WHY SHE DIDN’T COME INTO WORK

How you doing, Wanda?

Doing good, doing good.

That’s how Wanda and I used to greet each other in the late 1980s when she’d come in to work 7 hours after me. We both worked at the Greyston Bakery, which was started by the Zen Community of New York in Yonkers, and I’d be reviewing orders for cakes and tarts in the front office while Wanda worked in packing in the back of the baking floor.

The packing room consisted of an enormous built-in commercial freezer. Every day the packers would go in there, haul out trays full of 6” or 10” heavy Chocolate Mousse or Lemon Mousse cakes, not to mention the different tarts, and pack them up in the brown cardboard boxes that said Greyston Bakery with its logo of the polounia leaf (in the old days it said a livelihood of the Zen Community of New York).

Eddie the driver would come in very early in the morning to start his long route of deliveries, the bakers and clerical staff (that was me) would come in around 8, and the packers, including Wanda, would arrive in mid-afternoon to pack up the new product and prepare the next day’s delivery based on the list of orders and customers that I generated.

Wanda worked alongside two men in the packing room. She was big and heavyset, incredibly strong, and pulled and carried those heavy cakes and trays like one of the guys. She was a single mother with children, and before coming to do a packing shift she did another shift of work somewhere else starting in the early morning. That didn’t prevent her from coming into the bakery in full make-up, wearing nice street clothes with a couple of thick gold strands around her neck and bracelets round her wrists, before changing into whites and putting her hair into a net, as we all had to do orders of the Board of Health.

She was friendly but practical, getting to work right away, always on time, dependable as a clock, never missing one day of work.

Till she did. One day she didn’t show up. Didn’t send a message, didn’t call, not a word. In a bakery in the middle of downtown Yonkers, where employee absenteeism was always a problem, Wanda’s one day of absence alarmed her boss, Howard.

Guess who didn’t come in to work today? he told everyone. Wanda. I hope she didn’t get into a big accident. If Wanda missed a day of work, it had to be bad.

The next day Wanda came in, put on her whites and went back to work as though nothing happened.

Hey Wanda, said Howard, the most amiable man in the world, good to see you. What happened yesterday?

Wanda gave a brief shake of her head. Gave birth, she said.

No one had any idea she was pregnant under those large bakery whites, so no one said anything about how maybe she shouldn’t be carrying boxes of cakes or pulling the heavy tray roller back and forth. She didn’t want them to know. She worked without saying a word to anyone, gave birth one day, came into work the day after, and wouldn’t have said a word if Howard hadn’t asked.

When Mitt Romney spoke five years ago of how only 47% of our population really carries their weight, the rest sponging off the system, I instantly thought of Wanda and whether he or I were the parasites sponging off of her. I thought of how you can’t judge anyone till you’re standing in their shoes.

I thought of all the single mothers I’d see waiting with their children in school bus stops, the children dressed in boots, coats and gloves against the winter cold while the mothers often shivered because they’d just slapped something on quickly before hurrying the kids out the door. I’d overhear them asking their neighbors to pick up their kids at 3 when the buses came back because they’d be at work, and could they keep them around for a few hours till they came home.

And if you were like Wanda, you finished one job and hurried on to the second, carried your pregnancy to term and gave birth without saying a word to your employer in case the man got it into his head to let you go.

And I also think of Wanda when I’d spot her on weekends, walking down Main Street with several young children in tow, dressed to the nines, bejeweled and made up, nails manicured in burgundy, laughing and razzing with her friends, going inside McCory’s for breakfast, loving those weekends.

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HOW CAN I BE A SHADOW IF I DON’T WEAR BLACK?

I was supposed to lead sesshin, a Zen meditation retreat, for 5 days, and never made it. The person who undertook to take care of Bernie was not well, and there wasn’t enough time to make other arrangements. The sesshin goes on without me, as it should. But last night, Norman came for another visit.

I’ve been blessed with many shadows in my life, but Norman has been so persistent that we’ve grown almost fond of each other.

Eve, he hums sibilantly in my ear at around 2 am, don’t you wish you weren’t here?

Long time no see, I say sleepily. You’re the one I wish weren’t here, Norman.

Miss anything? he croons.

