Yesterday I came in from harvesting a storm-felled tan oak, my Neolithic mind thinking ahead to winter warmth from these new-cut logs a year hence, and I found in my email a missive from someone with a name I didn’t recognize, the tone of her letter chatty and friendly and full of information that suggested she not only thought I knew her, but that I knew her well. I was certain this letter wasn’t spam because it came through a spam-free channel; but there was nothing in the communiqué that rang any immediate bells, so I busied myself with more pressing business, read the email again, and went outside to weed my garlic.
And whilst pulling a particularly tenacious weed, the identity of the correspondent came to me, my unconscious review of all the women I’ve ever known with that particular first name ringing the only possible matching bell. I had cohabitated with her for two years of challenging (to say the least) quasi-marriage 35 years ago; not a peep from her since. I came inside, read her note one more time, and in a state of mental disarray called Bob, my only current friend I could think of who knew the correspondent well in those bygone days, and I read him the blast from the past.
“How sweet,” he said upon hearing her news. “I always liked her.”
Then we blabbed for a time, dredging up memories from the early 70s, and realizing that Bob’s children and the children of my correspondent are now older than we had been when my correspondent and I were living together all those decades ago in the halcyon days of cheap food and low rent, and when being an artist was as easy as saying you were an artist and getting to work on a painting or a song or a story.
My reality check with Bob at end, I endeavored to read the communication as something sweet and felt its sweetness, and I tried to imagine how this woman could have possibly gotten to where she’d gotten from where I left her. So I wrote a short email reply, lacking a snail mail address, and gave her a little news about my life and the lives of my siblings and their offspring. I told her of my mother’s long entwinement with Alzheimer’s and her death five years ago, my father’s death three years ago, my divorce sixteen years ago, my happy marriage to Marcia, and then I gave her fairly recent news of two old friends we’d known in the commune where we’d lived together for a time; and as I wrote to her I wondered if I would, in the end, hit the Send button, because I really didn’t know her now and might just as well choose someone at random from the phonebook and write to them.
I did, ultimately, send the email to her, to which she responded by saying she had no recollection of the old friends we had in common or of a commune. This seemed impossible to me, so I wrote her back in hope of jarring her memory with more details of the friends and the old house in Santa Cruz. A day has passed and she has not responded to my response to her response. I am grateful for this hiatus. And I am especially grateful for having my memory of those days stirred up because I have remembered something quite wonderful and useful I want to share with you in hope of stirring up your memory of your life 35 years ago.
It is this: We owned nothing but some clothes and a guitar. We had so little money there was no point in having a bank account. We didn’t have a car or a television, and there were no such things as computers or cell phones. We couldn’t have gotten a credit card if we’d wanted to. We gardened because we needed the food. We listened to the radio and made popcorn when we wanted to have some easy fun. Once in a great while, we’d buy a bottle of wine and get high. I played pickup basketball for exercise when I wasn’t digging ditches or working in a day care center or singing for pennies in pubs. She cleaned houses, and after we split up she went back to college.
But what I want to remind you of, assuming you were there, too, in one way or another in your young adulthood, was that we were okay. We weren’t always happy, but sometimes we were, and we were often hopeful, and the hope paid off because here we are all these years later, still going, still taking our chances and reaching out because we still can. I remind you of this because as bleak and horrible and depressing as the news is these days, as dire as this economic meltdown has been and is turning out to be, as scary as the future may seem, we know how to get by without much at all. In fact, we know how to get by better than we ever did when we were kids just starting out in life and knowing nothing. And what we learned is that friends are a thousand times more important than money, and you just never know when something really groovy might happen.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)