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.


Friday, May 28, 2010


Dearest You,

I have known you since before you were born. Since you were a big bump under your mama's chic maternity top. She rubbed her hands over her belly and told me your name. I rested my hands on my own big belly and introduced you to my boy. Neither of you born, but both already with a best friend. Such luck.

You are as fair as my boy is dark. You are steady where my boy is easily distracted. He bounces from toy to toy while you build long Lego bridges and stretch train track in tidy curves. You have a high, silly giggle that always makes me smile.

Before you could walk, we walked with you -- me and your mom trudging up the hills of Griffith Park. We pushed you boys in strollers or strapped you into slings and backpacks. At first, we stopped frequently, plopping down on the side of the trail to nurse you into sleep. With the city spread out at our feet, we fed our babies and shared stories of sleepless nights and endless crying. We wondered about the future though we couldn't imagine that you would ever be any bigger, any different than you were right at that moment.

When you began to walk, you still sat peacefully in the sand, surrounded by brightly colored shovels and buckets while my boy tested out his running legs. Around this time, your mom and I didn't get to talk nearly as much. I saw her (and you) from a distance while I chased down my boy. We started and stopped the same sentence a dozen times and often parted with only half of a story.

Like my boy, you were a late talker. When you did finally speak, your voice was deep as though it had been percolating inside you like coffee or a long steeped tea. You use this voice to report. When I want to know what's been going on, I always turn to you because you are a reliable source. You take a certain pride in being this source. You create a certain amount of order. My boy craves this order, but cannot seem to create it on his own. This is how you help him. He helps you by racing ahead into adventure, knowing that (however begrudgingly) you will follow. Each of you is ballast for the other.

Because you are inherently kind and sensitive, you play well with my daughter. This is a good thing because at some point, my son will abandon your quiet games to kick a ball into the planters or toss a frisbee into the trees. He will leave your carefully ordered world for his own sweatier and messier one and when he does, my daughter will gladly fill in. The two of you will line up plastic ponies and furnish a house for the toy hamsters. You will patiently sip tea from china cups. You are kind enough to try to include her when my son inevitably returns although she (also inevitably) will stomp off to her room.

Once there was a plan for you to spend the night, but you got cold feet and left my son in tears. Your blue eyes were cloudy with regret, but you were stubborn in your need to be in your own bed. Another time, you stayed all night, but I could tell it was hard and as bedtime grew near, your mouth tightened with worry and your eyes grew wide. We gave you a new toothbrush and my son offered his favorite glow in the dark pajamas and eventually you settled in. My son fell asleep leaving you feeling lonely and so you came to our bed and snuggled in between my husband and I. We waited until you began to snore and then we carried you to bed. I like that you did that. I like that you feel comfortable asking me for a snack or rummaging in my purse for change. You think nothing of handing me a half-eaten popsicle or chewing gum that's lost it's chew because I have always been around.

I am pleased to be around for you. I am proud of you and happy to call you a friend. It is good to watch you grow.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Twenty One

Dearest You,

When we first met, you were living in Los Angeles. My Dad called you a "big Hollywood screenwriter." He might have also called you a "bullshitter," but then, that's what he called a lot of people. The Los Angeles where you lived is very different in my memory from the Los Angeles where I live (and have lived for nearly twenty years.) Your Los Angeles is dreamlike, quick visions of bougainvillea and poinsettias grown to magical proportions. I see leaded glass windows and curved Mediterranean walls. There might have been a window seat with a view out over the city.

When you visited our house in New Mexico, it was always in the company of a different woman. You had been married enough times to know the ceremony by heart. You proved this by joining my stuffed animals in holy matrimony with our dog and my brother. Something along the lines of "Will you, dog, take this bear and this boy and these stuffed bunnies..."

Your voice was and is the voice of a midnight disc jockey, intimate and flattering and a little naughty.

I remember a dinner at our local Mexican restaurant when all the adults were drinking margaritas and all the kids were amped on Shirley Temples. My dad was drawing cartoons on the paper placemat and when I came to lean against his shoulder, you stood and dipped me back as if you were going to kiss me. Everyone applauded and laughed and I was embarrassed, but a little thrilled. You had put your hand over my mouth and kissed your hand instead of my lips and when you pulled your hand away, I could still feel it there.

There are a lot of stories about you that I wasn't in. There are a lot of stories about you that Dad told me in the kind of confidence that Alzheimer's inspires (that is to say, the kind of confidence you have when you don't really know who you are talking to or what you are talking about...) You admit to having some stories that aren't fit to print. Don't we all?

