Monday, December 04, 2017

So Much Fun

A bon voyage party for Ernest aboard the QEII, c. 1967 (see post below)

A Thrilling Place to Be

The letter begins: "My memories of Louise and the time we all spent together at Lincoln Center remain vivid, and I suspect they always will. I close my eyes and I m sitting in front of Louise's desk in her beautiful office with the Navajo White walls and all that brilliant light."

I wrote the letter yesterday to Ernest, Louise's recently widowed husband. Fifty years ago they weren't married yet. Louise was my boss, and we all worked at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It's hard for me to imagine a more thrilling place to be than Lincoln Center in New York in the 1960's.

"I'm so glad I had the opportunity to meet you both, to work with you, and to have had so much fun with you."

So much fun. Part of my job was being in charge of house seats for what was then Philharmonic Hall. It later became Avery Fisher Hall. I don't know what it's called now; to me it will always be Philharmonic Hall. My fingers still fly over the keys at top speed when I type it.  Being in charge of the house seats made me a very popular person. This was especially evident at Christmas, when the gifts poured in--gifts from very nice people with very deep pockets.

My employers were generous too. My friendship with Lee, which I've written about here, started at Philharmonic Hall, and her boss managed the venue. I remember one birthday when he gave me a standing rib roast and one perfect garlic. The bunch of us talked about food all the time. Constantly. We shared recipes and cookbook recommendations. I learned to make Julia Child's Soup au Pistou from Lee's boss. Sometimes I ate lunch at my desk while I embroidered. This was referred to as "The Hearth Hour."

We read a lot of the same books. Addicted to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee mysteries, we posted a chart on the bulletin board to keep track of them all. And we lunched. Boy, did we lunch. The famous Madison Avenue lunches had nothing on our upper West Side lunches. Caracalla and the Cafe des Artistes were two of my favorite spots--the latter with the famous Howard Chandler Christy murals. I don't think either restaurant is still there. Much of the time I stayed in a luscious rut: Sole Meuniere at Cafe des Artistes and sweetbreads at Caracalla. I haven't eaten sweetbreads since.  I have no idea what these lunches cost. My lack of attention to prices was so very different from my present frugal life in the country. Our food was usually accompanied by alcohol--martinis or scotch. I don't know how we got anything done in the afternoon.

Under my desk you might find my dog, Poppy, who became the official mascot of the Philharmonic's softball team. People could tell she was there when they heard her tail thump as they walked by. Imagine spending a "work" morning in Central Park in the sun with your dog, watching your friends and musicians from the New York Philharmonic play softball. Opposing teams included the Playboy Bunnies.

Music, of course, was everywhere: pianos in some of the offices, random musicians in the hall outside my open door, rehearsals and performances piped in from the stage if we wanted. So heady to have access to all the events in all the buildings. I attended the Metropolitan Opera and dropped in on rehearsals. We attended stage productions and film festivals. I remember being told one of those films, "French Lunch," was extremely sexy. Of course Lee and I showed up, leaving the office that afternoon and slipping into theater seats in the dark. The opening scene showed a large knife cleaving an orange. "Mm," we murmured, nodding, acknowledging the symbolism. The film turned out to be about a chef making lunch. In France.

We were surrounded by the talented and famous, on the stage and in our offices. I wrote in my 40-words-a-day blog about my amusing encounter with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Somewhere exists a photo of me with Leonard Bernstein. Performers abounded in other genres too. Like Peter, Paul & Mary,  the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Tony Bennett. In 1966 I received the "Annie Get Your Gun" soundtrack from Ethel Merman herself. And I once got a kiss on the cheek from Harry Belafonte, but that was because a cousin of mine is a good friend of his.

The events! The gowns. The buildings, the marble, the architecture. The elegance. The clouds of Jean Patou's "Joy" perfume competing with Chanel No. 5. Somewhere exists a photo of the audience at a stellar gala concert. If you scan the faces you'll see Jacqueline Kennedy and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. And Louise and Ernest. And me.

I left NYC around 1970, and sometime after that Louise and Ernest married and moved to his home in England. We stayed in touch.

