It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.
The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.
Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.
So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.
Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.
It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.
But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.
It’s the right thing to do.
And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.
One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!
She writes, in her farewell column:
I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.
I also loved this, from her:
You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.
We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.
We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.
We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.
That’s the tough part. Showing up.
More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.
Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.
I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.
And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.
I’ve been to one of those.
I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.
I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.
So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.
We never socialized and rarely spoke.
St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches
But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.
Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.
We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.
One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.
We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.
A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.
A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.
Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.
Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.
I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.
Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:
Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.
N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.
S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.
P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.
L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.
The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…
D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.
M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!
MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.
C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.
PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.
MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.
Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!
“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”
In the stereotype, indifference or ham-handed ineptitude is at the root of a man’s difficulty when it comes to the ritual of gift giving. But no one wants the reaction Homer Simpson got when, in the first season of “The Simpsons,” he gave his wife, Marge, a bowling ball — with his name etched on it — for her birthday
For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.
I’ve rarely seen such crazy anxiety as when I worked three holiday seasons as a sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall in New York, near my home here.
It started at Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers started panicking, and ratcheted up to truly stupendous levels as Christmas approached.
Music? Hers is great stuff, from the 80s’…
What if I get someone the wrong thing?
What if they hate it?
I have no idea what they’d even like!
I admit, I did see more of this panic in male shoppers, like the man who (!) asked me what his 14-year-old daughter would like.
— I was far from 14
— I have no kids or nieces of any age
— She’s your daughter, dude!
None of which, of course, I said to him. I probed gently as to what sort of girl she was and tried my best to be helpful. But, honestly, I found it sad and weird he had no idea what might make her happy.
Another man, frantically pawing through the ski jackets, yelped: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”
We all do, kids.
In the 16 years Jose and I have been together, he’s given me wonderful Christmas gifts, everything from a colander and toaster (I was so broke that year!) to gorgeous earrings. The only dud? Snowshoes.
Our gifts tend to be fairly traditional: clothing, jewelry, books, music and always a present “for the house” — pretty new dishes or glassware or kitchen tools.
This year, we set a very tight dollar limit for one another and yet I’ve been able to find a fun variety of things I think he’ll really enjoy.
The secret of choosing a great gift?
You need to know the person well.
The panic sets in when you’re buying for people you don’t really know at all, nor their favorite/hated colors or textures, what they own (or want to own), their current sizes, etc.
Even worse are the gifts we end up buying, often at the very last minute when we’re tired, cranky and already over-budget, out of sheer obligation, sometimes for people we don’t even like very much.
As someone who was the grim recipient of too many of these — like the books with the big black streak on them, the stigmata of the remaindered (i.e. cheap) — not to mention discarded free cosmetic samples — just don’t!
(When someone has no money, of course a gift is anything they offer with love. When someone has plenty of money but no heart or attention to detail? That can feel mean.)
Long-time readers of Broadside know this is an annual tradition. I love scouring the Internet for a few lovely things you might want to give others, (or hint for for yourself!)
I don’t include gifts for children/teens, sports/outdoor gear or tech toys as they’re not my areas of expertise or interest.
The thing everyone seems to want now is a great experience — an adventure to remember, not more stuff.
What one person loves (Mozart!), another hates, so I’m reluctant to make many specific suggestions here, but I agree.
How about giving a museum membership?
A subscription series of tickets to ballet, jazz, classical concerts, a choral music series?
Gift certificates to hotels, travel, spa days?
Even offering to head out for a monthly hike or long, lazy lunch with a dear friend, and sticking to it. That’s a gift to both of you.
Prices for this year’s list range widely, as usual, but many are less than $100, and some much less than $50.
I hope you’ll find some inspiration and fun!
1. Most essential this year? Give of yourself: your time, skills, expertise, hugs. Offer a package of home-made coupons to a friend, family member or neighbor for dog-walking, massages, baby-sitting, soup-making. If the disturbing rise in hate crimes in the U.S. has you concerned, donate to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or any of the many groups fighting hard to protect civil rights.