Only some peace and quiet.

How about sitting? Don’t you miss sitting?

I’ll sit in the morning.

I mean really sitting, he warbles. Settling in for the long haul. Letting everything else drop—Bernie, dog, house, work, everything—and settling down.

It’s not that simple when you’re leading a retreat.

After the first couple of days the retreat runs itself, you’ve said so yourself many times,

I considered a minute. Okay, I feel sad about it.

Ha! he practically hoots in triumph. Now we’re getting somewhere!

I wish Stanley would chase him out of the house, but the dog’s asleep on the rug next to the bed. There’s nothing wrong with being sad, Norman.

Are you kidding me? Who chooses to be sad?

Sad isn’t terrible. Look at the trees outside, they know we’ve begun the end of summer, they know what’s around the corner. But see how beautiful they are.

So what are you saying, that sad is beautiful? Beside, how do you know that trees get sad?

How do you know they’re not? Why am I even wasting my time talking to you, Norman?

You tried to ignore me for many years, remember? I’d dance around the room silly, trying to get your attention, but you couldn’t give me the time of day—or night.

Now we call that spiritual bypassing. At least I didn’t drink or do drugs to avoid you.

No, you did worse. You meditated and studied.

That’s bad?

It is if you do them to keep me away.

Well, Norman, now we’re pals. I know I can expect you anytime I don’t feel so great, only I wish you wouldn’t always wear black. Can’t you change your get-up?

How could I be a shadow if I didn’t wear black?

At least put in an earring or two.

I don’t want to talk about me, I want to talk about you: about the retreat that’s going on without you, about the hours you don’t manage to write, about how old you’re getting—

I’m 67—

About how old Stanley’s getting. Speaking of the trees out there, you think your autumn hasn’t begun? Ha!

I’m planning on a rebirth starting tomorrow. You might consider same. And for your information, I love autumn. Did you ever hear Billie Holiday’s “Autumn in New York?” Gorgeous.

What about the retreat you’re not doing?

I’m getting sleepy. You know, Norman, you used to be one nasty hungry ghost. You’re not so nasty anymore, you’re even cute.

Move a little bit, make some room. Haunting you is hard work, I could use a nap.

Do you snore? Bernie says I snore softly.

Softly’s okay, but no louder.

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WHAT’S YOUR NAME?

Thai cuisine at the Crow Agency Powwow, Montana

What stays with me most from our time in Montana and Wyoming with our Native American elders?

Not trauma, not tears (many as they were). What stay with me are the faith, hope, and laughter in Manny Iron Hawk (who has a hearty, ready laugh) and the squinting determination of Violet as she peers forward while driving her big old station wagon, granddaughters in the back seat, and telling me her tales. The low hills in the distance speed by, as do the gentle pastures of enormous ranches, and I track the progress of white clouds while listening to her.

In New England I have to peek between leaves to see the clouds; not so in Wyoming, where they make interesting shapes. Look at that, it looks like a buffalo! See that one? Looks like a lion crouched over a cave.

I’m reminded of my mother, who has talked about her Holocaust trauma since the time I was a baby. It was one of my earliest and most lasting memories, and I watched vigilantly in later years to see when that will finally fade, when the effects will end. It doesn’t fade, they don’t end. Even when she doesn’t tell her stories, the corners of her graceful lips droop and her eyes go somewhere far away, where you’re not in the room, other people and things are in the room. So while traveling with Violet, I took a few minutes to appreciate what it’s like once more to sit with someone and listen to trauma.

But this is different. Manny and Violet personify faith. Not the heart-thumping, fist-to-the-sky faith, something heartful that has to do with the land. When you’re with them, land and people merge into one blooming life force that goes on and on, unfathomably. Just getting your own true scale in all that brings relief and even laughter, and helps me see my role more clearly.

And what is that role? Look right and left, and ask: What’s your name?

That’s what we did in the beginning of our gathering. Renee led us in a get-acquainted process, and after moving around in response to various cues, you had to look to the person to your right and the person to your left and ask: What’s your name? Implied in that is: Who are you? What do you need?

I return to New England and see how much works and even flourishes here on this heavy August day, the beauty that’s undeniably here as so many struggle all around the world, the exquisite complexity of it all.

