Meaning we go back a ways. Meaning with her jaunty, gravelly voice, Janet was apparently above death. In an illness that would have put most people in a wheelchair, she gamely refused. Throughout the years, we played all sorts of games; we meant to outlive each other.
She might have been my first friend in Minnesota–next door neighbor in the first house in the first marriage with our first and only children. To my clenched-jaw solitude, she brought a red-head’s charm. We sat in her kitchen booth and added cream to our coffee. At home I kept only skim milk. She said outloud the most delicious gossip about people who made headlines. That’s what happens when you marry into a Minneapolis political family.
But Janet herself came of East Side, Saint Paul stock, though she actually grew up in Highland. It took me years and a move to the capitol city before I had a clue to what that meant–outsider Southerner as I was, from a place she had no trouble finding on a map, but would never visit.
She and Richard and Andrew owned a friendly dog–Elmer, named I think for a Minnesota governor. Elmer Anderson. Our family started and ended with cats with catlike names: Clarence, Wilhemina. We spread the cat-contagion next door, and later acquired a kitten from Janet and Richard and Andrew. But of course it was an offspring of a pure-bred. Even in her last days, Janet was cat proud: she’d put Louie, her huge Siamese mix, on a diet and he looked dandy, strolling across her bed. I was properly awed at their accomplishment, I who can never withhold food from anything with whiskers.
Janet and I traded books–she never wanted hers back, she was that generous, plus neat to the point of obsession. Always clearing out and putting away–other things I have trouble doing. It was nice to visit a friend with an artful touch, blending old and new, for a lived-in look. Yet her bathroom sink ornaments were as fine as the Ritz. And her scarf and sock drawers, geometric marvels.
We were artists together, in the days when “women artists” had a kind of coming out–Janet, the painter; I, the writer. She staunchly supported me, and I her. Yet I doubt that we grasped what the other was after. Perhaps because we were so new at this that we didn’t know our own bent.
When I moved to Saint Paul, we saw less of each other, but lately, within the last five years, we reconnected. First she hosted yoga sessions in her Loring Park apartment–I still can’t tell if the stretching and chanting were simply an excuse for the lasagna afterwards. As in our younger days, I giggled at her gossip–she was so loving and so nasty. Would I want to know what she said of me? Not until now, have I asked that question. She had the talent of making each encounter seem just the thing to make her happy.
Our last Sunday afternoon together, I knelt beside her bed, petted Louie, and asked her about people in our old Minneapolis neighborhood. For that brief time, we lived our golden age again. I brought us plates of lasagna and we ate beside each other on her bed. She knew she was going elsewhere, yet her worries were more about how her family would cope and how she could manage dying without upsetting the beautiful order of her life. I think she succeeded. Now it is up to us not to muss her arrangements too much, or hug too hard what was, in the end, both strong and fragile. I will miss her more than I can say.