Portrait of a Friend, Vol. 1

You met her fourteen years ago. She was tiny then, and now, at 90, she is even tinier.

The first time you met her she grasped both your hands in her own pale arthritic ones. You felt a shock of recognition that transcended the 40+ year difference in your ages, and she felt it too.

She has often spoken of it since: “We are soul sisters.” She believes that your connection was formed long ago, before this life, and that it will continue after this life.

She has glossy, jet black hair that frames her face, and she often wears black and red. Bright red sweaters, a bright red coat, black pants, a black shirt. She’s beautiful. She shines. Light surrounds her.

For almost sixty years she’s lived in a fifth-floor walkup in midtown, first with her husband and now, for the past twenty years, alone. You’ve met her neighbors, five of them, and you’ve seen how they too adore her. One of them brings her mail up, one helps with groceries, another helps her down and outside and into a cab, should she want to go out.

Which she does. She goes out a lot, to dinner, to see friends, to ceremonies that honor her work as an artist.

You’ve never seen her apartment but you imagine it: crammed with books and artwork and Chinese furniture –she is Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco and New York– and lovely fabrics. She is the kind of person who surrounds herself with beautiful things, and beautiful things are drawn to her.

Although you didn’t meet her until you were all grown up, you knew her work much earlier. She is an artist, and some of the picture books you read when you were a child contain her artwork. Thirty years before you met her in person, her art was part of your mind and memory.

Arthritis has taken so much of her limberness away, crippling arthritis that takes her three hours each morning to overcome enough to get out of bed. Once, she was trapped inside her apartment for a day because she couldn’t turn the doorknob and open the door.

She falls sometimes, and some of her friends –she has many friends– scoop her up. When asked if she’s okay she laughs. She has a high, tinkling laugh; it sounds like small windchimes.

“Of course!” she says. “I only weigh 65 pounds, like a child. Falling doesn’t hurt.”

She calls you sometimes, usually when you’re making dinner.

“Oh, what you are you making, my darling treasure?” she says, and you tell her, and she exclaims how delicious it sounds.

You call her sometimes, too. You hate talking on the phone but for her, you’ll do whatever it takes. You let the phone ring and ring and ring: arthritis. She has no answering machine, and sometimes you let it ring thirty or more times. And then she picks up.

“Hello?” she says.

“Hello!” you say, and she knows right away who it is.

“I had a feeling you might call,” she says, and then you’re off and running, usually for no more than ten minutes, minutes full of I love you’s and laughter.

Her voice is so young. She is so young. That’s one of the things you’re realizing these days, that it’s the body that ages, not the spirit.

“Goodbye, my precious darling,” she says.

Her father’s name for her when she was a child was Precious. He held her on his lap and read her stories. Her mother cooked for her. Her uncles and aunts played with her and took her wandering through the city.

“I grew up surrounded by love,” she says, “nothing but love. How could I not be happy?”

After you hang up, you go back to your work, and fifteen hundred miles away, she goes back to hers. Soon she will be 91. You have a box of notes she’s sent you over the years, not so much notes as tiny pieces of art. Someday you’ll frame them all and hang them on your wall, so that whenever you look at them you’ll feel her presence again, her light and sparkling presence.


  1. Diane Evia-Lanevi · March 13, 2011

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!!! Thank you for writing something so endearing.


  2. Karen · March 13, 2011



  3. oreo · March 15, 2011

    love the new website design! makes me want to take a walk right into those woods, but i’ll have to take a walk into your words instead. equally pleasurable, of course.


  4. Lucy · March 24, 2011

    How blessed you both are in each other.


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