For Flanders: The Last Letter

“…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

Dear Flanders,

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.

flander's guitar man painting

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,


Perry Treadwell, 1932-2018

Perry-Treadwell-pic-360x480Perry Treadwell was an extraordinary man who I met in the late 1970s as part of a men’s consciousness-raising group he had founded. Perry was a member of the local Quaker congregation whose weekly silent meditations I attend. He died his home in Decatur on June 25th.

Perry was one of several local Quakers who I considered a local hero for the social change projects he devoted his life to. In recent years, Perry’s wife Judith Greenburg had volunteered many hours at the Meetinghouse library, whose operation I have coordinated for several decades.

At Perry’s memorial service last month, those of us who had gathered at the Meetinghouse to share our memories of Perry heard two poems that Perry had written.

Here’s an excerpt of one of them:

Friendship takes energy,

And the courage to reach out.

If your life is too busy to reach out,


Remember that, in the end,

The only things to hold onto

And will hold onto you

Are friends.

Here’s the entirety of the second poem of Perry’s that we heard:

Center down to the depths of unthinking.

Find your inner calm.

See how the world moves

in its rhythms.


Feel the rhythm of the universe

To which all things belong

And to which they return.


If you don’t feel the rhythm

You remain confused in darkness.

Coming from and returning to the light,

You accept, trust.

Distance brings closeness.

Calm brings laughter.

Open your heart.

Be a Friend.

Being a Friend to your Self,

You can float through the

Ups and downs of life,

And prepare for death.

I will miss this thoughtful, sometimes cantankerous, and always generous man.

OK, Then: 70!

Birthday Cards 2018

“If I had known when I was twenty-one, that I should be as happy as I am now, I should have been sincerely shocked.”

Christopher Isherwood (Letter to Edward Upward, August 1974)

This year on July 4th, I turned 70.

Someone who’s lived that long should be able to be more articulate about what turning 70 feels like than I seem to be able to manage.

Like most of my recent birthdays, deciding to acknowledge another trip around the sun with a formal ritual involving other people seemed somewhat . . . optional. In terms, I mean, of trying to experience my birthday as personally significant, and this year’s in particular as some sort of watershed moment.

The main thing I can report about what it felt like to turn 70 is that it felt a lot like turning 60, or, for that matter, 50 or even 40. This is hardly something to complain about, but I still find it surprising, given the hoopla surrounding these decade-marking birthdays.  but I still find it surprising.

In terms of my physical health, which remains astoundingly good for an American my age, I have noticed that at 70 I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Mere two-hour stints of gardening (vs. the all-day marathons of yesteryear) now seem ideal, as do fewer consecutive hours of, say, shopping in the most fascinating of antique malls. And the prospect of any dawn-to-dusk traipsing around even the quaintest neighborhoods of overseas capital cities is decidedly a thing of the distant past.

The main way I cope with this slight diminishment in stamina is by taking daily naps – a luxury that even after five years of being retired I still enjoy.  Like my daily doses of hot tea every morning, my naps seem to help a lot with keeping me content and operating contentedly within the limits of my current energy level. I realize that this is mainly because I am not yet coping with any chronic illnesses or with the result of any debilitating accidents that beset many a retiree my age – and, for that matter, many Americans younger than me.

Still, I suppose I assumed, when I was younger (especially much younger) that I would feel at least wiser at 70 than I felt at 50 or 60. But no, that’s not the case, unless you count being especially vigilant about guarding the limits of my stamina counts as wisdom. I do feel that I’ve learned to take myself a little less seriously the older I’ve gotten, and have taught myself to be at least occasionally more flexible and a bit less judgmental than in previous decades.

One of the reasons for this noticeable if somewhat incremental and belated transformation has been educating myself over the past two years (along with another ten friends of mine) about the Enneagram. I’m still a novice at understanding the Enneagram’s implications and potential for me personally, but the little I have gleaned about that particular typology of personality styles has been helpful in guiding me to occasionally break the pattern of certain ingrained habits that for too long dictated some of my mental habits and reflexes.

Another powerful influence that’s been helpful in a few habits of thinking and behaving has been a more recent one: my almost ten-month-old significant relationship with Randy Taylor that began during the middle of a trip last year with several friends to Italy. Randy’s way of doing things (and of thinking about things) is often noticeably – and helpfully – different than mine. The fact that Randy and I have been spending so much time together in the runup to the 70th birthday, and the fact that I’ve been learning so much from him while I enjoying our time together, will likely make my 7th decade feel quite a bit different from my previous decades.

