Old Friends

I have just emerged from a four-day conversational jag with an old friend who was visiting me from New York. There is something intoxicating about such reunions — a bit like a family gathering that suddenly and unexpectedly takes you back to an earlier and different life.

My old friend, Lore, and I met 40 years ago, when she was just launching her career as a writer. I was then a young editor, newly settled in New York City. We began in a natural enough way: I read her stories, then her first novel, and commented upon them.

But, soon, there were other markers along the road: meeting the young man who would eventually become her husband; celebrating parenthood (our firstborn were delivered the same day, which somehow meant that we automatically received, just prior to publication, the children’s books she wrote); and dealing with those critical moments when despair and defeat seemed all engulfing — divorce in my case and, in hers, the death of her husband, David, at age 42.

These are memories, I realized this weekend, that have only turned sharper with time.

Our conversations over the four days were almost nonstop. “Remember that obnoxious writer who tried to be a literary gadfly,” I began, “you know, what was his name — “

“Oh, he’s dead.” She waved her hand dismissively.

“But tell me about Sally,” she began. “I still see her, but she has always puzzled me. I admire her. She still writes, never has married, ekes out a modest living and stays very private.”

Lore paused for a moment, but then, given that I was an old friend, went on. “Do you think, she’s …?”

“No, no,” I said. “She had a great romance with Calvin right after college and then married — briefly — an academic who wanted her to darn his socks. You didn’t know that?

“And I have my own flirtation story with her that I can tell you. Once, she came to my apartment for a coffee. I sat at her feet on the floor, looking up at her with an expression that must have been a cross between fondness and adoration, as she stretched out luxuriously on my couch. Impulsively, I offered her the couch for her new apartment because, I blurted out, she looked so good reclining in it.

“It was precisely at that moment that my wife came home. Somehow, without words being exchanged and the temperature in the room decidedly chilly, the offer was tacitly rescinded.”

And so we continued, sharing old, familiar stories, keeping our friendship warm.

“Remember that lovely dinner party you gave,” she began, “when Anthony insulted your wife’s favorite cousin — called her a stupid cow — and the room turned silent as everyone tried to look the other way.”

“And the party at Rust’s house,” I countered, “where your husband, David, made disparaging remarks about Bob’s ability as both writer and editor, and Bob’s wife, overhearing, stepped forward and tossed her drink in his face.”

“Yes,” she started giggling. “And David, without so much as hesitating, tossed his drink right back in her face. Oh that was my David. Unflappable.”

The stories went on like that, rising and falling as another time, another life, came into view.

And then, on the last morning, just before Lore’s departure, in the companionable silence of Sunday-morning coffee, she told me a new story, one she had never shared with me.

It was about a time before I knew her, when she was a young Jewish child in Vienna. It was 1938, right after Austria had fallen to the Germans. Her father, in her words, not a very imaginative or charismatic accountant, had stood in endless lines and pulled together connections, money and all the proper papers to send Lore out of Vienna on one of the kindertransports that eventually carried about 2,000 Jewish children from Austria to England. Her mother had objected: “We’ll all stay together and die together.” But, in this instance, her father — for the first time Lore could remember — had prevailed.

“She will save our lives, will get us out of here,” he had said with finality. And, so, at 10 years of age, she boarded a train that made its way to England. She then lived, as she wrote in her first book, published nearly 40 years ago, in “Other People’s Houses.”

“Oh, I was a terrible child,” she told me. “Not appealing at all. When strangers would tousle my hair in an effort to be kind, I would look at them imploringly and ask, as my father had instructed me, ‘Won’t you please help me get my mother and father and my grandparents and my uncle Paulie out of Austria?’ I did not know it at the time, but it was very un-English. Their hand would freeze in midair, their eyes slide away, and they would soon move to a far corner of the room.”

But her father had also compiled a list of addresses of people with their family name in England. And, so, dutifully, Lore wrote letters to each and every one of them. The letters weren’t bad, she told me that morning. I read some of them recently, she explained. The metaphors really sparkled. And, so, very quickly the letters became a centerpiece, a daily reason for being.

A click went off inside me when she said that. She had used something like that phrase to describe her ritual of rising each day and heading off into her study to write. And, of course, improbable as it sounds, she did save all their lives. One of her letters eventually found a distant cousin, who arranged for her family to exit Austria for jobs as servants in England, while Lore continued to live in other people’s houses.

Today, the family is closer at hand. She, her son and her 92-year-old mother all live in the same high-rise apartment building on Riverside Drive in New York. They inhabit three different apartments, in what might loosely be described as a vertical home.

“I have to call my mother,” she said before departing, “to see if she’s OK.” But we both knew that whenever Lore is far from home, she becomes anxious and needs to connect by letter or voice with the mother she nearly lost 60 years ago.

That was her parting story — a gift to me. A way of renewing an old friendship. — Gene Lichtenstein