Lately, I’ve felt like writing

A few weeks ago, I celebrated a birthday that my mom never reached when I turned 54. Fifty-four. It doesn’t have much weight, although I few years ago, I would have found it too heavy to lift. Instead, it’s just another number, another year on the calendar. And that’s a pretty good feeling.

But the memories are stirring and I’m beginning to feel like it’s time to put more of them down before they vanish into the mist of time.

So.

We left our daughter at home for the first time last week while we jetted to NYC. It was a birthday for present to me, a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. It was a magical night, that I won’t soon forget. And our girl was fine while we were gone which you would expect a high school kid to be.

It made me remember the first time my parents left me and my brother. They drove off to Michigan for two weeks the summer I was 13 and my brother was 14. Or maybe I was 14 and he was 15. Anyway, they went. We stayed.

During the day we stayed home. We had a dog or three and probably a few cats. We also had a big, magical yard that was never better than it was during the summer. We probably spent our time playing baseball in the schoolyard next door. We might have played some football and Frisbee golf. No doubt we ate junk and drank too much soda. But come the evening, we got our on bikes and rode the mile or so to the house where our grandmother and her sister, great Aunt Red, lived. They fed us dinner and we slept there.

I don’t remember much else. I know we got at least one postcard from them. Mom brought me a notebook and a kind of doll that is either Chinese or Japanese. I can’t remember where the doll came from, or what it signifies, but I still have — one of the dwindling items I still have that I know my mom also touched.

The funny thing is that sometimes, years after that, I found out they almost didn’t go. A few days before, I slugged my brother in the head with the phone — you know, the handle part of our old black phone that was tethered to the wall. He had quite a lump and I hid for a while after I did. I was a volatile child, full of emotion with little impulse control. I can the echo of the girl every time I look in the mirror.

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A vacation in three parts: Where it ends

After we left Alaska, we stopped briefly in Victoria, B.C. which was quite lovely and then steamed back to Seattle. After the cruise ended, we still had five more nights in the Pacific Northwest. We spent that time by first traveling down the Washington coast into Oregon, and then taking a circle back to Seattle. The first stop was Astoria, Oregon which exceeded our expectations. Our hotel was, perhaps, the best we’ve ever stayed in. The Cannery Pier Hotel is just what you think, an old salmon cannery on a pier that has been converted into a small, beautiful hotel, tucked almost under the southern end of the Astoria-Megler Bridge that spans the Columbia River.

 

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The bridge from our small balcony, where we watched birds fishing. A seal also stopped by.
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The lobby of the Cannery Pier Hotel
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Sunset from our balcony. The river was busy.

In addition to a cool hotel, Astoria is home of the “Goonies” house. We visited, but since then the owners have put up tarps to keep people away. Sad. We talked to a man working on a Mazda Miata outside the house. He seemed nice and actually started up the conversation with us. Astoria also boasts “The Column” high on a hillside over the Columbia. The actual Column was closed, so we couldn’t climb it, but the view from on high was great. There was a fun dinner at a river-side brewery where we ate fresh salmon jerky and watched gigantic car-carrying tankers. Astoria also has a superior weekend farmer’s market. It’s also close to the coast. We spent a day on the move, starting in town with the market, Goonies and Column, and then heading west to the Lewis and Clark Fort site before exploring the beautiful coast including kitschy Seaside and upscale Cannon Beach. You have probably never hear of Cannon beach, But the rock formations that jut out of the ocean have been in a lot of movies.

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Haystack Rock
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Our feet in the wide, blue, cold Pacific
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A tribute to Sacagewea at the Lewis and Clark Fort.
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Goonies!
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High above Astoria

We left Astoria and followed the Columbia River into Portland, leaving the ocean behind. We only had one night in Portland, and, sadly, didn’t get to explore much. We did enjoy several hours at the Oregon Trail Interactive Museum in Oregon City. That’s a must-see if you’re traveling with kids. After, we met a friend for an enjoyable dinner, but what free time we had went south when we took a walk in a tough section of town. I booked a hotel outside the area I was trying for, and never got a feel for Portland. The hotel was decent, but dark and old. We were pretty sure it was haunted and weren’t sad to leave.

