Joan and Diana in Tofino, British Columbia, Canada.
Ill tell you, shall I, something I remember?
Something that still means a great deal to me.
It was long ago.
A dusty road in summer I remember,
A mountain, and an old house, and a tree
That stood, you know,
Behind the house. An old woman I remember
In a red shawl with a grey cat on her knee
Humming under a tree.
She seemed the oldest thing I can remember.
But then perhaps I was not more than three.
It was long ago.
I dragged on the dusty road, and I remember
How the old woman looked over the fence at me
And seemed to know
How it felt to be three, and called out, I remember
Do you like bilberries and cream for tea?
I went under the tree.
And while she hummed, and the cat purred, I remember
How she filled a saucer with berries and cream for me
So long ago.
Such berries and such cream as I remember
I never had seen before, and never see
Today, you know.
And that is almost all I can remember,
The house, the mountain, the gray cat on her knee,
Her red shawl, and the tree,
And the taste of the berries, the feel of the sun I remember,
And the smell of everything that used to be
So long ago,
Till the heat on the road outside again I remember
And how the long dusty road seemed to have for me
No end, you know.
That is the farthest thing I can remember.
It wont mean much to you. It does to me.
Then I grew up, you see.
Eleanor Farjeon (It Was Long Ago).
When I went to visit Joan in Toronto in October 2001, we were talking about Eleanor Farjeon, and she said we must go to the John Osborne Collection. There was a poem she needed to read again. So we went first to Kensington Market. It was unusually warm, and Joan and I sat outside drinking tea and eating beignets. We knew it was borrowed time. According to the doctors, she had one more month to live.
But what does one do with borrowed time? Speak faster, truer? We just enjoyed each others company, ranging in our conversation from people to ideas to memories to children to food, as we had always done. There is no one quite like Joan to converse with. My ex–husband delighted in every opportunity he had, when Joan lived around the corner from us in New York, to invite her for Szechuan dinners and listen to her regale us with tales of her father, the admiral and her mother, the keeper of fine taste. We loved how Joan turned a phrase, turned a tale. She was a brilliant conversationalist.
Joans papers and large wooden staff were to be archived at the Osborne, so she wanted me to meet the curator and just confirm that all was in order. We sat at a table as the librarian brought us book after book. From time to time I wondered, is this what we are doing with our borrowed time? Yet as we searched through the books, we kept stopping to read each other poems that we thought the other would appreciate. And sure enough, when we got to the last book — ah, there was the wonderful poem: It was Long Ago.
Joan insisted on reading the poem to me aloud in the library. She read it twice. As she read it, she became that old woman, and yet her mouth crinkled like a happy child when she spoke of the berries and cream. Then she said, You read it. Ah, that pleased me. I wanted a try at it. So I read, but as I began she said, Slower. From the time Id met her, when I was 27, she was my teacher — correcting my English, suggesting alternate possibilities for reacting to situations and people, trying out Gestalt therapy on me.
Id begun telling stories in 1967 at the Statue of Hans Christian Andersen, and heard the next year that there was another wild storyteller – one who also did not wear stockings and gestured and jumped about and took it all much too seriously. Joan Bodger was her name. I was telling in the parks of New York City, the Bronx and Bedford–Stuyvesant; she was telling in the streets of Nyack.
I went to visit Joan in her home in Piermont, New York and fell in love with her before I opened the gate to her home. Her yard was not manicured grass but wild grass and wild flowers of every kind. I had always wondered why people would cut down the grass. Here was the wild storyteller with a wild yard. Joan and I began to talk and the hours ran. We talked story into the night and I stayed over. It never changed between us. There was never enough time to ruminate on the questions, the stories we wanted to tell each other, the wonder we shared about the world.
I did not know in October that five months later we would be reading poetry once again to each other. In early December, the doctors told Joan that her time was nearly up. She had colon cancer, and if she wanted to go to British Colombia to die by the sea, which had been her plan for at least ten years, shed better leave before the New Year or she wouldnt have the strength to get there. I had planned to visit Joan again in December, but she telephoned to say, No, theres no time. Im leaving and this is good–bye. We wont speak again.