In any case, whatever subtle and/or gradual transformations may be happening with the way I habitually move through the world and try to frame – or re-frame – what happens in my world and what my options are for all manner of things – habits, relationships, hobbies, projects, householdery routines, travel-related plans – I haven’t turned 70 feeling significantly diminished in either my general well-being or in my level of curiosity and enthusiasm about whatever my post-70 years will bring me, or what I hope to bring to them.

Be that as it may, I did want to conjure up a way to celebrate this 70th birthday a bit differently than I’d celebrated most of the previous ones. Ever since I co-purchased with some friends a cabin in the north Georgia mountains almost 20 years ago, I’d spent most of my birthdays there. This year, I decided to invite several friends to join me here in Atlanta for a potluck picnic and the obligatory fireworks-watching. . As it happens, Randy and some of his friends had been celebrating July 4th at the pond in Avondale Estates, and our inviting some of our respective friends to meet each other there on my birthday seemed like a sufficiently convenient and low-key way to celebrate my 70th.

Cal and Randy July 4 2018Except for the blazing heat (we had to get there before sundown to nab a sufficiently spacious spot with a decent view), the humidity – and the ants –  the pond-side picnic in Avondale Estates was perfect.

In retrospect, I suspect that next year I will probably designate an air-conditioned environment for celebrating my birthday. I also need to refine my preference for people bringing only edible presents to asking that they bring only non-sweet edible presents! The wonderful cake, pie, and fudge that friends or siblings made for the 4th I am still serving all these weeks later! (Thank goodness I was born in an era after refrigeration was invented!) I certainly gained some extra poundage from that picnic and its aftermath that I wasn’t burdened with on July 3rd, and am planning to hoping to take care of that by eventually resuming more frequent and longer walks in the appealingly walkable neighborhood I am lucky enough to be living in.

During which walks I should have plenty of time to contemplate how my 70s resemble – and differ from – my 60s, not to mention frequent thoughts on how the astonishing fact that I’m alive still, and that, among other delights, I have such interesting and loyal friends, some of whom were able to join me in marking my 70th birthday, some of whom could not for various reasons, including the melancholy fact that some of my dear ones are no longer alive themselves.

I have a lot to be thankful for, having known all these people, and I continue to learn from all of them – the ones still living and the ones not living – about how to make my remaining years – as few or as many as they will be – as rich and interesting as we can make them.

Fireworks image

Farewell to Cloverhurst Drive


For several years, my four siblings and I had been trying to convince my 89-year-old mom that it was no longer safe for her to continue living in the house she’s lived in for the past 59 years – and, once we had grown up and gotten our own houses and after she and my dad divorced, where my mom has been living alone.

Marge’s children’s collective concern about her unwillingness to move into a more manageable, safer place intensified last year in the aftermath of mom’s suffering a third mild stroke.

Mom was understandably resistant to moving. When she and her husband bought their then-new house in the Atlanta suburb of East Point in the late 1950s, their move was a huge accomplishment for a young married couple with (then) four kids. Both Marge and Roy had come of age in Arkansas during the Great Depression, and had previously lived in rented houses. Mom continued to live in the house after she and Roy raised their kids (eventually five of them) and they had each eventually moved into their own houses. After paying off the twenty-five-year mortgage on the house and eventually divorcing her husband, it was from the house on Cloverhurst Drive that my stay-at-home mom bravely entered the workforce (she worked for years at the phone company) so she maintain her financial independence.

Decades laer, after heroically managing, alone, the upkeep of a large house with a big yard located in an increasingly crime-plagued neighborhood, mom finally agreed, earlier this summer, that it was time for a change.

Last month, mom moved in with my youngest sister Lori, who lives in north Georgia, and we put mom’s house on Cloverhurst Drive up for sale. Because of the heartbreakingly low market value of houses in mom’s neighborhood, the realtor – the stepdaughter of one of mom’s many church friends – received three offers on mom’s house with 48 hours. We took the third offer and closed on the house a month later.

We began cleaning out mom’s house before my recent two-week trip to Ireland. We being my three sisters – Gayle, Jan, and Lori – my nieces (Lori’s grown children) Shauna and Jessie, Jan’s partner Wyatt, and Shauna’s and Jessie’s respective boyfriends Jason and Michael, and me.

After I returned from my trip and after Lori had brought mom back to the house for a final sweep for things she would need at Lori’s house, we switched into house-emptying high gear. Fortunately, the guy who bought the house – and had been amazed at how well mom had maintained her house all these decades since the house was built – allowed us ten days after he’d become to new owner to finish cleaning out mom’s things.

