This has been a year…a year of me losing things…my mind, people and weight. There are such things in life as lost opportunities, “missed boats”…when the timing just isn’t right. I feel like I’ve spent the year re-creating my steps for one reason or another. Wondering why I took that left step instead of that right one. Wondering for example, when I lost my wedding rings at the pool in July while swimming with my baby daughter… “Why the hell did I decide to go swimming that day?” And “How come I was wearing my wedding rings?” And Why the hell did I take them off?”
The answers are simple. It was hot…there was a pool. My baby loves swimming. Of course, I’d take her. I’m a swimmer. I don’t usually go to the pool with all my jewelry on, however…(usually I take it off way before deciding to go to the pool), but I have before, and when I take the jewelry off I put it inside of safe pockets.
I thought I was safe. I thought my rings were in safe pockets, but two days later I noticed that my rings were indeed vanished, all three of them.
The days before the ill-fated swim date were muddled. What had I done? When was I wearing my jewelry? Why was I wearing it that day? Why was everything so foggy?
When I tried re-tracing the whole thing, I realized that as a new mommy I was just in the middle of doing everything differently. A lot of things were added to my agenda. Turns out adding another person to juggle is huge.
In addition to wallets, clothes, and rings, I lost people this year. Three people who meant the world to me died in 2010 and only one of them I felt like I saw “in time” and his death was the most shocking of all.
I didn’t have a nanny growing up. My mom raised my brother and me pretty much as a single parent. Now that I’m a mom, I don’t know how she could have possibly done it alone. But she wasn’t completely alone. We certainly didn’t have a live-in nanny or anything but we did have someone, a woman who was so close to me that I even affectionately called her “mom.” Well, I loved her enough to call her “mom.” Mom Klein was Ruth Klein, a beautiful German woman that my mom knew through her social work job. All I know is that she absolutely loved me unconditionally. I always felt like I was her favorite and I called her “mom.” She taught me German, painted my nails and took me shopping. I also loved sitting in her beautiful gardens, watching her cook her fantastic Bavarian meals and cookies. She smoked like a lady and drank coffee and spoke in German to her lady friends who would stop by. I loved her kids, too. There were 4 of them and they were all 5 to 10 years older than me. When they were teenagers, I was envious. I couldn’t wait to be a teenager, but to “Mom” I was always a baby, even when I was a teenager myself. We stayed connected with “Mom” over the years, but about 10 years ago I told her I was going to come by and see her and I forgot. I can’t believe that I did that. I guess at the time, I was …rude and selfish. I saw “Mom” after my wedding 6 summers ago. She wasn’t the same as I remembered her. She seemed bitter in her old age. But I always kept a special place in my heart for her. Every time I was home in these past 6 years, I’ve mentioned going to see her to my real mom. We’ve considered it….but it never happened. Before I could “consider” it again, my mom told me that she passed away this June. I cried and looked up at the clouds…”Mom.”
Marj Priestly is the opposite of “Mom.” I seriously doubt that she loved anyone without conditions, and she seemed to judge me in a way that never made me feel comfortable. If I said that I wanted to do something, like be a playwright or an actress, she seemed to think I should just “give it up.” I can remember leaving her house and feeling like throwing up. But she also supported me in many ways, and through knowing her, I’m very changed. My great Aunt Marj and Uncle Hank were “my wealthy” family that lived in New York somewhere. My mom was Marj’s favorite niece and once or twice a year checks appeared in the mail for no reason at all. My mom had such fond memories of spending time with her in White Plains, New York when she was a kid. “She’d take me everywhere,” my mom would say to me. These relatives sounded like people I should know. But my mom and I are different people. I wouldn’t say were cut from the same cloth, so-to-speak. I’m wild and crazy and very artistic — more than a bit like my famous granny Dale Messick. My mom, on the other hand, is a square, exactly the kind of niece that Aunt Marj, who was the head of the Girl Scouts could instill good diction and motivate.
