“…Missing someone is not a thing that passes, not a stage that you go through and emerge from eventually, unscathed. Missing someone, you finally recognize, is permanent. You don’t get over it; you only learn how to live with it. You make a space in your life, and it is filled by an absence. Although there is nothing there, it feels like a boulder, a huge dark heavy object always by your side.” – Zoe Colvin, at the blog ZMKC (December 24, 2018)
June 28, 2019
It was a year ago today that you vanished from the lives of the people who loved you. Even after all that time, I’m still finding it difficult to believe that our years of friendship are at an end. We covered a lot of ground in our fifty years worth of letter-writing and visiting back and forth, but one of the few things we neglected to discuss was how whichever one of us survived the other was going to deal with that.
True, we sustained our long friendship primarily through our frequent letters with each other than with actual or prolonged visits. As those visits became more sporadic than when we both lived in Atlanta, we grew accustomed to what one of our favorite writers, Stevie Smith, called a pattern of “here I go, leaving again/here I am, here again.” What I haven’t yet accepted, however, is the fact of your final, irreversible departure.
Since that awful evening late last June when your living and breathing came to its end – something that happened so quickly and so differently and so much sooner than either of us had imagined it might – I have often wondered how I would ever come to terms with your going.
Writing you this final letter – a letter from me that you will never read – is the only thing I’ve written about you since the memorial service your daughter organized last September. I’m hoping it might help me with this paradoxically impossible but necessary task of learning to do without you in my life.
Before my memories fade too completely, I mainly want to record at least of few of my most cherished ones. and especially some of the earliest ones.
You of course know that I have always credited you with saving my sanity when I was a floundering, frustrated teenager.
I was 17 years old when you and I first crossed paths in 1965, when I was in my junior year at College Park’s Lakeshore High School. I was worried about how I could possibly endure two more years of high school before being allowed to flee the suburbs and begin a new and presumably more stimulating life at some college somewhere. I also felt trapped in a household whose parents were locked in an unhappy marriage. Unfortunately in my case, my mom’s desperate attempts to keep her family together until all her children were grown included an ever-growing list of fear-based restrictions on an oldest son who needed more freedom and intellectual stimulation, not less of either.
You were the 28-year-old teacher whose art class my friend (and companion-in-high-school-misery) Becky had urged me to sign up for. For some reason, you took Becky and me (and Patti and Dee) under your wing, and you eventually figured out ways we could meet up outside of class to talk about things our other high school friends seemed completely disinterested in: art, literature, theater, music.
When I learned that you and your roommate Frances (who taught English at another school) lived together in an apartment within walking distance of my house, I begged you to let me spend time there after school and on weekends, and you let me do that. Soon you ended up often feeding me as well as letting me hang out at your apartment, serving marvelous things I’d never eaten before at home: asparagus! mushrooms! fresh broccoli! How many toasted pimento cheese sandwiches did we eat sitting around the coffee table in your living room, I wonder? (And guess what kind of sandwich I’m eating for lunch today as I type this letter???)
That year and especially the following year, as you patiently listened to Becky’s tales of woe about her honcho-ing of our high school senior yearbook, or my own whining about the challenges of my editing the school newspaper, you introduced us to all sorts of cultural marvels. And, earlier on, you had immediately and successfully recruited your little band of proteges into The Way of Tea-Drinking. If I had a nickel for every pot of hot tea you ever brewed for me, or, later, that I brewed for the both of us, I’d be a richer man today! As it is, I was to enjoy decades of tea drinking, and a steady stream of tea-themed poems, calendars, gifts, and Internet photos that we happily exchanged ever since you brewed that first pot for us in 1965.
Forty-something years later, after one of my trips to England (adventures which themselves were initially undertaken due to the idealization of All Things British that you infected me with back in high school), I discovered a brand of tea, Typhoo, that quickly became our tea of choice. (I just finished another cup this morning to commemorate my writing you this letter. What I can’t do now is serve you another cup of it ever again, or mail you a stash of Typhoo’s newest product, its “extra strong” flavor….)
Back during our earliest time together, you also let us tag along with you downtown to see plays by your favorite playwrights. Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Summer and Smoke were the ones we subsequently most often quoted among ourselves.
You introduced us four high-schoolers to suitably bohemian restaurants that existed in Atlanta the late 1960s, like The Maid’s Quarters and a Greek restaurant in The Castle, both located in Victorian-era houses in the decidedly non-suburban precincts of midtown.
But most important of all was the art and poetry and music you introduced us to in your living room. This was the education I’d been hungering for.
An artist and art-lover yourself, you introduced us to the paintings of (among so many others) Andrew Wyeth, to the paintings – and letters – of Vincent van Gogh, to the drawings of Kathie Kollwitz, to the mobiles of Alexander Calder. These artists’ work – and the travels I later undertook to see the original – have enriched my life immeasurably.
