People often say that music was harmless fun. It wasn’t. It must have terrified the terrorists. When people came to see us, sectarianism was left outside the door of the dancehall. They came in, they were brought together and they enjoyed the same thing. They looked at each other and thought, there’s not much difference here, and nature was doing its course. That’s the power of music and I think that every musician that ever stood on a stage, north of the border during those decades, every one of them was a hero.
It happened in the summer of my twelfth year, in the early hours of July 31, 1975. Five members of The Miami Showband – affectionately known as the Irish Beatles – were heading home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. Their drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family members. On a narrow country road outside Newry, the band was flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) checkpoint. Such an incident was ‘normal’ in 1970s Northern Ireland, so there would have been no need to be alarmed. But then the men in uniform ordered the band members out of their vehicle to stand by the roadside while the soldiers conducted a check of the back of the van.
I don’t know at what point, standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint, that they would be the victims of a vicious and premeditated ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As they waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of the van. It exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three band members.
There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Twenty-two times. Vulnerable and on the ground, he begged for mercy from men who kept shooting. Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Travers was seriously wounded and survived only by pretending to be dead. Later, he recalled the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.
Forty-two years later, sitting in my sunny kitchen on the other side of the Atlantic, the shock and revulsion return, along with the fear I felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio. Instantly, I am transported to the kitchen of my childhood home on the Dublin road. My mother is ironing one of my father’s shirts, at the same time shaking her head in disbelief and muttering to God. It was unimaginable – these young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the showband scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road.
Naively, we had believed musicians were immune. The Miami Showband had represented what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries. In his address to The Hague some years later, Stephen Travers would recollect his band as “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” But on that night in 1975, what happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else. It became known as “The Day The Music Died,” but such a tagline does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, or the harrowing legacy of it.
In the months and years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were afraid. Word on the street was that Northern Ireland’s musical life was over. The showband scene was over, and performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety. With this increased risk, performing in Northern Ireland became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings. Belfast became a ghost town. People stayed at home.
Our wee country had become a “no go” area. A place not to go to. Although I was only a child, I knew I wanted out.
Lovers of live music grew accustomed to canceled gigs, to more bombings and more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living. Performers were warned to stay away, and most took heed. A few – too few – kept going, like Rory Gallagher, who played Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him!
Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.
– excerpt from early 70’s Belfast underground paper,’Take One’.
Like The Miami – and a former showband player himself – Rory would have known that when the music played, no one would have known that our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around him. Music was the alternative and in time, there would be a punk rock anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music could save us all –
When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.
That’s the power of music and those who make it. Music is about hope – infinite hope – and it is about bringing us closer together. When asked about the men who murdered his friends, Des Lee stresses that there is no point in holding grudges for over four decades. Instead, he asks that we never forget them, that we remember Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, and Brian McCoy.
. . . we were just a bunch of innocent young musicians, doing our job. We weren’t interested in politics. We played everywhere, north and south. We just wanted to make people smile for a few hours. And that’s why Ireland should never be allowed to forget The Miami Showband.
I don’t know John McCain. I don’t know if he cried when he learned of his cancer diagnosis. I don’t know how he feels about expectations of him to beat it because, after all, he has proven – in the context of war – that he is a fighter: “Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon,” says Donald Trump. From Barack Obama, “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.” McCain’s demonstrated toughness, his heroism in Vietnam, has absolutely no bearing on how cancer will treat him. It’s enough to be handed a devastating diagnosis without also being told you can beat it. What if you don’t? Does that mean you didn’t battle hard enough? Moxie alone is simply no match for the disease.
Cancer. When I heard it got me, I cried as though I had just found out that someone dear to me had died. Inconsolable at first, I assumed those great fat tears flowed from the sheer fright of a disease that has no cure. Five years later, I know my sorrow was more about wondering how to proceed toward the half-century mark without the woman I used to be. Oddly, nobody else seemed to notice she had vanished. Not even the nurse who delivered the news to me in much the same way as my mother might call to tell me a childhood friend or a distant relative has died – reverent, hushed, kindly.