“My aunt is dud, but that’s okay,” is what I wrote in my journal of my summer of ’86 visit to see them. In many ways, the Priestly’s lived up to their reputation: they took me to the top of Tower One (of the Twin Towers). Later I’d move to New York City, but I’d never stand on the top again. They also took me to see the Statue of Liberty and I shed a tear. Even though I now can see the Statue of Liberty from my balcony, that was my first time seeing it and it was glorious.
In 2000 when I moved to New York City Marj and Hank were my only family on the East Coast, so I made a point of knowing them. I’d take the train out to White Plains. They’d pick me up and take me to lunch at their fancy country club once or twice a year. My uncle Hank always drove, which was very scary. There couldn’t have been an older nor scarier driver on the road. Not only was he as old as dirt, he was also flush with martinis. Though I feared for my own life, their boring tour of White Plains “here’s the garden that we built,” etc…always put me on the verge of sleep, and during those 45-minute drives through White Plains, I felt like a kid in the back seat, when I wasn’t one anymore. I had responsibilities in NYC, a job, rent, etc…but for now, in the warmth of this car…What? Was that a dog we just hit? I just hoped to escape before someone had a heart attack or we ran into a train or a tree or both.
Six years later, shortly after Uncle Hank had passed, I happened to be working White Plains very near Marj’s house, so I started stopping by on my way home from work to check in on her. She was very distraught without Hank and I think she felt quite vulnerable. On one of my visits, she asked me to take care of her finances and to be her legal contact. This was a considerable shock to me. Yes, I guess I was her only family near her…but, well, okay. This changed our relationship dramatically and gave me a staggering amount of responsibility that I never asked for nor wanted. Her daughter lived in Alaska and her neighbors were taking advantage of her, preying on her growing paranoia and confusion. I often felt like I was in danger as I tried to help her. I started coming every week, even though I now had a full-time job in the city and going to White Plains every weekend was a strident task. Through this experience, I got to know Marj on a completely different level than I ever expected or wanted to. This was both good and bad. My favorite part of this time in our relationship were the days when I’d come take care of her bills and we’d sit and watch TV together or have a nice chat. I gave her books, read her some of my stories and even let her read one of my plays and listened to her very constructive criticism. I actually changed something in the play because of what she said. She was smart and alert even though she was very old and extremely opinionated. She was a tough nut, but she did love me and I know she wanted the best for me, even if she couldn’t always say it.
After I had my baby I was only able to talk to her on the phone occasionally. I was about to call her when her daughter sent me an email and told me that she had passed “nearly two weeks ago.” “Two weeks ago?” How? I used to see her every week and in retrospect, I’m so glad for that time. At one point, Marj gave me a bag of her fancy purses from some of the many cruises she took with Hank when they could still travel. I pulled out one of the very chic purses and wore it to a party this fall. The black satin jeweled bag was filled with a whole new light when I thought of her giving it to me. I touched my fingers on the lace and thought of all the good that came with it. Thanks, Marj for everything you were. Believe it or not, you really were my family, and you meant a lot to me, too.
Once, years after we were no longer a couple, Miles showed up at my office in San Francisco unexpectedly. It was 1996 and I was in the throes of young adulting. This was my first real “business” job out of college. And there was my high school boyfriend standing at the door of my work, a total surprise. “What are you doing here?” I said. He looked incredibly chill in his jeans and t-shirt, while I was totally uncomfortable in my pencil skirt, nylons and heels. “I was just in the neighborhood and I thought I’d stop by,” he said with his familiar smile. In the neighborhood? I worked in the Mission district in San Francisco. I don’t remember even telling him where I worked. I didn’t know what he was talking about and I didn’t ask. He was kind of like family at this point, so I asked him to help me move some heavy chairs in the grungy office basement (I worked for an outdoor toilet company, sigh). Miles was a friendly face, just when I needed it. “I’m glad you’re here,” I said. He waited for me to get off and we hung out for an hour. The minute I got out the door, he held my hand and pulled it up to his heart. He looked over at me, almost gushing and breathed in the air — my air like he was in heaven just to be with me for a few minutes. It’s a wonderful feeling to be so loved and Miles always made me feel that way whenever and wherever I’d see him, whether it was planned or not. “Have you ever thought how weird it is – that we just ….I dunno. It’s almost like a spiritual connection,” I said with my hand firmly in his grasp. He looked over at me like I was nuts.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2010, New York City where I’ve been living for the past 10 years. I’ve been married for five years and my baby daughter just turned one. Outside of “a very funny feeling” I’d been having all week, this year was going to be much better than last year. Thanksgiving 2009 I was so overwhelmed with my new job as “mommy” I don’t even remember the day. This year we were having a houseful of people over and I was making the Pumpkin Pie and letting my daughter lick the spoon.
