Five Moments with Frieda

I will not write publicly about my private people, with one exception: Frieda. But she is not “people,” and she has been private too long.

Frieda is one of the most special beings in my life. Brilliant. Hilarious. Sunny. Jewish. Beautiful. Capable. Strong. She is my grandmother and died at age 39, 20 years — almost to the day — before I was born.

Weird. Right?

Her whole story will be told soon enough, but intuition tells me that it’s still being written, and that I must wait to do it justice. I owe her so much.

So, for now, I will share five moments with Frieda. It’s an honor to (re-)introduce her to the world.

The Orb

I snapped the above photo on New Years night 2021, six months after Frieda made herself unequivocally known to me. (You’ll hear this ghost story in detail eventually — Frieda is not subtle.) It was dark and, as you can see, snowy. I was walking in a magical place and felt overwhelmed by spirit. But it wasn’t good spirit — not Frieda spirit. It was lots of spirits and they felt parasitic. They all wanted a piece of me. I wondered where Frieda was, because she is always been there to protect me. Why wasn’t she swatting the shadows away?

I took refuge in my house, had a restless, spooky night’s sleep, and forgot about the photos I had taken.

Until last week. I “happened” to need to show a colleague a photo of this special place right after I’d “happened” to share with her that Frieda came to me, most often, in blue.

“That’s the biggest orb I’ve ever seen,” J. said of the turquoise light illuminating the picture.

“What’s an orb?” I asked.

As I formed the question, shit started coming together: that was a scary walk. I’d wondered where Frieda was. The light was blue — like the bluejays and herons Frieda sends me — and bright, despite the late, dark winter’s night.

“An orb of light like that in a photo is spirit energy,” J. said. She pointed out another, smaller blue orb in an adjacent photo from the same walk. It hovered in front of the house.

Duh! You did shine the shadows away — you, sunny and strong. They didn’t stand a chance. Because you were there.

Of course I was, she laughed, her voice light as a feather. Of course I was.

The Hair

I am Jewish. So I wrestle with my hair. Such is life.

During the summer months especially, I’m inclined to let it go: curls, waves, frizz — whatever will be will be. Sometimes hair, like all of us, just needs to breathe.

But occasionally, when I’m drying off in the shower and debating whether to (a) air dry or (b) apply the product, brush it through, twist into a clip, blow mostly dry, finish with the straightening nozzle, apply the (more expensive) second product, try not to go outside for a while, and then hope for the best, I feel like Frieda is pushing me, not so subtly, toward Option B. But why? She’s a feminist!

Well. Frieda’s stories often unfold not on earth-time, but spirit-time. So, three months after Frieda began encouraging me to choose the option that makes both my hair and life appear more orderly and curated than they really are, my dad told me a story. This was rare: because Frieda died when he was only eight, a profound and earth-shattering loss, he remembers virtually nothing from childhood.

“When Uncle G. and I would visit our mother in the hospital, she’d want to look nice,” he explained. “So, one time, M.” — my step-grandmother, who was Frieda’s cancer nurse — “was helping to brush Frieda’s hair. But M. didn’t understand Jewish hair.” My dad was born with a veritable Brillo pad on his head. “And so, the more M. brushed it, the bigger and puffier it got,” he chuckled. “This surprised M. and frustrated Frieda.”

I smiled and nodded — not at my dad, but at the thought that landed in my head: Do your hair nicely because you can.

Ah.

So now, when I choose Hair Option B, I do it not to conform, nor to tame the beast. I do it because I now recognize that being able to style ourselves is a privilege — one Frieda lost toward the end. I do it as an homage to the woman whose thick, dark hair is perfectly coiffed in every photo we have, the smiliest of which I will forever keep next to my bed.

Swimming

Swimming in natural water — lakes, oceans, rivers — has always felt magical to me. Because it is magical: submerging in an essential element, navigating a different ecosystem, visiting a different world. It is also one of the few things I liked to do alone even before I had kids.

In the summer of 2020, my family was blessed to escape the heat of not only the Texas summer, but the pandemic. School and work were virtual, camps were canceled, so why not spend an unprecedented three-and-a-half months at our family’s place on Lake Michigan?

Frieda made her undeniable introduction to me that June. But things had been changing for a while — I’d asked for and received a wetsuit for my birthday, researched the best goggles and the difference between swim boots and swim socks— but hadn’t recognized this evolution for what it was.

The woods and lake called to me, just more so. I chalked up the extra steps and compulsive need to swim, regardless of temperature or time, to pandemic/Trump/too-much-togetherness relief. But I couldn’t shake the water. I needed it desperately, even after finding the calm that comes with accepting spiritual connection.

On weekends, when the neighborhood came to life and friends bobbed together in much-needed, but still safe, communion, I would turn and slip away under the water, swimming out alone into the expanse with no one but the Asian carp who’d also strayed from home. When work consumed my days, I’d be at the beach 10 minutes after shutting my laptop, and prepping dinner 20 minutes after that, goosebumps on my flesh and a beach towel on my head.

The chilly September day we left Lake Michigan for an unknown new normal back home, I awoke early to steal one last dip. I made sure to savor the sensations of pine needles crunching beneath my feet, water swooshing through my hair, the smell of fall in my nostrils. I felt desperate to hold onto the ephemeral. I tucked an extra lake stone inside my bathing suit strap.

