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(Sept. 25, 2010)

          I am looking at a bunch of walnuts. They are shriveled with age, and each has a smudge of ink on one side. One or two of the smudges is still discernible as a face, drawn long ago.
          By me.
          There are thirteen of these walnuts, and they are now bundled in a little bag with a drawstring. For forty-one years, they resided in a bowl in the kitchen of the home of a lady named Shirley Braunstein.
          I turned the nuts into art one sunny afternoon at Shirley’s kitchen table in a condominium in Marina del Rey, back in 1969 or 1970. Well, there were walnuts in a bowl, and I didn’t feel like eating them, and there was a pen handy, so what else should I have done? I whiled away an hour or two drawing smiling faces, frowning faces, laughing faces, puzzled faces, weird faces. Some had moustaches, some had glasses, sideburns, cigars. . .Some looked like me.
          Shirley walked in and thought this was. . .well, I don’t know exactly what she thought. But she sure was surprised and amused. I can still see her smiling and laughing. The introverted skinny kid with in the horn-rims is full of surprises. . .
          I was Shirley’s proto-would-be-son-in-law, which is to say, I was the sixteen-year-old boyfriend of her sweet, flute-playing daughter, Betty. Or perhaps by the time I drew on the walnuts, I was the ex-boyfriend. Can’t remember. But I was a friend of the family, either way. I haunted their place after school almost every day, and eventually was invited to move in. Which I did.
          There's so much to tell here. . .
          I guess I have to explain that I was unwelcome in my own home at the time. My stepmother let it be known years earlier, back when I was in seventh grade, that she wanted me “out,” wherever that was, as my father told me. If I was good and “did not cause any trouble,” I would be allowed to remain through high school graduation. Maybe.
          This was not a recipe for a harmonious family relationships.
          And you don’t have to take my word for it, but I was about the nicest, most obedient, cooperative, good-hearted, dandy young lad a parent could have asked for. You would not believe the wacko things that happened in my household, or the---and I do not stretch a point---heroic deeds I performed before I even hit my teens.
          Go figure!
          So at 15 and 16, I was living as a de facto exile in my own home, barred from dining with my parents and instructed to “stay away as much as possible” whenever my stepmother was home. I was a small town kid in a new school, new world, in Venice, California, and far more depressed than even any normal biochemistry-demented teenager had a right to be. Getting shoved, pranked, kicked, and otherwise assaulted by some of the peaceable black kids at my high school did not help.
          Luckily, I lived near the funky Venice beach during that period, so “staying away” from home involved walking and sitting for hours and hours by sand and surf, or fishing on the Venice Pier. I still go back there when I want to clear my head, though its funk has given way to gentry.
          More luckily, I met Betty the Flute Player, and her affable brother, Ben, at Venice High in my second semester---just at a point where I was about to give up and return to my desperately missed home town. I could not have found two better or more supportive friends at that moment if I had been allowed to audition every member of the human race. The sun came up again.
          “Come on and meet my mother!” said Betty, one day on the Venice High front lawn after class.
          Uh-oh. Meet the mother. The last thing a guy wants to do, next to meeting the father. I think I deferred this event a couple times until there was no escaping it. I also think Betty said something like, “She’s nice!” so one day I walked sheepishly toward a big red-and-white Mercury station wagon parked on Venice Boulevard, and there she was. I leaned in the passenger window and made like a good, harmless boy. Which I was.
         Shirley was smiling, turned sideways, arm resting on the back of the seat. And until you’ve seen Shirley smile, you just don’t know what it is. It’s a smile that tells you that you are a downright splendid thing, that creepy-crawlies and guile retreat from your very shadow, that you are worthwhile and winning and just plain goddamned good. Then there was the voice. You've heard the cliche that someone has a voice like music, but Shirley really did. There was melody in her tone, a kind of warm lyricism.
          I was taken aback. She is nice, I thought. I also sort of instinctively felt like I didn’t want to stop talking to her, though I don't think I realized it at the time.
          So I didn’t.
