"Van Mom" Caricature by Eric, the Pioneer Press's Uber-Talented Cartoonist

[This newspaper column appeared in the Pioneer Press in January 2011.]

Years ago, I attended a writer’s party at a Barrington estate.  We nibbled on Paula Deen-ish hors d’oeuvres.  It was “BYOR: Bring Your Own Reflux.”

We settled into couches, and gazed out at a rambling front yard forested by oaks and maples.

A woman approached our wordsmith cluster and introduced herself as Barb, a high-school English teacher.  She joked she was married to “the most hostile person in the room.”  I burst out laughing, because my husband usually grimaces at the idea of a “party” and waits in the car for me to say goodbye – about fifteen minutes after we arrive.

In between wine coolers and wisecracks, we shared our dreams.  Barb was also an Erma fan, and wrote fiction and humor.

The inevitable drifting happened.  Schedules got busier.  She had her baby, then I had my two.  Once, I faced a family-related crisis and she wrote a heartfelt letter.  She sent photos of her son’s school pictures at Christmas.

I sent Barb a silly essay, about my husband and I scrambling to finish a Wright Brothers plane made of popsicle sticks.  Barb chastised me, saying that parents shouldn’t really do their student’s work, but then confessed she had once built a rainforest inside a Florsheim shoe box.

According to Barb, teaching creative writing was rewarding yet intense.  “In addition to the assignment, sometimes my kids will write in the margins, ‘my mom is dying from cancer,’ or ‘my dad is drinking again.’”  Their writing was a window to their souls, and Barb listened.

For awhile, I noticed there weren’t any cards or e-mails.  So, I Googled Barb’s name.  To my shock, I found out she died in July 2009.  She was only 50.

We were not everyday friends.  Our children didn’t play together.  I never met her husband.  But she was the person I wanted to have coffee with.  I wanted to be like her.

Henry Thoreau said, “You cannot dream yourself into a character, you must hammer and forge yourself into one.”

Barb’s death feels like a hammer to my cozy world.  I say, “Things will work out,” and reassure myself there is still time to do it all.

And there isn’t.

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