a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where There's a Life, There's a Story...

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.

Frances, though she was born, by the accident of her father's work, in Newark, New Jersey, was a Southern woman through and through, as evidenced not only by the ground she walked for most of her life, but also by her sweet, kind, motherly, girlish, funny, curious, and resilient sides.  Her father had passed away before she was grown, late enough in her life to remember the particulars of their fond relationship, but early enough to encrust him in legend.  They moved to the Norfolk area of Virginia where what we might call her formative years were spent, and it was those times, along with the later ones as a nursing student at Charlottesville, the romance with her future husband Tally (a reticent, puzzling medical student at the time), and her life as a country doctor's wife which occupied the tales she told us.

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.

All through the years, among us were really good writers, creative writers, willing and reluctant writers, but Frances was a natural storyteller, both on paper and in conversation.  She'd had a full life even by then, her triumphs and tragedies remembered with not only her signature humor, but wonderful openness and equanimity; her love of social gatherings and her long, close friendships, her enthusiasm for music, art, travel, children and life itself became the seat she took each week among us.  When she decided to write a book for her children and grandchildren about her and their early lives...the stories of the way they were born and grew up, and the way she and her husband fared, too, over the years...we read her chapters and pulled even more from her.  Long after she'd stopped writing, long after, loss overtaking me, I'd given up what I'd loved doing more than anything, she'd meet me on the street, at someone's birthday lunch, or at an art reception and ask, "When are we beginning journals again?"

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.

1 comment:

  1. Just read this:
    "At the end of the day, life is about being happy being who you are" . It sounds like Frances figured that out. What lovely memories you have of her. Says so much about her. Nice.