She was So Young to Die

Two days ago my friend Dian asked me to the prom. Ok, it was the Westminster Dog Show but it felt like she’d asked me to attend the quintessential rite of passage event with her. She asked me the day before to go to Madison Square Garden with her to watch the Best in Show judging, but of course it was sold out. It’s prom, for crying out loud.

We decided to do what we thought would be settling, and that was to do to the piers where the judging and benching happens. “How bad could it be?” we asked each other, and figuring the $25 tickets were worth a gamble so we went for it. At the very least we’d get together and have a good lunch and catch up. 

Dian is the mother of Caraline, one of my childhood partners-in-crime and one of my favorite rediscoveries of adulthood. Dian still lives in Trumbull, where Caraline and I grew up, but has friends who share their uptown apartment with her, and so I met her on the 49th floor. I’d been up high in NYC before, but never so far north, up on 102nd St. in Spanish Harlem. It was so bright up there it was damn hard to see, but goodness it was nice to get a lift on my perspective. And who doesn’t love an up-high view of Central Park?


 Dian suggested we just sit for a moment (smart gal), but then it was time to go “see the dogs” though we really had no idea what we were going to see. I wanted to look for my friend’s mother who’d be at the Golden Retriever judging, and when we walked in that’s exactly what was going on but the ring was mobbed and it was hard to see anything.

Other than the fact that I attended Dian’s 70th birthday party last summer, I hadn’t seen her since (I’m guestimating) 1990, and we’d never had to navigate anything together but that didn’t matter at the dog show. We trusted our instincts and landed next to a Leonberger, the first of many show dogs we got to snuggle. We even got stickers to wear on our sweaters all day that said, “I met a Leonberger.” {we wore them through dinner.}

Yes. Lunch got bypassed. At one point I inhaled a croissant and Di had an iced tea, but we basically did the dog show equivalent of “shop ‘til you drop.” I’m telling you: the benches are where it’s at.

I learned that there are only six benched dog shows in the United States. At an unbenched show
the dogs only have to be present for judging. At a benched show the dogs have to stay on an assigned “bench” for judges, spectators and other breeders can meet the dogs. I guess that technically it’s to look at bite and gait and coat color, but temperament is a big factor for judging, and the temperament of the dogs at Westminster is (obviously) exemplary.

A few of the handlers were hyped up, but the judging was more than half over by the time Dian and I arrived, and the sense of calm in there was downright serene. It was an unbelievable experience to be in a space with thousands of dogs and feel so calm.

Di and I did the rounds, and we even went through a few rows twice. We pet, hugged, and talked to dogs. We said “congratulations” and “better luck next time.” I cradled the beautiful face of a Great Pyrenees in my hands, and an exhausted Anatolian Shepherd threw her sleepy head against my chest. It was so awesome. If tickets were available we could’ve spent close to $200 to go to MSG for the “big event,” but because that wasn’t an option, we spent $25 for a much more intimate experience with the dogs, their owners, and their handlers.

It was incredible  seeing the dogs up close, but it was equally awesome getting to talk to their humans some of whom were so exhausted they were sleeping in kennels or up against the dogs. It was also an excellent lesson in finding out that sometimes not getting what you want is the best gift of all. 

Here are some of the visual highlights:








Dian treated to a great dinner at Becco, and on the way there I stopped to take a photo of the house where my great-grandmother wad born. Mimi (my grandmother) often talks about the light-filled house with big rooms where her mother was born, and describes it as being on 48th Street and 8th Avenue, behind the firehouse.

I took a picture to show her what it looks like now, which I’m realizing is not a particularly effective exercise. The old firehouse has a new façade, and the house where her mother was born is now surrounded by chrome and glass high-rises. There’s a Thai restaurant downstairs, clearly something newer to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood than what existed in the decades bridging the 1800s and 1900s when the neighborhood was home to working-class Irish-Americans.

Mimi has been looking for her mother lately, and last night was no exception. Maureen had gone to bed and I was watching the end of the dog show on television and writing an explanation/apology email to a friend (that’s a whole other story, though it’s shaping up to be a good one) when Mimi came upstairs.

It was 10:30—and odd hour for Mimi to surface—but there she was, looking for her mother. “Where’s Nanny?” she asked me, “Is she sleeping?” My emotions were tapped out, but I guess this is what it’s like to be a mother—you give when you have nothing left—and I said, “No, Maureen is sleeping in that bedroom.” There was a moment of confusion because Mimi clearly thought she was talking to Maureen.