          For the next forty-one years.
          Before long, I was spending afternoons at the plain white kitchen table on La Villa Marina inside a newfangled abode called a "townhouse" (allegedly the first in California, if not the country.) Shirley's diminutive frame, brunette curls and boundless presence presiding. Many, many others came to that table during those years, and they all received the Shirley smile, and a not insignificant amount of: lox, bagels, cream cheese, pickled herring, bialys, thin-strip steaks, garlic chicken, toaster-oven pizza (English muffins, Ragu, cheese), iced coffee, Tito’s Tacos (with the Coke cups full of salsa), Baskin Robbins Rocky Road, hamburgers, and attention.
          Attention, attention, attention.
          When Shirley talked to you, as our mutual old friend Betsy Wheeler put it, you knew that you had her full attention and interest, that she was totally present and in the moment with you, and that she loved whatever you brought to the proceedings. This was true. Whether you were joking or explaining yourself, or expressing dismay, puzzlement, frustration, anger, or just relating an innocuous anecdote, she was listening. And then she would give back---thoughtfully, earnestly, incisively, humorously. Compassion? Defined, but this was not sugar-coated touchy-feely stuff. There was realism in her words. Shirley had a positive personality, but was hardly blind to the foibles, follies, and fiendishness of humankind. And often as not, she worked her wonders with a laugh and a smile.
          I recall one conversation with her from that time, in which I expressed anger over something I no longer remember. It was Shirley who introduced me to the concept that expressing anger at someone often simply gives that person power. This was one hell of a revelation to an unguided kid with a lot of pent-up resentment.
          It turned out to be a sort of prototypical Shirley/Rip conversation, and became one of---one of---the working aspects of our friendship. For as I got older, I wished only to cheer her up, make her laugh, give her good news, rather than run my mouth about the latest slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I failed at that more often than I should have, but then, I really don’t think she minded. She liked truth, no matter how difficult. In our very last conversation this past summer, I found myself relating some unpleasantry or other, and sought to cover it up by adding, “Not complaining---just explaining!” She really, really liked that.
          But Shirley was not just a nice lady who listened. She was the most self-sacrificing, giving person I have ever known. It sounds hack, but she helped countless people in countless ways. It was probably in her DNA. Her father ran a dairy in the Bronx during the Great Depression, and apparently gave away so much free eggs and milk that it did his marriage no favors. It is hardly surprising, really, that Shirley grew up to become a nurse. At her final place of employment, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, she became the stuff of legend. Really. Here’s what then-Cedars surgeon Stephen Sacks said on her retirement in 1994:
          "There's something about Shirley that made her head and shoulders above, even though she was kind of head and shoulders below everybody else, physically. She was one of these kinds of people like Magic Johnson, who had the ability to make everybody around her rise to a higher level, by her abilities. . . . I cannot think of a nurse who could carry her stethoscope."
          Sacks and other Cedars physicians said she would have made a great doctor, and that is undoubtedly true. Shirley was so thorough in her care for patients that doctors became extra diligent lest they get a call from her later in the day with “just a couple of questions.” And she stayed in the trenches. While many other nurses rushed to move up the pay-scale ladder into hospital management, Shirley deliberately stayed behind, doing everything required of entry-level nurses, changing bedpans and sweeping floors. She knew the value of old-fashioned bedside nursing; she respected it as a craft, a service, did not view it as a steppingstone. Doctors routinely wondered why she wasn't head nurse of the hospital. Answer: she didn’t want to be.
          But this is not about Shirley the Nurse. It’s about Shirley the Friend.
          She was there for me a million times. Sometime after I was finally kicked out of my home (pushed too far, I finally let loose, probably registering on the Richter Scale), I eventually wound up moving in with her family during the summer of ’71. She fed me and bought me clothes and picked me up from my job at Lucky Market on Lincoln every day, despite my insistence on riding my bike. She drove me out to Cal State Northridge to look it over, so I wouldn’t have to move there, sight unseen, and gave me keys to her home after I started school. (I still have them, even though the place is long since sold.) She and her son, Ben, moved me out to the Northridge dorm, a foreboding nine-story hive called Rincon Hall.
