It takes a little while to notice all the sunflowers in the home of Don and Patsy Lee. Not vases full, necessarily, but images here and there. A ceramic tabletop, a painting, a holiday ornament that hasn’t made its way back into a Christmas storage box.
“Melinda always loved sunflowers,” says Patsy, looking over at a Marianne Phelps portrait of their youngest daughter beside her sister, Jennifer.
“We called her our human sunflower.”
About that time, other things start to come into focus – scores of photographs of the same smiling, beautiful young woman, plaques recognizing the Lees for their contributions to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a framed list of names – students who have received scholarships in someone’s memory. Melinda’s memory.
Seven years ago the Lees received a phone call from Lubbock. Melinda, an honor student at Texas Tech University, had been in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. “She was in intensive care for 54 days,” Patsy says. “She wasn’t able to speak, but she scribbled notes, and we kept them all. She was calm, so patient, so brave.”
After Melinda’s death, the Lees coped with their grief by keeping her memory alive through public speaking on the danger of alcohol abuse, through scholarships in her name, and through the everyday objects around them – down to the sunflower pin Don wore on his lapel to work every day until he retired. Patsy has a special necklace, an unbroken circle of tiny, exquisite sunflowers.
“Don had seen this article about James Avery, and it said that he had lost a child,” Patsy says. “So he wrote to Avery’s company and asked if someone could design a sunflower necklace, and explained why. Then about a week later, Don got a call, and it was James Avery. They had quite a lengthy visit, and he told Don that he had designed the necklace and that someone would be contacting him.”
Don says not only did Avery produce two necklaces, one for Patsy and another for Jennifer, the celebrated jeweler refused any payment and had his company destroy the mold.
“They told me that Mr. Avery just wanted to do this for us,” he says.
Like in most houses that have been turned into genuine homes, little things tell the story. Melinda’s room is a cheerful, sunny yellow that matches the smile on the face in the photos. In the guest room, walls were painted lilac because that’s where the couple put Patsy’s mother’s furniture, and that was her favorite color. In the den, an antique clock passed down from Patsy’s grandfather keeps watch over hundreds of family keepsakes.
“He was a doctor in this little town in Arkansas, and that was in his office. I remember talking to my parents over the phone and hearing the tick-tock, tick-tock of it when it was in their house. In fact, when Dad got a hearing aid, he would stand there and adjust it to that clock.”
Shelves are filled with items of sentimental value – “lots of clutter,” laughs Patsy – as opposed to show-off collectibles for purely decorative effect. Wedding pictures, granddad’s “shingle,” bronzed baby shoes from Melinda and Jennifer.
“Do people do that anymore?” asks Patsy. “Because one of our granddaughters doesn’t even seem to have shoes…she’s always barefooted!”
The Lees’ daughter, Jennifer, has given them three grandchildren – Michael, age 7, Sophie Melinda, 3, and Madeline, 1 – and the rowdy crew apparently brings a lot of joy into the household. The structure has been updated, and there’s plenty of room for horseplay in the spacious living room.
“We lived in one half of the house until they finished remodeling and then we lived in the other half. It was awful,” Patsy says.
The longest day?
“When they jack-hammered up the tile in the kitchen. They had not warned me. The cat used to hide under Melinda’s bed, and he would not come out until every single worker was gone.”
“We’ve been here since 1977,” Don says. “We had one of the last lots in Merriman Park North when Patsy found it…we talked about selling at some point. But we like this area – and you hate to move away from your church and all the friends you’ve made. Besides, I don’t think Patsy would want to live any more than five miles from NorthPark.”
She protests with a burst of laughter.
“Hey! I don’t go that often, Anyway, I admit I haven’t lived in many other neighborhoods, but I just think Lake Highlands is unique in that it really is a pretty close-knit family. On our street, we have five of the original homeowners still right here together. Melinda was in the first class that went all the way through Merriman Elementary.”
The Lees never talk for long without Melinda’s name coming up, but nothing in their demeanor or their light-filled, exuberant home makes this disheartening. Consider the engraved message on the small brass plaque by their front door: “This home is dedicated to the memory of Melinda Ann Lee.”
Isn’t that what all real homes are – dedicated to the people we love?