Category Archives: In Memoriam

#TBT Karen

KarenGinaOnce 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.

CIMG0200Together, 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.

karengina2Twenty 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.

A Rose by Any Other Name

georgelleLast week I discovered that an old friend had died. We’d gone through long periods of being out of touch, so that in itself, was not a warning that she was gone. I stumbled upon the information of her passing when I was looking for her on Facebook, hoping to get back in contact. There I found a reference to her in the past tense which is never a good thing.

A large person with an even larger personality, it’s unfathomable that Georgelle has been gone four whole years and I didn’t know it. Stranger yet that mother nature let her go without an earthquake, a violent tempest, or some explosion to mark her passing. But perhaps after a life of drama, Georgelle managed to simply slip away.

I met her in 1976 when she was calling herself Sima, refusing to use her own name. Before that she’d been Gentle Rain, a joke in itself because there was nothing gentle about her, and—as she said—she was definitely more like a storm. I’d just started a job at KCET (at the time LA’s PBS station) when one morning she swept into the accounting department looking to borrow some coffee. She was significantly older than me—late thirties to my twenty-one. A gypsy free-spirit, she became notorious for sunbathing nude on the roof when her boss—a man responsible for large corporate gifts who had the bearing and looks of an undertaker—was out of town. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen two people more mismatched. She was full of life and wit and laughter, and an impeccable dry sense of humor. We became more than work friends the day she called to tell me she was out sick and required groceries. She dictated a shopping list and the directions to her place and I did her bidding. She was brazen, bold, and demanding, and I fell for her.

It was under her tutelage that I started reading tarot cards and developed an interest in astrology. I was never very good at either while she had a true talent. We were both writers. She always thought I had a gift. I’ve always appreciated that she was one of the good voices in my head rooting me on and supporting my creative soul.

Preparing to write this, I tried to put together a chronology of our relationship, but it’s all jumbled. There was a Thanksgiving we enjoyed together, the first time I cooked a turkey, managing that in my tiny apartment and even tinier kitchen. She taught me how to make gravy, for which I have always been grateful. One morning she surprised me by showing up with eggs and bacon and making me breakfast in bed. For a time she and a friend were a performance art group, the “Art Tarts.” They sold poetry on the Venice Boardwalk.

Toward the end of the 1970’s she left California because of a prediction that it was going to fall into the Pacific. Seriously. That’s when she called to tell me to get her things out of a friends house in Eagle Rock and “take care of them” for her. Since I was living in that little apartment with no storage I put them in a basement room that a bunch of the tenants were using for overflow. One day the management decided to clean out the room and there went Georgelle’s boxes. She always felt that I should get restitution for them even though she just left them there to rot.

On a phone call one day when I bemoaned my mother (as I often did), Georgelle  proclaimed that “her neurosis is her genius.” To this day that’s one of the best explanations (and descriptions) of my mother I’ve ever heard. This, by the way, was before Georgelle’s stint as the Writer in the Window. After she left LA she set herself up in a bookstore window in Santa Fe with a sign that said “Help Me Cure My Writer’s Block” asking for questions. People did. She answered with pithy one-liners and traveled the country doing so. Later it became a book: Dear Writer in the Window.

The last time I saw her and spoke to her it was over Skype, less than a year before she died. She was back in Santa Fe and I’d moved out of LA, but we found each other on the internet. I was recovering from some chemo-like medication and she was complaining about a backache that her new ergonomic chair was not abating. We were two old crones kvetching. She told me her daughter was dying of cancer and that she didn’t want to go see her. Georgelle was probably the least maternal woman I’ve ever known. She never understood my need to have children and my pleasure with them.

Georgelle Cynthia Hirliman: June 11, 1936-January 29, 2010.  In reading her obituary I learned things about her she never divulged. I knew she’d been adopted but she never told me her parent’s names or anything about them. I knew she didn’t like her mother with a bitterness that was far greater than my feelings toward mine. She never mentioned her father at all. It turns out her mother had been an actress and her father produced the classic, Refer Madness not long after Georgelle was born. It wasn’t til I saw his name that I realized she’d been named after him. She’d never told me her middle name was Cynthia.

Odd that I didn’t know basic things like that, but I did know her TM mantra—a secret one isn’t supposed to divulge to anyone. “Sham,” she’d told me and then burst out laughing with that great musical chuckle of hers. “Can you imagine?” I think we laughed ourselves to tears. Sham sham sham

As it turned out, I knew the important things about her…that she was marvelous and creative, temperamental and insightful, petty yet magnanimous.

And she’s gone. The world is a quieter and dimmer place without her.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Georgelle’s books at Amazon.com. And a link to the movie Bank Alarm, produced by her dad and starring her mom.