Summer Diary: Making friends, silver and gold, new and old

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. What happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. In my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts.

Diana Athill first published these words about friendship in The Guardian in 2010 with the title “The Decision.” She was 93 at the time, and the decision refers to the reluctant acknowledgment that she would have to give up a house she loved, and move to a room (of her own, but just one room) in a home for the elderly. It’s not often that we have an autobiographical narrative by a woman of Athill’s age radiating unmistakable joie de vivre. I read the piece in the kind of shock only something new can produce, as an essay collected in Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (2016). I picked up the book by chance from a table in a bookstore this summer while visiting London, drawn in part by the striking portrait of its author on the cover.


At 75, and already feeling old―a state Athill postponed fully embracing until her nineties–I suddenly saw how much my idea of life in one’s later years has been shaped by my friend Carolyn Heilbrun’s ambivalent stance toward aging. On the one hand, in The Last Gift of Time Carolyn described the singular beauty of feeling life ending―the bittersweet sense of doing some things for the last time in one’s sixties, the joys of being free of the burdens of conventional femininity. But on the other, that frame of mind was made possible only by the conviction that she did not want to advance much further into the life of old age. In fact Carolyn’s perspective on aging depended on the decision―a decision very different from Athill’s―to end her life at some point in her seventies, at 77, as it turned out.

For more than a decade, I’ve lived with Carolyn’s decision to kill herself and its aftermath. I confess that I never fully believed her many unambiguous declarations, published and private, of her intention to commit suicide. A rational suicide still seems implausible to me, and yet it happened. The suicide hangs over my seventies as both warning and invitation. Carolyn was right about so many things. Was she also right about this?

After the cancer diagnosis that inaugurated my seventies, I assumed the disease would make the question moot. I liked the idea that the end of my life would be decided for me. Almost five years later it’s “alive, alive oh.” Much to my surprise (and everyone else’s) the cancer hasn’t yet killed me, so I suppose the question is back on the table–the decision―though it is not foremost in my mind.

What captured my attention in Athill’s reflection on old age had to do with her vision of friendships formed in such late life, for Athill, specifically, in her nineties, with the women in the home. Since I’m not in my nineties, and that decade is not truly on my horizon, what seduced me was the notion she puts forward of “pastness” as forming the basis of friendships made in the perspective of death. I can’t help feeling that in revisiting my friendships in the book I hope to write, I am making “excursions” like those into our past, pasts that seem strangely present to memory. These friendships, of course, are not new ones, but as I return to them, they are renewed, brought back to life.

If Carolyn’s vision of aging was radically different from Athill’s, Athill’s continued pleasure in the changes old age brings reminds me of Colette, another writer who a enjoyed life in all its variety, including growing old and, like Athill, never stopped writing. Colette died at 81 (young compared to Athill). The somewhat autobiographical novel Break of Day, published in her early 50s, carries the tone Athill often adopts when looking back on relationships, and a certain renunciation of sexual life. In the novel, Colette the narrator bids farewell to a man she was in love with, bidding him farewell with a mixture of pleasure, resignation, and nostalgia. He has left, but is he really gone? And is she really alone? It hardly matters. Unlike Athill who never married, Colette met her third husband while creating a novel about how to live after love. What matters is the way Colette conjures the departure of her current lover. She helps him leave by imagining his transformation into many things, but most important, a book still open (livre sans bornes ouvert) and whose boundless pages she might yet fill, an oasis, the novel’s final metaphor, a pause, perhaps a reprieve from an absolute ending.

That is what I wish for my book: that I can still see my friends as they existed in the past, and now continuing with me in memory. They are shifting shape but they are not dead, as long as I write.

Summer Diary: Father’s Day

Today I found myself purging the files from the research I did for What They Saved. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but today I felt I absolutely had to. Only when I had jettisoned fifty pounds of paper, did I realize that today was the 25th anniversary of my father’s funeral. He died on Bloomsday in 1989 and was buried on Father’s Day.

Among the folders filled with the research I had done for the memoir, my quest to uncover the history of his side of the family, was a cache of quotations, handwritten, typed, and glued from newspaper clippings, mostly on index 3X5 cards, that he had saved, and that I then saved, too.