Which, this past weekend, we finally finished doing!

Aside from emptying six rooms full of furniture – much of it, as well as the nearly-new washer and dryer, mercifully hauled away by my mom’s pastor or by the operator of the furniture bank where my mom worked as a volunteer for several years – we unearthed all manner of stuff while clearing out mom’s house:

  • Multiple closets stuffed with no-longer-fitting clothes, no-longer-worn shoes (including a pair of bowling shoes that mom probably hadn’t used for over thirty years), shelves full of frayed towels and no-longer-needed bed linens, an antique (and still working!) vacuum cleaner with a crumbling box full of clunky plastic attachments, and of course tons of empty wire and plastic clothes-hangers and umpteen zillion plastic bags (each bag carefully folded into a tiny little square!).
  • Dresser drawers full of no-longer-used scarves and multiple containers full of costume jewelry.
  • Miscellaneous detritus like a collection of scratched-up LPs from multiple music eras (everything from mom’s collections of Mario Lanza to Lori’s The Best of Bread).
  • Bins and boxes of hundreds of loose photos spanning three generations of Goughs and Gaddys.
  • Bookcases crammed with everything from old books (in mom’s case, an impressive array of tomes by Billy Graham and others of his religious persuasion), to back issues of Graphology Magazine (that my mom had for some reason decided to keep for the past thirty years after helping clear the house in Arkansas that her mom had lived in for many decades), to boxes of old checks, at least a half-dozen decks of playing cards, a dozen eyeglass cases, a bag of embroidery thread and cross-stitch patterns.
  • Dozens of framed original oil paintings (my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother, and one of my great-aunts were self-taught painters), multiple macramé wall hangings, and vase after vase of plastic flower arrangements.
  • A kitchen full of Corell dishware, untold numbers of dented aluminum pots and pans, and a refrigerator and cabinet full of food that had to be disposed of.
  • An attic chock-full of decaying strings of ancient Christmas tree lights, tree ornaments, and a half-dozen manger scenes; dozens of empty cardboard boxes and gift-wrapping supplies; two huge bags of plastic hair curlers; disintegrating boxes full of all manner of paraphernalia that had at some point figured in our family’s history: birth certificates, five kids’ worth of report cards from grade school, high school trophies and yearbooks, kiddie art projects long since removed from the refrigerator door, sixty years’ worth of saved-up letters and Mother’s Day cards.
  • A basement harboring (among other things) an old cast-iron bedstead that one of her children (moi) had stored there since the late 1970s, a lifetime’s worth of of no-longer-needed gardening tools, my grandmother’s gigantic oak office desk we’d moved from Arkansas (and that I’d painted purple during the years I’d used it in my own houses), etc.
  • Six rooms and sixty years worth of knickknacks.

(You get the picture.)

(Not that my own, much smaller house isn’t crammed full of even more Stuff than was in my mom’s house – and I can’t justify my own Accumulations with scarcity-based habits spawned by being raised during the Great Depression. One of the upshots of this recent house-emptying experience is that one of my New Year’s Resolutions is going to be removing at least one item from my own attic every week for the rest of my life. I’ve done the math: If I live to be the age my mom is now, my attic will be empty!)

At any rate, in addition to the challenge of coordinating multiple siblings’ schedules to assemble enough manpower to accomplish our task, we had to summon the resolve and energy to wade through, sort, and dispose of All Mom’s Stuff.

There were five major sorts:

  • Things mom might need or, for sentimental reasons, might want to keep with her at Lori’s house.
  • Things mom either no longer wanted, no longer needed, or that there is no room to store at Lori’s, but that one of her adult kids could use: household tools, a never-used roasting pan, the car mother can no longer safely drive, etc.
  • Things we could donate – either to specific individuals or to a thrift store.
  • Things that could be, should be, or must be taken to a dumpster.

For most people, including my mom, the process of moving from the place she’s lived for almost six decades – despite whatever benefits might result from such a move – is inevitably experienced as a diminishment. (I don’t do so well with change myself, and certainly wouldn’t want to move, especially if I were 89 years old, out of my own house – which I’ve lived in it for less than half of how long my mom has lived in hers.) Much to her children’s surprise, mom seems to be coping pretty well with this major and much-dreaded upheaval in her living circumstances.