I walked back up the beach steps with tears in my eyes that everyone but my husband attributed to a blissful summer’s end. I’d whispered my real concern in his ear late the night before: what if, when I leave the lake, I can’t find Frieda anymore?

Days later, thoroughly re-steeped in city life and removed from nature’s bounty, this crazy thing happened. I lifted my head from a restful sleep in the dead of night. Frieda hovered above the bed, faintly visible, wearing her smart red-and-blue skirt-set and trademark smile: I’m with you when you swim.

I know, I responded on the channel the two of us share. I drifted easily back to sleep, smiling in the knowledge that, actually, I have never swum alone.

Disaster

“Mom?”

It was May 20, 1988. A sunny Friday. For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield was accompanying a Vietnam War segment on the Today Show. Mom wore a tennis skirt and was clearing breakfast dishes. I was in fifth grade, had strapped on my backpack and said goodbye in anticipation of walking the four blocks to school. But I stopped, my hand hovering over the doorknob, because my skin prickled in the particular way I’ve come to recognize as Frieda’s bat signal. It was familiar even when I didn’t yet know her name.

“Hmm?” Mom‘s face mirrored the uncertaity on my own.

“I’m…not sure I should go to school today. Something bad’s gonna happen.”

Mom looked puzzled. I now understand what she must have been thinking: This is scary! Stay home! I’ll keep her brother home, too. We’ll all huddle together, safe and sound. But what would that say, indulging an irrational fear? I’d hate to miss tennis. And I can’t miss work!

Eventually, she told me to go. “You’ll be OK.” We let the weirdness hang unspoken between us before I walked out the door. By the time I got to school, I thought only of my next playdate, orchestra, and what might be for lunch. The prickles were mostly gone.

By lunchtime, the cafeteria was abuzz. A boy from another grade paused at our table on the way to his. “There’s been a prison break!” he said.

I marched determinedly up to our P.E. teacher. “What’s going on?” I asked. She plastered a smile on her face but her eyes darted around, trying, and failing, to process the unfathomable.

“We’ll stay in our classrooms this afternoon,” she said.

“But…?”

“That’s all I have for you right now.”

I stared at her. “Are we in danger?” I asked. She softened, already knowing me for the extra-anxious child I was.

No,” she said a little too emphatically.

We returned to our classrooms where the teachers locked the doors for the first time. This was one of the country’s first school lockdowns. Laurie Dann, a woman plagued by serious, well-documented mental illness, but who nevertheless had unfettered access to guns, had murdered Nicholas Corwin, an innocent second grader, and gravely injured several other children at a nearby school. She was on the loose with a list of other school targets that included mine.

As the clock ticked slowly towards and past 3:20 — our usual dismissal time — and Ms. Harris checked the classroom’s one-person bathroom before and after each use — I felt preternaturally calm. Me — the anxious child whose stomach clenched and head buzzed any number of ordinary adolescent occurrences. I knew that something terrible had happened — and was, maybe, still happening — but also, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was safe. “Betsy,” I whispered to my friend. “Don’t worry. We’re gonna be OK.”

When a police standoff resulted in Dann’s death, we were finally released to our parents, one by one. My mom’s eyes swam with sadness, grief, worry, concern. But my protective oasis remained until my tender psyche was ready to process the day.

I never swim alone.

The Push

I was having a moment.

I’d written a book. And now, possessed by some kind of mania, I’d queried agents. Signed a publishing contract. Hired a publicist. WHY? I don’t like “public.” I like private: private spaces, private conversations, private toilets. What had I done?

I shut my eyes and laid very still, under the covers, on a Saturday afternoon.

“Mom? Are you sick?” one of my children asked.

“No,” I said. Maybe? I thought.

Maybe. Maybe I should stop this. Maybe I should shelve the book. Marinate on it for a few more…years. Call off the publicist. Ghost the publisher. Scrap this self-indulgent vanity project that consisted of “expressing myself.”

This vanity project would cost MONEY. I had turned myself into a startup business, and startups need money to — well — start up. I loathe spending money on myself. It feels reckless and, therefore, terrifying. What if said vanity project caused my husband and me to work more, not less? This start-up money could — should — go into my children’s anemic 529s! I asked myself again: WHAT HAD I DONE?!

I tried to breathe.

You’re fine, I felt more than heard. It wasn’t a touchy-feely message. It was a polite, but firm, invitation to get over it.

I couldn’t share my story. Other women can’t share their stories. You can. You must.

Oh.

But what about the money? I asked.

INVEST IN YOURSELF. INVEST IN YOURSELF. INVEST IN YOURSELF.

I got out of bed. I showered. And as I shampooed (yes, I would choose Hair Option B), this new mantra lodged itself in my every cell. I told you that Frieda is strong.

I wrote the checks. I hired the people (who are, incidentally, brilliant, and beloved.) I’m publishing the first novel and taking a leave from work to finish the second. I rarely think twice about any of this.

Frieda — who fought cancer when the disease was taboo, the treatments radical, the suffering barbaric — who clung successfully to her dwindling, tortuous life so as not to die on her son’s birthday — won’t let me. Life, she tells me, is too short to second-guess. Too short not to be brave.

I carry 25% of Frieda’s DNA. I like to think that 25% of her bravery flows through me, too.

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