Losing a friend you thought was already lost

Cover of "Gone with the Wind"
Cover of Gone with the Wind

I read the obituaries every morning as many people do. I have no idea why we do this. I look for reasons why people died, how old they were when they died, who survived them, etc. The other morning I saw that my childhood friend had died in February of a long term illness. There was a lovely picture of her taken when she was about 20 I would guess. I have no way of knowing as I last saw her in ninth grade at the graduation of Greenwich Country Day School. She was no longer my best friend having abandoned me for Phyllis and Priscilla and so we barely spoke on that day. I do remember feeling sad I was no longer friends with her and wondering what I had done for her to have lost interest in our friendship.

Betsey befriended me in fifth grade and whatever she told me to do I would do. I went to her house when she still had one (her father later left her mother) and spent the night many times. Her mother had a raspy voice, chain smoked L and M’s, and seemed sharp and unfriendly but stayed out of our way. She had two older sisters who were very glamorous and kind to me. I liked going to Betsey’s house as there was little supervision and we did whatever we wanted. Once in a while we would go bowling, something I never did with my own family.

Betsey told me in fifth grade I needed a bra: not because I was very developed but just because” every fifth grader needed one”. She took one from her sister’s drawer and told me to try it on which I did in the privacy of her bathroom. It was made of a harsh type of cotton and had straps with lengths sticking out which you pinned into place with small gold safety pins. When I wore the bra I felt incredibly sophisticated and old but nervous. What if someone touched my back and felt the strap and knew I was wearing a bra! What a terrifying thought!

In order to wear the bra I had to hide it in my drawer at night and then pack it in my school briefcase, carry it to school, and change into it in the girl’s room under Betsey’s supervision. The whole process seemed so time consuming but worth the excitement and the attention I seemed to get from Betsey for my obedience to her rules.

Betsey also taught me swear words which I did not know at that time. Today this seems startling but in the 60’s it was not surprising. I learned the three swear words that Betsy said were important to learn.  “Shit” “fuck” and “dick”.

I found the words very difficult to define and kept returning to Betsy’s side asking her to let me know once again what they meant. I didn’t dare say them out loud and neither did she but writing them was also out of the question. I remember running back and forth most of that school day so I could remember the words, define them, and someday use them.

Once, about five years later out of the blue, Betsy called me and asked if I wanted to sneak out of my house and meet up with her. She said there would be a boy who could drive. I was really torn by this invitation as I never did anything wrong. It simply wasn’t worth the repercussions but Betsey’s invitation seemed irresistible as the “boy” was incredibly cute. I had seen him around town, he was a bit older than we were, and was considered   really cool and very bad. Having never been in a car driven by anyone under the age of 40, I couldn’t resist.

As it turned out, my parents were out of town and our house was “loosely supervised” when this was the case. We had a nanny but she put my youngest sister to bed and then went to sleep herself by 9. At 9:10 I was downstairs trying to open the door without making a sound convinced I would be caught. I had no idea what I thought would happen but it wouldn’t be good. I finally opened the door and slipped out into the warm night air. It was very dark and I had no flashlight but I could see some outlines of the drive and the road behind it. I walked slowly past the night shrouded house of the Toby’s thinking of Button tucked safely in her bed and thinking to myself I must be really a wild child.

Waiting in the dark at the end of Meadowcroft Lane for Betsy and her crew was endless and by the time their car arrived I was a wreck. For some reason which I will never understand Betsy got out of the car and wanted me to sit next to Peter, the bad boy who was driving. In this position I felt as if I had been kidnapped by a scary witch on one side and an irresistible prince on the other. Hot and cold, yin and yang, good and bad, god knows what was happening but one side felt really good! Peter’s thigh was about as exciting to me as seeing Rhet Butler carry Vivien Leigh up the stairs in ”Gone With The Wind”. I could barely speak I found it so intoxicating. At one point the bad boy took his foot off the accelerator and moved my leg closer telling me to steer and use the gas pedal which of course I did.

Looking back on that night I see how important it was to me in my life of mostly dreams and few actual adventures. Sneaking out of my house at night, being driven by a bad boy around town, feeling the arousal a teenage boy could create, in me: it was an amazing memory for me to take out from time to time and smile over. Nothing happened. No one was hurt. No one even missed me, but it was magic.

So there was an obituary for me to read about my friend who created the memory but was lost to me for the rest of her life. As it turned out, she lived for many years less than five blocks from where I lived with my young family yet I never knew it. She worked cleaning houses for years and had her own small company. She never married or had children and died with her sister and a friend. by her side. I felt sad reading Betsy’s obituary as her life didn’t seem as large as her spirit and I was sorry. I will always be grateful to her for my night of magic.