You didn't come to Dad's memorial and so the first time I saw you after his death, it was as if your grief, postponed, was in full flood. You walked around the museum and the house and your eyes filled. You watched my children run around in the dirt and the weeds and I watched your eyes move from them to me and I could see the startlingly quick flow of time passing. You admitted to being recently married. You were the same and not the same as I remembered.

I would imagine that I am the same and not the same for you, too.


Sunday, March 14, 2010


Dearest You,

On the day that I met your wife, she told me that the two of you had been married for sixty-five years and were still madly in love. She confessed that sometimes you told her to check the mailbox and instead of the usual handful of advertisements and credit card applications, there would be a love letter. When she told me that, I told my own husband that the bar had been raised.

Your wife told me that you swept her off her feet in the library of your university. She told me you became a dentist and later flew helicopters in the war. She told me that when she was stricken with polio, you swore you'd find a cure.

On the day we became neighbors, you gave us a handful of toothbrushes and a business card with your name and the Rotary symbol. You offered to let us use your phone until ours was connected. You wore a jacket with elbow patches, a collared shirt and a bolo tie, which over the year of our friendship, I came to recognize as your public uniform. You dressed up for lunch at the Tam O'Shanter or a visit to the School for the Blind. At home, you wore a cardigan sweater and sometimes slippers.

On sunny days, you moved a white, plastic lawn chair from your front stoop to the grass beneath your lemon tree. You'd sit in this chair, blinking in the sun like a cat. Cat like, you would often succumb to the warmth and nap.

You were in this chair on the day we landscaped our front yard. My friend Libby and I crawled around on the ground, digging holes for tiny sprigs of Dyamondia and you looked over from time to time and smiled.

"I'm really proud of you girls," you said.

We lugged five gallon pots and hauled wheelbarrows full of soil. We wiped our dirty faces and stood, gripping the handles of our shovels.

"It's going to be beautiful," you said.

And it is. Just a year later, Kangaroo Paws reach out velvety fingers, the Dyamondia has made a shaggy carpet between the pavers and has begun to offer bright yellow flowers to the spring sky.

You always took the time to ask after our children. You told us we were wonderful parents. At the holidays, you called and asked my husband to come pick up a gigantic fruit basket, a gift so large, it was impossible for you to deliver yourself.

I baked apple muffins and sent my kids over with plates of cookies or fresh latkes still warm from the stove. You complimented my cooking and praised the manners of my daughter and son.

When I look back on this year of knowing you, there is not a single exchange between us that was not filled with kindness and good will.

I know from my conversations with your wife that your life was extraordinary. You travelled to wonderful places, met amazing people and used your energies to make the world a better place. You loved and were loved so well.

My husband went out yesterday when we saw the ambulance. I stayed inside to keep our daughter busy. While she spread purple glitter across a sheet of paper, I saw my husband wrap his arm around your wife. I saw the paramedics move you carefully down the drive.

You didn't come home.

I feel lucky, fellow New Mexican, to have known you.

Safe travels, dear neighbor. I miss you already.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Dearest You,

When I think of you, the scent of beeswax candles is the first thing that comes to mind. Your house was built without electricity and so most of the light came from these candles. Of course there were flashlights and the big kerosene powered Coleman lantern, but flashlights shine too often in the eyes and the Coleman's light was accompanied by the roar of the burning fuel. The candles were silent and flickering and their warm light seemed to boost the efforts of the pokey fire in the wood stove.

You were a teacher. First at Cedar Grove, the place I still refer to as "that hippie co-op," and later at San Antonito, the public elementary school where I started in second grade. You wore round, wire rimmed glasses, woven ponchos and tall, brown leather boots. I remember you kneeling in front of me on the playground as you zipped my coat.

My brother and I often spent the night at your house because we were both friends with your son. After school, you'd pack us into your orange Volkswagen Beetle and we'd make the long drive into the San Pedro mountains to your home. The road seemed like little more than a jagged path cut through the rocks. As you maneuvered around boulders, we bounced in the the back seat of the VW, cackling when our heads hit the curved ceiling of the car. I thought that like the tables and chairs in my elementary school, the enormity of these rocks would shrink as I grew, but when I drove your road myself a few years ago, I realized (with great pleasure) that some things do not diminish with time. Those rocks are indeed huge.

In the winter, when the house was so cold we could see our breath in the air, we unrolled our sleeping bags in a loft built in the corner of the living room. Your son slept with a Curious George doll and I usually brought my stuffed hippo, Bernice. My brother traveled with a little metal suitcase filled with Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars figures.

In the summer, we'd sleep on the roof and look for constellations. In the dark sky, the stars were so bright and so plentiful it seemed that we could almost reach out and rearrange them into animals of our own imaginings.