2. The British website, Plumo, has long been a favorite of mine, offering women’s clothing, shoes and accessories — and some home-focused items. These small gray ceramic housesare perfect to hold a votive candle; imagine a miniature village on a pale linen tablecloth or lining a mantelpiece. $15.83 each (plus shipping) Also in black, $31.66 (plus shipping.) And a taller, more ornate version in olive green$19.79 (plus shipping)
3. So many people are now worn out — and, worse, misled, by fake news. We read widely, and one of our favorite reads is the London-based but utterly global in scope, the Financial Times, which we read on paper. It’s unabashedly pro-capitalist, but nonetheless smart and insightful; we keep the weekend edition for weeks on end as it takes us so long to read through and enjoy it all: book reviews, travel, recipes, wine, interviews and profiles.$4.79 week for the digital version, including the weekend FT.
As someone who also writes freelance for The New York Times, (here are 22 of my stories, a fraction of what I’ve done for them), and has for many years, I’d also urge you consider buying someone a subscription to this American/global newspaper,especially for a high school or college student, or someone who’s never read it before. Someone who really needs to grasp the crucial difference between fake news and deep, fact-based reporting. Yes, their bias is liberal. But, more than ever, (they’re soon to cut staff again), deep fact-based reporting, comment and analysis relies on — and rewards — financial support. Only $3.13 a week for the first year, doubling a year later.
4. How can you resist the two major food groups contained in this jar — cognac and butter? From Fortnum & Mason, that elegant London emporium, cognac butterto slather on a hot scone or a waffle or a pancake or…$14.95
6. Love this white and denim blue cotton rug, clean and simple, but not boring. Reminds me of sunlight on water. It would be great a in a room with lots of crisp blue and white with color hits of lemon yellow, apple green or chocolate brown. $187.95 (8 by 10 size, comes in many different sizes.)
9.My favorite bookfor anyone aspiring to making art — dance, theater, literature — “The Creative Habit” by choreographer Twyla Tharp. She’s tough! Lots of great, practical ideas and very low woo-woo quotient. Used hardcover copy, from Powell’s in Portland. $10.50
12. Regular readers here know I’m a huge fan of using candles, all the time, in every room. This gorgeous, unusual candlestick, designed for tapers, comes in two heights. This, the lower version, is $48
14. You can never go wrong with a bud vase: perfect for a bedside table, or a grouping of them in the middle of the dining table. $8-18.
15. Nothing makes me feel more organized than a fistful of lovely sharpened pencils. Like these. $14
16. We’ve all got a nasty little umbrella we bought for $5 on a street corner when desperate one rainy day. But what a delicious luxury to own a beautiful, and beautifully-made umbrella, with a smooth but lightweight wooden handle and a wide, protective span. I love this one, (I snagged mine at a discount store version of Longchamp, in burnt orange); here in a warm creamy beige and a few other options. $195
17. I love this other French luggage brand, Lipault, and use their chocolate brown satin backpack when I travel. I really hate logos and prefer something classic and simple, yet well-made and not boring. That’s a lot to ask of a backpack, but here’s Lipault’s answer:in red, deep purple, black, turquoise or ruby, at $54.
18. Watches are still cool. I really like the simplicity of this one, suitable for a man or woman, (38 mm in diameter), with a tan webbing strap, glow in the dark hands, black face and European/military time as well. (But I confess confusion — why isn’t 2:oo p.m. marked as 1400 hours?) $110
19. My wedding earrings from Joselook just like these— I wear them everywhere, every day. These are from Neiman-Marcus, simple, clean and, yes, diamonds! $750
20. Hell to the yes! For a man. For a woman. For your teen (s). A gray sweatshirtwith one key word on it — Feminist. $20.
21. Why would anyone want to sit in total silence for days at a time? Because it will totally shift their relationship to words, action, social behavior. I did a seven-day silent retreat in the summer of 2011 and it was both challenging and life-changing. Here’s a list of six places around the U.S. to go for this experience. (It was my birthday gift from my husband.)
28. Bonjour, Monsieur! The quintessential Frenchman’s style is a muffler at the neck of a blazer, tied with rakish nonchalance.This one is on a woman’s site, but is perfectly unisex, navy blue with a thin white stripe. So chic and so damn cheap. $36
29. This season’s color is copper.This large, flat leather pouchis perfect as a small clutch handbag or (as I do with mine), for stashing my phone, charge cord and earpieces so I can find them easily, and keep them clean and organized. $88
With American Thanksgiving looming and the holidays after that, many of us will soon become guests, whether meeting the parents of the one you love, (and maybe hope to marry — no pressure!), reconnecting with friends or with family you might see infrequently and who you don’t know very well.