We listened repeatedly to – and eventually memorized the lyrics to – the recordings you owned of Broadway musicals – My Fair Lady and Camelot and others, along with our favorite: The Fantastiks. You also owned all of Barbra Streisand’s early albums, and we wore them out listening to them as well.
To this day I can still hear in “my mind’s ear” your reading aloud to us – in that distinctive, lovely voice of yours – J.D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme, with Love and Squalor,” Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” and those hilarious passages from Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being.
And the poetry! So much poetry! You read to us not only your own poems (we were of course in awe at your being a gifted poet as well as an artist), but you regaled us with readings from the works of your literary heroes and heroines: Carl Sandberg and e.e. cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson are the ones I most vividly remember. Fifty years later, I would still love those poets and their poems. And throughout our many years of friendship, I looked forward to reading each of your own latest poems, too. (I am going to continue to hope that your granddaughter Haley will one day collect and print all of your poems so those of us who knew you can enjoy reading them again.)
In addition to being the person who first exposed me to the provocative folk music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, to the glittering universe of Broadway plays and musicals (and to movies based on some of those plays – Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy ranking among the most-discussed and the most alluded to), you introduced me to classical music – a type of music which had never once been played in my family’s house. That part of my extracurricular education started with your revelatory playing of the heart-rending “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” from Khachaturian’s Spartacus – one of the first albums I made sure I bought a copy of for myself, along with all of Streisand’s, once I got into college.
It wasn’t long after we met that you solemnly presented me with a copy of one of your favorite novels: Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, which I immediately devoured. How different my life – especially my emotional life – would have been had you not given me that book when you did, nicknamed me “Eugene,” and indulged my complete identification over the next few years with that character’s story and his sensibilities. I still have the copy of Wolfe’s book that you gave me, and treasure your inscription in it.
Later would come your enthusiastic introductions to the works of a group of feminist writers whose work, so important to you, would also rock my world and color my perspective of how I viewed the world: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley – as well as another feminist writer whose life and works and circle of lifelong friends (and their works) I would (like you) become obsessed with for the rest of my life: Virginia Woolf.
Without your indulgence and encouragement, along with the patience and good humor of George Lee, your colleague from Lakeshore’s English department, those final two years of high school would’ve been excruciating. Because of the attention you and George (and George’s wife Betty) showed me in the refuges that your homes provided, and because of the stories you’d tell us about your own college years and about the lifelong friends you met there (Terry Kay and Rose and all the others), the four of us you’d taken under your wing became convinced that high school could be survived and that we could look forward to an intellectually and emotionally rich adventures in the universities we eventually trotted off to. And, lo, those very positive and earth-shaking college experiences did come to pass.
You were the gateway to so much that became so important, and so permanently important.
Along with the writers and artists and musicians you introduced me to, the experiences we had together that first autumn we knew each other is the reason autumn itself suddenly became each year’s most enthusiastically-anticipated, most-celebrated, most-remarked-upon, season. No autumn for the next 50 years arrived unheralded in our epistles to each other; no autumn since then (until your final one) dissolved into winter without our obligatory mutual expressions of delight about its having come around again, and about our regret about its passing.
Although I’ve been unable in the twelve months since you died to write about these and countless other memories, I have thought of you in various post-high school connections dozens – probably hundreds – of times since June 28, 2018. Little things, big things.
And there’ve been, as well, so many “post-Flanders ” things I’ve wanted to talk specifically with you about, but couldn’t. Aside from keeping each other abreast of what was going on in our personal lives (I’m so glad Randy got to meet you, and you him), we’ve not been able to commiserate about the little and big things we both cared about that have happened Out There In The Wide World. Such as when the first-class U.S. postage rate went up again. Or when a record number of women got elected to Congress in the most recent election cycle. Or when the poet Mary Oliver died. Or when Diana Athill, one of the few female writers I introduced you to, died. Or each time you or I learned that Mr. Trump or one of his creepy family members or one of his disgusting henchpeople or supporters had said or done yet something else particularly heinous, or when our benighted fellow citizens voted into office Georgia’s current governor.
Or, say, that day last spring, when I rushed over to the moving sale at Sam Flax Art Supply that I’d heard about. You weren’t with me – and would never shop with me again there, as you had before – but virtually everything I wanted to buy – or did buy – that day was something related to stationery or to letter-writing: materials and a longstanding and important activity I can no longer share with you. How I missed receiving from you my copy of last year’s installment of the annual Solstice newsletter you used to mail out, often illustrating it with one of your drawings.