I asked if she was hungry and she said yes, so I gave her a banana and a cup of Pellegrino and we went to the living room to catch the Best in Show event. And then my grandmother came back. “Oh! You went to the dog show today! How was it? You must’ve had the best time.”

Just like that we were having a conversation. So I told her all about my day and she told me how sad she’d been all day after hearing that Shirley Temple had died. She talked about how fun it was as a kid to go down to the Sharona Theatre (sp) on 9th Avenue with ten cents to see a Shirley Temple movie. She talked about laughing and about the escape that Shirley Temple gave everyone during the depression.

She was pleased to report that there was never any “naughty talk” about Shirley Temple and she didn’t get involved with any “smart guys.” She said it was sad when she disappeared from the movies, but good to know she was living her life like a regular person. “So young,” Mimi said, “She was so young to die.”

I reminded Mimi that Shirley Temple was eighty-five, five years younger than she is, and she said, “I know, she was so young to die.”

After that Mimi made a quick exit. She thanked me for being a great hostess, and said “Thank you for being so good to me. I love you. I hope you have some sweet dreams.”






Levi and Amanda: My Newest Old Friends

I was going to write about the amazing church I went to last Sunday, or how much I love driving into San Cristobal, off the pavement, past two cattle guards and over a narrow bridge and I’m home.

I thought about writing about how much I love making a fire for myself, even when it’s a multi-stage act of prayer, because I feel like after all of my years of longing I’m finally getting a titch of my Little House on the Prairie dream. Or about how I actually love how my phone doesn’t ring at the cabin and I wonder (and worry) about how I’ll ever go back to all the noise and chatter.

I considered about writing about my new writing group and how I can’t believe now—after three weeks—that I ever doubted it would be a good thing for me. They tell me my writing is engaging, snappy, confident and—my favorite—honest. I adore these people for their passion for writing, their compassion for others, and their stories.

But I decided had to write about Levi and Amanda.

There are the people you know forever—they make your heart tick and skip and weep—and then there are the people you know for two days.  My friend Geoff recently embarked on an ambitious project to write tributes for sixty-seven people (in four days!) who meant a lot to him and who’d influenced his life. The second line of mine is, “I thought I knew all the people I wanted to meet.”

I love it. Sometimes I think I hardly don’t  have time to visit and spend quality time with all of the people I already miss and love, how could there possible be room for more? But then I meet Levi and Amanda.

The first morning I was doing my usual—drinking coffee and sitting outside in my favorite early morning spot of sun—when Levi popped out of his cabin. I knew people were coming in to the cabin next door, and quite frankly, I wasn’t excited. Will they be loud? Obnoxious? Irritating? I’ve become protective of this space and my routine in it. I enjoy the quiet.

But I liked Levi out of the gate. He’s a farmer in Maine, and has a CSA. He farms land that his grandfather, who came from Holland to Maine in 1950 to build boats in Bath, left to him. Grandpa’s name meant “beekeeper” in Dutch and he lived up to it. Levi’s business cards for Center Pond Farm boast a honeybee, and though he doesn’t keep bees yet it’s in the farm’s future plans.

I appreciate Levi’s tribute to his grandpa, and his connection to the past; none of us would be here without them. Fact. Levi’s only been farming for three years and this year is the first time he hasn’t had to have a fulltime job off the farm. I barely knew the guy yet I told him I was proud of him.

Levi and I did a lot of chatting before Amanda emerged and then I got to hear her story. She works at a foreign exchange student organization; she didn’t study abroad herself but there was an interesting story why and it came full circle for her. This is a story she’s told before, but it wasn’t tired or worn out: it was authentic, just like her.

We connected immediately on my adventures living in Honduras and my “full cultural immersion” experience which I boil down—because I’ve told the story before too— to bullet points: I started a business, bought a house, and dated a native. She laughs.

I get one laugh and all of a sudden I’m doing standup at open mike night. I take a few risks, it’s going well, then something comes out of my mouth unfiltered, “The ranch supply store in Missoula has a sign that says, “Behind every successful rancher is a woman who works in town’” and as the words come out I felt then leaving but couldn’t stop them. I saw stars and hoped for the best. At least they’re only here for two more days. How much could they hate me for two days?

“Ha! Can you get me one of those?” Amanda asks, Levi laughs, I’m in the clear.

We talk and talk and talk. But they have sights to see and I have writing to do. We part.  I saw Amanda briefly that evening as I was leaving to go meet a friend and they were walking down to the fields to watch the sun set.