For the longest time I could not figure out what purpose these cards had served for him. Were they quotations for his law briefs? Presumably those from Oliver Wendell Holmes were. Interesting vocabulary: Serendipity “created by Horace Walpole circa 1754 after he had read a nice fairy tale called “Three Princes of Serendip.” Sentiments that caught his fancy? Finally, I saw that quite a few of the cards were dated from 1946 and 1947, when my father had returned to finish his B.A. at City College. He had been practicing as a lawyer for over a decade, as one could do in those days, minus the B.A. But clearly he wanted the degree, and studied for it successfully so that he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa (he saved the clipping from that honor, too).

If the index cards helped him study for exams, the wisdom they distilled seemed to carry him through life, since they all express the kind of positive, self-help thinking he always tried to convince me would make me a less miserable person (they did not succeed, but he never stopped trying).

From How Never to Be Tired (1944): “Mental work cannot cause fatigue.” From A College Text Book of Hygiene. “The prevention of worry reduces itself, first to realizing that at its base is fear of failure or disaster…”

What can I say? I was a slow learner.

There’s a black and white snapshot of my father sitting at a card table on the rooftop of the building my parents lived in, with what looks like paper work spread out in front of him. The snapshot is not dated. But because it was included with the packet of index cards, I’m guessing that my father had gone to the roof to study–he loved the sun–and get away from his wife and daughters. He looks very happy.

I miss him, bromides and all.

Losing Friends

I don’t love Facebook, even though I’ve used it, abjectly, to promote my last book.

Beyond the obvious embarrassment of self-exposure, the most anxiety-producing feature of the Facebook model is the business of friending (apologies to Webster’s Third). Why friend someone you don’t know? Why friend someone you know but don’t consider a friend? Why―and this is the issue tormenting me today―friend a colleague you know only slightly? With a few exceptions, I do not include colleagues and students in my Facebook world. I try to keep a firewall between “Facebook me” and “school me,” especially when posting about my cancer and the politics of that illness.

Yesterday, over lunch, I learned that Jerry Watts, a colleague of ours, had died earlier in the week. I had missed the notice since I rarely check our overburdened university email. The shock stayed with me all day. I’m sure my seminar was very strange. Jerry Watts, a man I barely knew but always liked (not Facebook like), in part because he had supported me in some contentious departmental debates a few years ago, was dead. You can read about him…on Facebook. He was a distinguished scholar of African American political thought.

I doubt seriously Jerry noticed I had not clicked the accept button, when I received his friend request a while ago. If he had, I doubt it would have affected his sunny, generous nature.

Today, I belatedly friended Jerry Watts and “liked” the posts about him. I will miss his lovely presence. We all will.

“Roberta liked Flavia… they shared a tennis court” (apologies to Virginia Woolf)

I can’t have been the only viewer of the U.S. Open women’s final, who teared up at the sight of the two competitors, Roberta and Flavia, embracing each other lovingly at the end of  the match. (For a point of comparison, think Djokovic/Federer, or rather, don’t.) Or Venus embracing Serena after their match, and whispering “I’m happy for you,” after her own defeat, just as her brow furrowed while watching the upset of the semi-final that deprived her sister of the trophy she longed for.

What Woolf in A Room of One’s Own thought her imaginary female novelist of the future could show was friendship between women undamaged by jealousy: “Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair?” Woolf wished for something more complicated, and I think the Italian pair would have made her happy.

I’ve been writing about friendship for a while, trying to, and aware of how often I have been a bad friend. It’s not so much jealousy around appearance, though I feel prepared to kill any woman with bone straight hair. It’s more a matter of envy―envy of certain accomplishments, or rewards for those accomplishments. It’s long been a cliché that women are not trained to compete, by which I mean compete without suffering after losing. What men do, or supposedly men do. I didn’t stay up late enough to know whether after the final match, Djokovic and Federer embraced, cradled each other’s heads, murmured gentle words of friendship and support.


Ladies Doubles, Provincetown, circa 1970. My silver-haired mother far left; her (much taller) usual partner, second from right.

