The Secondary Mourner


An old family friend died recently, someone I’d known all my life. She was there when I was born, full of stories of my little girlhood when, for a time, I was the only child among them—my parents, their closest friends. They lived two blocks from each other in Brooklyn for a time and, later, when my parents moved to a house with a backyard, they were often there, drinking martinis and grilling food.

The husband died years ago—more than 20—and the wife went on, traveling to places he’d never wanted to go, being adventurous, sailing to the Galapagos, riding elephants and camels well into her 80s. They had only one child, a daughter. I found out the family friend was pregnant when she passed on a martini and had milk instead.

They—the husband and wife, the daughter—lived in the same apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan they’d moved to around the time my parents bought their first house in Brooklyn: more than 50 years. The apartment was filled with art, a collection of antique salt boxes, photographs of her two grandchildren, her daughter, her son-in-law.

Her daughter is the primary mourner, of course. She and her mother were a close mother/daughter pair always. She’s had a lot to handle in the weeks since her mother died, and though she is an only child, she’s had lots of support—from her family, her husband’s family, a large network of friends.

The morning it happened she called from her mother’s apartment, waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive. I went over to be with her—it’s not a time or a situation to be  alone.

I’ve been with her at other times too: when arrangements needed to be made. When the ashes needed to be picked up. She’s cried sometimes, not all the time. It comes in waves, she said, and I admire the way she’s been able to ride them, to let the sadness wash over her, then wash away, her certainty that the tears would leave in their own time, the same as the certainty that they would come.

Once, after we’d done something together, she texted to thank me.

“You’re welcome,” I said. “But you don’t need to thank me. We’re family.”

We are. And we’re not.

I’ve known her all her life, as her parents knew me, and I loved them deeply. There have been times in my life they—her dad in particular—made a profound difference to me.

How do you grieve when your “status” as a mourner is secondary? When you’re family, but not? When you aren’t a primary mourner?

I’ve been in this place before. I had just separated from my husband of nine years when he called to tell me his father had died. I went to the funeral, alone. In separating, I’d forfeited rights—rights to the family, rights to primacy, rights to affection. I knew that. I’d given up my place.

Still, I went to the funeral because, despite knowing I’d be the object of gossip, of whispers about why I was there and how I looked, going felt like the right thing to do. I’d known his father for almost 10 years. I had love and affection for him.

I sat in the back of the church, not in front, with the family. I greeted my husband, who awkwardly thanked me for coming, but I didn’t speak to his sisters nor they to me. I decided not to go out to the cemetery for the burial but, if I had, I’d have gone in a car with my husband’s sister’s in-laws—other secondary mourners.

It was hard to be there, as I’d known it would be. People think you’ve forfeited feelings when a marriage ends, but that’s not true. The feelings I had for my husband and his family didn’t evaporate just because the marriage didn’t last. But I was definitely in a kind of limbo—neither family, nor not.

When my mother died, my father received calls and notes from people he hadn’t heard from in a long time—old school friends, people from old neighborhoods. Helene.

Helene was the woman before my mother—a previous, brief marriage I’d never heard a word about until my father told me, when I was an adult. There was no trace of her in my father’s life. No children, no talk, no pictures. When, years earlier, I’d helped my mother clear out my grandmother’s apartment I came across photo after photo of my father with the person he’d clearly been standing next to carefully snipped out.

And yet now—here she was. Not even a secondary mourner, not even a tertiary one. Someone who’d once loved my father. Who wanted to reach out, to offer condolence, even though she had no status in my father’s life. No place. Still, she was sorry for his loss.

Belonging is a human need. It’s why we form ourselves into families and clans. Why we join societies and clubs, churches and temples. If we leave them—the church or the temple, the society or club, even the family, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten what it was like when we belonged.

So what does that make us—the former in-laws and spouses? The family friends? We are mourners once removed, like second cousins no one’s ever met. Technically family, practically not.

My relationship with my parents’ best friends, and with their daughter was like that as well. It was family-like, but it wasn’t family.

Being a secondary mourner means your grief is private because if it’s too public, too loud or visible, you divert attention from the real family. You might not sit in the last row at the funeral, but you don’t sit in the front row either. Your role is to offer support, not receive it. You are necessary to the family, but you are not family. You’re something in the middle.

Image Credit: Buckley AFB.

Glad Hall: On the Cycles of Home

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My parents’ house sits on a landmarked block in Brooklyn, a place that felt far from “the city” — which is what people from Brooklyn called Manhattan when I was growing up — but wasn’t really.

It’s a place where old trees line and arc up over the street, a green canopy in summer, a properly creepy backdrop for Halloween. The houses there are Victorian, with nice backyards and small-town front porches. Every year, I held my daughter’s birthday parties there. I took a photo each birthday of my little girl sitting in one of the big, white, wicker porch chairs, a yardstick that showed, year by year, how she’d grown and changed.

