Irene and Me

By Pam Munter

She wasn’t the best piano player though at 85, she had worked at it most of her life. Even so, she loved the music and relished playing with the boys in the band.

During the past dozen years or so, she couldn’t quite keep up reading those complicated arrangements that seemed to chug by way too fast. But she would pick out the appropriate chords now and again, if inevitably jumping in just a hair too early. Her fear of improvisation kept that particular demon at bay as a viable option and she was in awe of anyone who could do that well. She called the performance of any musician whose playing style moved off the page “in the ethers” and “amazing.”

We met when I auditioned to sing with the local big band in the Palm Springs area. I had moved there a few years earlier from the Northwest after a hiatus from a performing career on the road. I was eager to get back into it and knew that singing with a big band was akin to riding astride the cowcatcher on a noisy, speeding freight train; an exhilarating musical duel with all that syncopated power behind me.

There had been other candidates, none of them suitable. The band’s bass player played in my Dixieland septet and asked me to audition. “They need you,” he said. The leader left a cryptic message on my answering machine setting the time for the audition and told me I’d sing “a couple of tunes”.

Upon hearing that, I wasn’t surprised others had failed this unspecified, anxiety-provoking pressure test. By then, I had sung professionally for years but almost always with a small combo.  I loved big band music and the wonderful singers associated with that era – Helen Forrest, Helen O’Connell and Sinatra, of course.

But I had only sung with bands of that size a couple of times. With so little direct experience, I hoped I could fake it until I could bring my chops up to speed. To allay my concern and satisfy my usually compulsive preparation, I took advantage of my bass-playing friend’s insider status to find out the likely songs and the keys.

Then I got the phone number for the big band’s piano player and asked her to meet with me beforehand to rehearse. She was the only female musician in the band. I was hoping for her kinship and support.

Irene lived in a triple-wide manufactured home in a gated senior development. As soon as she opened the door, her diminutive body seemed to vibrate with tension. Yet she was welcoming as she led me through her fussy, teddy-bear-littered living room into the stuffy music room.

She pulled out a vocal chart she thought likely to be called and started the intro to the uptempo Gershwin standard, “’S Wonderful”.  Fortunately, it was in my key and I had sung it many times before under different circumstances. When I finished she said, “Oh, you’ll get the job.  They’d be very lucky to have you.” We went over a few more possible charts and she declared I was “in the ethers”.  The next afternoon, I killed the audition and we became instant friends.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say we became email buddies. Irene spent many hours a day exchanging messages with her friends and I became one of them. In addition to band events, we met now and again for a celebratory meal or a quick visit, but we did best at a distance. She was tense, sensitive to slights and precise; not given over to easy chit-chat.

Wherever we ate – and I always suggested she name the place – there was inevitably some problem. The service was too slow or they didn’t give her enough ice in her tea or there wasn’t enough butter on the table. I wondered why it all mattered so much, but it most certainly did. Complaining was just part of who she was.

 As the emails progressed, she gradually – and I sensed reluctantly – revealed herself, perhaps in ways she had not done with many. After a few years, she confided that a decade earlier, she had been diagnosed with stage four metastatic carcinoma and hadn’t been expected to live. No one we both knew had any knowledge of this and she asked me more than once to keep it between us. She had disclosed other “family secrets” to me but this medical crisis was almost shameful to her for some reason.

She proudly described herself as being made of “concrete and nails” but that wasn’t my impression at all. She seemed a tightly wrapped bundle of nerves, barely glued in place, closed off to any possibilities but polite palaver.  She seldom opened her front door unless she was fully made up – always with her habitual bright blue eye shadow and heavy Giorgio cologne – and adorned with big, clunky earrings to match her outfit.

After her abusive, alcoholic husband died a year or so into our relationship, she seemed to become more joyful even while increasing her hermetic denial of anything negative. She started telling me funny stories about how she taunted her husband, who was often sedated in an alcoholic stupor. He would enjoy his nightly drinks while sitting on a bar stool in their kitchen which overlooked the music room where she practiced each night.

His unwavering gaze annoyed and unnerved her, so she bought a six-foot portable folding screen and erected it between the piano and his line of sight. We both laughed at its visual impact and message. When she told me how he called her profane names, ridiculed her piano playing and criticized her friends, I asked her why she stayed in the marriage.

