Monday, January 03, 2005

The Robertson

So said the sign at the end of their driveway. One of Barb's sons had made it--poorly--in wood shop, the letters slumped and crowding each other off the end of the board, no room for the plural. Whichever kid it was convinced the shop teacher that the singular was in fact the correct Scottish clan designation, no "S" required, and got a decent grade.

My family met Barb Robertson when I was about 13, the first year we were completely consumed with figure skating. So was Barb: in her early 60s, she'd decided she needed a new hobby. She signed up for private lessons and shared the ice with us, turning stately circles in her sweatshirt and knit tam o'shanter while little girls in lycra dresses hurled themselves aloft all around her.

Off ice, Barb was a doctor, and in her spare time had raised five grown children. She was accustomed to a crowded life, and welcomed us indiscriminately into it--kids, coaches, parents, champions and junior- hockey thugs, others who'd drifted into the sport out of love. She volunteered her services at local competitions, ministering to wrenched knees and bonked heads or the occasional nervous puker. On Saturdays after practice, she'd load us into one or another of her never, never, EVER-washed cars and make a pizza run.

We were always celebrating something with Barb: birthdays and graduations, exam results, pregnancies, promotions. Some time in the late 1970s she'd strung Christmas lights around the ceiling beams in her dining room...and then just never bothered to take them down. Flip a switch: instant party. Barb made enormous chocolate-chip sheet cakes and never ran out of ice. We camped out on her living room floor to watch Tentacles on the late-night movie. I had my first alcoholic beverage in Barb's presence, a closely-supervised glass of raspberry champagne...though I no longer remember what achievement had occasioned the event. Barb introduced my family to mu shu pork; she made a noble effort to teach me to drive a stick shift. At a certain point in my adolescence, I was entirely comfortable rummaging through her refrigerator for the soda or snack of my choice. As an adult, I think that's one of the highest compliments I can pay someone, really: I am at home in your home.

When you did open the fridge, you'd find at least a dozen little notes taped to the shelves inside the door, proclaiming "Happy Birthday Mom!" in crayon or marker. Her kids had started this one year and Barb never took them down.

The first check arrived in September of my freshman year in college. One hundred dollars, and a note from Barb, reminding me that I was minutes from the greatest city in the world and I ought to take advantage it. "Don't tell your mother," she said; this was between us; I didn't have to tell anyone what I spent it on, Barb included...though I think, I hope, that I did. I bought a full-length black wool coat with that $100, at Macy's no less, and thought myself hot snot on china. Barb sent me another $100 each month, for my entire freshman year...kept me in bagels and incense and cheap silver jewelry and MoMA posters that, properly framed, now hang in my home and my office. When I graduated, I got another check: $2700. The other three academic years, in a lump sum. "I thought you might need a nest egg, starting out," Barb said, and I did. I secured and furnished my first apartment with that check, bought a bookcase and a futon and the desk I'm typing at, tonight.

When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, Barb was philosophical: "I won't ever have to Christmas shop or go to the dentist again." But radical surgery, performed by an old colleague, spared her to endure those and other jolly annual irritants time and again: this was fifteen years ago. Her hair grew back, mysteriously chemo-altered into poodle-pouf curls; she shrugged and went back to the rink, even though her lung capacity was not what it had been. She lived to see a passel of grandchildren.

And I grew up, all the rink kids did...ended up with cars, careers, spouses or houses. In recent years, Barb and I had become primarily Christmas-card friends, though we'd still sometimes surprise each other at potlucks or restaurants--find time to catch up even as it seemed like mere minutes had passed. She came to one of my Christmas parties. When my grandmother lay dying in the hospital, I called Barb, for consultation and consolation.

When Barb's cancer improbably resurfaced this year, maybe autumn, after more than a decade of remission, she told no one but her husband. In her eighties, she didn't want to endure the rigors of fresh treatment, or wither tragically for months. She kept skating up until the first week in December, when her illness had devoured too much of her muscle tone for her to continue. She waved off worry, implied that a new medication was affecting her badly. She spent Christmas with her family...and stopped taking her meds on December 26th. On December 31st, the world grieved by candlelight for all those who suffer, and then faced forward, with fireworks and confetti cannons...and Barb slipped quietly out with the last of 2004.

* * * * *

When someone we love dies, someone who's been a touchstone and a role model and a savior, a one-woman charitable organization, a friend...I think it's our responsibility, our obligation, to smooth over that void with ourselves. To live for that person, and to play a part in the lives of others, as he or she did for you. In some way I can't well-enough describe, I'm glad I was at Darcy's when Barb died--another place where I feel confident enough to rummage through the fridge, surrounded by another family I've come to think of as mostly my own. We ate cheese fondue and chocolate-chip brownies and drank champagne; the Christmas lights flashed hectically and the kids staged epic, shrieking board games, wired and laughing and up too late. The calendar rolled over, with smooches and bottle rockets, and everything is possible and new.

Happy New Year. Come on over. There are pretzels, and cookies, and I've got plenty of ice.

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