Our goal going back into Seattle the following day was to do a hike near Mount Rainier. But the distance was daunting and we made a last-second decision to drive back to Mount St. Helen’s instead. It was a fabulous three-hour detour. There were several stops on the long road back to the ridge that runs parallel to the mountain, where we learned much about the eruption, and a terrific visitor’s center at the end. It was fascinating and well worth the time.

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Mount St. Helen’s, from the north. The entire side and top of the mountain blew off. The company that owns much of the land devastated by the eruption has reseeded many of the mountains and valleys and is logging again. The area nearest the volcano, in this picture, has been left alone so the scientists studying the area can see how nature comes back.

We headed back to the highway and Seattle after this great excursion. We spent our last two nights at the Shafer Baillie Mansion, a bed and breakfast in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Stay there if you get a chance. It was just fabulous. We walked to dinner, where we met an old Navy friend of my husband’s and then toured the neighborhood which was near several college. We watched guys playing bicycle hockey while eating some amazing ice cream.

We spent our last full day at the zoo, did a drive by of the Bridge Troll and then took the bus and train to the Mariners game. The next morning, we left on a jet plane, Mount Rainier behind us and home ahead.

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The Shafer Baillie Mansion
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Good seats at SafeCo Park

A vacation in three parts: Part 2, Section D

Our last stop in Alaska was Ketchikan. We only had a few hours in port, which wasn’t nearly enough. I saw just a tiny bit of the very cute town, looking for postcards and stamps and a way to get them home. The post office in the tourist-oriented port area was no longer open.

While meandering, I could hear the roar of the crowd from the nearby lumberjack show. We skipped activities in and near the tourist center, instead taking another float tour. We loved this one. The small boat, room for 12 tourists plus the two-person crew, met us right at the dock. It was tied up steps from our ship. We walked down the gangway and after waiting for a few stragglers, were off.

We immediately saw an eagle in a tree. The captain killed the motor and we floated near.20150618_073652

And that was the way the trip went. We were on the water, instead of a river just an offshoot of the fjord system that wound through the Tongass National Forest. It was damp, not surprising because the it’s a rain forest. And it was cold. Brr.

Our guide was a college kid, who studied nursing in her real life and talked to tourists all summer. She and the captain were terrific as spotting wildlife. We saw loons, bears, deer, many eagles and seals with their pups.

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The rocky edges of the bay were beautiful. It was peaceful. We didn’t see another boat during the 90-minute tour. Probably the coolest thing we saw were the bright starfish of Alaska.

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This striated shore, with reflection, caught my eye
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Alaskan starfish. Who knew?

This our last piece of Alaska. The week flew by, and it wasn’t nearly enough. We headed out of the bay soon, toward Canada and Seattle. We loved Alaska and have hopes of returning for another trip, much farther north.

 

A vacation in three parts: Part 2, Section C

The next leg of our journey north, took us into Glacier Bay. That destination was the prime reason we took this particular trip on this particular ship.

We sailed into the mouth of the bay around 4 a.m. The sun was already up. It was advertised as a place to see whales, and though I toyed with the idea of getting up to see it, I slept and made my way onto deck around 9 that morning. We were due to reach the end of the bay between 10 and 11.

So I dressed in all my layers and went as high as I could go on the ship. It was spectacular.

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This was one of the first pictures I took. It was cloudy and cold, a steady wind blowing as we traversed the bay.  But there was mountain after mountain, some rocky, some covered in snow and ice.  20150617_08575020150617_084010

We cruised past this glacier that spilled into the bay. The dark ice is where the movement of the glacier rubs the rocks off the mountains. It is still cloudy and cold.