For those doing the house-emptying – especially when those people are the offspring of the house’s owner – the process was not only time- and labor-intensive but strewn with nostalgic flashbacks and wince-inducing discoveries. Certain objects suddenly morphed into psychological land-mines, and some of our excavations rekindled long-forgotten memories. To pick only one among dozens of examples, until I ran across of a clutch of letters my dad wrote to my mom from Chicago, I’d forgotten he had, long before their divorce, temporarily moved there to work for a while.

If, like me,  you are a former librarian and an archive-minded sentimentalist, emptying the house where one’s mother has lived for almost six decades included several satisfying rescues of ancient artefacts, like rediscovering in an old shoebox the letters I wrote home during my college years, and the letters my mom had written to her mother when my grandmother was still alive.

The emptying of the house on Cloverhurst Drive was particularly fraught for my youngest sister, Lori, as it was the only house she’d ever lived in as a child and as a teenager; the rest of us have memories of living in other houses before we moved to the one in East Point.

For me, the most difficult thing to leave behind was not anything inside mother’s house but saying goodbye to her yard. The house sits on a corner lot with a big side yard – the site of countless softball, dodge-ball, badminton, and volleyall games. The side yard also contains several trees climbed by each of Marge Gough’s children and grandchildren. As for the front and back yards: some of the two-dozen pine trees surrounding mom’s house were once small enough for us kids to jump over the tops of; they are now towering over the house on Cloverhurst Drive. Underneath those pine trees (whose roots had eventually wrecked my mom’s asphalt driveway), my mother had planted scores of azaleas (including a half-dozen native varieties) that she had nurtured over the decades into huge plants.

When we had finally packed up the last box – every one of our vehicles stuffed to the gills with bags and boxes destined for “the Goodwill” or for the dumpster – we stood on mom’s carport and drank a toast to all the pleasant (and all the not-so-pleasant) memories of Cloverhurst Drive. I had no problem then ritually removing the American flag that mom had long displayed in honor of her relatives (including two brothers and several uncles) who had served in the military, but I couldn’t bring myself to dismantle the bird-feeder in mom’s yard. I just wanted to leave behind something that visibly marked my mom’s long residence on that street.

Our periodic gatherings during the past fifty years at the house on Cloverhurst Drive for birthdays and holidays – including gatherings that at various points included the respective spouses or former spouses or partners of mom’s grown kids – became less frequent after Mike and his wife Inice and their recently married daughter Erin moved to Oregon over twenty years ago, and after Gayle and Lori eventually moved out of the Atlanta area into different towns in north Georgia. Since then, we’ve been celebrating fewer birthdays together on Cloverhurst Drive and for several years now the holiday family gatherings (with or without Mike and Inice and Erin) have been happening at Gayle’s (for Thanksgiving) and at Lori’s (for Christmas).

Of the group photos of all five of Marge’s kids that I have on hand, most of them were taken at the house – or, more often, in the yard – on Cloverhurst Drive.




During an early phase of the house-emptying process, Lori took a few photos of Mom’s final visit to her house on Cloverhurst:



And here’s mom at her new abode, making friends with Lexie, Lori’s dog and Marge’s companion during the day while Lori is working:


We’re all hoping Marge is feeling less stressed out in her new living quarters, that she will come to enjoy some of the benefits of no longer being responsible for the upkeep of a large and maintenance-intensive property, will eventually meet some new friends at a church close to where she now lives in north Georgia, and will get to see her grown children and growing grandchildren more often than when Marge lived in East Point. Meanwhile, Marge’s kids are definitely feeling relieved that their elderly mother is now situated in a safer, if less familiar, environment.



A Wedding in Oregon

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Early this month, my sister Gayle and I traveled to Oregon for the wedding of our niece Erin, the now-all-grown-up daughter of our younger brother Michael and his wife Inice.

Rather than farming it out to an event coordinator, Erin planned her own wedding, and she did a great job. Hers was one of the simplest and most interesting – and therefore thoroughly enjoyable – weddings that I’ve ever attended. The ceremony was held on the deck Mike built behind the house he built for his family near Bend, located in Oregon’s high desert east of the Cascades.

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Typical terrain surrounding Michael and Inice’s home near Sisters, Oregon.


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One of the mountains Michael and Inice can see from their front porch swing – or from their upstairs balcony, or from the hot tub in their side yard.


Gayle and I arrived a couple of days before the ceremony, hoping we might be able to help with some of the preparations. Although the wedding and reception were informal affairs and took place outdoors, the run-up to the ceremony was a madhouse of overlapping last-minute activity.