"I'm happy we've remained friends even when a lot of time and distance have separated us."

I've searched for community over and over in my life, with varying degrees of success. I found it in spades at Lincoln Center. It was so hard to leave. When I heard that Louise had died, my first thought was to call Lee to tell her. But of course I couldn't. And of course she already knew.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tradition (written 25 or so years ago)

We always dressed up
for Thanksgiving:
hairs in place, eyeglasses
sparkling like the ice
in their scotch, pants creased,
slips ironed for the big
turkey in the little
city kitchen.

Here the dirt road
penetrates the old house,
sifting on our sweatshirts,
mingling with turkey grease
on my jeans. I dish up cranberry
sauce with the sterling silver
jelly spoon, aware that if I spin
fast on my sneakers I will see
my mother, poised to help
in her apron and her heels.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Little Fiction

I wrote this in 2004 and never finished it. It was written as fiction, but only the names were changed.

            When Elinor came downstairs in the morning, Grandpere was stretched out on the kitchen floor, lying in a pool of urine.  The cat had received his name in infancy 16 years earlier, his patriarchal bearing obvious even then. 
            “Damn,” Elinor whispered, lifting him under his front legs and reaching for a rag.  She cleaned him and set him down gently. His hind legs slid out from under him, confirming her fear that this was the beginning of the end. 
            “Oh, Perie,” she crooned, moving the long black length of him to his favorite spot, a square of quilt on the kitchen floor.  His paws and whiskers still glowed white; the pads of his feet still the pink of youth.  Grandpere and his mistress sighed together.
            Sixteen years.  He’d been the family’s first shelter adoption.  Elinor had gone to the humane society alone, leaving her excited children and unashamedly equally excited husband at home to await the arrival of what would become the first of many cats.  Remembering the cats of her childhood, she had in mind a longhair in a ginger color, or smoky shades of grey, perhaps—maybe even a pastel calico if such a beauty could actually find itself homeless.  She was unprepared for the sheer numbers of cats at the shelter, the cold steel of their cages, the desperate cries of some and the withdrawn hopelessness of others.
            Elinor passed an hour at the shelter, no closer to choosing a cat than when she’d arrived.  A sign she hadn’t noticed before warned against touching the cats and spreading disease.  She realized she had touched dozens of cats, going from cage to cage and spreading who knows what.  She spotted an attendant and opened her mouth to ask where she might wash her hands.  But what came out was, “Could you please open that cage?”  The attendant did so, and out flew a sleek black cat with white feet and the longest white whiskers.  Her first impression was that he was so incredibly clean.  Overshadowing that in a split second was the connection he had created between them.  In her arms was every cat she had ever wanted.
            Wiping up the puddle on the floor, Elinor remembered how she had brought the cat carrier up to Keith’s office in the attic that day, for what he’d called “the unveiling.”  Keith opened the carrier’s door, and smiled as the cat stepped out confidently, aware of Keith’s approval even before he spoke.  “You’re a handsome fellow,” he said in the British accent that clung even after all the years in Massachusetts.  “Welcome to the family.”
            The attic.  Elinor dropped the paper towel into the garbage and stood at the sink, letting warm water run over her hands as she thought about the daunting task ahead of her.  It was an old thought.  She had noticed Keith’s first symptoms of memory loss in that office, and had tried to talk to him about it there, so many times.  Later, she had looked over his shoulder at his unintelligible writings, had watched, tearful, his frustrated efforts to remember how to boot up the computer he’d once programmed. 
            As Keith’s condition deteriorated, he spent more and more time in the attic.  He was gone now, laundered and sanitized in the pink-and-white nursing home, but the attic, still untouched eight months later, reflected the state of a mind in pieces.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

For Wayne and his Beth


Good grief: an oxymoron come to life
from pages drawn and quartered, inked and dyed,
where readers sought themselves and, laughing, sighed
as their frustrations, phobias, and strife
played out in miniature before their eyes.
Can grief be other than completely bad?
Can that which sears the heart from all it had
be partly good? There is no compromise.
There is,  however, one redeeming grace,
a balm to place upon the sorest spot,
one truth pain cannot weave into its knot.
When mourning comes, it stands upon this base:
Endearment is our bedrock, our relief.
Only those who love are granted grief.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Lee, part III

Luckily for me, Corinne Conti is a relatively unusual name. Had her name been something like Kathy Smith, a whole chapter would be missing from my story. I started with Googling, of course. I didn't have to do any more than that because Google brought a bunch of hits. One of them--for Blaine Conti--came with a phone number in Washington state. I figured Blaine might be Corinne's husband's name, but no. It was her name, her legal name.

