I'm writing this at 4:30am. I'm up at this silly hour because I have to go to the airport. My cousin Fritha is leaving today. Of course, I haven't slept a wink all night, so it's a bit like being on a book tour - barely sleeping for fear of missing the next flight.
I should be good at goodbyes, what with visitors that come through, the rush to the airport, the "come again soon" and "wasn't it fun?" But I always want to hang on to Fritha a bit longer.
Fritha is actually my cousin Stephanie's daughter. Her mom died when Frith was all but twenty. Part of me hates to write about family in such a public place, but I'm ready for the road and she's only just got out of the shower, so I've a bit of time on my hands, and I have a blog to write, and this is all that's on my mind.
Growing up, I was in awe of Stephanie. She was tall, with waist-length rich dark hair, a lovely sense of humor, and not only was she a great swimmer (I look like a beached walrus just trying to get out of a pool), but she could speak just about any language just as soon as she heard people in conversation. After two weeks in a country, most people can get a cup of coffee, find their way to the post office, the consulate, the bar, a good restaurant, but Steph could have whole conversations within a day or so. She told me that when she was a kid, she thought that everyone was like that, then she began to realize that being able to "hear" other languages was a gift. She was almost a year older than me, and I thought she was wonderful.
There's one day that will remain with me forever. I was sixteen at the time, so Stephanie was about seventeen. She came to visit with her parents, and of course, we girls scurried to my room, to sit around on the bed and talk about books and poetry and the sheer pain of life. My mother said we both had a touch of the Sarah Bernhardts. Today we would have been drama queens. We began talking about "life" - and of course, we knew all about life, being sixteen, seventeen, going on fifty, when Stephanie walked to the window, looked out for a moment, then turned to me. "I think I shall have a baby," she said, "I think it will be the making of me." I didn't say a word. I wasn't that grown up.
Stephanie was twenty and at university when she became pregnant with Fritha, the child she named after the girl in her favorite book, The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico. The birth of a daughter and single-parenthood did not stop Steph from gaining an honors degree in linguistics and graduating with her class, and thereafter from studying for a master's degree while working full time - she went into teaching so she'd have the school holidays with her daughter. And even though money was tight, she bought a house, and they had vacations, though Steph often said that Fritha would probably grow up to hate the very thought of youth hostels, because that was the cheap way she introduced her child to the world.
Fritha was ten when her mother was first diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was never good, but we all knew that Stephanie was determined not to leave her child. There was excitement when it seemed she was in remission, worry when the news wasn't so good. We come from a large extended family - my Mom was one of ten kids, so I have cousins aplenty - and it seemed that everyone had heard of a new treatment that would help Stephanie. As the cancer metastasized throughout her body, so she fought it. And she began to write a journal for Fritha, with entries that went from reflections on her childhood, to "tips on bank accounts" or "dealing with car problems." I knew that things were bad when Steph took to calling me in the wee small hours, With the time difference between the UK and California, I was someone awake who could talk at those times when she was in so much pain she couldn't sleep.
Fritha took a gap year between high school and university, mainly to be with her Mom, then two months after she left home to begin her studies, Stephanie passed away. It was the week before Christmas, and she had just finished wrapping her daughter's presents.
So, this beautiful now thirty-year old young woman has been staying with me for the past week. She is independent, well-traveled, wishes she had inherited her mom's gift with languages and her hair; she has that wicked sense of humor and a gorgeous smile. She owns her own home and has a good group of friends. But she misses her mom terribly. It's the ache that will never go away.
Stephanie said something else that meant a lot to me, and probably changed the way I looked at my own future. It was years ago, when the only interpretation for self-help was "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." I was telling Steph how much I wanted to be a writer. She looked at me in that way she had, then said, very matter of fact, "Well, you've just got to call yourself one, haven't you? You've got to say, 'I am a writer.' In fact, when anyone asks me about my cousin Jacqueline, I'll say, 'Oh, the writer. My cousin Jacqueline, the writer.'"
Perhaps she was the making of me.
PS: This is late being posted because I didn't have time to complete the task before I left the house. Don't you hate airport goodbyes?