I saw a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle at the Visitors Center of Bear Lodge in Wyoming, also known as Devils Tower. Put all together, it showed the picture of Bear Lodge according to Native Americans, an immense bear going after a group of girls who are standing on that rock and praying for help, and the rock climbing up higher and higher and higher, taking the girls out of harm’s way.

If you look at any one piece of the puzzle you can’t see the picture, and in that light I’m dumbfounded by people fascinated and upset by every twist of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, every little tweet of the reality TV star currently occupying the White House. They’re no different from a child mesmerized by every little corner, every little convex and concave bend of the jigsaw pieces, and missing the big, big picture.

In dualistic language, there’s suffering and there’s laughter. But they meet, they surely do, they surely do.

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GETTING SQUEAMISH

A photo from several years back

So here’s the news, Bernie, I tell Bernie at breakfast after returning home 9 hours earlier from our retreat with the Native Americans. The doctor’s office called me when I was out West and said to me that the biopsy of the stuff they removed from your nose revealed squamous cell carcinoma.

Squeamish? asks Bernie, looking down at his eggs.

Squamous, Bernie, squamous.

Does that mean you won’t be with us much longer? inquires Stanley from his perch on the rug.

Don’t be silly, I tell him. Then I turn to Bernie. As long as we take care of it it’ll be fine. We’ll get a call soon scheduling a Mohs surgery procedure in Springfield.

Moe? You mean like from the Three Stooges? We’re doing Moe’s procedure?

No, not that Moe. Moh with an h. What they do is they sedate you locally–

Locally, as in Springfield?

No, locally as in around your nose. They take off layers of tissue, biopsy it on the spot, and they keep on taking tissue off till what they remove shows no cancerous cells at all.

To play it safe maybe I should just tell them to take off my nose.

What happens if they keep on taking tissue off till there no nose left, wonders Stanley.

No one knows, I reply. What I can’t figure, Bernie, is how you get those things? You’ve been indoors for so long you must have forgotten what the sun looks like. Speaking of which, are you looking at the eclipse tomorrow?

It’ll make me squeamish.

I keep on encouraging you to go outside and sit at our picnic table which has a nice big umbrella, and you stay indoors.

It’s true, before my stroke I liked to sit outdoors and smoke my cigar. I was much healthier then.

You had more flesh on you, that’s for sure, says Stanley enviously.

I turn to him. And why aren’t you eating? Are you on a hunger strike?

What’s that?

That’s when someone doesn’t eat as a protest.

I’m protesting just getting dog food.

And here I thought you were sick and I’m making you chicken soup on the stove. You probably planned it all along.

Heh heh heh, says Stanley, licking his chops.

It sounds like you guys really missed me.

You did fix the coffee machine first thing this morning, reflects Bernie. It sounds like you had a big adventure out West. It must have been a great retreat.

I missed you, I tell him.

One day one day.

One day what, Bernie?

I’ll get in the saddle again, he sings.

You don’t have to get on the saddle. You don’t have to lead or worry about folks or programs or money, or anything like that.

Yeah, but I want to do things with you, he says

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CHARLOTTEVILLE AND DEVILS TOWER

We’re walking in the shadow of Bear Lodge. That’s the Lakota’s name for it. We called it Devils Tower. They petitioned the national government to change the name, without success. It is a marvel, an anomaly, and no matter where you go, you turn a few degrees this way or that, and there it is.

I felt very quiet yesterday as we walked around this place, which is so sacred to Native Americans. At the end of the retreat we created tobacco ties and hung them from the branches of a pine tree, each praying for something, and what came to me immediately was: Heal this land and its people.

Land and people feel the same to me here. I look across the wide prairies and envisage them when they weren’t fenced, when we didn’t harvest pasture land to fatten cattle for slaughter, or the earth for coal, gas, and oil, with trains crisscrossing the valleys with 100 cars each filled with black coal. Land and people merged so seamlessly they would have been surprised to hear that another way of life existed, one that felled trees and buffalo, and left hundreds of open uranium mines open to contaminate the air and water.

