I have conducted many of the most significant relationships in my life almost entirely by telephone. With so many miles of ocean or freeway stretching between us, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype and Facebook, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect about the time difference and the cost per minute. There used to be sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar we would fall softly into conversation, easily picking up where we left off years ago.
By telephone, I have delivered and received the most important news of my life. from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From a village in Wales, my oldest friend calling to tell me her husband had been killed in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling is gone! Gone!” From me in a hospital parking lot to my best friend, who, fingers crossed for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” Two years later, I wait on the other end of the line on one continent while she on another, enters my home and calls my husband’s name once, twice, and after the third time, “He’s passed away! He’s passed away! Oh, he’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”
Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to.
Nothing but the distance between them.
Writing a letter is different, giving us time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have, but in spite of my best efforts, the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails and text messages, that regardless of font and typeface ( or supplemental emoticon) are just not the same.
How I miss walking out to the mailbox and opening it to find a red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail – Par Avion. I have saved all my letters and will likely always keep them – to read and reread, because they are immortal reminders of people and places I treasure.
In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that “deserve a wider audience.” I remember telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. Naturally, when I ordered the book that grew from the website, I opted for the collectible first edition because it was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.
Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of fatherly advice from author John Steinbeck to his then 14-year-old son Thomas, at the time away at boarding school and smitten by a young girl, Susan. There is both heart and craft in it, and the reminder we all need – ‘nothing good gets away.’
Steinbeck’s letter below can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
Immigration policy should be
generous; it should be fair; it should
be flexible. With such a policy we
can turn to the world, and to our own
past, with clean hands and a clear
~ President John F. Kennedy
My circumstances are different from those of my grandparents and so many Irish before me, immigrants who were obliged to leave home because of famine or poverty or diminished possibilities or broken promises. Nonetheless, I can barely remember a time when I did not harbor a desire to come to America, eager to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk.” And although I have now spent more than half my life in these United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a guilt for having left my Northern Ireland. I sometimes wonder if perhaps the better thing or the best thing would have been to stay, to stay and strive to see far beyond the black and white images that flickered on our television screen at six o’clock every night. But I couldn’t. I fled as soon as I had the chance and became an immigrant in an America I do not recognize today, turning my back on the vulnerable, tiny country that shaped and scared me – my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland.
Not much older than my American daughter, I spent most of the 1980s planning my escape from Northern Ireland. It was a turbulent and traumatic time. We lived and worked and played and prayed within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass. We anticipated the worst; as such, we were rarely disappointed. By the summer of 1984, I had grown weary of the bombings and killings, the hatred and the sense of hopelessness that seemed to seep from every corner of the country. Ardent and young, I seized an opportunity to come to America for one summer, believing then – as I would like to believe today – Tom Wolfe’s assertion that,
America is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.
I spent my first night in America in the YMCA on Times Square and 42nd Street. This was before the area had been spruced up by the city’s mayor and transformed into the glittering intersection we know today. I think Rudy Giuliani likes to take the credit for the changes, but I’m reluctant to give it to him. I recall a hot summer night in 1984. I can still see myself standing in the doorway of a drug store with my bag held open, waiting expectantly for someone to search it for explosives, as was the habit of someone from Northern Ireland. Between the jet lag and the scary characters in the street, I forgot I was on a New York city street rather than entering either end of Belfast’s Royal Avenue before the promise of peace and urban renewal projects transformed it.
For the first time in my life, I was both apart from and a part of a rich tapestry of human diversity and experience. Having spent my entire life in a rainy and relatively homogenized country – on the surface – where almost everyone was pale and under 5’8″, this was sensory overload. Nonetheless, the shock of it would soon give way to an enchantment that stayed with me for many years. And for many years, the feeling was mutual. I’m Irish, the immigrant lots of people want to be on St. Patrick’s Day, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” emblazoned on their T-shirts. Tell me the color of my skin doesn’t matter when people in power are deciding who should be walled out and who should be allowed to stay.