          And the Marina condo became the home base I kept in touch with through the years, staying the odd weekend here and there, swimming in the pool, eating Tito's Tacos and watching Perry Mason or the Three Stooges with Shirley at that wonderful kitchen table. Later, she (proudly) visited me on the job at the old Valley News, and then at the L.A. Herald-Examiner. (I recall what a kick she got out of seeing that madhouse newsroom.) We managed to get together for sushi once in a while, as well, until a tragic period where her marriage ended, and she endured a series of health and personal crises and adjustments that landed her in a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Mar Vista. Still working full-time.
          And yet when I had to have surgery around that time, it was Shirley who came from nowhere to drive me, and pick me up. I couldn't stop her. I couldn't ever stop her. Nobody could. Saying "no" to her, which I did fewer times than there are starfish in the sea, just had no impact. When I returned from six months in Taiwan in the late ‘80’s to find my apartment all but destroyed by the guy who had sublet it, she insisted that I stay at her condo in Culver City for a month while I gutted my place, repainted, put in new carpets and floors. She was still working at Cedars, and we became the friendly roommates who never are at home at the same time.
          And after her retirement, she became a kind of mom-in-law to me and my wife, Annie.
          Which brings up the whole mom thing. Various people including Betty the Flute Player have referred to Shirley as my “adopted mom” or me as her “adopted son,” but it really isn’t so simple. Shirley always introduced me as her friend, and that was plenty good for me. Not long ago, at one of our many happy Sunday lunches at Papa Cristo’s Greek Deli in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter outside of downtown, one of the employees asked if she was my mother, and I said, “No, just a friend.” Said the employee, smiling, “Well, she looks like she could be your mom,” and I answered, “I agree!” Shirley didn’t object. But I also always felt we were, on some level, kindred spirits in our authority-suspecting no-bullshit views of the world (and our affection for The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers!), and there was another factor here that perhaps made the “adopted son” label not quite fitting. She didn’t judge me. I think most Moms do.
          Shirley always took me as I was, always seemed proud of me, always seemed interested in what I was doing, what I had to say, what I planned to do. No, she didn’t just seem interested---she was intently, obviously, enthusiastically interested. She always, even when I probably did not deserve it, even when I was not the happiest camper in the campground, displayed total confidence in me. Whether I was doing an oddball bit of artwork for no apparent reason, or self-publishing a novel, or working with the great a cappella group, The Persuasions, she acted as if it was as good as gold. I think this was part of her nature---to instinctively offer people that which they most needed. There are as many stories along these lines as there are people she met in her life. Really. How she often drove out to the Valley to babysit for friends’ grandkids so the parents could go out and have “quality time.” (She was in her late 70’s at the time.) How she once quietly presented the young son of a friend, devastated by the break-up of a relationship, with an address book “to fill with new friends.” (It changed his life.) How she would turn up at the airport with fresh bread for a nursing colleague leaving on a trip to the Phillipines. How she spent months nursing a friend with cancer, twelve hours a day, essentially costing her a heart valve. Everyone who knew Shirley has stories like this. Everyone.
          So we were friends, but we were very good friends, and also something more than friends. I only now realize how vitally important it was for me to have her unqualified, unsolicited support. How utterly essential her confidence and interest have been during all the silly crises I’ve gotten myself involved in through the years. Overtly and subconsciously, I knew there was at least one person out there who believed in me, period, without reservation.
          How lucky I have been.
          I never expressed this to her in so many words, but she knew I loved her, and she knew I understood how much she had done for me. I am so relieved today to remember that on a couple of occasions, I sent her e-mails to that effect, explaining that the older I get, the more astonished I am at how she went out of her way to help me, long ago. Hell, how many people take in a marooned, neglected kid and buy him shirts and slacks, fer crissakes? Let alone talk the kid through some very disturbed and displaced moments. I had felt tremendous shame and embarrassment, after all, for being a stray. I mean, what are the odds, I have recently been asking myself, of a troubled, quiet kid from the California countryside running into a bouyant middle-aged lady from the Bronx, and becoming friends? And having much in common, to boot?