The bigger predicament is, of course, that I no longer have you to write one or more letters (along with assorted emails) to every week, and that I won’t be getting any more letters from you ever again. (As you knew before you died, I’ve donated all your letters, and copies of many of mine to you, to the Women’s History Archives at Georgia State University. The archivist there was astonished that any two people had been writing each other for as long as we had, and realized what an interesting era, U.S. feminism-wise, you had come of age in and that you often referred to in your letters. I am hoping that others you wrote to so faithfully over so many decades – your daughter Susan, and the long-time friends who include RuthAnn, Joanne, Anne, Melissa, and Sarah – will also decide to preserve your letters to them by donating them to the collection of your letters already in GSU’s archive.)
In any case, besides being deprived since you died last summer of your companionship and our correspondence, I’ve not been able to forward to you any of the articles about Virginia Woolf (or about any of our other favorite writers) that I’ve read since then. You weren’t alive to comment on the list of books I read last year that I sent out to friends at the most recent Winter Solstice, and you weren’t on the planet to listen to a copy of the most recent Solstice music CD I compile every year and give to my friends who love music. When Netflix posted all of Streisand’s old television specials earlier this year, I couldn’t watch them with you. I’ve put away the presents I had been saving up to give you this past Christmas. I continue to stumble across things that I want to buy for your next birthday, or give to you for your annual Christmas-time stay at my house. I’ve long ago lost count of the number of essays and poems and images I’ve stumbled across on my daily Internet travels that I would have automatically forwarded to you if you were there to read or look at them.
So many places that I still frequent are closely associated with you, and always will be – and not only places in Atlanta. My first trips to Asheville were primarily pilgrimages, with you, to see the restored childhood home, and the grave, of Thomas Wolfe. Partly because of those early visits to Asheville with you, and my many subsequent ones without you, Asheville has long been the only other city in the South that I sometimes fantasize about moving to.
Here in Atlanta, where, like you, I’ve lived most of my life, I remember every apartment you lived in, including the Roanoke Apartments, where we both lived for several years, along with our friend Corky before he moved back to New York City, and whose friendship and letters from Manhattan – before his untimely death eight years ago – we both treasured.
Later on, you moved to an apartment in Buckhead, near the Atlanta History Center where you eventually worked as a librarian in its gardening library, and close to where Kay Harrison, the psychic we both went to for many years eventually moved to (and died in – remember her memorial service, when so many of us who visited Kay periodically came together and met each other?)
I also fondly remember your apartment near Emory, where you lived later on. (You hated it when the company that owns those apartments cut down the ancient trees on the property: something I remember every time I scooter or drive past there).
And finally (for me, anyway), I remember both apartments you lived after you moved to Dublin, Georgia, where you lived for so many years (twelve, maybe?) taking care of your mom who had moved to an assisted living facility there. I always hoped you’d eventually return to Atlanta after your mom died (at age 99), and we talked about that a lot, not realizing that your Atlanta days were over: instead, you lingered in Dublin until Susan insisted, after your recuperation from that awful traffic accident, that you move to Tennessee to live with (and be taken care of there by) her.
I’m often reminded of the huge influence you’ve had on certain patterns or activities that characterize the way I live. To take a single example: my extensive armory of stationery and stationery-related paraphernalia – the greeting cards, the stashes of colored paper and envelopes, the fountain pens, the sealing wax, the rubber stamps, the habit of using only commemorative postage stamps on my letters and cards, my taking up calligraphy as a lifelong hobby: these are all part of what I own or things I do because you gave me a love for each of these things.
These and countless other reminders and tokens of our long friendship will continue to spark more memories, and I am grateful for those reminders, and how many there are.
Thanks to your daughter’s sale of your paintings to raise money for a college scholarship in your name, my favorite painting of yours – the one hanging in your living room back in late 1960s when I first met you – is now hanging in my living room, and always will be.
Flanders, you are responsible, directly or indirectly, for so much else besides this painting that is here with me in my house – a house whose guest room Murphy Bed you slept in so many times over the years. Surely at least a third of the books in my personal library are books I first heard about from you. Especially the poetry there. And of course I treasure my copy of the book of poems and recipes that you co-authored, and the book you illustrated for me and our mutual friend Celeste (also, like you and me, a librarian).
Well, these random reminiscences have gone on long enough, and I think I’ll stop now and maybe make myself another cup of Typhoo before suppertime.
I am so glad to have met you, you wonderful woman, and to have known you and known you well, and enjoyed your company for most of my adult life. I know your family and your other friends miss you too. Sorely. We especially miss the lilt in your voice, your basic sweetness, your curiosity. your fierce feminism, and your gentle way of moving through the world.
With great affection. eternal gratitude, and a lifetime of precious memories,