The meal was fine and the company even better. I felt like the crowd was pleased. For some reason, I mentioned Miles during dinner and talked about him for a good five minutes. Talking about Miles has long been an emotional minefield for me. The mere mention of his name and I unravel and pull myself back together and no is the wiser unless you really know me. In that case, you might notice my face getting flushed. I could feel my heart racing, my voice getting higher, sweat going up my back, tears forming in my eyes. My husband gave me a look and changed the conversation. I gulped down my drink, looked over at my daughter, cooed lightly and began removing plates from the table.
The very next day, I got a private message from Miles’ ex-girlfriend, Holly. The message only said: “Can you call me it has to do with Miles.” I called the number listed but she didn’t answer. What could it be? I knew it was bad but tried not to think about it. Still, I called my three best friends to tell them about the odd message. Holly was Miles’ girlfriend a few years after me, so by then I was long gone, dating someone else, off at college. But I’d see them at our hometown disco parties. She was pretty and blond and I always liked her (and I was a little jealous since she was so gorgeous). I hadn’t spoken to her in years. Even though I kept in close contact with Miles, I never knew their story, why they broke up or anything about her, except that they were still in touch. Maybe he’s just very sick, I thought. That was certainly possible, he had been sick. My worried mind was going in so many directions.
I consider this hour of time before Holly and I could actually speak as the hour before I knew; the hour before my heart would break, truly break in half. It was so thoughtful of her to tell me, considering it took his sister another 24 hours to call me and by then, it was all over FaceBook. Miles RIP. People were posting who hadn’t seen him in 10, some 20 years. Once she said the words, which I’m sure was not easy for her, I felt blindsided. This is when I went into a dream state, half awake half asleep, full of memories and regrets.
When I started the 9th grade back at Petaluma High School, I was making a very wise decision, but I didn’t know it at the time. I had spent my 8th-grade year living with my dad and stepmom in Santa Rosa. I had met a whole new group of people, and I had new friends. But I decided at the last minute I’d rather move back with my mom and go to high school in Petaluma instead of spending another year at a junior high. The junior high that I was going to in Santa Rosa was a three-year program and in Petaluma, high school started in the 9th grade. Woohoo! My life would become amazing in the ninth grade and it was 50% up to me and 50% up to chance. I met Miles Miller McNaught in the spring of the 9th grade and I’m not kidding, the air smelled different. I never knew that cut grass smelled so fresh, that I could feel so wonderful inside — like I was percolating and about to explode. It was first love and it would last all through high school and beyond, really.
This past summer when I drove up to his parents’ house to visit him (as I’ve always done), I realized it was the 24th year I’d been showing up at his parents’ house and his dad would announce: “Miles, Noni’s here!” Yes, we dated for three years in high school, but I continued to show up as a family visitor, as a friend or whatever for all these years. Last summer was the end of something that was just part of my life. I realize now that Miles parents’ house was a place of comfort for me. I spent so much time there. One time a few years ago I stopped by, Miles wasn’t wasn’t home and I just sat there drinking wine and visiting with his parents. Now, this ritual of driving to Thomson Lane, next to the old mushroom farm is a part of my past. It will never be the same.
I remember furiously riding my bike to that same house 24 years ago. I was on restriction and my mom had locked me in the back of her office, but I had found a way out, grabbed my bike and took off riding as fast as my legs could carry me — to Miles’ house. When I got there, I remember he didn’t want to get in trouble with my mom…so even he was shocked to see me. “Hide me in your closet,” I whispered. So I hid in his closet. Then, I guess my mom called and his dad came into his room and said “Miles have you seen Noni? Her mom is looking for her…” I guess I figured I couldn’t hide in his closet forever, so I just jumped out the closet and said “Hi John.” I thought his poor dad would have a heart attack.