Even today, if I shut my eyes, I can just discern the shadow of my former self, standing up and walking out the door, mortally offended by that nice Breast Cancer Navigator informing my husband and me that I had cancer.
Conspiratorial and quiet, reminiscent of whispered speculations about a cause of death when all the evidence points to hard living, on and on she talked. Her carefully chosen words filled my ears with fear, even as she stressed that what I was hearing that day in her dimly-lit office was definitely not a death sentence. Nonetheless, I heard a crack. The sound of a life altered that even so many months and years later, has me wondering how I should respond to Muriel Rukeyser‘s question:
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Is it because it is invisible, like the actor who, having exited the stage, falls silent and slips behind the scenes until the encore? Or is it the treatment that belies cancer’s smugness, mine so cleverly concealed in 1,825 innocent-looking pills that I promised to consume over the next five years? Whatever it is, I soon found that many of my friends and acquaintances were skilled in deftly averting their eyes from mine and not talking about it. In retrospect, what ailed me was easy to avoid – the persistent and gnawing dread, brief but boiling hot flashes due to a chemical menopause caused by Tamoxifen, aching joints, nausea, and fatigue. All these can swoop below the radar in a way that a head made vulnerable and bald by chemotherapy cannot. What had I expected? The details of my pathology report on a perpetual crawl across the bottom of the CNN screen so no one would forget about me? My name spelled out in pink lights across the front of a Safeway supermarket in October? No. I craved good old-fashioned sympathy, long phone conversations into the night, and endless cups of tea. I did not want people telling me I was brave or in their prayers or that cancer was a gift or that it was part of God’s plan for me or that there must have been something – something – I did or didn’t do that contributed to the cancer that was crashing in on me and turning everything upside down, inside out.
I wanted home. I wanted my mother, but she was too far away. I wanted to hear the comforting colloquialisms that pour from rainy, rural Northern Ireland, phrases that remain elusive in the desert southwest of these United States, its mountains baking in the predictable sunshine. Home brings the language I know and love, like the words of a neighbor from my childhood that leaped from a Facebook page: “It must be so difficult to cope with that burden when you are so far from your mammy. I’m sure she is all you want at the minute, as always, when trouble visits your door.” When trouble visits your door … when I hear that phrase, I am instantly 12 years old again, in the house where I grew up, stretched out on the good settee, trying to concentrate on a new Enid Blyton book rather than the blistering chicken pox my mother tried to soothe with great chunks of cotton wool saturated in Calamine lotion.
For me and the woman I used to be, cancer became the scariest thing in my life, because, like every scary thing that actually happens, it had never crossed my mind. Nor had the death of my husband exactly two years following my diagnosis. Given this trauma, you would think I no longer waste precious minutes fretting over things that most likely will never happen – but I do.
So cancer happened, and I wanted everyone to feel as sorry for me as I did for myself. I wanted to howl about the unfairness of it all at a no-holds-barred pity party. I did not want to be a warrior with a pink ribbon tattoo. I could not have predicted the impact of the let-down, placated by people I consider my friends who told me I had no need to worry because I was strong and a fighter and someone to whom God would give only as much as I could handle. I was told I should be grateful for my good fortune because I had the “good cancer.” I was on the pig’s back, beyond lucky to be the beneficiary of what they deemed a fine consolation prize – what they considered a tummy tuck and a boob job following the amputation and reconstruction of the right breast I wish I still had. I recall a lunch time conversation during which a colleague congratulated me on still looking like myself – “No one would ever know you had cancer” – and five minutes later someone who barely knew me chided me when she found out I wasn’t “doing chemo,” as if it were something akin to laundry or a pile of dishes or sit-ups. There was the woman who told me to basically shut up and just get on with it. She told me to “put my big girl panties on,” with a nod to God because, you know, I could handle what He had given me. There were others who have still to utter the word C-A-N-C-E-R in my presence, let alone inquire about how I have fared with it all. I make excuses for them, guilty that I make them uncomfortable, showing up in the world every day, reminding them that cancer gets people like the person I used to be, people like them. I envy their good health. More guilt.
