Anna, Ange, and Maurice

June 17, 2012

I’m not sure what to write about, to be honest. I want my topic to be something special and fantastic, a brilliant, witty piece of social commentary on a hot issue, in honor of our late editor, the gregarious and sublimely generous Anna Alford. But when it comes to social commentary, I’ve got nothing. It’s not for lack of news. Obama just said he supports gay marriage. The Greek economy is on the brink. France has a new president.

But Carlos Fuentes just died. Maurice Sendak has left the building. Anna is gone.

Suddenly, gone.

I’m starting to wonder if everyone else knows something we don’t.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea of death. I think most Americans are. Still, I live most days normally, with the cautious, pressing panic shoved to the back of my mind. I’m never comfortable with the idea of mortality, but in my more spiritual moments I’m unexpectedly accepting of it. These moments are the exception, however. The rule is feigned ignorance or flat-out denial.

Death is one of those ultimate unconquerables. Different cultures handle it differently; I wish ours handled it better. I’m jealous of my host brother in Mexico, who, when I was living with his family back in 2003, expressed not concern, but curiosity at my worries about my grandfather’s ill health. I was going to Spain to study and we were very close. As he became frailer, I worried about spending such a length of time so far from home.

“Why is she so upset about this?” Mario asked my professor one day. She responded that Americans simply have different views on the journey’s end.

When I student-taught last fall semester, my Spanish students and I celebrated Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday that follows Halloween. My students didn’t really get it. I didn’t know how to explain it. First and foremost, we all thought of it as a good excuse for a “food day.” How else do you explain a holiday where Mexican friends and families decorate grave sites, and set out fresh food, drink and beloved trinkets for loved ones returning to visit? That’s not normal, we say. The idea of partying annually with dead loved ones seems incomparably strange, if not outright delusional.

I’m starting to think it’s healthy.

I’m lucky to have not lost many people in my life yet, but I miss my grandfathers dearly. My brother lost a close friend to a drunk driver. There’s a league of crazy Italians on my mother’s side I never got to know. Who wouldn’t want to set a plate for Anna, Maurice Sendak, or their myriad deceased relatives, like a certain Great Aunt Ange, a spinster and World War II Army captain, who’d wrinkle her nose at a screaming baby and disdain the fiendish, wailing result of “ten minutes of pleasure”?

That’s my great aunt. Angeline. She died when I was eleven. She regularly served my brother and me Coke and Chips Ahoy, and put money aside for me, weekly, because she believed—knew—it was important for girls to go to college. That money paid off my college loans the first time around.

When I was a kid, Angeline was the wobbling old woman who called my beloved Treasure Trolls “homely.” Now, as I’m nearly thirty, I wish I’d known her better. I’d buy her a drink.

The conversations we’d have! “Ten minutes of pleasure!” She may have said five, the cynic. I’d had no idea what she was talking about.

I didn’t know Anna very well either. Like Angeline, I wish I’d known her better. But I only met her once or twice, and then we communicated bimonthly via email: Anna wrote and said that a deadline was again upon us, and I’d curse under my breath at the speed of passing time. I’d then crank out something resembling a column, sometimes inspired, sometimes not, and hold my breath for the simple response: “I like it.” Or, if my natterings had found in themselves the resemblance of something grander: “I like it a lot.” And I’d be either excited or relieved, depending on the level of my angst and personal investment.

If I can feel this loss, from my perch far-removed, I can’t begin to imagine the loss her friends and family feel now. Or the riches they were privileged to experience in her presence.

If Anna was in life the way she was with her writers – and it’s impossible to presume otherwise – then the world has lost a wise, discerning, intelligent woman of great warmth and infinite patience. She was also very, very funny; a better, braver person than most—someone to take on serious issues with true import and passion, and the necessary sense of humor and big-heartedness that so many of us so often lack. Anna took on issues; most people, myself included, instead scuttle to the sidelines, thankful that someone else will face the world head-on, while we tuck ourselves safely under our prosy, misanthropic rocks.

Well, my rock is prosy and misanthropic. But it probably needs a change of decor.

I want to say marvelous things here, about how important it is that we seize the moment, live every day like it’s the last, et cetera, but it feels forced. How do we make the world a better place? I think it happens more often in name than action.

But Anna is one of the few people who I think could genuinely beg to differ.  In one of my favorite movies, Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset,” one of the leads says,

“I see these people… with big idealist visions of becoming the new leader that will create a better world. They enjoy the goal, but not the process. But the reality of it is that the true work of improving things is in the little achievements of the day. And that’s what you need to enjoy… I was working for this organization that helped villages in Mexico. And their concern was how to get the pencils sent to the kids in these little country schools. It was not about big revolutionary ideas, it was about pencils!

“I see the people that do the real work and what’s really sad, in a way, is that the people that are the most giving, hard working and capable of making this world better, usually don’t have the ego and ambition to be a leader. They don’t see the interest in superficial rewards, they don’t care if their names ever appear in the press, they actually enjoy the process of helping others, they’re in the moment!”

That, to me, was Anna, except Anna was a leader, and a damn good one, sans ego and malignant ambition, someone who invested time and energy, heart and soul, to produce the slim paper you’re holding now. For so many reasons—beyond politics, beyond art, beyond sustainability—this paper is important. It represents hard work, dedication, and the aspiration to make the world better by making one’s community a better place. There is nothing more important than that.

Anna, I envy your compatriots on the new road you travel. Come visit us soon, in November, perhaps? We’ll make you a plate.

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