Miles was extremely handsome and two years my senior. He was the class president the year before and on the football team. I was younger and goofy with braces and wore weird outfits that were more like costumes. I once wore a ballerina tutu to school way before it was popular. Another day, I dressed up as a witch. I wasn’t exactly trying to fit in. Even though Miles was typically handsome for a teenage boy in 1986 — he had sandy short hair, green eyes and beautiful tanned skinned, he had many unique qualities that drew me to him; It wasn’t just his physical beauty I admired — it was his charisma, his charm, his intelligence, his witty sense of humor, his smile. He was also a talented musician, and the lead guitarist of a popular rock band called The Accolades that played during the lunch hour at school and played all kinds of gigs around town. So yeah, he was pretty cool. He liked to draw and write and I did too. He had the best penmanship. He was a great dancer and even taught me how to disco dance in his living room (because his babysitter taught him). He wrote me love letters and put them in my locker with roses from his mom’s garden. He was like an Aladdin showing me a whole new world. But how could a popular junior fall for a skinny freshman with braces who wore witch costumes? I really don’t know. But somehow it happened and we were so glad. A guy from my class later told me: “Everyone dreamed of being in love like you and Miles.”
It all started in detention one day in the spring of my Freshman year. I was sitting in the classroom and there was this gorgeous guy with sandy blond hair sitting directly behind me with his shirt off. He was tan and chiseled. He looked like a surfer waiting for a wave, but he was in detention. He was busy, looking down, working on some fancy drawing with all kinds of angles. I turned around and smiled at him. He smiled back and my heart was pounding. I’m not sure why, but I pulled out a pen and started drawing on his paper and he just let me. We didn’t exchange names, just smiles and there was an undeniable spark. At the end of detention, we went our separate ways, but something was happening to me. I felt different. I walked outside and can remember the smell of the freshly cut grass. The next day, I don’t think I sat right next to him (that seat was taken – damn). So I sat across from him and we smiled at each other. You’d have to see Miles smile to know how cute it was when “Mr. Charming” was smiling at you. He’d smile and blink his green eyes at the same time, kind of part cat, part clown.
I passed a note to the blond girl sitting next to me, a senior, who was the wild older sister of one of my friends — “what’s that guy’s name?” I wrote to her in pencil. “Oh that’s Miles – he’s so hot.” She wrote back in red loopy cursive. I smiled and he looked right up at me. So the next day, I went into the school library and looked him up in the yearbook. There he was: Miles McNaught — he was on the football team and was the class president. There was a photo of him attending a dance in a purple tuxedo, holding the hand of a girl my older brother thought was cool. Of course, he had dated the girl everyone liked. I stared hard at his picture and I wished (as if on a star) that he was my boyfriend. I mean, how else could a nerdy freshman like me nab a cool stud like him?
Meanwhile, I was trying to tell my friend Wendy about him. She totally didn’t believe me when I said that some hot older guy was flirting with me. That afternoon a group of guys rushed us in the hall after 3rd period. “Excuse me, pardon me…” and then they were gone, but I could have sworn that one of the guys was Miles from detention. “No, you’re crazy,” said Wendy.
I couldn’t wait for detention that day…and then, he wasn’t there. I was crestfallen. All my hopes — shattered.
The next day I was in the lunch line getting my burrito and there came those guys again…”excuse me, pardon me,” and one of the boys was Miles and he stuffed a piece of paper in my pocket. “It’s a love note!” exclaimed my now believing friend. When I pulled it out and unfolded the origami paper, it wasn’t a love note, but more of a drawing, one that we had been working on together. He had discovered my name too and incorporated it into hearts with a special message “Bean Pie Love, Noni.”