Spring marked your annual egg hunt with a special appearance by the Easter Bunny. Every year a different grown up would zip themselves into the white fleece suit and bounce around in the dust making smart aleck remarks while dolling out chocolate eggs. I wonder now, as I never did as a child, where the suit came from. At seven, eight and nine, I took it for granted that you had a bunny suit in your closet. Why wouldn't I? You had a teepee set up in the woods behind your house and you seemed to understand the meowed language of cats.

Your piece of land was a magical place to play. In a grove of Pinon trees, we braved sticky sap and splinters to fill brown paper bags with pine nuts. You'd roast the nuts in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop until they smelled toasty and sweet and we'd crack them open with our teeth and suck the meat from the tiny shells. The back side of the house was bare of trees, an almost moonscape of jagged limestone and shale, dotted with spiky cholla cactus. On this side, you'd left an old iron bedframe. We would take turns bouncing on the rusty springs. With our hands gripping the iron headboard and the wide expanse of the canyon in front of us, this bouncing was almost like flying.

Now I get updates on your life from my Mom. You are an energy healer and have taught Mom how to "zip up" to keep good energy in and bad out. You make brightly colored felted wool hats and add tiny faces and hands to turn pine cones, seed pods and bent sticks into fanciful woodland creatures. When your last cat died, she gave a little mew of good-bye and curled herself under a painting of my father's. You swear the painting glows with life -- even in the dark.

I can hear your laugh; can hear the way your Midwestern upbringing still flattens your vowels despite years and years spent in the mountains of New Mexico. I can just as easily imagine you in your long, patchwork skirt and bandanna, presiding over the annual egghunt as I can trolling the aisles of a thrift store with Mom on "senior discount day." You are a thread (a particularly bright and vibrant strand) that weaves through the whole of my life.

See you soon.


Monday, February 1, 2010


Dearest You,

You told me this joke:

After a plane crash, a man washes up on a desert island and he is alone for many days. One day, he sees someone swimming in the water and he jumps in and swims out to find that it is a woman. And not just any woman, but Cindy Crawford. She is nearly drowned. He pulls her to safety and when she has coughed up a lot of sea water, she gratefully kisses him. One thing leads to another and they become lovers. Days go by and the man is happier than he's ever been, but there is one thing missing. Cindy can sense this and so one day she asks how she can make him happy. He asks her to dress in his clothes and go around to the other side of the island. It seems weird, but because he saved her life, she's willing to do it. She dresses in his clothes and heads off to the other side of the island.

The man waits for half and hour and then, he, too, heads around to the other side of the island and there he finds Cindy dressed as a man. They sit down and he turns to her and says, "You'll never guess who I'm fucking."

You told me a lot of jokes and most of them had the word "fucking" in them, but this one is the only one I can remember in its entirety.

You called me "babe," and once told me I was more of a "dame" than a "lady."

When we worked together, you bought me lunch nearly every day until you realized that in a week's worth of lunch amounted to the price of a bike for your daughter. After that, I mostly brought my lunch or we went Dutch. No matter who paid, we always spent the first few minutes at a restaurant scanning the menu for typos, racing to see who could come up with the first mistake and then challenging each other to come up with more.

We spent a little time working and a lot of time looking for things. We looked for awnings for your house, English antiques and toasters. We spent a lot of time admiring the Dualit toaster, which was over $200. You really liked toast. We once drove way out into the Valley to look at a Porsche. We looked for just the right kind of paper on which to print a mocked up certificate of "Jewishness" for an office mate who'd recently converted. You called this kind of aimless comparison shopping "berbering" a verb you made up after the extended period you and your wife spent searching for just the right berber carpet.

Once we went to the zoo. You had a membership card because sometimes you took your daughter. It was a nice day, but the zoo was empty. We bought popcorn and walked around. We looked at the giraffe and stuck our heads up into the plastic viewing bubbles in the prairie dog enclosure.

You often remarked that you were around the same age as my own father. You often remarked that it was strange that I could have a father your age and you could have a daughter who was not yet in elementary school. It was all about timing, I guess.

Your timing was a little off, I think. You were a great writer. You were very, very funny. You were writing shows about nuclear families and dogs that could talk, but people wanted to see shows about young people living together and sorting out their love lives.

Now, it's changing again. I read in the paper that "old is the new young." There are mature people on television again. Meryl Streep is a leading lady at 60. It all timing.

Your daughter must be in high school now. She may even be waiting for college acceptance letters. I wonder if the two of you berber for things on the weekends. If she shares your love of old movie musiclas. I wonder if she's inherited your sense of humor. I wonder if she and I would be friends.