In the summer, the front porch became my parents’ living room, the place they spent their days. That’s where you visited with them, where they sat every day together. It’s where I stayed up with my father deep into the night after the day my mother died, when he howled with grief into the dark air, intermittently fuzzy with street lights. It’s where he sat every warm day after she was gone, neighbors coming up to say hello, chat with him for a few minutes, have a glass of wine. He greeted the same people as they passed by at the same time each day — Sue and Alan; Tony and his brother Bob who live in the same house next door, but don’t speak.

When my family first moved to that block, Tony’s wife and his in-laws all lived there. Now it’s just Tony and Bob, but the house has been in the same family for many years. The house on the other side has turned over. When we first moved in, an older woman who reminded us of Queen Elizabeth — she wore kerchiefs and had corgis — lived there alone. She sold her house to Larry and Linda, followed by Larry alone, followed by Larry and Selma. For a long time though, it’s been Alan and Sue. Their two daughters were born there; now they’re grown up and gone.

My parents’ house has big comfortable rooms with dark, burnished wood and stained glass lamps; a dining room made for Norman Rockwellesque Thanksgivings. I made Thanksgiving dinner for 23 people in that dining room last year, and 23 people fit. There’s a nice backyard with a 150-year-old tree that screened the apartment houses behind it and that had to be taken down after Hurricane Sandy. And one day, I came home from school and looked over the entryway, and there was an old brass plaque nobody had noticed before that said “Glad Hall.” Someone had named the house. Someone who had expectations for it.

When my family moved in, the neighborhood felt quiet, almost sedate. We’d come from a block of tiny houses in another part of Brooklyn, each house stuffed with kids, all of us running in and out of each others’ basements and backyards. But there were only two other houses with children on the new block. Most of the houses were occupied by elderly people who’d raised their families, whose children had grown and moved to other lives in other places — the city, beyond. Who’d outlived the need for a big house, a backyard. Like Queen Elizabeth and the corgis.

Slowly the old people left and younger people began to move in. The block regenerated: it’s what neighborhoods do. Houses emptied of families, meant for families, slowly filled up with families again. The sidewalks were noisy with kids on bikes and blades, kids pushing doll carriages, kids rushing back and forth to school.

Houses — neighborhoods — have cycles: young families, middle aged people with empty nests, the elderly, young families again: the circle of life. It is both hopeful, and sad. My family’s been on both ends of the circle or, because it is a circle, at that single spot, twice. It’s the same spot, really. Because Dr. and Mrs. Crow had to die (her) and move on (him) so my parents could buy the house and move all of us in.

I wasn’t a young child when my family moved to the house — we were a middle-of-the-cycle family, rather than a young one. I was 13 and starting high school — Midwood, not Madison, where I would’ve gone had we gone on living in the tiny black-and-white house with the red door where I grew up. My history was there, my friends — Susan next door, Jody and Ellen across the street, Nancy down the block. Mrs. Caiafo who saved the Sunday comics for me, and whose house I went to when there was a blackout and nobody at my house was home.

“I won’t miss this house when the time comes to sell it,” I’ve said many times, meaning Glad Hall. “I didn’t live here very long.”

That’s true — I was out at sixteen. But I was wrong about the other part. I may not have lived there very long, but my family did. And while there were years I did not go home at all, there were others — many more — when I did. For family dinners and reunions and celebrations — my daughter’s birthdays, the photographs in the wicker chair. I have the same kinds of memories everyone does of their childhood home even if, technically, this house wasn’t mine.

I used to occasionally drive down the block with the little black and white house where I grew up, if I happened to be in that neighborhood. It didn’t happen often. There weren’t many reasons to go into that part of Brooklyn — hardly any. Though my friends on the block and I swore we’d visit, we’d keep in touch, I wasn’t moving that far away, it never happened; I never saw a single one of them again. Susan from next door; Jody and Ellen across the street, Nancy down the block.

Then, about a year ago, I did have a reason to go there — an estate sale a block away. I was more excited about seeing my old house than about the sale. And the house was still there — but the block wasn’t the same. The big house at the corner and the one next to it had been torn down and a massive, concrete structure had been built in its place, some kind of community center. It changed the whole character of the block, the neighborhood. It wasn’t how I remembered it. I won’t go there again.

I won’t be in the neighborhood of Glad Hall often either. It’s not the kind of place you go unless you’re visiting someone. It’s residential, a place of houses and children and front porches.

“I’ll never have any reason to come here,” I used to say, so blithely, turning the corner, heading to my parents’ house at the end of the block. “I won’t come back again.”

And I’m sure that’s true: I won’t go back again; I won’t have a reason to. But I was wrong to sound blithe. Because it is bothering me to leave this house behind. The parting is painful.

My father died not too long ago. He outlived my mother by about three years, years during which his enjoyment of the house — the front porch, his engagement with his neighbors — diminished. This past summer, he only sat outside a couple of times, when one of my sisters or I urged him to and sat with him. At the party I made in June for my daughter: the last one. Last year was the last Thanksgiving.

