I’ve started to write about Women At Woodstock East 2013 a dozen times – and stopped, because I can’t really talk about what I experienced without first talking about my friend Deb. And for the last month I haven’t been able to talk about Deb, even via a blog post.
So I’ll start by saying that when Suzanne Braun Levine stood up to moderate the discussion in our Friendships & Intimacy workshop on Day 3, what she said caused me to nosedive into a deep sadness I’d been trying to tamp down for the past three days, and at the same time her words delivered to me a small gift of forgiveness – simply by knowing that I was not the only one. Suzanne remarked that she hoped that in the future, divisions between life as a mother and life as a professional woman won’t be so sharply demarcated as to cause rifts in friendships among women during the child-raising years. Yes, that was exactly what had happened to my friendship with my best friend Deb.
Deb and I met on our very first day of law school and formed a bond in the following days unlike any other I’ve had, and our friendship endured – in high spirits – through the three years of school that followed and the years we coincidentally ended up living in New York City, donning our “lawyer costumes” every day, as she liked to say. We met for dinner after work at the Brass Moon Café, The Plaza, Deluxe, the Oyster Bar, Carmine’s, Café Lalo. She was my bridesmaid, second only to my sister, at my wedding in St. Paul’s chapel on the Columbia campus. We and our husbands cooked together – the ultimate New York Yuppies enjoying four professional salaries, drinking expensive French wine recommended by Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, eating smoked mussels and saga bleu, roasting a goose with brandied prune stuffing, crumbling stilton onto water crackers and sipping tawny port. One of those nights Deb tried a “gourmet” chili recipe and we didn’t eat until 10:30, each with a half cup of the stuff at the bottoms of our bowls when it cooked down to nothing. Ever after, whenever a waiter at some “must try” restaurant put down a paltry serving of something, all we had to say, dourly, was “Oh, Deb’s chili,” and she would fume.
One of our favorite ways, Deb and I, to spend a Saturday afternoon was to go to Balducci’s without our husbands – especially without hers, who always whined about spending money on something so unnecessary as lovely food. He would literally moan as we put a little box of miniature pear-shaped tomatoes into our basket, or asked for glaced apricots, or a slice of taleggio, or told the butcher we’d like a quarter pound of bresaola. How many times did we gather our meats and cheeses and a fresh baguette, run to her apartment to watch movies on her VCR, and consume everything with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes (hers)?
We took vacations together, bringing our husbands and one or two other couples we were close to. Our first real “adult” vacation was to a cabin I’d found in the Times classifieds and rented sight unseen (so before the internet!) located on “Lake Desloation” (for real; the typo was even on the town sign). Deb walked in the door looking carsick, and set down a bag with a block of American cheese, a pack of hot dogs, and Wonder hot dog buns that her cheapskate of a husband had made her buy for their contribution to the weekend’s repast – and she burst into tears when I cried out, “What the F&*#!!” Of course we’d both known that this was going to happen, and I’d heated up my resentment in advance, while she’d carried the dread of my sure anger, along with her bag of low-quality groceries, all the way up the Thruway. The cabin turned out to have curtains instead of doors to the bedrooms, the “fire pit” was actually a rickety tinny barbecue on wheels, and the promised rowboat was technically a rowboat, but bent in such a way as to travel only in wide circles. She rubbed my face in these faults mercilessly. “Nice cabin, Ann. Great set-up.” The shabby disgrace of the place inspired us to leave the beer bottles rolling all over the floor when one of us accidentally knocked over a trash sack, and we just kept adding bottles as our days went by. We moved in slow motion on our way to the refrigerator or stove, shuffling through the the sea of clanking glass that all of us, by unspoken agreement, refused to pick up. For years after, Deb loved to expound upon the cabin’s virtues with ever more elaborate detail, for the entertainment of friends new and old, while I glared at her. My cabin was her chili.
On days when I would call and Deb was in one of her melancholy moods, she would greet me wistfully. “Hello Ann, old sock.” She and I knew our family histories, relationship foibles, fears and triumphs, insecurities and conceits as if they were our own. I was known, completely. Deb was the absolute opposite of loneliness.
The Inevitable Rift
I got pregnant with my first daughter during our sixth year in New York City, and Deb said jokingly, but at the same time sadly, that we weren’t going to be friends anymore once I had the baby. When my daughter was born, she gave me a beautifully wrapped gift from an expensive boutique on the Upper West Side; a tiny little dress and booties set – soft and fleecy, all in black.
Her words of doom were a self-fulfilling prophecy. In another year, my little family moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, I gave up practicing law, and I was indeed focused on my daughter. Deb and I tried to keep in touch – but the rift had begun and grew only wider. We never fought or “broke up,” we just sort of fell away. She took vacations with her other friends. We camped every year in the Adirondacks with another family with young children. She got a hairless cat and named him Cyril. I had a second daughter. She made annual forays to London, home of her beloved Oscar Wilde. I started making trips to Michigan and Kentucky for horse shows in which my daughter was competing. She started doing stand-up comedy at small clubs in Manhattan. I started publishing a regional parenting magazine.
She never once visited me in Ohio. I think the idea of witnessing in person my Shaker Heights Mom life was just too much to bear.
We stopped talking by phone. I essentially ignored Deb, and she me, in the way that one does a distant grandmother. Secretly I felt she thought she was too cool for me. And she was, in many ways. But it was alright. We both knew that our friendship was solid as concrete, and it would be fixed later, when this was all over – the child raising and the divorcing and the moving again and the remarrying and all of it. We would reconnect again.
