Let me tell you about my friend Susan.
Although, honestly, I should first tell you that my plan today was to share a bit about Bill and Joel (no, I didn’t mean Billy Joel; don’t be daft). I have that piece all written and ready for finishing touches, and it was in the hopper for today. But then a friend who lives in the U.K. and whom I haven’t seen since not terribly long after Princess Diana lost her virginity, sent me a lovely note through the magic of Facebook. And then, also… oh, mon dieu, you know about also. Mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu.
Anyway, I decided that it seemed more important to tell you about Susan, thanks to a prompt from my friend, than about anyone or anything else. By the end you may disagree; but, again, as my mother always said, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla. Also, you’re free to wander off any time, mid-stream, and move on to other things, pas de problème. But do consider the possibility that some distraction is in order. The psychologists say, and I believe them, that the only way human brains can process impossibly enormous things is to let those big problems bubble along behind the scenes while the active brain thinks about something entirely else. So….
Susan was my parents’ friend; at least that’s how it started. I believe she was one of my father’s friends from childhood, although I’m a tad fuzzy on the details because I neglected to question my elders when they were alive, and now I’m left trying to figure out the things they would have been more than glad to tell me, if I had had enough sense to ask.
(This, as an aside, is why you should participate in #TheGreatListen 2015, really you should. If you don’t know where to start or what questions to ask, just ask the first question that comes to mind. Or maybe something like when did you learn to tie your shoes, or what do you wish you’d known when you were 13, or any damn thing. Just do it; you’ll miss those people when they’re gone; really, you will.)
The part that I am quite certain of is that Susan was married to John, who was Daddy’s life-long friend and schoolmate and duck hunting buddy. So they were all friends, because that’s how things work. They were close enough friends that Susan and John asked Daddy to be godfather for their first child, an honor that might have been reciprocated years later when I was born, only we were Presbyterians and didn’t do such things, at least not back then.
Over time Susan became a friend, a very good one, to my mother. They shared a love for interior design and flower arranging and modernism and art. Also, Susan and my mother were about the same size, and since Susan loved clothes and shopping and was always re-doing her wardrobe, she often invited my mother over for a quick sort through what were, I suppose, hand-me-downs, which probably sounds very strange but really wasn’t strange at all.
All of which is to say that Susan, with her intense directness and smooth Delta drawl, her Orvis shirts and St. John knits, her well-coiffed hair, was a fixture in my family for a long time. Yes, I know, all fine and dandy, you say, but who cares. I’m getting there.
When I was nearing the end of high school and Susan, whose children were grown, was the age I am now, she enrolled in the Art Academy (which, yes, I do know, is now called the Memphis College of Art). Her field of study was photography. Partly because she was in the Garden Club and Ikebana, but mostly because she was a Southern lady, the probability was that Susan’s photography would revolve around beautiful flowers and artistic arrangements. Instead, her work was dark and strange and a little sad, and not everyone in her social circle knew what to make of it. This, in the end, set the basis for our friendship, Susan’s and mine, the one we built on our own.
I could tell you a hundred big things about Susan, about how we critiqued each other’s porfolios, how we both liked Duane Michaels’s work but weren’t quite sure what to make of Robert Mapplethorpe, how we talked about Guernica in the context of Monet’s Water Lilies, how we thought Julian Barnes was overrated and that the saddest, most beautiful film ever made was Au revoir, les enfants. I could tell you that she gave me her twin-lens Yashica camera simply because she could and wanted to. I could tell you that Susan was one of the few adults who never treated me as a child, even when I was one, or that she was the only adult to talk to me, privately, about my father’s drinking.
But the thing I want to tell you is small and seemingly insignificant. I want to tell you that Susan was the first person, other than my mother, to frame and display a piece of artwork I had given to her.
One Christmas when I was in Memphis for a visit, Susan invited me over, said she had something for me to see. On the wall of her private office was a series of small cards I’d made and sent to her during the years when I routinely made 150-or-so pieces of small, personal artwork every Valentine’s Day and Easter and Christmas and sent them, each with a little note, to 150-or-so close friends.