So I overstayed my visa at a time when it didn’t matter as much. An American man fell in love with me and married me, enabling me to stay here as a permanent resident, eligible to work and pay taxes and pursue the American Dream that I thought belonged to everyone.
I got lucky.
Lupita García de Rayos did not share my good fortune. Her parents brought her to America when she was just 14 years old, seeking the kinds of opportunities that would not be available in Guanajuato, Mexico. She remained in Arizona, became an adult here, fell in love, married, and had two children, Jacqueline and Angel. Arizona became her home for over twenty years.
But there was no line in which Lupita could stand, no way for her to acquire the Social Security Number that would enable her to work to support her family. There was no hope. For undocumented immigrants who have been here since childhood – with no path to citizenship – there is little recourse. Either hide or make up a number to fill in the blank space on a job application; do what you must in order to feed and clothe your children. Ultimately, she became a victim of this country’s failed immigration policies and Arizona’s employer sanctions law, resulting in her arrest in 2008, when she was swept up in one of Joe Arpaio’s unconstitutional raids.
Criminalized, Lupita pleaded guilty and spent six months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention before being released back to her family. Subsequently, in 2013, an immigration court ordered her deportation, but the federal government did not enforce it. Because she was a non-violent offender, posing no threat to public safety or national security, Lupita was shielded from deportation under the Obama administration.
For the past eight years, she has checked in with immigration officials to complete an annual review of her case. Warned that this year might be different, she went to mass and said a prayer before going to her meeting. She took a spectacular risk, in light of the President of the United States’s executive order which stipulates that undocumented immigrants convicted of any criminal offense — and even those who have not been charged but are believed to have committed “acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” — are now a priority for deportation. They arrested her and deported her in front of her family.
Less than twenty-four hours later, she is in Nogales, Mexico, far away from the only home she has known for 21 years. Lupita risked it all.
Tonight, it occurs to me that it is only a month since this country celebrated the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, a man who put his life on the line in pursuit of an America that would provide “a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child” – a fabulous place where miracles happen every day. Let’s make one happen for this family.
Donate here to support Lupita’s family: https://www.youcaring.com/lupitagarciaderayos-754323
My best friend and I don’t exchange birthday gifts or cards, and I don’t know why, because in the areas of gift-giving and card-selection, we are masters. Because of traffic on Interstate 10, we conduct our relationship almost entirely by phone. I like to think this is a good strategy in case either of us decides to move to Europe. I take her for granted, and I don’t thank her enough for being the friend that she is, so in lieu of a card or a gift, I’m sending out a thank you letter on her special day:
You really are gonna be 40 . . . someday. It seems like a heartbeat ago that Ken was asking if you were ever going to be 30. How he loved you, and I know of all people he would be the most grateful for your friendship to me. So for wading through all the bullshit and relishing in all the joy since we first bonded on a flight to New York in 2003, thank you. For cooking all those healthy meals for him after the aneurysm and for going to the house and finding him because I knew, I just knew – even though I was on the other side of the world – that he was dead, thank you. I know he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to find him. There was no one better to break the news to me or to take care of the aftermath which included baking for my mourning family those mini chicken pot pies in individual ramekins, thereby rendering all my other friends clueless about what to bring that would be most comforting. He knew that only you would keep me from falling apart. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
For shielding Sophie from so much bad news, like the time I left her with you so I could go listen to the nice Cancer Navigator tell me that, yes, I absolutely had breast cancer but it wasn’t a death sentence. For carrying her on your swimmer’s shoulders when she was too tired to wait in line to see Santa; for the Dr. Seuss cake you baked for her high school graduation, thank you. For trusting her to babysit your little girls, for being her first professional reference, for “helping” her pass online Chemistry even though we both know she will never need it (except to answer a first-round question on Jeopardy – maybe) and for making her feel like she matters – thank you.
