Thursday, April 20, 2017


Dearest You,

There was electricity when you came into the burger joint where I was working my first job in Los Angeles. I wore a ridiculous paper hat and penny loafers. My white apron pocket was stuffed with crumpled ones and the stubs of yellow pencils.

There was electricity when you told me I had a “little peanut head.”

I was a redhead, but it wasn’t natural. The label on the box from the drugstore read, “Shiny Copper Penny.” 

You brought me coffee to trade for French fries. One day you brought me flowers.

There was electricity.

The helmet you loaned me on that first motorcycle trip was too big for my peanut head and I thought “if something happens, I probably won’t be safe.”

“But nothing will happen,” you said.

You called me “Pumpkin,” and told me to wrap my arms around your waist.  We zoomed east through unfamiliar neighborhoods and across a bridge over the Los Angeles River.  I don’t think I’d realized there was a river before this night.  Now, as I make my circles of kid drop-offs and pick-ups, I cross this same bridge again and again. I sometimes think of that first early evening motorcycle ride. I think of the way the street lamps were swelling with aluminum brightness. 

You were riding this motorcycle when the van hit you. You were thrown from the bike and hit the pavement so hard nearly every part of you broke.  You read the police report to me from the hospital. 

“It says here, I’m dead, Pumpkin.”

When I saw you again, your left arm and leg were encased in plaster and part of your head was shaved. It took effort to get you into my car. It took more effort to help you scale the long cement stairway to my apartment. 

There was no question that it would be a sleepover. Too much work was involved for only a dinner.

I slept on your left side, with the sturdy casts between us.

With love,


Friday, December 10, 2010


Dearest You,

Do you remember that time we dyed your hair dark brown and you cried because you looked like Maria in "West Side Story?" We were bored and broke and so we did lots of random things in our small (so small apartment.) We sat at our table and painted with watercolors, we made milkshakes in the blender from ice cream we bought at the little bodega across the street. We smoked lots and lots of cigarettes and wrote in our journals. I once built a desk from scrap wood in the living room and it turned out to be so large I couldn't fit it through the door to my bedroom. We laughed really hard. And then you helped me take out all the screws and move the parts one at a time.

We journeyed across the country together, from your childhood home in the South to the big city on the West coast. When I picked you up, your mother poured us glasses of fresh squeezed lemonade and we played Hearts in the back yard with friends you had known your whole life. The next morning, after we'd loaded all your things into my tiny, red hatchback you wrapped your arms around your mom and cried. You cried all the way out of town. I drove through the gray light of early morning and worried about you. I also admired the way your new haircut fell in waves around your face. You were probably wearing overalls over a tank top and probably I was, too. After a while you stopped crying and we listened to Dwight Yoakum and Randy Travis and sang all the songs at the top of our lungs as we drove into the heat of the summer day.

On that trip, our air conditioner gave out in Arkansas and we didn't have enough money or time to get it fixed. We rolled down the windows and stopped often for Cokes and crushed ice. We dunked our heads in the sinks of rest area bathrooms and still we were hot. So hot that on a particularly long stretch the print of your sundress bled onto the pillowcase of the pillow you kept on your seat. It was hot and sweaty and the car was filled with everything we thought we might need for our new post college life out West.

In our first apartment, we danced on the wide, empty wood floors of our living room and threw parties where we served hamburgers on English muffins, potatos mashed with cheese and salsa and your famous "Jiffy Mix" muffins. We sat around our table with friends and made Christmas cards and Valentines, paintings and collages. A friend dubbed us "the Feminist Craft Circle." It was so nice to share a glass of wine, a pair of scissors and a tube of glue with you.

In our second apartment and second city, we circled ads in the employment section of the paper and layed flat on the floor to stay cool. We spent a whole summer working our schedule around the airing of "All My Children" to see if Hope would ever, ever get out of the well. We drove to the beach and charged fried clams and Bloody Marys to our credit cards. You worked at a smoothie place and I served hamburgers to tourists and the days went by. One day you packed up your things. You missed your family and your town and your friends. You hated the noise and pollution and grind of the big city. I was so sad to lose you, but without a better plan, so I stayed behind.