The next morning we chatted again, this time like old friends catching up. “What happens if you don’t finish your book,” Amanda asked, just like an old friend who can get away with a question like that. I paused, caught my breath, “It’s just not an option,” I told her. “I plan to finish it here, but if it’s not here it will be somewhere else. But, really, I’m going to finish it here.” Like a friend with a stake in your happiness, Amanda told me she has no doubt I’m going to finish it, especially because it sounds like a story the world needs to hear and I’m obviously compelled to tell it.

Can you say girl crush?

They had a busy day of activities and I had a long list of errands before my massage and writing workshop. I loaned them yak trax and ski poles for their hike, and told them to just leave them next to my woodpile if we didn’t cross paths again. I wondered if it was goodbye, but we just offered “See ya later. Have fun!”

Williams Lake, where Levi and Amanda went before they went back to the hot springs in the gorge of the Rio Grande and  to check out the earthships.


I got home after nine hours in town. I really try to maximize the trip whenever possible and I actually made it through my errand list and to my appointments on time. On time. If you know me then you also now believe in miracles. The only thing I didn’t have time for was taking Lucky for a proper walk, so he crashed the workshop. He was naughty for an almost eleven-year-old boy. He sniffed everyone (one woman had a biscuit in her pocket), snuggled his face into everyone’s lap, and put his chin up on the table between each of us. He drank from the toilet (my fault) and acted like a pup. “Don’t make eye contact with him,” I finally said; he’ll settle down. And he did:


My propane heater was on the blink, and after so many hours away the cabin was freezing. I was hungry and had a screaming headache. And then there was a knock on my door. I wasn’t sure if I should be scared or irritated; I wasn’t expecting anyone at 10:00pm. “Hello?” I said. “It’s Levi,” he responded. Oh. Thank. Goodness.

I opened the door and he had arms full of eggs, butter, half & half and a lighter—all welcome, useful things. “I love butter!” I squealed, “I put it on everything.” {it’s true.} He laughed. He came in and we chatted about their last day in the area. They really sucked the marrow out of this place hard core and I loved hearing about it.

They were getting up at 4:00am to drive to Albuquerque for their flight back to Maine, so it was time to say goodbye. “I’m going to miss you guys,” I said, sort of out of nowhere although the truth is it came from my heart and as hard as it can be to speak from a place of vulnerability it’s usually worth it.

We hugged and Levi said, “We’re going to miss you too!”  This surprised me. I mean, I’m here, often alone, tapping away at this keyboard sometimes for days on end; it makes sense I would miss my friendly, temporary neighbors. But they miss me? Some wacky writer girl who gave them a few tips? But I’ve been on the vacationing end, too, and I get it.

I don’t even have a phone at the cabin and sometimes the only voice I hear is my own telling Lucky how cute he is and how much I love him and within our three hundred square feet it gets old—I can say with certainty—for both of us. Our outside world is big. We walk, we run, we feed chickens, we turn our faces to the sun. But the fact is: I get hungry for conversation.

Levi and Amanda were a distraction, but a very welcome one. I enjoyed the exchanges and hearing something first thing in the morning besides my clicking and myself.

“Come visit us in Maine,” Levi said, “We have a guest room…” And I trust he said this knowing I don’t really have anywhere to be and don’t (physically) have any idea where I’m going. “Awesome! I’d love to get to New England this summer and I’d love to get my hands dirty. I’ll help out on the farm!” {despite the headache and the hunger and the frigid cabin I really did speak with all of those exclamations.}

I didn’t have a chance to tell Levi and Amanda about my inner Wendell Berry, who was my first real writer-crush. Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first, but I was just a child then. Berry is a standup guy. He is a poet, essayist, farmer and human who I admire for his willingness to speak up on controversial issues and I’m grateful I got to shake his hand once at a book event in San Francisco. But anyway…I didn’t tell Levi and Amanda that. Amanda had already friended me on Facebook that morning, and Levi had given me his honeybee business card. This was surely not the end.

These are not friends for two days; these are the friends you know for two days and hope to know forever. As Amanda said, “I’d really like to continue this conversation.”

Oh me too, new friend, me too. We have lots to talk about.

Mind Tricks

You know when you see someone who looks just like someone you used to know, but only if that person had been frozen in time? The mind plays tricks; we know this, but that doesn’t make it seem less real.