So the dance continues. If I don’t mention it, you won’t mention it, and maybe it will go away. Or maybe it won’t, and then what will we do? Will we swallow the words we are too scared to say and instead spit out tired cliches about doing battle and platitudes about the power of positive thinking? Trickier, I suspect, to ignore the recurrence of cancer, to feign indifference to it, once it has been roused from its slumber. What do you do, especially now that they have bestowed the ‘survivor’ mantle upon you?
a “survivor” as anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. National Cancer Survivors Day affords your community an opportunity to demonstrate that it has an active, productive cancer survivor population.
Was I surviving before I discovered the lump myself? Is that how we would describe my living – my life – before it was officially declared “surviving?” Is that the label we would ascribe to it, after pronouncing as cancer, the disease that flourished, undetected for as many as 7 – 10 years, defying four mammograms, hiding in tissue no one had bothered to advise me was dense? Or is there another word for what I was doing before the diagnosis? A better word? Was I formerly a more active and productive member of the population? Trying to find the right word, I stumbled across a jarring Times of India headline Gutsy fighters took on cancer, and won. Took on? Took on Cancer? Won? Those who have been killed by cancer, are they “less gutsy” than the rest of us? Losers?
Of all the words that no longer connote for me what they once did, “survivor” is the one that leaves me entirely flummoxed. As I have mused previously, the diagnosis has forever changed certain words for me – “staging” I no longer immediately associate with the theater; “fog” I am more apt to attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than one of Van Morrison’s misty mornings or that cloud that often obscures Pacific Coast Highway on a summertime road trip; and, “cure” of course is no longer the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a terribly elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon. Even “sentinel,” which was reserved, until cancer came calling, for a lonely cormorant perched on a post in the shallow waters of sleepy Morro Bay. I now know sentinel as the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor. Until one of my post-surgery appointments, “infusion” was something done to transform olive oil into a gourmet gift. But because I had turned left instead of right upon leaving my oncologist’s office, I missed the exit and instead found myself on the threshold of the infusion suite, a room I didn’t even know was there. Feeling as though I had intruded, I fled. But not before I had registered a row of faces of people sicker than I. In one microscopic moment, I made eye contact with a woman and wondered if perhaps she was cold because, as I turned away, I noted a quilt on her lap. I turned away and thought of Shakespeare’s “enter fleeing” stage direction. Ashamed. Guilty.
For a year or two, I told myself I was beginning to make some kind of order out of my life since cancer. Or my life with cancer. Or my surviving cancer. I was learning to make room for it, to make sense of it no less. Well, that was a bit premature, wasn’t it? Cancer makes no sense at all.
I do not feel gutsy. Nor do I feel like a winner. Nor am I comfortable with being described as a survivor. What then? I am a cancer patient who still shows up for her scans and blood tests. Such things do not impinge on my life to the extent they would if the disease were more advanced – in other words, if it spreads. And it might. That’s just the way it is.
A profound sense of guilt accompanies this awareness. It confounds me and reminds me of growing up in Northern Ireland – at a safe distance. Except for the time when our kitchen window shook because a bomb had exploded somewhere close by, or the time a bomb exploded outside Halls Hotel. Or another time when my brother, as a new journalist, had to interview the grandmother of three little boys murdered, burned to death on July 12, 1998. Richard, Mark and Jason, just eleven, nine, and seven years old, had been asleep when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of their home. Or that Saturday night in Belfast, when my college friend Ruth and I returned to her brother’s house where we were staying, only to find out that her car had been stolen and set ablaze as a barricade on the other side of the city. Strange that cancer has taken me back to these places so many times, and to things I haven’t thought about in years . . .
