My Friend, Valerie Bessette

 Yesterday was the birthday of my friend, Valerie Bessette. 

    She and I went to High School together. Val was petite with silvery blond hair.  She played the Good Witch Glinda in our High School production of the Wizard of Oz.   The next year she played the lead in Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen.  Her character carried a tiny dog wherever she went, but nobody in Vermont has a tiny dog–the closest we could find was a forty pound poodle.  Val made her entrance buried under that dog with perfect aplomb.  And that was her way–she could handle anything. 

    The summer we were twenty-one I was languishing in Stowe with a bad boyfriend, a pile of debts and no plans for my future.  Valerie came home from New York City where she’d been going to Parson’s School of Design.  She was living my dream life.  

    She suggested we take a day trip to an art gallery in the next town. Just getting out of town opened something up in me.  I remember one painting, a huge abstract with squares of bright yellow. 
I don’t remember what Val and I talked about that day,

except that she told me she had a two bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and she needed a roommate. 

     Talk about a good witch. 
   

   When I remember that day it has a golden glow. I wish I had a picture of the yellow painting; this is the closest I can get.  
     
     So in September of 1969 I moved to New York City, got a job in a ski shop and started taking classes at the School of Visual Arts.    We had a great year and mostly got along well.  When we walked together in the rain she always carried the umbrella, even though she was shorter than me. It would bump on my head, but it didn’t occur to either of us that I should carry it—Val carried the umbrella.
 
Here we are in our apartment, trying out the auto focus in her new camera

 Neatness and order were very important to Val and I was a slob. My messes bothered her so much that she would clean my room, just so she wouldn’t have to look at it.  Years later, when I had learned to appreciate order and had two kids messing up my house, I said to her,

    “I know that with all my messiness I was awful for you to live with, and I’m really really sorry.”

    Valerie just looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”   

    Remember what Arthur said about  letting go?

Here We are at her wedding
   Val was a wonderful mother to her son, Ted. They made a pet of the spider who spun  a web in their cellar door and named her Charlotte.
     She made sure Ted was steeped in the rules of civility.  When he was barely three I helped him into a chair and said,
     “Let’s slide your butt back here.”
      He said sternly, “We don’t use that language in this house.”         In May of 2004 Val went for a check up and after some tests the doctor told her she couldn’t go home.  

    It was Acute Myeloid Leukemia.  She died on August 22 of that year. 

  
    I miss her. I miss the talks we could be having now.  I’m so sorry she never got to see Ted become a man.  
     I’ll always be grateful to her and for her. 

    The last time I saw Val we met at an outdoor cafe in the midst of a sun shower.  I can still see her walking towards me, the raindrops sparkling all around her in the sun.

 

Thanks to Carol Skinger for filling me in with some details, and also to Jodi and Erica; the Skinger girls were Val’s sisters.

 

It’s my Valentine’s Birthday

 Arthur and I met on May 11, 1973, the day after the New York Knicks won the NBA championship. Things haven’t gone well for the Knicks since then but Arthur and I are doing fine.

    I am often asked how I, coming from such a religious background, with a deep commitment to the Bible and Jesus, could marry a Jewish man?  Arthur doesn’t get it either.  When I tried to tell him about my relationship with Jesus he replied, 

    “I don’t know, Barbara,  I felt a lot better about you when you talked this way about Elvis.”  Irreverent, yes, but his skepticism made me look at my faith from a different angle and I came away with a stronger, clearer commitment.

    When it was time to introduce Arthur to the family I made a date to meet my father at a steak house near Madison Square Garden.  

    Arthur arrived first and called me.  Knowing Dad’s punctuality, I said, “My father’s there–go introduce yourself and I’ll get there soon.”

    “How will I know him?”

    “He looks like me and he wears glasses.”

     Mom later told me Dad’s account of that meeting;

    “I’m sitting at the bar thinking ‘I’ve gotta meet another artsy boyfriend, a theater directer, ah jeez.  Why couldn’t she pick someone like that young man over there–blue blazer, polo shirt, neatly trimmed mustache, looks like an athlete?’  And at that moment the athletic young man walks up to me and says, ‘Are you Barbara’s father?’ ”

    In the scramble to free their right hands for a shake red wine was spilled on Dad’s tie but that didn’t matter. By the time I got there they were deep in conversation about sports and the movies.

      

       I once said to my brother, Alan, “Don’t you think the secret of a long marriage is a high tolerance for irritation and  boredom?” and he said, 

    “Yes, and inertia.”

    I do have one tip.  Arthur and I have had terrible fights, and we’ve gone to bed angry plenty of times, but we never let a fight interfere with our social life.  If we had plans we’d  put on happy faces for our friends. Eventually he’d say something funny or interesting, I’d remember what it was I liked about him and the fight would be over.  

