The Death of a Friend
This week word came that my friend Shirley Kennedy had died. On the one hand, I was relieved for her. It was like hearing that a friend, unfairly imprisoned, had been set free. On the other hand … such a sweep of memories!
When I first began to write this “Non-Advice Column” it was with the idea that there’s an art – or a skill – to being a woman. One could be an expert on many things but a dope at the woman thing.
I had three models in mind, very different women: one Russian, one French and my mother, all born on other shores. Whatever each of these women knew, it was not to be found in how-to books or political manifestos. I didn’t know how they knew what they knew, but it was obviously worth knowing. I admired them.
Shirley Kennedy was a completely different sort of woman, but one I also very much admired. In her own sphere, she was a great woman and a great friend to me.
She was among the last of the breed of Old School Mainers. Her babies had been born at home where the midwife didn’t like you to fuss about pain. She had the home skills women used to have before you could buy butter and milk and soap at the store. Back when people had fewer time-saving devices, it seemed that everyone had more time, Shirley said.
There wasn’t much that had happened in Milbridge for the last 75 years that she didn’t know. In the memoir she had begun to script (which the local historical society might do well to acquire) she knew what to tell and what to gloss over. She spoke with the accents of Washington County that the new generation is sloughing off.
She won many ribbons in rodeos across the nation but, more to the point, I never saw anyone sit a horse with more mastery than Shirley. She understood horses and rode with grace and ease.
That wasn’t all she understood. I had a woman friend in town who’d been born and raised in wartime Germany and came to the U.S. as a G.I. bride, after the War. Over the time I knew her, Hilda began turning toward political extremism. My efforts couldn’t stem the tide. She could have chosen either extreme, Left or Right, but a final visit made clear that she’d become a Neo-Nazi.
The very afternoon of my last conversation with Hilda, I was to ride with Shirley. As we went down Back Bay Road at a walk, I shared with Shirley what had just occurred, adding that I was less upset for myself (have I mentioned that I’m Jewish?) than for Hilda.
“I know,” Shirley said, not losing a beat.
She did know. I didn’t have to explain — as I might have had to with a city friend.
When it was time to sell the antebellum home I’d inherited on Bayview Street, I learned that my parents hadn’t owned a saleable half-acre of the ground on which the house stood. Only Shirley would have known who did own the shore strip and the right-of-way and how to find them. I’d be tracking them down still if she hadn’t led me to them on horseback.
In the last years, when the body she had tuned to the highest level began to fail her, and she was caged in its crumbling functions, a gentler side emerged. She seemed humbly grateful for the helps she needed and received. I’m not saying that those virtues compensated for what she described as “existing, not living,” but they were not insignificant.
You could call it
part of the glory of her.
As I realize that she has gone, one other awareness comes through now. Improbably, considering the surface differences that might have been expected to separate us, she and I had been very close. My blood sister and I have been thoroughly estranged for many years. In consequence, I don’t usually think of friendship between women in terms of a feeling that’s specifically sisterly.
This week, quite unexpectedly, it’s come to me with sudden force that Shirley and I
had been sisters!