I think my memories didn’t make it into the booklet of collected memories because I didn’t have Sally to talk with about what I might say. Sally had a gift for freeing people from writer’s block.
My first memories of Sally are vague. She was my sister’s roommate at Vassar, I was all of 5 or 6 when Marilyn graduated, but I have a hazy memory of Sally and Marilyn sitting in a room with tall windows and listening to me sing for them. The memory is probably derived from a photograph taken in that room. But I remember a feeling. I was envious of anyone who got to spend time with my sister Marilyn.
I remember Sally as well from my teen years when she and Marilyn were young mothers in New Hampshire. There was a Christmas tree, and there were small children. I had thought of Sally then as only my sister’s closest friend, but it was in my years of graduate school, early motherhood, and teaching that I came to know and love Sally for herself, in all of her radiance, quirkiness, and beauty.
I remember Sally’s voice on the phone the day she rescued me. I had a year’s fellowship from Brown with the expectation of writing my dissertation, and I was using the NYU and NY Public library routinely. My husband, Gerry, was in law school at NYU, and we were unable to pay a NY rent. We were newly married and living unhappily with my parents. Sally said, “Why don’t you and Gerry live in our house in Bellport, and then when we come to Bellport, you come to the New York apartment? Just feed our Bellport cats, and remember that Charlie bullies Elsa.” And so it began – the gift of the house, apartment, cats, but more importantly, the gift of Sally. I came to understand why Marilyn loved Sally so much.
I would sit in Sally’s bright study in Bellport, reading her books rather than writing my dissertation, and then I would come to see her after a day in the library in the city, and we’d sit sometimes for hours, With Sally, I could wander and probe. She never said, as my advisors had, “Narrow your topic already! Make a decision.” On the contrary, she’d say why not read this or that,and then I would. And the topic would grow again, the title would change, the stops and starts would continue, and all the while Sally listened in that way she had of listening, intently, eyes focused on mine, or she’d pace and then sit down, and suggest another way to look at things, and I’d run off to read something else. Once I did find my topic, I became obsessed. Sally nurtured the obsession.
It was Sally who taught me how to teach Virginia Woolf. Whenever I think of her, I think of our Woolf-like “moments of being” she inspired. Such moments include the sound and rhythm of her voice over breakfast in Soho, our pace on a walk, slow and then fast and then slow, depending on the topic, , and the few sentences of Sally’s that put me in the mood to write and to think about work as self-nurturing; her smile, her delight, when I talked about Stein’s Making of Americans and how I finally understood the “bottom nature” of people as Stein meant it in that novel. Of course the bottom nature of Sally is something I find hard to describe, yet I know, as Stein captures in that novel, that it repeated and repeated powerfully whenever I was lucky enough to see her. There were other moments too. I remember our talks about motherhood, and how to position myself to nurse and read a good novel at the same time. Perhaps the most pivotal for me was the moment at her big round table in her apartment, with the food she had ordered before us. She looked at me and said out loud that it was strange and wonderful to see me no longer as simply Marilyn’s little sister, but as a grown-up with ideas of my own and a professional life–somehow Sally saying that so definitively made it so.
I remember Sally’s generous spirit most of all, the way she would seem to lose herself in whatever I might be saying, though it never seemed all that profound to me until she responded. In the year that I resisted writing my book, she got me to write about that. We were sitting in a restaurant in Holyoke, Massachusetts, one she remembered from some time in her past, the Yankee Peddler. What was the resistance about, she asked, and suddenly I understood my subject in a way I never had before. Write about that, she said. And later, the essay I produced made its way into Between Women and freed me to finish the book. I wrote that essay feverishly, with Sally’s voice somewhere in my head all the time, encouraging me, asking questions, and letting me know this mattered.
Sally had a way of marking, validating, even celebrating the complexity of “moments of being” in the life you were living at any given time, or the life of someone you loved. When my mother and I came to see Marilyn when she was ill and stayed at Sally and Bill’s overnight, Sally came into the room where we were resting (she still called it Lizza’s room, I think), sat next to us on the bed, and spoke of Marilyn, and how the three of us loved her, and in that moment, how the three of us were sitting there thinking of Marilyn and loving her, how that joined us together.
I know how deeply my sister Marilyn loved Sally, and for how many years. I thank her for bringing Sally into my life as well.