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 me and those who matter most, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is always 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. And, there were 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.
I miss walking out to my mailbox and opening it to find the 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,” taking me back to the reading of telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. It makes sense then, that 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.
I have yet to be disappointed by what happens when my online world collides with its ‘real’ counterpart. Landing on the virtual doorsteps of people in the middle of lives parallel to my own, I have been beautifully blindsided by unexpected coincidences and exchanges of truths that may not otherwise have seen the light of day. In my virtual home, it is easy to pull up a chair and trade ideas and opinions with people I may never meet about why Seamus Heaney will always matter; about the beautiful, bruised Northern Ireland that both scared me and shaped me; about breast cancer and the pain of it, the politics of it and the shiver of fear it brings when it moves in; and, about clearing a path to things that matter most and things that need to be said.
A few summers ago, I got lost in the blogosphere and somehow landed at Lesley Richardson’s blog, where within minutes, I was completely at home, howling with laughter as we traded stories about surviving our adolescence in Northern Ireland long before curly-hair products had been invented. Both of us born in 1963 in neighboring counties, we have much in common – along with the curls, we each have a teenage daughter, we share a love for Seamus Heaney and for Belfast and a need to write. There’s the cancer. Always the cancer. Before posting to her blog, An Unconventional Death, Lesley emailed me and asked me not to read it, afraid that perhaps her searing account of her beloved dad’s death would upset or offend me, given my own diagnosis. I was moved by her sensitivity to my situation, but I read it anyway, and it broke my heart with its unvarnished truth-telling.
On September 11th, Lesley and I talked here about the jolt to our psyches on that grotesque morning in 2001 when it seemed as though the entire world could barely breathe for fear of what might happen next. Our little girls were then just four years old, safe in their preschools on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. When the news tumbled out of New York city, Lesley and I stopped in our tracks, heartsick, the familiar terror we both knew as children of The Troubles, reawakened in us. Blindsided again.We had grown complacent, I suppose, with the Good Friday Agreement and talk of peace and renewal. How could we have so quickly forgotten that anything can happen.Anything. We should have known better.
“Anything can happen.
The tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted
Those overlooked regarded.
~ Seamus Heaney
Did we used to be more resigned to that maxim? I don’t know. Growing up where we did, when we did, we were confounded by the bombs and bullets, the brutality and barbarism on both sides, but at the same time, somehow – and sadly – resigned to it. We held tight to the ordinary rituals, the ones we thought we could control, and we tried not to be afraid that “it” might happen to us. We never fully gave into the fear as we went to our schools and our shops or out to the pub on a Friday night. Had we given into the fear, we would never have left our homes.
For myself, one such routine entailed writing in a diary every day. Unprompted, I could fill page after page with stories, some true, others embellished. Along with now embarrassing angst-filled poetry, bits of social commentary, newspaper clippings, dried red leaves from maple trees on the edges of country roads upstate New York on my first trip to America, concert tickets, letters never sent, and things I wished I had said at the time. There was always plenty of evidence of a life being lived well in spite of the troubles that swirled around and within us.
A young woman, just starting out on my own, I had time and space from which to carve out a tight hour each day to set words down on a page. The world was my oyster. But the business of adult living eventually got in my way, the way it does, and writing in my diary, my once cherished ritual, gave way to more mundane tasks and responsibilities that turned out to be far less important, far more costly, and often not even good for me.
Just when I thought I had my house in order, a breast cancer diagnosis caught me off-guard – with a jolt. And I began to write again, the way I had done in that old diary. For me. I kept it private at first, afraid to hit “publish.” Inexplicably, I felt like I was speaking out of turn or that I would get in trouble for expressing aloud my indignation about the disease that would interrupt my daughter’s adolescence and make me make room in the next ten years for appointments with oncologists.
As I encountered others like me in this online space, I grew bolder and started to set down my story against the more mainstream stories of celebrities who have “conquered” cancer or women who “have it all.” Here, I could lean back rather than Lean In obediently just because all the other women are doing it. I can take stock and trade. I can light the match rather than not burn the bridge that served only to keep me down and in the dark. In this space, if a visitor leaves a comment that is unkind or untrue or defamatory, I can place it in the trashcan, where it belongs. But that has happened only once. This is my home away from home, so I keep writing. For myself. I suppose cancer made a writer out of me.
For Lesley, it was the death of someone she never met, a Russian immigrant who worked on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center, that prompted her to start writing for herself. A jolt that helped her find her writer’s voice. Although she has been writing for years and makes a living writing for other people, it was not until she took a Creative Writing Class in September 2002 that she started to write the kind of writing that lays bare those things that matter. I am glad that she did, because it led me to her, and it led her to publish her first novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir.
