If Mrs. Jacobs was alive today, Taylor Swift would be living in her neighborhood. One summer, the project at Sunnymede, her summer “cottage” was to sit on the divan while one of her new friends (a sycophantic historian who, out of earshot of Mrs. Jacobs and her housemate, Ms. Kimbrough, made frequent references to how close to the hereafter they were), re-arranged their library.
Mr. Dennis Brown (not his real name (yes, it is)), would read off titles and the delighted women would call out: Fiction! Poetry! History! and, most miraculously of all: Friends’ Shelf!!
I had been reading aloud to Mrs. Jacobs for several years before the summer of Mr. Dennis Brown. It had ceased to surprise me that she knew people like Indira Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Leontyne Price, Bowzer from Sha Na Na (okay, that surprised me). But the idea that she knew enough writers to fill a shelf?! Easier to believe that, one day, we could talk face to cyber-face with a loved one on another continent. There Mrs. Jacobs sat, almost completely blind by then, announcing, time after time: Friends’ Shelf! while I, temporarily squelching the nausea Mr. Dennis Brown’s company inspired in me, gaped.
Oh, Mrs. Jacobs, my one true friend for many a Misquamicut-slash-Watch Hill summer, here is yet another reason why it’s tricky to befriend octogenarians when you are barely old enough to sit at a bar legally. Because when you finally have a Friends’ Shelf in your much more modest library, to whom can you express your gratitude and your disbelief?!
There are other things I do to honor the memory of this friendship, but keeping my Friends’ Shelf is my favorite because, along with marriage and motherhood, with seeing my name on a book spine, this kind of thing came under the heading: To Dream the Impossible Dream. It also comes under the heading: Not Only Do They Walk Among Us, You Can Have a Beer With Them.
But I sat down to write this morning thinking about writing friends now. And, really, about all those years between Sunnymede’s library with its windows to the Atlantic, and to this day when the first blizzard of the pandemic season rages outside. I wanted, especially, to try to express how a community forms on Facebook and Twitter and on all the social media platforms it is so easy to despise where suddenly writers feel less alone. More encouraged. It is a different kind of friendship, one I feel compelled to qualify or explain. But where, it’s true, friendships form or continue from tenuous beginnings.
And when one of those writer friends dies young and suddenly, you grieve not because you met a few times at a literary festival and shared a sofa at the afterparty, and not because you’ve followed her online since then — seen her children and her hamster, the fat dog she loves, sent her an anniversary wish, laughed at a meme she posted — but because you never in your life imagined meeting these magical people, these writers. And there she was. You drank wine together. It was plentiful and free which thrilled you both. Your husbands liked each other. You shared a love of lipstick, and now, you had a way to keep in touch. To hold your end of the thread.
I do have best friends who are writers. Women whose secrets I know. Whose husbands and children I have hugged, whose pets have accompanied us on long walks and weeklong writing retreats. Nadine Darling was not a friend like that, and, in light of the deep grief her closest friends and her beautiful family are feeling, it seems strange to admit my own sadness. Who was I to her? Who can we ever be to those people, writers or otherwise, who pass through our lives so briefly and with whom we share this love of language, this dependence on story?
But I do remember those moments with Nadine when we were living the lives at least I imagined writers lived, answering questions posed to our panel, walking through the local bookstore past a stack of our books, feeling we’d earned an invite to this final celebration. We returned, she and I, to the work of a new draft, to our three children (and Nadine also to her stepchildren), to a houseful of pets. But we didn’t lose touch, and this week, what I feel imagining the world without her, is simply grief.
I will say this to all of the writers I have happily met in person or online: It took me so long to believe you were out there. I can’t imagine some of you aren’t out there still. But it is a comfort to find your words only a few feet away and to know some part of you lingers.