In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, based on his interviews with the people who lived there, Tony Parker makes the unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland have a mutual need to know, from the start, about a person’s background, so they can proceed safely in the dialogue, the longer relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.” The schools we attended, our last names, the way we pronounce an “H” all became clues to help establish “who we are.” “Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties?” In the country of my birth and in cancer country, I find that myth features prominently, in particular, the myth that victims have in some way, brought it upon themselves. The calendar takes on a new significance, too. We could fill a calendar with anniversaries, those of Bloody Sunday, the bombing of Omagh and Enniskillen, Internment, the Twelfth of July. Literally untouched by these, but changed nonetheless. A survivor? The images are indelible. Iconic. Father Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief, the carnage on Market Street in the heart of Omagh, orange sashes, bowler hats, Lambeg drums, and The Guildford Four. In the end, I suppose every day marks an anniversary of something.
On the question of language, the right words to use, there is no easy answer. Within terrorism, within cancer, and the respective wars waged against both, are words and phrases that seem to sanitize and even glamorize the suffering and pain, that hide the horror and heartbreak visited upon ordinary people going about their daily lives. I am thinking again of County Down writer, Damian Gorman whose words I rediscovered not too long ago while ruminating on the complexities of cancer, the politics of its lexicon. He describes the bombs, bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” all too familiar in 1980s Northern Ireland as far less deadly than the “devices of detachment” its people used to distance themselves from the violence. Aware of it, yet removed from it.
“I’ve come to point the finger
I’m rounding on my own
The decent cagey people
I count myself among …
We are like rows of idle hands
We are like lost or mislaid plans
We’re working under cover
We’re making in our homes
Devices of detachment
As dangerous as bombs.”
Detachment is dangerous, but perhaps it is easier. Pondering the metaphors of battle that have been applied to the John McCain story, I find myself drawn back to the day before my surgery. In my mind’s eye, I see the kind radiologist who said my name looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you’re here,” right before he shot three painful injections of radioactive dye directly in and around the nipple of the right breast that would be removed the next day. I wince, even now, writing about it. But what I remember most and more than the sting of those injections is the genuine kindness of that radiologist right before he administered them, and that nothing is stronger than the human heart.
Not you, Nelson Mandela. You went into the world with boldness and made your mark on it. Madiba will ring out forever.
In June of 2013, I wrote of news that you were gravely ill. Reports poured out of Pretoria, South Africa that you were on life support. We held our breath, not wanting to accept that you were frail at 94, ill, and nearing the end of your life. In my mind’s eye, I could see you only at the beginning of your life as Mandela the free man who stepped onto the world’s stage in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars.
In the darkest days of Apartheid, no one – other than Mandela himself – could have imagined the man in that tiny cell as the future President of his country, that he would one day stand among rock stars and royalty and popes and presidents to advocate for democracy and justice, to inspire a vision of peace that transcended race and creed, that he would matter to so many people and that he would make so many people matter. People like me.
Mandela mattered to me because he represented what could be. Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time. Such a sight to behold, even on a tiny television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.
For my 24th birthday not long before I emigrated to the United States, a boyfriend surprised me with a ticket to Paul Simon’sGraceland concert in Dublin. Boisterous and beautiful, the performance sparkles still in my memory as one that transcended the ugliness of apartheid. Simon had been and is still widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but how could I fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most hopeful and uplifting music ever created. Surely, that glorious music represented the “days of miracle and wonder” that were possible in the heart of Nelson Mandela or, years earlier, in the universal dream of Martin Luther King. In accepting a Grammy award for the album, Simon said of his fellow musicians and friends:
They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on earth today, and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.