For the past ten years or so I’ve seen a girl around town who reminds me of my friend Michele, who died in 1997 a year after we graduated from college. I met Michele our freshman year, when she was already sick with Thalassemia a rare, inherited disease I happened to know a lot about because one my two cousins died of it when he was sixteen.

There are a few different forms of Thalassemia, but both Michele and my cousin Harry had the type known as Cooley’s Anemia. Cooley’s Anemia typically affects people of Mediterranean descent and is the gravest version of Thalassemia because the hemoglobin is completely devoid of beta protein and the only antidote is regular blood transfusions. The transfusions lead to an excess of iron in the blood, and an early death due to organ failure is likely.

I didn’t know the girl’s name, but my heart skipped every time I saw her and it would take a minute to re-locate myself in real time. One minute I’d be in Upstate New York, but then I’d see the mountains and be back in Montana.

Michele would be about ten years older than her twin, yet I’ve had the unique opportunity to watch her doppelgänger age over the years, and would get all tangled up in rewind, fast-forward, and pause before realizing that five, eight, twelve or fifteen years have passed.

Usually you see a ghost like this one time—a fleeting glance on a bus, a bike, or in a bar. This is different; this girl has haunted me.

The sightings seemed to come in spurts; for days or weeks I’d see her everywhere, then it would be years before another glimpse. I would talk myself out it, thinking I’d imagined it, but then she’d appear again.

If you took measurements of this girl she’d be a carbon copy of Michele. I’m not just talking about height and weight, waist and inseam measurements; I’m talking thickness of hair, spacing of eyes, width of teeth. I’m talking style and mannerisms—a utterly eerie uniformity.

In February 2011 I was waitressing when one of my coworkers came to tell me I had a single customer seated in a cozy nook we called the fireplace section. Four people could fit there, but it was dark, dreary and slow in town that night, so one was better than nothing. When I turned the corner to greet my customer there she was—Michele’s twin.

I’d been in close proximity to her before, but had never found the nerve to say, “You look exactly like my dead friend,” which, as her waitress, was exactly what I said. I didn’t barge out of the gate with it, but waited for additional, unnecessary confirmation of the resemblance.

I heard her soft-spoken voice and watched her long, thin fingers point at items on the menu. I catalogued her jeans, boots, scarf, sweater, bag—all things Michele would wear. I told my coworkers about it, and by the time the girl was through her appetizer and a glass of bubbly I located the nerve to tell her about the similarity that had spun in my head for a decade. It’s hard to know where to start with something like that, so I just lurched into it and she couldn’t have been more gracious. I only had a handful of customers that night, and spent a lot of time chatting it up with Michele’s twin, who finally had a name: Nicole.

Nicole told me she’d vacate the fireplace section if I needed the table, but the restaurant never filled up and I told her to relax and take her time. She had three courses and three glasses of wine in about as many hours, and we had a lot of time to get acquainted. It turns out Nicole and I have a lot in common.

Our families are both from New York. We’d both followed guys to Oregon, moved to California, and returned to Montana alone. We both laughed about it. There was camaraderie between us, and every time I had a minute we’d pick up our conversation where we’d left off, like old friends.

Nicole’s leisurely night out wasn’t cheap, and she had a panicked look on her face when I came back to pick up her payment. “I don’t know where my wallet is,” she said. I’ve been walking around all day but haven’t used it; I hope I just left it at my house. I’ll go get it and be right back.”

There was a moment. A moment where I knew I should take something as a guarantee of her return, but it felt awkward not to trust this girl. She told me she’d walk the twenty minutes home and then back to the restaurant. “I shouldn’t drive after three glasses of wine,” she said, and it would’ve been irresponsible for me to suggest otherwise, so I said all I could: “No problem.” There was plenty of time before the restaurant closed.

An hour later I was done eating my staff meal and having my own glass of wine—starting to worry that I’d be paying her fifty dollar tab plus tipping the bartender and cooks out of my own scant tips for the evening— when she called the restaurant. She’d looked everywhere, but her wallet was definitely missing. She said she would go to the bank and get me the money on Monday. The music blared for the after dinner crowd, and I could hardly hear as she gave me two different phone numbers. She said something about switching plans, something about one phone being pre-paid, and I jotted two numbers on a scrap of paper.

I had everything or nothing to be nervous about, but I’ve always fallen into the camp of believing (at least once) that people do what they say they’re going to do.

