Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sweet Remembrances

She's a friend from very different days: more than fifty years ago, Barbara and I were young actresses at a talent program at Desilu Studios. We studied with the same coach, worked together on some shows, shared audition triumphs and disappointments and also came from troubled families. Barbara had left her family home in Oklahoma as soon as she graduated from high school. I was back in my home town after graduating from Northwestern, living near my family and their continuing crises while fashioning an independent life of my own.

At some point. our paths diverged. I quit acting and concentrated on writing and, later, added another career in psychotherapy. Barbara stayed in acting longer, but supplemented her earnings with a series of day jobs that began to play a larger role in her life as time went by. She never married.

We stayed in touch, but the last time I saw her was at my wedding in 1977. She moved to Northern California. And many years later, my husband Bob and I moved to Arizona. We kept in touch with cards, emails and an occasional phone call.

Then her computer died and Barbara, beset with chronic illness, sank into further isolation.

I thought of her not long ago because she was born on the same day as my brother and both turned seventy recently. I sent her a birthday card and a note. And she called me, delighted. It was the only birthday card she had received. And our phone conversation was the first one she had had in many months. She told me that her sister had died in the past year and that now she had no family left at all. She lives in a mobile home in a small town in Northern California. Her health is fragile, but she does all she can to work with what she has, getting exercise gardening in her small backyard, enjoying her two cats, eating healthy food instead of taking pills.

As we talked, I remembered why I had always enjoyed Barbara and her determination to live life to the fullest even under less than ideal circumstances. And it made me glad that we had reached out to each other with my card and her phone call.

Our reconnection also reminded me what a difference a simple act of kindness can make to another.

Is there someone -- an old friend, a co-worker from years ago, a friend of your parents you remember from your youth who has outlived most of his or her close friends, a neighbor who has been isolated by growing disabilities -- you might reach out to with affection and remembrance?

There are so many ways you can make a difference -- even to someone who isn't tuned in, plugged in and active online.

A longtime friend I'll call Ann -- we went to school together from kindergarten through high school -- has been elusive in recent decades. She has struggled with emotional problems rooted in a difficult childhood and adulthood and, when I went back to school to become a psychotherapist, she began to view me with suspicion, fearful of being analyzed and evaluated, not realizing that is something I do with clients, not with friends or family. It has been years since we've seen each other and she has been reluctant to talk on the phone. However, when I was going through a box of treasures from college, I came across a packet of letters she sent me during that time. I packaged them and sent them to her. She replied with a loving note, thanking me for giving her back a piece of her past. "That meant so much to me!" she wrote.

Ann may never be comfortable seeing me -- and that is made more difficult now anyway since we live in different states -- but there is a bond of sweet remembrance of a shared time when so much seemed possible, with so many adventures ahead.

I've found myself warmed by thoughtful notes recently as I've worked on my difficult memoir, a complicated mix of humor and horror sweetened, at one point, with some stories of young adult romance.

There were three pre-marital lovers in my life and, with all three, there was a strong element of friendship, allowing these to become lifelong relationships even after the romance faded. Mike was my first, a lovely man with a sparkling smile and endless patience. Maurice, an actor and composer who is fifteen years my senior and wonderful in all ways, was my second. My third, Chuck, was a doctor (just recently retired) and my co-author for "The Teenage Body Book" and several other books through our years of close friendship that have extended into the present.

Chuck and Mike were born on the same day, though not the same year. I was getting ready to buy birthday cards for them both when I found out that Mike had died. I felt terribly sad. It was a difficult sadness to share. Mike and I broke up well over forty years ago and I hadn't seen him since. But we kept in touch with warm, newsy letters on our birthdays and at Christmas and phone calls to each other at pivotal times -- my parents' deaths, his mother's death, his marriage, my thoracic surgery in 2003 when he called me at work to ask why I needed to have that and if there was anything he could do to help. His silence at Christmas this year was unsettling. I realized how eagerly I always had awaited his letters. So, feeling uneasy, I did some checking and discovered that Mike had died in November.

I told my husband Bob and a few friends. They all said they were sorry to hear that. There didn't seem to be much more to say. It was Chuck, however, who realized the extent of the loss. "Mike was such an important person in your life," he wrote. "He was your first. I know how your ongoing friendship meant so much and how much you'll miss him. You had a shared experience that only the two of you knew and treasured through the years. Just as we do. So I understand -- and I'm so sorry."

And not long after, I received a note from Maurice's niece Rachel, who is only a year younger than I am and who is keeping an eye on him as he gets into advanced, though still vibrant, old age. "When Uncle Maurice was visiting me recently, he could only say the sweetest things about you," she wrote. "It's wonderful after all these years to feel the kindness you have shared with each other. Sending you love..."

Both of these messages touched my heart at a time when I needed understanding and sweet remembrances.

Life can get busy. We have all the best intentions to write or call or otherwise keep in touch. But opportunities to be kind, to be present for another, to fill someone's darkness with light can take so little time and mean so very much.

Think about reaching out to someone today, this minute.