That afternoon he was in detention. We sat next to each other, quietly drawing, but looking up at each other, smiling. We didn’t need words. We were madly and totally in love and we hadn’t even kissed yet. Once we got out of detention we stood staring at each other being blinded by a west coast March sun. We were standing on that beautiful grass on that beautiful day, not knowing exactly what was next, but I think we both could gather it would be good. We touched hands, ever so lightly. He walked me out to the street where my mom was waiting in her car reading a People magazine. We stood about 10 feet away and sighed for a moment. “I’m speechless, Noni.”
I introduced him to my mom. She said hello and he waved goodbye to us.
“So who is that? He sure is cute and nice,” said my mom. “He’s my new boyfriend, mom.” “Oh…really?” I had never had a boyfriend before. My mom was probably totally freaked out. I just looked out the window and smelled that fresh air. Yes, this is what love feels like and I’m in it…so in it.
Miles was my boyfriend from that moment on at 141/2 until I was 171/2 and a senior. In between, there was a great, great love that flourished and inspired me and those around me. Through our romance, we created many friendships. My brother Curt started hanging out with us and became best friends with some of Miles’ friends. My best friend Wendy dated his best friend Pete and so on and so on. Pete became one of my best friends too (we lost Pete 7 years ago and it was Miles who held my hand during Pete’s funeral.)
These early years were fun, fun times that were played out in a beautiful, still untouched country setting. With such great love and friends around me and so many fun things to do, I often felt like we lived in our own movie. I had some of the greatest moments of my life with Miles. So many fun days and nights, lots of parties and sneaking out in Pete’s van so that we could make out in the hay bales in a field that is now filled with corporate offices. In the fall of 1987 Miles and I were in a terrible car crash – he hit a telephone pole because we were kissing while driving! Yes, seriously. We could have died then. In fact, I was unconscious until the paramedics arrived. I survived, but was left with my Miles scar, like a tattoo of a time long gone; there is a large gash on my leg that is still there to this day.
There were school dances, rocking parties where the Accolades played and tons of rock concerts. I think I saw The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Primus, Mr. Bungle and Victim’s Family at least 10 times in the eighties. There were beach bonfires, cliff diving into rivers, date nights where we saw movies with friends and long walks where I shared my beautiful mountain with my friends. There was also Miles’ 42-day stay in a rehab, long, delightful letters and later endless hours of trying to understand and forgive mistakes on both sides. There was one I just couldn’t dismiss and it seemed to unravel us, slowly. Recreational drug use became more common and Miles behavior more erratic. I worried about him, he seemed to be sputtering out of control. My parents fretted that he was going to take me with him. But we still loved each other — A LOT. I can’t remember much about the last year of our relationship, I don’t know why. I try to conjure memories of that last year and a fog pours over the tips of something, nothing. We weren’t as good that year and Christmas ’88 ended in tears. Finally, we had broken up for good.
But before we broke up, there was a day about a year earlier. It was one of those days that you know when it’s happening that you just save. It will always be there in my memory as one of my favorite days ever. Miles, Pete, Wendy and I all took the bus to San Francisco. Completely out of the blue we ran into my brother on Haight street. How weird, right? So a few hits of Acid later, we all spent the day wandering around the city and laughing, laughing so hard my mouth hurt. And we walked all over, from the Haight to the Marina. It was too much for my right leg, which was still bandaged and stitched up from our car accident. Finally around ten o’clock when we had to take a bus home, we walked in the fog to the bridge. I just couldn’t take another step, so Miles and my brother carried me to the Golden Gate Bridge. At some point, I was sleeping on Miles’ shoe in one of the Piers.
It seems it’s inevitable with “first loves” that it will end. There’s a time when you move away from what was and start looking at other opportunities, things you think would make you feel, well, more adult. You both have changed, or one has changed more than the other.
“We’ve got a love that goes soul deep,” he wrote in my high school yearbook that fall after our accident. “No matter where were are 30 years from now, I know that we will never be far apart. I will love you until the day I die..even after I die.”
I always knew where I could find Miles. After years of dating, we ran around in the same circle. I could ask about him, at the very least, even if the answer wasn’t to my liking. Eventually, all of his girlfriends had to be friends with me. I was “Noni” after all. Over the years, there were parties and fun times, stolen kisses when I’d come home from college and see him at a party. He gave me rides, helped me move once, and came to all my jobs and apartments when I still worked and lived in San Francisco. He held my hand during some of my darkest times. He seemed to always be there just when I needed him the most. Miles was very much a part of my life 21 years after we broke up.
