The comfort of women

I’ve been thinking about social life. Although I am old now, I try to remember how it was when I was young. Part of my childhood was spent with few other children to play with. In semi rural Massachusetts at my aunt and uncle’s house my only companions were adults. For a couple of years I lived with my mother and step-father in an apartment complex in Fleetwood, New York. There I played girl games — games I suppose kids don’t play any more — jump-rope, hop-scotch, jax, giant steps, and in the secret of my own room, dolls. Sometimes boys joined in for giant steps, and I sometimes played spud and king of the castle and statue tag which boys played too. I was never any good at games with balls because of a wandering eye, but I roller skated, built forts in the back lots and generally raced around. I sometimes beat boys at wrestling (once I pinned Bobby Schwartz). My best friend was Doris Rosenberg but she couldn’t eat at my house because her parents kept a kosher kitchen. And my worst enemy was Janet Featsome who once beat me up.

In the teen years I had girl friends that, sadly, I have lost touch with. My first years of high school I was in public school in Andover, Mass and Irene Yancy was my best friend. Irene was black, one of two black girls at Punchard High School. The only black boy was Irene’s brother John so her chances of a boyfriend (in those days) were slim. My boyfriend, for a short while, was John Yancy. That caused the police to visit my uncle (I lived with my aunt and uncle). John’s father, Mr. Yancy, put a stop to our teen romance, and I was sent to the town’s girl prep school, Abbot Academy. Although at first I felt the outrage of youth at this change, I actually loved Abbot where I had some wonderful teachers and got an education. Jane Noss and I were the only day students in our class at Abbot and we became good friends. She was the daughter of the Congregational minister. I still think of Jane often and wish we were still in touch. By this time my social life was focused on boys.

As a young married woman what little social life I had was oriented toward couples, either neighbors or people my husband knew at work. I had some women friends, centered around children and the sandbox in my apartment community. As I grew older my community became academia. There were parties with more than a little drinking and perhaps a bit of hanky-panky. At forty I had another baby, got divorced, became a single mother and went to live and work in Germany. There social life vanished except for an off-again, on-again boyfriend. After my third divorce I moved to Lummi Island in Puget Sound. My friends were mostly younger and on the wild side. I went to their parties, stayed for about an hour, and then went home to bed. Most of the time my companions were cats.

I have lived on Lummi Island for 15 years. I finally have a loving and satisfying marriage and for social life I have the comfort of women. I wonder whether this is a feature of old age. Perhaps not, since some of my female companions are not even old yet — still in their 50’s and almost all of them are younger than me.

These friends come with group activities. I had one life long friend, Penny, but she has drifted off into a world of hostility apparently because my political ideas do not exactly coincide with hers. She adheres to the radical green left, and is angry with anyone who doesn’t. And it’s not easy to get to the left of me. It’s sad because our children played together from the time they were babies and for years we visited back and forth where ever we lived. I helped Penny drive a U haul across the country from southern Virginia to New Mexico when she decided to move. After her daughter died I called her every day for 3 months. But I have not seen her for 8 years and when I called last year her she said harsh, unkind things to me. I realized I have to let it go.

I have 3 activities now that I share with women friends. One is my mah jongg group.

Playing Mah Jongg

This is an activity actually initiated by me. I learned an extremely easy version of the game in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska and I imported it to Lummi Island. Our group is mostly women from the neighborhood. We walk (well, sometimes I get lazy and drive) the quarter mile to most of the other houses). We play at 7 pm on Thursday evenings. There are 8 of us, some usually can’t make it so we play as many games as there are people. We drink wine. We laugh a lot; occasionally cry. We freely (within reason) discuss past escapades (romantic and other). We exchange island gossip. We don’t care who wins (well, Diane cares — she can’t help it. But she only cares for a brief moment).

Diane won and got to multiply her score 8 times

We all love the feel and click of the tiles. We joke about the mystique of the game, but we keep the wall tight to ban evil spirits. We keep a record book of our scores with cryptic notations about the sensational revelations of the evening, or someone’s pithy comment. Diane helps with arithmetic, adding scores for those of us who are too lazy. Especially me. One day someone asked me how I got a PhD in biology without being able to do math. Someone else commented, “Oh, she probably slept with the professor.” “Oh no,” I said indignantly, “I never did that for math. Only for physics.” I think that was noted for the record book in code.

