From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte

We have heen friends together in sunshine and in shade.

Caroline E. S. Norton

The first time I ever met Charlotte was in the run-down bachelor living room of my serious date, LeRoy Bearman, a cub reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. She was nineteen, tall, willowy and dark, from a very well-off Jewish family. She was telling LeRoy’s cousin, a much taller, willowy, dark guy, who had just graduated from Harvard Law School, that she didn’t use much makeup, and other totally innocuous things which caused a twitch in the right corner of my upper lip. I was twenty-two, a first-generation, short, dark Italian American, in her first year of teaching. A few months later, Charlotte and this guy, Elvin, eloped, taking her parents along as witnesses, departing for a honeymoon out there, probably someplace expensive. Shortly after, LeRoy and I married and honeymooned in a cheap Mexican border town.

The Kanters started life in the American dream home in the suburbs, and the Bearmans began in a working-class white stucco. Even with the wide contrasts in our lives, Charlotte and I gravitated to each other. She liked my opinionated and resourceful personality, and I was nuts about her open, generous heart and that she was game for anything. The years marched down the pike and we molded our own unique friendship.

“I’ve got my boy,” she pronounced over the phone one day. We were now the mothers of two daughters each.

“You’re pregnant?” I quizzed. “When?”

“Last night, and I’ve got my boy,” she answered with certainty. He was born nine months later.

When she told me one day she was hiring garden help, I asked, “Why?”

“They’re charging you how much to do one little flower bed?” I hooted. “Listen, get a sitter. I’m coming over. We’re going to the store for manure.”

All in one day, we shoveled, pickaxed and spread New Mexico’s finest, into which we planted a riot of orange and yellow calendulas. When the two of us looked at each other, knee-deep in that honey heap, we fell down laughing and fell in love forever as friends.

“You know, Isabel,” she stated, when we could finally garner some control, “there’s an old Yiddish proverb that says ‘What use is a silver cup if it’s full of tears?’ Well, what use is my silver cup if it’s full of whining and waiting? Charge!”

I taught her things like fastening bolts into a wall to hang plants, mowing grass on a hill, gardening and basic sewing techniques. She taught me about love, that we were a part of a larger community and the finer points of biting my tongue, putting teeth marks in my bottom lip. We both loved cooking, traded methods, recipes and shared all the things young wives do about kids and marriage. She handed me bricks as I laid a brick serpentined wall to divide my patio from the rest of the yard. We gagged back laughter when I cemented a wax paper– wrapped note into the wall, which read: Isabel made this wall. LeRoy Bearman did not help.

“I cut the picnic bench in half!” I shrieked into the phone.

Fresh out of a carpentry class for dummies, I made the first cut with a circular saw on a board, which should have been the beginning of closet shelves for purses and shoes, “I’m buying you another one night now!” she heralded.

“It’s okay,” I demurred. “And thank you so much, but I’m keeping this halfer around to remind me about the power of power tools. It could have been my fingers.”

After eleven years of marriage, LeRoy, at barely forty-two, suffered a massive heart attack. Charlotte threw everything aside and stayed up all night with me that first night at the hospital. Through those long, dark moments she stood waiting for me outside intensive care surgery when I returned from my allotted visit every half hour. LeRoy had undergone an eight-hour quadruple bypass and wasn’t expected to survive the night.

“All I did that awful night was talk about my problems,” she confided years after, holding back tears. “I am so sorry. I am so embarrassed. Please forgive me for being so selfish.”

“You kept me sane, Charlotte,” I choked. “If it hadn’t been for you talking about all those normal things—just living life, saying such everyday things—I don’t know what I would have done.”

LeRoy lived for two more agonizing months and left this earth the first night of Hanukkah. It was Charlotte and Elvin who brought me home to my house brimming with people. She sat quietly on the couch and took the girls into her arms and began to speak softly to them. Completely numb, following her lead, I and other women sat and passed my daughters in turn, giving them comforting words and security, the eternal ageless of a circle of women.

It was in Charlotte and Elvin’s home where I remarried a wonderful man three years later.

Two decades passed, and we now met once a month for a quiet supper out. Our talk had gone from diapers to wrinkles. One evening she described a strange pain in her chest, dismissed it and went on to plans for her mother-in-law’s ninetieth birthday celebration.

“I have cancer,” she told me over the phone soon after. “I didn’t want you to hear it from anybody but me. I’m going up to New York for treatment.”

The next time I saw my friend, she was paralyzed and bedridden. When I looked at the frail figure with only brittle wisps of hair raked around her thin, bald head I felt the earth come up to meet me. My heart began cracking wide open.

I climbed in the bed right next to her.

“I’m scared,” she whispered, laying her head on my shoulder.

“So am I,” I responded, swallowing immeasurable grief and terror. An unshed ocean of tears stayed swallowed. “But here we are, together again in a manure pile!”

“Charge!” she croaked.

We laughed so loud.

Throughout the next months, I went almost daily to massage her, to just be with her. We twined our hearts together holding tight, with me having the strength to walk uphill until she would let go. Most evenings her children and close women friends gathered, surrounding her with life, laughter and immeasurable, devoted love. I bought a pile of cards and mailed one a day, writing all our memories down, penning what I couldn’t say out loud. My friend, so wide with love, so utterly good and deep with generosity, was going to die at fifty-two. One evening, all the family, including us, gathered in her bedroom to have supper together on TV trays. Beside her sat Elvin, his head shaved to match hers. The center of all our hearts, she was cuddled up and smiling in the large bed, head wrapped in a gay, flowered turban.

It was the last time I saw her.

When Charlotte had rallied, I took a few days to go to Colorado with friends. Elvin called a half hour after I’d arrived to say it was bad. Somehow, I made it aboard an old smoke-belching yellow bus that coughed around mountain curves all the way to the Denver airport. I begged a seat on a two-engine puddle-hopper that literally rocked and rolled over snow-covered mountaintops, landing at the Albuquerque airport, I was completely airsick and shaken.

“She’s gone, Mamma,” Erica, my eldest daughter, choked out, rushing me through baggage. “She asked that you sing for her.”

Crouched down on the backseat, I threw off hiking boots and jeans and wriggled into a dress she’d brought.

The synagogue was filled to overflowing.

I can’t do this, I said to myself.

“You did it—we did it that night for LeRoy,” came her voice. “We’ll get through this one together, too.”

Climbing the steps to the bema, a burst of sunlight filled the room. It became just Charlotte and me. I saw us holding our babies, washing towers of dishes, cooking for hordes of people, potty training puppies and kids, and sitting in that manure pile. “Sunshine on My Shoulders” just came out, followed by some Jewish songs she’d taught me; then I just stood, looked up at that skylight and began.

“Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte. Charlotte, don’t you cry. Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte. I’ll love you till I die.”

Many years have passed. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t take the path to her house in my heart. There isn’t a day that I don’t miss her, because you can walk waist-deep in platitudes, but they, time, and all the words and living in the world can’t replace the presence—the normal closeness, the company of someone beloved. Three years ago, at a little place we own up north, I hauled a ton of manure, dug a big hole and put in the most beautiful big Rocky Mountain blue spruce I could move. For three summers now, I often sit, head propped on Charlotte’s feathery branches and gaze at the little stream in front of our cabin.

“Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte,” I sing. “I’ll love you till I die . . . and after, too.”

“Hush, hush, sweet Isabel,” she answers. “Me, too. I’ll see you soon.”

Isabel Bearman Bucher

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