Susan had saved a sampling of her favorite cards and had assembled them in one large, handsome frame. At the time, I thought of it as nothing more than a family courtesy. Susan was always re-decorating her house, always doing something new. So I was fairly certain it would soon be replaced by something better, finer, more relevant. And then I didn’t think about it for many years, 10 or 15, because for many years we scarcely saw one another. Life is busy, for everyone; it is often hard to keep up.
A couple of years after my mother died I had a big Christmas tree-trimming cocktail party, and I invited Susan, whom I’d run into at the bookstore and who said she’d really love, love to see the house. And although I was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to love, love the reality she would see, I invited her to come anyway because I had missed her and also I missed my mother, and having Susan there would be a little like having my mother around, only with the addition of a tiny bit of cussing, in the best way.
She came early, saying she would be glad to help me with finishing touches and also that she couldn’t stay long. I wasn’t really prepared for early arrivals, so I poured her a glass of wine and said I’d be right back, just had to run up for a minute (I wasn’t completely dressed), and please to make herself at home.
When I came back downstairs, Susan was standing in my living room wearing an expression of utter astonishment. “This is my photograph,” she said. Yes, I said, surprised that she didn’t know I had it. And I added that I loved those women on the porch, that it had always been one of my very favorites of her work and how much I enjoyed looking at it every day, that having it there was like having her with me, always, even though I did a completely terrible, awful job of staying in touch and making time to see her. “Well,” she said slowly, after a pause, “I am very touched.” And then she went on to add that she still had my cards, that she still loved them just as much as when she’d first received them and that she enjoyed seeing them every day, too, because it was like I was always with her, too.
More years passed. Despite promises and best intentions, I continued to do a completely terrible job of staying in touch with Susan until one day about 18 months ago when I woke up and decided that it was important to call her. And, of course, she said how fun and yes, she’d love to have lunch. She wanted to hear all about my work and my family and my house and if I was finding time to do any art. So we met at a quiet restaurant and did our best to stick to the most important things, the things we were hungry to discuss, to know, each of us, about the other.
When I finally got around to talking about my writing, about starting a blog that was supposed to be for photography but ended up being something else, Susan studied me for a minute and finally said, with deep curiosity but without a trace of judgment, “now why in the world would anyone do that?” It caught me off guard, and I don’t remember exactly what I said, only that it was a bit incoherent and I ended by telling her that I’d send her a link or two so she could see for herself.
I saw Susan only twice more, once at Target, and then again for lunch, this time at her house, joined by one of her daughters. We talked about art and books and our families, and this time it was Susan who brought up the blog, which she read from time to time and still didn’t completely understand but was glad that I was still writing. And I told her that the most extraordinary part was writing about personal things, things I often thought happened only to me, only to have them met with the great chorus of “me too,” albeit sometimes a chorus of one. And she fixed me with her inimitable stare and said simply, “How. Wonderful.” in that uncanny way she had of making me feel like I was the only person in the entire world who mattered to her. It was an exceptional gift.
A few weeks later persistent hip pain would send Susan to the doctor, who would give her news of advanced metastatic cancer and recommend immediate hospice care. And there she would linger for a short while, less than two weeks, before moving from the world we know to the one we do not.
Susan died five days after my 50th birthday. Her funeral was small, short and lovely. The flowers were magnificent. She would have adored them.
I think of Susan often, of course, because I see her photograph every day. I recently bought a companion piece for it, one I think she would have liked because it is strange and funky and just the tiniest bit melancholy. I think about her often, and I’ve wanted to write something about her but wasn’t exactly sure where to start or what to say.
Then yesterday, through the monsoon of news from France, I got a message from a long-lost friend, one whom, as I mentioned, I haven’t seen since we were seniors in high school, around the time jelly shoes made their original appearance.
“Is it bad to say you made me feel so much better?” she wrote, referring to a funny, although embarrassing, confession I posted recently about cooking dinner.
I laughed out loud, because, even after all these years, I could see her smirk, hear her voice, her wry sense of humor, as if she were right here, as if not a minute had passed. And I thought about Susan and how this was the answer to her question, that this is why in the world anyone would choose to do this. Because the chorus of “me too” is like thickest, warmest blanket. Because it takes exactly one other person, only one, to keep any of us from feeling alone. And because nothing that matters disappears, ever.