By the time we reached our destination, the end of the bay, the clouds cleared and the sun popped out to light the Margerie Glacier in all its magnificence. I can’t say much more about what this looked like. I’ll let the pictures talk. I will say that as we cruised in, and then out, we saw wild sheep on the mountains and coastal brown bears by the water (with binoculars) and a multitude of Stellar sea lions, seals and otters cruising the cold, turquoise water. But this day was all about the ice. These are all shots of the Margerie Glacier. Everything was bigger, prettier and more colorful than these pictures show.

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The school in my backyard

They are tearing down the school next door to my childhood home.

That is a loaded sentence which only begins to define the magic I found growing up next to Favorite Hill Elementary School. We lived in a big, old house that had its own ghost and almost three acres of wild, overgrown yard in which to fuel the imagination. A six-foot fence was the sim divider between that yard and the school.

When I was four, maybe five, I would shinny up a tree next to the chain-link fence — the prickly top of the fence was bent down there because we used that tree to climb over the fence — and just sit there, watching the kids at recess. I wanted to go so much.

I did, eventually, for five years before being bused across school to finish elementary school. I remember the name of every teacher I had from kindergarten — we only went half-days and I was a champion sleeper so went in the afternoons — through fourth grade. OK, I forget the music teacher’s name. And the art one. But we only had one teacher each year and they were Mrs. Overholser, Mrs. Buecker, Mrs. Cain, Mrs. Sweigart and Mrs. Wilcox. I did have reading with Mrs. Palsgrove in fourth grade.

My mom was on the PTA, president for a chunk of the time I was there, and there were school fairs and plays and spelling bees. I remember having some kind of drill in second grade and having to be outside for a while. I saw my mom at the fence, which was technically farther from the school where the lower grades could play — big kids only! — but I ran out there only to find she was talking to my teacher. “Here she comes,” my mom told me she said to the teacher. It was far for short legs, but just a run home for me.

But most of the magic happened when classes were out. We used that yard like it was our own, back in the day before schools were fenced in and off-limits. We played baseball and home run derby and football on the big field, which ran 80 yards from street to the west fence. My grandma donated that field to the school, and for that reason, I grew up on Ford Drive which was named after her.

We hit golf balls and threw frisbees there. Sometimes, we had actual baseball practice with our Midget and Little League teams — mostly my brother practiced and I helped because I was a girl and couldn’t play until I was 11 years old. Because I was denied the game I loved, some of my earliest memories are of being discriminated against just because I was a girl. Once I was allowed to play, I made the All-Star team. Take that, men.

We spent a happy childhood in the dirt and on the playground. I think I was 10 when I ripped my elbow open ‘flying’ on the merry-go-round. Twice.

I know I was 10 when I hit my tennis ball on the roof and the janitor let me climb up and get it. Yes, you read that right. He knew we already climbed on the roof all the time.

I rode skateboards with Greg around the school, and soaped the windows with Diane. I stood at the top of the rickety monkey bars and tried to knock them down. Everyone did. They stood for decades. I jumped off the top of the slide, skinning my knees in the white gravel.

Later, when I went to bigger schools for bigger kids and no longer threw a tennis ball against the red brick walls for hours, I held hands and kissed boys near the schoolyard in my backyard. I zoomed across the field on mopeds, sometimes with boys and sometimes alone. I took my nephew to play in the schoolyard where I grew up.

It has been many years, decades, since I had a schoolyard in my backyard. I still drive past it when I get home, which is not often.

I always smile.

A vacation in three parts: Part 2, Section B

We knew it would be hard to match our Juneau experience as the trip continued. We were right. But there was still plenty to see and do.

The next day we made port in Skagway, a tiny town founded during the gold rush. I’m pretty sure if the cruise industry hadn’t found Alaska, Skagway would be just another western ghost town by now. I was up early and made the short walk into town. Main street is about six blocks long. It was quiet, few people around.

