Helena Writes #30: On cherished friendship, in images

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 30th post, she writes movingly of carrying with her the imagery of her friend Julie’s life. Enjoy!

My friend Julie, 12 years gone

I have a list—images, like dreams, that Julie left in my keeping during the course of 30 years of friendship.

Facets of clear amber stone that flash. There is a dimension between the flashes. Julie called it the interstices. That’s where the story, with all its trauma and love that Julie bequeathed me, lives.

The cow was on the list.

It was during the Great Depression. A man came to her grandparents’ farm to take it. Julie’s grandmother cried. They’d had butter, milk and cheese.

There was a garden. They worked hard, five-year-old Julie, her grandmother and her grandfather, digging, planting, building up the impossible rocky soil of rural, northern New York State, and the garden provided. The cow’s manure made the glacial rock soil fertile. Julie’s grandparents came from Denmark. They knew how to live from a garden.

There were chickens, so there were eggs. Did they have bread?  Did they barter, was there a store, or a baker who came to her grandparents’ door? Julie didn’t say, and I only listened, not knowing how deeply the images would carve themselves in me, and that later I’d want to know.

Julie only told me that a man came to take the cow and that her grandmother cried. Julie looked up into her grandmother’s face and saw the tears.

Her parents had brought her to the farm, up from the city. They couldn’t feed her—there was food on the farm. And maybe her mother still could work. She was a performer, a dancer.

Here’s the image: Julie’s parents at the door of the farmhouse. Julie’s grandparents embracing her. The door closes behind her parents. Her parents are gone. No one had told Julie.

Did her parents take a train back to New York City?  Did they have a car? Of course I don’t know, and Julie never said. But I know that she was with her grandparents for three years. And she told me they loved her. I figured they saved her life.

Those two people and their underweight grandchild had the garden, those chickens, and that cow. Until the cow had to be sold, or bartered, and her grandmother wept. What would they do without the butterfat? Without the milk? Without the cow’s soft velvet nose, her soft breath? It wasn’t a beef cow. It wasn’t an animal to be slaughtered. The cow must have had a name. She was part of their little family. She may have pulled a plow to furrow the garden in spring. Her grazing would have kept the place looking mowed. A fence would have kept her from the garden. She gave them milk, cheese, and butter.

Julie was neat as a pin, the way I pictured the farmhouse. Her office was never strewn with piles of papers though she was working on a mountain of projects. Maybe it was a Danish trait, like the clean simple lines of Danish furniture. Julie’s house was furnished with it. I remember her bending down to pick up tiny pieces of paper, or dust, from the rug in the office room where we visited—her hangout. Or picking something off the table and putting it into a simple and beautiful wood-crafted trash can.

I also have this image: Julie writing, sitting on a straight-backed chair next to her window, drinking coffee. She smoked. Her knees were pulled up tight to her chest, skinny as she was, writing in her journals, working to untangle the knots, as she did when we talked. I had the honor of being her closest friend. It was a conversation. We were friends of the soul.

Julie was older than me. Seventeen years was, I know now, a big gap in our understandings of life. I was as yet unable to decipher my own abandonments. She was far ahead, and getting closer everyday to understanding her distant, long-dead parents, whose fairy tale love had no room for a child. Julie’s presence was an intrusion, a jealousy.

I can see her, knees pulled up to her chest, skinny, writing, smoking, drinking coffee in front of her window. Three years after leaving her, the parents came back, appeared at the kitchen door they’d disappeared through. Her grandparents’ love would have to last her all her life, be her sustenance. And it was. How else would she take my face in her hands that way, and radiate such love?

I wonder if Julie’s grandmother cried, as she had when the cow was taken. The depression was over. They had all survived, though Julie would always be boney, angular, like a Klimt drawing, or an Egon Sheile. Joints beautiful beneath her skin, long, knobby, graceful pianist’s hands.

The way I imagine it, her grandmother had to be strong for Julie’s sake. I imagine she stood there and found her way to smiling. Certainly she held her, pressed her close to her heart. Maybe her grandfather layed his hand on Julie’s shoulder. A signal. Live! Maybe when the door closed, the two stood like iron statues, until both collapsed against each other in grief. It must have been a terrible and brave goodbye.

During those 30 years I knew her, Julie worked it out. The anger left her. She’d done the work. She was free.