I grew up watching my mother play tennis. She was an avid amateur, competitive and talented. She often played with a particular (much taller) woman friend, whom she continued to like and admire, regardless of the score, though of course they kept score. I rarely give her credit but I have to admit that on the tennis court, if nowhere else, she could compete with joy.

In the days of our consciousness-raising group and seventies feminism we used to talk about the “economy of scarcity,” how if one woman had or did X, that meant the other could not. We tried. Everybody’s different is what we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, and relearn in feminism. It’s not an easy lesson to hold on to, to practice, especially in academia, where it so often feels that winner takes all. With the image of Roberta and Flavia before me, I want to learn to love losing.

And then there’s Elena Ferrante’s Lila and Lenu, but that’s for another post.

“What are you looking for, Mama?” Summer Diary, continued

A man’s voice interrupts my reverie with the inquiry, as I stand surveying the salad on offer at the local West Side Market. Proof that I’m back in the city from vacation, back to grocery shopping. I can’t bring myself to sign on to Fresh Direct, and besides, I like to pick my own produce.

What am I looking for? I refrain from my knee-jerk reaction―“I’m not your Mama,” or anyone else’s for that matter―instead, I answer the employee in the vegetable aisle, who is only trying to be helpful, as if I were a normal person, and not an Upper West Side crazy lady (though I believe I’m in the zone). I skip the rant and answer the question. The frisee I’m looking for is not on the counter because it’s not in the store. It hasn’t sold well. I shake my head in disbelief. The man shrugs. What can you do, he seems to be suggesting. People don’t know what’s good. “Come back, Tuesday,” he says. I will, I say, since frisee is my favorite kind of greens.

marche263When I was newly married (the first time), and shopping in France, I always hoped the vegetable seller would notice my ring and call me Madame and not Mademoiselle. Sometimes he did. Would Madame like a little parsley to go with the lettuce, she would. Does Madame know how to make a vinaigrette? She does, but do tell her again, if that means she’s really Madame.
Now, all these years later, I’d give a lot to hear Mademoiselle again, but alas, Mama, c’est moi.

“Where are you trying to go?” London, Summer Diary, 2015, continued

I turn to see a tiny woman about my age, dressed like me, sporting large sunglasses and clunky sneakers. Since I am a short person to begin with, you have to imagine that this woman was positively elfin: Charlotte Brontë measurements. I startle easily, and must have looked alarmed, since she went on to ask: “Am I such a monster?” Not a monster, but still, remarkably small. “Of course, not.”

Pelham_CrescentI was standing at the intersection of Pelham Street and Pelham Place, wondering whether I dare turn into Pelham Place on the chance that it might turn out to be a short cut to the Kings Road. I had walked from South Kensington to Chelsea several times in the past, but I have walked in London enough times to know that a shortcut usually means a good way for me to get lost. Getting lost is something I do on a regular basis, even with a map, even more often with a map. That day, I was already lost in thought.

“I’ll show you,” the woman said, leading me into Pelham Place, when I told her my destination, “it’s a short cut.” It was as though a human GPS had just emerged full blown from the fog of my anxiety.

I was pleased to learn that my Pelham Place hunch was correct, though as we wove our way through a neighborhood I had never seen, I realized that minus my self-appointed cicerone the short cut would have led me away from my destination, rather than to it. My guide masterfully steered me across heavily trafficked streets―she would just put her tiny hand up with the authority of a traffic cop, a gesture that stopped cars from advancing any further in our direction―and hurried us along.

“I’m good at instructions,” my companion explained, “because I’m a teacher.” She taught languages, she said, another commonality. “I used to teach French,” I said. “Ooh, la, la,” the guide exclaimed (that seemed a false note, but then clichés about the French die hard). I can’t quite retrieve the thread of conversation that led to and then from languages to Dreiser―an argument about whether Dreiser’s novels showed social violence, “not really,” she demurred, compared to Zola (she pronounced Zola as the English do, putting the accent on the first syllable, so French was not one of her languages, unless maybe that was an English affectation), and then we suddenly entered the zone of gorgeous Georgian townhouses in Pelham Crescent. “You see,” she said, slowing down, “the buildings are white and the doors are black.” She liked, she said, to imagine the inhabitants exiting from their elegant houses, headed for a ball.