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I was able to do some shopping before it got crowded. I found a nice driftwood Christmas tree ornament, crafted by an Alaskan artist in a cool shop that sold artisan goods. The lady who rang me up lived in Charleston, S.C. She was probably in her 60s, and retired. She fell in love with Alaska, so she found a place to live for the summer and was working in the shop for the season. I could do that.

Although we were in port all day, we decided to do just one excursion. We went across the fjord to Haines and then into the back country for a river float in an eagle preserve. The scenery was stunning, but we didn’t see very much wildlife. If we had a do over, we’d skip this trip.

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This is one my favorite pictures from the trip. The colors are so lush.

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A vacation in three parts: Part 2, Section A

We left the Port of Seattle on a brilliant, sunny afternoon. Mount Rainier dominated the southern horizon, a bold, snowy sentinel that proved a touchstone through much of our vacation. To say we were excited falls short of capturing our emotions. We were going north,  to Alaska. A trip that took about eight months to plan, book and then await was unfolding.

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Pulling out of Seattle under the watchful eye of Mount Rainier

Almost 48 hours later, we approached our first stop, Juneau, on a slow float down the narrow fjord that is prevalent on this stretch of coast. Snow and ice capped mountains loomed on both sides. It was sunny and warm, much warmer than Alaska normally gets even for late June. Juneau, the state capitol, spread out before us on either side of the water. With just over 30,000 people, it’s pretty small.

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Juneau, Alaska. Downtown, including the state capitol building and governor’s house, is to the right.

Our first adventure in the Last Frontier was a helicopter ride up the Mendenhall Glacier. Once there, we were going to dogsled. As it turned out it, it was the highlight of our two-week long trek west. The helicopter ride was amazing in every way. Less scary than expected, we zoomed up, over a pine-tree clad mountain beside the airport and were quickly over the ice fields that never lose their snowy cover. It was breathtaking. Because I had booked the first trip, we were the first people up the mountain. That gave us a few extra minutes so our pilot veered away from the glacier and took us over another section of the ice field.

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The glacier is off to the left, beyond the nearest peak.
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The ice field.
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The tallest peaks in this area of the ice field. The black bar is a shadow from the helicopter propeller.

We landed to the cacophony of 280 Alaskan huskies. The camp is a training place for dogs that race in the Iditarod. The dogs and about 25 people live on the glacier all summer.  We had a double sled for our family of three. Ted, who is training for the 2016 Iditarod which will be his first, took us on a circuit around the camp, pulled by 10 impressive, friendly, boisterous dogs. Part of our team were dogs that placed sixth in this year’s Iditarod. They were magnificent. After our ride, we met a three-day old pup. It was an amazing experience. I think we’d all do it again, given the chance.

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We spent a little time in Juneau, mostly the touristy area around the port, before heading back to the ship. After a short break, we went whale watching. Just being on the water is beautiful. Snowy hills line the shores. Eagles soar with a magnificent elegance. We were lucky to see numerous humpback whales. Two different pods were bubble-net feeding. The captain of our little boat said he only sees bubble-net feeding about 12 times a season, which lasts from May to September. He said he had never see two pods, so relatively close together, doing it at the same time. We had a marine biologist on board as well. They were both excited about our find. At one point the biologist dropped a mike deep into the water. We heard whale song. All I could think of was the line from Star Trek IV, “Captain, there be whales here!” The biologist said a lot of people mention that to him.

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What a pod of whales look like after they break the surface during bubble-net feeding. The birds helped us know when the whales would explode out of the water.

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Lots of whale tails and whale blow spouts on the water .

The captain of the little boat was so amazed by what we were seeing that we actually arrived back to our ship nearly 30 minutes late — well after the all-aboard signal. Oh well. They couldn’t leave us because we booked through the ship. Lots of people were lining the ship’s deck, watching us stroll aboard.

What a day we had in Juneau.

