Once upon a time, I was a 14-year-old girl who lived near UCLA in a small three-unit apartment building with my mother and brother. I was friends with the UCLA students who lived in the front apartment because they had the kind of place where people came and went in a free-flowing haze of marijuana, and (although they never shared the marijuana with me) I became one of the people who came and went. That’s where I met Karen. This picture is from that time. She was twenty-two, and had recently returned from Europe with her new husband, Taylor.
We had no way of knowing that forty-seven years later we’d think of each other as sisters, or at least a close approximation. Since neither of us had a sister, we were never sure.
It’s appropriate that I write about Karen on this Throwback Thursday, for it is Christmas Eve, and over the years Christmas Eve came to belong to her. But I’m jumping ahead. First you need to know that thirteen years after I met her, I married her ex-husband.
In the interim, Karen and I developed an artistic friendship whereby we spent the occasional Saturday or Sunday holed-up in a closet developing film and photographs. That was back in the days of Tri-X and Plus-X, stinky chemicals, and darkroom magic. Although we shared creative interests and had similar aesthetic values, we were not natural friends. She came from Bible-quoting people in small-town Texas, and I came from a bohemian mishmash of cosmopolitan no-longer-Jews.
When I married her ex, it would have made the most sense if I’d never had anything to do with her again. But it wasn’t that easy. There was my stepson. I had come from a broken home and one of my greatest tragedies is that I never got to have my parents together at the same time after they divorced, so I wanted to give that to him. And it turned into the most marvelous thing. Because once Karen understood that she had my support as a parent, and knew that I saw us as collaborators, that is just what we did.
We ruled together in a partnership that started with going to Back to School Night together so that my stepson had a representative from each household. But it was during holidays that we had the most fun because we not only had Thanksgiving and Christmas and maybe Hannukah (depending on what mood I was in that year) we also had Birthday Season. That was a one month period beginning July 21 (her birthday) and ending August 21 (my stepson’s birthday) with EVERYBODY ELSE’S birthdays in the middle. That is until my son (a November baby) came along, but since he was the youngest he always got presents during Birthday Season too.
Together, we’d plan and produce these events. When it came to Christmas, it was always Christmas Eve at her place, and it became a tradition to have starters for the meal. For dessert, we’d eat garishly decorated Christmas cookies that we’d all helped make in the days leading up to the holiday. Sometimes we did charades, and sometimes we’d just yak and be jolly, but it was always a treat.
Both of my kids adored her. She introduced my daughter (who goes by the web moniker “eatrawfish”) to sushi at the age of eight. They also went to gallery openings and art shows together, and did some traveling. She introduced my son to snails–as in escargot. When he went off to Europe for five months after high school, she treated him (long distance) to escargot while he was in France, and made sure he had enough cash to indulge his palate on several more occasions.
When Taylor and I moved out of Los Angeles, we settled in an area that Karen loved to visit. It was natural for her to follow us here a year later. It was closer to the stepson and his wife and the granddaughter. We got the big house so that we could host, and she found a little apartment not far away where she could run her business and live a fairly quiet and simple life, which she needed as much as we did but for different reasons.
Twenty years ago both Karen and my mother came down with lung cancer. We lost my mother, but not Karen, although the doctors pretty much wrecked her to get the cancer out. Even though it worked, it left her with a number of physical challenges that added up to a body that gradually stopped working.
And that is what happened three weeks ago today.
So, since today is Christmas Eve, a day she was planning to host again this year, we are doing it Karen-style, but the easy way by ordering starters from a nearby Thai restaurant. And I will raise my wine glass and toast her (my wine-tasting partner), and be thankful that I found someone worthy to adopt as a sister. I miss her so much.