I called, and she couldn't have been nicer. She sympathized with my plight. She hadn't been in contact with Lee for years, and she felt bad about that. Corinne had a young voice filled with warmth and enthusiasm, and I didn't realize until she told me that she was 85 years old. Her age, coupled with recent heart surgery, explained why she repeated questions several times. She suggested I contact the police and ask them to make a welfare check on Lee. I was reluctant to do this, knowing Lee's feelings about privacy. Corinne said she was quite familiar with Lee's feelings about privacy, and understood why I said I'd leave that option for last. But I realized the only address I had for Lee was a rented mailbox in a storefront. I asked Corinne if she knew Lee's physical address. No, but she knew the street Lee lived on. If only she could remember it.

A day or so later she did remember it, and called to tell me. With some creative Googling I got the name of another tenant in Lee's apartment building. A little more digging revealed that he worked in a restaurant--so one morning I called the restaurant. What a thoroughly nice guy! It turned out he no longer lived in Lee's building, but his brother did. He would ask his brother about Lee, and one of them would get back to me.

By this time my son had jokingly called me a stalker. It does make you think about how easily we (and our neighbors) can be found.

Lee's upstairs neighbor emailed me to say he and his wife had knocked on her door, but she didn't respond. However, he said another neighbor noticed Lee's car going out regularly. So she must still be working.  I felt enormous relief, as this was not the news I'd expected to hear. But after a few days the relief was tinged with hurt, puzzlement, and even a bit of anger. How could my dear friend, who knows me so well, who means so much to me and always said she felt the same, ignore my pleas and leave me hanging like this?

An answer--the only one I'm going to get--came weeks later, when Lee's therapist called to tell me she had died. She said as Lee's cancer had progressed and she had to quit her job she withdrew more and more, shunning contact with anyone. Her car had been used by the caretaker she'd hired.

I've always said if I were sick in the hospital I wouldn't want visitors other than my family. One might say Lee took this to extremes, but then her need for privacy was always somewhat beyond the norm. If we'd talked, we would have talked about her illness. We'd have had to. She was probably tired of talking about it, tired of thinking about it, tired of trying to accept the inevitable end. But would she not have drawn any comfort from me? Have I been through so much that I used up all my comfort on myself? I always made Lee laugh. Does that not count at some point? I hope not.

In the end, I was able to do one thing: I wrote Lee's obituary. I was glad no one else wanted to take it on because I wanted to do this for her, and I knew I could do it well. In the process, she and I connected with every word.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Lee, part II

I eventually located Lee, and left the phone message that made her cry. And then we picked up where we left off. There was some serious catching up to do. She had to absorb the news that my husband and daughter Gillian had died, and I learned about her bout with breast cancer.

We were no longer Manhattanites working in the rarefied atmosphere of Lincoln Center: Lee was a psych nurse in Alaska, and I was home in rural Pennsylvania. But our connection remained the same. We had much to share, much we needed to share. I changed my phone plan to give me unlimited minutes. We also emailed a lot.

As we got older, the topic of our health came up more frequently. We were both rather compulsive researchers, and learned quite a bit as we compared notes. We had our DNA tested at the same time. We got into genealogy and shared our discoveries. We read books together and discussed them.

Then Lee's cancer came back. That was scary, but it became less frightening as Lee's doctor assured her she could continue working and could even go to Europe, which she'd been thinking of doing. Soon after the diagnosis she had another scary experience: skidding on ice and crashing her pickup truck, totaling it. She bought a new Jeep, but after the accident she felt as though the other shoe was bound to drop.

