People make fun of all the selfies and photographic documentation and social media posting that everybody overdoes these days. Let me tell you a story about the weight of memory on me tonight, and why I am happy for everyone who has screens filled with photos of their current escapades and adventures.
I met a woman named Susan in my freshman year of college. She was passionate about calligraphy, wore resoled Earth Shoes, and had the most fabulous frizzy black hair that stood out almost horizontally from her head. She was from New England and I was from Michigan by way of Arizona, yet we both turned up at Reed College in Oregon. I had changed my middle name to Sky a few years earlier; she changed her middle name to Riverwood not long after I met her. That’s the era we are talking about–a beautiful, messy, dimly remembered time. Reed had an intense atmosphere where neither of us quite belonged, and Susan and I found each other the way two puzzle pieces sit apart from the pile when they don’t seem to fit.
Today if I scrape down into my memory banks, I can hear her voice, picture her handwriting, and remember the deliberate, sliding gait she adopted in those Earth Shoes. After leaving Reed to come to Michigan, I wrote to her, all the time, and she wrote back, all the time, and I want you to picture the unbelievably voluminous stacks of correspondence going back and forth, for years, with her calligraphed address on hers and my collages of old sheet music covers and newspaper clippings taped together on mine, to make every one of those letters a work of art, inside and out. We sent each other sketches and poems (I can’t remember much about hers, but mine were bad, at least). Those letters were like the passenger pigeon: so numerous that I figured I didn’t need to hang on to any; there would always be so many more darkening the sky.
Later, I cobbled together a series of ride shares and Greyhound buses from Ann Arbor to Washougal, Washington, by myself in late June of 1976 to see her. We saw the 1976 Bicentennial fireworks in Vancouver, Washington, together, and I remember picking raspberries out in her overgrown hippie garden in her shambling big rental house in Washougal, and the curvy roads and the piney smell of the place. She tried to teach me how to drive her brand-new, freshly purchased Chevrolet Vega wagon. Without much success. I didn’t get my driver’s license until a couple of years later. Not that I didn’t drive on the trip (just not very well).
This was an unforgettable, legendary driving trip, about a month long, taking our time as we made our way back from Washington to Massachusetts, since she was moving home. I have told so many people so many stories from that trip: visiting the Giant Artichoke and Hearst Castle, being taken to a posh restaurant by a friend of her parents in Sausalito and feeling terribly underdressed in our road clothes; camping in dicey campgrounds where we could hear people wondering how old we could possibly be to be traveling on our own; spending a couple of days in San Francisco where a man told us about “this new thing that’s going to change everything… disco,” a drive through northern Arizona to see my old high school and the Grand Canyon, all the way across the south–celebrating my 19th birthday in a Chinese restaurant in Tennessee and having rice pudding with a candle in it–trying to find vegetarian food on the road and, one memorable time, being served meat accidentally because of a language barrier in New Mexico and strict vegetarian Susan getting sick afterward. And so many conflicts, hurt feelings, stressful moments, and so much intensity and closeness and adventure as well. A trip like that brings out the best and the very worst in yourself and your fellow traveler, and this one was epic in every sense.
There’s more, a lot more, that doesn’t even need to be told. You get the idea. We stopped corresponding for reasons I will hold close and not detail, but I always figured that times would change, we would age, and someday we would be back in touch and be friends again.
Because a colleague was driving through the redwoods just today, I thought of Susan. I hit Google to see if, this time (unlike other times I’ve tried), I could smoke her out. I found her mother’s obituary from earlier this year. In it, I read that Susan died in January 1989, in New York City. I have no idea what happened. I have no idea how to find out.
And, going back to my starting words, I have no pictures of her, no pictures of us together, and I used to pride myself on NOT saving things like old letters and papers, and now I am very, very sorry that there was no social media, no digital photography, none of that, back then, and so I have no way to make those mental images into physical images anymore. Go out and take some more photos, won’t you?