Simon was also one of the first people Mandela invited to South Africa. I imagine the smile spreading across Mandela’s face, showing he was no longer a prisoner – not merely because the bars had been removed, but because he had left bitterness and rancor behind. Not everyone did. The late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that following her death, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa.
As young university students in 1984, we sang along with The Specials urging those who could to “Free Nelson Mandela.” How could we not? His release was a moral imperative; it was the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and it was through that lens that Thatcher and others in her party appeared resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela’s imprisonment in that tiny cell.
On the other side of the argument, there were those, including De Klerk, who felt that “Thatcher correctly believed that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government.”
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It always does.
When Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead and even more bloodshed, apartheid would eventually come to an end. Together, De Klerk and Mandela would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, of a democratic nation. Perhaps this would be the example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness.
Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award inspired by fellow Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience,” was presented to Mandela in 2006. Perfect then that Heaney would be the first to congratulate Mandela thus:
To have written a line about “hope and history rhyming for Mr. Mandela in 1990 is one thing . . . to have the man who made them rhyme accept the Award inspired by my poem is something else again.
At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I imagine Seamus Heaney was vexed over the thought of a world without Mandela. I think we all were. I remember my husband and I talking over coffee about Mandela’s charisma and fortitude, his inestimable influence – the “Madiba magic” that changed the world. We were sad that Mandela’s time with us was coming to an end. I didn’t want to believe it, and turned to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the way I still do in the in-between times.
And then, just six months later, Nelson Mandela was gone. Seamus Heaney was gone. My husband was gone. Gone. Like three shooting stars – startling, beautiful, gone.
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
It was leukemia that took Nora Ephron from us, a cancer she had kept private in a world that already knew many of the intimate details of her aging neck, her dry skin, the contents of her purse, her small breasts about which she wrote A Few Words, and her weapon of choice against not only the gray hair that grows back with a vengeance every four weeks, but the youth culture in general – hair color. With a quick and daring wit, she regaled us with stories of the indignities visited upon her as she grew older, but she did not tell us about the cancer. Cancer was not up for discussion. For Ephron, cancer was not copy, as her son explains in the HBO documentary about her life:
I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” he says. “That the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything is copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the means to control the story was to make it not exist.
Into my fifth decade, it occurs to me that maybe I have always understood the need to control and contain. As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy. For me, breast cancer was copy. It still is. Some of the business of widowhood is copy too. But I know what is not. I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself – most of the time. I know how to be private. I know how to keep what is precious, private. I know how to – as Meryl Streep says of Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’ I also know how to avoid an ending, and I’m very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is over-rated. I can’t consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, following a principal’s evaluation of a lesson I’d taught. In her report, she indicated, with some disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her, because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next to continue – not to close – with my students. It is the continuing that matters along with what I wore along the way.
Continuance – it has a nice ring to it.
Like each of the five women in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron‘s stage-adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s book by the same name, I can peer into my wardrobe and hang on the clothes and shoes and handbags and boots that bulge from it, some of the most important moments of my life. Especially the boots. For those dwelling in cooler climes, there is perhaps a 20-day window for honest boot-wearing in Phoenix, Arizona. Seriously. The sunshine is relentless, the heat is “dry,” and I can offer no justification for my growing collection of boots other than still wanting to be more like my idea of a young Carly Simon or Linda Ronstadt. My favorite brown leather boots have a beautiful patina, best worn with the attitude I squeezed into them the morning I was fired by a man who might possibly have been great were it not for the misogyny that diminshed him. Admittedly, it was not the best way to start a day, but how it pleased me to turn on the heel of those well-worn boots and walk away from him. Forever.
