Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembering Gretchen

Key West -- My friend Gretchen Feldman died this week. It's not that it was unexpected but that it was, as she put it a year ago, ludicrous. That's when she learned she had stage 4 lung cancer. She didn't smoke. And at that point she had no real symptoms. Oh, maybe she'd lost ten pounds but that was good, wasn't it? She'd wanted to drop ten pounds. And she'd had some GI distress over the summer, but who didn't? She and Sam and George and I had dinner last November when we were in New York for Thanksgiving week. They had come down from the Vineyard where they lived year round, to see an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital. What do you say when your friend tells you the diagnosis is for real - though she can't believe it and neither can you? Only a 4-letter word will do.

We met Sam and Gretchen at a dinner party on the Vineyard just before the presidential election of '92. We were all Clinton supporters and excited by the possibilities. I was seated next to Sam and Gretchen was across the table. They were from Baltimore and so was George. They knew the Cooper Camera Mart, started by George's father. Gretchen and I didn't really get to talk that night. She was beautiful, with a dazzling smile, but quiet, observant . Sam, handsome and outgoing, had all my attention. It wasn't until later that I got to know Gretchen. The first time they came to our house on the Vineyard, Gretchen carried a huge bucket of wildflowers from her garden. They lived "up-island" and I hadn't yet seen their beautiful home overlooking Chilmark Pond, and just beyond, the ocean.

Gretchen was full of surprises. She was a serious artist. Her watercolors were big and bold. Her Vineyard scenes grew more and more abstract, full of deep, rich colors, making them look almost like oils. When we first met she was also doing studies of Vineyard animals. George fell for a painting of a cow that was so loose and had such humor we bought it on the spot and to this day it hangs in our livingroom, making us smile each time we pass. Randy is a huge fan of Gretchen's work and several of Gretchen's paintings hang in her home.

Who would have guessed that Gretchen also excelled at ping pong? Larry holds a ping pong tournament at our house every summer and one year Gretchen and Sam stopped by. All the players were at least twenty years younger than the four of us. I had no idea that either Gretchen or Sam could play. I thought they were just being sociable. But they were the stars of the night. Sam played our young neighbor in the finals while Gretchen played her daughter, Leigh. Gretchen won.

The next year Sam bought an outdoor ping pong table like Larry's and I knew from then on the rest of us wouldn't stand a chance.

Once I confessed to Sam and Gretchen that I was teaching myself to do crossword puzzles but it didn't come easily. My mind works in interesting ways but whatever it takes to do crossword puzzles eluded me. I was proud that with practice I could now do the Monday and Tuesday puzzle in the New York Times (the puzzles grow progressively more difficult until the Saturday puzzle, the toughest of the week). Gretchen confessed that she didn't bother with them until at least Thursday. Who knew?

Gretchen and Sam's daughter, Dene, was married at their Vineyard home. Though it was July and too early for a hurricane, a fierce tropical storm hit the island. It had a name but I can't remember -- only know it started with a B. All day we waited for the phone call that would tell us plans had been changed - the wedding would be moved to the Hebrew Center, or some other indoor venue. But the call never came. The wind howled as we headed up-island. The tents, as planned, were out in the open field overlooking the ocean. Inside the big tent, Larry and I kept looking at each other, each of us quietly planning our exit strategy if the crew couldn't hold the tent down. Worse yet, if the tent collapsed. But Gretchen and Sam were smiling and telling all their guests how they also had married in the rain and look how well it had worked out for them.

All of this is superficial, of course. You can't really get a feel for Gretchen from reading anecdotes. The real Gretchen was a private person. She didn't talk about herself. Sam and their two daughters and their three grandchildren were the most important people in her life. That much I know. I once saw a photo of a gorgeous young couple at their house in Baltimore. It only took a second to realize they were Gretchen and Sam. Theirs was a love affair to the end.

Which brings us back to that ludicrous diagnosis. Gretchen underwent chemotherapy. She said she could withstand any treatment as long as it would make a difference. In early September the Craven Gallery on the Vineyard hosted Gretchen's last show. She was there looking thin, but elegant, in a crisp white shirt and flowing pants, her silvery hair cropped short, as always (though I know she was never happier than wearing an old t-shirt or a sweater she'd ordered from a catalog). Her paintings were abstract and colorful. "They're cells," she whispered to me. "Can you tell?" Of course. That made perfect sense. The cells in her body were running amok but in her paintings she could do with them whatever she pleased.

The last time we saw Gretchen was the day before we left New York for Miami to campaign for Obama. She was rooting for him. Sam had instructed us to amuse Gretchen. No problem. The four of us sat around their apartment telling stories (some at the expense of Sarah Palin) and laughed and laughed. Gretchen said their lives centered on the C-words -- campaign and cancer. We laughed about that, too. I held my true feelings inside until we'd left.

I bought a stunning painting at Gretchen's last show.

When I unwrapped it in Key West the name she had printed on its back was Fat Cells II. She was still making me laugh. It will hang in my study so I can see it every day. And when I do, I'll think of Gretchen. Not that I need a painting to remind me but I like having a part of her here with me. She was my "girlfriend" and I'll miss her.

Cherish your friendships while you can.
xx Judy

Friday, November 7, 2008

Yes, We Did!

A night to remember!

As my friend Letty Pogrebin says:


Yes, it is a miracle!
Let's remember that as the hard work begins. No one, not even Barack Obama, can fix this mess quickly. I have no doubt that the best and the brightest candidate won. Let's stand behind him and his team for the long haul. He's going to continue to need us as much as we need him.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Biting My Nails Until....

