What Memories Can Bring

The friendship of two women comes full circle.

November/December 2016

Reading time min

What Memories Can Bring

Illustration: Brian Ajhar

I was crying. I was laid up in bed recovering from knee replacement surgery, trying not to cry—but bursting into tears with sudden wild, tragic sobs. On television was a much anticipated Great Performances—Joan Baez celebrating her 75th birthday with many of the great musicians of her time. At one point Judy Collins came onstage to do a duet with her—these exquisite women, beautiful in age, Joan with her radiant smile and thrilling voice, Judy with clouds of snow-white hair framing her lovely face as the two sang in perfect harmony.

I had a sudden memory of being at Stanford Village more than 50 years ago on a night in winter when we had run out of baby food and I had asked my husband, Joe, to pick up some Gerber’s applesauce. He walked off in the direction of the Menlo Park Library and a little grocery store on Willow Road. As I waited for him, I began to feel he had been gone too long. I became anxious. I thought of calling my next-door neighbor Ellen, another young woman with a baby girl—the two of us had become good friends.

Nearly every day, we carried our daughters outside to the grass in front of the student housing barracks. Our babies were just learning how to walk. Their little pearly teeth were coming in. Their laughter was like the sound of silver bells tinkling in the sunny air. 

It was a magical time to be young and in love, to have a new baby, to be at the start of life with so many promises before us. Ellen and I often talked about the enchantment we felt about our lives . . . how high we were on life itself. Drugs held no invitation for us.

When I called Ellen, she urged me not to worry. In fact, she would come over and wait with me. We sat in the crystal night, sensing the waters of the bay not so far away. When finally we saw Joe walking slowly toward us, he was carrying no bag of baby food.

“Something so strange happened,” he said to us. “I stopped in Kepler’s. I was looking at some books, and I realized a woman was standing beside me. I began to hear this kind of otherworldly humming. A woman was humming.” 

We waited for him to go on. “So I looked sideways toward her and there she was, we were inches apart, Joan Baez was singing next to me, almost singing to me.”

Ellen, beside me in her chair, squeezed my hand. We all owned albums of the songs of Baez. On this night my husband had been blessed, face to face, breath to breath.

Now, a lifetime later, as Joe watched the Baez concert with me, we relived that memory together. Our children lived far, far away. But my Stanford friend Ellen lived nearby. We called each other often. Surely it wasn’t too late for me to phone her right now. 

“Ellen, it’s Merrill. Are you watching Joan Baez?”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course I am. I’m crying.”

“I’m crying too.”

“I’m recording it. We can watch it together.”

“Yes, we’ll cry together,” I promised. “As soon as I can walk I’ll come over there, and we’ll hold hands, and we’ll be young again.”

Merrill Joan Gerber, Gr. ’63, is a former Stegner fellow (1962-63), a novelist and a short story writer. Her most recent memoir, Beauty and the Breast: A Tale of Breast Cancer, Love, and Friendship, was published in October. She teaches fiction writing at Caltech.

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