For example, Mike had to clear part of his property so it could serve as a parking lot for the dozens of visitors who drove their cars to the wedding from out of state: Erin and her husband, Evan’s family, and many of Erin’s and Evan’s friends live near San Diego. Mike’s grass had to be cut, all the outdoor furniture on Mike and Inice’s deck had to be temporarily relocated to the yard behind the nearby resort where the rehearsal breakfast and wedding reception took place. And of cours all manner of foods and beverages were constantly being purchased and unloaded at various locations from multiple vehicles.

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Rear view of the resort near Michael and Inice’s house where the rehearsal brunch and the reception were held.


The deck in Mike’s and Inice’s back yard, once cleared of its furnishings, had to be decorated with garlands of flowers, space had to be cleared for a videographer and his equipment, the resort had to be stocked not only with copious amounts of food and beverages, but also with linens for the numerous people staying overnight there. A hundred things were borrowed or purchased to set up for the large night-time reception extravaganza: lights were strung up on multiple poles that had to be properly assembled and anchored, tables and chairs were planted around the property, a large stage was hauled in for the live band, vans were rented to chauffeur people from the wedding to the reception and then back to their cars after the reception, dozens of chairs had to be rented and set up, etc. etc.

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The pond Michael dug in his back yard, next to the deck where the wedding ceremony took place. Beyond the pond (and the waterfall to the left), the two yurts.


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One of the two gates Michael built in his back yard (that surrounds the pond he built), this one not too far from the platform where the wedding ceremony took place.


Fortunately, my brother and his wife were hardly dependent on Cal and Gayle for helping them with the staggering number of wedding prep chores. Mike and Inice have lots of friends and neighbors, and all of them seem to be extremely generous with their time and energies. (A single example: Mike’s and Inice’s friend Stephanie drove to the airport to fetch Gayle and me when we arrived, and drove us back to the airport after our visit, freeing up Mike and Inice to attend to their dozens of other chores and errands.) Roger Gatlin, a longtime friend of Mike’s from his Atlanta days, flew in the day before Gayle and I did to help Mike, and Roger stayed a day longer than Gayle and I did to help Mike break down part of the equipment that he’d helped Mike set up before The Big Day.


Erin in front of mirror

Erin and her bridesmaids getting ready for their entrance to the wedding.


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Evan and his groomsmen, who included Evan’s older brother Gabriel.


Erin’s numerous bridesmaidsand and Evan’s equally numerous groomsmen were completely adorable, and completely – almost alarmingly – young (most of them in their mid-twenties). Their affection for Erin and Evan was obvious, and they all seemed to regard the wedding as a weekend-long party, which is exactly what it was intended to be.

Officiating at the ceremony was Evan’s grandfather, Randall Mann. If I ever get married again, I would want Randall to do the marrying, and to use the same beautiful sentiments he expressed at Evan’s and Erin’s nuptials. I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Randall, and he seems every bit as gentle and wise as his grandson. After Randall’s initial remarks, Evan’s step-dad Michael Seskin read a poem that Evan had asked him to write for the occasion.

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Erin and Evan then read to each other the vows each of them had written – vows that were clearly heartfelt in both cases and so romantic and thoughtful that they brought tears to many an onlooker’s eye, including both of mine. And I was so relieved to realize they were reading their vows from pieces of paper they’d written them on, rather than from their cell phones!

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The newlyweds Evan and Erin, flanked by Erin’s parents, Michael and Inice.


It was fun to be exposed to such a lively crowd whose high spirits were in evidence throughout the weekend rather than merely at the night-time reception party. (And, yes, dear Reader, Cal did manage to momentarily stir himself from his observational perch to do a bit of dancing; he even joined the conga line that formed spontaneously  mid-way through the evening.)

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A snapshot of the reception festivities. Instead of a wedding cake, the guests roasted Smores over a fire pit in front of the live band.


For me, the most impressive wedding prep achievement miracle of them all was Mike and Inice;’s orchestration of figuring out places for so many overnighters to sleep! They put some guests in bedrooms at the huge and spacious resort, bedded down others at a neighbor’s house, set up their camper to house one of the visiting guest couples, and I think I heard that some people stayed in tents somewhere. Gayle and I were provided mattresses in the smaller of two yurts in Mike and Inice’s back yard, that yurt generously loaned out by Mike and Inice’s friends Hank and Kim, who for several years now have been renting both yurts.

Gayle and I didn’t see much of Erin or Evan, but we did get to meet and visit a bit with Evan’s mom and step-dad. Another highlight of our visit were the moving remarks about Erin and Evan made by Evan’s mom, Evan’s biological father, and by the bride’s parents during the pre-champagne toasts at the reception.

