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Page Two of One Memorable Friend

As Fern neared completion of her new novel, Ed drove her to Ellas house in Berkeley for private consultations. The story took place in an exclusive residential area in the Santa Barbara hills and involved the murder of one of the main characters. Ellas housekeeper, who happened to overhear their animated conversation about the murder scene, thought the story was true. Later the housekeeper confided in Ella that she feared the two of them might be involved in the murder.

Ferns previous three novels had been light-hearted tales of women who worked in southern California during World War II. So this new novel of suspense represented a significant departure from her proven genre. She wrote on a manual typewriter with intense determination to finish the work.

One Saturday evening, while taking a Pyrex dish from the oven, it slipped from her hands. Crashing to the floor, shards of glass exploded all around her. Several pieces cut into her right wrist. Ed thought the wounds looked superficial enough to wait until Monday for Fern to see a doctor. But crucial nerves had been severed, and that delay gave the wound time to swell, making operation to repair the damage impossible.

The misfortune left her with limited use of her right hand, and she couldnt perform even simple tasks without experiencing pain. The most difficult repercussion for Fern was that she could no longer type. Typing with just her left hand felt awkward and interrupted the flow of her thoughts to paper. When she tried talking into a tape recorder, she got the same artificial result. Shed lost that mysterious connection between mind and hand that many writers depend on to spark their creative urge.

I have a page of critique notes she wrote to me during that sad time, her precise penmanship morphed into an uneven scrawl. She begins, Its too hard for me to make notes — Im sorry. But she continues anyway, offering suggestions and saying that my work is very fine but you need to watch a few grammatical lapses. My work did need serious editing in those days.

Within the next year, another accident came Ferns way. She lost her balance at home and tried to protect the injured hand by extending her left arm to brace the fall. All her weight collapsed onto her left hand and wrist, causing severe nerve damage. That mishap left her with two useless hands.

Her writing career now finished, Fern stopped going to class. We gave up on our lunches out, but I still went to see her. My second marriage was in its last throes by then and, once again, I relied on Fern for support. Shed never said much, either for or against my second husband, yet I knew this outcome didnt surprise her.

She told me she hoped I would find a good man some day, just as she had done. Her prophecy for me came true when I met my present husband at about the same age shed been when Ed came back into her life.

Fern didnt want to outlive Ed and said she hoped shed to be the first to go. She had begun to pare down her possessions, throwing out the extraneous and giving away items that she valued. It seemed like every time I went to see her, she had something else to give me.

She offered me a plaid Davidow suit shed worn during her time in Santa Barbara. A year later, after I started working full-time, I had the suit altered. The finely woven wool felt light as cashmere, and that suit gave me needed courage to face my new life as a working woman. Ferns garnet-studded brooch looked elegant on the suits lapel, a piece of jewelry that had been an antique when given to her as a young woman.

Fern made sure I had copies of all three of her books. In the third and last one, entitled You Cant Stop Living, she wrote: For Margi, my dear friendI eagerly await the publication of her first book.

Two of her treasures came from the old Gumps, a famed Asian arts store in San Francisco. The burnt-orange silk shawl, fringed and embroidered, reflects the movie-star allure of earlier times in southern California. The silk of her embroidered peach-colored Chinese lounging pajamas is old and crumbling, too fragile to ever be worn again.

Fern and Ed seemed content to share their days at home together. He helped her get dressed in the morning and undressed at night, prepared their meals and took over all the household chores that she could no longer manage. An array of pill bottles served as centerpiece on their dining room table. She told me she often felt tired, and shed started sleeping in the downstairs bedroom, to avoid the stairs and for easy access to daytime naps.

Fern got her wish. Ed called me early one morning to tell me that she died in her sleep the night before. He said she hadnt wanted any memorial service. Her beloved husband carried out his duties as the one left behind with a gentlemans grace, but Im still not old enough to imagine his grief.

Later that fall, Ella and a few of us from class invited him to lunch at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. We sat at a round table that felt just right for intimate conversation. Ed told Ella that he wanted to publish Ferns last novel. She didnt encourage him, citing the difficulty of generating public interest in posthumous work by lesser-known authors. While seeing the novel in print would have pleased us all, my own memories of Fern mean more to me than any written words ever could.

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©2009 Margaret Cullison for


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