Monthly Archives: June 2019

The friendships that last

 

I spent the last week with a friend. In fact, it was a week full of friends, and it reminded me of how important they are, particularly those closest to us.

I have five very close friends. I have many more good friends. The difference between the two is subtle but important, and in no way does the intimacy of one group detract from the value of another. We need all sorts of friends, I’ve found. There are the casual friends with whom we might enjoy a common interest. There are the old friends who saw us through a transformative era of our lives, and even though we don’t see much of them any more, we still care about them. There are former friends, and there’s no shame in having a few of those – people whose values you may no longer share but with whom you once had a rapport. There are childhood friends, and work friends, and situational friends.

But I am most interested today in the deepest friendships, the ones that have outlasted time, other relationships, and distance. One of those friends came to stay with us last week. Patti and I have been friends since college. Our bond has survived a long drought where we barely wrote to each other or saw each other. It was forged in our carefree college years, tempered by tragedy, and has mellowed to a deep understanding.

No one teaches us about friendship. Although our early friendships are usually made in school, there is no class in being, or making, a friend. It is all trial and error. Yet we know from the first day we set foot on a playground that finding and keeping a friend will be the difference between acceptance and social ignominy. How well I remember the two girls who whispered quickly together before running away and leaving me sitting alone on the swings! Yet just as well I remember the sudden bonds that would spring up with other girls and make school suddenly bearable. When I made a friend in third grade, we decided that when we grew up, we would live in Florida together! A year later she moved away and I never heard from her again.

Our family experiences don’t seem to matter much, either. My father had a cadre of friends, of all ages, but my mother had none at all – her three sisters were her confidants, if you could call them that. When I was in junior high school, she complained, in my earshot, that I had “so many friends,” her tone indicating it was some kind of character failing. So I did not learn at her knee to be a friend, and my father’s relationship with his old-time Yankee buddies – with all its tobacco-spitting and story-telling – did not provide much guidance, either.

As I grew older, the way of friendship seemed to lie in the written word. It is no coincidence that of my five closest friends, four have at one time been correspondents. Some of us still write to each other. There is a closeness that letters engender. They require reflection on the other person’s point of view (that is, what is shared in their latest letter), as well as empathy and understanding. Letters inspire a more thoughtful confidence than face-to-face conversation. They require deeper thinking. All of that thought and emotion brings us closer together.

I have many of these letters, and reread them from time to time. They remind me where my friends and I have been together, what we have shared and what serves as the foundation of our friendship. Some of my former correspondents are no longer friends, and some, sadly, have passed away. I treasure our letters, evidence of an earlier bond, one that enriched us both, if only for a short time.

I wonder what sort of friendships this up-and-coming generation will form, out of the raw materials of fleeting online commentary and texts. Facebook turned friend into a verb, but most of the people we “friend” are not the sort of companions I’m talking about. They are situational acquaintances, or casual friends; some might be good or even close friends, but the relationship formed outside social media.

The word friend can be traced to the German, frijon, to love. Curious, because we think of love as romantic, and forget the importance of its other permutations. I do love my close friends and tell them so. Maybe that’s because, at 59, I’ve learned how fleeting life is, and how important it is to tell people they are valued. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen friendships endure long after my family members have passed away. Maybe it is just the gratitude we feel toward those who know us best but do not shrink from our faults.

I was thinking of friendship while Patti and I sat on the porch at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the birthplace of American Impressionism, both of us reveling in our shared appreciation of art and creativity. Beyond the porch it rained, but on the porch we beamed. Like the walrus and the carpenter, we talked of many things.

I thought of it Friday evening, when my old friend Andrea gave me an unexpected gift. It was a t-shirt with Coca-Cola, “The Real Thing,” written on it, and with the shorthand that lasting friendships allow, she referenced so much from our long-ago past: how Coke ads were a kind of talisman of happiness for us, which we sometimes grasped all too briefly. It brought back trips to Misquamicut Beach, skipping school and flying kites and making up phrases that only we understood. Our friendship was the “real thing.”

There is no way, I think, to predict who we will bond with. Neither age, nor religion, nor occupation seem to matter much. Perhaps it is a shared attitude. Maybe it is just the good fortune of making it through all the stages of friendship intact – the early days of shared interests and experiences, midlife when we become too distracted to connect, the later years when we realize the jewel that close friendship is.

However we got here, I’m glad my friendships have endured. Glad when Patti comes to visit every summer and warms our home with Portuguese wine and deep laughter. Glad when Andrea agrees to some spontaneous jaunt. Glad when Cheryl reaches out to offer a hand when I need one. Glad when Tara writes me long letters full of books and writing and politics. Glad when Laura and I share some special occasion, whether it be a dinner out or a celebration that envelops our two families. All of these meetings end in a hug and a fond farewell, a salute to the friendships that endure, and gratitude that we are still around to enjoy them.

