Sally (Jamey Bell)

I’m honored—overcome—to be here speaking about our beloved Sally.  Gray, Bill, Lauri, Susan:  thank you for your generosity in sharing her and this time.

She was SO BIG—in a diminutive, contained package.

It’s not possible to completely describe what Sally was to me—  I wished her HAPPY MOTHERISH DAY every year, she called me her “daughter-person”.  I’ll try over the next few minutes to color in those terms, and to give the smallest down payment on the debt of love and riches I will always owe her.

I met Sally when I was 11, and I’m 63 now.  You can do the math.  I was in the 6th grade and she worked as Admissions Director in the lower school.  Blue autumn sky, white domes.  I’m not a teacher but I think many of you are—so you know:  how do you reach and teach a child?  Tell her she’s important.  Tell her you need her help.  Of course that was it.

By a couple of years later I was in love with Sally and with her youngest son.  What riches— a beautiful, talented young man with an amazing mother.  Then we lost Tim, and with that came the very natural possibility of losing Sally too—another loss which felt just impossible to contemplate.  I was young, with a shattered heart; as a mother myself now, I don’t know how SHE continued living.   But I didn’t lose her.  As I finished out my year in college she’d come to Ann Arbor to see her therapist and take me to lunch.  I think we talked about books, and life ahead.  The colors of that time are gauzy and dreamlike—but she was still teaching me, telling me I was important and she needed my help.

So decades passed—decades in the middle of my life and the latter part of hers– and all the change and transition that entails, life happening.  I find I don’t actually have words to color in those decades– but she does.  We were both letter writers.  And we were both keepers– of a very particular sort—kitchenware, love, words.  I fortunately have lifelong practice at deciphering her handwriting; and I know the engineers in the family will endorse my using the right tools for the job.  I waited over a month after she died to read my trove of letters and cards from her.  Since then my head has been a swirl of Sally’s voice–funny, questioning, ALIVE.

I started my career, and she shared her wisdom about my work:

Dearie,

That’s called burn-out and it’s a perfectly honorable estate. And I do think that a lawyer who carries her toothbrush in her purse is the perfect advocate for children’s oral health!

 and she shared some thoughts about her own work:

Dearest James,

Happy happy birthday wherever you are—and I hope it’s someplace cool and quiet.  The small amount of complacency I feel about not helping to destroy the ozone layer would disappear at once if I could get my hands on an air conditioner.  Alas there are none to be had and being a friend of the earth isn’t really cool.  And why did I choose a career of cooking??  Bill, who is presently climbing a mountain in Maine, thinks I should advertise as Sara B. Booth, PC (personal chef)– Software for your Palate.    Do you think that’s better than Mom’s Mediocre Meals (his previous suggestion)?

At some point I shared my weird theory about our identities being affected by our literary heroes (mine at the time Horton the Elephant and Jane Eyre) – and she wrote:

I really like your psycho-literary identity formation idea.  Perhaps I was Piglet, became Kanga cum Mrs. Tiggywinkle, but I do know I spent a great deal of my childhood as a princess in the original lobby of the Fisher Building.

I had my babies—and we know she was brilliant at that:

Dear James,

I think being a parent is the most courageous thing anyone ever does, but children– people—are in the end truly themselves and if we’ve done the job properly they go off and leave us—which is where the need for some of the courage comes in.  However not so much leaving with daughters I understand—and am just beginning to find out.  Bless you bless you. All my love,  S.

As I’d grown up, and developed an adult-to-adult relationship with her, I was stunned to realize that for reasons that must have had to do with her generation, her culture, or her particular family legacy— she was sometimes not comfortable with how extraordinary she was.  So even while I doubted my self, I never doubted the truth about her—her amazingness was clear, solid, evident.  It was profound to be one of the people she could hear that from:

Dearest Jamey,

After reading many times your dear card I’m putting it in the Jamey-box of correspondence which I refer to whenever I need to remind myself that all the wise and loving things you say to me might very well be true because you are a very wise woman even when I don’t feel I deserve them.

She was invariably elegant, engaged, informed.  And also so much fun!  She and Fred visited us in Connecticut on their way to an elder hostel trip, when Fred’s orientation and memory were beginning to fail.  We tacked on a side trip to my father-in-law’s cabin in Vermont. On the way we found the most beautiful crystalline silver river by the side of the road, and didn’t have our bathing suits.  So Sally, my children and I all stripped down to our underwear for a swim, with Fred smiling quietly at it all nearby.

Other colors in the palette are

  • the jet black hair she had when I first met her, and her gorgeous white a half century later;
  • the spot of perfect red in a small vase or cashmere throw or step stool (!);
  • the green of a tiny malachite heart she gave me that I’ve been wearing again since she died. My baby grandson likes to place it in my mouth and watch me pop it back out at him; she never got a chance to meet him, but I know Sally sees this and it makes her smile.

The best definition of grief I ever read is:  grief is just love with nowhere to go.  And as we live with that question now—where does the love go, when Sally’s no longer here to receive it?–  I know that at the least it’s in the shared experience and memories.

And for me it’s not just the memory, but the lasting, essential SALLY-NESS in the memory.  What I mean is:

  • There’s the memory of our trip to NYC together, but the Sally-ness is the spirit and sense of delight that got her on the plane, at age 75, to meet me there. Afterward she wrote: What a lovely warm happy spot of time in the middle of summer those days with you were.  How did we ever manage to make that happen?  I don’t go flying off to unknown parts alone!
  • There’s the memory of all the lunches and postcards in the months after Tim died, but the Sally-ness is the sustaining love and support she was able to give and receive, with me and so many others
  • There’s the memory of the decades of perfectly chosen and wrapped gifts and cards, but the Sally-ness is the loyalty and faithfulness and generosity through it all—the exquisite relationship maintenance that she excelled at, that makes her loss so widely and deeply felt

My mother-ish friend, precious darling Sally, was steadfast and true, with the most luminous smile.  She showed me, over 50 years, the kind of mother, wife, daughter, friend, community member I want to be.  Every day I’m aware of how blessed and rich in love I’ve been, to have her for so long.

If I need a reminder I can dip into my Sally-box of correspondence.  And I can honor her and project her lasting Sallyness in the world by telling people, and not just children,

“You are important. I need your help.”

Thank you, Sally. I love you .

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