That was the unbearable part about Joan — the good–bye. Wed be talking on the phone and she would suddenly say, Well, Ive spoken long enough, good–bye. Shed had so many losses in her life, her friends came to understand that she made her exits before the other person could go first. I resented her simply telling me that she hadnt the time and that was that. Yet, I understood. It was true. So I called back the next day as if I hadnt heard the part about not speaking again. She seemed to have forgotten it as well. I called once more and then she left. Flew off alone on December 23rd for she didnt know where. To die by the sea, to walk that great ocean at her own command.
At the end of January, the phone rang. It was Joan. Dammit. She was still alive. I was so glad and yet I somehow knew she wouldnt leave without a word of love. She told me she had found the perfect town — a living Northern Exposure. Too quickly, I told her I would be glad to come out and see her in a few weeks, and she answered, Ill let you know. Never good to be too pushy with Joan, but a week later she called and said, Yes, I want you to come. I want to see you. Come the end of February so you can see the whales. Thats when theyll be coming. She called back the following week to say I could only stay two days because she was very weak. I agreed.
We were so glad to see each other. I looked at her, really looked at her, and her blue eyes were open in a way Id never seen. All the sadness that had given her a veil was gone. Her eyes were fresh and sweet and luminous like an eleven–year old girl. What do you see? she asked me. I see your beauty, I told her. She was so beautiful, outside and in. She had to change her clothes unexpectedly a few times and I was surprised to see how soft and voluptuous her body was. In Toronto she had shown me with great pride photos of herself naked and had said, It took until I was in my seventies to know I was beautiful. Her breasts were pink and soft and lovely, much like berries and cream.
And what did we do? We talked and ate; we went to wonderful restaurants and left suddenly to return to the Inn because Joan was too tired. At night wed read poetry to each other. Often shed fall asleep in the midst of a conversation and Id just sit by her bed watching the sea. One night Joan woke and said to me, I love you. I love that you sit by me as I sleep. Im the child now, and youre the mother, and youre taking care of me. When you go, please leave your door open, just in case. That will make me feel safer. Now that youve come I think I will invite others to visit as well. I feel stronger and safer with you here.
I say at night because after the first night when we were having such fun, I simply said, Joan, Im staying the week. All right, she agreed. Since her friend Nadia was also coming (for two days only!), Joan had decided to hold what she called the last great storytelling in North America. She invited fifteen people, then gave her friend Ron Shaw one hundred Canadian dollars and told him to buy fresh salmon and whatever goes with it. Joan and I and Nadia told stories in the hallway outside Joans room on Saturday, March 2nd, (long past the time she was to meet the Reaper). Joans new friends from Tofino were there: a truck driver, waitress, fisherman, tarot card reader, novelist, hemp merchant. It was a select group, select and ardent.
Joan began by telling Tristan and Iseult. It was a telling that no one will forget, for Joan fell fast asleep in the story. Three times. And each time she woke up and went on with the story, exactly where she had left off. We felt we were dreaming with her. Joan ended with Tristan in the water, wounded and dying in his rowboat, sailing west to be healed.
Joan wanted me to tell Harold Courlanders The Cowtail Switch (I had told it at my fathers funeral), and she also commanded Nadia to tell The Man Who Would Not Listen to His Own Dream from The Magic Orange Tree. It was an elegant party. I dont know how Ron did it but the food — finger food — was delectable, all kinds of colors and tastes, and then there was champagne. Joan, wearing a purple velvet jacket, was beaming.
After the stories, she said, I am now going to bed and will be receiving in my bedroom. So she left the hall, walked two steps into her room, and one by one people visited her and then left.
