When I was ten I joined a second family. Although I loved my own, one day after school I stumbled down a flight of stairs into the Whitneys' garden at 588 Lincoln Street, and fell in love with all of them. Mrs. Whitney was the most intrepid mother imaginable. She wasn't protective and introspective, internal and artistic like my own mom--she encouraged adventure, travel, and exquisite, borderline danger. She climbed the highest trees, taller than any rooftop, and I followed. She'd take the family skiing at Mad River Glen (whose motto is "Ski it if you Can") and like the Pied Piper led us all slicing down black diamonds--the iciest, most mogul-ridden trails on the mountain. She taught me to do backbends and back-walkovers, how to ride a bike no-handed, and how balance across a narrow ledge above a steep waterfall and not look down or be afraid. She told me stories about teaching in Panama, Switzerland, and New York, and she ordered me to find a way to live overseas at some point in my life. (Eventually I did--I moved to Paris.) She said that in Panama she'd take her students up on the school roof just to grab a bit of fresh air, and in New York she shared a small Gramercy Park apartment with another young woman and they'd dance the night away and have to prop their eyelids open to teach the next morning.
Mrs. Whitney (she wanted me to call her Betty Anne, and it was a hard transition--she was of another generation; in fact, as she put it, she was my other mother, and since I couldn't call her "Mom," having one of my own, I had long since settled on "Mrs. Whitney") and I stayed close throughout life. When I dropped out of college for depression, she gave me Sibelius and James Galway records and told me cross-country skiing would help me, that I would feel more alive in the cold, gliding over the snow. After she sold the house in New Britain (the year the twins were born the family had moved to 655 Lincoln, conveniently just across the street from us,) she relocated to St. Simon's Island and became a bookseller at G.J. Ford Bookshop. She instantly became part of the community, and she loved recommending books and hearing what everyone was reading. They invited me down for a signing several years ago, and I loved seeing her in action. When I ran into Mary Jane Reed, the store owner, at Winter Institute earlier this year, we hugged and tearfully had a Betty Anne Whitney moment--it was the first time we'd seen each other since she died.
That was something I couldn't face at the time. Death is part of life, and Betty Anne was decidedly unsentimental about it. But losing someone so important to me, a person who was integral--I'd call her every week, or she'd call me, we'd laugh and cry about everything, she'd help me make sense of the vagaries of relationships, and more than anyone she'd celebrate my books--the writing of them, their publications, she was as proud as my real mother was before she died--was seriously impossible to bear. I dealt with it in a very private way, and for a while it was too hard to talk to the other people who had loved her so. Including, and especially...her four children.
See, they are the other part of my other family. To say I adore them is an understatement. I babysat them every single day after school from when I was ten until I went to college. Tobin was already born when I started, and I held Sam the day she came home from the hospital. The twins, Sarah and Palmer, were the sweetest, and I couldn't put Sarah down--I carried her everywhere, and her mother used to joke she was glued to my hip. Tobin has always been graceful and thoughtful, a caring teacher at a school for the deaf, Sarah is director of alumni relations at St. Joseph University, Palmer is a successful businessman who shares his dad's love of sailing. All have amazing families.
Yesterday I had the most wonderful visit from Sam. She and her three children are on vacation, staying in a hobbit house in Topanga. We spent the day together, and in typical Whitney-fashion this involved climbing on the craggiest, steepest, most precarious rocks, taunting surf that was smashing against the cliffs, and finding a restaurant that allowed for running around after dinner because there is so much energy. We also needed books, because this is a majorly reading family. Sadie, my goddaughter, is an epic reader and a talented writer, Annie loves all books and gave me several fantastic book reports as we scrambled up to lifeguard station #3, and Tobin knows every spell in Harry Potter and also beat me very skillfully in a ruthless game of Dots.
And Sam...how to describe how much I love her? She is an inspiration to me. A Telemark skier, a back country hiker and camper, the most caring woman ever. She went to Tibet with One Heart, to bring life-saving childbirth practices to the women there, she and her sister Sarah worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and she is now a nurse-midwife for the most at-risk moms and babies in Salt Lake City. In DREAM COUNTRY I called her "the best midwife in the west," and she is.
Oh, how life comes around. I grew up babysitting Sam, and now she has great kids of her own. I feel so lucky to have them in my life. I love that they are as daring as their grandmother would want them to be, and also that they are readers of the first magnitude.