           I have no idea who or what I would be today had I not known her.
          And this is not to exclude her late ex-husband, Morris Braunstein, from my gratitude, or the family as a whole. I loved these people, and cannot possibly give back enough for what was given to me.
          In recent years, it has been a great happiness to me that Shirley finally made a little time in her life for. . .Shirley. She traveled extensively, sailing to the Galapagos (a great highlight of her life; she had wide-ranging interests and a relentlessly inquisitive mind) and flying on zip-lines in the rainforest of Mexico (at age 80!). She and Betty hiked up Mt. Kilimanjaro and across Alpine meadows in Switzerland. And in an even more exotic outing, I once took her to a Grateful Dead show at the Forum in Inglewood, where she got up and moved to the front of the section during the big drum solo (she loved drums.) She got a huge charge out of watching the Deadheads bouncing an enormous purple Gumby across the Forum floor during the show, and was very moved by Jerry Garcia’s plaintive voice and guitar.
          We went to operas, to see the great Japanese taiko group, Kodo, to Mickey Hart's "Planet Drum," and I once talked her into actually going to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see the L.A. Phil. (She had an aversion to places where people with a lot of money dressed up and preened.) Beethoven’s 9th and its "Ode to Joy" and extolling of human cooperation drew her out, though, and wouldn’t you know that it turned out to be a night when Esa-Pekka Salonen reduced this monument to sloppy Muzak. Even Shirley and her relatively untrained ear could tell it was unfocused, uninvolving. Oh, well. We made our own odes to joy during tons of day trips to the Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, various favorite restaurants and markets for this or that favorite fare: Chinese dumplings, sushi, Indian cuisine. And I must note here the absolutely landmark Shirley trait that wherever she went, day or night, she stopped to smell the roses.
           And the birds of paradise.
           And the carnations.
           And the petunias.
           And the magnolia blossoms. And the. . .Shirley, you see, never met a part of nature that she didn't love. You'd be walking across a dumb parking lot to a restaurant, and turn to find her hovering over a nondescript planter, observing some struggling blossom or unassuming vine.
          "I've never seen this before," she would say, when you approached. "I wonder why it grows this way. . ."
          The cactus garden at the Huntington was Nirvana. I think she sort of identified with cactuses (she always had clay pots of robust little cacti on her balcony and kitchen counter) and how their nonconformist, preposterous, foreboding shapes and textures could yield delicate and almost luminous blossoms. Shirley was forever finding beauty where others would not, could not. She naturally, intuitively embraced the Japanese aesthetics of wabi and sabi, which is more or less the appreciation of beauty in things not conventionally thought to be beautiful. An asymmetrical rock, a piece of old wood. A gnarled, "ugly" cactus. . .
          And then there was Obon. Shirley was never one to merely observe. She wanted to do. She was, as her daughter says, “hot-blooded.” Obon is a Japanese Buddhist summer festival featuring large group dances done in a circle around a taiko drum. Hundreds of ladies and men dress in summer kimonos (yukatas ) and hapi coats, and do gentle folk dances as a life affirmation, and a paying of respect to departed persons who have influenced your life, whether positively or negatively. (Either way, they shape you, you see.) Before long, Shirley had joined Annie and me at Obon dance practices, and then the festivals. She became a regular dancer at various Japanese Buddhist temples in Southern California for about five summers, until her excruciatingly painful bone-on-bone knee gave out. And she went her own way at these affairs, as was her penchant, making many new friends. The proof remains: five years since she last danced, people still ask, "How's Shirley?"