This past July when I drove up to his parents’ house to see him everything was so normal. His dad came out and said hi and then said the obligatory: “Miles, Noni’s here.” His dad looked older. He was still very handsome, like Miles, but his hair was almost white now. “John, come look,” I pointed to my sleeping baby in the back seat of my mom’s car. He came over and peeked in at my sleeping baby girl. “Wow!”
Then, Miles appeared, smiling. He was very happy to see me, and I was just as happy to see him. We were beaming for a moment the way we did when we were 15 and 17. He was walking on his prosthetic which was great. He had come a long way since his accident where he had lost his foot five years earlier. His hair was dyed blondish again. He looked younger…and cute. But he was somewhat down and not as effervescent as I remember him from our younger days…but how could he be? Because the baby was sleeping in the back seat, we decided to take a drive. I hadn’t taken a drive with Miles in a long, long time. First, we drove past the telephone pole we hit years ago when nothing could pull us apart, then by where the old Racket Ball Club used to be. This is where we’d swim together after school and where so many things “happened” between us in the bushes in the back. We even drove by the corporate offices where the hay bales once stood under a moonlit sky.
We didn’t say goodbye that day as much as we were saying hello. After spending years calling each other on landlines at our parents’ houses, he finally had a cell phone – “Wow, I can’t wait to call you on your cell,” I remember saying.
I know that I hugged him tight, but because Maya had woken up (while I ran into Starbucks and Miles was watching her), and started crying, I was distracted and the rest is a blur. Later, I couldn’t even remember what day it was that I saw him. I was home for six weeks, but I don’t seem to have a record of this meeting in any of my calendars or in my phone logs. I started to wonder if it happened at all…
By the time I finally did call his cell it was just to hear his voice one last time. He died in his sleep of heart failure on Thanksgiving. My heart is broken, in half. I’ve been walking in a daze ever since. Living half in reality and half as if I’m 16 again lying in his arms, re-living every last moment together. At his funeral and wake (or after party), I kept wanting to turn around and tell him something. I still do. Miles are you there? But running around free, with great health and both feet? Are you re-living some of your favorite moments? Because you certainly lived life with abandon when you could. Are you playing music? Are you watching over me? Your family? I hope so…
If I live to be 80 years old, I will miss you, Miles Miller McNaught. There’s nothing else I can be but grateful for the time we shared, even though my heart is just breaking.
Brenda Starr Reporter
Then, there is the loss of something, a character. My grandma, Dale Messick passed away five years ago, but the heroine she created, Brenda Starr Reporter lived on — 20 years passed her retirement and five years past her death. It’s odd to me that my grandma lived to be 98, and her character lived to be 70…and my great friends Pete Hill and Miles died so young. Maybe we are put on this Earth to do certain things — to entertain, to cheer, to smile a certain smile. I’m really not sure. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for certain things and then, yes, things do make sense.
In these past few weeks, I’ve looked at hundreds of old photos and re-read letters and journals and re-traced my last 25 years, long before I was a married new mommy writing plays in New York City. If Miles had done things differently, could it have changed things? He and Pete both the nicest of guys and so much fun to be around, but sadly they were addicted to drugs. Then I think of things between us…What if I had forgiven him in a certain instance…?
Nope. This was what it was. I met Miles exactly when I was supposed to meet him. We were probably able to love each other for so long and so deeply because we weren’t together anymore. Later, after college and such I was off on a different path, but that’s another story. The many roads we can take. When there’s was a fork in the road, I kept turning East, to Europe, to New York City…bright lights big city. That’s me…
But there’s a part of me that’s right here, in this town, on those hay bales, and in those bushes. I’m running in the fog across the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps I did die in the car that night and I already lived another life. I’m in those photo albums upstairs, I’m buried here in the ground, and there’s something new sprouting and growing from those ashes.
In life, as in death, we draw our power from the same source.