Death Doesn’t Give Do-Overs

A Cynthia Gift
Amber: old fire old rage old death

Any life that’s well lived has many treasures. I’m no different. There’s the painting a Spanish artist gave me when I lived in New York; a bowl my aunt gave me that belonged to my grandmother; carnival glass plates my mother left me; a necklace with a heart my husband bought for his mother when he was twelve and she passed on to me; Cliff’s treasured Wyeth print we framed and hung . Nearly everything has a story, and because of the story, a treasure. But I want to write about is this necklace. I chose it because I recently wore it for a birthday celebration dress up, and when I wear it, I always think of my friend Cynthia Alexander, who found the antique amber necklace and gave it as a birthday present because it looked like me, she said, and who died too young, almost ten years ago, and because I’ve wanted to write about her for a long time but never found the pattern or the vehicle or the voice to do so except in a poem. I don’t even remember which birthday it was, but I remember her.

We met on the night of George McGovern’s ignominious defeat by Richard Nixon. We both worked on the campaign and saw each other in passing, but that night as the map grew red red red, except for one, small, blue Massachusetts blot, we decided to leave campaign headquarters and walk the dark and silent streets of Temple, Texas. And we talked — music and books and movies and life and dreams and travel. They’d moved back to Texas from upstate New York’s cold, bleak winters. “I hate cold,” she said. We talked into the night. I probably wore out first. I usually did. We didn’t go back to the headquarters, but by the time our walk ended, we’d become two young women in their late 20s who were best friends.

Cynthia and her then husband, Peter, had an apartment in town, a second floor apartment at the front of a house with gauzy white curtains at the windows. I was often there in the afternoons, either after finishing with classes or after work at the art therapy building out back of Scott & White Hospital. Year? Early 70s. We joined a consciousness raising group together and began working on women’s issues together. Understand that this is forty plus years ago and my memories spotty.

I do, however, clearly remember one afternoon when Cynthia was curled in an old, green, over-stuffed chair in front of the window, sunlight streaming across her shoulders and gauze curtains fluttering around her head. A picture branded in my less than stellar memory. She’s there, in front of me, and I want to reach out, wrap my arms around her. We’d had a gathering of women for some reason, I know they were present although I can’t see them in my memory. I only see Cynthia when she oh, so casually mentioned she was African-American. She’d been telling a story about a time in New York when she’d walked into a bar to meet Peter. The men with him had looked at her and one said, “See you got yourself a high-yella,” high-yellow a slurring term for light-skinned African-Americans, women especially. Her neck grew long as she lifted her shoulders from the chair and tossed back the luxurious, dark wavy hair I so envied.

The other women were as shocked as I. Nothing more said, but on the drive home, my mind roiled in turmoil. My best friend was a Black woman? I’d followed the Civil Rights Movement. With two young children, all I could do was stand at the side and cheer, but I’d known African-Americans in the unit where my husband was a soldier. How could I have missed the wider nose, the wide, luscious mouth, perfect white teeth, exotic eyes? I only thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known. Could we still be friends? Would she want to be my friend? I stewed. A few days passed. Gathering my courage for “the talk” I went back to visit.

“I need to ask you something. Does this change anything? Can we still be friends?” She laughed. We could and we were.

Now, instead of watching the Civil Rights struggle from a distance, I was up close and personal. She’d grown up in Austin, Texas, her father an attorney in state politics, her mother in real estate in Los Angeles, her grandparents in a big 1950s house that rambled into a backyard with fig trees. She told of an early shock while riding on a bus to Houston with her aunt and being directed to a “colored only” drinking fountain. And with her wearing her best, shiny, black patent leather shoes and fancy white socks! Her neck grew long on that story too.

∼          ∼          ∼          ∼          ∼

She and Peter moved to an A-frame set on the lake outside of town. Peter needed a quiet place to write away from town. I’d load the kids into my old station wagon with a “hole in the back floorboard big enough to stick your foot through,” my sons remind me. The hole? Yeah, I knew it was there. The car old and rusty but it ran. I put a wide piece of orange carpet across it. I didn’t know until years later they’d pull the carpet to one side and take turns sticking their foot down to see how close they could get to the blacktop. At the Lake House, where we’d always arrive without broken ankles or legs, the boys went swimming while Cynthia and I sat on the deck in the shimmering limitless light off water.