In April 2016 she emailed that she was scheduled for another PET scan. She was depressed about that, but said Alaska was beautiful in spring and she hoped Mother Nature would work some magic on her. She ended the email with, "Thanks for hanging in with me.  You are always in my heart. Love, Lee."

I emailed back, and at some point called her as usual, and then called again. Emailed again. But she didn't return my calls, and the emails had stopped with that one in April. I persisted, asking--later begging--for even just a line to let me know she was all right. Nothing. This went on for months. At Christmas I sent her a card and a letter. As with other letters I'd mailed, they were not returned to me. I felt that was good. But Lee's mailing address was a UPS mailbox, and for all I knew they could have been throwing them out.

A few years earlier we had talked about the possibility of something happening--illness or death--and I said she knew how to get in touch with my kids, but I didn't have the name of anyone I could contact if I were worried about her. Lee said, "I guess you could call Corinne Conti." I wrote the name down on a Rolodex card. It felt like half ace in the hole, half last resort. But of course I had no idea who Corinne Conti was, or where she was.

To be continued (last time) . . .

Friday, June 09, 2017

Lee, part I

I still have her phone number on my night table. With a four-hour time difference between her home and mine, our conversations would often take place at my bedtime. I would have had more energy to talk at other times, would have been less brain-fogged, but I knew I'd get her voice mail.

At bedtime, I often got her voice mail anyway. I never knew if she was out or simply not answering the phone. Because we were such close friends, most of the time I assumed she was out. But it was never the safest assumption.

We met in our twenties, both living in Manhattan and working at one of the most glamorous music venues in the world. It's wonderful when you have a dream job and you're aware of it. I was aware. The atmosphere could be casual (I sometimes brought my dog to work) or beyond sophisticated. I took piano lessons in an office down the hall. My co-workers and I lunched at some of NYC's finest restaurants, and lunch almost always included scotch or a martini. I honestly don't know how we got any work done in the afternoon. Because this was the 1960's, many of the offices, mine included, were filled with cigarette smoke. We had free tickets to just about everything.

On our lunch hours, when we weren't eating and drinking, Lee and I would walk the streets (yes, in our heels), exploring little exotic shops. Sometimes we explored the building in which we worked. Thanks to a shared (if somewhat unbalanced) sense of adventure and my overdeveloped sense of mischief, we went places Lee wouldn't have gone on her own (and neither, perhaps, would I). I don't know if this was good or bad, but we had lots of memorable fun.

I was married and living in midtown. Lee was single and had her own apartment near our jobs. I took a bus to work, and one morning I got off a few blocks before my stop and dropped in on Lee. I knew she'd be just about ready to leave for work, and we could walk together. She was, and we did. But she was clearly thrown by my unexpected appearance, and asked me not to do it again. I would never have predicted that reaction. We were such close friends. Growing up in an apartment building where my best friends lived as well, I had never encountered an intensely private person, and I couldn't relate. I don't think I even heard the word territorial in those days. But I never dropped in on Lee again.

Lee's reaction was all the more surprising given her remarkable intuition and sensitivity in interpreting human behavior. She taught me more than I could ever write about here. Looking back, I was often more than a little dense in comparison. I remember my response when Lee said family patterns tend to repeat through generations: I thought that sounded silly. Silly me.

When Lee got married I was her matron of honor ("female witness" is more accurate), and shortly after that my husband and I left Manhattan and moved to New Jersey, then to our weekend house in Pennsylvania, then to a more permanent home in PA. Lee, whose marriage didn't last long, visited me in all these places before deciding to go back to school to become a nurse. After graduation, she began her journey west. We kept in touch while she worked in several states, but after she sent a post card from Alaska I stopped hearing from her.

"I cried when I heard your voice." Lee was talking about a message I left on her answering machine. By now it was years after she sent that post card, and months after I first started trying to find her. It wasn't easy, but I was like a dog with a bone. I missed my friend and wanted to know how she was. In the process, I found her ex-husband and called him. I scared the poor man, who figured if I was calling him it must be because Lee had died. But no, he didn't know where she was.

To be continued . . .