We emailed sometimes, and we saw each other only very occasionally when I would come to New York City for one reason or another and we could spend a day in our old stomping ground. Every six months or so, then eight, then in time measured by years, one of us would send an email and we would start it invariably with an insult or something embarrassing or shameful. “I baked a cheesecake bigger than your head. And ate most of it.” “Today when I sat down on the A train, I honest to god thought that the people opposite me were smirking – at me. And for some reason I turned around, and there right behind my head, peering in the window, was a reprehensible middle-aged man, eyes wild, hefting his two cupped hands high behind my head as if wielding two big cantaloupes. Such was the nature of today’s compliment. Apparently my breasts are so remarkable as to be worthy of public parody.”
Her last email to me was just one line: “Write to me, bitch!”
My Reconnection With Deb During Women At Woodstock
So here I sat in our Day 3 workshop, and Suzanne mentioned the phenomenon so many of us have experienced of kids/no kids and friends/no longer friends. She said that one of the great things about turning 50 and growing older is that now is the time when we can mend those severed relationships and reconnect with the women we loved but who became “the other” during the long stretch of our child raising years. Friendships are the most important thing, more so as we age. Maintain them, care for them, repair them, gather them to you. Yes. Now is the time. And I was feeling it.
I was feeling it so keenly in fact that just 72 hours earlier, on the night before our retreat began, I picked up the phone and dialed Deb’s number. I didn’t have to look it up; it was the same one she’s had for 33 years – a permanent bit of code in my brain. I had finally determined that things really were going to go smoothly and I could count on a couple of days to myself after our retreat ended. Well what the hell, I thought, I’ll call Deb and see if she’ll come up on Wednesday and stay with me for two days. I knew that she was no longer working and I thought that she just might. She’d say no, of course, but I’d say “I know I’m a jerk for calling on 4 days’ notice, but just get up here, old sock.” It would be just the two of us here, and we would share cheese and wine, with the same ease as if we’d never spent any time apart.
So I dialed her number, and it rang and rang, and I was starting to swear under my breath that I’d have to leave a voicemail and it would be for naught. She’s worse than I am at checking messages, and hopeless at texting or emailing with any sort of regularity. It could be five days before she’d know that I’d tried to get in touch with her. I’d be back in LA by then. Our chance would be lost.
Then Deb finally picked up. I was ready for my opening insult: “About time you answered the phone! Are you buried in cats?”
But she didn’t answer. A recorded woman’s voice did, and it told me that this number was disconnected and no further information was available.
For a time I held the phone to my ear, waiting for more. Then I hung up. I sat still with this non-information. Then I told stories to myself in my head: Deb and her new husband Bill had finally decided to sell her tiny cube of an apartment on 59th Street and move to something else; maybe the Village, or the Upper West Side, or even, hard to imagine, Montclair. Maybe she’d actually gone modern and disconnected her wall phone in favor of simply using a cell, which was all anyone really needs anymore. Maybe she had some weird stalker – a new version of the cantaloupe man, and she’d changed her number without a forward.
When I ran out of scenarios, I forced myself to look up Bill’s cell, and thank god he answered.
“Hey, Bill, it’s Ann,” I said as casually as I could. “How are you?”
And he said, “Well, I’m doing better now, I guess…”
Which told me everything.
There was an emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer. A stupid, indefensible, unforgivable mistake in the operating room. Deborah died on January 31, 2013, which also happened to be the 13th birthday of Bill’s twin daughters, with whom Deb had become close.
Now Is the Time to Mend Torn Friendships
So Suzanne said that now is the time when we can mend those severed relationships and reconnect with the women we loved. And it is. It so urgently is. Except not for me. My time is up. So here I was, at the Emerson, absolutely overwhelmed by this incomprehensible news.
The next day, late on Sunday afternoon, I stood at the Catamount Bar holding a glass of wine and waited for a flood of friends; my long-standing friend Jackie and former work friend Mary from Ohio, my last-year-alumnae friends Linnea, Kathy, Linda, Barbara, Missi, Ivy, Bobbi, the “other” Ivy, Beth, Dianne, and more; and all the new friends with whom I’d only emailed up until then, whom I would meet in person for the first time. I was warmly surrounded by women like me. I couldn’t have been in a better place on earth.
As it turned, out Linda Lowen was able to stay on for a while after the retreat ended on Wednesday, and we spent that autumn afternoon in my room talking, drinking wine, and sharing cheese and crackers while the light waned. This was the time when Deb would have been arriving. I had breakfast the next morning with our writing workshop leader Martha Frankel, whose acerbic wit and cheerful “I don’t care at all what other people think” way about her made me laugh. Martha generously invited me to come to the Bear Café for dinner and a live performance by Rickie Lee Jones on my last night in Woodstock. There I met Martha‘s friend Jenny, who gave me a ride home, and Jenny and I ended up at the Catamount talking over glasses of wine, on the last evening that Deb and I would have been together. Jenny and I discovered that we share a growing consternation over the amount of “stuff” that we’ve accumulated, and we’re seriously trying to start paring down and jettisoning before we become those classic old ladies who live surrounded by a dense and endless collection of silent and dusty objects that only depress us and, eventually, burden our children when we’re gone. Jenny turned me on to flylady.com, a website that’s all about decluttering one’s life and starting off each day feeling right and good about one’s surroundings.
So This Is Why Women At Woodstock Was So Important To Me
So it turned out that I was at Women At Woodstock exactly at the moment when I absolutely needed to be. I didn’t have to tell my story – Suzanne told it to me during that moment in our workshop, because she knew it already. We all know it and we all understand it, and a hundred and a thousand more stories that we all know and feel and share collectively. The magical thing about our gatherings is that no one has to reveal her personal story and no one has to say, yes, I feel that too, I understand, you are not alone. It is all said already with our simple presence in the room and the warm energy that circles through us when we come together. That’s friendship on a grand and powerful scale.