Within weeks, I was back at the house clearing it out so it could be sold. Packing up dishes and mementoes; clearing the surfaces of all the things my father had put down and kept — rubber bands and Chinese takeout noodles in waxed paper bags; books; tons and tons and tons of photographs. I hired people to clear out the basement that was full of stored junk nobody wanted but nobody could throw away either. “Okay,” my mother said when one of us asked if we could store one more thing down there. “But you’ll have to clean it out when I’m gone.”

I threw things away and stored the rest in dozens of boxes, stacking them on a tarp in the newly-cleared basement.

It was hard, and sad. “Things jump out at you,” Deborah, one of the neighbors told me — the neighbors, who’d come in streams the day after my father died because they’d heard the sirens the night before, seen the EMT’s, knew where they were headed. They told stories — to my sisters and me, and to each other — of how my parents had welcomed them to the neighborhood, remembering their own early days here. How their children knew to go to them in an emergency, as I’d gone, as a child, to Mrs. Caiafo’s. They returned the keys they held to my parents’ house in case of emergency; I returned theirs to them.

“Things you don’t expect will make you emotional,” Deborah said.

My father’s hairbrush.

A pile of quarters.

The stories the neighbors told.

The house.

Houses hold memories — even if not all of them are good ones. They hold the life of a family — its beginnings, its end. I didn’t make Thanksgiving in the house this year. My father wasn’t there, of course, but beyond that, the house didn’t feel like the family home anymore.

The realtors wanted me to leave it more or less as it had always been. They liked the art, the wall of books. A family lived here. It was comfortable, warm. Another family would be able to picture themselves living here too. They wanted the house to tell its story.

But the house they wanted to present wasn’t the “real” lived in one; it was a sanitized version. No family photos (except for the one of my parents I left on the piano.) No personal objects. No perfumes in the medicine cabinet. No clothes in the closets. No hairbrush. The hint of people, but not the people themselves. The rest is packed in those dozens of boxes. Or its been moved to my apartment in the city, or to the homes of one of my sisters. Or it’s waiting to be sold — the dressers that held our little girl socks; the piano that belonged to my grandparents; the wicker chair where my daughter’s birthday photograph was taken.

I am sadder than I expected to be, ambushed by sadness — Deborah was right. Once the house is sold, I know, I won’t be coming back here.

But it’s also exciting in a way, to think another family will live there. Bring and raise their children. Have Thanksgiving in the dining room. Summers on the front porch. That they will fill Glad Hall with what it’s meant to contain: the lived life of a family. We had our turn. Now it’s theirs.

Image credit: Pexels/Curtis Adams.

Hot Milk Sponge Cake: On the Stories Recipes Remember

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My daughter’s birthday comes in June. Every year since the first year, I’ve made her a birthday cake—strawberry shortcake, which seemed appropriate for the summery month, her love of berries. The cake became an instant tradition, as many things with children instantly do. It’s a Hot Milk Sponge Cake, berries macerated in sugar, whipped cream. It isn’t a shortcake, which is commoner. And it isn’t better than another sponge cake recipe I have, one that’s quicker, easier, requiring fewer ingredients and less time. But I keep going back to the Hot Milk Sponge, because of the recipe.

Not the ingredients. Not taste. The paper with the handwritten recipe itself. Because it reminds me of Betty, a long ago boyfriend’s mother, the woman who first made the cake, then wrote out the recipe for me. The writing’s faded, the green lined paper it’s written on going waxy with age. I’ve typed it out against the possibility that one day I’ll open my Joy of Cooking, where I store recipes I’ve cut out of magazines or printed or that have been given to me like this one, and like an ancient Polaroid photo, it will have disappeared. And along with it, my connection to her.

Because what I’m looking for when I hunt through my recipe collection isn’t really Hot Milk Sponge Cake. It’s a connection to my personal history, a road map of where I’ve been and who I’ve known.  Recipes are connectors, the roads too small to show on maps.

And they aren’t all written down. Like The Odyssey or a Studs Terkel interview, they can be passed along in other ways.

When my mother-in-law died, we had a small service with food afterwards. It was mostly family, a few close friends. Her friend Anita was there. They’d known each other for more than 50 years, and Anita was very upset. I extended a hand, reached out to touch her shoulder, but she didn’t want consolation.

After the service, we ate the food we’d carried there. I’d brought egg-and-onion, a dish my grandmother made. She knew it was a dish I loved, and when I was coming, she made it for me. It is how some people show love, by giving you the things they know you like to eat: that repetition. I once told someone I liked her lemon meringue pie. She made it every time she saw me after that.

I’ve updated my grandmother’s dish — I make it with olive oil, though she likely used chicken fat.  Mine is lighter, less deadly. Anita had some after the service.

“Who made this?” she said. “I haven’t tasted this taste since my mother died.”

I told her its history — the part about my grandmother, the part about the olive oil. I’ve told this story many times, I am fluent in it.

“It’s so good,” Anita said, and said again. Later, she asked me for the recipe. I sent it to her.  It comforted her in a way she couldn’t otherwise be comforted. And it connected us — me to my grandmother, Anita to her mother, the two of us to each other.

