Martha Phelan Hayes
Martha Phelan Hayes
Marian was my grandmother’s best friend. On Tuesday afternoons they often took the trolley from Arlington to Boston, in good dresses and white gloves because at the time no one would think of going into the city in anything less, and ordered hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream for lunch at Schrafft’s, an upscale coffee and dessert spot in Harvard Square. When I was a child, their decadence thrilled me, and it must have awed my mother as well, burdened as she was with eight small children, for she told us this story about her mother-in-law again and again. At other times Marian would visit my grandmother in the afternoons while their children were at school and their husbands at work. They would sit in my grandmother’s Lombard Road living room and, legend has it, sip a small glass of sherry at five o’clock when their time together was coming to a close and they both had to start dinner for their families. Marian would leave and my grandmother would flash the outside light three times to signal my father, who was usually playing down the hill on the grassy field that bordered Spy Pond, home. These wife-and-mother roles would return to these women as naturally and regularly as the evening sky, leaving their afternoons together as invisible as the sun is to the earth at midnight.
I remember my grandmother as ladylike and orderly, her house styled with lovely, timeless things: a mahogany dining-room table, two maroon brocade slipper chairs tucked into the windowed alcove in the living room, and a pantry between the dining room and kitchen with white-trimmed, glass-door cabinets, the tops of which graced the high ceiling and required a step stool if she needed the porcelain pitcher she stored on the top shelf. She was only five-foot-two. She shared a large bedroom with my grandfather—their twin beds separated by a small nightstand and at the far end of the room, a walk-in closet with its own window and on the carpeted floor rows of shoes—the image of them never changing, but my interpretation of them, like the rereading of a high school classic novel, maturing with my own emotional and psychological growth.
As a child I noticed a colorful line of grown-up pumps, neatly fitted into shoe racks, the corresponding boxes shelved above the hanging clothes. But with the perspective of time, I now think of the intention behind each pair, the sexiness of a foot slipping into the padded insole, a color or style choice made in Filene’s department store, perhaps encouraged by a best friend, with the care of a woman wanting to be attractive, a woman who recognized the gentle impression a heel raised an inch or two higher than the ball of the foot left in her calf. My grandmother must have felt pretty, maybe even sexy. And she must have had thoughts deeper and more personal than the arrangement of the shoes in her large closet, or the symmetry of the bedspreads as she pulled the covers up each morning and tidied the room at the beginning of each day. But as a child I was too small to see any of that; too young to suspect that she might also have secrets, regrets, and stories that a glass of sherry and a friend’s company could eke out until the tears from the laughter or maybe the sadness they evoked spilled all over her red oriental rugs, that the conversation and the wine my grandmother shared with Marian may have coaxed out a root cellar of memories she shared only with her best friend.
Just about the time I might have been old enough to appreciate my mother’s stories of my grandmother and Marian, I was coming of age myself, and I had my own best friend, Cindy. Cindy and I were inseparable, walking to and from school together, sitting next to each other in class, and talking on the phone long into the night. Cindy and I talked a lot about boys. We were twelve and waiting desperately for our periods and ID going-steady bracelets. The summer we turned thirteen, we spent the afternoons, while the adults were behind the bars of work, playing spin the bottle for free kisses with boys at our friend Robin’s house because, with Robin’s mother locked up in an office all day, we had the place to ourselves. We walked to the mall in search of white eye shadow and white go-go boots, and we listened, in my room or hers, to “98.6” over and over again, wearing out the 45-rpm vinyl record and our patience to grow up.
At thirteen I wasn’t thinking about Marian and my grandmother, and I certainly wasn’t curious about the conversations they had, before or after their small glass of sherry. They were old, I presumed, at least fifty; so if I’d given them any thought at all, I would have guessed that they were sharing recipes or talking about a book they had both read, but mostly worrying about their impending death and mourning the fall of the empire that was once their bodies. The image of the two of them laughing so hard that the blood ran up their stockinged legs and blushed their faces, recalling some groping young boy or falling back against the tweedy tan couch with a deep moan for the passion relived from a stranger’s kiss, would have eluded me, so egocentric and culturally demarcated from their world was I. Cindy and I were experiencing something new and complicated, we were sure; something no one else outside of our experience, least of all a grandmother, would understand or even imagine. It was like night and day.
When I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, Cindy phoned. As usual we talked for hours. And, as if forty years hadn’t passed, we talked about boys. We are college professors, writers, and not surprisingly, patrons of the cultural arts. Still, for two hours we talked about nothing but boys. And with this significant birthday’s sudden sagacity, I thought of my grandmother, and I thought of her friendship with Marian, coming to the lucid conclusion that they probably were no different from us at all. Drop-waist dresses from the twenties or peasant shirts and jeans from the sixties, we are all the same. They were, after all, girlfriends.
The concept of women’s friendship is even older than my grandmother; it has earned the attention and scrutiny of myriad literary scholars. I wrote my master’s thesis in literature on the homoerotic bond between Celia and Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I argued that Rosalind’s romance with Orlando effaces not just the friendship but Celia herself, who is muted by this couple’s romance and the play’s final act that celebrates their marriage. I was confident in my interpretation, convinced that Rosalind and Celia’s romantic attraction to one another is the single mitigating factor in the tension Rosalind’s attraction to and ultimate involvement with Orlando causes. But at the time I wasn’t recognizing Celia’s loss, how Orlando invades and unthreads the fabric of her friendship with Rosalind, obliterating not only Celia but also the relationship’s unique composition. And I certainly didn’t understand how significant and relevant these characters are to my own personal life. Ten more years, a divorce, a new career, and an increased awareness have afforded me a respect and appreciation for the intimate female friendships with which I have been blessed. Girlfriends—and I use the sobriquet deliberately, because women friends are something quite different—are like breath. Without them we don’t survive in quite the same way—or we feel like Celia, who, dragging herself through the Forest of Arden, farther from home, closer to Orlando and her inevitable separation from her best friend, finding it difficult to go on, cries out: “I pray you bear with me. I cannot go no further” (2.1.8).