Beyond the pleasure of representing Mike’s family at the wedding, it was wonderful for Gayle and me to spend several days in Mike and Inice’s part of the world – a world that is so different, climate-wise and scenery-wise, from Georgia – especially Georgia in August! (The temperature dropped down into the 40s on our final night.) Mike and Inice moved to Oregon decades ago, when Erin was still a child; although Gayle and I had each separately visited Mike and Inice in Oregon before, and although they visit Atlanta periodically (Mike was able to spent a whole month with me a couple of years ago when he built me my garden house), we don’t get to visit with them often. So it was gratifying to share with Mike and Inice something so important in their lives. Merely hanging out in their beautiful environment was enjoyable and refreshing all by itself. Mike and Inice have created a wonderful home and circle of friends, and it was great to immerse ourselves, however briefly, in their world – so different in so many respects from the worlds Gayle and I inhabit – and under such happy circumstances.

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Gayle, Inice, Mike, Cal


Our mom’s health prevented her making the trip out to Oregon with us, so Michael arranged to live-stream the ceremony on the Internet, hoping our mom would find a way to watch it back in Georgia. She didn’t manage to get to see the wedding as it was happening, so I am posting here a link to the YouTube video version of the ceremony so my mom – Erin’s grandma – can watch it someday soon.

Gayle and I had a great visit, and we have every reason to believe that Erin and Evan (who, decided to honeymoon in Iceland) stand a very good chance of continuing to make each other very happy.

Note: I took about half these photos, Roger Gatlin took the photo of the Goughs, and the other photos were posted to Facebook by Karen Byrne, Evan’s mom.

Two December Deaths

Trying to describe the significance of people when they die is, for me, a very humbling as well as a sad experience. It shows me how pathetically limited my vocabulary is, how inarticulate and unreflected-upon, how taken-for-granted is my affection for the people who helped form me – and, by extension, how difficult it is to try to pin down with words the feelings one has for any of one’s important relationships.

Two such people in my life died during the same week last month. They were profoundly important to me in very different ways.


Sandy Roberts

Sandy, one of my numerous Arkansas cousins, was one of my earliest playmates. She and her sister Debbie lived with us for a time during my earliest years in Atlanta, and my family regularly visited with hers whenever we returned to Arkansas for the almost annual family reunions of my childhood.

The space in one’s psyche that one’s cousins occupy is an odd and unique part of one’s experience of one’s past and personhood. The oddness is amplified when cousins move far away from each other and see each other only sporadically, as the bonds formed between them in earlier years continue to be strong despite the great distances between them.

Sandy always seemed different from my many other cousins, but in a way that I find difficult to describe. Also, my memories of Sandy are very selective  – I mostly missed out on the adult she became and the children (now adults with their own kids) who she raised after she got married (and, later, got divorced).

Still, Sandy’s specialness for me remained, and I made sure I got to see her whenever I traveled to Arkansas in later years  – usually for some family funeral, such as the one a few years ago for Sandy’s sister Debbie.

I will always cherish this person, will always be glad she and I got to spend so much time together as kids, and am fairly certain that Sandy’s grown kids and grandkids – as well as her siblings and her mom and stepdad – also knew about and remember the same specialness of Sandy that I find so impossible to describe.

Sandy Roberts: August 24, 1954 – December 17, 2015


Joe Hendricks

Joe Hendricks was Dean of Students when I began attending Mercer University in 1966, and had been at Mercer many years before I got there and remained there long after I’d left.

To say that Joe was a role model and mentor for many hundreds of Merecer students would be an understatement, and I have always been astonished at how he somehow found the energy to befriend and shepherd so many people while holding down his full-time job as Dean (and faculty member) and raising a family at the same time.

Joe’s integrity,  intelligence, wisdom, generosity, and appetite for having fun was magnetic and contageous.  I never met anyone who attended Mercer who didn’t adore and respect him, or knew any fellow student who I hadn’t seen Joe being kind or helpful to.

As he had for many other former students before and after us, Joe officiated at my wedding, which he and his sister Jean Hendricks (who taught psychology at Mercer) generously allowed us to conduct at their cabin in the woods west of Macon one February weekend in 1969.

Although I have many memories involving Joe, I distinctly remember him telling me once, when I was wondering aloud whether I should stay on at Mercer after graduating and taking some sort of job at the University, that I must not do that; that both my wife Peg and I needed to “fly away from the comfortable nest of Mercer” and get out into the larger world. Joe was right, of course, although his advice seemed alarming at the time. Once you have a Joe Hendricks in your daily round, it’s difficult to contemplate permanently giving up his frequent company.