Then there are the boots of patchwork leather that my mother gave me; they make me feel like Carly Simon in anticipation of a date with Cat Stevens circa 1971. There are the inappropriate patent leather boots I wore the first time we took our daughter to see the snow, to fall with glee into the sparkling powder, creating her first snow-angel; there are six pairs of black boots that vary only in length even though someone, most likely me, pointed out that each is a distinct shade of black and – this is important – timeless; too, there are the classic Frye boots that I simply could not pass up because they were on sale and at a consignment store; and, the pointy-toed suede knee-high boots purchased from a UK catalog at full over-priced price. They have been reheeled and resoled twice, and they require additional assistance and effort to remove from my tired feet at the end of a long day. I haven’t worn them as much since Ken died, because I know when the time comes to remove them that I will remember exactly how he used to say, “Goddammit baby. Goddammit.” And then I will tell myself there must have been a mistake, that maybe he’s not really dead.
The collection of coats defies explanation, several of them purchased in Ireland and carried back – in an extra suitcase – to the desert southwest where there is rarely the need for a sweater let alone a coat. I suppose coat-wearing allows me to make a statement about how Phoenix won’t stop me from being my own girl, complete with scarf, coat, and even a turtleneck underneath. I have other “signature” coats, one of which I will never wear in public unless Tom Petty calls and asks me to be one of his Heartbreakers. It is more art than coat and belongs only on someone on stage in front of 50,000 fans holding up lighters.
During the Christmas holidays, I always wear the long red coat I bought at Marks and Spencers one year in Belfast. I love the lining that nobody can see – white with tiny red hearts. And I don’t care if it is 80 degrees outside; that coat is a stunner. Against the backdrop of a holiday tree made of a triangle of pots of jolly red poinsettias outside Saks Fifth Avenue at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, it makes me feel a bit like Santa. Or Red Riding Hood.
Along with the boots, and the Bridge vintage leather Gladstone doctor’s bag – which I bought on Ebay and have not been able to open for several years because the brass clasp is broken – hiding in a corner of the closet, are burgundy leather penny loafers, with a penny in each. I haven’t worn them since 1989. I don’t remember why I bought them and don’t know why they are still in my house, but I think it might be because they are reminiscent of the brogues I once wore to school or the tap shoes I wore for Irish dancing. Or maybe I was influenced by the collegiate style of a fifth-grade American girl wearing khakis from the Gap, white socks, and her grandmother’s loafers.
Given where I am today, with nothing to wear to a thing I don’t want to go to later – having already flung on the bed seven summery skirts that are too snug at the waist because of a diet that has deteriorated in recent months (years) and an exercise regimen postponed (abandoned), I feel a bit like Meryl Streep‘s married character getting ready for a clandestine rendezvous in the city with de Niro’s character, also married (but to someone else) in a favorite movie of mine, Falling in Love. For me, in the end, something blue wins; it always does.Even Meryl settles on a blue print blouse. In my case, it will be the blue dress I am wearing in many of the profile pictures on my online spaces. If I run into any of my social media contacts today, they will think I have nothing else to wear. And, they will be right.
Resurrected in her son’s documentary, Ephron is among us once again. Vibrant, funny, and in control. I imagine her striding across a set not unlike The Strand bookstore in the East Village where all her books were almost sold out the morning after her death. In my mind, she is authoritative – and perhaps perceived as mean – as she provides direction to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, while searching for the glasses that are on top of her head. I prefer to think of her laughing with the darlings of Hollywood, surrounded by books, as in the old Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner, charmingly resurrected and rewritten by Ephron and her sister, as the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail starring, naturally, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Although by many accounts, a cynic with a sharp tongue, I suspect Nora Ephron was a romantic at heart, so it would have been poetic had real life handed her the happy ending like those she crafted in those fail-proof feel-good “chick flicks.” The happy ending would not have been real, and my guess is that Nora Ephron liked to keep it real.
Her contribution to the movies is but a tiny part of her legacy as a writer, but those films are such a big part of the soundtrack to my American life as a woman who immigrated to this country around the time When Harry met Sallywas released. Granted, it is not the most memorable part of the movie, but there is one scene that always makes me laugh and snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who shows up now and again to remind me just how little time there is to become who I am supposed to be. As I have learned, life happens in the twinkling of an eye, and it is for the living. I have learned that too.