We joined the Texas chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus and went to the women’s conference at the Rice Hotel in Houston. We laughed and told stories and cooked and drank wine and dreamed our future.

Too fast, too soon, my husband received transfer orders for Germany. Our nest torn, ripped between the going and the moments left. How will I  live without Cynthia?

The day I finished packing for the movers, I waited on the front porch and watched the yard fill with monarch butterflies on their migration to Mexico. The kids were at school. Cynthia had taken over my job at the art therapy workshop. I sat alone. The gold and brown fluttering stormed the yard. Never had I ever seen so many at one time. I’d lift my shirttail and wipe my eyes clear of tears to watch. Going to Europe! A dream come true after all those novels…but no more drives to the lake house…old station wagon totaled running a curve too fast…

And what would I do without Cynthia?

∼          ∼          ∼          ∼          ∼

I wrote her often; she never replied. She hated goodbyes, and she didn’t trust I’d return. In 1976, when I did return, nearly three years later, I took a bus to Texas and flushed her out. In Waxahachie, Texas as a dancer artist-in-residence. I returned to Manhattan, Kansas to enter K-State, a sixty mile drive from the farm and my folks, and when they returned from their winter trip to Hawaii, Dad bought me a 1967 cream and tan Bel Air. Freedom!!! I could be Richie Havens as I drove Highway 77 to Austin. And I could roll a cigarette with my wrists balancing the steering wheel and my fingers free. Every break I got in or between semesters, I’d drive to Austin where she’d moved when her grandfather became too ill to stay at home alone. We were both divorced. Grandfather died. The house filled with plants in the front window and Billie Holiday on the turntable. The wood paneling dark and deep and cool on summer days. She had a big kitchen to cook in, a wide mahogany table to seat people, and a job as events director for parks in Austin. One summer, she produced Man of La Mancha. We spread a blanket on the crest of a hill above the stage, and we gloried in the songs and the possibility that love was real even if almost impossible.

On one of those summer nights, Cynthia and I met Bill Joyce, a dashing and charming poet who spent the first night talking books with Cynthia at the Pecan Street Cafe. When he called with an invitation to dinner, I was shocked it was me and not Cynthia he wanted.

When I dithered, Cynthia said, “What do you want on your postcard?” our shorthand for what do you want life to send you. We both wanted love. I moved to Austin; she hooked up with Dean, another artist. I found a little rock house not far from where she lived; we saw each other nearly every day. Those were magic and happy years: we were both in love; both boys were with us again; we each had a home. And thanks to her work, her house, which was bigger, played host to an endless stream of dinners and music and talk and laughter. It was like we were back at the Lake House times 10.

Times of Sons and Lovers
Times of Sons and Lovers

And then, Bill got a notice: this one a summons from the landlord of the apartment he’d deserted to move in with me — well, that’s not exactly how it happened. He got into a fight with the landlord and escaped. Not far enough as it turned out. I’d just made a movie and earned my SAG union card. One son had graduated and moved into his own apartment; second son had moved to South Dakota to live with his father; and Bill had to get out of town. We moved to Los Angeles. A disastrous decision, all in all. We went back to Austin but the little rock house belonged to someone else.

Cynthia and I kept believing in love. Sometimes a shaky belief, but we did. And we kept having dinners and music and laughter.

Bill applied for a job as a poet-in-residence. We moved to New Orleans and then New York. Cynthia and I both kept trying to make love work. And we both lasted about ten years at that task.

And then I was cast in a movie, went to Mexico to make it, and stayed for three years. I traveled up to Texas once and visited her, stayed one last time in the big house, and went back to Mexico. Bill traveled back and forth from New York to Mexico on his breaks from teaching.

∼          ∼          ∼          ∼          ∼

 Her mother moved from Los Angeles to Austin and pushed Cynthia out of the grandparent’s house, and then sold it to the University of Texas in some expansion they were doing. The house was demolished. Cynthia moved to a small house with Dean, but that relationship was as fraught with chaos as mine. By the time I moved back Stateside, to Washington D.C., we were both single…again. I’d visit her whenever I could, but my life expanded, and hers got smaller. I went to Hawaii and then to Georgia and then to Santa Fe. We saw each other often in the Santa Fe years, but then she moved to an even smaller apartment when she lost her job with the city. Her anger grew while mine subsided. She still had all the art we’d found in various places, but most of it in storage. When she came for my ordination in Santa Fe, she looked older. I was beginning a new stage in my life and she was ending hers. But I didn’t know that.