HBO and Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem at a meeting of the Women's Act...
Image via Wikipedia

Gloria Steinem and other reflections

Some years ago when I was young and just married I was asked by someone whose name I don’t remember to host a dinner for Gloria Steinem at our house in San Francisco. My husband was always curious about meeting new people and very happy to host any number of gatherings for whomever I thought might be interesting. I remember being very nervous about meeting her and worried I wouldn’t measure up as a feminist. I wondered why I had been asked to host the dinner, not believing I could be considered a “liberated woman”.

 I read “The Feminine Mystique” when I was at Sarah Lawrence and discussed it at length in our freshman psychology class. In my heart I knew the author was right. We read Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer as well as Virginia Wolfe. All through elementary school I searched the stacks in our library looking for books about successful women. Finally I found a series of books about women like Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Marie Curie, and others and I read every book over and over. Looking back, without being tutored in the subject of female equality, I see that I was born with an instinctive sense that the world was not fair in its treatment of women. I observed this as a child and resented it without knowing how to address it.

Sarah Lawrence was a great place to be in the early seventies as there was no question on the campus that women were smart, capable and creative. I found myself pondering how it felt to be treated as if I were interesting, intelligent and  had an opinion that was worthy of an audience. I wondered why my father was paying the tuition. It was a heady feeling that stimulated me and terrified me at the same time. I knew I wasn’t stupid but I suffered from a lack of self esteem which made it difficult to express myself in class. It was easier to be successful with men: pretty and charming meant a lot then and still does today. It seemed to me that my choice was either to behave as I was expected to or “cause trouble”. In my father’s eyes, I caused a lot of trouble.

So here I am, five years later in 1980, welcoming Gloria Steinem into my home with excitement and curiosity. The first good omen from the Ms. Foundation came in the form of the gift of a 16 mm movie called “Free to Be You and Me”,  narrated by people like Marlo Thomas, Rosie Grier and others. We happened to own a 16 mm projector at the time and  were able to show the film to our kids, I had only one child then , but until it was apparent in the mid eighties the projector had met its natural  lifespan, most weekends I showed the film to one or two or three of my kids. I loved hearing Rosie Grier singing “It’s All Right to Cry” My daughter, Annabel, still sings it today and loved that movie. Looking back, it is surprising how my kids wanted to see the film over and over.

We think that feminism is a thing of the past but that is not true. Women are still paid less than men for work that is similar. Heads of state are still predominantly male as are heads of corporations. Men are still treated as if they deserve more respect than women and as if they were more capable. Women stay in relationships that are abusive and violent because they live in fear of their men and because they don’t think they can live without them. Men have affairs and wives forgive them saying to themselves that it meant nothing and the family is more important. There are many women I know who are living out their lives in a relationship that is empty and desolate yet they are afraid to leave believing they cannot survive alone. They say if they leave their husbands or lovers there will be another woman who will take their place immediately and they can’t live with this pain. My mother refused to go to the movies alone saying that people would think it was pathetic she had no man to accompany her after the death of my father. Some women still believe they are incomplete without a man by their side.

The other night I watched an HBO special on Gloria Steinem and I was in awe of her once again. We forget what it takes to go against the tide, to speak up for what you believe in, and to listen to the taunts of others who find your position so frightening they become enraged. Gloria Steinem is an amazing lady and my hat still goes off to her! She has lived a life devoted to her cause which is a common cause for all of us women. It doesn’t mean we hate men: quite the opposite! It means we ask for recognition and acceptance for being just as qualified and just as capable as men and deserving of the same respect in the world. I know she is now 78 years old and I hope she lives another 20 years as her work is very inspiring to me and to many women. There are few people in the world today, male or female, who would devote their life to a cause beyond all else. Without these people we would have neither social change nor progress. How wonderful it is to have Gloria still around and still fighting for all of us.

When the Kennedy’s Came To Stay

When the Kennedy’s came to stay..

Most of our childhood was spent in relative peace within the confines of 11 Meadowcroft Lane or Stowe, Vermont once my Dad made a little more money! There were so many of us it seemed to me it was impossible to be alone and I am sure that is why I am always searching for places to hide no matter where I live. Finding a place where no one can find me is a hard habit to break even as an adult. My parents had a few parties and we went to our cousins a lot but for the most part we stayed pretty much to ourselves: a tribe branded with our own traditions and indoctrinations.