In the scene, Meg Ryan’s Sally has just found out that her ex-boyfriend is getting married. In tears, she tells Harry that she is going to be left on the shelf, a spinster, all alone at forty. Mind you, she is barely thirty, with a very cute hair cut that, at the time, I was convinced would work with naturally curly hair like mine. It didn’t. In fact, I carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a magazine featuring the many cute haircuts of Meg Ryan. I really did. And, for countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page, as though it were the Shroud of Turin, to politely asked them to give me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher at the aptly named Altered Ego salon, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before. Too many times, perhaps.
And I’m gonna be 40 . . . someday
Just yesterday I felt the same way. Forty was a lifetime away from eighteen, and by all accounts the deadline for “letting oneself go” and, I suppose, Eileen Fisher. Fifty was sensible and dowdy. Sixty heralded blue rinses for hair – not jeans. Seventy was out of the question, and definitely not a new fifty. Having passed the half-century mark, I’m wondering about what I’ve done and what’s next. With my thirties behind me, my forties too, I am accepting a couple of truths about myself. Some are minor – I do not have sensible hair, and I talk too much. Others are more painful. I should be kinder and more patient. Too, I should stay far away from insecure men in positions of power and recognize earlier those folks who are nice to me only because they need something from me. Like my hair, they perform poorly when the pressure rises.
Being in my fifth decade is a bit like being in IKEA, one of my least favorite places on the planet. A planet itself, IKEA is just too big, with all its “rooms” requiring instructions and assembly and Scandinavian words I find just as intimidating had they fallen from the lips of an errant Viking. I’m worried that I might run out of time to do the things I need to do, not necessarily the kinds of things that might turn up on a “bucket list” but definitely those that will bring me closer to those I love the most. These days, Iknowwho loves me and who loves me not.
Still, none of this self-awareness in any way diminishes how much I resent the aging process in general and the way it just sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. One minute, I am reading the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle, the next I’m desperately seeking one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at very loud concerts over the past forty years than on something as wholly graceless as aging.
About six months before he died, Ken and I went to see Fleetwood Mac in Phoenix. Other than the fact that it was the last concert he saw on this earth and the last time he and I would stay for an encore, I hold on to the moment I caught a white-haired Mick Fleetwood bow out and off stage in his bright red hat, pointed red shoes, and the dangling wooden balls, and Stevie Nicks still spinning in black. Mesmerizing. Just like the white winged dove sings a song. Stevie, at almost seventy. Rock on gold dust woman.
So many beginnings and endings, with more to go . . .
Since Sophie was little, I have saved every drawing, handprint, book report, birthday card, report card, certificate, and, apparently, every receipt from Target. Not in one place, of course. Stuffed in vases and between the pages of books are random letters from the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and her grandparents. There are even pieces of notebook paper that bear only her name in the top right corner. In the spirit of those ever-so-organized professional organizers on documentaries on The Learning Channel, the folks who would direct me to place everything I own on the front yard before organizing it into piles of things that should be stored, displayed, or dumped, I have realized that it is time – theoretically – to tame the paper tiger.
Full of good intentions one day – and for about an hour – I began “organizing.” I made a few folders for my daughter’s school work and special photographs, I threw away those greeting cards that were made not by her but some stranger at Hallmark, I filled a box with books to donate to the local bookstore. While flipping through the pages of a school composition book, I came upon something she had written when she was in elementary school:
I don’t know what or who inspired it. I love the leggy and winking 29 year old, hand on her hip, but I am almost afraid to ask what happened to her. I wonder what Nora Ephron would think of my little girl’s “mountain of life.” I can almost see a wry smile creep across her face as she tells that 50 year old to straighten up for Act Two, to cause some trouble, just as she urged a bunch of Wellesley graduates in her 1996 Commencement Speech – to continue.
Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your life . . .