my stack of still-unread holiday cards, I was looking forward
to Chuck Vandersee’s Christmas letter. His were the only ones
I’ve ever enjoyed.
I read it last week, not knowing he was dead.
I found out just a couple of days ago that he died Jan. 2,
from a heart attack.
You might read the column and figure you know something about
me. But what do you know or why would you care about my friends?
And it’s not as if Chuck were a close friend, either. Not
even geographically—he lived in Charlottesville, Va.
But we were friends. And he died suddenly. And I’m not sure
how to mourn.
I worked for him as a research assistant when I was in graduate
school at the University of Virginia. He, along with several
others, was editing six volumes of Henry Adams’ letters.
I’m not sure how we became friends. I didn’t like him at all
at first. I thought he was snippy and aloof. But over time
I grew to know him. Grew to respect his commitment to his
students, to the university, to his church. I grew to admire
that he valued friendship, as I do. He wrote and visited lots
of his former students and friends and family scattered across
I loved how he loved words. And learning. And watching
He loved eating. I remember a peach-and-cream tart I’d made
to bring to a party. He’d eaten it—a lot of it—with hungry
pleasure. He’d eaten it as if it were words. Every
time I make that tart I think of Chuck.
My girls and I had dinner with him a few years ago when I’d
finally gone back to Charlottesville after a long time away.
Madeleine didn’t remember him; she’d only been a toddler when
he’d first seen her. That time, he’d taken us all out to brunch,
sat her on his lap and fed her spoonfuls of chocolate mousse.
She’d liked him then, all right.
But over our dinner in Charlottesville, Chuck and I talked
about books. About poems. We all ate too much. But the girls
were a little restless. Who was this strange man their mother
was talking to?
And Chuck was a bit strange. He embodied most of the
professorial clichés—a slight shabbiness in dress, forearms
not accustomed to muscling through more than pages, some facial
hair, though damned if I can remember whether it was mustache
and full beard or what.
But it wasn’t only his physical presence. Chuck spoke a string
of words uttered on an audible exhalation. He was excited
by what he studied and assumed his excitement was infectious.
Why wouldn’t you find St. Gaudens’ memorial to Henry Adams’
suicidal wife a subject worthy of a pocketful of snapshots?
Why wouldn’t you want to read a Christmas letter contrasting
the merits of a book by Anne Lamott (not great) with one by
Zora Neale Hurston (great)?
He once sent me a set of hand-wrapped brooms in varying sizes
accompanied by an elaborate explanation for why they had literary
significance for me—apart from their obvious household uses.
From time to time I see older people who are close friends
and one of them is failing. One of them may be losing her
memory or her ability to look after herself physically. And
then her friend—her friend of many decades—once a peer, now
becomes a caretaker.
The caretaking friend may smile at me when her friend says
something incomprehensible in a moment of dementia. She smiles
at me gently, the way she would smile at a child speaking
with only the barest knowledge of a language yet to be learned.
But she is not smiling about a child; she is smiling about
her friend and a language she has forgotten.
Or she is helping her friend to dress herself—not because
it is her wedding day and she is smoothing the peau de
soie skirt or straightening a sash—but because her friend
can no longer manage to hook her own bra or tie her own sturdy,
Sometimes I see, between tenderly caring partners, one of
them playing midwife to the other’s decline, knowing as if
instinctively that the surest way to preserve dignity is in
continued, unabashed affection.
These images fill me with a strange brand of bittersweet curiosity
about what is to come:
Will I be cared for by a partner who once knew me as an equal
in passion and wit and competency? Or will I swab the mouth
I’ve kissed or dress the body I’d known as fierce and vital?
Will I be old and helping one of my dear friends to dress
herself? Will I be spooning her little bites of ice cream
and wiping away what trails behind on her lips? Or will one
of them be doing the same to me?
Even though bittersweet, those are images of connectedness,
or presence with one another.
Even if I had lived in Charlottesville, I was not a close
friend of Chuck’s; I would not have been a caretaking friend.
Nor did he decline slowly. His death was sudden and he died
without need of caretakers.
But I find I don’t know how to mourn my loss. He was an absent
presence in my life, always. That’s how it is with friendships
that are warm, but distant. They are, perhaps, the easiest
to take for granted, since it’s always expected they will
continue in their comradely and sporadic fashion.
Perhaps those friendships are also among the hardest to mourn.
I want one last conversation, one last meal together, so I
can be reminded that any meal and any conversation, anytime
and with anybody, can be the last one.
I want to say what friends who are not close friends say often,
but usually not with the intention to make it happen: I wish
we’d seen each other more. Because this final, unheralded
absence, in a friendship where absence was the norm, makes
me wish I could have given him some care. Makes me wish that
just once more I could have handed him a fork and watched
him take with relish, just a bit, just a final little bit,
of peach-and-cream tart.
can contact Jo Page at email@example.com.