In the front of my Joy of Cooking is a recipe, in her hand, for Elizabeth’s Raspberry Buns. I make them smaller than she did, and my daughter and I renamed them Thumbkins, because you push a floured thumb into the center of each ball of dough before filling it with jam, but what I remember when I make them is Elizabeth herself, the antique samplers she collected and hung on her walls, the lunches and dinners we had together.

There is Andy’s rice salad, written on a piece of stationery so familiar to me it trips longing to be in their house whenever I see it.

There is a recipe in my own handwriting on the back of a piece of paper with notes from a biography of Margaret Mead I wrote and published years ago. There I am.

Recipes are a way of bridging metaphorical distance too: another way they are like maps. On Thanksgiving, we go to Kate’s house, where a table is set for 20 or more—some who wander in because they are temporarily or otherwise without family, others who always come. Everybody brings food.

Last year I made a green bean casserole, the kind my aunt always made at Thanksgiving when I was a girl out of canned soup and crispy canned onions. I made a version that used fresh everything and I brought it to Kate’s and two of the other women there came over and said How did you do it?!  We’ve been trying to make a good version of this for 25 years! I told them what I’d done.

There I am again.

We are cooks, my friends and I: cooking is something that binds us and grounds us. My sister takes cookbooks to bed, reads them the way other people read novels. My daughter and I like biographies, or volumes of letters about/by people who’ve made their lives in food—James Beard, Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser. Recipes, like maps, give you places to go, tell you how to get there.

I’ve been friends with Tessa since childhood, we’ve had many many meals together. I ate the wonderful food her mother prepared when we were girls; now I cook some of it. We’ve cooked together and separately, with and for each other. The orange marmalade she and Andy make every year, a long, painstaking process. My pasta with tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Her cinnamon rolls.

A few Saturdays ago we were speaking on the phone. We hadn’t talked in a while, we had things to catch up on, some difficult. We are at an age where, often, things are difficult—work, aging parents, questions of health. Things that made me feel cracked with sadness. And then we talked about lentil soup.

How much better it is made with tiny green lentils than the musty brown kind. How I like to make it thick and put tomatoes and vegetables in it and serve it over rice.

We were reassuring each other. Patting our way back to the beginning of adult life, when we both first started to cook—to continue the traditions of food we’d grown up with or to transcend them, begin our own. My egg and onion isn’t my grandmother’s. My green bean casserole isn’t my aunts. But they also are. Food—recipes—are what we talk about when we are telling each other: I’m here.  It’s okay. Life, despite sadness, has this in it too.

Recipes themselves appeal to me because they are small and finite: little works. You set yourself a goal, pursue and finish it, it doesn’t take very long. That’s the opposite of what I spend my time doing. The longest, most complicated recipe I ever made took me a day. A novel takes years.

But recipes connect me to people too, both people I don’t know (Beard, Reichel, Hesser) and people I do — all the people who took the time to write out a recipe for something I loved, something they’d first prepared for me—friends, my aunt, my once-upon-a-time boyfriend’s mother. I haven’t always made the recipes. But it’s the handwriting, the road that travels both forward and back, that’s important to me.

When we were talking about lentil soup, Tessa told me Zina, her daughter, had made one with coconut and lemon grass.

“That sounds delicious,” I said.  “Will she send me the recipe?

And when my daughter calls and says she wants me to teach her to make a certain dish my heart expands.

She once asked me what the most valuable thing I had was. I wanted to say “you,” but she was too old for that answer to satisfy. She meant something tangible—silver, paintings, pearls.

I don’t have things like that, or miss them or crave them, nothing spectacular to leave her. But if I had said to her then “It’s my old Joy of Cooking, stuffed with recipes,” I don’t think she would have understood it. Now I think she will. Because inside the front cover of that book is her past and mine and my grandmother’s. Tastes she’s grown up with, things she can give her children when they come. A true inheritance.

Oh, look, she’ll say one day, thumbing through the recipes. Hot Milk Sponge Cake. I remember that.

Image credit: Flickr/billhr.

Thankful for Such Friends

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I had dinner recently with Marie. Until a couple of years ago, we didn’t see each other much, though we shared the intimacy of proximity. I’d been looking for a place to write over long vacations, when my daughter was off from school. My daughter was in high school then, and in need of downtime, which often meant copious knitting in front of copious re-runs of Law & Order: SVU and The West Wing. Our apartment is small; it was hard for me to write alongside the constant presence of Christopher Meloni and Martin Sheen. The ominous two-note “da dum” that announced a scene change on SVU was audible through walls.

So I put the word out – did anyone have an apartment they’d let me use while they were away over break?

One year, I paid to use a teacher couple’s home while they made family rounds on the west coast, but, though they offered me the same deal the next time a school vacation came up, I couldn’t afford it. And then the head of the English department at the school where I sometimes subbed told me about Marie. She’d grown up in Europe and went back there a lot and liked the idea of someone checking in at her place, watering the plants, picking up the mail.

So that’s what we did.

