"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm."
-Henry David Thoreau
At 101, my friend Emily still had the spark of a 21-year-old. The last time I saw her we watched half of Random Harvest, starring Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. She raved about the 1940's film classic ("it's a great love story") as if it had been the premiere of the latest Twilight saga. When she excitedly asked if I wanted to hear the rest of the story, I said definitely not, insisting I'd be coming back for the second half. Far above and beyond that adolescent exuberance was a wisdom and grace that is way too scarce in today's twitter world.
Listen up, Jane Fonda. Hear ye, Gloria Steinem. I'm addressing you because you have the age, the guts, power, the compassion and the sisterhood foresight to make this happen. I think every middle school kid should be assigned an older (dare I say wiser) female companion. Someone to check up on, monitor, have daily chats with, take to lunch weekly, accompany to supermarkets, doctors, movies and just plain listen. Furthermore, it should be a required college course. It would certainly be an eye-opener into true insight and intelligence, not to mention what real friendship bonds are all about.
Every time I visited Emily -- over the last 30 years -- I felt a strange craving, envisioning the day she would not be there. At those times I missed her even more, conscious of the imaginary hourglass, knowing the time was slipping away, feeling the void in advance.
My friendship with Emily was unplanned and unparalleled. It was also bound by the Number one. It was 1981 when I rented a summer sublet, taking the #1 train to the Upper West Side to see the apartment, which was one door away from hers. I found out that her birthday was one day (okay, and five decades) apart from mine. It was a number one friendship sprung from the angels.
We shared so many firsts together. On her son's opening night on Broadway (in 42nd Street), she was mugged at gunpoint in the entrance of her brownstone. Her 1st phone call was to me -- she was afraid to sleep alone so I came down for a slumber party of sorts to keep her company and keep her calm. She taught me my first Polish words -- dziękuję (thank you) -- and I taught Emily her first backwards phrases. She gave me my first boiled wool, cherry red jacket which she'd kept better in seven decades that I would have in one.
Emily was savvier on the Microwave than I was on Microsoft.
She'd surprise me with the latest news, and ask quizzically, "Didn't you read the newspaper today?"
Emily gave me my first lesson in undersilk clothing to keep warm; she was the first one who ever told me to use nutmeg in her creamed spinach soup, which she always had ready for me on a cold winter's day; and she was the first one to use a container to hold a milk carton -- it was just so much easier to pour the milk!
Emily and I shared stories about relationships over quiet afternoon cups of coffee. We could discuss sex as easily as socks. She told me about a famous producer propositioning her; I told her about my first sexual encounter in that summer sublet. It was an arbitrary decision because the guy's last name started with "A." I decided he was the first one -- he was sweet enough, so I figured let's go alphabetical.
Emily later referred me to another sublet, and it was there that I had my first mugging, my first foray with using humor to conquer violence. Right in the vestibule of the upper west side brownstone. It was memorable for all the pink sweet 'n lows my mugger had to wade through in my wallet to get to my cash, and for all the items I convinced him out of -- "Oh, that's my sweet 16 ring -- you don't want that. Oh those are scripts I'm submitting to HBO. You don't want those..."
Yes, I'd had colorful sublets from Manhattan musicians with a hammock. But I'd never had a sublet with a neighbor who became immediately such a close friend -- a friendship that lasted 31 years.
We bonded over our love of trees in Central Park, our disgust for female gossip, and our frustration with competitive backstabbing women from teenagers to 90-year-olds.
We also bonded over silence, the New York Times Op Ed page, and our frustration with technology. One day Emily was so excited about the morning editorial that she asked if I had time to hear something. So I cancelled all morning appointments, stopping into a community garden to focus on Emily. She read me the whole piece over the telephone: "More Kissing Less Tweeting." She was so thrilled about it that she insisted we respond to writer Bob Herbert with both of our names, which I did.
Emily was completely understated. When I found out that her son was a renowned actor, and the first lead in the long running Off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks, I marveled over her non-boast style.
I'm not usually a betting gal, but every year on Kentucky Derby, like clockwork, we'd call each other to share the list of thoroughbreds and compare which names we liked the best. That was the deciding factor, not the statistics. Then after the race the phone would ring and I'd hear the annual "did you win?" When I said yes, she'd always say, "Yes, but how much did you bet?" Inevitably she got it out of me that I'd just won enough to break even.
Born in 1910, she had the Depression mentality, and was very cautious about spending, she'd always say, "Randee, don't bring any more gifts, but I loved seeing her expression when I'd bring something turquoise (our shared birthstone)... or when Emily opened the box I'd brought her first singing canary on a tree branch.
Emily had a knack for giving the most unique gifts. One was a beautifully bound book, that was hollow, to hold cash, so no one would ever expect it on the bookshelf. Another (my favorite) was a life-size wind-up plastic de-stress turtle that sang "SLOW DOWN. YOU GOT TO SMELL THE FLOWERS. MAKE TIME FOR YOU." She knew people down to the bone.
Her mind worked quickly and analytically... she would often come up with a question about something I'd mentioned to her weeks ago. Always concerned about others, connecting, referring, looking at the real estate section, helping me to find an apartment or someone to cut my hair.
When I started my radio show, she was so excited for me, and always asked how last week's guest was. When her grandson Chris was acting in a new play, we decided to go together, and once we found out there were too many steps for her to manage, she asked if I'd go for her and be her ears and eyes. Of course I would... and did, and she was thrilled just to hear about the experience.
She always read and shared the newest thing I'd written, and was so eager to have it shared. She'd been attending weekly discussions at the Senior Center on west 72nd street -- and so invited me to write a short story and have it critiqued by her 90-year-old peers. She wanted me to have a chance to be part of a writer's group!
Often Emily had a question which demanded some digging. She'd call up and ask, "Randee can you investigate this? " Then we'd both blurt out in sync, "Research!" When she needed to find out details -- from finding a companion to go with to the doctor to fresh food delivery services, that was my favorite thing to do: find out the 411 and report back to her. After all, I had a library degree, and really hadn't used it officially, only Em-ally.
She was so curious to see what they had done once Tavern on the Green closed, so we walked over one summery day to investigate the scene... saddened by the loss of the landmark, replaced by gourmet vendor trucks.
We always chimed in together when we heard words that reminded us of a song. Her favorite was "September Song." Her voice was as exquisite at 99 as it was at 19. "And it's a long long time... from May to December... but the days grow short when you reach September..."
Age is a funny thing. My contemporaries, mostly baby boomers, are wonderful, but none of them have ever told me to call them when I got home to make sure I was safe. None of them burst into song, much less with two-part harmony; a) they don't know Cole Porter; and b) they don't sing.
Older friends can be very dependent. Emily was the complete opposite. Whenever I asked how she kept going against all odds -- doctors, pains, loss of her son -- she would say, "Randee, it's sheer persistence."
She certainly persevered two weeks ago at 101 in walking with me, holding onto my arm as we walked slowly, like that adorable, persistent turtle, inching his way across a room, she floating down the block into the diner, sharing matzoh ball soup, apple pie and cheddar cheese...
It was freezing in the diner and I had no sweater. She matter-of-factly asked the waiter if he had a jacket for me. Nope. I put my wide-brimmed summer hat over my shoulders. Emily suggested I "tuck it in," which I did, and she was thrilled at the new style sombrero/shawl!
Witty, wise, persistent, always thinking of me.
When I called to come watch the second half of Random Harvest, I somehow knew she'd slipped away. Her parting words as she watched me walk into the elevator, making sure I was safe, were always, "Be a good kid." And I'll try, Emily, I'll try.
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