Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-One.
It’s only happened twice in my life- that moment on meeting someone you’ve never met, when you look at them and are flooded with memories you have no right to—and which don’t exist anyway—and you remember them from outside time. When there is a shared light, a smile so familiar, a tilting of the head in perplexed recognition, a closeness eclipsing the vacuum of space. You understand the whispy déja vu of not actually meeting someone, but finally finding them after unfathomable time away. The first time was with David.
The second time was with Maggie.
We worked for the same company in Palo Alto, and when I walked into the back room for the first time, she was holding an armful of German toys, wearing a grey cardigan sweater. Her hair was thick and unruly, like mine, but she had a gentler, more refined air about her- one I coveted and hoped to refine as I got older. She was already a mother to two young ones, something I also aspired towards.
We became inseparable. We’d mosey down University Avenue after work in the balmy air towards the towering palm trees guarding Stanford’s front drive, walking with a slice of Vicolo pizza or a balsamic drenched salad, and talking as we dodged other pedestrians. We both loved our work, but we mapped together in a million other divergent points. She was always slightly further along than me in sensitivity, perspective, and wisdom. I think she sort of enjoyed in my rougher edges. She helped me realized, as a younger twenty-something, that I was not only okay in my skin, but I was kind of great in some ways, too.
One of her children had autism, and it was from her I first learned about caring for a child with special needs. It’s not an exaggeration to say I modeled my mothering of Bean on her example. I got to know her family well, and was as at-home in her house as I was in my own. Year round, we’d sit out on the wooden picnic table on her back patio, California live-oak rustling overhead, flipping through catalogs, and marveling at pretty things we both loved, while she indulged her vice, American Spirits.
We spent countless days like this, talking about the joys of tiny blue flowers on china, the preference for grey sweaters, a shared love of heavy boots, toys from Europe, and the Grateful Dead. She taught me to quilt. She loved the beauty of taking tiny pieces of disparate pattern and finding ways to contain the chaos, to piece them together in harmony. She introduced me to memoir, and gently encouraged me to write, based on the promotional pieces I was working on for our company. She kept bed pillows on her sofa, and a dresser in her living room, because comfort and storage mattered, and she helped me see that coloring outside the lines could be refined and beautiful, and that I didn’t have to fight everything so damn hard.
That’s still a lesson I’m working on.
My life was chaotic in the face of her calm. I understand now how hard she cultivated that oasis, and I understand that I was a hurricane, and I drew on her reserves without realizing I was sapping her strength. I understand what it is to be raising a special needs child alone, and I understand what it is to have a friend who doesn’t understand.
When I decided to marry David, she cared for me, showered me, hosted lovely dinner parties where white gardenias floated in white bowls, which were all mine to keep once the dinner was over and the candles burnt down. She went with me to try on wedding dresses, and she stood next to me at the altar, in a muted grey dress.
Immediately after David and I returned from our short wedding trip to Yosemite, I got a letter in the mail. It still makes my stomach lurch to remember standing in my kitchen, her unique handwriting covering the grey (of course) paper, carefully explaining why she needed to distance herself from my chaos and confusion.
That moment remains a singularity in my story- a pool of light where there is “before” and “after”. My hands shook and I cried for days, wondering why and what I could have done differently. I missed her. While I respected her wishes and gave her the space she requested, there was a gaping chasm she had occupied. My wedding pictures came back, and she’s next to me in nearly every shot, smiling and happy, and I wondered again why.
I left my beloved job for another—better paying, but emotionally and ethically unsatisfying—and I knew that when I accepted the position, but I was determined. I lasted about a year, until I found out I was pregnant with Jeffrey.
When Jeffrey was about 8 months old, I finally screwed up my courage to drive to Palo Alto and go to my old company. I wanted to see her, and I wanted her to see the beautiful, red-headed, chubby, gorgeous baby boy I had made. She was there. She was lovely and kind to me. She held Jeffrey, marveling at him, and we spoke carefully and softly, avoiding the briar’s nest of questions around my heart, and of nothing consequential. It was a peace like tiny blue flowers on china, breakable and delicate. No one breathe too hard, and it will be okay.
I haven’t seen her since. Occasionally I try and look her up online, but she’s carefully cultivated a non-presence. My heart still misses her, nearly two decades later.
For anyone with eyes to see, her influence is still here. I have a predisposition and affection for grey sweaters and leather clogs. I have stacks of white bowls (always white) in my kitchen. I like tiny flowers on things, and I keep a basket of carved wooden animals on a shelf in my office. I know about guarding space when a child requires so much of you, and your friends do not/cannot understand. I understand what it is to be divorced and doing it alone.
I understand better now that sometimes there are no simple answers, and people have to do what is best for them. Wherever she is, I wish her peace in the oasis she’s surely carefully cultivated for herself. I wish I could tell her all the ways she influenced me, and the ways I still remember and love her. I wish I could tell her I think I might understand. I wish I could tell her I still miss her.
I understand now what a tremendous act of kindness that letter was. Friends can too easily distance themselves or float away, often without explanation, leaving more questions than answers. She loved me enough, was fine enough, to spend emotional energy, to extend that genuine care for me, before she withdrew. I can see it now. And I am grateful.