It was a great place to work, sunny and peaceful and, except for the people upstairs who sometimes played loud country music, quiet. The arrangement worked well for both of us and it continued for several Christmas breaks and spring breaks and part of one summer. She left me lists of numbers where I could reach her if necessary, I left her mail neatly stacked and pots of soup I made as a gesture of homecoming/thank you. But other than picking up the keys before she went away, we didn’t spend much time in each other’s company.

After some years of leaving notes on her kitchen counter, we went to dinner. We spoke very openly to each other about many things. Our conversations, then and now, are intimate. But we still don’t really see each other much. And though I’ve spent time in her house and have met her daughter, she’s never been here or met mine. Does that make us – or not make us – friends?

I know another woman, Catherine. Like me, she’s a writer with children around the age of mine. We meet in the mornings in the park sometimes where I run and she goes to walk the dog. We talk about things that are important to both of us: our work. Raising children. Aging parents. Politics. We’ve run into each other a number of times at literary events, but we haven’t seen each other – socially, deliberately – well, ever. Our conversations, like mine with Marie, are intimate. We share details of our lives, emotional details, easily. Are we intimate friends? Are we friends at all?

What constitutes friendship? What defines it? Proximity? Duration? Frequency? When I was a girl, spending time with friends meant all day, but I almost never spend that much time with anyone now. And sometimes the people I’ve spent the most time with weren’t the ones I liked the most.

I had what I called “mommy friends” when my daughter was small – other women with children around the age of mine. We frequently brought our children together to play and for birthdays. Sometimes we had dinners together. But once our children started school, those friendships – if that’s what they were – based on location and a shared need for company and not much else, stage of life friendships – faded away. They were useful to all of us at the time, but stage of life friendships aren’t necessarily meant to last. We figure out which ones are as we go along.

I once asked Marie if she thought the conversations women had with one another were, by their nature, intimate. Was that the way women talk? Or did it just seem that way to me?

She said, “Well, you’re very easy to talk to. You’re not judgmental. You’re empathic.” But that’s what you’re supposed to do, when you’re a friend. And the friend’s supposed to do it back.

I once described to my friend Nan the reactions of two other friends to career successes I’d had – an interview on a regional NPR station after the publication of my second book and winning a fiction fellowship.

“Nobody listens to that,” said the friend I told about the interview.

“That’s not enough money to do anything with,” said the other when I told her about the grant.

When I repeated these things to Nan – the “I said, she said,” – they upset her. “You have the wrong friends,” she told me.

Not too long after that conversation, I stopped being friends with those two women. Life is hard enough without quote unquote friends – the kind who are, for whatever reasons, jealous, unkind, angry. Who just don’t wish you well.

I think some of my early – and longest – friendships were modeled on the relationship I had with my mother. Who was jealous, unkind, and angry. Who wished me healthy, but not really well: not more successful, more creative, happier than she perceived herself to be. I’m a loyal person and friendship, to me, is a permanent state, so I stayed friends with people who, as it turned out, at bottom didn’t really like me. Or who, like my mother, wished me healthy, wished me okay, but not well. I used to think duration was a necessary component of real friendship, but it isn’t. Duration just means long.

Of the two friends I’m closest to, one I’ve known since grammar school, the other since our children took ballet at the same place not all that many years ago. The first one knows my sisters, the dynamics of my family, as I know hers, but the second one does too, because I’ve told her. History is something you can tell someone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be witnessed. And though I don’t see either friend all that often, a consequence of busyness, and work and family life, when we do see each other, there is, at least for me, a feeling almost of relief. That this is a person I can say anything to. Someone who will listen to me, as I will to her. Someone who wishes me – always, only – well.

Men’s friendships are different. Many of the men I know count as friends the boys they grew up with. Who went to the same grammar school or high school or played on the same Little League team. Shared experience is enough for men to call a friendship. And if they have fallings out with each other, get angry, don’t speak for a short time or a long one, it doesn’t consume them. Friends just are. They come and go. Men seem to accept that.

The loss of some friendships – the stage of life ones, the unsupportive ones – wasn’t that traumatic to me. Getting rid of what are, nowadays, referred to as “toxic” relationships can be liberating. Perspective requires distance. But there have been other losses that have been painful and difficult and, in one or two cases, are something I will never get over.

I’d been friends with Kate for years and years. We’d seen each other through husbands and other husbands and children and ongoing relationships with difficult mothers. We spoke on the phone often. Every Thanksgiving morning, we talked while we cooked. And in the summers when my daughter was small, we spent two weeks near each other in Vermont, where Kate lived. She’d introduced me to a friend of hers who wanted someone to dog sit/house sit/sort-of-rent their big old Victorian house on a hill with a huge yard while she and her family went elsewhere for two weeks. I love Vermont, I spent many summers there when I was a girl, now I had a chance to take my own little girl. That Kate was there made it even better.

My daughter went horseback riding and swimming and took an art class. She got to feel what it was like to just go outside to play without having to ask permission, or make arrangements or walk blocks to a concrete playground – a kind of freedom she didn’t have, growing up in New York City. She made friends in Vermont. So did I. And I looked forward to the one time a year Kate and I got to spend real time together.