          As for that knee, she courageously got it replaced at around age 79, and somewhere along the line there were also two heart valve surgeries and various other major “procedures” of the type that you just don’t necessarily bounce back from. Hell, she beat breast cancer back in 1969 with a radical mastectomy, and barely made a fuss about it. The woman bounced, in other words. I don’t want to invade her privacy too much here, but she went through a lot of hell recently, while admitting only to occasionally feeling “uncomfortable.” This was one extraordinarily tough, determined, resilient human being. The fact that she never, never used Novocaine at the dentist explains more than her reluctance to take prescription medication unless absolutely unavoidable.
          In the last few years, the hell got worse, and toward the end, she really had no business going out to see friends through sickness, travail, even dying. But of course, she did. She nursed, she comforted, she stayed at deathbeds. In my opinion, she was literally getting up off her own death bed to help others. There was a long period where she was severely sleep deprived, well beyond any point I could ever tolerate. Yet there she was, last January, at Cedars, when I went in for surgery for a very nasty bout with kidney stones. She was crinkled and pale, and looked as if she might fall over, or blow away like an old leaf. Yet there was that Shirley smile.
          It was a great blessing that in the last two months of her life she regained some comfort and relatively normal functioning. She really seemed much happier than she had been in some time, I think it’s fair to say, and we celebrated her 84th and last birthday at Papa Cristo’s last June: Annie, Shirley, Shirley’s great friend and fellow ex-nurse, Martha Pardo, and me. It was a simple and splendid afternoon, with good talk and laughter, which Shirley topped off with what might have become her favorite thing in the world: a Starbucks Double Chocolatey Chip Frappucino. Whipped cream, but of course.
          She called me for lunch several times over the summer, which was a shocker, as it was often difficult to get her to go out, let alone prompt a call back from her, in later years. So we met outside Nichols Restaurant in the Marina, a short distance from the good old condo on La Villa Marina, and we yacked about all the things that we would generally yack about, which was damn near anything. She might bring up a movie she'd just seen on Turner Classics, or old family troubles, trying to better understand how and why things had happened the way they did, and I might bring up how improbable it was that a very sickly left-handed kid from a very poor background, taught to rat-a-tat on a stupid plastic drum during a year in a hospital, grew up to play right-handed drums with a very quirky style that happened to perfectly fit a group called The Beatles. Or we would talk about the news, and why we had both stopped paying any attention to it.
          I’ll always remember the one afternoon I arrived to find her sitting on a bench outside the restaurant, looking up.
          “Do you see the palm trees?” she asked.
          There were several trees stuck in the crummy parking lot.
          “See the new chutes standing straight up? And then the full grown fronds, and then below, the old, nearly dead ones, waiting to fall.”
          I nodded.
          “It’s all there, isn’t it,” she said simply.
          That day, after lunch, we sat and talked some more on the bench outside. She didn’t seem to want to leave. She took my arm as I walked what had become her tiny, stooped body out to her car---she remained fiercely independent---and before I closed her door to walk away, she said something very rare.
          “Love you.”
          “Love you, too.”
          My dear, beloved friend, my guide, my bulwark, went to sleep one night a few weeks later, and didn’t wake up. She very much wanted to go that way, and feared prolonged suffering or disability, so this was a good thing. A gentle gift from the Reaper. She had sent me an e-mail a few days earlier that said she was not feeling well, either mentally or physically, and that she was retreating into her "little nest." It ended with her repeating my words, “Not complaining. Just explaining.”
          Shirley had told me that a number of times in recent years, she would wake up in the middle of the night and “feel the presence” of her mother. Was it a dream? A waking dream? A sleep disorder? Hardly matters, as she found it pleasant. I like to think that her mother came again, one final time, and took her home. Shayndele. . .Shayndele. . .you’ve been out playing in the streets too late. . .
          Annie and I wound up being the ones to go to her condo, and after conferring with her out-of-state daughter and partner, and best friend Martha, to discharge Shirley's wishes. I rested my hand on her as she was wheeled to a van, and then I bowed in gratitude.
          And now she is gone, and there is a terrible emptiness I have never imagined.
          And I sit here, with a bag of walnuts with silly faces long faded to smudges, that once meant a great deal to a very great lady.

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