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.

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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.

COUNTDOWN: “Is it you?”

This is the third installment of my “countdown to publication” for the members of shewrites.com

A few months ago, I showed the book jacket of my forthcoming memoir to a friend. This was a woman about my age, maybe a bit younger, a person and writer I admire but only know slightly. “You were pretty,” she said, with an air of perplexity. What did this mean, exactly, I wondered? That she found it hard to believe that the woman sitting across from her at a café table had ever looked good? If that was really me, my face had undergone a long decline. She must think I look awful, I decided. “Oh well,” I said, “it was a long time ago,” joining her disbelief in a gesture of wounded politesse.
Maybe putting one’s ingénue face on a memoir cover is a dangerous activity, dangerous to one’s vanity, it seems. But who would want to look at my face now, as I look back over my twenty-something life? Certainly not me. Better to run the risk of retrospective narcissism.
There are three photographs of me from my early days in Paris in the book: the cover, that was a street photo of me walking along the quais of the Seine; my passport picture; and another street photo, of me walking on the Boulevard St-Michel with my roommate. To me the pictures are there in order to document my narrative: yes, I lived there, and to me the girl I looked like then is important to the story. I was an American girl—in some ways generic—but I was also that American girl. A French major, a nice Jewish girl from New York, a girl who wanted above all to be happy, although she did not seem to have much of a talent for happiness, but was ready for any adventure.

envelopeThe photographs document a moment, a moment past that certainly was, but if I only had had my snapshot album, I would not have been able to write the memoir. True, the images dated the change of boyfriend, the change of hairdo and hemline, but something crucial was lacking—but, as it turned out, miraculously available to me, something written: a cache of letters that I had sent home from my first day in Paris to my last. In the beginning, the weekly report was my parents’ particular pound of flesh—write a letter or we won’t send you any money (I was always broke). But after a while, the letter production became a habit. It was easier for me to write than to have them send me telegrams asking what was wrong. It was another era, when parents were unwilling to let girls be free and on their own.
Many, many years later, after my parents died, when I emptied the apartment I found the letters in my mother’s underwear drawer. They were bundled in chronological order, and occasionally, my father had included drafts of his letters (mainly of threats and condemnation). The letters were a gold mine of information—and misinformation. I could still remember what I had lied about. But even the letters were not enough. Yes, they gave me names and dates, but was I really in love with my husband to be, little dreaming I was about to marry a con man? “I’m really, really in love,” I wrote.
It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.
And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory. It’s not only memory, of course. There’s the task of finding the story line that makes sense of each point of remembrance and holds them together in a coherent pattern, a narrative that feels like the truth. Have I found that?
I’m not sure, but I know that I never stopped asking: Was that me?

What I Don’t Want to Remember

There are lots of jokes about forgotten anniversaries, usually to reprove husbands who have forgotten the anniversary of their marriage. I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary numerous times, much to the chagrin of my husband. But an anniversary I would rather not remember is the date of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Today, October 9 as I write, is the anniversary of my friend’s suicide. Actually, it was a Thursday not a Wednesday, but I guess the date is more to the point, though the day seems more real. Carolyn believed in routine, and Thursday was Susan Heath.

I was in England when Carolyn’s great friend Susan Heath called with the news. Thursday was their designated day for dinner, and when Susan arrived at the building for their date she discovered the body. “The journey is over,” Carolyn wrote in the only note we know about, “Love to all.” Carolyn had left little to chance and she had counted on Susan to have the strength to survive the experience.

41Qb2iDjtVLToday I was teaching poems by poets Carolyn loved and admired, even if she had occasional minor quarrels with them―Rich and Sexton. Reading poetry today in the digital age is a heightened experience since we can look at and listen to poets reading their poetry. While looking at the YouTube menu, an interview between Diane Middlebrook and Anne Sexton caught my eye. I couldn’t resist making the students listen to Diane’s voice―we had just read her wonderfully explanatory essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?”―and it seemed appropriate to listen at least briefly.

Slipped into my copy of  Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe, was a fax from Carolyn: CGH to NKM, dated March 19, 1998. It was the closing stanza of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Beneath the poem Carolyn had handwritten a quotation from The Second Sex in which Beauvoir creates the metaphor of the amazing woman that Rich seems to reprise when she writes–“as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.” Beauvoir’s prose: “she is a helicopter and she is a bird.”

These two friends loved poetry and both are dead, Carolyn by suicide in 2003, Diane from cancer in 2007. Sexton’s suicide links Carolyn and Diane in my mind. Carolyn was an attentive reader of suicide; so was Diane, since she had also written the biography of Plath in her relation to Hughes.

Suddenly, there I was in the classroom looking at bright young faces and feeling very far away, in a place where death was all too real. I did not mention the anniversary to the students because it would not have been an anniversary for them; they had nothing to remember.

For over 20 years, I had dinner with Carolyn. Tuesdays. As each week passes, I remember that I’m not having dinner with Carolyn, or as my husband used to say, “having Carolyn.” That day of the week always seems empty to me.

I’ve picked up the weekly dinner with Victoria Rosner, who had also been Carolyn’s student. Carolyn almost always dines with us.

I wish Carolyn had not felt so alone. I wish she had let time catch up with her. Today she’d have been 87. It’s not, I think now, that old.