 

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The letters of a complicated man

 

For the past couple of weeks, I have been driving to 1945, as I listen to the audio version of Christopher Dodd’s Letters from Nuremberg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice. First published in 2007, the book (cowritten by Lary Bloom) is comprised of the correspondence of Thomas Dodd, who was one of the U.S. prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Dodd, junior and senior, is a familiar name in these parts. A native of Norwich, Conn., Thomas Dodd had a storied career that included a brief stint in the FBI and service in the U.S. Senate. Norwich’s AAA baseball stadium is named after him, and his son Christopher followed in his footsteps as a U.S. senator from 1981 to 2011.

In some ways, the book is an attempt to reclaim Dodd’s legacy after his career ended in ignominy. Accused of appropriating campaign finance funds for personal use, he was censured by his colleagues in 1967. When the Democratic party refused to endorse him for re-election, he ran as an independent in 1970, but lost his seat. He died suddenly of a heart attack less than a year later, at age 64.

It is easy to see why the Dodd family would want to salvage his reputation. When Dodd died, his censure and defeat were still fresh news, and the New York Times obituary was almost entirely devoted to his Senate career and the accusations of cronyism and misuse of funds. His triumph at Nuremberg – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – was consigned to one paragraph on an inside page.

The letters he wrote home from July 1945, when he flew to England to begin work on the trial, to September 1946 are a fascinating, day-by-day look at the struggle to bring Nazi leaders to justice. But they are far more than that.

In his correspondence, Tom Dodd is revealed as a complicated man whose devotion to his wife and family was often at odds with his duty to country. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he was an ambitious lawyer already looking ahead to parlaying this assignment into a legal and political career.

The letters exist on two levels, and Dodd was aware of this as he wrote: they are first and foremost love letters to his wife, Grace, and simultaneously a recording of historic events as they unfolded. So Tom Dodd wrote both for his wife’s ears, and history’s.

Each of the letters begins not with the conventional “Dear Grace” but “Grace, my dearest one,” or alternatively, “Grace, my loveliest one.” In the very first letter, he paints a picture of her face as she waves him goodbye from a train platform in New York, an image he calls upon again and again to get him through his dreary days interrogating Nazis and negotiating Army politics.

Dodd’s wife, the former Grace Murphy, also was a local girl. From Westerly, Rhode Island, she graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. (her husband was a graduate of Providence College and Yale Law School). They married in 1934. When Tom left on his Nuremberg assignment, they were living in Lebanon, Conn., with their five children – Thomas Jr., Carolyn, Jeremy, Martha, and Christopher, who was a little over a year old when his father left for Nuremberg (a sixth child, Nicholas, was born after he returned).

Although they had been married 11 years in 1945, Tom Dodd writes to Grace like a besotted newlywed. She is the only woman he could ever love; he cannot bear to be apart from her; he will cut this assignment short just to be with her, and the children. The highlight of his day is writing to her.

Her responses are not included in the volume, if they survive, but we get hints of them from his letters. It takes weeks for her first letters to reach Dodd, who travels to France before arriving in Nuremberg. When they do arrive, he finds Grace’s letters wonderful but short; several times he asks plaintively if she won’t write on both sides of the stationery. Grace comes across as a good humored, capable woman who surely misses her husband but is hardly sitting at home pining away for him – she gets her hair done and attends cocktail parties in New York City, for example, excursions he encourages bravely but not too convincingly.

Dodd tries to reassert his role as man of the house. It comes out that instead of leaving her access to his bank account, he expects her to mail him checks overseas, which he will sign and return to her by post. This clearly is unworkable, and eventually he gives in and suggests she forge his signature when necessary. It is good for a wife, he opines, to have to pay the bills once in a while to understand the responsibilities on a husband’s shoulders. Several times, he admonishes her not to pay the handyman until he has painted all the window sills and installed the storm windows.

Thinking of Grace Dodd at home with five children and a large house, with bills to pay and no ready access to the family’s savings, one can only speculate at her reaction to this.

Dodd was, of course, a man of his time, and the gender roles in his marriage were typical for the 1940s. It is hard to criticize a husband so deeply in love with his wife that he thinks about her night and day, hoping that someday they can see the sights of Europe together.

But Dodd was a man of contradictions: He despised anti-Semitism, but complained that too many Jews were on the legal team (he feared this would make the trial seem unfair). He claimed to want no role in the trial itself, content to do the interrogations, but he denounced the Army brass for sidelining him. Already, he saw the high-profile case as a stepping-stone.

