I just got word that Anita died today. It felt like a gut punch. But I haven’t seen her for fifty years. So why do I feel kind of teary?
Whenever I feel a wave of emotion that puzzles me, I take a time-out to ease my way toward what it’s telling me. In this instance, I realized this was kind of like the now-famous moment when Fred Rogers asked an audience of media celebrities at the Emmys to take just ten seconds to recall some one person who had loved them into being who they got to become. Moments later, tears were flowing and little sobs were being stifled as individuals tumbled gently back into memories of tender embrace from someone who rescued them from their self-defined obscurity and nudged them toward being…somebody…special.
Anita was one of those people for me. She was my teenage best friend Greg’s girlfriend. And she was my teenage best girl friend. Anita became my buddy. I now realize she somehow detected within this overweight, bombastic, pretentious, acting-out clod a likable kid who was ineptly yearning to be accepted, loved, respected. She somehow sensed my fearful insecurity as the least-affluent member of a well-heeled high school social circle, as the nearby neighbor in the least impressive house on the edges of the most affluent neighborhood in Fresno. She must surely have figured out I couldn’t imagine any girl finding me in the least bit appealing as a boyfriend.
But she knew that Greg and I were inseparable as buddies. And so she took it upon herself to make sure that Greg and I could double-date when he came to visit her at the posh private girls’ school she attended in Monterey. She arranged blind dates for me with her classmates—lovely, talented, classy, wealthy girls I’d never in a million years have had the temerity to approach. In ways I now realize that I never realized at the time, she also coached me about how to be less bumptious and display a bit more savoir faire. I managed to do all right. And soon enough, Greg and I found ourselves speeding from Fresno to Monterey most weekends. For two years, we reveled in parties and proms, languished on the beach at Carmel, sailed out of Stillwater Cove in Pebble Beach. I was coming of age. I began to feel like I belonged.
Of course, I didn’t. There’s a difference between belonging, and just longing.
Anita’s mother picked up on that in me. I was sickened to learn that she had once warned Anita and her sister Bobbie to “Watch out for Eliot. He’s a gold-digger.”
What was sickening was the truth of it. I yearned to be wealthy. We lived amidst considerable wealth, but were not ourselves at all wealthy. My father was an architect whose income fluctuated wildly, most often on the downside. There were periods when we had no income at all, Dad’s having once again blown up a successful partnership with his cantankerous perfectionism and intolerance for what he deemed slipshod colleagues. My mother, child of genteel poverty in Massachusetts whose parents were exceptionally well educated and prominent leaders but of modest means, once actually said to me, “You know, it’s just as easy to fall in love with someone who has lots of money…”
On the other hand, Anita’s father took a liking to me. He was Basque. Arriving in America as a kid with nothing but the knowledge of how to raise sheep, he rapidly established prosperous ranching operations in the San Joaquin Valley and in the Sierra foothills. Because I had been from my earliest days a insatiable inquisitor of adults who seemed to know how to succeed, he sensed a chance to be a mentor. He took me on multiple trips to observe his operations, affording me invaluable hours alone in the car with him to harvest what he knew and how he knew it. (Visiting his ranches also afforded me some of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life, watching the ranch hands dive face-first into the gory, repulsive, blood-spattered process of castrating lambs. ‘Nuff said.)
Anita is dead. I am alive. I am so much more alive than I might have been, because she was such an exceptionally precious person in my life at an exceptionally precious moment in my life, when I began coming of age. The wealth I gained from her loving care of me, and from the painful truth her mother spoke about me, and from the invaluable lessons her father taught me—it all fully justifies the tears I feel when she comes alive in my life one more time.
Every Christmas season Anita and her sister Bobbie would drive down to St. Therese Catholic Church where the parking lot held hundreds of freshly cut Christmas trees for sale. Anita took her time, carefully examining each one, circling them, prying branches apart, inspecting their innards, looking for exactly the right tree to bring home to their elegantly furnished house on Wilson Avenue in the sought-after Old Fig Garden district of Fresno.
At long last, she would make her choice. Anita would choose the tree that was the most misshapen, crooked, unbalanced, homely of the lot. She chose it because Anita couldn’t bear the idea that it would almost certainly still be in that parking lot, propped up alone on a flimsy wooden rack in the dark, unsold and unloved, when the bells of St. Therese’s began chiming Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
I am teary because I know that’s why she chose me, too.