Although we take for granted most of the time that other people have had a major role in forming our own values and abiding priorities, most of us could probably identify the handful of people in our lives who we have most admired or have been most deeply influenced by. Joe Hendricks was one of those people for me, and for countless others.

Joe was no saint, but witnessing him living such a useful life while having so much fun in the process of being so helpful and inspiring to others has been a great teaching and a great blessing. I was lucky, lucky, lucky to know him when I did and, along with a host of equally lucky others,  to have been with Joe part of what Vonnegut calls the same karass.

Joe’s memorial service is scheduled for January 23rd at Mercer’s Willingham Chapel. His obituary is here.

Joe Hendricks: September 10, 1934 – December 19, 2015

Postscript: The YouTube video of Joe’s two-hour-long memorial service:

Corky, Interrupted

Today, January 28th, would have been my friend Corky’s 65th birthday.

“Would have been,” because Corky died suddenly last year.

A few days after learning of Corky’s death last February, I wrote down some of my thoughts about him and our thirty-five-year-long friendship. Still too stunned to decide whether or not I wanted to post such private thoughts here, I decided to wait awhile before doing so (or deciding not to).

As Corky’s birthday approached again this year, I decided I would register the fact that I still mourn his loss by posting here some of those now-year-old thoughts:

A few days ago, I learned that a friend of mine had been found dead in his apartment in New York City. Known to his friends and colleagues there as George, Corky was a trauma nurse at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s Hospital. When he unexpectedly didn’t show up for work, a colleague phoned his neighbors, and they phoned the police, who found Corky’s body. From what the police told Corky’s neighbors, he apparently died after falling in the middle of the night and hitting his head or he died from “natural causes.” The following day, Corky’s colleague at work relayed the awful news to me (thank goodness for Facebook).

Apart from his career as a nurse (preceded by a ten-year stint as an English teacher), Corky was a playwright and a Constant Scribbler. Writing It Down was Corky’s way of coping with everything. I’m hoping that recording a few reactions of my own about Corky’s death will be as fitting a tribute to our long and mutually-treasured friendship as I’m likely to achieve.

My recollections these past few days are mostly happy ones. A favorite recent memory: a rainy morning a couple of years ago when Corky showed me around his neighborhood, introducing me to the guy who runs the store where he bought his groceries, walking on to the place where Corky bought his tea, then stopping in at his favorite flower shop – all the rounds of his weekly routine. That little tour was followed that afternoon (which had turned sunny and warm) by Corky’s squiring me around to each of his favorite spots in Central Park, a place he adored and visited often.

Aside from recollections of other happy mornings, afternoons, and evenings we shared, I am also acutely aware of (and profoundly grateful) for the steadfast support Corky (among others) provided me during a difficult period a few years ago when I was coping with the breakup of my longest intimate relationship. We spent quite a bit of time on the phone that particular post-breakup year.

Corky was raised in the medium-sized town of Rome, Georgia. When I met him in the mid-1970s, he’d been living for several years in Nashville, Tennessee, where he went to college and was an activist for the gay rights movement in that city. He eventually migrated toNew York City. He lived there in a series of miniscule apartments, working (always in the trauma units) in a series of Manhattan hospitals. After almost three decades of living in New York City, Corky never seemed to lose his excitement of having settled there. Apart from a couple of years when he moved to Atlanta after a devastating breakup of a relationship, he never considered moving elsewhere. During Corky’s hiatus from New York, he lived in the same apartment building in Atlanta as I did at that time, where he met and entered the affections of several other friends who also lived there then.

Those few years I knew Corky as a neighbor as well as a friend were special ones for both of us, but I also enjoyed visiting him in Manhattan once he moved back there. Corky was not only a knowledgeable and enthusiastic show-arounder (he loved the history and especially the architecture of the city), but also an extraordinarily thoughtful host. Our visits always seemed too short, despite all the adventures we managed to cram into each of them.

After years of my futilely pleading for Corky to return south for another visit here, Corky finally agreed to do that a few months before he died. After initially stipulating that his visit take place in the absolute coldest weather the south had to offer (Corky loved the winter even more than the fall), Corky ended up rescheduling that visit for March 2011 due to some unexpected and serious-sounding health problem – a problem he was characteristically vague about. (The fact that we were both so excited about his upcoming visit to Atlanta, and a few other clues gleaned from his friends in New York in our phone conversations after he died, make me believe Corky’s death was, in fact, accidental, or a result of a health crisis.)

