Monday, June 4, 2012

Forging Anew

This past weekend found us making a quick trip to Chicago for the best of reasons: friendship.

Saturday marked the 71st Annual Alumni Awards ceremony at the University of Chicago. Muriel Lezak, who just happened to be my first mother-in-law way back when (it was a very short-lived marriage when I (and he) was very, very young), was receiving a professional achievement award for her lifetime of work in the field of neuropsychology, which she practically invented. Muriel will be 85 this summer: how could I not be at Chicago to watch her receive her tribute?

After no contact whatsoever for many years, Muriel and I reconnected a few years ago after I learned that Sidney Lezak, her husband of many, many years, had died. Sidney was a legend in his own professional arena, first as the US Attorney of Oregon for 22 years and then as a tireless advocate for mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. I sent Muriel a brief condolence note of my warm memories of Sid, and through that very small door, she and I reached through and created a new friendship. Warren and I had coffee with her in Portland in 2008 when we were there for Ben's college graduation, and we continue to exchange cards and notes sporadically.

As I said, how could I not be in Chicago to watch her be honored? 

Muriel's youngest child, Miriam, was attending with her mother. I last saw Miriam in 1980 or 1981, when she was all of 21 or 22. Would I recognize her? Who had she become? As it turns out, I recognized her immediately, as she has her father's features and smile. And who had she become? Well, I would learn that too.

We managed to make it to the ceremony on time, despite getting to Chicago a little later than we had intended and despite my having the wrong start time fixed in my mind. I am glad we were there. I am glad Warren was sitting beside me, holding my hand.

After the ceremony and after the recipients had a luncheon in their honor, we met up with Miriam and Muriel at the bookstore. We sat outside and talked in pairs: Warren and Muriel,  Miriam and I. Then we switched: Warren and Miriam, Muriel and I. Two hours later, we said fond goodbyes and went our separate ways. Muriel was en route to the Ukraine with two of her older grandchildren; Miriam was headed back to Boston and her own family.

What played through my mind as we all sat there talking was that I was now older than Muriel was when I stopped being her daughter-in-law and that Miriam and I were both older than Muriel when I became her daughter-in-law. It was both interesting and difficult to look back over that long stretch of years and try to remember the young woman I was then.

In so many ways, Muriel, who has always been opinionated and outspoken, has not changed, except in age. She still will not hesitate to tell you immediately what she thinks of your political opinions and why they are wrong if they differ from hers, what she thinks of your life choices and why they are wrong if they differ from what she would have chosen for you, and what you should be doing in the near, intermediate, and far future. (This was a bit of a challenge for Warren, who blinked in surprise when Muriel all but insisted he had to travel to Europe before it was too late. "When you're dead, you're dead for a long, long time," she exclaimed.)

No, Muriel has not changed a bit.

The one who has changed is, of course, me. I have changed through maturation, through life experiences (both good and bad), through my marriage to Warren, and through my living with cancer. I wince at recollecting just how painfully young and introverted and unformed I was back then. Small wonder I was often intimidated and silenced in Muriel's presence.

I am reminded, sometimes daily, of Wilma Mankiller's observation about herself after surviving a deadly auto accident: From that point on, I have always thought of myself as the woman who lived before and the woman who lives afterward. When I was with Muriel and Miriam on Saturday, I thought "I am the woman who lives afterward." 

And what of Miriam, you may ask? Miriam has become a fascinating and mature woman. I told Warren on the drive home the next day that I would like to forge a friendship with Miriam, independent of who we were so many, many years ago.

Some years ago, in the heat of an argument with my then spouse (my children's father), he accused me of dragging my friends through the decades with me. That was the phrase he used: "you are always dragging your friends along through the years." He could not understand why I insisted on keeping in touch with old friends from my past and that became a running thread in our unraveling marriage.

When it comes to Muriel, and by extension, Miriam, I didn't drag them along through the years with me. They were a part of the past that, in the case of Muriel, became a part of my present. We didn't pick up where we left off: that was over and done. Rather, we forged a new relationship on the ashes of the old.

It is too soon to tell whether Miriam and I will do likewise. Saturday opened a door, a small door, and time will tell whether we reach through it to the other.

I plead guilty (and will forever) to the charge of dragging my friends with me through the decades. Katrina (who I also saw on Saturday) and Warren are two prime examples. Others, like Muriel, have come back into my life, like a missing patch on a quilt.

Or a sturdy bracket forged from an old one that no longer fit, but had never quite been set aside.

Miriam, April, and Muriel in Chicago


Anonymous said...

This post struck a nerve with me. My former mother-in-law passed away just a few months ago and even though my former husband, her son, was deceased, we never did manage to forge a relationship. As a young woman, I found her to be very initimidating and when I last visited her, she was as gracious as always, but suffered from Alzheimers and she no longer had a clue who I might be.

If I had been in your shoes, the afternooon would have been very fraught with old memories and I would have come home and written and written and written.

Sharon said...

I have no doubt that you would keep in touch with friends from long ago. You are a dear friend to me, and for all intents and purposes, we have not yet met in person. (Hopefully that will change someday!)

This is a great story of friendship, April, both old and new. I admire you greatly.

see you there! said...

Friendships are forged and go through phases but "dragging them along"? The choice is to toss them? I find keeping them decidedly better. Being a true friend takes work, why would anyone throw that away?

Glad to hear you took the time to honor Muriel.