Except we didn’t. Maybe the first summer we did, and maybe the second, but after that she began making it pretty clear that she didn’t want us there. Or me, anyway. She said I couldn’t expect her to drop everything just because I’d arrived. Huh?

I don’t expect anybody, ever, to drop everything to spend time with me, and I don’t expect – or want – all of anyone’s time. I need to write which I did for part of every day in Vermont, and I have other work and other things to do and beyond that, I just need a certain amount of time alone, which suits me to a writing life if not a social one. I asked Kate, the way long term friends are supposed to be able to do, what was up? Had I done something I didn’t know about that upset her? Was she angry at me?

I asked her if we – our friendship – was okay.

She never answered. She just wouldn’t tell me. She didn’t want to be my friend anymore. And that was that. The opposite of intimacy is that you become invisible.

I once believed the component parts of friendship were intimacy – knowing everything about the other person – duration and spending a lot of time together. And maybe that’s right, but the proportions change as we get older and busier and there are more claims on our time. I tend to see my friends for coffee or lunch or dinner. I don’t have whole days anymore.

The fact is – or the lesson, or the point – there are lots of ways to be friends, lots of variations on a theme. Are Marie and I friends? Yes. Are Catherine and I, though we rarely see each other apart from those serendipitous morning encounters? I think so. Because the one thing a friendship requires, always and only, is that the friends wish each other well. How that’s demonstrated matters less than that each friend knows they can rely on the good will and ear and heart of the other.

Because that is everything.

Image Credit: Flickr/mariyaprokopyuk.

When This You See, Remember Me

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We kept finding my mother’s jewelry all over the house. Before she died and for a long time after, things turned up in unexpected places: her pearls in the washing machine. A strand of coral in the freezer. Rings squirreled inside the palm of a leather glove. Some things never turned up. They probably never will.

Like her jewelry, my mother disappeared a little at a time.

She lost words, searching for what she needed in a sentence, her chin tilted up, as if they were small, elusive birds, visible but just out of her reach.

She’d always over-explained when telling a story, taking the long way, wandering off on tangents – I used to say she needed an editor. But later, she got lost inside her stories. They became mazes she couldn’t find her way out of, even with assistance. When she paused, chin tipped up, trying to catch one of the little darting birds, we made offerings – Pin? we said. House? Father?

She lost the ability to read, to communicate what she was reading. Eventually she just sat in the rocking chair in the living room where she’d sat every day with the paper, reading, then pretending to read, then pointing to the colorful ads in the circulars.

She’d loved flowers, loved to garden, the niece of a horticulturist. In her final spring, I went out to their yard and cut every flower in bloom. I put them in a vase and brought them to her but she didn’t know what to do with them. She’d forgotten how to inhale.

The losses – of self, of words, of her jewelry – were disturbing to my father, so it was a surprise that, within weeks of my mother’s death, he wanted her clothes out of the house. Everything, gone.

Getting rid of the clothing of someone who has died is almost a cliché, heavily metaphorical however you look at it. If the clothes stay too long in their closets it’s a symbol of a maudlin connection: the disembodied garments of the person other people can’t let go of. If they go, it’s not just the objects being jettisoned.

I think what my father wanted was to not be in pain. He thought if he purged the house quickly, he’d feel better. He wanted to expunge her, to empty the closets and move his things into them, to make himself more at home. So he asked me to get rid of everything.

My mother loved clothes, I knew that. When I was young she shopped as recreation. She had a dressmaker who made her silk dresses and jackets, copies of couture. But I was unprepared for the sheer number of things she owned. Four closets on the second floor – two with doubled rods – crammed with her things, and there was more in the coat closet and in the laundry room and in the basement. It was oppressive and hard to breathe in the face of all of it – so much wool and gabardine. Silk and cashmere. Purses and shoes and gloves infused with her perfume, Miss Dior.

My mother was what used to be called a lady when that was a compliment and a description. At one time, she wore dresses with full skirts and tight bodices. Pencil skirts. She had high heels in neutral colored leathers and purses to match. Hats and gloves and handkerchiefs with rolled edges in bright floral prints. The handkerchiefs lived in her top drawer with scarves and clutch bags and jewelry, empty bottles of Miss Dior tucked underneath, faintly scenting everything. When I was a girl, if you put your hand in the pocket of her red corduroy bathrobe or any of her coats, you were likely to find a handkerchief.

But the handkerchiefs were missing.

I was using the guest room to sort the clothes, figuring I’d make neat piles on the queen-sized bed, but the bed quickly overflowed, the piles toppled, the clothes were all over the floor, the two chairs in the room, the fold-out sofa in my mother’s study across the hall, the chair there.

Don’t you find this hard to do? one of my sisters asked me – and I did, though not in the way she meant. It was hard physical work and it was summer. No air conditioning. A pestilence of moths. But it wasn’t melancholy because it didn’t spur memory or nostalgia. There wasn’t anything I recognized here. Or anything I wanted.

