stood there in amazement staring at the most beautiful quilts, he had ever seen.

"You just going to stand there staring, sir, or are we going to load these quilts in your vehicle, before they are covered in snow?" asked Rosie impatiently.

"Sorry ma'am guess I was just a little shocked by the unexpected quality of your work," the officer replied, carefully taking an arm full of quilts from the cart.

"Not bad for a bag lady huh?" Rosie replied.

"I think you’re more than a bag lady. I would refer to you as a gifted seamstress with a unique artistic talent, " said the officer.

Rosie burst out laughing. She sat down, right in the middle of a big snow heap and laughed uncontrollably, kicking her feet in the air like she was peddling a bicycle. The officer thought for sure this lady must be drunk, on drugs, or totally insane. He stood there watching in shock, wondering what he had gotten himself into. Finally, Rosie regained her composure long enough to speak.

"Officer," said Rosie, pausing to make sure she had his undivided attention. "I know exactly what you're thinking and exactly what you are planning to do. You try and flatter old Rosie and all the time you are thinking I am nothing more than a thief. You think I stole those quilts. You are planning to run me in, while you check and make sure no one has any missing quilts. I maybe just a bag lady officer, but I am no fool. I may be a lot of thing’s officer, but I can assure you I am not a thief. I never took anything from anyone I did not work to pay for. I always pay my dues."

The officer stood there in shock staring at the tiny white-haired lady before him. How could she possibly have known what he had been thinking. Guilt now filled his insides, as he looked directly into her honest eyes. He knew he had been mistaken about this lady, she was not a drunk, insane or a thief.

"I am sorry I offended you Ma'am," said the officer, as he loaded the last of the quilts into the backseat of the car.

"I know if I had been driving a Cadillac and wearing a five-hundred dollar outfit, you would have never doubted my word," said Rosie, staring into the officer's eyes.

The stinging truth of Rosie's words shot through the officer's heart like an arrow. This little lady had made him realize just how judgmental he had become. He had already tried and convicted this kind lady in his mind. Simply because she drove a shopping cart. Without speaking another word, he climbed behind the wheel of his vehicle. Rosie took the seat beside him.

After several long minutes, the officer broke the silence. "Ma'am, my name is officer Woods," he said, glancing toward the little lady seated beside him. "May I inquire as to yours?"

"My name is Rosie," she replied.

"Do you have a last name," asked Officer Woods?

Rosie just stared at the officer with a blank look on her face.

"Your given name," said the officer. He thought she must have misunderstood the question.

"That would be Rosie the Bag Lady, I reckon it was a name given to me by everyone in this town," she said, laughing at her own joke.

The officer burst into laughter, amused by Rosie's quick wit. He could not help but wonder, who this lady really was and where she had come from. What her story was and how she had ended up pushing a cart full of quilts on the street. She seemed to be highly intelligent.

Rosie must have read the officer's thoughts. "I guess you’re curious about old Rosie," she said, looking across the seat at the officer. "I like you and I am going to tell you my story. The story no one knows about old Rosie. Once upon a time, I was a beautiful young princess who lived in a large castle. I was married to the prince of my dreams. I used to spend my days watching our little princess run through the large flower garden’s chasing butterflies."

The officer thought old Rosie was using her wit to get the best of him again. He almost laughed, till he saw the sad look that had fallen across her wrinkled leather face. Tears were falling from Rosie's eyes.

She reached inside her old ragged coat pocket, pulling out a leather bound pouch. She handed it to the officer. " Open it," she said.

The officer opened the leather pouch, removing the contents. A large diamond ring, a gold wedding band, a locket and several old black and white photographs.

"Read the inscriptions on the back of the locket and inside the wedding band," said Rosie.

The officer turned over the locket and read aloud the inscription on the back. "To my loving wife Rosie." The same inscription was engraved inside the thick gold wedding band. He carefully studied each of the photographs. A beautiful young lady holding a child on her lap, a handsome young man sitting beside them, with his arm proudly displayed around the gorgeous lady's shoulder. The next one, the same little girl, but older in this photograph. The last, the same handsome man placing a ring on a beautiful lady's finger inside a church. Rosie's wedding picture. He placed the items back in the pouch and returned them to Rosie.

"It was the winter of 1939," said Rosie. "Polio had plagued the city and my family  as stricken by the dreaded disease. I lost my husband and my daughter."

The officer fought back the tears that now threatened his eyes. He had noticed Rosie walked with a limp. He thought she must have been stricken by the polio and survived.

Rosie continued to give the officer the final details of her life story. She explained that after the funeral of her daughter and husband, she had simply walked away. Leaving behind the city where she was born and all of her possessions, accept for the leather pouch. She had walked from town to town over the next twenty years, taking jobs as a seamstress in various shops. In the summer of 1959, she had arrived in the small town of Waynesville, North Carolina. For the last thirty-four years, she had made this town her home and the kind people her family.

"Are any of your immediate family members still living?" inquired Officer Woods.

"My family members were adopted out to various homes over the years," said Rosie. "No one wanted a half-crippled child back in those days. Day after day, I watched the only sisters and brothers, I had ever known, carted away in some fancy vehicle."

Officer Woods realized Rosie's limp was not the result of polio, but a birth defect she had been born with. He and Rosie continued their journey down the icy country roads in silence. Stopping from door to door of the small country community, to deliver Rosie's handmade quilts to the elderly.

If you ask people in this town who Rosie is, some will simply say the old bag lady who pushes a shopping cart along the streets. If you ask the tourists who line up to purchase her quilts, they will say the most amazing seamstress, whoever lived. If you ask Officer Wood's, he will say, Rosie is the beautiful angel who delivers quilts to the elderly, during winter blizzards. The angel that has anonymously donated over two hundred handmade quilts to the Ellida Home Orphanage, located in Asheville, North Carolina, over the last thirty years.

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