She had a beautiful sunlit room in the Inn, right on the sea. From her double bed she could see the whales and ships and seagulls from two windows, one facing south, the other east. She was in pain and at times confused and at times happy, sad, radiant, funny, full of wisdom, stories, questions. Shed found the right place to die. It was just like Northern Exposure and already the town was taking care of her, for wherever we went Joan engaged in conversation, asking others about themselves, revealing herself. She insisted Nadia and I go with her to meet her doctor and the hospital shed be going to. She said to us, I want you to come to the hospital so you can imagine where I will be and I can imagine you imagining me and that will be a comfort. She insisted that I go on a whale ship so I could see whales. I saw the tails of at least five whales and shouted with joy with the five Japanese tourists on our inflated rowboat.
The First People began to visit Joan. They took a great liking to this rough, prickly, intuitive, outspoken, wise elder who had lived a good life and fought for what mattered. Justice, free speech, good child care, education. Joan and I spoke about our work, our husbands, our children — Lucy, Ian, Rachel, my grandchildren, Moses and Abram, which she considered to be her great-grandchildren. (She felt the same about many of her friends children.) In her weakened state, Joan insisted on walking with me to the Native Store to buy a present for my daughter, her American godchild. She was proud of Rachel. She told me she was very proud of me. That made me hold my breath — my teacher was proud of me. She had no complaints, Youve softened, she told me, in the right ways. No suggestions for you — except teach my great grandson Moses to play ball.
Joan lived another four months. that time I was told she tried to walk into the sea, she alienated the nurses in the hospital by her unexpected bruqueness, and then won their love by her concern for them and vulnerability. She won the love of most of the town and there was hardly a moment, day or night, that someone was not sitting at her bedside reading to her, massaging her, sitting quietly. People took turns reading to her The Wind in the Willows and Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin. She loved its style and details and then she craved poetry: Wallace Stevens, Tagore. She told everyone that she was dying and working on it. Annie George brought her a button blanket of a whale. For weeks she slept under the whale. She could not speak the last few days but could still gesture. She died peacefully on July 4th. She wanted a simple Episcopalian funeral and a celebration later.
For the past ten years, Joan had been planning on walking into the sea on her eightieth birthday. She didnt get to walk into the sea. She was forced to listen to its sound and do some courting first. But the sea has taken her and she is safe now. Joan suffered more hardships than most people in a lifetime, losing her beloved daughter, Lucy, to a brain tumor when she was seven, losing her first husband and son to schizophrenia, resigning from her job at the Missouri State Library because they refused to allow her to speak up for free speech. She was angry but not bitter. She was outspoken but not mean. She cared deeply about her friends and their work and their families. She cared about her writing, her clients, literature, art, politics. She was curious about the world and she wanted the world to know her, too. She spent her last ten years writing about her life in her book, The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories. Im glad she left us so many stories and wisdom in her book. But I feel like Anne Franks neighbor who said, You take her diaries. Give me Anne anytime.
Oh Joan, I miss you, you eccentric, ornery, caring, daring, woman. I want you to be here, to talk things with me, to consider, to ponder, to rage, to explore, to step into story together, to listen to the silence together, to watch the sea together.
Listen, while I say to you: Dear Joan, I love you. Do you hear me? Yes, I think you can. In your last months it was you who softened and received the love that had been intended for you for so many years. I admire you for fighting for all of us. And I love you because there is no one in the world like you.
Good-bye, my dear friend. You are not gone. No, you are here and elsewhere. You loved this earth so much. You demanded justice, leaped to the side of liberty, and chose to die on July 4th. I was told that when you died you had a smile on your face as if to say, I did it. And I did it well. You saw it through — the last great adventure. When you called me from Tofino, you said, Its really very exciting, you know, Ive never died before.
Joans memorial was on her birthday, August 31st, inside the Marriott Courtyard Downtown Toronto Hotel, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (This used to be the old Westbury Hotel, where she met her beloved husband, Alan Mercer.) It went from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m., giving her friends time to celebrate a life well lived.
Essay © 2002 Diane Wolkstein.
Northern Exposure is a trademark of Universal Studios, a Comcast Company.