Lesley’s first homework assignment in that class was ostensibly simple – to write a letter. To anyone. About anything. Just a letter. Stuck and not knowing what to write about or to whom, she turned on her TV on the second anniversary of 9.11 and began watching the memorial service. For over two and a half hours, she listened, as the names of almost 3,000 dead were read, and when they got to the last name on the list, Igor Zuckelman, she knew the letter she would write. Her letter to Igor became a tribute to all those who died:
I’ve been wondering, Igor, what you would have made of your death, of all the deaths, and the aftermath of that catastrophic and grotesquely historic couple of hours. I come from a place that has been tarnished by terrorism for over 30 years. My country has lived with death, hatred and evil for almost as long as I can remember, and many of the atrocities we have witnessed have left wounds that for some will never heal. Perhaps the saddest thing that I have learnt from living here is that hate breeds hate, ignorance breeds intolerance and, for those who are locked in their insular beliefs, forgiveness is not an option.
When I read Lesley’s letter to Igor, I knew what to do. I promised to print it out and deliver it to the Healing Field Memorial in Tempe, Arizona, where I would attach it to the flagpole erected there for Igor Zukelman, a flag flying for him along with 2,995 others.
On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, before going to work, I went to the Healing Field. My best friend brought a plastic bag to protect Lesley’s letter from the impending rainstorm and a bit of green ribbon to attach it to the pole. Unlike me, my best friend thinks of everything.
Making our way up the little hill upon which Igor’s flagpole stands, we could not help but look up, uncomfortably aware of the field’s proximity to Sky Harbor Airport and the roar of airplanes above ensuring we will not forget the sound of those planes before they hurtled into the Twin Towers.
Letters and paper flowers, candles aglow in the bright morning, tiny stuffed bears on the grass at the bottom of six flagpoles – I have been cleaved in two by such things before, things left to honor innocent lives snuffed out by terrorism. The tragic lesson learned growing up in Northern Ireland is that terrorism is a horrible equalizer. Babies, children, parents, grandparents, those without names or families or homes or good health – it matters not. In a terrorist attack, they are all “legitimate targets.”
And in this field of healing, flanked by row upon row of flagpoles set five feet apart, we can stretch out our arms and touch two lives at a time, lest we forget what happened on September 11, 2001.
The 9.11 memorial in Tempe, Arizona, is heartbreakingly beautiful, each one of its 2,996 flags signifying a life taken on that horrific autumn morning. There are shows of patriotism and silent prayers for the dead; a mournful “Taps” pierces the air every hour on the hour, and everyone falls silent and still; then bagpipes and then Amazing Grace. Yellow ribbons wrapped around and around those flagpoles encircling the field, represent the valor of those “first responders,” whose duty is to protect and serve those within. Ribbons as blue as that September morning sky wound around flagpoles in the heart of the Field, for the flight crew members who perished. On the grass, for veterans lost that day, pair after pair of combat boots.
In cities here and across the globe, wreaths are laid, bells ring out, and names are rubbed in pencil on cherished scraps of paper. We say their names. We remember them.
I found Igor’s flag and found out that he was born in the Ukraine in 1972. An immigrant like me, he came to America to make a better life for himself and finally landed a job as a computer analyst for the Fiduciary Trust Company. He worked on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center. He was married with a three-year-old son, and he had become an American citizen just months before he died.
I said his name and attached Lesley’s letter to the flag pole. Before turning away, a whisper “Godspeed.”
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
We may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world
~ James Baldwin.
I came to Arizona in the late 1980s. Something of a cliché, considered part of the “brain drain,” I was a well-educated immigrant who had over-stayed her welcome in America and subsequently found a waitressing job. With my Northern Ireland accent and the right amount of naiveté about Arizona, I was the main source of amusement for many of the men who stopped by for a beer after their shift at a nearby manufacturing plant. Young and fearless, I charmed them with what they considered an Irish brogue, and the more alcohol I served them, the more they wanted to tell me all about their Irish roots.
In the mornings, the bar was quiet, with only a few customers coming in after clocking out of the graveyard shift. One of them was Cliff. He was tall and handsome with a million dollar smile, and he was black. Like the other regulars, he teased me about my accent, asking endless questions about Ireland, if it was really that green over there or if I ate Lucky charms for breakfast or used Irish Spring soap. But most of all, how could it be that a nice girl like me with a college education was working in a dump like this?
