I sometimes wonder, as I am transcribing my grandmother’s 1937 diary to the worldwide web what my grandmother was like when she was a little girl, before champagne and gin before guests from Hollywood and cooks named Grace. I want to ask her about her best childhood friend, that girl she might have kicked her shoes off with and run bare ankled through summer streams. This weather brings back the memory of being sunburnt and long-limbed with my best childhood friend, Olivia Harrison.
Olivia lived a mile and a half from my house in a rambling 1800 three story with hidden nooks and fireplaces and a stone staircase arched by trellis. It was at Olivia’s house that I first understood the power of writing, her uncle was the novelist, Jim Harrison, who came Easters with his wandering eye and whiskey smell, tantalizing and frightening, and her mother wrote poetry books that contained labyrinths of jeweled promises I longed to understand. Her father, (who tends to come to me in dreams to tell me if I am being foolish or wise), built a writing studio for her mother beside the house with a woodstove to keep her warm, and I remember knowing, even at eight years old, that this was the perfect place for a woman to write.
We didn’t write back then, Olivia and I, we daydreamed. She was the kind of friend you could lie next to in the sheep pasture and tell each other what shapes the clouds made, with Olivia you could imagine what the wart-laden minister looked like naked (before the image of a naked priest became a perverted cliché) and you could laze around in lawn chairs goggling Shaun Cassidy in Teen Beat and singing Leaf Garrett songs at the top of your lungs. We’d stand in front of her mother’s mirror and brush our hair a hundred times, practicing at womanhood.
It was fun to go to Olivia’s house because she was queen. It wasn’t her fault, she was adorable and smart and afraid of nothing. She walked with her chin up and her perfectly straight hair hanging off her back like a thrown off veil, and she pretty much knew everything. It’s always fun to go to the queen’s house. She was allowed to watch television whenever she wanted, and she could lie down and have a temper tantrum whenever she felt like it, she and her sister had the whole third floor to themselves with their very own bathroom, and they could decide one day to put up an art studio in the little nook by the banister and make a big clay head.
Olivia didn’t act queeny with me, she considered us equal and often came to play at my house, where I was absolutely not queen. If it was summer, we played hermit crab families in the tidal pools outside, building castles from barnacles and seaweed, we covered ourselves in baby oil and lay corpse-like on the deck, waiting for the cheese sandwiches my mother brought. Weekends, we rode the Ferris wheel at the Fireman’s Bizarre, and called to boys, when boys were still bare-chested mysteries.
Olivia’s parents were best friends with mine, her sister with my sister, and she knew all the not-so-nice things that our family, like all families, hid. She taught me to be indignant in the face of injustice, how to make humor of adult anger. Olivia was a giggler and adventurer, we went through some trauma together, Liv and I, and we came out the other side.
Then one beautiful summer day, a day of strawberry picking and wraparound skirts, a good day for bicycling to a friend’s house a mile and a half away, Olivia’s family lost a daughter. This daughter was coming to our house to play, she was my sister’s age, and she was coasting down Boston Post Road when a 16-year old driver hit her broadside as she crossed the street. Some time later that day, her mother waited in a hot line of traffic, wondering Is that my daughter? Is that my daughter.
So, this season’s slip of tide also brings the memory of tragedy, the knowledge that on that summer day, God seemed to skip a beat, look away, let go his supposedly sweet hold.
The accident might not have been the reason they left, but it seemed a happening worthy of leaving behind, not the haunting spirit of it, for this must be with them still, but the exact spot in the road they had to drive by to get to town, the bicycles parked in the darkened shed, Olivia’s sister’s carefully made bed.
Their VW van packed to the gills and that house for sale, they left. It was the end of my childhood, and the start of my writing career. I’d written Olivia a long, epic farewell poem. I skipped homework and sleep to write it. I still have it. It rhymes but it also has some tenor for the specific, the detailed, and through its lines, you can almost smell the love.
But because we can’t know anymore whether my grandmother was gifted with such a friend or whether she was made to wear taffeta bows and Patten leather shoes, we will just have to be satisfied with what we do have, my grandmother lounging around on a bed in Saint Mark’s place, having just given birth to a son, sewing her new velvet housegown, eating oysters and reading Virginia Woolf.
Grandma Maggie, Saint Mark’s Place, February 23, 1937
Wrote a few letters, had lunch in bed and fed baby. A little trouble with Grace wanting to coddle baby when he cries and being lugubrious about his ailments– thinking he is constipated, that he didn’t get enough to eat, that he cried too much to ever gain (we weighed him Saturday, and he hasn’t gained) etc… This wears me down when tired and M. has great time cheering me and telling me not to mind. Walked over to Esposito’s for first time and back by cab. Pat came over. Sorry I forgot she had said she would like to hold baby–was never allowed to hold June—so I did not offer to let her. Baby fussy all day, gave it bottle again at 6:15, and then off to fritz and Kate’s for dinner, leaving it yelling bloody murder behind. Fine dinner prepared by their new Chinese cook, Yic, who we thought looked too intelligent for the job and felt curious about. Hennie there, too, and we still find him full. Enjoyed first evening out very much and came home by ten. Found Grace very doleful as baby yelled all evening and was in pain, she said. Discovered for once she was right. He had indigestion and spit up and had hiccoughs and was generally sad. Tried to get him to drink a little warm water and bicarbonate. Put him to bed around midnight.