In what shadow did I walk and walk yesterday, bearing witness to the land and people? Certainly not in the shadow of what Americans have called Devils Tower. It gleamed too much, its claw-like vertical ridges dazzling like blessed alabaster. Bear Lodge cast no shadow at all.

Even stories of trauma no longer threw a shadow, perhaps because we’d heard so much over the past five days, but more so because they were told in the middle of wide-open prairie lands dotted by cottonwoods. So even as Renee reminded us that the past wasn’t past, that violence, substance abuse, poverty, and illness are a story of the present, they cast no shadow on me yesterday under the huge blue and yellow sky.

If anything, I found myself for the first time since childhood humming a famous song:

Oh give me a home

Where the buffalo roam,

Where the deer and the antelopes play,

Where seldom is heard

A discouraging word,

And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Nothing felt cloudy yesterday, except for another city, at the other end of the country, Charlottesville, which cast a shadow. It told me that there is no past, there’s only now, and that now doesn’t exclude the past. You can be in the now all you want, fully mindful, fully free, and still there’s the cause-and-effect of past decisions and actions. All this in the middle of such aching beauty.

Over and over Renee mourned the loss of her language. Once, she said, she believed that the loss of language wasn’t so important, that when you’re living a truly spiritual life you don’t need words, the silence says it all. But now she feels differently.

Yes, yes, I thought to myself as she spoke, to communicate is everything.

At the same time, I remembered a story Violet Catches told me. She was raised by her grandmother till she was 10, when her grandmother died. From the beginning her grandmother told her things she didn’t tell other children, and Violet now regrets she didn’t listen more, that at times she wished to be a child and stop listening.

She washed our clothes in the river, Violet remembered, and she would sit my brother and me down to wait. She would pick a small rock for each of us and put it on our open palm and tell us to hold it there, then listen. “You have to listen so hard,” she told us, “that you could hear the leaves talk as they fall. You have to listen so hard that you could hear the fish leap in the river, which is what they do. So sit there and hold that rock, and listen.”

I sat and sat many times and listened as hard as I could, and she would return from the river with the clean clothes and ask, “Did you hear them?” And I would shake my head.

But one time something happened and I heard something. When she came back I told her that I heard the leaves talking, only I couldn’t make out what they said. I thought she would be disappointed. Instead she leaned forward so that we were head to head—she didn’t hug, that wasn’t her way—and she held my shoulders with her hands.

Heartfelt gratitude, respect, and love to the grandmother nodding and squinting at the glass in front of her as she drove, struggling to hear (she knows how to listen!) because she can’t afford hearing aids. Deep love and appreciation to Manny Iron Hawk and Renee. With the little they have, trauma weighing heavily on their shoulders, hey spent five very precious days training us to listen to the leaves fall, listen to fish leaping out of the water.

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I WAS ONCE VERY ANGRY: AT LITTLE BIGHORN

I used to get so angry when I would come here, Violet Catches says.

At that time there was no monument to the Natives who fought here, just to the soldiers from the 7th Cavalry who died under Custer. It was George Bush who authorized the monument to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe in 2001.

All the tribes came here with their families, wives and children, for Sundance with Chief Sitting Bull. This is all sacred land. Instead it became a battleground.

Violet surveys the land around Little Bighorn. I’d read up on accounts of the battle, but who would have thought the place would be so beautiful, rolling long yellow grasses with large clusters of blue-gray sage (That’s very special sage, says Violet, and she will pick some later), all looking down at the green valley with the blue river snaking around groves of cottonwoods and a green meadow.

The enormous Natives’ encampment, come to do Sundance with Chief Sitting Bull along with their wives and children, left a trail half-a-mile wide. They were here, Custer came from there, Reno was here, Benteen was there. The rangers’ descriptions are loud and even theatrical, and why shouldn’t they be? While the direct battle with Custer only took three hours, the scouting and strategic parrying beforehand went on for several days, and in the telling it almost sounds like a Hollywood movie. Till you see the names of all those that were killed. Till you remember the long history of what brought it about, and what came afterwards, including Wounded Knee 15 years later, and so much more more more after that.