The clothes I was sorting all came from the 80s – suits with no collars or lapels and linebacker shoulders. Silk shirts. Cotton skirt-and-top outfits – often the same item in more than one color. I used to tell her when she showed up everywhere in the late 90s wearing those 80s suits that she couldn’t wear them. That she should at least have the shoulder pads removed. But she never did.

She forgot that she cared how she looked.

She forgot how she felt about me.

In the two years or so before she stopped knowing who anyone was, my mother’s animosity towards me disappeared. She forgot she didn’t listen to show tunes. She forgot where her everyday dishes were kept. She forgot she didn’t like me.

It was hard to find a place that wanted the clothes and that would pick them up – 27 huge black plastic bags filled with those dowdy suits from the 80s. My father wanted to take them as a tax deduction – They’re good, he said. Someone can use them – but they seemed to me less a donation than a burden. Who would ever wear them? Who would be grateful?

The things I might have wanted were the things that weren’t there. A dress of white cotton printed with black bicycles. A black suit with three-quarter sleeves and big buttons. A silver pin in the shape of a flamenco dancer. Another of two marcasite greyhounds. The handkerchiefs.

I thought one of my sisters might have taken them; it’s something this sister would do. Whatever made her nostalgic for her childhood, she claimed. Egg cups printed with chickens. Some orange chairs.  Children’s books. She’d taken things before, it made sense she’d take the handkerchiefs.

But then, there they were. After the closets I emptied the dressers, five of them, stuffed with Bill Cosby-style sweaters and with night clothes; with lingerie and random unmatched socks. There were scarves. More jewelry. The handkerchiefs. My mother had put them away – either because they were old-fashioned and she didn’t use them anymore, or because she thought they were valuable and, like her jewelry, needed hiding. I don’t know. But once they were found, I found I didn’t want them.

The fact is, documentation of lived events – whether in the form of objects or photographs – makes me sad. A photo is a reminder of a moment time has left. We disappear from those moments, speed away from them, just as my mother had fled her former self. Aren’t we all, always that – a series of former selves, hurtling forward? For my mother, the most recent self was just the last.

At my father’s request, I took all the jewelry that turned up and stored it. When the time is right, when my sisters and I are all in the same place at the same time, we’ll divvy it up – four daughters, six grandchildren, two siblings still living.

The handkerchiefs remain on top of the dresser where I left them. It turns out I couldn’t bear to take them home.

Image courtesy of {Charlotte.Morrall}/Flickr

Outside the Box: From Teaching to Tea Parties

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I spoke to my friend Rebecca the other day. Like me, she’s a writer. Like me, she’s published three books. Like me — and most other people who do creative things — she needs to do something else to make a living. There’s a 99 percent with writers too.

So she teaches, as I also have. But jobs are hard to come by, especially if you don’t have an MFA. A few years ago Rebecca, who’s in her 40s, decided to get one.  In the program she went to, she worked with a couple of writers she admired, and met a lot of other (younger) aspiring writers/teachers of writing. She got the credential the academic marketplace apparently wants. What she didn’t get out of her program was a job.

I could hear it in her voice when we spoke, her panic. She didn’t know what to do. She’d put in time and money to get that degree, there was supposed to be work at the end of it, and there wasn’t.

Or, that’s not entirely true: there are teaching jobs of a particular kind. In colleges. In English or writing departments. It’s just that they’re in hard-to-get-to places and they pay very little. Very, very little. I know writers who take these jobs. It’s necessary to cobble together a schedule of 10 or more courses at various schools to make a (very) minimal living. And forget writing. The teaching and office hours and prep and grading, to say nothing of traveling from campus to campus, doesn’t leave them any time to do that.

A few years ago, I was pretty much in the same place as Rebecca. I didn’t have an MFA, but I’d made a sporadic living from teaching — writing courses, mostly, but also freshman comp and eventually, high school English — to supplement what I earned from my novels. When the high school job turned into subbing and the subbing turned infrequent, I started looking for work.

I talked to everyone I knew who had any connection to schools. I was given “use my name” type introductions from other writers. I spoke to heads of departments. I sent out resumes. I spent time regretting the other high school teaching job I’d turned down some years before when I’d gotten a job teaching at a college. I had teaching experience. I had publication credits. I figured I’d find a job.

But I didn’t. So I expanded my job search. I started looking for tutoring work, which led to homework helper-ing, which led to babysitting. Nothing. I felt panicked, like I was bashing around in a pitch dark room. I couldn’t find a way out.

And then one day, I was sitting in my kitchen and I looked up at the pile of serving platters I have sitting on a shelf. They’re vintage platters — some restaurant ware, some from mid-century manufacturers — vintage china is one of the things I collect in a random, if I find it at a thrift store or a yard sale and it isn’t expensive and I like it kind of way. I use the platters a lot when I entertain. Tea parties.