As we approached the place my guide had chosen for our parting–“you’ll be fine if you just carry on from here”–she suddenly said, without looking at me: “You know, in the end, all of us are alone.” “Yes, I know,” I replied, as somberly, wondering what had triggered her existential pronouncement. Did I look that lonely?

And then I was, alone.
When I was young in London, or any foreign city, the encounters that mattered to me were always with men: romance! But now, I appeal to old ladies like me who worry whether I know where I’m going.

The perils of pencils

It’s been impossible not to follow and mourn the crisis in Paris. The attacks have compelled as much attention as the events of 9/11, when we were glued, worldwide, to television and Internet reports.

The crisis also brought to mind the violence in Paris emerging from the Algerian struggle for independence in the early sixties: on the one hand, the right-wing O.A.S. bombings of Sartre’s apartment; on the other, the massacre that took place October 17, 1961, of a large―and still debated number–of pro-Algeria demonstrators among the French, some of whom died being thrown into the Seine, after having been beaten by police.

I was living in Paris then, a politically unconscious twenty-year old, dimly aware of what was happening around me, but too self-absorbed to draw meaning from the history I was living, the bodies in the river.

by Ruben L. Oppenheimer, Image from twitter, @RLOppenheimer

by Ruben L. Oppenheimer, Image from twitter, @RLOppenheimer

Among the cartoons that have flourished since the attack on the artists of Charlie Hebdo, one stands out for me as linking the contemporary Paris horror to 9/11 in mute perfection: the drawing by Dutch cartoonist Ruben L. Oppenheimer. The image has also been circulated on Twitter. I want to share it here in solidarity with and admiration for all who cherish their pencils―at any cost.

Bookstores and Lovers

It’s always exciting to read about a bookstore opening, rather than closing, though in the case of Albertine, the new bookstore hopes to revive the interest in things French formerly the purview of the now defunct Librairie de France.

The bookstore is named after Albertine, an important character in Proust’s famous novel Remembrance of Things Past; or now the newer and more literal translation: In Search of Lost Time.

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I haven’t reread the novel in a very long time, and I’ve forgotten large chunks of it, but the ending of the book has always stayed with me. The last volume in the new translation is called “Time Found Again,” and in it the narrator encounters many figures from his past life, some transformed beyond recognition. I recently had something of a “Proustian” experience, at least in the probably scrambled recollection I have of what I read: seeing, recalling, even retrieving the irretrievable,  and in that flash, recapturing time.

Every memoirist is in some way indebted to Proust’s “recherche” as we desperately try to recapture an elusive past, often shaped by love affairs. When I went back to the novel to check my memory against the text, another sentence jumped out at me. The narrator reflects on the prospective readers of the book he is writing: “For it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers―it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.” That’s the dream–and the gamble.

Proust describes the ravages of age that befall us. Despite his shock at the physical transformations produced by aging, when he enters the drawing room of people he once knew, the narrator finds solace in the sudden ability to recapture emotions and scenes he thought lost to him, and to transmit that astonishing revelation to readers.

Last month, I arranged to have coffee with my college boyfriend, who plays a small but key role in my narrative. When I was first thinking about writing the memoir that became Breathless, I asked  permission to quote from his letters (some fifty years later). He said yes, gracefully, without reservation, but once I published the book, I began to worry about how  he would feel when he read the book (if he were to read it, which of course he hadn’t). We arranged to meet for coffee. I gave him a copy of the book.

We hadn’t seen each other for fifteen years, and before that only briefly when we remet unexpectedly as colleagues, and then sporadically. Despite the injuries with which time had marked our faces, I felt that I still knew the person across from me as he lived in the pages of the book now resting on the table–between us. What I couldn’t know was whether he would recognize that self in my story.

Three’s a charm

Complaining is my default mode, so I thought I’d challenge myself to comment on something unreservedly good on offer this fall season: thrilling books by women writers.

