The Anchor

Mother and Sally exchanged Christmas Cards for over seventy-five years. Every year, no matter that they ‘d barely seen each other since high school, they sent each other Christmas cards. For most of those seventy-five years, they lived four hours from each other and could have easily visited, but I didn’t meet Sally until Mother’s ninetieth birthday.

They grew up in the same small town in New England. They were the same age, went to the same schools and the same church, and both left that small town after high school. But those are the only things they had in common. Teenage Mother liked to gamble, smoke, and party but did well enough in school to earn a scholarship while Teenage Sally apparently never rocked the boat. She met a soldier returning from the war with only one hand, married him and left for the West Coast, probably while my mother was at the university.

Sally’s husband worked for the Post Office until his death. They bought a house just south of San Francisco where they raised three children. After his death, their daughter moved in down the street to take care of Sally. According to the daughter, Sally’s children all did well and produced equally successful children.

In December 2019, after baking Christmas cookies for her neighbors, Sally sat down at the kitchen table and died. I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to go.

Mother somehow graduated from college although to hear her reminisce about those days it’s hard to understand how. She started her career in Hartford Connecticut, about thirty miles from where she’d grown up, and soon got married. My father spent about seven years trying to survive in the corporate world … jumping from company to company all over the states. And Mother went along with him having children and attempting to be a housewife. Once they settled in Reno Nevada Mother had finally had it with the charade. She went out and got the career she’d always wanted and resumed the lifestyle she’d had in college.

For some reason (which I never understood) through all of the turmoil — and it was turmoil — Mother always looked forward to Sally’s Christmas Cards. I wish one of them had survived but then Mother was never sentimental. I imagine they contained a synopsis of Sally’s year: How the husband was doing, how the children were doing and maybe even an account of a vacation to Yosemite. Or perhaps they just contained holiday greetings.

I finally met Sally during the year that Mother lived with us. Her daughter contacted me and we got the two ladies together, coincidentally on Mother’s 90th birthday and had lunch at a restaurant near my house. She looked about twenty years younger than my mother and said very little but smiled a lot. They sat together mostly in silence, affectionately touching and gazing into each other’s eyes and when the restaurant closed to prepare for the dinner rush, there were tears. On all our faces.

Christmas 2019 Mother called to tell me she had not received a card from Sally. She said something must have happened because Sally would never forget to send a Christmas card. Since both ladies were now approaching 94, I thought perhaps Sally’s mental state was slipping and so I contacted her daughter and heard about the Christmas cookies.

Telling Mother that Sally had died was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Mother died in August 2020. I wish she’d exhausted herself making cookies and sat down to die, but it was during the plague and smoke from the fires made the air too hazardous to even open the windows. I played her music from the 30s and 40s on my iPhone, read aloud from a book, and played solitaire until finally in the morning her spirit escaped. She just didn’t want to go through another Christmas without getting a card from Sally. From what I know, the two ladies probably wouldn’t have enjoyed going on a cruise together but they anchored each other to this world. Some old friends are like that.

What We’ve Missed

Dear J,

I’ve been writing you letters in my mind. They swell up whenever I see pictures of your grandchildren – age three and one – posted on the Facebook as everything is these days. You would have gotten yourself into big trouble on Facebook with an inappropriate comment or two, just as I have. But in your case alcohol would not be to blame because you did not drink. Until you knew it was the end and then you said perhaps I’ll have a glass or two. That night we drove to Grizzly Peak and watched the flamed-out sun sink into the Pacific and you sang “Farewell Angelina, the skies are on fire and I must go.”  It took us back to where we began, a basement on Washington Street, a record player, incense, your love of apocalyptic visions and mine of fairy tale endings.  Eventually we blended into Tolkien. 

We left each other’s lives because of the men we married which is how many relationships between women end.  But somehow we managed to stay in touch, if only via a yearly phone call on our birthdays which would go on for hours and cost a fortune. We missed seeing each other’s children grow. We missed being there for each other during long and painful divorces and the death of parents. In fact if it hadn’t been for your cancer, we might never have made that last ditch effort to recapture our youth.

I try not to be maudlin; I try not to cry but when I see those darling faces I can’t help but think of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.


How you’d have loved the North Cape and the Fjords and the Midnight Sun. To sail across the reef at Barbados where the blue water turns to green. To the Falklands where a southernly gale rips the whole sea white. What we’ve missed Lucia, what we’ve both missed.

We said our good-byes at the TSA checkin. Well, it’s more like we yelled good-bye. I was being dragged to the exit for allegedly trying to “smuggle” my grandmother’s tiny manicure set through security and you were waiting in a wheelchair for someone to take you to the gate. The poor TSA agent’s body trembled. He was just doing his job. Of course you made it worse by telling him you had terminal cancer.

I got to keep my grandmother’s ivory manicure set but I lost you.


Jan, the Fratz of Pooh