For reminding me that it could always be worse – always – and that the heart wants what the heart wants, thank you. For being judgmental but never judging me, thank you.For waiting and waiting in hospitals and at the hairdressers, thank you. For putting up with my airport behavior and pretending you understand why someone from Northern Ireland would rant like that. For always letting me have the aisle seat. For the thousands of miles you have traveled across America with me and for driving the rental car while I sing and remain oblivious to signs on the road, thank you. For watching my favorite movies so you’ll get it when I quote huge chunks of dialogue.
“I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.”
For the concerts – for Ryan Adams and Tom Petty and Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. For our shared dislike of Dave Matthews and for the unspoken reason why we both hate Coldplay. For adopting a Greyhound and convincing me that I should as well. For the devil of a margarita – two of them – in Santa Fe. #thedevilinside #loveactually
For the lesson plan templates and your ‘forceful God complex’ and your ability to sniff out a complete fraud, thank you. For the million dollar ideas, none of which will come close to expand-a-fan, and for the hashtags, for #sleepingwiththeenemy following one of those nights when your youngest commandeered the bed, for #saysalltherightthings and for never tiring of our who-would-play-you-in-the-movie-of-your-life game, even though it always ends up the same way. I will forever be Meryl Streep in “Falling in Love” and you will be Elizabeth Shue or Jennifer Grey.
For the road trips to San Francisco and Santa Fe and – more than once – off the deep end. For Beale Street and finding rhythm and blues at the Rum Boogie Cafe. For walking in Memphis in the pouring rain and convincing the bar owner to stay open and make fried green tomatoes for us while we dried out. For sobering up in ways we will never forget at the Lorraine Motel. For Graceland – down in the jungle room. For splitting appetizers – before you discovered you have either Celiacs or the alternative diagnosis proposed by your gastroenterologist, Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) – and splitting the bill and feeling sorry for whoever has to take my order, but then remembering that I will probably find out that they have a degree in education. For signing my name when I forget my glasses and figuring out the tip. For asking me to come up with a creative justification for the expense when Todd asks how your hair could possibly cost that much to cut and color. The struggle is real.
For pool and poker. We’re only “one away.” For scrapbooks and shopping lists. For buying the same outfits even though you are a “petite.” For the next best app. For sniglets and code words when we need an exit strategy – #gottago For driving on the wrong side of the road downtown and for losing your sense of direction on 7th Street – every time. Every. Single. Time. For considering what not to wear before anything else and for always bringing at least one extra lipstick that will work for me. For ‘anticipating my needs’ and not ever minding that I won’t take no for an answer. For tuning me out while you chop vegetables and I try to find my train of thought. For the smallest handbag in America to the largest. For never leaving a voice-mail and for never checking the ones I leave for you, because you know I’ll ramble and forget why I called, thank you. Although that last one worries me – what if I need bail?
For naming your cold sores like they are hurricanes and developing a poker face for bad meetings. For taking Scott’s side because you know what I’m like, as I have always taken Todd’s side (for the same reason) thank you. For hours of good advice you know I’ll ignore until later when I’ll tell you, just like Carrie Fisher in “When Harry Met Sally,” “you’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.” For showing up, and for being my best friend, thank you.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
Why not? Why not meet the tall stranger who says he’s slender and likes Bob Dylan and will open doors for me? Why not?
Between the time I met my husband and the time he died twenty four years later, the search for romance and Mr. Right had moved online, a perfect place for me to spend time, my dearest friends urged. It would be fun, they said, a way for me to reintroduce myself to the world as the single woman I used to be in the days before smart phones and texting and instant gratification. Online, I could be equal parts brainy and breezy, hiding behind pictures that only show my good side and dodging questions with cryptic clues about what I did for a living and the kind of man who might be the right kind for me. In a flurry of box-checking, I could filter out men who didn’t like my politics, my hair, or my taste in music and who didn’t care if I was as comfortable in jeans as a little black dress but did care about when and how to use ‘you,’ ‘you’re’ and ‘your.’ I could be Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail,” instead of her Sally who had met Harry a decade earlier, around the time I immigrated to the United States. Yes, my next chapter could be the stuff of a Nora Ephron rom-com.