The trilogy by Jane Gardam, starting with Old Filth. Don’t be put off by the title.  Filth is the acronym that sums up the barrister and judge protagonist’s biography: Failed in London Try Hong Kong.
The trilogy―The Neapolitan Novels–by Elena Ferrante, starting with My Brilliant Friend. There are rumors of a fourth volume.
The third volume of Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy, Lila.
The first volume of a projected trilogy by Jane Smiley, Some Luck.

I have no idea why trilogies should be forthcoming from British, Italian, and American women writers this season―though most of the novels have been out and reviewed in the last few years (where have I been? immersed in memoir) and I haven’t caught up with all of them. But the Ferrante (pseudonym―her identity is something of a mystery, at least here) and the Gardam are ravishing. I mean: I was ravished, unable to stop reading, hopeful that the trend is contagious.

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October 9, 2014
11th anniversary of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Sad that she’s missed all these books. An ardent Anglophile, she would especially have loved Jane Gardam’s portrait of aging and England. The painting on the cover of Carolyn’s book is by Vanessa Bell, a painter she much admired. It’s called “The Conversation.” The women are talking to each other, wrapped in intimacy, and there are three of them.

By the numbers…

I’ll be staying with a friend for a few days in Paris later this summer. To thank her for her hospitality I decided to treat her to dinner at a Michelin rated three-star restaurant (where three is the maximum accolade). My first choice for over-the-top insanely wonderful (and expensive) food in a luxurious (but understated) atmosphere was Taillevent, a restaurant I’ve eaten at a few times over the years, always with great pleasure. I was shocked to learn that the restaurant had lost one of its precious stars in 2007. I was not only disappointed but also embarrassed to be so out of date. My second shock was to discover (how could I have forgotten) that the annual August closing of restaurants often begins in July. So, no Taillevent. On to the next. My next choice was Arpège, where I’ve never been, but has had dithyrambic reviews (and 3 stars) for as long as I can remember reading restaurant reviews. I was shocked (I’m easily shocked) that diners―on a separate ranking system–had given the three-star restaurant only 4 stars out of 5. And some positively hated the place. I’m waiting to hear back from them, though I suspect that they too will begin August on July 28―the last day I will be in Paris.

What does it mean that enough diners felt they did not have a 5-star experience in a 3-star restaurant? Or that they had a bad enough experience to bring the rating down to 4? Is it the restaurant or the eaters? Or the unpredictable encounter of an eater and her food? (Décor and service are part of the 3 stars, and how can one rank those except by “liking?” Pace de gustibus.)

Law-of-Large-Numbers-1024x640Anyway, I immediately and myopically analogized these restaurant rankings to Amazon rankings. My recent memoir has just lost ½ a star, down from 4 and ½ to 4. The readers who hate the book (or me) have dragged down the  readers who are fans from 5-4. I don’t know how the folk at Taillevent feel about their demotion, but I am vexed. I survived the review process at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly only to be demoted by a bored or irritated reader. And yet the readers who were not amused end up in a position to influence negatively any future reader. It makes no difference what the grouchy reader’s/eater’s palette is, the numbers―the stars―occupy the high ground.

Why does this bother me so much, beyond any author’s narcissistic pride?

The numbers and the stars always bring me back to a childhood memory. It’s specific but also unverifiable as so many childhood memories are. I must have been seven or eight―at whatever age girls (in that era) began to compare ourselves to other girls and figure out who is pretty and who is not. Mirror mirror on the wall.

One day, feeling that I was not as pretty as the popular girls in my class, I asked my father (the family consoler) whether I was pretty. My father hesitated and then answered with lawyerly precision: “Well, you are prettier than six out of nine girls.” I can still remember trying to figure out what those numbers meant. I could tell, but I already knew, that he meant that I was not the prettiest. He was trying to say, I thought then and still do now that he wanted to say that I was OK―neither the best nor the worst, somewhere in the middle. Six out of nine?

More and more our lives are ruled by numbers and not just metrics of appearance.
How many Facebook friends? How many Twitter followers?

I’m beyond old enough to know how dumb it is to count happiness by numbers. But I still do it.