Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Curious Strength of ALTOIDS

When I returned to blogging about a month ago, I mentioned that 2012 was a rough year.  There were, in fact, five distinct chapters of “roughness,” and they were spread apart just enough to never give me a good break.  The final chapter occurred on November 21st, when my friend, Sue, died.  As with my cat, Vesta, who died in early September, Sue had enjoyed a long life.  Also as with Vesta, I could not have predicted Sue’s death three months’ prior to its occurrence.  Both the friend and the cat went downhill fast.  And for both of them, that was probably a blessing.

I am about to share with you a tribute that I wrote a day or two after Sue's death.  The timing is appropriate, as yesterday would have been her 86th birthday.

While the tribute covers some things, what it doesn’t tell you is this:  it was in Sue’s home that I witnessed dementia.  Her husband, Mort, who died on September 11, 2008 (the same year my dad died), suffered from dementia for probably 15 years.  He was on his last legs of lucidity when I met them 20 years ago, and when Sue and I began to work together, at their condo, he was well into the state of being that would continue to belie his once-200+ IQ.  Nevertheless, Mort was always docile and kind. He also was often quite comical.  Sue was the more imposing individual in that couple, and it is no surprise that she waited until his birthday to die.
During the years of Mort's descent into dementia, the witnessing I experienced inspired my first novel, and because I was able to complete that novel, I knew I could write another.  So, I have reason to believe that if I had never met Sue, I might not be able to call myself a novelist.  For that reason and countless others, I will always be grateful for the fact that my path crossed with hers.

Anyway, here’s the piece I wrote after she passed:

Remembering Sue
I met Sue in 1993, when she and Mort were assigned to “trail” the Development Department at MALDEF (and where I was that department’s writer).  

But it wasn’t until 2000 – and the two years we spent working together on her earring book – that I really got to know her. 

Over the course of those two years, we bonded over common idiosyncrasies.  We also came to learn about – and respect (and sometimes challenge) – those idiosyncrasies that we didn’t share.  When the book project was complete, Sue’s 3-hour/week administrative assistant was about to go off and have a baby, so Sue offered me the gig.

“I know this is below your pay grade,” Sue admitted.  “But make me an offer.”

I thought about it for a few minutes, and I also thought about all those times I had sat at her computer, drafting book copy, my peripheral vision taking stock of the empty laundry room just across the hall.
I could be doing my laundry right now, I would think, during those book-writing years.
So I made Sue an offer: I pitched a dollar-per-hour amount and I would bring my laundry.
For 10 years, I was Sue’s Gal Friday.
And for the first many of those years, I came on Thursday.
Then, we switched it to Wednesday.
I guess we were working our way to the beginning of the week.
(Something that will never happen.)
Still, though, as we worked our way to the beginning of the week, we also worked our way later into the day.  Time was, I’d arrive at one and leave at four.  Years later, I was arriving around three and staying for dinner.
It was the team-building.  The martinis.  The tuna melts.
For both Sue and me, that was the best part of our weekly confab.  Yes, sure, we’d go through the tasks at hand, taking care of bills, culling storage areas for donations to Out of the Closet, filing all the related paperwork…  But:  it was the off-the-clock team-building that made our weekly meetings so wonderful.
Most often, the tasks that preceded team-building took place at Sue’s desk, where her computer was “mission control” (and where she was always the pilot).  But sometimes, we’d venture into other rooms, where drawers and cabinets awaited us.
One afternoon, she wanted to go through/clean out/organize several drawers in her bedroom, so we grabbed our coffees and headed back to the world where a lot of knitting got done.
... I won’t say that Sue was a pack-rat because that implies saving a lot of things unnecessarily.  And while I’ll admit that she did that in some cases, she also was very good about getting rid of things (as per my earlier reference to Out of the Closet donations).  For the most part, the stuff in Sue’s bedroom drawers was less about being a pack-rat than it was about being a collector and creator.
Sue’s creativity within the world of craft was revealed when you opened one of those drawers.  There were the drawers full of yarn (organized by color, of course).  There were the drawers filled with knitting needles, thimbles, and potential adornments.
We were in one of those latter drawers on the afternoon I am remembering, and we came across a lot of Altoid tins.  I opened them one at a time…
Needles.  Okay, can’t have too many of those!  Sharpee in hand, I labeled the tin accordingly.
The next one:  Tortoise-shell buttons.  Hmm, interesting that one should want to keep the tortoise-shell buttons completely separate from the other buttons, but people are entitled to their “systems.”  Labeled accordingly.
Next Altoid tin:  Safety pins.  Those also come in handy.  Particularly if you know where they are.  Label on tin.  Moving on...
Snaps.  Okay… snaps?  Are you going to need all these snaps, Sue?  I tended to doubt that this tin would ever be missed, but just in case, I grabbed the Sharpee and wrote “SNAPS” just above the almighty word ALTOIDS.
Then, I opened the next tin, and when Sue and I saw what it contained, our shared laughter was spontaneous and absolutely uproarious.
The tin contained actual Altoids.
Having no idea how long they’d been sitting in there, we each bravely took one.
And we sat for a few seconds, assessing the flavor.
… for however long they’d been around, those mints were still curiously strong.
Not unlike Sue herself.


Sioux said...


I hope you got to share this tribute at her funeral/wake/memorial service. The ending of the piece was perfect.

It sounds like you lost quite a wonderful friend. This was a great way to celebrate what would have been her birthday.

Here's hoping that this next year is NOT a sucky one, that it's all good...

Nadine_Feldman said...

Oh, this is funny! My late mother-in-law had some of those, too!

I also loved how you negotiated the use of the laundry with your salary. Brilliant idea.

What a great and lovely tribute to a good friend. So sorry you had to say goodbye to her. It's never easy to let a loved one go, even when it's their time.