A couple of years ago, I read a piece you'd written for the LA Times magazine. It was a story I knew well and you'd written it almost exactly as I'd heard you tell it. You had a dozen or more stories that you told often. These stories distilled your life into amusing bites, each one carefully crafted to generate the most laughter; each one a little time capsule. These stories stay with me, each one as vivid as a slide projected on a screen.

I tell my own stories. You are starring in this one.

There is one typo in this piece. Can you find it?


Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Dearest You,

I am writing this though I recently tried to contact you. Truthfully, I didn't try that hard, but it's been a long time and I haven't kept track of all of the various phone numbers and e-mail addresses you have had. In fact, I've let it slide. Our whole relationship. I've let it slide.

A day or two into the new year a friend asked if I planned to see you. I was half-hearted. I told her I was burnt out. I told her I didn't really know if I had it in me.

She said, "It's always up to the woman to make the first call. Men will never do it. Even men who are mostly women."

Truthfully, I felt some guilt then. Maybe it is my job to call and call and call. Maybe it is my job to keep better contact. And I think I used to do that. But now I have kids to keep track of and a husband and friends who call to check in on me.

In third grade you wore striped shirts like the kids on "Zoom." Your glasses were big and square and your head as round as Charlie Brown's. I was in second grade and reading "The Hobbit." You were impressed by that and I was impressed by your drawings. I invited you over to make salt-dough ornaments or to bake pretzels in the oven (both projects selected from the "Zoom Do" book.) We loaned each other books and though we lived less than a mile apart, you walked the hill up to my house more than I ever made the trek to yours.

For your birthday one year, you had an ice cream party and your father sang the birthday song in a deep baritone. Every head in the restaurant turned and your face reddened. Your father sang often. At parties he wore crossed ammo belts like Pancho Villa. In place of shotgun shells, there were tiny bottles of whiskey. He would say "If you start having fun, do it real slow until you get used to it." He said this a lot.

When your father died, you called me. By then, we were grown and I was living in Los Angeles in a run down apartment where I had painted the wood floors turquoise blue. It was a full moon on the night you called and I had been sitting at my kitchen table working on a little watercolor painting. His death had been a long time coming but it was still a surprise. It wasn't until I was caught off guard by the death of my own father after five year's of Alzheimer's that I really understood your sadness. You knew for sure there was no chance to change. No more conversations. No more songs.

The next time I saw you we met for lunch and you were wearing the softest black coat. On the back of this coat, you'd made a constellation of little metal stars. I remember hugging you and feeling those stars under my fingers. You smelled of incense and your body was warm. The waitress wondered if you were my boyfriend and we both smiled.

The place where you finally came out to me was the Obama headquarters in Albuquerque during the election and now it's sitting empty. Twenty-five years ago, when we perched on little stools and sipped Italian soda, it was called "Notes." Pink and black and green, the little espresso bar was a first in our home town. I imagine that the Smiths were playing in the background. I know I was wearing a black dress and oversized white shirt, a wide belt low on my hips. Black rubber bracelets and metallic bangles were stacked on my wrists. I'd dressed carefully because even though I knew what you were going to say, the crush that started in second grade had never completely burned out.

When you went to college in the East, we wrote letters. We'd written letters for years, retrieving them from the post office that marked the halfway point between our houses. I keep these missives in a box in the closet. Your handwriting changes, grows more spidery, more elegant. Your drawings become darker and your language more flowery. You are a good writer. You are poetic and funny and have a good eye for detail. Of course you can write. Because you are gifted in all things.

I am sometimes naive. It was easy for you to keep parts of your life a secret from me because the paths you chose were not even on my map.

There are a lot of reasons I haven't called. Sometimes I think it's because I don't have the vocabulary I need to talk to you about what's really happening in your life. We skirt around the reasons you moved to Los Angeles and the reasons you moved back. Because I don't really understand the mechanics of the thing, I avoid questions that would clear it up. Needles? Powders? Pills? How does it feel? Does it feel?

When we do talk, you revert time and time again to the past, but my son is now as old as I was at our first meeting and I have a need to talk about the present.

I watch my son with his friends and I wonder if they will stay with him for all of his life the way you have stayed with me. I wonder if their paths will diverge and twine together in the way ours have.

I remember standing next to you once at a fair. We must have been about ten or eleven and without thinking, I slid my hand into yours. I was startled that my hand moved to yours even though that's what I longed to do. I turned away quickly, self-conscious in my need to connect.

It's been a long time since we shared a meal or traded books or wrote a letter. Too long to let more time pass. I'm reaching out a hand.