Yet: Dodd was a brilliant jurist whose systematic interrogations, moral outrage and trial experience helped secure the 19 convictions (three defendants were acquitted). He was able to cut through the dry documents to show the human toll of genocide, at one point brandishing the shrunken head of a murdered prisoner that had been used as a paperweight by the commandant at Buchenwald.

In this case, the New York Times got it wrong. Although the Senate censure of Dodd led to tighter campaign finance laws, his real legacy was secured in the days after World War II, when he helped hold war criminals to account and proved that the rule of law can triumph over despotism. Reading his letters all these decades later, one admires him as a good husband, a principled lawyer, and a decent man. His subsequent failings make him human, but do not undo his finest hour in Nuremberg.

 

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A return to leisure

 

This time of year leaves me in a quandary. On the one hand, I’m delighted by the end-of-semester freedom: Even if my summer break will be interrupted by two classes beginning June 24, for now I revel in the luxury of no material to prep, no reading to do, no papers to grade.

On the other hand, I miss the routine college teaching imposes. No matter what, during the school year I know I will be in class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, and that afterwards I will hold office hours until noon, returning home to prep for the next day’s obligations.

It is not as though I have nothing to do. Indeed, I usually obligate myself plenty on my time off: Writing theater reviews, op-eds, book reviews, and fiction; editing work for hire; and, this year, the continuing opus of an institutional history I’m writing for a local hospital. Yet somehow, it is both not enough and too much.

My husband says the words “I wish I had accomplished more” will be on my tombstone, for that’s usually what I tell him when he asks how my day went. Today, for instance, I conducted an interview for the hospital history, finished editing notes for a client, and wrote 1,000 words on my novel-in-progress. Yet here I am, a rodent on a wheel, working on a blog – because always there’s the sense that more needs to be written.

It’s not guilt exactly that moves me. Sure, some might sneer at my cushy schedule – working nine months out of the year, four to six hours a day, etc. I make no apologies for that. Adjunct professors make poverty wages, and when I left journalism – hardly a lucrative profession – I took a steep pay cut. I traded money for time, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

When I think back on my years as a newspaper editor, I miss the people I worked with, but little else. The deadlines were punishing, the schedule unforgiving. Sometimes I spent 10 or 11 hours a day at a desk, editing and writing. My health had begun to suffer. I developed ocular migraines, a lightshow my brain would put on when I’d spent too much time staring at a computer monitor. That’s no way to live.

Yes, I wanted that bromide, “quality of life.” I wanted to walk more, to spend more time with my husband and (grown) children, read more books.

My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines leisure as “Freedom afforded by exemption from occupation or business” or “time free from engagement.” I am often engaged – indeed, I would want to be – but my occupation or business is my own time, and I am in charge of how it is spent. At least, that’s the theory.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau built a cabin in the woods and lived there, “deliberately,” for two years, two months, and two days. My cabin is metaphorical, and still under construction.

The root of leisure is from the Old French, leisir, “permission,” from the Latin licere, “to be permitted.” We need permission to enjoy the freedom of leisure, either from an employer (the standard two-week vacation) or our minds (which must let go to enjoy that time, whether it’s two weeks or two months or two years). Perhaps I have only traded one form of servitude – the 40-hour work week – for another – my Puritan work ethic.

As children we understood leisure well. Freed from the strictures of school, we knew summer was meant for fun, not accomplishments. All too soon the back-to-school ads would appear, the buses begin to run.

When I was 9 or 10 or 11, July and August days seemed to unfold endlessly. My friend Debbie and I would stave off boredom with games of Yahtzee and Parcheesi, and then walk to the center of a our sleepy village for a Pepsi and a bag of penny candy.

If I dared utter that forbidden word – “bored” – my mother would declare in her haughtiest voice, “I wasn’t put on this earth to entertain you.”

So we learned to keep ourselves occupied. No one, least of all ourselves, expected us to be productive. There were no summer reading lists back then, no playground programs. We were our own camp counselors. This limitless freedom did not make me anxious – on the contrary: It was the return to school that gripped me in anxiety.

It seems I have forgotten what summer is for. I want the pages of writing to pile up, the to-do tasks crossed out. I want to justify my idleness.

Surely there is room for puttering too – watering the garden and folding laundry and picking wildflowers. This afternoon, when nothing urgent beckons, perhaps I can lose myself for a while in doing nothing much. The cat sleeps in her red chair. Oak leaves stir lazily in the breeze. I sit here in a sudden drowse, forgetting what I’d intended to do next.

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