Before you left, you helped me find a new apartment. You checked the locks on the doors, made sure I was on the second floor. Together, we painted my kitchen yellow and rolled a coat of turquoise paint on a very damaged wood floor. It was your idea to paint the inside of the kitchen cabinets so that every time I reached for a glass, I would find a surprise burst of periwinkle blue.

It has been a long, long time since I have heard your drawl (always more pronounced after a drink or a phone call home), a long time since we have shared a meal or twirled around the house in an impromptu dance party. I see photos of you and your children, hear little bits about your life and look with wonder at what we have become. I think you knew what you wanted long before I did, but we both seem to have figured out a way to live happily in the world.

Love and Spuds O' Rama,

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Dearest You,

Once we went to your house for the afternoon. You met my brother and I with a gleeful smile, telling us you had a “little project”. The project turned out to be a veritable forest of cut willow you wanted neatly bundled into latillas for her ceiling. Here we were, teens with all the bad attitude and slump inherent in the years between twelve and twenty and somehow, we enjoyed the project. Swept up in the tide of your enthusiasm, we enjoyed the simple, rhythm of our task and the supple bend of the sticks in our hands. Later, you fed us soup and tortillas on a pile of adobe bricks. That day, bellies full and backs warmed by the sun, we were all part of your growing home.

“You know,” my Dad said once, “she could have been a beauty queen. The real deal, Miss America and everything, but here she is out here in the sticks. A real diamond in the rough.”

Back in 1984, when I was a junior in high school, I brought home one of my first dates, a tall, shy fellow that I thought was the living end. A city boy, he had no idea that he shouldn’t drive his little car all the way to the bottom of my steep and icy driveway and we were immediately stuck. After a few tense, tire-spinning moments, we ventured into the house to enlist the aid of my parents and walked right into the Australia slide show. You and my dad and my stepmother had been drinking wine, clicking through slides and re-living your travels and your welcome was, shall we say, most effusive. My tall, shy date suddenly became a bit taller and a lot shyer. Arriving near the end of the show we were just in time for a series of photos of you and my stepmother in teeny, tiny bikinis culminating in a grand nude beach finale. The last slide clicked up and the carousel rotated, leaving a bright square of white on the screen and my Dad lurched up and outside to heave against the tail end of my date’s car and shout directions over the roar of the engine. I huddled on the sidelines and prayed for this night to end. When the car was finally unstuck, Dad gave me a wink and left my date and me for a moment alone in the driveway, but my date was flustered and fled into the night and I returned, unkissed, to the company of these so-called “adults.” I collapsed into a chair and you leaned over me and, put your cheek against mine and said, “our girl’s all grown up.” I leaned back against you and felt the weight of your hair on my shoulders like a mantle.

You are one of my stepmother's dearest friends. I grew up watching her get decked out for her annual holiday lunch with your merry trio. She’d pull on a pair of tall leather boots, a furry skirt from Panama, perhaps a silver sequined tube top or a spangly cardigan that belonged to her Grandmother. I knew that in two other houses a similar costuming was underway. In my twenties, I was asked to join this threesome for holiday sushi and this invitation was enough to make me feel that I had become a woman. Since then, I’ve raised a fair number of champagne flutes with you, my self-proclaimed “Auntie.”

On one of these outings, your car wouldn’t start and we all stood shivering and laughing in the snow in our jewel toned dress up clothes while you poured a can of Coca-Cola over the encrusted battery poles and banged on the thing with a wrench. When the truck turned over and revved to a steady chug, we all cheered and hugged and I wished we could start the night all over again.

