It's windy today, and cooler because of it, but the sun after this morning's rain is grinning down on us as widely as if my friend Frances, who died last week at 88, were sending those rays to us. It's a common enough anthromorphism for the fondly remembered, "smiling down from above", but, believe me, Frances' grin was anything but common.
I'm thinking of her today, especially because, though I moved away only a few years ago, only a few hours down the road from where she and I and others used to sit around the table and share our lives, no one thought to tell me about her death until Michelle, from her perch in Canada no less, saw it on Facebook and texted the news late on the day of her burial. So this post is by way of a celebratory memorial, my own.
Formally, we were a group meeting to write and share journals, recording our lives, our thoughts, our quandaries, our families' histories, and anything else that occurred to us. Since 1982, I'd gathered together those small groups in whatever town I'd lived at the time, from Texas to New Hampshire; and finally in Washington, about midway in the 15 years the group existed there, came Frances to join us.
In all my teaching career, though teaching isn't really a word I'd use for that workshop (I having as much, if not more, discovery and life lesson as my "students" did), it has been what I think of as my highest achievement. I say that not so much with pride as with humility. Wherever the gathering, there was, always had been, something binding about the way our writing, laid out on the table, drew us together in ways that even long friendship missed. We listened as words opened up layers and layers, bringing experiences and sentiments to light that often times illuminated our own.
What both Michelle and I remembered instantly, though, was a trip we took one summer to the mountains, Frances among us. The four-hour drive on the interstate became the road along which Frances' imagination came to life. On the way home, we stopped for lunch near a sign that directed travelers to the small highway north heading toward a hamlet called Harmony. None of us had ever been there, and this time we didn't detour toward it, either. But all the way home we listened as Frances, enchanted with the name, laid out and populated the town, inventing relationships among the characters, homes they lived in, bars they frequented, intrigues they would fall into, histories they were prey to, and threads of a mysterious future to ponder later.
"Frances was such a gift," Michelle wrote the other day. "Her stories always made me belly-laugh!
...that car ride was so entertaining...Frances got talking about staying at [an old] hotel and said something cheeky about her romantic life with her husband, whom she adored."
As she talked, we told her, only half teasing, that her story would make a good screenplay for a soap opera (Michelle, a media producer, would know), but Frances was the one who--it being her invention, after all--kept it alive, and eventually began to scribble chapters.
None of this is in her obituary, obituaries being what they usually are, but it's the life I remember her by, the life of that generous good humor that loved people, that could raise their stories equally from the dust of memory or the flakes of imagination, enriching them and us.
Thank you, Frances. Here, just for you, is one more journal piece.