My Dad had this habit of taking all of us on trips to various parts of this country and other places in the world where there would usually be some type of crisis forcing him to find a loyal friend or employee to leave most of us with while he went back to work. Once we were left in Denmark with a family for two weeks as we all had food poisoning and couldn’t continue the trip. I will never forget the lady of the house trying desperately to cope with six visiting children as well as four of her own all vomiting in unison all over the house.

My parents seemed to have friends who could act as caretakers at a moment’s notice all over the world but not a lot of friends in their neighborhood. This made life a little more stressful than it might have otherwise been as there was no one to deflect the attention from us kids.

We had a lot of small, mechanized vehicles and were given permission to drive some of them about age 7. My Dad loved cars of any kind be they miniature , gasoline powered, lawn motor type  cars or old model T’s and he loved to go for rides in these vehicles with all of us following in our own. He actually had a sidewalk made on the outer rim of our property bordering the street so we wouldn’t drive into the street. Of course we never used it except when our parents were home.

These small cars went quite fast so my Dad put on what he called a “governor” so we couldn’t exceed the speed limit of safety I guess it never occurred to him that it was easy to remove a rubber band around the gas lever preventing it from being raised to go faster. We were the fastest kids in the neighborhood and there was no radar in those days.

So by now I bet you are wondering about when the Kennedy’s came to stay and what I am going to write about them. My mother was at fault here as she was Jack Kennedy’s girlfriend when he was at Choate and stayed in touch with him for years afterwards. She was described with frequency in the book, “Reckless Youth” about JFK and his exploits. I think my mother had a whole other life we never knew about as in those days one had to pretend to be chaste until marriage. My parents had a lot of famous friends but the Kennedy’s were their most famous. Well, maybe Bob Hope played a close second but we never met him. We did meet the Kennedy’s however and their visits created many memories for all of us.

Our first Kennedy was the President and we were invited to the White House to meet him one spring day. My mother dressed us all up in old clothes of hers as we didn’t seem to have appropriate outfits to meet the President in. I wore a violet wool suit with two snaps on the front and for some reason I decided to add white elbow length gloves I had found in my mother’s drawer. She didn’t see the gloves until we were already inside the white House doors and couldn’t tell me to remove them. How funny we must have looked: this family of women all dressed in clothes too old for them walking down the hall to the President’s office. My mother, of course, looked elegant and serene in her Chanel suit, stockings and alligator pumps.

We were introduced to the President who seemed very nice but boring and finally he asked if we wanted to go outside and meet “Macaroni”, his daughter’s pony. We ran like the wild children we were out on the lawn and down to where Macaroni was grazing on the lawn. It seemed infinitely more interesting to be down there messing about with the pony and we missed our mother’s call’s a few minutes later to return to the Oval office. Finally some men with suits on came running out to where we were asking us to return to our mother who was furious. She later exclaimed “I can’t believe when the President of the United States calls you don’t respond!”

My next Kennedy memory came when we went to walk by Robert Kennedy’s casket after he was shot.  I recall a very dark and somber space in the White House and a slow and shuffling processional past a coffin. I knew I should remember what was happening but I couldn’t stay in my body as it seemed so completely terrifying. Things had changed by then and the sadness of the family was very apparent even to an adolescent. That summer Ethel and a large entourage came to Maine to visit us for a night or two. It was incredibly annoying when fancy people came to visit as we had to behave as if we always dressed in clothing belonging to our mother and walk around the house greeting all the guests and asking what we could do for them. The Kennedy’s were more entertaining than most guests, however, as at night they drank a lot and always played games. One of their favorites was Sardines.

It was almost impossible to sleep when they were playing these games as the players went wherever they wanted in the house no matter who was sleeping in the bedrooms. One night I woke up to find several people coming in and out of my closet. They used our vehicles even if they were way too big for them and never sat in cars, preferring to drape themselves over the car for the trip to town. Once I remember seeing four of them on the roof of an old Land Rover laughing and sliding from side to side. It never seemed to occur to them they might get hurt but of course it wouldn’t or couldn’t.

I found them entertaining but sad in that way grownups can feel sad to a child. Being around the Kennedy’s felt like the world was going too fast and there was no way to slow it down. The women seemed to laugh a lot in a high and choking way and the men looked like wolves hunting for another piece of prey. Everybody smoked. They tried to engage some of us kids but it made one feel on the spot and not genuine. Everything seemed a little too bright and too loud and I was always happy when they left. While they were there it was a question of avoiding them as they seemed to feel comfortable appearing anywhere in the house with a total disregard to privacy. I remember watching Ethel, pregnant with Rory, her last child, and feeling so sad for her. It seemed to me she was trying to keep a way of life going that had died some months ago with her husband,  and had no idea how to do it. The planes of her face often fell into a deep sorrow and anguish that she would never lose.

