by RIP RENSE
(Sept. 25, 2010)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.”
“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, 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
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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