Corky was a quirky guy, and seemed oblivious of how exasperating he could sometimes be to his friends. He was generous to a fault: he invariably gave cab drivers extravagant tips; one of his Christmas parcels (mailed out sometime in July) contained not one or two but two dozen exquisitely and differently-wrapped presents, each with its own Christmas card; he would rent limousines to ease his out-of-town visitors into Manhattan from the airport – and then treat them to expensive Broadway shows. Conscientious at work and extremely self-reliant, Corky could also be maddenly secretive and evasive. He could be stubborn and slippery when his psychological comfort level seemed threatened by even well-meaning and devoted friends. He held implacable grudges against those he (rightly or otherwise) felt betrayed by. A sensitive soul who delighted in gossip, his sense of humor was one of the most endearing features of his personality. Corky was also an enthusiastic, adventuresome cook (and sometimes mailed his long-distance friends samples of his home-made delicacies). Complicated but loveable, Corky was someone who simultaneously attracted and resisted the affection of others.

One of my strongest reactions to the news of Corky’s death is the same reaction that kept bursting forth repeatedly after the sudden death of another friend some twenty years ago: the realization – followed by temporarily forgetting, then remembering yet again – that Corky’s opportunities for experiencing the marvels and pleasures of this world have ended so prematurely and irrevocably. Corky won’t be around to see the return of spring this year – or to notice and enjoy anything else, this year or any other year. Abruptly halted now is Corky’s long and winding journey (the one we’re all on) to garner a little more clarity about what his particular journey is all about. There will be no more delightful or earnest conversations or letters or emails or phone calls about the particular things we two loved to discuss. (For example, our mutual abiding intense interest in All Things Theatre was something I shared among my circle of friends almost exclusively with Corky, and we won’t be able to share that interest any longer.)

My monkey-mind has scampered down a lot of dark tunnels this week as I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the fact of Corky’s sudden erasure from the world:

  • I’ve been struck with the heartbreaking brevity of the life of every human individual, shocked at the  sheer fragility of human consciousness, and by the surprising vibrancy, uniqueness, and persistence of personality – and how outside of our awareness these facts are to most of us most of the time.
  • I’m reminded of the absolute centrality of friendships (especially among those of us with no children) to our own feelings of well-being (when we’re lucky enough to notice and enjoy such feelings).
  • I’ve noticed the tragic mistake most of us make, over and over, in assuming there will be plenty of time to sort through with each of our dear ones any unfinished business or to clear away any remaining obstacles to intimacy within those friendships.
  • I’ve been troubled by the ancient fear of dying alone like Corky did (and countless millions of others have), with no opportunity to tell the people who you’ve loved how important that love has been, and certainly with no time to arrange for the safekeeping of whatever personal papers you might like to leave behind for others to possibly benefit by, to be consoled by, or to merely to serve as souvenirs of a life that someone lived – for however long or briefly that living lasted. 
  • It’s been disorienting, trying to accept someone’s irreversible and total extinction when, a week before, you were chuckling over that person’s latest phone message left on your answering machine, blithely (and wrongly) assuming there would be dozens more like it every year…indefinitely. It’s almost impossible to believe that someone so vivid in my imagination and important to my own journey has been totally eradicated except in a few people’s memories.
  • Corky’s death has triggered memories of previous losses and diminishments of this magnitude, and has produced the uneasiness that anticipating further inevitable losses brings to mind. 
  • Ambivent agnostic that I’ve become, I find it impossible to conceive where or how Corky “is” now, impossible to make sense of any personality evaporating so completely and suddenly and eternally into nothingness. And I’m feeling unequipped to imagine what an alternative to such nothingness might be.

Although I’m still angry and sad about the utter deletion of Corky’s unique contributions to the lives of his friends, and sharply missing, already, the commentaries on the zanynesses and glories of this world that Corky will no longer be making, I realize that I am a better and happier person for having known this man. But I suspect that I will feel the loss of him ever more deeply – rather than less deeply – as time goes on.

Last November, I traveled to New York again for the first time since Corky’s death. The local friend and co-worker who had alerted me to Corky’s death (and who I’d been in periodical touch with since) met me there, and on a perfect-weather afternoon, the gingko trees all over town ablaze, we spread Corky’s ashes in several of his favorite places in his beloved Central Park. Afterwards we walked to supper and exchanged a few more stories about our friend (“George” to her, “Corky” to me). Then she took the train back to New Jersey and I boarded my plane back to Atlanta.

Corky’s birthday having rolled around again today, I still miss my friend. He died too soon.