I wasn’t the woman you see now, Renee tells us. She’s the wife of Manny Iron Hawk, and he refers to her with a Lakota word denoting My Second Half. Together they do many presentations to groups all over Cheyenne River Reservation and as far north as Canada. They’re terrific together, each with his/her separate song, separate voice, singing in harmony. The song they sing is lilting and hopeful towards the end, but its early parts are painful to hear.

I was angry all the time. You lose everything you love—your land, your family, your traditions, your children and grandchildren. The hardest thing is when you’re not allowed to be who you are, you are not allowed to speak your language or practice your way of life. That’s what will cause you to be angry, that’s what will cause you to do alcohol and drugs, that’s what will bring violence into the family.

And then she, like so many other Lakota I have listened to, goes through a big change. Something happens, an awakening, a transformation, they stop dulling their pain with intoxicants, they face things squarely, and they learn how to deal with the rage that’s been inside since the time they were toddlers.

How do you do that, I wonder, when your parents acted out of trauma, out of mass violence, poverty, and family deaths (someone tells me that sociologists conclude that while the average American from European roots experiences 2 deaths before s/he is 18, the average Native American experiences closely some 30 deaths by that age, and hundreds more before his/her death at a younger age than the European American counterpart)? I think of my own family history, the Holocaust, of my parents witnessing and experiencing things no human should, of running and hiding and starving, of war and bloodshed. And yes, it’s there in the family, running its way through generations.

So what to do with so much anger? The elders’ humility and vulnerability shine as they share these personal stories with us right there, on a yellow hilltop under a hot sun, and I know that heroism isn’t just to be found in Little Bighorn, it’s there right now, palpably if less visibly, in men and women who refuse to continue the legacy of hating the Other and themselves, who model to the next generation—and to us—a very different way of being. They are not just our guides to Little Bighorn; they are our guides to a different way of living.

If only this could be the legacy of this place, purified finally not just by blue-gray sage but also by the actions of all its descendants, Indian and non-Indian.

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THIS IS OUR LAND

We began our Native American retreat yesterday, driving west into Wyoming and north into Montana. Long, long miles of fenced-in pasture land and cattle, cloudy big skies, horses.

What stays with me is our dinner on Sunday evening with Manny Iron Horse, his wife, Renee, and Violet Catches in Rapid City. We agreed to get together for a review and planning of the retreat, all done in good and even happy spirit. We ate in Perkins, a chain restaurant serving the motels on the other side of the major thoroughfare, lots of cars in the parking lot and lots whizzing by on the road. And as we emerge from the restaurant, Manny, an elder from Cheyenne River Reservation, big in body and even bigger in heart, comes to a stop and says, This is our land.

Logically, I know what he’s talking about. All this land, including South Dakota, parts of Wyoming and Montana, not to mention other areas to the north, east, and south, was given to the Lakota as part of the Laramie Treaty some 150 years ago, a treaty in full legal force today and violated by the government—and all of us. Everything—the Perkins restaurant where we ate, the Ramada where I stayed prior to the retreat, the big Walmart 2 blocks down, have all been built without permission. I’m there without permission, without saying, as I would to any person on whose land I’m standing, May I come in? And at the end: Thank you for having me.

He recounted what I already knew, that the Lakota have gone to the courts to get back their land, and specifically the Black Hills which is sacred to them, and that the Supreme Court finally agreed with their suit, granting them financial remuneration but not ownership. That remuneration is now over $1 billion with accrued interest, and still no tribe collects the money, they want the land. Manny said, One day we’ll get back the Black Hills. Probably not in my generation, maybe in my daughters’.

My mind feels overwhelmed here, it can’t work anything out: the holocaust against the American Indians, the mass destruction of the buffalo, the pipes of black snake oil that criss-cross the land. So much violation, so much despair, so much dignity and beauty. Here, or in places like Auschwitz or Rwanda, my mind reaches its limits, it can’t figure anything out.

What’s left is to walk this land, stay quiet, let strangeness come in. Sometimes it’s a white cloud in the shape of buffalo, sometimes an eagle flying overhead, one black cow against the horizon. The sound of Violet’s soft voice recounting stories she heard from her grandmother, that she recounts to her granddaughters, the rest of us standing in respectful circle, and I wonder: Who else is here? Who else is listening?