Key West -- we arrived back home on Friday night, following a busy week of campaigning in the Miami/Boca area. It feels as if we've been on the road for a month, and actually, now that I look at the calendar, we have.

First came Madison, Wisconsin. That was on October 14. I still had the last of a sinus infection but flew anyway with my doc's blessing and some meds. Gave the Charlotte Zolotow Lecture at the university on the 15th. George says it was my least focused speech -- maybe because my friend Lois Lowry told me the audience would know every word I'd ever written or said so I'd better do something new. Trouble is, I only have so much to say (this wasn't a political speech - I was being honored as a writer). I've learned that from now on I just have to say what I know. The audience was very warm and generous in their response. They probably just thought I was slightly ditzy.

That was the night of the final debate so I was rushed back to my hotel, where I'd already ordered up a pasta supper to be delivered by room service. Missed just the first 30 minutes which I saw later. (Wow -- this seems like such a long time ago!)

Next morning I met several classes of 6th graders at the Governor's home. His wife, Jessica Doyle, was a school librarian and regularly invites school children into her home -- gives them a tour (they even met Governor Doyle) -- then talks with them about books. I read a scene from Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, as these kids had just started middle school and I thought they would relate to Rachel, a 7th grader who has to deal with a difficult older brother. It started a good discussion about family relationships. Turns out Governor and Mrs. Doyle know Amanda, my stepdaughter. Small world.

That afternoon I had my first taste of campaigning for Obama - first, at a house party for mothers and daughters (and some sons), later at an Obama campaign office. I discovered that in Madison, Wisconsin, not only is everyone friendly, but most voters support Obama. So I didn't have to work very hard and my guide and liason to the campaign, Heather Colburn, was perfect in every way. I learned a lot from her. I wish I had her at my side wherever and whenever I have to speak on any subject. One funny question from an almost 12 year old girl who is already a political junkie -- "What do you think of Sarah Palin?" I knew it wasn't appropriate to say anything negative about the other candidates so I thought for a minute, then said, "Well...I like her jackets." (This was before the story broke about the money spent on her campaign wardrobe.) The crowd cracked up. But I meant it.

On the flight back to New York every time I yawned to open my ears I heard a strange whooshing sound. I kept asking George if he heard it, too. He didn't, of course, since it was coming from my ear. Oh oh.

This explains why, when we left for Miami (to campaign) a few days later, we had to take the train. A leaky blood vessel in my ear made flying not a good idea. We actually looked forward to a day of reading on the train without interruptions. I read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. She wrote Prep, a wonderful first novel, and this one, totally different, was equally enjoyable and well written. George read Porter Shreve's When the White House Was Ours (no, not that White House). I almost didn't care that our train was over three hours late getting to Miami. Or that we'd already spent one night on the train. But the thought of spending another wasn't something either one of us found romantic. (The reality of Amtrak isn't the fantasy we grew up with from watching movies.) But, hey, it saved my ear.

We stayed at a hotel in Coconut Grove because 30 something years ago George spent a month there and remembered it fondly. Mitchell Kaplan, who owns Books&Books, one of the great independent bookstores in the country, was a huge help in scheduling a couple of Obama events for me. The most interesting was at a Hebrew Day school in Miami Beach. The campaign freaked out because Joe Lieberman was speaking at the same school the following night. They were sure I'd be asked questions about Israel that I wouldn't be able to answer so they sent two experts on the middle east. This was supposed to be an informal gathering of moms (and some dads) with the middle schoolers. I doubt they would have asked me any hard questions about the middle east. But this way I didn't have to worry. And neither did the campaign.

We met up with Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and a young, talented political comedienne, Katie Halper (who also teaches history at the Dalton School in NY) in Boca Raton. We all shared a condo with a fantastic ocean view, donated by a generous Obama supporter from NY. It was a real bonding experience. The three of us spoke at 6 events in less than 3 days. George gave us moral support and drove us from place to place -- a good thing because he has a great sense of direction, not to mention a GPS in his iPhone. I would get lost even with a GPS.

We performed the "Judy, Letty, Katie" show at an art gallery, a women's center, and at four house parties. Our goal was to reach those voters still on the fence about voting for Obama. Amazing to me that so many of these intelligent women had been frightened by the malicious lies and ugly rumors -- exactly what the opponents had hoped for. The politics of fear! But after each event 3 or 4 women came up to tell us we'd helped them feel better about voting for Obama. Every vote counts, every vote has consequence. We fell into bed at night exhausted, often after very late suppers at the few restaurants that remained open until 11pm. And we were only on the road a week. I can't begin to imagine what it was like to be on the campaign trail for 22 months. Well, I can....but I don't want to go there. What strength and stamina it takes! It's too much for anyone and I hope we never have to go through a campaign that lasts this long again. I hope it as a voter and I hope it for the candidates.

George is working at the polls today -- as a Voter Protector. I haven't heard from him since noon when he reported all was well in Ramrod Key. Don't know where he's traveled since then. Monroe County covers all the Keys with Key West being the end of the road.

I have photos from each event but George has the camera with him and who cares anyway?
Tomorrow this will all be history. I'm pretty much a wreck -- too superstitious to admit the polls look good for my candidate. A friend is having an election party starting in an hour. I'd rather climb into bed and watch the returns on my own but she's having sandwiches and 100 chocolate cookies and we have nothing to eat in our house so maybe I'll wander over. But even if the race is called at 8pm I won't believe it until all the votes have been counted. Or as my mother would have said, poo poo - then she'd spit on her hand. The translation being, It should only be! or, Don't count your chickens until.....

Hope you've all voted. Whichever candidate you support voting is our privilege as well as our duty. I always cry when I vote. I'll cry tonight, too, whichever way it goes.
xxx Judy