I think most kids become annoyed if they feel their parents are paying more attention to their guests than to their kids. We liked the guests as they were a distraction and seemed to make my parents happy for a time. The dressing up became a real role and the laughter was a reflection they liked to see in their lives. It was fun to them and they liked the glamour of it all. Sometimes I think that living a glamorous life is not all bad. It’s like watching a continuous play with many costume changes and occasionally having a walk on role. There is a finale but then one begins to rehearse for the next show. There is no opportunity for analysis or reflection only for movement ahead.

Just learn to Tell a Joke

a large sundae, fountain type glass filled wit...
Image via Wikipedia

Spain defaulting, Greece unstable, and we can’t agree on how to solve our own debit problems. Obama says things will get better but does anyone believe it? No wonder people seem angry all the time and drinking more all the time. I think drinking is a good indicator of your level of happiness: the more you drink, the less happy you are and usually the meaner you are to those around you. Drinking doesn’t just affect you in the moment but it also affects your behavior the following day in short tempered hangover spurts.

Drinkers make me nervous as I am more comfortable with consistency and people who are the same every time you see them. I am a drink counter and can tell you at any given dinner party how many glasses of wine each guest has consumed. This is not a great habit but I find myself unable to stop doing it. I also notice that as soon as I see one person is drinking a lot I become less interested in listening to what they have to say. I remember my children’s pediatrician talking about the difference between smoking (I was trying to quit) and drinking. He said, “Lucinda, smoking only destroys one life while drinking kills an entire family”.

Recently I moved into a wonderful house right next to a church where they hold AA meetings in the evening. I like to listen to the people chatting as they come out of the church sounding so happy and grateful to be with their friends and supported by them. I guess if you are an alcoholic it’s really hard to stop drinking as it is anesthesia for your life. If your life feels stressful most people don’t have the will power or knowledge to try meditation or exercise: a drink is easier, faster and more accessible to most.

Growing up, everyone around us drank too much from our parents to our household help to all the parents of our friends. No one thought anything about getting into a car and driving children anywhere they needed to go after a drink or two. To us kids, drinking adults weren’t usually frightening, just louder and less interested in us than usual. My parent’s generation was not really interested in kids at all most of the time as they found their own lives more entertaining. I don’t blame them and actually this was a good thing in a way.

One of my parent’s friends had a “baby” party one weekend. All the guests had to dress as babies and were given bottles of Vodka upon entering the house which was done by climbing up a slide placed inside the front door and sliding down it into the front hall. My parents thought this was one of the best parties they had ever been to. In order to outdo the hostess my mother planned her next party with care. It would be a “designing “party. The guests were divided into couples by having the men draw a woman’s name out of a hat. Each couple was given a paper bag filled with items from the five and ten cents store: a length of fabric, scissors, pins, sequins, glue and feathers. The couples were told they had one hour for the man to design a costume on the lady and sent out into the house to find places where they could be “creative”.

The next morning our butler quit and told my mother he couldn’t work in a house where shocking and immoral behavior happened. When my mother asked what that behavior was he stated,”Mrs. Watson! I heard Mr. Dewart tell Mrs. Ewald that she had to take off all of her clothes or he couldn’t be creative!”

My parent’s generation loved games and entertainment and dressing up in costumes. My father dressed up in a bear’s costume every Halloween. He found this infinitely entertaining: much more so than his real job. I think the good thing about that generation was the fact that they didn’t take much seriously including themselves. This is a different attitude from people today. Everyone takes themselves very seriously all the time and very few people take time to laugh.

Your life can get a lot better really quickly if you learn a few techniques to make other people laugh. Yesterday I was trying to learn my login name to register for some classed at a local university as I couldn’t log in without it. As it was, on this first day of registration there was a long wait on the phone and once I reached the person who could help me I was told me there was a very long line in the office as well. I asked her how I could retrieve my log in name and she said I would have to give her some information and with patience might receive it later that night. I laughed at the way she said this as it was in a very resigned manner. I said I thought she might make those lines into a very good country western song. She started laughing and so did I and she thanked me for making her laugh.

I hung up the phone and got an email less than three minutes later with all the information I needed.

The whole point of life is to love people and to enjoy yourself. I think we forget this most of the time. When we remember we are rewarded in many different ways.