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LITTLE BIGHORN

Photo taken by retreat participant

I am leaving early tomorrow morning to fly to Rapid City, South Dakota. There I will go to a motel, shut the door, and sleep. The next day I will talk to the folks who have already spent a week on Cheyenne River Reservation building homes as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ summer programs, and on Monday morning we’ll begin our bearing witness retreat. We will travel west and north, stopping at various sacred sites, arrive at the Crow Reservation in Montana, and spend time at Little Bighorn in Crow Agency.

Little Bighorn. As a young girl I first came across it in the movie, They Died With Their Boots On, memorializing the several hundred soldiers who died at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors along with their general, George Custer. Errol Flynn played the role of Custer, Anthony Quinn was Crazy Horse. Some of the other Indians, as they’re referred to in the movie, were played by Native Americans and that included the great runner Jim Thorpe. Others were played by white Hollywood actors. That’s the kind of mishmash that characterizes our stories of Little Bighorn, and relations with Native Americans generally.

There are many versions of that story, a recent one being that prior to the stand at Standing Rock last fall and winter, it was the last great gathering of Native tribes determined to stop Europeans from taking their territory. And while there’s still controversy about the personality of George Custer, there’s little doubt that once gold was discovered in dem dere hills, the treaty our government signed with Native Americans went into the trash and Custer was sent to insure the safety of the gold miners rushing in, hungry for treasure.

Little Bighorn happened some 140 years ago. Fifteen years later the massacre of Wounded Knee took place, effectively ending the wars with the Lakota and, in Black Elk’s words, breaking the Sacred Hoop.

You read and you read and you read, and then there’s being there. The battle at Little Bighorn happened in summer, and we will be there in summer. There’s a museum there now and a national cemetery, also roads, fields, and fences. It’s part of Crow Agency, and we, mostly European-Americans, will be led by Native leaders.

My experience is that we don’t just get their side of the issue, but something more subtle: their sense of the land, of the big sky, and the rhythms of time and history—ours and theirs—that transcend our more narrow concept of time and schedule.

The schedule is often the first thing that goes when we’re with Native Americans. Plans, too. We plan and schedule a lot, that work is always done, but my guess is that we’ll ditch lots of it and start from scratch, from not-knowing, day after day. Go outside, greet the sun, breathe the air, ask for guidance. What do we do here today? What—who—calls us? If you ask, if you truly and deeply ask, someone will answer.

Bernie will be home, Stanley will be home; Rae will be there to care for them. Whoever I leave back home still travel with me, and often that journey out is just part of the big circle that always brings me back right where I started.

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THINGS THAT CAN FLY, SHOULD FLY.

I saw a butterfly on the ground in the woods. It couldn’t fly. I don’t know if it had been hurt by something or whether it was just old age (I don’t think butterflies live much longer than 6 weeks as full butterflies). I watched it clamber over leaves trying to get away from me, saw the body quiver.

I was sad because I felt that things that can fly, should fly. I’ve often wondered about the things in our lives that prevent us from flying, that prevent us from fulfilling an essential promise.

I finally got a photo of my friend, Margery, who died last week (below). One look reminded me of her style and elegance even in old age, her love of beautiful things, of entertaining friends. Flying for her consisted of all those things.

But it also consisted of acting, which she did in a playhouse in Charleston, West Virginia. She could quote me Streetcar and Hedda Gabler on a dime. I met her when she returned to New York after the death of her husband. She took me to the RSC’s Nicholas Nickelby when it came to town, 8 hours of British theater that cost $100 a pop. In those days that was a fortune for a theater ticket (not anymore!) and I couldn’t have sprung for it, but she took care of that.

And I remember meeting her for theater on August 2, 1990. I can’t remember what we saw, only that in the middle of dinner before the show the television cameras in the restaurant showed warplanes taking off and massive bombs exploding, and that’s how we knew that the Gulf War had started. Right away I lost my appetite and suggested we skip the play.

Absolutely not, she said in her imperious fashion.

It’s war, Margery. I can’t just go see a play as if nothing happened.

Darling, where would we be if we canceled theater because of war? There’s war going on all the time!

She appeared in one off-Broadway production upon returning to New York. I play the mother-in-law, what else? she groaned. After it closed, I urged her to go on: Volunteer, go over scripts, you’ve done theater all your life, you’ll find things to do! It’s not as though you have to make money from it.