Being a guest can also mean stepping into a potential minefield of mutually hurt feelings and/or unexpressed frustration.
Some hosts are explicit about their wishes, but many are not.
I’ve stayed with friends many times, some of whom live in fairly tight quarters; no one we know lives in a 4,000 square foot house or a stately mansion.
Fortunately, Jose and I have been invited back many times by the same hosts. (On a blessedly few occasions, it’s been a total shitshow, usually when staying with [sigh] my family.)
Here’s to a lovely holiday season!
Eleven ways to hasten a return invitation:
No political arguments!
The reason you’ve been invited into the sanctuary of someone’s home is to enjoy fun, friendship, fellowship not to engage in ferocious battles or shift them, suddenly, to your opposing worldview. (Or vice versa.)
When political conversation becomes (over)heated, contentious and ad hominem insults are flying — slow down long enough to ask yourself, seriously, what’s the upside? How much anger, even estrangement, is worth it?
(If it’s time to torch a bridge or two, have at it, but make sure there’s gas in your car or a taxi nearby and alternate lodging you can afford.)
Bring Scrabble, cards, Bananagrams, a good book, headphones and music you love, a sketchbook.
Head out for a long, head-clearing, blood-pressure-lowering walk.
Or, as some Americans are choosing to do this year after such a contentious election, just stay home, or at a hotel instead.
When asked for your dietary preferences, remember — it’s not a full-service restaurant
Some people have life-threatening allergies, but others think nothing of imposing their impossibly long list of preferences.
If you insist on ready access to a specific food or drink, bring it with you — rural options can be distant and limited.
Stay quiet until you know your hosts are awake
This seems like basic good manners to me, but friends we recently stayed with at their country house upstate said they’re often awakened with pointedly heavy guests’ foot-steps as early as 8:00 a.m.
This is a couple who work 18-hour days running their own company and I know how weary they are!
Make sure you know how to find and (quietly!) make coffee or tea. Bring your own headphones and reading material.
Be a grown-up and entertain yourself and your kids in (relative) silence until everyone is fully conscious.
Sex? Keep it private and quiet
Ask any host about the worst guests they ever had, and the screamers and moaners will likely top the list. It’s great you’re so deeply in love (or lust), but sharing space with people you might not know very well is neither the time nor place to enjoy a noisy sexual marathon.
An ex-boyfriend of mine had relative bring a sheep (yes, really) to his suburban home from upstate while visiting for Thanksgiving…
If you’re bringing your children and/or pets, have a full and frank discussion before arriving about what your hosts need and expect from them, and from you
Not everyone is used to plenty of high volume shrieking/barking, especially if they don’t have a child or a pet.
People who’ve chosen to “get away” are actually hoping to flee their everyday stresses, not add new and fresh hells to their time off. Promptly clean up every mess and apologize/offer to replace anything your kids/pet damage or break.
Buy groceries, pay for them or split food/drink costs with your host
Ditto for taking your hosts out for a few good meals. Don’t be a mooch.
Bring a gift
Don’t arrive empty-handed: offer a great bottle of wine, some beautiful soap, a lovely coffee table book on a topic you know your hosts will enjoy.
While many of us now spend ours day on social media, time away with friends or relatives means enjoying (or trying to!) actual face to face conversation, in the house, walking through the woods or wandering the beach.
Everyone needs and deserves quiet private time, but focus on the people who’ve invited you, not only your technology and distant amusements. And no phones at the table!
Write a thank-you note, on paper, and send it within a week
Sure, you can email, and most hosts probably expect nothing more. But choose a pretty card or use your personal stationery and highlight the things you most enjoyed.
Help out wherever you can
Wash dishes or cook a meal or walk the dog or baby-sit for a few hours. Maybe you can help mow the lawn or weed the garden. Your hosts will probably say no, but might well appreciate the offer. It’s a home, not a hotel.
Avoid public grooming
I was once hosted by a younger friend who sat on the sofa watching television with his wife — while both of them flossed their teeth. Not my style.
You may walk around your own home clipping, cleaning or polishing your nails or brushing your teeth in transit, but in someone else’s space please keep all of it within the confines of a bathroom with a closed door.