And then I moved to Kansas and took over managing the family farm and my own mother. Cynthia’s bitterness at her mother for taking and selling the grandparent’s house ate at her. She went into the hospital with pancreatic cancer; I went to Austin to care for her. My care-taking made her crazy. Those early years of the new millennium filled with crazy. I didn’t know how to help her; I traveled weekly three hours to visit Mother in the nursing home; Cliff and I decided to make a life together but he was in chaos; I did banquet waiter and made barely enough to pay rent; my son and his wife had moved to Kansas and lived down the block; I had grandparent duties. And then I crashed my car on a visit to Mom as she was dying and my body, while not broken, was fiercely rattled. I could barely walk. And then Mother died. And then Cliff moved from Santa Fe. And everything rattled.

If I could do it all over, I’d find a way to bring her to me, or at least near me where she could begin again, but we don’t always get do-overs. And anyway, she wouldn’t leave Austin.

When the call came that Cynthia was found dead in her apartment, I choked on grief, but the family asked me to come to Austin and preside at her funeral. I went, but I couldn’t walk up to the casket, couldn’t see her dead. How would I live my life without her in it?

Loss shapes us as much as gain.

That was in November, 2001. I brought back a piece of art from her storage unit that we’d found together. I collected small things, things I could pack all together in one box and move on. She collected big things. We choose our path and live it, or perhaps the path chooses us and all we can do is forgive.

If I know anything about purgatory, she taught me. She’d come to me in dreams, first from a dark underground parking lot where I’d walk down layers of steps to search for her, then from a higher level, finally up to a light-filled room where she pointed to a postcard on the refrigerator, a sunny scene, water shining serene, limitless, and in the only time she spoke to me in the dreams, she said, “Remember.”

Two Women
for Cynthia Alexander 1948-2001

In silence, seeing your eyes as you smile,
I enter the dark framed by dark, and see us
in this mirror drawn from thirty years:

your face, in my memory, still the same face
a few white hairs to reflect the white of mine
a few more lines around your smile, perhaps,

than in our springtime lives, bright blossoms
unfolding, bright promises
shared as we shared two children

now grown, moved on as we moved on
through loves and losses, changes unplotted
building our mirror one dream at a time,

one story at a time, through dinners and wine
and Keith Jarrett on the turntable—
our souls holding a moment of wonder

as we stopped for that one perfect note,
perfect like the smoke in Billie’s cracked voice—
the dream delayed, the mirror’s smoky surface faded—

but not in your eye’s new smile
in the knotted memories like rose prayer beads:
Hail…hail…two women full of grace.




Found Treasures #2

 This is another story of a collected piece of paper that I haven’t been able to toss. Up to now.

If you remember the logo, it’s Dave Barry who used to write wonderful one-page witty stories for the Washington Post Magazine. Maybe he still does. This page dated June 17, 1990.

This particular story presented a look at a summer sailing trip he made with several families, including children. After reading it, I wrote some lines across the top from a sea-faring adventure I’d had and wanted to write about and the piece of the paper went into a stack to be unearthed these many years later.

And since we’re about to the weekend when people make their last trip to the ocean (people, that is, who live near an ocean/lake visit for midwesterners) it seemed the perfect time to present my ocean story.

The lines across the top of the page, which is as far as I got with the essay, begin, “They say barracudas don’t bite. They also say that to ensure that a barracuda doesn’t bite, don’t wear flashy jewelry under water. That’s easy. I don’t wear flash jewelry on a big Saturday night in New York, why wear it on a Caribbean vacation where it would, at best, get tangled in the snorkel tube.”

That’s as far as I got; so here’s the rest of the story from living in St. Lucia, many years ago, and my “Brush With Death,” as Dave Barry called it.

We lived on the side of a mountain above a banana plantation but there was a tiny beach, mostly rocky, at the base of the hill that let into the ocean, and the water clear enough and shallow enough that we’d spent time drifting above a coral reef and watching seahorse daddies with fat pouches of young and brilliant trumpet fish.

However, my friend’s back went out and I was bored. Intrepid traveler and all, I decided to go swimming alone. As I said, the water was shallow. Probably the first rule to swimming in a deserted cove is not to go alone, but I hadn’t read that rule.