No, she said, it’s for younger people.

You’re 57 years old!

She thought her flying days were over. But she urged me to fly. So just as I sent her flowers on opening night when she appeared onstage in New York because I myself was out of town, I’ll send flowers to her memorial service in Pennsylvania next week, while I’ll be in the Dakotas as part of our summer retreat with the Native Americans. I don’t think she’d mind.

You do good work, she told me. That’s what counts.

Photo by Rosalie Carforio
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THE LOVE OF HER LIFE

My friend Margery died in Florida. It happened late last week, I believe, but I only heard the actual fact from her former caregiver by Facebook Messenger this morning.

I blogged about visiting her in the hospital last March. I didn’t use her name, referred to her as M, nor did I take photos of her. But I did take photos upon taking a quick walk on the boardwalk behind the wall of fancy hotels they have down in Naples, bordering the Gulf. You could see the hotels reflected in the water. As I wasn’t staying in any of them I felt like an undocumented person, without the necessary ID, but by tagging along behind a couple, as though we were a group of three, I was waved in.

I knew Margery for at least 35 years; at a certain time in my life I saw her as my second mother. She gave me a gift to buy my first computer, a portable Compaq that weighed about 15 lbs. (remember those?) and which I toted around from art colony to art colony. She was a small, pretty woman who did acting and loved the theater.

In fact, we met at the theater, when I had an extra ticket to the play Mass Appeal, with Milo O’Shea and Eric Roberts, at the Manhattan Theater Club. Sell it to the first person in line over there, the cashier told me. That first person was Margery. Naturally, we sat together, and at the end decided to have coffee. At that time we were both blondes, she asked me who did my hair, and that was the beginning of our long friendship. We both loved Sam Shepherd’s early plays and she died right after he did.

All day I get distracted by thoughts and memories of her, but two in particular mean a lot to me. I moved around quite a bit, and my homes showed it. One day she sat me down and said, Eve, regardless of where you live, make a home there. I don’t care if it’s a room or a manse, I don’t care if you live there a month or 10 years, make it your home.

She then proceeded to suggest I buy this gorgeous $2,500 sofa. I gagged—had never bought anything like that before or after—but I did as she said, on credit. More important, I never forgot her words. I lived in small rooms for years as part of a commune, then in various short-term rentals, and only in my mid-50s owned a house. Wherever I went, I made it home. For an immigrant like me, who never felt rooted anywhere, that made a huge difference.

The second thing is this: After Margery moved to Florida I visited her every year. Some 4 years ago, late one night, over a scotch or glass of wine, she once again talked aloud about the man she called The Love of My Life, whom she met when she was 17 and whom she had to break up with on account of her family. I’d been hearing about The Love of Her Life for some 30 years, so this time I turned and said, Let’s find him.

How do we do that?

I brought out my Apple laptop, put it on the dining table, and sat down. What’s his name, other than The Love of My Life? I asked her.

She told me.

What did he do?

He went on to be a pediatrician.

Where does he live?

She didn’t know, she thought California. But she didn’t even know if he was still living.

Where in California? North? South?

She couldn’t remember.

I did a search on his name and found several. When I told her what cities they were in she suddenly remembered one, so I narrowed my search, and glory of glories, hosanna to modern technology, there he was, founder of a small town clinic. His wife had died two years previously, there were grown children, and he still came to work. I wrote down the number of the clinic and said: Call him.

Don’t be ridiculous, said she.

Call him.

I left the following day, but called her every week saying: Did you call the Love of Your Life?

He wouldn’t remember me.

He’ll remember you.

Darling, it happened 70 years ago.

Call him.

A month later she did. She left a message with her maiden name, and he called back, asked her to let him know if she ever came out to California. Three months later she had an engagement in Los Angeles and flew there, and he took her to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

They never saw each other again. But that evening when I located him on my computer and wrote down his number for her, long before she actually saw him, I knew that one day I would write a story of an elderly woman who refuses to give up on love and goes to find The Love of Her Life from 70 years ago.

You should write the story of my life, she used to tell me.

Margery, I want to tell her today, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

 

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