 “I filed for divorce three times,” she told me in an email. “But I always stopped it before it went through. I don’t know why. Guess I was just scared.” I thought it likely she could not see herself living without the shelter of a strong male, even an abusive one.

Living constantly with the threat of a recurrence of her disease, she was protective not only about disseminating information to others but about hearing other people’s medical traumas. She did not allow anyone to voice physical complaints around her. Negative thoughts and words were anathemas, feared as potentially powerful emotional antecedents to bad medical news down the line. To her, words were causative. Thus, nothing was a crisis. Instead, there were “detours.” People didn’t die; they “moved to another planet.”

She would flippantly describe her own feelings using song titles or hyperbole. “I’m Just ‘Breezin’ Along with the Breeze’ today,” she would say on a good day. It was as though she couldn’t find words to describe her inner state. If we were discussing something for which she had no ready-made answer, she would write, “Who knows?  Only The Shadow”.

Cliches were so much safer, always ready at hand. It kept real life and her own fears at bay. If she had a medical appointment, she would write, “I’m sure everything will be just perfect. May nothing happen to the contrary. Then I can come home to ‘Something Cool.’” Needless to say, I was reluctant to share anything that might be considered gloomy in my own life. But, to my surprise, as I eased into revealing some minor issues, she handled them better than I thought she would. Still it seemed to be a struggle for her to engage in a real dialogue about any problematic situation.  My disclosures were met with what were intended to be supportive clichés. It was important to stay cheered up.

“Golly, Neds, you’re so disciplined, I’m sure you’ll take care of that and it’ll be ‘Bye, Bye, Blues.’”

Among the times we met in person were her appearances at my Dixieland band’s performances. She became an avid fan, always smiling and enthusiastically applauding after each tune. From time to time, she requested songs, particularly my vocals.

She was blown away by “Lover, Come Back to Me,” which I opened with just the bass and my voice. She requested it often, saying it was “swell,” and still referred to it years later. The band was called The Bees’ Knees and even after the band ceased to exist, she would write that something she loved was “just TBK,” a reference to our group and new hyperbole. In fairness to the modest achievements of the group, though, she was the queen of verbal embellishment. Everything was “the best,” or “just so fine,” or “unforgettable,” even dinner out with a friend.  It made me tired, all that air being puffed into everyday experiences.

I found her use of language fascinating and idiosyncratic. Her sentences were often inverted, as in “A happy camper am I.” And rather than preface her wishes with, “I hope,” she would issue a benediction: “May the service call from the plumber go well.”

 She sometimes wrote of wanting change – in her yard, her furniture, her friends or her doctors – but seldom did anything come of it. Easily overwhelmed by the steps involved and the fear of making a mistake, she comfortably left things as they were. I suspect it was hard for her to escape from her natural passivity, the prospect of which elevated her anxiety higher than usual.

We were of different generations and backgrounds, which led to occasionally jarring contrasts. If either of us mentioned a project that needed doing she would quickly quote the song title, “It’s So Nice to Have a Man Around the House”, in direct contradiction to her long and hellish life with her dead husband and my well-known feminist views.  If she asked for my opinion about something, I would happily offer it, only to find out later she had also polled a trusted male friend. When she told me of her problem’s solution, it would have come out of his mouth, though I had suggested the same thing earlier.

Her best friend was a married man in her complex who would visit regularly, performing minor handyman tasks while bringing her food and good cheer. But she was hungrier still for what she called acknowledgement, as if she didn’t really exist unless someone else infused her psychological fragility with praise. As a result, she maintained several lengthy relationships with unkind people who would compliment her just often enough. She tried to write off insults, telling me about them and adding, “Chuckle, chuckle”, as if it was all good, clean fun.

The dependence on clichés and the brittle Pollyanna demeanor were easy to sidestep in email but not so much in person. When we’d meet at a local restaurant, she would enthusiastically repeat favorite stories, mostly about musicians and singers we both knew, dominating the conversation with chirpy monologues about them, discouraging any genuine interaction. It wasn’t personal.

“Davey is just such a fine musician. You know he was with Benny Goodman’s band in the 40s. He has a lifetime contract at Willard’s club now. And he’s 93.”