When I hadn’t heard from Nicole by Wednesday I located the scrap of paper with both of her phone numbers and—big surprise—both numbers had been disconnected. For a week I called and texted her numbers, and with each call I got more frustrated. It wasn’t the sixty dollars; it was, of course, the principle. I’d been duped. I didn’t think she’d come into the restaurant looking to scam a meal. She’d certainly charmed me, but I’d opened the door for the connection. I was the one who said, “You look like my dead friend,” so if anyone was being charming…..

In mid-March Lucky and I were hiking with some friends. We were three gals and three dogs hiking along, when another dog, who’d been crouched in the tall grass below the trail, jumped up and took a big chunk out of Luck’s butt.


The other dog’s owner and I exchanged numbers, and though we had a few dicey moments about who was going to pay the vet bill, but his wife took one look at the damage and wrote me a check for the full amount.

We handled the experience like adults. I was grateful both for the civility with which the dog bite incident was handled and for not having another strike against human frailty.

I worked at the restaurant on St. Patrick’s day, but before meeting up with some friends I needed to go home to give Lucky his pain medication and antibiotic. I grabbed my coat from the staff area and instead of going out the front door, where I might have run into someone and gotten distracted, I exited through the kitchen into the alley. Who did I run into when I stepped into the alley? Of course, Nicole. If Lucky hadn’t been bit, if he hadn’t needed his meds, if it hadn’t been a holiday, if I hadn’t gone into the alley…I’d have missed her.

Part of me wanted to walk her directly to the nearest ATM so she could pay me in full right then and there. I thought about taking whatever cash she had on her, or maybe holding her pretty scarf as collateral. But I couldn’t. “I am SO sorry,” she said. “I lost your number and changed phones. The AT&T phone I had from California wasn’t working here and then I lost my charger for the other phone….I’m so sorry. I know it’s not a good excuse.”

I just didn’t have it in me to get all Gestapo on Michele’s twin, so we exchanged numbers again. Again. And what do you know: the same thing happened. Again. Well, not exactly. We had one exchange, then she told me she had to leave town and would call me when she got back, but she never did.

Now I was pissed. You know how the adage goes: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Ick. I’d trusted this girl based on nothing but her uncanny resemblance to a dear friend who I miss a lot. Nicole was shiesty, but it wasn’t her fault that I’d trusted her. I had to take some accountability.

But here’s the thing: I was a little worried about this girl. Either my judge of character had completely missed the mark, or this girl had some pretty serious drama going on in her life. Maybe both.

But here’s the other thing: I really had been duped. I decided it could just become a funny story and I’d write off the loss on my taxes as a “bad debt.” {that’s legit, right?}

I never expected to see her again.

Last weekend my friend and I were crossing the main drag downtown during First Friday, which is always busy, but the regular crowds were amplified by the art walk falling during the Festival of the Book, which is like Mardi Gras for book nerds.

My friend and I were deep in conversation and crossing a street that felt much more Manhattan than Missoula when my head spun around. The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them, “Oh. My. God.” I couldn’t remember her name or I would have shouted it, but instead just repeated myself—“Oh. My. God.” People turned to see what I was OMG-ing, and Nicole finally looked at what everyone was looking at, saw my face, and ran back to my side of the street.

I expected her to go the other way, and wasn’t sure if I’d run after her or not, but she said, “Jaime! I’m so happy to see you!” I was speechless, but she looked into my eyes, put her hands on mine and said, “I am so sorry. Really. So Sorry.” Really? “Look,” she said, “Give me your number. I’ll call you right now and you’ll have mine. I’ll call you this time. I promise. I’m in grad school now…I’m not going anywhere this time.”

It took her two days, but she called, then it took me three days to call her back. She followed up with a voicemail explaining that she has a research position at the university and gets paid November 1. As soon as she gets paid she’ll pay me for her dinner and, she said, give me a generous tip to thank me for my patience.

Patience? I suppose I have been patient, though it felt more like surrender.

I sent her a text: Hi Nicole, thx for your message the other day. Very Sweet. Give me a call when you get paid.

She responded with: I will absolutely be in touch with you as soon as I am paid! Thank you so much again for your patience and kindness!

It will be interesting to see what happens November 1. I think she’ll pay me, but I’ve thought that before. For some bizarre reason I almost feel guilty taking Nicole’s money, though I know there’s no rational thought to back that up, except that she reminds me of my dead friend and, you know, there’s nothing more logical than basing your reality on ghosts.

I’ve been thinking maybe Nicole and I could use the money to go out to eat together. I’m pretty sure she has a story and I know I’d love to hear it.

{From left to right: Jaime, Kate, Michele @ Belhurst Castle, Geneva, NY, Fall 1993}