Snorkeling is relaxing – drifting face down, fins flapping slowly for balance, sort of like a big fish. The biggest challenge is getting into the water in the first place, backwards, over rocks. But I managed. Slowly. And didn’t lose my flippers.

So I watched the fish homes we’d come to recognize on other days and then I became adventurous, looking for new territory. That may be the second rule to swimming in a deserted cove:don’t get too cocky.

But I did. And noticed how the bottom suddenly dropped like a cliff. Interesting! So I drifted on, paddling lightly, watching and exploring.

Far below, I saw a sudden shift as a long shadow became a barracuda. I’d wandered into someone’s territory. And barracuda decided to check me out. My later, rational mind tells me that if the barracuda had wanted to catch me, it would have. At the time, I wasn’t exactly rational.

I swam faster than I’d ever swum in my life, arms and legs flailing like some cartoon character, a Road Runner/Coyote, perhaps, in the water. The rocky bottom leveled and I pulled myself out, panting: a moment of high relaxation, lemme tell ya.

That was it. I walked back up to the house. Vowed never to go swimming alone again. And I didn’t. And the experience by itself too short, really, for its own story. Ah, but an unearthed piece of paper from twenty-two years ago which I have saved for the perfect moment? Now, that’s the real rest of the story!

What end-of-summer story have you been hording all these years, waiting for the perfect moment?

Is it time to reveal?


Found Treasures #1

The tale that wouldn’t stop wagging

In the latest office move and resultant clearing out and tossing, I’ve found saved treasurers that, taken together, may become a series: ergo the title. And like all saved gems, regardless of the makeup (glass, plastic, paper, pottery), they have a story. This story is The Tale That Wouldn’t Stop Wagging. And yes, I’ve used “tale” and not “tail.”

The tale really begins with my older sister Judy and me and sixty plus years of experiences, fighting as two sisters often do, and taking care, as sisters also tend to do.

The first time we each married, we married within two years of each other. Our children are stair-stepped in ages and the oldest grandchildren in the family. We both tended children and homes for a good many years and we both divorced. And then we each remained single for a good many more years. The last time we each married, the timing also ran to about two years apart, but until then we spent a lot of time taking care of each other in one way or another.

The Tale That Wouldn’t Stop Wagging is one of the reminders of that care taking.

The way we are different is also predictable: Judy, as oldest is remarkably responsible: a good employee; I, as second child, am remarkably irresponsible, never holding down a full-time job with benefits job in my life. We’ve both moved a lot, but my moves have tended toward the extreme while hers have remained in the Continental United States. This is minor, but figures into the tale of tails.

In the early 1980s, I lived in New York City for a few years. I can’t remember how or why I became a member of the Humane Society of New York, but I did. I had a cat, but she’d come to New York from New Orleans, so it wasn’t as if I used their services much. But I became a member.

And then, in the late 1980s, I moved to Mexico City. The cat lived with friends, and I left a forwarding address of Bellingham, WA, which is where my sister, her last name also Sunderland, lived at the time. Judy received the newsletters from the humane society. And then she moved from one address in Bellingham to another, and of course, the humane society was able to track that.

And then, she became Sunderland-Yorkey, and the humane society took note. Every once in a while, she’d receive another newsletter. And then she moved, with her husband, to Spring Texas. But still in the Continental United States with no gaps in addresses.

In about 2007, years after she moved, and years after I’d moved to Kansas City, and years after getting the last Humane Society of New York newsletter back in Bellingham, the above envelope arrived, replete with printed tails. She called and told me and we laughed long and hard, and then she sent it to me, and I wrote, “The tale that wouldn’t stop wagging” on it, and put it in a file, thinking it would be a good story someday. And then I responsibly cleaned out the file, found it again, and it is a good story.

That’s the problem with being responsible. Things find you.

Now she’s moved again but I’m still in Kansas City, a hyphenated-name in the files of the Humane Society of New York. But a few years have passed. Time enough for return envelopes to return and a new address begun. Eventually, another envelope will wend its way to where she is.

The tale to be continued, in one way or another, or as Judy puts it, “I’ve no doubt that when/if I get to Heaven, within a couple of weeks I will have mail from the NY H. S. addressed to “Janet Sunderland-Yorkey!”