In the first hard months after my Dad died, at least once a week, I’d find an envelope addressed in your elegant looping hand. Inside there might be a clipping from a local paper, a photograph or a couple of postcards. Sometimes you wrote a long letter, but often there were just a few scattered post-it notes with hearts and exclamation points. It was not until some time later that I realized you weren't just sending me articles, you were reminding me that you were there, that you cared. From two states away, you were keeping me company in my grief.

Just as long ago, I had a hand in building your home, you have had a hand in building me.

I am sending you love.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Dearest You,

The day we went fishing you wore a beat up straw hat and cut-off jeans and a big plaid shirt. It was as if you were auditioning to be Huck Finn. If Huck were over six feet and from Argentina. Your crazy, floppy hair was in your eyes (as always) and your lips parted to reveal those big, white teeth. When we drove to the lake (the lake we eventually discovered to be completely flooded out) I sat between you and my boyfriend. He was your best friend. My leg touched your leg. My leg touched his leg. That was how it was with us. There was lots of good will and very little looking back.

It wasn't as though you and I had really dated, anyway.

In the front seat were these nice, married people you knew. They seemed really adult to me at the time. They always had boxes of crackers and plates of cheese out on the big farm table in their house. (They owned their own house!) They bought wine by the case and drove cars that were big enough and had decent enough tires to take us all safely to the lake.

I didn't have very much money when I knew you. Once you asked me just how much I had and when I told you, you slipped a twenty into my hand.

There was a great night when you cooked for me and my boyfriend (your best friend.) You made veal cutlets and mashed potatoes and a huge salad with tons of garlic in the dressing. I still think of you when I make mashed potatoes. When I think I've added enough pepper, I always add a little more.

You didn't have much furniture, but you had a nice cutting board and good, sharp kitchen knives. When whatever happened between us first happened, you seemed to want it to go further, but I told you that I had too many pots on the stove. And you were okay with that.

I liked watching you bounce up the stairs, your long legs taking the steps two at a time. I liked the way you bombed down these same steps, still buttoning a shirt.

On Valentine's Day, you drove me to a local flower shop and bought me a carnation. We hadn't even kissed. Another night, you knocked on my door and took me to a tiny bar on Melrose where almost everyone spoke Spanish. We played pool and drank beer. You knew everyone in the place.

When I think about my twenties, I think about how lonely I was a lot of the time. I was coming out of a group of college friends and I hadn't yet found another group to call my own. You seemed to recognize that. You were an inclusive person. You liked it when there was a party. Why be alone if you have a choice to be together?

When I moved out of the apartment building, we sat outside on an old wooden table and you said you were sorry it hadn't worked out between us. You were sorry it hadn't worked out between me and your best friend. You congratulated me on making it work with another guy. Any connection was better than none at all. You wished me happiness.

You were a good neighbor. The kind of adventurous, hilarious, colorful neighbor every girl in her twenties should have.


Friday, July 16, 2010


Dearest You,

Lined up on a shelf in your room, staring out with their placid eyes and gently curved smiles, were more Madame Alexander dolls than I have ever seen. When I visited you, I brought my doll. Her tag said she was Scarlett O'Hara, but I'd christened her "Jolene," in honor of my favorite Dolly Parton song. She had black hair and green eyes and a white lace dress with a tulle petticoat.

You had long, blonde hair like Alice. You were older than I was and your parents were already divorced. You had a rug in your room made out of a real lion. I liked to lie on my back on the fur with my head propped on the head of this lion. Because his mouth was open in a roar we could push our fingertips against his sharp, white teeth.

I once spent a rainy summer night at your house catching frogs in your back yard. We caught dozens of frogs and put them in a bucket. Some of them were as big as my two hands and others the size of a quarter. The grown ups drank wine on the patio, the light from the kitchen window illuminating the empty dinner plates and crumpled napkins. Our long hair grew wet and ropey, our hands and knees were covered with mud. Later, we set the frogs free and in return they sang us to sleep.