    He  has brought wonderful gifts to our marriage, like standing up for your friends, abhorring gossip, being true to your word, honoring your work.  These weren’t new concepts to me but Arthur brought them into a new light.  Possibly the most important thing he’s taught me is, “Let it go.”  Troubles just roll off him and they’re forgotten.  It’s hard for me to quit chewing over old resentments, but it’s helpful that Arthur never pours gasoline on fires and his humor never fails us.

    When my nephew was six he told me; “When I was little I saw Arthur in his bathing suit and I said, ‘Arthur, how come you have so much hair on your chest?’ and without looking up from his book he said, ‘Because, Danny, I used to be a bear.’ And for a long time I believed him.”


 I’m not the only one who finds Arthur irresistible,  Here he is with our nieces, Katie and Rachel.

 

Thoughts of my Mom on Mothers’ Day

In August it will be ten years since my mother died and I think of her everyday. In Maurice Sendak’s obit this week he was quoted as saying; “ the ones we love die and leave us and we love them more.” Thank you again, Mr. Sendak.
Shortly after Mom’s death Alan, Rob and I were staying at her house, preparing it for sale, and Mom came to me in a dream. She told me we were doing a good job and then I asked her what it was like being dead.
“It’s OK,” she said, “but it’s a little boring.”
I can believe that. She was never happier than when she had a project. It was not uncommon for us to come home from school and find that she had painted the living room, or wallpapered the kitchen ceiling. One Christmas Eve she said “We should invite Santa!” It was too late for that year but December 26 she asked a friend in the textile business for some red velvet–actually, yards and yards of red velvet– and white fake fur and by January 26 there was a full Santa suit hanging in the back of a closet. She never mentioned it until the next Christmas Eve and for years after that Santa took time out from his busy schedule to drop in on our Christmas Eve party.
She never made a big deal of things. Once when I was still little enough for her to hold me in her arms we were playing in the surf and a huge wave came out of nowhere and knocked her down. Now, some mothers might have made a drama out of that- “we almost drowned!!!” my mom? Nah. She held me tight and when we came up again she said, “Phew, that was fun.” And I have always loved the surf.
A pretty woman, she didn’t fuss over herself–a flick of the comb and a dash of lipstick and she was good to go. She always looked great and you never caught her looking at herself in the mirror. Her friend, Norma told me that Mom encouraged her to buy an emerald green dress that she still wears and loves and I can totally believe that. Mom loved bright colors; she always dressed me in red and I can still hear when I’m shopping–pick a color that makes you happy to look at it.
A strict disciplinarian , she was furious when Sally Hubbard and I broke Dad’s bed by jumping on it but when I made such a mean crack to Bobby Dannenfelser after her father died that the whole neighborhood wanted to lynch me and everyone’s mother said I should be severely punished, Mom said, “I think you feel really bad about what you said. That’s punishment enough.”
Alan used to get into fights and come home with his clothes wrecked. He wasn’t a particularly belligerent kid, just a boy. Mom said, “If you come home with your clothes wrecked one more time, there will be severe consequences.” Naturally it wasn’t long before he came home with clear signs that he’d been fighting, and he took his punishment without a word. But then Mrs. DeArmond called in tears to thank Alan. Mark DeArmond, Alan’s classmate, had cerebral palsy and was a target for bullies. Alan had come upon some boys beating up Mark and he said, “OK, pick on someone who can fight back.”

“Oh, Alan, I’m so proud of you!”
So, fighting is very bad unless it’s for a good cause and you have to decide that for yourself.

LIke many people of strong character Mom held fast to her convictions. It isn’t easy growing up with One Who Knows All There Is To Know. She was fond of saying of certain others “Seldom troubled with the thought that he might be wrong” I never got the chance (or the nerve) to look her in the eye and say,”You know, Mom, there’s a lot of that going around.” But there’s always an upside.
When I had to face a firing squad of sorts my friend Frank said, “Whatever you do, Barbara, don’t let them see you cry. Carry your mother in there with you and let her stiffen your spine and your upper lip.” I can’t count the times she did just that for me.
Our family has had some terrible days. When a young person dies before what we think is his time there is very little comfort but somehow you have to carry on. You have to eat and sleep and keep moving; you have to get through the days until time can begin to heal your wounds. You also have to keep yourself open to the possibility of fun and even joy.
On one of our worst days, Mom called all her grandchildren together and said; “Come on everybody, I’m going to teach you how to do the twist.”
She was an imperfect and wonderful mother and I miss her every day. I’m grateful for everything she gave me, and especially that every gift from her came wrapped in brilliant colors.