Create lovely shared memories, not regrets you’ll all spend years trying to forget.
Do you enjoy being a guest or host?
What other tips would you offer a guest — or host?
Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.
One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”
The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.
It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.
Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.
The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.
I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.
I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.
I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.
Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.
My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.
Headstrong ‘r us.
My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.
My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.
My mother and I have no relationship at this point.
Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.
My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.
Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!
My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)
In other ways, I’m quite different.
My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.
I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.
Which parent do you most resemble?
Or have you chosen to reject their values?
How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” — coach John Wooden
This week, thanks to the media, (yes, of which I’m still a member), I saw two powerful examples of character in action.
The first, which I won’t belabor, was that of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, mocking and dismissing the 14 women who have come forward to share publicly a private and humiliating and angering moment they say happened to them in his presence when he groped them.
We weren’t there, so only he and they know what happened.
But it’s how someone behaves in private — and behaves consistently — that defines the essence of their character.
It’s what you do and say to people, usually people with much less power than you have, (i.e. you can lose your job, your home, your friendship, your marriage if you fight back or tell anyone what shit they’ve subjected you to).
Some people wield that power like a billy club, swinging it with a smirk — over and over and over.
We also live in an unprecedented era of personality, where The Famous boast of, and monetize, their millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as proof of their popularity.
Oh, how we rush to buy their music and books and line up to vote for them, cheering til we’re hoarse.
We literally idolize them, projecting onto them every possible good quality we so long to see and feel in our broken world.
Yet we have no idea whatsoever who they really are.
Last night’s episode was an astonishing and moving reminder of character, that quaint, old-fashioned, Victorian notion of behaving with integrity and honor.
When it came time for the losing team to name one of their fellow team members to send home for good, four of the six said something unlikely and unprecedented: Send me. I screwed up.
I’ve never seen the show’s host and mentor ,Tim Gunn, so moved and so impressed with the behavior of the man chosen to leave, who had also volunteered to take one for his team.
If you’ve watched previous seasons, (yes, I’m a serious fan!), you’ll recall moments when there was a virtual stampede, (remember Ashley Nell Tipton?), to toss someone else under the bus.
It was ugly to see and, yes, revealed character.
I’ve now been with my husband for 16 years, married for five.
The decisive moment for me was a revelation of his character, in a time of fear, unplanned expense and chaos, when so many other men, no matter how handsome or charming, would have wobbled or slithered away from the challenge or left me, once more, to pick up the pieces as her only, overwhelmed child.
My mother, living alone in a small town, had been been found — the door broken in by police after worried neighbors called them — lying in bed for days, unable to move.
A stroke? We had no idea. She lived, as she still does, a six-hour flight plus two-hour drive from us.
I called Jose, then working in one of the most senior and responsible photo editing jobs at The New York Times, and said, “We have to go. Tomorrow.”
He told his bosses and we went.
His decision to be a mensch was instant.
And invisible to everyone but me and his bosses.
It cost a fortune I didn’t have that he paid for — last-minute airfare, meals, car rental.
When we got to my mother’s house, he took her stained mattress to the balcony to scrub it clean. Not a word. No complaints. No whining.
Why am I laughing hysterically just before I walk down the aisle? We married on Centre Island in Toronto, with a petting zoo very close to the church. All I could hear (instead of my processional) were cows mooing!
It was, as today has been — a gorgeous, sunny, warm September afternoon.
We chose a tiny wooden church on an island in Toronto, St. Andrew by the Lake. It’s surrounded by public parkland, so I could look out the window and see green grass and hear crickets during our ceremony, attended by 25 of our oldest and dearest friends, who came from as far away as New York, D.C. and British Columbia.
By late afternoon, the wood of the church was sun-warmed, and the place smelled wonderful, bringing back some of my happiest memories of other rustic, wooden places — the stage at summer camp, the costume cupboard, our cabins and the dining hall.
I grew up in Toronto and, even after living near New York City for decades, knew this was where I wanted to marry.
I walked barefoot from the vestry to the front door of the church, my burgundy slingback Manolos dangling from one hand. There, because my left hip hadn’t yet been replaced, the minister, (himself in Birkenstocks and ponytail), and my Dad helped me into my shoes.
My processional was Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) and our recessional was Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine of My Life.