Sally was an extension of Nora Ephron – single-minded with a certain way of ordering a sandwich exactly the way it needed to be for her. I understand this particular idiosyncrasy and over the years have even hired waiters and waitresses to atone for the aggravation I have caused them. Now most people will remember her in the throes of a spectacular fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli, but for me, Sally shines brightest in a scene that snaps me back to the woman I used to be, the one who still shows up to remind me how little time I have to become who I am supposed to be. Life, she asserts, is what happens in between the beginnings and the endings – in the middle and in the twinkling of an eye. It is also for the living. She’s right. Of course she’s right.
When she realizes she’s “gonna be 40 . . . someday,” Sally is barely thirty and sporting a sassy hair cut that in 1989 should have worked with my natural curls. It gives me no pride to tell you that I subsequently carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a glossy magazine that featured Ms. Ryan’s many haircuts. 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, while I beseeched them to grant me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before and one that does not belong in an online dating profile – unless Nora Ephron is writing it.
I remember when 40 used to be an eternity away from 20. By all accounts, forty was the deadline for letting oneself go. 50 was sensible and dowdy. 60 heralded blue rinses – for hair not jeans. 70 was out of the question – definitely not a new 50. And now I’m gonna be 60 . . . one day. And what do I know? Well, I have accepted a couple of what we’ll call “alternative facts” about myself. Some are minor – I don’t have sensible hair, and I spend a fortune coloring it and trying to tame it. Fonts matter in ways they shouldn’t – if I don’t like the lettering on a store sign, I won’t shop there, and Comic Sans on homework assignments forces me to question the teacher’s judgement. Even though I recently found out that it’s bad for the car, I only buy gas after the ’empty’ light comes on. I can finally go on record and confess that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of the musical version. Opera doesn’t do it for me either, and I only went to the ballet once because all the other mothers were taking their daughters to see “The Nutcracker” for Christmas. I resent the aging process and the way it sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. There was a time when, without glasses, I could read the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle (in French and English); now, I spend less time reading than I do searching for 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 concerts over the past forty years than on something as graceless as aging. My memory is unreliable too. I can tell you what I wore and with which handbag on June 5th 1984, but not where I’m supposed to be tomorrow evening. If Mr. Right cares about punctuality, he should probably know I have a stellar capacity for getting lost. Although, with factory-installed GPS navigation systems de rigeur and knowing there is most certainly an app for that, I am much better at finding my way around the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. To be fair, if I have been somewhere at least eight times, I can get there without much assistance, but until such times, I lean on Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions from the phone that is smarter than both of us, and those friends and colleagues who consistently “bring me in” by phone from my destination – where they are already waiting.
Other truths are more painful. I almost learned from my ordeal with breast cancer to be kinder and more patient. My teenage daughter will attest that I have yet to reach a level of proficiency in either area. The circumstances around my husband’s death shattered my sense of certainty and made me cautious. The result? A guardedness reminiscent of a temperamental garage door.
But who would want to read any of this in an online dating profile? It’s much safer – and easier – to sparkle and enchant as you would on your resume – except you have to be cuter without clichés or divulging your home address. You also have to accept that it is going to be awkward especially if the last time you were ‘out there’ was 1989 and when you met a man at a bar, you did not already know his political persuasion or his favorite movie, how much he earned or if he had a tattoo. You wouldn’t know his deal-breakers. He would buy you a drink, ask for your number, call a day – or maybe two – later, take you to the movies the next weekend, and over time – real time – you would build the scaffolding necessary to weather every storm in a teacup.
Awkwardly, I built a profile. I checked the boxes, being scrupulously truthful about my age, politics, and marital status while taking some liberties with other details like hair color and the frequency of my visits to the gym. This was resume writing, right? My best friend reminded me I have an unparalleled expertise in ambiguity which reminded me not to give too much away. Emboldened, I provided ambiguous and annoying responses to the simplest questions: Favorite thing? The right word at the right time. Perfect date? Anywhere where there’s laughter. Hobbies? Binge-watching Netflix originals.You get the idea, and you’ll therefore understand why I abandoned the idea of online dating – or it abandoned me.
