THE BLOG
08/07/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

Holding Down the Cat: Friends Before Facebook

I followed my musings about old-fashioned friendship and fell under her spell again.

She couldn't do it by herself. Ramona's big fierce-looking bobcat Samantha, with an ugly stump where its tail had been, needed daily insulin shots to control diabetes. Charles, Ramona's human companion, was the easy-going one in the house. He used all of his slight frame to hold down the ornery cat. Charles cheered Ramona on with a wry smile, as only a former con artist could do, while she delivered the shots. Until one day it all changed. My father, who lived a half-mile down the road on Sugar Loaf Key, received this phone call from Ramona:

"Charles dropped dead," she said.
"Oh, that's terrible. What happened?" he asked.
"Heart attack. In the boat."
"I am so, so sorry," my father replied.
"Yes, of course it's terrible, but how am I going to give Samantha her shots?" Ramona wanted to know.

That Ramona seemed to focus on the life of the cat rather than the death of Charles was no surprise. She also left thimbles of water out for the spiders in every corner of her house. Without hesitating, my father offered to stop by Ramona's place each day on his bike ride to the post office. Thus began a morning ritual lasting many years: After tending to the cat, Ramona and my father lounged under her lanai overlooking the canal, sipped tea, and swapped stories.

On a recent visit to my father, I invited him to share some of these stories. A look of bliss settled on his face. We began to see his friend the novelist Ramona Stewart, who departed this world in 2006, materialize in front of us. There she was as a girl growing up in Los Angeles in the 1930s living with her father, a promoter of silver mines who lost and won fortunes as often as the seasons changed. At age 12, Ramona typed a letter to her screen idol, Robert Taylor, explaining that she wanted to write his biography. Mr. Taylor's secretary, impressed by the mature voice on the phone, made the appointment. Ramona buttoned up her new Mary Janes and took a bus across town. The secretary ushered her in, and Mr. Taylor received her without a hint of betraying his shock at her age. He politely informed her that he felt it was too early in his career for a biography, but asked if she would help him with a letter to start his fan club. Though it must have been exciting for Ramona to be near her favorite movie star, I am sure that she came to Mr. Taylor in a spirit of friendship. She felt confident that as an aspiring writer, she could help him. And she did write that fan letter.

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(Photo credit: Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University)

Without money or connections or much beside her ambition to be a writer, Ramona Stewart started to write at age 5 and kept writing. Ramona did not give up, and by her early 20s, she had her story Bitter Harvest serialized in Collier's magazine. It was later made into a film called Desert Fury starring Burt Lancaster. Ramona (pictured above working on a screen adaptation) had ten of her novels and a number of stories published, including another made into a film, The Possession of Joel Delaney, starring Shirley MacLaine. Her strong female characters were ahead of their time, often outcasts from conventional society, sometimes aided by supernatural forces. In her private journals (now at Boston University), Ramona speaks of her characters interfering in her life as if they were real people. This friendship with her characters, from the overbearing Mrs. Carlisle to the rebellious Paula Haller, brought them to life on the page. Clearly, she had spent time with them and always revealed them without judgment.

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I remember shyly asking Ramona about her characters the first time I met her when I was a teenager, she in her 50s. I was too enchanted by her air of mystery to recall much of what she said. With her bun held up by hairsticks, a slightly hooked nose, and deep-set gleaming eyes, Ramona's thin lips would settle into a purr on her face, a self-satisfied demeanor that was anything but smug, rather like a child who could entertain herself for hours. Ramona told me that she was most like the teenage Pauline from her book The Surprise Party Complex. The friendship among three teenagers is central to this novel and the key to surviving in a world with mostly unreliable adults. Watching Ramona glide up the stairs to my father's house reminded me of Pauline who "balanced the soap on her head to be sure she had not lost the knack, and practiced walking like the fire maidens of Bali into the bathroom and down into the tub." Ramona had that catlike grace and independence, yet at the same time looked as if she could barely contain the spirit-dance in her head.

My father first met Ramona at the Christian Science church in Key West. They shared the religion's optimistic philosophy mirrored in The Surprise Party Complex by Pauline's belief that "the wonderful thing that was going to happen to her like a surprise party wasn't really in the future but was going on around her now, in the living present." However, when my dad was kicked out of the church for his homosexuality, Ramona stopped going. She never discussed this with my father. It was how she showed support, not asking for credit or recognition. She never entered the church again, even after my father was invited back, and he re-joined the organization.

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(Photo credit: ©Alan S. Maltz/alanmaltz.com)

It was that kind of quiet steadfastness that I so admired in Ramona's friendship with my father. I worry about us drifting away from those kinds of relationships. No matter how many exclamation points anchor the friends floating in and out of my computer screen, they seem light next to Samantha's heft. My father held on tight to that cat each morning. And still holds on to countless moments of his communion with Ramona.

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