A vacation in three parts: Part 1

We traveled to Seattle on a big, cold plane, full of people, their belongings, their germs and all the other weighty things that humans always seem to carry. We were traveling heavy. Though our hearts were light with anticipation of our travels, our bags were stuffed full of summer clothes and winter clothes and all kinds of clothes. Life in the Florida warmshine is a long, long way from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

So we chased the sun across America, watching movies on our electronic gear and eating junk. I knew we were somewhere new when the sun lit up the snow-covered cap of Mount Rainier. It was spectacular in the dying sun. We were on the west coast and the sun was finally going down. As the plane slipped below the clouds, so, too, did the sun slip below the horizon for the first time. We were there.

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Flying through time zones is its own kind of science fiction and all we knew of Seattle that night was fast cars and hilly roads. The Space Needle and the dark waters of Puget Sound were stars in the night time painting visible outside our hotel room window. Soon, we slept within.

My morning began early. I am almost always first up when we’re traveling, so I did what I always do. With my phone, ID and 20 dollars, I went out to walk in the morning air. The city was already awake, I guess as cities always are. When I walked out the hotel door, I looked left. Puget Sound beckoned beyond the point where the road fell from sight. I glanced right, saw trees and concrete. With no hesitation, I  headed left. It was cool, not cold. My feet fell down the hill. Cars came and went. The homeless were abundant. So were the Starbucks. I grabbed a Chai tea and a banana and made a 45-minute circuit that took me to the water before circling north and the back to the hotel.

I liked Seattle right away and nothing changed that as we walked through the day. We did the tourist circuit, spending some time at the Pike Place Market before visiting the aquarium, riding the waterfront giant wheel and then shifting attention north to the Space Needle.

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Later, we took a water taxi across the sound to West Seattle and one of the best meals we’ve had in recent memory at Salty’s. I also got to dip my feet into the cold waters of the Sound. Day one, and the first part of our trip, was complete.

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All hail hail

We had a storm last night, the biggest hail I’ve seen in the nearly 16 years since moving to Florida.

It was kind of cool, which I can say because we didn’t take any serious damage. The cars are OK and the screen enclosure around the pool remains intact despite the icy chunks, some bigger than quarters, which came hard and fast and made a riot of noise on the metal roof. The wind blew, the rain cascaded and the hail, oh the hail, came down and down.

With it came the happy memories of a childhood hail storm.

I may have been 4 or 5 years old, but I’m not sure. I do know it was a long time ago.

My two brothers and I stood on our wide, concrete porch that was the greatest hang out place of my childhood. We watched the rain and the hail come, the big front yard a glittering spectacle of ice. When I say big, I mean big. We lived in a old, old house in the middle of a small town, but the house sat in the midst of three magical acres of property where we played baseball and football, set up an obstacle course and a frisbee golf course and played Star Trek and cowboys and Indians and ditch ’em… you name it, we made it real. Anyway, the front yard ran about 30, 40 yards from porch to street.

There was a lot of hail.

So I and the younger of my brothers put on the those old, yellow raincoats we had. Who remembers them? Thick, bright yellow, with strange buckle-like clasps down the front. The hood was a separate piece, with three little buckles under your chin. We put them on over summer clothes that day and ran out into the ice field, hail crunching under our feet, to gather treasure from the sky.

I don’t remember getting pelted by the hail. Perhaps it had stopped? But I doubt it, because I do remember Mom yelling at us when she saw us out in the hail. Needless to say, the adventure was over then.

Yesterday, my daughter snaked her hand out from under the small roof that guards our front door and grabbed a piece. It’s in the freezer, where it will soon be forgotten. I picked up a piece later, after the hail and rain had stopped, while we checked for damage.

In an ode to childhood, I popped it into my mouth. I’m not sure what I was expecting. The taste of fresh snow? Rain? The purity of innocence?

It tasted like dirt.

Hmmm. I guess I ate plenty of that when I was a kid.