Real girlfriends are always there for you, willing to leave their Orlando in the middle of dinner or in the middle of the night to tend to your emotional wounds; brave enough to bring you a beer when you’ve lost your sister, knowing that death refuses any kind of comfort; or smart enough to drag you to the dress shop because it’s the eleventh hour and you still don’t have anything to wear to your son’s wedding. They know that when you say you want to leave your husband, you aren’t ready, that leaving is like ice skating, and you don’t even have your laces tied yet, that the time to cut into frozen glass and fly may never come; but if it does and you fall on your face, they won’t say they told you so but will catch you; and they understand when you can’t break up with your idiot boyfriend because you love the inside of his forearm. You share what you don’t even dare to think with this kind of friend, and when she’s gone, like my friend Joanna, who slipped as suddenly and quietly from this world as a black, silk cocktail dress might silently fall from a hanger, you lose a part of yourself you never get back. You lose a friend who doesn’t judge or envy; you lose someone who just listens.
I know that my grandmother loved my grandfather deeply. He was a kind and nurturing husband, who my mother says could go into the refrigerator and make a meal out of nothing for the unexpected guests who often stopped by; and whose unsolicited acts of kindness for his wife, covering her with a blanket while she stretched out on the couch because he felt the chill that comes about as the day is lost to night and supposed she felt it too, endeared him to her. But I am sure that when her anxiety began to rise with the morning light, and she stood in the window watching my grandfather’s car drive up the road and turn onto the avenue, having told him she was fine, she had her left hand on the phone and her right forefinger aimed for the first digit of Marian’s number. I know because I have done the same.
I am sure Marian felt the same way. I don’t know what she might have asked of my grandmother or the shape of that emotional bond, but at least now I can honor what it might have looked like; perhaps my grandmother waiting for Marian’s missed period, feeling her terror at the thought of another child, the chill of it extending between their kitchens like an arm, the wrist bending as the fingers reached and begged for comfort, for someone to take away the pain. Perhaps one morning when Marian’s fiancé was away at war, her neighbor’s husband, preying on her youth and incoherent emotions, thought of pressing her up against the breezeway door when he came to borrow a rake. Years later she might still have been able to remember his breath, the sliver of space he restrained himself to leave between them, the self-conscious “almost” that hung over them all summer long. She might have shared with my grandmother her memory of her future husband held suspended in the grainy black-and-white photo, gathering dust on her bureau, the silver frame dulling from the humidity, a photo I would find as antiquated and lifeless as the idea that these women were anything but the adults I once imagined them to have always been.
My grandmother and Marian, I suspect, helped each other sustain their authentic selves, for I remember my grandmother as a comfortable and amicable woman. But time has purview over all of us, and eventually too much of it spent in lonely silence darkened my grandmother’s world, until she was mired in a depression so deep it took electric shock and a long recovery to pull her back. She had lost my grandfather—and Marian, I suspect, for I never heard of her again. Selling her home, my grandmother left the claw-footed bathtub, the small pink room my aunt had slept in as a child, and all the conversations she had had with her best friend; in those empty rooms, like dust or echoes, I imagine her and Marian’s laughter drifted invisibly out of that east side parlor as she made her way south to Connecticut. As the trajectory of her life wended itself steeply and sadly downhill, my grandmother came first to live with her daughter, who died within two years, then with my mother and father and their coming-of-age brood of children. My grandmother passed away quietly at eighty-five in a convalescent home a fall had put her into, just eighteen months before her son, my father, succumbed to lymphoma, the symptoms and diagnosis of which she was spared.
Here her story comes to a close. But I still think of her. And, I’ve come to realize that the difference between my grandmother and me is not nearly as wide as the breadth of time between our birth dates; in separate and vastly different decades, our experiences draw a parallel as clear and straight as the train tracks that still run behind the ball field across the street from what was once her Arlington home, that all along we had in common the comfort inherent in the sacred reliability of a best friend.
Yesterday my friend Jude stopped by for a visit. It was 11:00 a.m. and I made her tea. At noon I opened the refrigerator and spotted the V8 juice. I had two ounces of vodka in the freezer, some horseradish left over from Christmas, and a wilted lime. But the ice trays were empty. When we spotted a frozen plastic water bottle I had used last year to nurse a sore shoulder, we had a brilliant solution. We wrapped the ice bottle in a plastic bag and smashed it into pieces on the back concrete steps, howling with laughter at the absurdity of our quest for a midday cocktail and our Girl Scout-like resourcefulness. We made ourselves two tall Bloody Marys and sat at my dining-room table toasting to friendship. Within minutes, we were as giddy as adolescent girls, laughing hysterically about nothing I can even recall; certainly nothing my five-year-old granddaughter would suspect, for she thinks of me as her nana, the babysitter who lets her stay up late and who promises not to tell her mother that she did so. But I also am a girlfriend, something she may realize as she too matures beyond her precious and youthful myopia. For now, though, I know that I will simply let her count my closet full of shoes and enjoy her assumptions of who she thinks I am. It will soon be her turn to find a best friend, and I can only hope that she is as fortunate as I.
Published in The Slippery Elm