One morning, Cliff showed up while the bartender was providing a hasty tutorial on how to make cocktails. She had decided it was high time I graduated from serving beer in colored cans to making mixed drinks, and by 10 o’clock that morning, I had a long row of dubious cocktails waiting for anyone willing to try them. By the time Cliff arrived, I was deep in a learning curve, familiarizing myself with popular highball cocktails that every bartender should know as well as the lowball cocktails favored by some of the locals, like the Mudslide which Bobby ordered for everyone in the bar on a Friday night. There were never enough shot-glasses.
Rather than serving up his regular bourbon, I thought Cliff might like to try one of my creations. “What’s your pleasure, this morning?” I asked. “Maybe a Tequila Sunrise? What about a Salty Dog or a Long Island Iced Tea to sort you out for the rest of the day?” I don’t remember what he chose, but he thought it was very funny that I had written down all the recipes and that I was planning to learn them “by heart,” the way you would a catechism. While he drank one of my concoctions, pretending to like it, we chatted about nothing important – how hot it was already that summer morning and our respective plans for the weekend.
The jukebox was silent that morning – the only sounds were those of a dropped fork in the kitchen or a “Godammit” when the owner realized he was missing some ingredient vital to the daily lunch special or that the cook had spiked her coffee with J & B scotch. Again. The bartender was counting money in the office, out of earshot, and at the other end of the bar were two men staring ahead and smoking as they shared a pitcher of Budweiser.
Chopping limes and slicing lemons, I chatted to Cliff, until during a pause in our conversation, I heard one of those men call out to the owner who was still out of sight, “Hey Bud, since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”
Again. “I said since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”
And I froze.
I felt fear. It was the same kind of fear I had felt years before, when I turned the page of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper to see a black and white photo of a young Catholic woman who had been stripped and tied to a lamp-post, hot tar and feathers poured on her roughly shorn head, because she had committed the crime of falling in love with a British soldier. Standing behind a bar in Arizona, I was back in 1970s Northern Ireland.
In ”Punishment,” harrowing and haunting to read, Seamus Heaney evokes a young woman who has been shorn, stripped, and killed – a primitive, barbaric act which he juxtaposes with the ‘tarring and feathering’ in the Northern Ireland of his day. He speaks directly to the dead woman:
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you, but would have cast, I know the stones of silence.
I took a powerful lesson from Heaney’s poem, and I have since applied it to all manner of situations in my life, but I did not apply it that morning in the bar. I was young and foolish and frightened. I cast the stones of silence.
Naively, I had thought that there would be no racism in 1980s America. Why would I think such a thing? Pondering this question, I am catapulted back to my adolescence, to Sunday evenings in our Dublin Road living room, when my parents and I – along with everyone else we knew – gathered around a tiny television to watch ‘Roots.’ We were horrified when Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery in America and whipped within an inch of his life for trying to escape. Aghast, we watched, night by night, yet we held onto the notion that just as the entire country seemed to be galvanized by the story unfolding on Roots, surely an entire country would subsequently adopt a kinder, gentler attitude.
Of Alex Haley’s story, James Baldwin writes:
Roots” is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one–the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.
That morning in a dive bar in Phoenix, Arizona, I couldn’t have been further away from Gambia, West Africa in 1750, Kunta Kinte’s place of birth. I couldn’t have been further away from the right thing to do. I chose not to stand up. I said nothing to those two men. To Cliff, I said, “I’m sorry,” but I said it quietly, too quietly.
Cliff said nothing to me, and in his eyes, I saw not anger but resignation. So with a look that told me he was “used to it,” he picked up his hat, put it on his head, stood up, and walked out the door. He left a $20 tip.
I never saw him again.
I am so sorry.
I am sorry I said nothing. I am sorry I did nothing. Older now – and wiser – I know better, and as Maya Angelou’s words have reminded me repeatedly over the years, “when you know better, you do better.”
So how will I do better today, almost 30 years later, as I watch the President of these United States defend the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville when it would be more presidential, more humane, to lead the nation in mourning the loss of young civil rights activist Heather Heyer, who died after a white nationalist used ISIS tactics to drive his car into the crowd? How will I do better as I listen to this President tell us that Robert E. Lee is basically the same as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and that there were “fine people” among those chanting ignorance and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the streets of Charlottesville? How will I do better, knowing that the President’s unscripted remarks have inspired praise from David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? How will I do better as our President blames ‘many sides’ for what occurred this past weekend when I know that only one side – one side – represents the same evil that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in World War II as they fought to protect the freedoms of a country that would permit its people to parade around a Virginian city, chanting “blood and soil,” dressed like the Nazis it once fought to destroy.
How will I do better in 2017?
How will we do better in order to move on up the road?
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 . . .