My friend

Pati and I were different people, headed to different places. Senior year, she was the arts and entertainment editor of The Post and I was the sports editor. We were the back of the book and, as such, competed with each other for space. What A&E got, sports didn’t get and vice versa. It had long been a contentious arrangement that created some bad feelings. This was especially true in the Friday paper, in which A&E ramped up for the weekend events and sports did the same, especially for the heavy sports. Football and basketball always played on Saturdays back then and we ran extensive preview packages.

It was a lot of stuff and sometimes the paper only had six or eight pages.

But Pati and I forged a bond and a friendship. I think we must have worked late nights together on Thursday junior year. I can’t really remember, but I know that I did it all three years I was at the paper and I know we had started being friends before senior year. Crazy nights. The Friday paper was the biggest, always, and a lot of times I was the last one off the floor at 3 or 4 in the morning. Those were the cold press days, when we ran the copy through this machine into sheets of paper, and then waxed them and physically built the pages. Exacto knives, pica poles and proportion wheels were our friends.

Pati and I never argued over space. I had to have candy and always brought lollipops with me and always shared them with her. As I think about it, she was probably my straight man. I was loud and passionate and lacked decorum. I was also very good at what I did, as was she. We just liked to be around each other.

If I was at the paper that year, so was Pati. And I was there 20 or 30 hours or so a week that year, on top of classes and going to games.

We loved it, every moment of it.

As I replayed so much of this in my head yesterday, after learning of her death, I remembered that Pati was the vehicle through which the most intimate story I ever wrote was published.

The Post has long been one of the best student papers in the country and we were riding a high at that time period. We had a four-section paper the first week of classes, with color, and in that spring, not long before graduation, we published a magazine. It wasn’t huge, but it was very well done. It was Pati’s baby. She called it “Groundfloor.” A handful of staffers were doing long pieces for it. She was in the end stages of editing it when a story fell through.. the back page. I’m not sure if the story collapsed or the writer did. But Pati was in a bind. She asked me if I had anything. Hesitantly, I asked, “What about personal experience?”

She took it.

It was an essay I wrote for a godawful magazine class, one of my final journalism credits, taught by a professor that I openly loathed. He graded me not by the papers I turned into him, but by comparing them to my work in the paper which he said was better. He made the mistake of telling me that in front of a witness and I knew I could take him to the ombudsman and get relief. Instead, I turned in a first-person story about the death of my mother. I had, in the nearly four years that had passed since her death, rarely told anyone. I certainly never wrote it down before. But, frankly, I did it out of spite because I knew he’d have to give me the ‘A’ that he had been denying me.

Pati never knew my mom was dead until I gave her that paper. She edited it kindly and I got a lot of responses to it, not a few from strangers.

But Pati was the star and her magazine, printed on this amazing paper, was a huge success. I was happy to help her. I still have several of them stashed in a box. It was ambitious journalism for a bunch of overgrown kids.

Pati went to NY after graduation. I don’t know what she did there, but her life changed when she got hit by a car when crossing a street. She also met Johnny Depp at a party, once. After that, in no particular order, she went to Portland, Me., where she worked for the symphony and eventually returned home to Cincinnati where she worked for the Cincinnati Orchestra. Somewhere along the way she donated one of her kidneys to, I believe, her sister because that was the kind of person Pati was.

I spent a week with her in Maine, in 1992. It was the last time I ever saw her. We had kept touch faithfully for those first six years after school, but life changes and we drifted out of contact.

We reconnected on Facebook several years ago and it was a joy to communicate with her. I was also, finally, able to return a book she had lent me, ‘The Golden Notebook.’ I’m so glad I was able to get it back to her. Pati enjoyed my posts about my daughter. She didn’t post much and sometimes vanished for a while.

When I read her obituary, a sparse, terrible thing that didn’t come close to capturing the person I knew her to be, a button popped up to donate to the National Kidney Foundation. So I did.

I cannot believe she’s dead.