She loved to reminisce and romanticize her past, spinning familiar stories about her life as a “working girl in a man’s world”.  She told me about her boss “chasing me around the desk. He was so handsome but I never let him catch me. By then I was in love with Rodney. Boy, was I stupid or what? ‘Stupid Cupid!’”.

As a rule, she sought others who spilled out long-ago third-person tales, never seeking an authentic encounter. Neither truth nor accuracy was important. She wanted to be entertained and distracted, if only by herself.  While she was critical of restaurants and other people, there was never a negative word about me – either in person or in our voluminous emails. And yet, in person she maintained a formal demeanor, in contrast to the flow of information we shared several times a day via email. In person, each time was like a first meeting.

Once I had somehow earned her trust, she told me her truths more often, but always in email. If she wasn’t feeling well or having problems with family members, she shared some of the details, which I understood to be rare disclosures in her world. She knew she would get an honest and nonjudgmental response.

Somehow my words provided her reassurance. She sent long, detailed accounts of their interactions, hoping I would tell her she was right and they were wrong. She was sensitive to the possibility of others’ judgments, even though many of those she described bordered on the abusive. When I would suggest she might consider avoiding that person, it was dismissed as unnecessary. “He’s just like that.” More likely, she feared any possible conflict if challenged by the aggressor.

When she would express anxiety about something, I might write back an innocuous, “Yeah, I’ve had that happen, too, but it turned out to be nothing,” adding other neutralizing and reality-oriented details.

She would immediately respond.  “Your email this morning has certainly lifted some of my present concerns so I thank you bunches for taking the time to make it clearer what this situation is all about. You are appreciated a lot.”

 Reciprocally, I found myself telling her things I had not shared with other friends. Over the course of the years, our communication flow – at least, in email – had become more fluid, if limited. We had become a reassuring part of each other’s daily infrastructure, exchanging several emails a day.

 On occasion, when her frequent emails dwindled, I knew something was wrong.  She often struggled with her computer, dependent on her nephew across town to unlock its mysteries and to repair what inadvertent damage she might have done with a misplaced keystroke. When we met, she was using an ancient PC. After two years of hearing me tout the simple joys of my Mac, she finally bought one but it didn’t solve all her problems. It was as if the computer was conspiring against her, deliberately causing her problems with her email.

“The machine is being temperamental today, doing strange things,” she’d write.

Technology was not her friend. For her birthday one year, I bought her Macs for Dummies, which she kept on her desk for reference. Each time there was an email time lapse, I patiently waited for her to resolve the silence.

Of course, it could also mean I hadn’t responded quickly enough to her last email. For her, it was tit for tat. Unless I answered each and every email, there would be no others. Eventually – as in four or five hours – she would become impatient and write, asking if everything was OK. Email symmetry was essential.

During the last year or so, I began to think more about her death. She lived alone so how would I know? Would it be the sudden disappearance of her emails? A telephone call from the nephew? I thought about how much I would miss those frequent emails, always full of chatter and trivial news, the kind of interaction I could never pull off for long in person.

In many ways, we were in similar life situations. I lived alone, too, and many of my relationships were via email.  In spite of myself, she had become an affirmative force in my life and, as I considered it, sometimes the only one during some of the years we have known one another. During our long friendship, my life had endured many shattering crises and, though she could not always relate experientially, she was invariably upbeat, expressing confidence in my ability to cope. It was a mid-20th century version of emotional intimacy, limited and careful.

She was clearly winding down her life and I could feel that on my own doorstep as well. It turned out we were each other’s mentors, in a way. While I was the younger, I had far more life experience and expertise in independent problem-solving but we were on the same road toward life’s ending.

She was a few steps ahead of me there and I valued having the chance to observe and ask questions when she would allow it. I don’t think we ever would have enjoyed the friendship without the conduit of email. It provided the safe outlet for her disclosures and the facility for mine. In spite of her advancing age and escalating physical struggles, she loved living in the desert. She called it “my Eden”. She was determined to enjoy her life, to “Accentuate The Positive”, as she would say. I will miss her when she’s gone.

pam munter

Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, Litro, TreeHouse Arts and Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50 and others. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.

Website: www.pammunter.com