Your dad and my dad were business partners. They had a country store. They sold art and Indian jewelry and embroidered shirts made by my aunts. They sold kits to make your own dulcimer and kachina dolls and stick candy. The phone number to the store was printed on wooden nickles. In the store, your dad sold tiny glass beads by the pound. We liked to dig our hands deep into the barrel where these beads were kept. In the summer, the beads stuck to our skin like sprinkles on a cake.

The country store closed down and you moved to England. For a long time, you sent letters on pale blue airmail stationary. You told me it was cold. You wondered how I liked school. You missed me. I missed you.

I wish for my own daughter a friend as magical as you. I wish for her, too, the kind of private childhood we shared. I don't think our parents watched over us as much as I watch over my children. Though I want them to be safe, I am trying to let them move more freely through their lives. In your company, it was as though we were always striking out on an adventure of our own making. It is good to remember this feeling.


Monday, July 12, 2010


Dearest You,

My daughter has been watching a documentary about The Buddha and it reminded me of you. In the documentary Siddhartha begins his quest for enlightenment by denying himself everything. He eats one grain of rice per day. He binds his body and hangs upside down from a tree. The statues of him at this time show him to be emaciated and frail. His bones stand out like a ladder on his chest. His eyes sink deep into his skull. My daughter wonders why he would want to be so skinny. He looks scary, she says. He is weird.

I think of you and how when you began your own quest, you, too started with denial. You began to wear only white. You cooked vegetarian meals. You declared yourself celibate. As your girlfriend at the time (your college girlfriend) this last seemed ridiculous to me. We were in college, for the love of mike, if you're not going to have lots of sex in college then when? I slept with other people then and you were angry and I was angry and we both spent a lot of time crying and being hurt. It seems so strange to me now just how much we cried.

I remember fitting my thumb into a little hollow just below your sternum and laying my fingers over the bones of your ribs. I remember the way your wide, warm mouth felt against my own.

In a letter, my stepmother writes, "Oh to be young and in love in the Spring." She was writing about us. We were young and in love and it was Spring in Chicago, the kind of joyous Spring that can only emerge after the deep, bone cold of a Midwestern winter. Our love was like a crocus. Brilliantly colored but fragile.

We took a long train ride once from Chicago to Albuquerque and we played cards almost the whole way. Hand after hand of Gin Rummy. We sat in the observation car with the sun in our eyes and your laugh was deep and rumbly. On this same trip, we were caught in a freak snowstorm near the Organ Mountains of New Mexico. We wound up spending the night in a public library with dozens of strangers. We played cards there, too.

Once, just after we'd first decided we were in love, we spent the day with friends at the park. I wore a sundress and lounged on the picnic blanket making eyes at you. At one point, I leaned back in a way I thought to be extra-sultry and my head landed in a bucket of bubbly water that we'd mixed to blow soap bubbles. I felt ridiculous.

When we parted for the summer, we exchanged long letters and postcards. Every day, I walked to the post office, hoping to see your tiny, careful printing across the front of an envelope. You sent L.L. Bean catalogs addressed to "ILY Tanya Ward." I swooned at your creativity.

When you finally visited, I took you to the little town where I'd been doing summer theater and you wandered through the dusty streets in your white shorts and blue striped shirt. A fire broke out and the whole town turned into an emergency bucket brigade. We joined in what would soon prove to be an impossible task and eventually stood back to watch while the fire devoured a house. The bright flames against the dark night and the destruction they wrought were so troubling to you that we stopped twice on our long drive home to weep and talk and embrace and weep. I thought then as I do now that you were an ocean person and I was a desert person. Though I am weepy in my own right, there is cholla cactus and red dust and dry arroyos in my DNA.

Later that same summer, I cheated on you.

Do you remember our trip to New York? We missed the first act of "M. Butterfly" because we were having dinner with your Nonna. We were so careful to mind our bags and our coats, so vigilant on this trip, so worried about theft and worse. It wasn't until we were out of New York and back in Chicago that we were mugged.

