When someone I care about dies, when I learn of a death – and since I am now 86 years old, I lose people frequently, particularly contemporaries – here is what happens. My brain immediately retrieves some eccentric trait or adventure of the departed dear one and in my sadness, I manage to smile, grateful for the shared joy of memory.
This past week, I received an e-mail telling me that an old old, college friend (whose anonymity I’ll respect here) had died. Old because my years at Brooklyn College were 1945-49, and I’ve always known that it was a lucky break for me. At that particular moment, the army still had dibs on the most eligible young men, so there was room at college – a girl like me who was not particularly brilliant was still college material. I could never have passed an SAT exam, but I got this rare academic chance.
The Brooklyn College Country Fair, 1949.
This friend and I met on VANGUARD, the college newspaper. We both dreamed we might be great writers one day and we both loved corny jokes, and we bonded. And stayed friends for decades.
I remember how determined she was to stay slender, and I’d admired her strength. I would have liked to be slim and sexy but I am a compulsive eater, alas. When we were students, she had the grace not to tease me unduly. She understood that hungry was hungry.
I had only recently written about her in a blog in which I was reminiscing about DANNON YOGURT coming to the U.S. in the 1940’s. She figured in that blog because she was food conscious and always dieting.
Not me. I was just incredibly poor. I had left home and was a live-in babysitter. I never had lunch money. So my friend often took me along to the college cafeteria, where she bought herself a salad. Two free slices of bread came with it. She would abstemiously eat her greens and I would feast on my free sandwich, seeded rye bread lathered in mayonnaise! How could I ever forget such largesse?
We both went on after college to become writers. We both married happily and were lucky enough to lead rich and busy lives. And we stayed in touch, so there was certainly a lot for me to think back on – but my solitary, fond, initial thoughts centered on those salads and the sustaining mayonnaise sandwiches.
All this set me thinking about other departed friends, and again, my memories were eccentric. For each person there seemed to be one single dramatic memory that defined this particular friend. Thus, my dear friend, Norma, grandly stepped out of a gondola and right into the Grand Canal in Venice on our first trip abroad. How the gondoliers laughed and cheered! And when I think about Norma, yes, I remember her wonderful stories about a life spent in advertising, and I remember grand coups and great flops, but first, I always think about that great splash.
Or my dear friend, Walka, a superb teacher, who spent so much time and care planning every detail of her own funeral. Alas, she died so very young, I’ve wondered if she was prescient. Despite all her talent and teaching skills, I remember most vividly and sadly the concern about the perfect most elegant funeral music.
Sometimes it bothers me when I try to remember a complicated person I knew well for years, and my mind persistently refuses to cooperate. And I’ve been so very lucky to have sympathetic friends and loved ones who do not mind an erratic but affectionate companion. My dear husband, Mort, was an ardent supporter of my eccentricities. And what do I remember first about our long and happy marriage? Initially, we got into a terrific row the very first night we met, over why Kafka chose the roach in “Metamorphosis,” and that was one bout we never resolved. It was great fun, and I’m still positive I’m right! Somewhere out there right now I know Mort is smiling and shaking his head at my recalcitrance. I love him dearly, but he’s wrong.