I’ve been throwing tea parties for years. I’ve made bridal and baby shower tea parties. Birthday teas. Get togethers. Children’s parties. I serve tea sandwiches — turkey and cucumber with, yes, the crusts cut off — and little cakes. Sometimes scones with cream and strawberry butter. Everybody liked them — even men.

I’d done it for friends and family. Why couldn’t I do it for a living?

Some people thought it was a great idea, some people thought it was nuts and some people kind of took a figurative step or two away when I mentioned it to them, as if a writer who taught was someone worth knowing, but a writer who made tea parties — no.

But I didn’t care — I had to do something. So I started to prepare. I sourced breads and found a bakery that could slice loaves really thin. I bought vintage Japanese lusterware cups and saucers and dishes, and 1950s triple-tiered serving trays for the tea sandwiches, scones and pastries. I came up with a name (A Proper Tea), and made business cards. I loved the business cards.

And I tested recipes. Many, many recipes. For sandwiches. For scones. For chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting and little coconut cupcakes and lemon bars and a Victoria sponge with jam in the middle and whipped cream on top. Everyone around me was very happy. I baked all the time.

I was very busy. And being busy — and directed — helped. I felt not so panicked. Not so despairing. I stopped looking for teaching/tutoring/homework helpering/babysitting jobs. Not that I wouldn’t take a teaching job if it came along, but I started to feel like I didn’t have to. Like I could make a place for myself in the world, a place that would allow me to do what I needed to do (write) while still doing the other thing that I needed to do (earn a living.)

I read an article a few years ago about a young man who, like many of his peers, couldn’t find a job when he graduated from college. So he started a business. His first attempt tanked — he hadn’t narrowed his concept enough — but once he figured that out, his second try took off. And once his business was successful, he started a foundation to offer advice and a financial kickstart to other recent college graduates who couldn’t find jobs. There aren’t any jobs, he said. You have to make your own.

I’d always assumed once I’d published some books and had a few awards for my writing I’d get hired to teach the art form I practiced. I’d have demonstrated a certain level of mastery, I figured that’s what writing programs would be looking for. It just didn’t happen.

I wasn’t a recent college graduate, but I had to make my own, alternate way, too.

As it turned out, a catering business wasn’t the right fit for me. It required too much time, and there were too many variables — food service is a tough way to make a living. But whether or not A Proper Tea was a proper fit was beside the point. What was important was that moment when I looked up and saw the stacks of platters on my kitchen shelf and realized I could do something else; that teaching wasn’t the only possibility. My thinking changed.

Not long after I packed up the lusterware and stopped baking little cakes and put the business cards in a drawer (too bad; I loved those cards) a friend said, “Why don’t you sell vintage clothing?”

It wasn’t as random as it sounds. I’ve worn and collected vintage clothing for years, I like it and know something about it. So I did.

In between the suggestion and the going concern it turned out to be, there was a lot to figure out. How do you run a business? How do you price things? How do you store them? Where do you get stuff to sell? Once I’d sold my way through the overflow of my own collection, then what?

I called my friend Sara, who used to own a vintage clothing store and asked her about inventory.

“Well,” she said. “For starters, you get stuff from me.”

Apparently, once you’ve run and then closed a vintage shop, the things that were previously treasures to you become just a whole lot of stuff taking up valuable NYC real estate. Sara had boxes and boxes full of vintage dresses and skirts and coats and hats (hats!) in her apartment, and an overflowing storage unit downtown with more of same. She was happy to sell, and I was happy to buy. And it was fun.

Sara also told me she used to subscribe to a newsletter put out by a probate court clerk. It was a compiled list of settled estates, and it was mostly used by real estate agents who weren’t above (or below) banging on the doors of the recently departed to ask if they could list the apartments.

Sara also used the list to contact heirs, though she wrote them kind notes on nice stationery offering to buy the clothing they probably wanted to get rid of anyway. This, she said, worked. But it made me a little queasy.

Danielle, also the former owner of a vintage shop, said elderly women sometimes wandered in to talk to her about their wardrobes. The pieces they’d kept all had stories — how they’d been acquired, where they’d been worn, who the women had been with/danced with/had cocktails with when they wore them. Clothing carries personal history, it’s meaningful.

Once the women saw Danielle was as interested in them, their history, as she was in the clothes, they sold them to her.

I don’t own a shop, so I don’t get any off-the-street traffic, but I set up an online vintage clothing business. I sell mostly the mid-century pieces I like best. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t quite make a living yet. But I’m getting there. And it’s a good — a better — fit than A Proper Tea. I like the stories too.

Listening to Rebecca’s voice that day on the phone, I could hear she was struggling the way I’d been a few years earlier. I told her how I’d gotten from that same place, to this one. That the hardest part isn’t the work, it’s getting yourself to think differently; getting off that single-minded track you’ve been on, the one that says writing is to teaching, as the dish is to the spoon, and finding another path.

I could tell she wasn’t there yet. A lot of her sentences started “Yes, but–” She went and got that MFA, she just couldn’t believe it wasn’t going to help her find a job. Maybe it will.

Maybe I should call her back and invite her to tea.

Image Credit: Wikipedia