The first time I met Toni was at a friend’s holiday party just over 15 years ago. She was sitting by herself in a chair in front of the fireplace, and there was an open chair right next to her. I took it as a sign that I was being given a second chance.
You see, the first time I actually saw Toni was the year before when I was standing in line behind her at the local post office. She looked as stunning in real life as she did in her photos. I had heard that she lived in the neighborhood and was a private person. As a writer, I’d fantasized about meeting her. But in that moment, I couldn’t remember what I said to her in my fantasy. I panicked. I wanted to say something smart or clever or both but instead ended up saying nothing.
I felt as if the empty chair at that holiday party was my opportunity to say something. I sat down, introduced myself and at the end of our hour-long conversation–during which I had a few silent and surreal moments of “I’m talking to Pulitzer and Nobel-prize winning Toni Morrison!” she said something that I did not anticipate. “Do you ever want to go to the movies with me?” Yes, I answered. “Are you okay going in the afternoons?” Yes. “Will you drive?” Sure.
And that’s how our afternoon movie dates started. We’d drive to the local mall and see big commercial movies and little indie movies. She made me promise not to tell anyone about the movies she didn’t like. She had great respect for the creative process even if a film wasn’t her cup of tea. Initially, we chose seats that were in the center row in the middle of the theater but after her hip replacement surgery, we always found Toni an aisle seat. We only ordered bottles of water—except for once when we splurged on a small box of popcorn—because we’d always go to one of her two favorite restaurants afterwards for lunch.
I asked her to read my manuscript. It was during one of our lunches in between the salad and main course and after a half a glass of white wine. Toni said she didn’t like to read her friends’ books because if she hated them, she would feel guilty but also compelled to tell them. I got over the fact that she might hate my book because hearing her call me her friend kind of undid me. She was friends with Oprah and Bill Clinton and all of these other icons. She read my manuscript anyway. She hated the title but liked the writing. When it came time for me to pitch it to the publisher, I asked her if I could quote her in the subject of the email: “Toni Morrison says it is beautifully written.” She laughed and said I could. I changed the title. The publisher published my book.
While we didn’t talk a lot about the craft of writing, Toni did give me advice on how to develop the characters in a play I was working on. She said I needed to live with them. Inside them. To imagine what it would be like to be them and see them. Which is sometimes the way I felt when I was with Toni. I could be fully present– inside my body and with her—and then have moments where I felt outside my body–looking down on myself and having these “Toni Morrison wow” moments.
Mostly when we got together, we giggled like teenage girls. Some of the movies we saw were ridiculously bad (often one or both of us dozed off). We talked about actresses who had cosmetic surgery and the prevalence of Botox (she didn’t do it and insisted that I shouldn’t either because I didn’t need it–after which I explained that the reason I didn’t look like I needed it was because I’d had it). She laughed. Actually, she laughed a lot. She had this wonderful big throaty laugh that was contagious. We shared our love of flowers in jelly jar vases, her love of cats and my love of dogs, and what our different religions taught us that was uncannily similar. Most of the time when I was with her I forgot that she was THE Toni Morrison. She had this way of completely charming and disarming you. I saw her do it with the wait staff at restaurants, the ticket-takers at the movie theaters and even with her fans at her book signings. She never acted like a celebrity, even though she was one of the most celebrated writers of our time.
When I visited her last month at her home, we spent the entire afternoon together. Her house is beautiful. It has magnificent African art, photographs, historic letters and a table that was used in the movie Beloved. Instead of hanging out in our usual place at the kitchen table surrounded by bookcases, we hung out upstairs in her TV room. The walls were lined with photos and paintings. She went through each and every one and regaled me with stories of her family. She had such deep love for them. I shared stories of my family and promised when we got back from vacation in a few weeks, I would bring my son to see her. She couldn’t believe he’d graduated from college already.
My son was the one who woke me early Tuesday morning to break the news that Toni had passed away.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Toni spoke these words when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her deep understanding of the power of language rang through every one of her books and speeches. She closed by saying, “How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.”
How lovely it was for me—for us all—to know you, Toni. You will be forever missed.