Here’s our membership:

Pat is co-owner of the wine tasting shop. She and her husband, who has a PhD in economics are both retired from jobs at the university. Pat makes unique, gloriously beautiful quilts and needlework. She has silver hair, elegantly cut, and she is funny.

Tammy is a statuesque natural blond. She works hard and is always hot. She used to be a veterinarian’s assistant. Now she takes care of old people on the island and is the most sought after house and pet sitter here. One of her charges is a 60 pound cerval cat. She cleans houses. She cleans my house every other Saturday, going through it like a whirlwind. Tammy has a quick sharp wit and she laughs without restraint.

Diane retired from the Seattle bus company where she planned and monitored bus routes. She has a master’s degree in that sort of thing. Here on the island she works tirelessly. She toiled endlessly on our ferry problems committee, and when that was over she worked non-stop on the library renovation. She’s really good with numbers. Diane has thick black hair and a gentle laugh.

Sue is a retired school teacher and librarian. She has flowing silvery hair and she wears flowing clothes. She loves her grandchild and her dogs and she knits wonderful sweaters that she sells at the Saturday market next to the Islander Store. Sue is filled with the milk of human kindness. Kay is Sue’s best friend. She is not always with us, as she and her husband are not yet retired and not always on the island. Kay works in a bookshop on Vashion Island. She is expert on books and reading. She was formerly married to Sue’s husband. They have grown children — hers, his, theirs, and they all get on together in the most astonishingly chummy way. Kay is tall and willowy and smart and funny.

Colleen is married to one of the ferry captains. She is the youngest and is often absent. She is sweet and pretty. Even though she is a brand new grandmother there is no grey in her thick shiny brown hair. We are always glad when she has time to play.

Our newest player is Grace, who just retired from being postmaster at the island post office. We really miss her at the post office. When I brought in loose things to mail Grace would find the right mailer, calculate the least expensive yet expeditious way to mail, hand me customs forms if needed, all in a flash. We love having her play with us.

Last night Diane was showing us a newspaper article about her father. When she was 5 he was murdered at the mill where he was manager by a disgruntled employee . Sue broke the tension of this sad, horrifying story by saying, “Oh, so the guy went postal!” Then she looked at Grace and clapped her hand over her mouth in chagrin. Grace just laughed.

We are afraid Cathy has left us because she and her husband Russ have bought a condo in Fairhaven and now spend most of their time in town. Cathy worked as an accountant and did some contract accounting work here on the island. Cathy is a loveable and loving person. She loves to garden, to decorate, to cook and to have fun. She lost a son about 4 years ago and that cast a shadow over her life that will never entirely lift. I think that losing a child must be the worst thing that can happen to a woman.

My second island group plays bridge. In this group which plays once a week all afternoon I am only a substitute. As much as I enjoy the company of those ladies, I am unwilling to devote that much time to bridge. I am also unwilling to learn all the new conventions of bidding. It has been 40 years since I played much. So I play only occasionally when they need a fourth. If someone makes an unusual bid I have to ask what that means. These ladies are about my age, some even older. Playing bridge gets my adrenalin flowing — not because I care whether I win or lose but because I’m scared of making a stupid mistake. When I play they have to end at 4 because that’s when Jerry and I walk our mile and a half with the dogs, otherwise they would go on till 6. As the game draws to a close a bottle of white wine is uncorked. There are always chocolates and nuts on the bridge table.

For these ladies bridge is their solace and their relief from family demands. They love the game and the camaraderie. Shirley has a husband in a nursing home. She visits him every day except bridge day. Helen lives alone with her poodle but has 2 sons and a lot of grandchildren who visit often. Bridge is the day she relaxes in the company of women her age. Rhayma has an adopted teen age daughter and is very involved in church and community affairs. Bridge is her hobby and respite.

Finally there is my day off the island to Lorna’s art class at her house “out in the county”. Here I am surrounded by the uproarious cheerfulness and wild color of Lorna’s wonderful paintings (see www.lornalibert.com).

A workshop at Lorna's studio

There’s a variable group of smart talented women, each of whom paints in her own style, encouraged by Lorna’s constant upbeat and smiling help.

Lorna giving advice to a student

There’s music, wine and brownies provided by Lorna (she always sends home some brownies for Jerry.) Most of the time the serious work of painting keeps us from too much chatter, but occasionally we start talking. One day Linda brought in a scrap-book about her mother’s exploits, first as a sailor on a big sailing yacht and later raising race horses. Linda said she always took second place to the horses. That caused the rest of us to share memories of our mothers, not all of them happy.