Julie’s doll

Here is another image on the list of Julie’s life: Train tracks. No other children lived near the farm. She must have gone to school, but I don’t know anything about that. I know it was a rural, isolated place, because that’s what Julie said. The tracks ran past the farmhouse. Maybe it followed a tree line, maybe a signal, black, poking up, red and green, or maybe just blue, to slow the train down—10, maybe 15 minutes to walk through grass or snow from the back door.

Winter, spring, summer, fall, Julie waited in front of the house and waited for the clacking sound of the wheels on the wood ties, until she could see headlights flickering. The train thundered, shook the ground, came up into her feet, leaving her breathless. The engineer blew the whistle when he saw her. She’d be hard to miss—a lone child in that big landscape. They waved. The last Christmas Julie was at the farm, the engineer tossed a package through his window. Wrapped in newspaper, tied in string, it landed in the snow. 

I'd guess she waited until the train passed, its whistle a whisper, before she ran through the snow to pick it up. There must have been deer prints, fox, turkey, maybe a bobcat—it was the thirties and there were more of them upstate then, before they were hunted nearly to extinction. Bear, wolf. And her child steps, pushed long through the snow. 

“It was a cloth doll,” Julie told me. Someone had sewn it. The engineer’s wife? His mother? I can’t see that he did, but that could be a failure of imagination. My own father sewed, turned the collars on his shirts. She never said if the doll wore a plaid dress or calico jumper. But I know the engineer threw a doll to my friend, Julie. I can see that package lying in the snow.

Julie was funny with food. She’d eat lunch at the table and never offer any to me. That was infuriating. But she was a child of the Depression, and I can’t imagine what food meant to her. She ate, it seems to me, because she had to. She never was more than skin and bones. After a while, I brought my own lunch. I had to get past judging.

The smoking did her in. Still, she lived until she was 80. I think she was surprised by the illness. I’d met her father when he was 90. There was a cigarette dangling from his mouth, one eye closed against the smoke. 

Julie was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. Loving. She was a pianist. Studied at Juilliard. Performed for Teddy Wilson, who sat down next to her on the piano bench and finished her piece, to teach her. 

She wrote songs. She never gave up trying to get them out into the world. Only one was performed in a club, New York Blues, sung by Linda Jamison. It was a moment of hope. This year, the first phrase of her song, “New Year’s Eve,” played through my mind. That’s when I began this writing. But I couldn’t remember it, just that small piece. Where are her songs now? Shining with the stars. They were beautiful, good songs. Tony Bennett could have sung them. 

The last time I saw Julie, I was wearing amber colored earrings. She said the light looked beautiful, shining through them. 

She lay on her couch and I sat in the straight-backed chair. 

“How have I had such a friend as you?” she asked. 

I could feel it, and could have asked the same of her. But silence was enough. Then I spoke: “If you can, please come to me!”

She looked at me, then she smiled. “I’ll find a way!” she said. I took it as a promise.

Those were our last words to each other.

I talk to her, of course. Our friendship will last as long as I do. There are things I can only tell her, and it feels like she’s there.

I typed the draft of this writing on paper that had been used, recycling old student work. On the reverse side of the last page of the draft, were two words, “Love, Julie.”

For all the years I’ve known that list, I’ve wanted to write a story. I would call it, “Julie’s Doll.”  That story never came to me.

So I wrote from the list I carry. It will have to do.

A writing exercise

Here’s a fun exercise: Choose six words, from anything, a book, a catalogue, a magazine, the dictionary. Here are my six:

November, reality, people, plans, fun, theatre

Then write something using them all. It’s a great prompt to get some writing done.

I dreamed of making plans to go to the theatre—buy tickets for early November, before the weather makes it impossible to travel. And when ticket prices are lower. 

I was surrounded by people. I could smell their perfumes and colognes, feel their presence, hear the rustle of clothing, the movement of settling into seats. Murmurs—people talking softly to one another.

To call this fun would now be grotesque, during a pandemic that has isolated us all. It was Paradise!  Paradise to be in the midst of humanity—the reality that made up ordinary life. Gone, to be memorialized, savored, mourned.

But, too, allow it to kindle hope.

That such times will come back to us—perhaps never with abandon, but, I dream, with wakefulness, wisdom, joy. The consciousness of the great value of being in living community. The great worth of human beings.

Could you create a list of images associated with a beloved friend? Will you try the six-words writing exercise? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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