While sifting through some old papers in this quiet season, I came upon a stack of letters.
They detail a relationship begun some 100 years ago, when my then-eight-year-old mom first began spending some serious time with the seven-year-old cousin who would go on to become her very first friend.
This photo shows my mom. She’s the baby in the middle flanked by her two big brothers, born in 1905 and 1906. She herself came into the world in in 1907 (and yes she did have me at the last possible reproductive moment.)
…And this photo shows her cousin, also as a baby, and also flanked by his older sibs. He was born in 1909.
By 1914 or so, according to my mom, you could find the two kids sitting for hours on the curbstone, waiting for the fruit man to clop by with his horse and cart so they could pick up his rejected berries and surreptitiously wing them just past the retreating figures of random passing grownups.
They spent hours punished in their rooms.
I first met this cousin the summer I was ten, when my mother organized a family reunion. When he stepped from the car to greet this friend he had not seen for 30 years he called out “Hello old partner in crime!” He then turned and christened me “Muggsy.” My willowy older sister he called “Stretch.” And in his colorful reminiscing, he showed us a side of our mother we had never seen.
With their friendship thus renewed, he sent more letters, each filled with his signature humor:
“Mike and Paul continue their education studying to be bums,” he wrote. (They were nine and 11 at the time.) And, “Son David is finishing college and doing a lot of singing, most recently in a performance for 200 college girls majoring in something that has to do with being kind to people.”
In time, we kids grew up and this cousin wrote reacting to it all: Congratulations and think of it! Muggsy and Stretch having babies at the same time!” A few years on, when Mom went south to visit Stretch and ended up breaking her hip, his response was immediate: “That’s what you get for going to Florida.”
After she moved to a retirement home near me, my mother wrote to him to say, “It’s like college all over again!” Since she lived five minutes away, I well knew how happy she was, throwing spontaneous sherry parties, and ignoring all the fire drills and raising a late-blooming feminist consciousness in many an elderly breast.
Her friend from 1915 wrote to her in her new place:
“Now that you’re settled in with all the old fogeys, I take it upon myself to send you a note. I have diabetes these days so I can’t walk downstairs anymore. I slide down the banister.“ And a little later: “How are you? Still running the Home? I can just see you bossing everyone around. I have had a slight stroke and it has affected my handwriting and speech. I couldn’t write or speak before so it’s no loss.”
But soon after, there was this: “Back home after losing three more toes. Looks like I’ll have to give up ballet.”
The last letter in the folder was written not to my mother but to me, by yet another of this man’s sons, a singer-songwriter who I ‘re-met’ when his career brought him East on tour.
“The old Da’ is in bad shape as you might have guessed,” it begins. “I can honestly say, Terry, after much quiet meditation that I wish God would let him go to the next great adventure.”
Which God did, within days of his son’s writing.
It was late August when we laid him in the ground. Four months later, my mother followed her first friend, without warning, or sickness, or pain.
I want to salute those two frisky spirits from both horse-and-buggy days and to say once again how very lucky I feel to have known them.