About a year later, after a period of offline dating which left me thinking my remaining days would be better spent alone, my best friend told me to take one more field trip online. Obediently, I touched up my profile, uploaded a recent picture in which I’m wearing my favorite green shirt, and waited to see what would happen while also weighing the benefits of spending my golden years in a convent.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
I took a chance.
I. Took. A. Chance.
Ignoring the raised eyebrows and the sage advice from online dating sites who would deem his boldness a red flag, I broke protocol. Without any protracted emailing phase, I agreed to meet the tall and forward stranger the next afternoon. A quick study, I had filed away the important bits – he was a liberal, a non-smoker, and a music-loving musician who was divorced and had a little girl. I dismissed the interest in football (the American kind, for God’s sake) and golf (eye-roll), hoped he meant it when he checked ‘no preference’ on hair color, and held on to his mention of integrity – and the picture of the Harley Davidson. Box checked. He said he worked out every day – of course he did, who doesn’t – and no religion too. No deal-breakers. He had my attention.
Still, disenchanted by dating – online and off – I half-expected Mr. Forward to be five feet tall and 95 years old. Who knew if his pictures were current or if he had built his entire profile on a foundation of fibs? Maybe he didn’t really like Bob Dylan (a deal-breaker) and maybe he went to the gym thrice daily. Let me just digress to tell you that there are more than a few men in the land of online dating who claim to live in the desert – but also enjoy moonlight walks every night – on the beach. Honest to God. I also had no expectation that he would remember my name, anticipating instead the possibility of being number five or six in ‘the dating rotation.’
It was a Monday. I had sent a breezy text suggesting we meet at 5 at a well-lit bar. I was wearing the outfit I had worn in my profile picture perhaps to prove that I had posted a picture taken within at least the past decade. It was also a good hair day, Topher having redeemed himself with fabulous beachy highlights (just in case a moonlight walk was on the horizon). I was also a mess, embroiled in a legal battle that I’m probably not allowed to discuss here or anywhere else, but I think I probably told him all about it within the first five minutes. The Harley I’d seen in the photo was parked outside, silver steel shimmering. Unless he had borrowed it just for our first date, this was a good sign. Onward. He was sitting at the bar, staring ahead, and I watched him watch me out of the corner of his eye as I walked the plank all the way from the front door to where he sat. Butterflies. Even though I know you’re not supposed to have any expectations, I had prepared myself to be let down and lied to, but my instinct told me that the man at the bar was not going to lie to me and that I would not lie to him.
Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off those boxes our middle-aged online personas had created. He loved Bob Dylan. The Harley was his. Virtuality was becoming reality and although I was skeptical – sorry, musicians, but you have a reputation to uphold – I was also smitten. The bar closed, and off we went to another – our second date – but who’s counting. Having read and committed to memory the FAQ section of the online dating site, I knew this was another red flag. First dates that are too long (or turn into second dates on the same night) are deemed more likely to create a premature and false sense of intimacy. Too much too soon, the experts say. They’re probably right, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t do it again the next night and most nights since. We’ll do it tonight too.
A match made in heaven? No. In spite of all the tactics and algorithms deployed to make sense of our checked boxes and declare us a 100% match, and being declared ‘official’ by Facebook and the young bartender who thinks we’re photogenic enough to be “the desert Obamas,” we are making this match right here, right here where angels fear to tread, in the messiness of the middle of two lives that collided at the best and worst of times. There is no wrong time.
As for the rest of the story? The rest of the story is for me. And for him. As Rob Reiner reminded me in his tribute to Nora Ephron:
‘You don’t always have to express every emotion you’re having when you’re having it.’ There’s a right time to talk about certain things, and you don’t need to be out there all the time just spewing. It’s how you become an adult, and I think she helped me see that.
P.S. Because I know you want to know, I asked him what compelled him to be forward in the first place. He says he thought the woman in the picture was looking directly at him. I tell him there’s a song in there. Long may we sing it.