I go to the art class because it keeps me on task and because Lorna’s advice is precious. Lorna paints every day all day (except when she has some carpentry to do on her house.) Her paintings sell well at prices high enough to make a living. That’s unusual for an artist. She says she has art classes so she can have a social life.

Painting with Lorna

This entry was posted in Art, Day to day, Island life, Memoir and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The comfort of women

  1. Rain Trueax says:

    I liked this how you get together with other women. I am missing that in my life. Partly it’s the rural area where I live without nearby neighbors and my own choices to not be in the church or the women’s club where they all quilt. I think though women need women and enjoyed your collection here.

  2. Brighid says:

    I don’t think of myself as a joiner of groups, whether due to moving so much or just my nature. I have managed to take classes over the years: painting, quilting, landscaping etc. Now one of my SIL’s has invited me to a book club she is in. I’m looking forward to this new adventure…

  3. I don’t do groups well, and am not a joiner.
    The down side? I don’t get nearly enough of the comfort of women.
    And the balance of what I want and what I need is constantly shifting.

  4. I envy you your female friends.
    I’m very introverted and always seem most comfortable with male friends.
    Of course, it gets harder to have male friends as an adult because their wives don’t necessarily appreciate them hanging out with me.

  5. Tabor says:

    What a rich group of women around you. I have been here six years and while I have acquaintances I do not know their histories that well.

  6. Friko says:

    Fifteen years and you have so many good women friends. You are right to call it the comfort of women. I wish I were the sort of person who could commit to regular meetings with women, especially for a definite purpose rather than gossiping.

    As we get old we tend to look backwards. I have just remembered – and blogged about – some very early experiences. I am amazed that you remember the names of school friends although you haven’t been in contact with them for years. I often think the reason for having lost touch with everybody from my past is something to do with having drifted and changed course, but you haven’t exactly stood still either, have you.

    Your posts always sound as if you have reached a contented and happy point and are satisfied with whatever life has sent. Well done.

  7. annie says:

    I love this post. It made me a bit envious of the camaraderie, however I am such an introvert I probably wouldn’t do well in a regular group like this. I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

  8. Hattie says:

    What fun to read this. It’s nice to have younger friends. My friends are all younger than I am, mostly baby boomers. My husband is younger, too. There just aren’t many of us Depression kids around.

  9. I think we exchanged a comment or two once when the world was younger. In those days my blog was called Works Well and I wrote under the blogonym Barrett Bonden. Now, a mere step away from my eightieth I fly my real name flag.

    I saw the title of your piece, just ready to drop off the accumulating list of posts on Lucy’s blog and felt I had to check it out since it fits my state of mind. Since starting to blog in 2007 I have resumed writing novels, all of them centred on women. My reasons may include gratitude; certainly I felt an immediate response to the wide-ranging potential of The Comfort of Women.

    In fact your post is wider even than that – a sprawling tale about the USA where I lived for six years. Advanced age allows you a panoramic view and I’m quickly into an evocative (ie, non-British) vocabulary: sandbox, U haul, jump rope (vs skipping in the UK) smart as a compliment not – as in the UK – a slightly pejorative adjective. Then there are the names of places and people: Lummi, Vashion, Yancy, Punchard.

    And a laconic style: “It is not easy to get to the left of me.”

    Underlying the story is an implied restlessness, typical of Americans, though yours – atypically – includes a period over the water.

    I went to work (as a journalist) in America depending on the commonality of language. What I found was a foreign place and I like stuff that re-creates that foreign-ness. I mean could there be any more exotic admission than that you learnt mah-jongg in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska.

    My only complaint about your post is that you are prodigal with material that could be spun out. But then prodigality is not a failing in the USA, it is an asset. Drop in on Tone Deaf and tell me briskly that I’m an under-achieving wimp and it’s no surprise we collectively lost an empire. See if you can get to the left of me.

    In the meantime thanks for letting me warm my hands at your glowing reminiscence.

  10. pauline says:

    I’d just returned books to the library and was temporarily at sea without anything to read. Then I came here and got all caught up in your memories and descriptions. I didn’t want this post to end!

  11. Hattie says:

    So that is you, Roderick Robinson! Miss your blog.

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