06/26/2011 04:44 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2011

On the Death of a Mentor

Last night, as my husband and son watched an inappropriate comedy on television in our downstairs library, I sat at my desk in my office upstairs and wept. I was watching a link I found on Facebook to the memorial service for Esther Broner, who had been an influential and important mentor to me many years ago when I was a college student, and then a graduate student, at Sarah Lawrence. I had fallen out of touch with Esther -- certainly I hadn't been in touch with her since becoming a mother and moving from New York City to rural Connecticut -- and so the force of my tears surprised me. As I listened to eulogies from her nephew, her brother, the writers Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Lindsey Abrams and Gloria Steinem, I felt a profound sense of loss, a personal sense of loss for all of the richness of that relationship and the many years it could have continued, if only I had kept in touch and made the effort.

I met Esther during a year of tumultuous change in my life. I was twenty-three, and was returning to college after having dropped out for several years. I had recently lost my father in a car crash, and very nearly lost my mother as well. She was recuperating from massive injuries in a rehabilitation facility. My family -- what remained of it -- had fallen apart in the wake of my parents' accident. Relatives were suing relatives. People no longer spoke to each other. I felt as if I had lost everyone and everything and was re-building myself from the ground up.

So when I walked into a fiction workshop at Sarah Lawrence and encountered my professor -- I recall a billowing cloud of black hair, dark, dancing eyes, an eyebrow perpetually arched as if always seeing the humor in any situation, a wide and ready smile -- I was a shadow of a young woman. Identity-less, unformed. Wounded, grieving. Wide open and vulnerable. Esther seemed to see all this. She saw me. In fact, she saw more of me than I knew was even there. She wasn't afraid to tell me what she thought I should be writing about. She had a kind and deft touch that was, at the same time, rigorous and incisive. From her, I learned many of the lessons that I carry with me as a teacher myself today. It's possible to tell the truth in a way that is not wounding, but empowering. It's possible to be a role model with no ego involved. It's possible to be a mother and a grandmother and a novelist and a feminist and a teacher, and have all of these things feed one another, rather than be in conflict.

Write about beauty, she told me once. I didn't think I was beautiful -- I was in too much pain to think anything of the sort -- but Esther saw, and Esther knew, that my physical appearance, such as it was, had informed a great deal of the way I saw the world and the way the world saw me, and she thought I had something unique to say about it. She wasn't afraid to ask me to dig deep. And when I looked into those dancing eyes, I became less afraid myself.

In graduate school, Esther continued to be one of my primary teachers. I used to drive her home from Sarah Lawrence to the city, where we both lived. I relished those drives. Hurtling along in the pitch black night down the Henry Hudson Parkway; dropping her off at her loft downtown. I felt privileged to have a view of her life, to meet her husband and her grown children, to sit in her big, comfy loft and imagine myself to be part of her family, if only her family of students. I was a girl in need of a family, and during those years at Sarah Lawrence, Esther and a few others -- Jerry Badanes, Grace Paley among them -- stood in for the family I had lost.

I sold my first novel while still at Sarah Lawrence, and embarked on my career as a writer. In those first few years after graduation, I didn't see much of Esther. Last night, as I watched her memorial service, I wondered why. Did we both feel that our work together had been completed? Or was I afraid to allow a woman of her age -- the same age as my own mother, with whom I had a terribly fraught relationship -- to get too close? Certainly, Esther's life was very full. I needed her much more than she needed me. In fact, she didn't need me at all.

Esther had a book come out a couple of years later, and she gave a reading at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. I went to the reading, as did about a hundred other New Yorkers, and after she spoke, I got in line to have my book signed. When I got to the front of the line, I bent down to the chair where she was sitting and gave her a kiss.

"Hi, Esther!"

"Hello, beautiful girl."

I handed over my copy of her book.

"How shall I sign it, sweetheart?" she asked.

"For me!" I said.

She searched my face for a moment with those dancing eyes.

"I'll just sign it, for beautiful girl," she said.

She had forgotten my name. Those after-workshop talks, those drives into the city, those evenings in her loft... I felt a strange, plummeting sense of... what was it? I was embarrassed, of course. Mortified, actually. But there was something beneath the heat rising in my cheeks. It was an awareness that I had been one of her many, many students, in a single aspect of a rich life that included so many facets from writing to teaching to being a feminist leader (she created the Feminist Haggadah for goodness sake!) that she couldn't possibly keep it all straight. It was yet another lesson from her, this time an inadvertent one, about living, truly living, an authentic and widely-varied life. She was more important to me than I ever could have been to her. And that is exactly as it should be.