In our junior year, you drove an ancient VW Bug that you'd re-built yourself. The heater didn't work and so in the winter, we drove everywhere with blankets on our laps and an ice scraper for the inside of the windshield. This car irritated me. You could have had a nicer car, but you opted for this. You found some satisfaction in the cold and the smell of fuel and the rattle of the engine. You were pleased to have grease under the nails of your long fingers.

The last time I saw you, you got into this VW. We'd graduated from college and you were headed away from me. We hugged but I don't think we kissed. I cried, but I don't know if you did. I patted the rounded fender of your car the way you might do to the haunches of a horse. I stood in the street, in the gray early morning until I could no longer hear the high, hollow rattle of the VW engine.

We spoke after this. A few times on the telephone. Once, we made plans to meet for dinner, but you cancelled. You wrote me a letter asking that I never contact you again.

I am writing this letter now because I am thinking of the part when Siddhartha realizes that it doesn't have to be so hard. I am thinking of the part when he realizes that he's looking for joy. He realizes that it's hard to be joyful when you are hungry. I think a part of you was hungry. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to feed that part of you. I'm sorry if I only added to your pain.

In the documentary, Siddhartha finds the middle place. Not too much or too little. He finds that you need a little food, a little love, a little comfort to be happy. I have found those things and my hope is that you have found them, too.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Dearest You,

Do you remember tap dancing down a set of cement stairs with me? We weren't wearing tap shoes. I had traded in my feathered gown for a pair of Guess jeans with zippers at the ankle, but it didn't matter because I felt like I was Ginger to your Fred. You were tall (really tall) and hilarious. You often wore white shoes and white pants and favored button-down collar shirts in shades of pale blue or yellow. You were really tall. So tall, I could see you over the heads of all the other kids at the Speech meet. I thought you were wonderful. I remember going home the night I met you and writing in my journal that I thought you were "it."

"It" was a term I'd heard my stepmother's single friends apply to men and I thought it sounded grown up. I thought it sounded right. "It" meant that you were my soul mate. "It" meant that you were "the one," but in a more subtle way.

At any rate, at some point, after a lot of telephone calls and notes passed and whatnot, we went on a kind of a date and it didn't work out that great. It would seem that you weren't "It." At least not in the prince and princess live happily ever after kind of way. That you were also looking for your prince didn't come as that much of a surprise.

Unlike most couples who date in high school, we have managed to live happily ever after.

I still have the string of pearls you gave me. They are made of clay, each pearl bearing the imprint of your fingers. You knew me when I had breasts. When I had a retainer. When I had a boyfriend (and another boyfriend and another...) You knew me when I went to camp and to college. We saw "Dirty Dancing" one more time than we saw "Top Gun," and we saw them both a lot. First run.

Those lunches at Ikea when I was hugely pregnant with my daughter and you pushed my son in his stroller are still some of my most pleasant memories. What a nice time we had. You with your plate of meatballs, me with my slice of strangely green Princess Cake. My boy asleep and the air conditioning blasting out over blond wood. People thought we were a family. And we are.

I have a photo of you holding my son. You are wearing a red lace dress and a gigantic hat. You look so happy and he looks utterly unsurprised. You made the dress yourself. Just as you've made dozens of hats and pillows and parade floats. You like to cook. (You are the first person I ever met who could make Coq au Vin. Not bad for a tenth grader from Albuquerque.) You bake pies when you are low. I understand this need to nourish yourself in times of sadness because we share it. Just as we share a love of books and of country music.

That time at your caberet when you sang a Nanci Griffith song just for me still makes me want to cry. It was amazing to have that happen to me. Like a movie or a book. Amazing to have that happen to the girl who thought you were "It" and didn't have even the remotest idea how much more you could be.

You dearest, you. I have baked you a chocolate cake. You will come for dinner and we will celebrate your birthday. You are a wonderful friend.