Our photographer? A young woman Jose had taught at the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a talented young woman, now at the Houston Chronicle, Marie de Jesus.
I had never met her, she’d never been to Toronto and she’d never shot a wedding. No pressure! She did a great job and we were lucky to have her with us.
It’s been five years of marriage today — but we’ve been together since we met in March 2000; Jose’s move-in day to my apartment (no kidding), was 9/11. He moved in a week later.
We met, (how else for two career journo’s?), when I wrote an article for Mademoiselle magazine about online dating, then a new thing (1999) and he answered the ad I had to place as part of my research. (As did 200 others!)
Catch Me If You Can.
We would never have met any other way, but knew many people in common, which eased our first few meetings.
It’s been a wild 16 years: he retired from The New York Times with a Pulitzer Prize after 31 years, and is now full-time freelance.
He’s seen me wheeled into the OR three times, (knee, shoulder, hip), with a right knee replacement now due in the next few years, maybe sooner.
We’ve traveled together to Paris and Normandy; to six cities in Mexico; to his home, Santa Fe, NM; to Ontario and Quebec many times, to D.C., to Texas, to New Orleans and Arizona.
He gave me a tent for my birthday one year.
Today we both worked, of course, even on a glorious Saturday; he at the computer editing images of several tournaments for the United States Golf Association, I sitting in the parking lot for a village tag sale.
We laugh a lot, share a fierce work ethic and hope for continued good health.
I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum!— to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.
As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.
One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.
Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.
I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.
Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.
I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.
The book’s Canadian cover
Tell us a bit about yourself…
My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?
When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.
After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.
When did the idea for this book come to you?
The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.
I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!
Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?
What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?
Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.
We’ve become a nation of voyeurs
If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.
The American cover
Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?
Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.
Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?
I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.
How did you structure the book and why?
My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.
One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.
Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”
We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.
What was most challenging about writing it?
The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.
The most fun?
Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.
Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?
Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.
After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding
Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.
Any reaction from your family?
My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!
What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!
That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.
We all have so much in common
I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”
One of my Twitter friends — an archaeologist in Berlin — and I tweet RHPS lyrics to one another. Because…friendship!
Few moments are sadder than a friendship’s abrupt and unforeseeen end — through anger, misunderstanding, a conflict no one is willing or able to resolve, a moment of no return when no one, (as the British say), will grasp the nettle and get through a tough moment to the other side.
A true friendship means creating and nurturing deep intimacy, sharing secrets (and trusting those will be held tightly for decades), daring to reveal your weaknesses and flaws along with your utter fabulousness.
A true friend — in my world — is someone who knows you really well and loves you anyway.
Some people come from tight, loving, intact families and, as a result, perhaps have much less need of friendship. They know they can count on parents, siblings, grandparents, even cousins, for moral support throughout life’s ups and downs, and sometimes even receive financial help.
If you emerge from a family like mine, poisoned by estrangement, friends are family, the people you learn to turn to first and always.
They’re the ones who walk uphill in a blizzard to get you to the hospital at 6 a.m. for knee surgery and who stop you from falling head-first into the bathroom door as you emerge from anesthesia.
The ones who sit with you as you weep through hearing the sound of bagpipes for the first time since they marked your marriage, now ended.
The ones who know your dogs’ names and the man who broke your heart and the woman you dreamed of becoming .
They never forget your birthday.
You know their parents and their siblings and how they’re all doing.
Losing one of these friends is a terrible loss, and one not quickly or easily replaced.
Some friendships outgrow their time and not all of them are meant to last.
But I hate it when someone I really enjoy suddenly disappears from my life, which has happened a few times.
After trying to talk through some troubling (to me) behavioral patterns, I lost three friends in rapid succession about a decade ago, all of them women I had hoped would be friends for many years to come, but they’re gone, and they’re gone for good.
I don’t regret it now, although it’s not been quick or easy to replace them.
At a recent wedding of a friend, I knew I would run into a younger woman I’d been close with about a decade ago, and — after a silly falling-out — we had not spoken since then. We had met through that mutual friend, who kept me up to date for years on K’s progress through life and how, since our fight, she had since found all sorts of happiness.
I knew she was now married, with a baby.
And she was there, glowing, with her handsome husband and photos of her lovely new baby on her phone.
I said a nervous hello, and it was, thankfully, an instant of hugs and reconciliation.