The Problem with Evolving
Ethel Morgan Smith
“I have some news I need to share with you,” my oldest friend Sarah says over the phone. We met more than 35 years ago when our sons were the new kids in the third or fourth grade at the Fernbank School in Atlanta. Sarah says third grade; I say fourth. We volunteered to help with the Halloween party that year.
“Is everybody okay?” I try to prepare myself for bad news.
“In that case I can take anything,” I say with confidence.
“We sold the Park Avenue place.”
“You did what?” I gasp.
“We knew this was going to be hard on you.”
“You damn right this is hard on me. This is worse than somebody dying. I’ve had a Park Avenue address since forever. You just can’t take it away.” Both of us had left Atlanta more than 30 years ago. I was awarded a fellowship to graduate school; and Sarah moved to Rye, New York; her husband Charles had accepted a new position at Pace University. In Atlanta he had been the Dean of the Business School at Emory University. A few years after they moved to Rye, he died from a massive heart attack at age fifty-six while he and Charley, their son were scuba diving in the Caribbean.
By then our children were college aged; our friendship not only continued but grew stronger. Sarah visited me in Roanoke, and I her in Rye and later at our 94th and Park Avenue place. Of course, it wasn’t our place, but I knew I was welcome whether Sarah was there or not. She was the big sister I never had; and I was the little sister she needed.
“I need that address. If you’ve forgotten I live in West Virginia, meaning I need as much cache and glamour as I can get. Some of my best pick ups have been because of that Park Avenue address.” We laugh.
“We didn’t want to tell you until it actually sold.”
“Thanks for being so thoughtful. “
“And you know, life hasn’t been the same since the Towers… Well, you know.”
“I know; I feel the difference too. Even when I try to forget, but when I look up and don’t see them, it’s like the sun or the moon not being there.”
“It’ll never be the same. And Saul is getter older. Life will be easier in Atlanta. Even though we’ll be living in our cars.”
“I have no idea when I’ll visit the City again with Michael in Boston and you in Atlanta. I will miss you NYC, especially our Park Avenue.”
“I know, me too; but Maggie asked me to come. You know with the baby and all. I never thought I’d be moving back, but we’re pretty excited. And Saul has never lived in a house.” Saul is a Holocaust survivor. He’s from Romania but got to the USA via Australia.
“You should be excited. I am too; and a big congratulation to Maggie and John. They’re going to be great parents. Well, here we are entering another era.”
And of course, you and Michael will come and visit.” Sarah paused in between tears.
“Of course. What neighborhood are you moving to in Atlanta?”
“Northwest. You’re such a snob.”
“Tell Maggie she owes me her second child.” Maggie was the only girl, born between her brother Charley and stand-in brother, my son Michael. With her athletic abilities and a bubbling personality, she hardly needed two brothers to look after her. She probably could’ve protected them. But we all enjoyed the gesture.
One year after Charles’ massive heart attack in the Caribbean, Allen, my partner of five years was struck with stomach cancer; he died two months after his diagnosis at age fifty-three. He had been promoted to a top-level management at his company’s headquarters in Minneapolis. My son and I were to join him as soon as the school year ended to look for a house. Allen had completed his Executive MBA; and we would finally get married and settle in as a family. But instead, the universe insisted that I needed a new battle. At least I didn’t have to fight it alone.
That next spring Sarah and I went on a well-needed holiday, Club Med to Guadeloupe. I played tennis and rode horses on the beach. Sarah tanned and smoked cigarettes on the beach. We ate lunch and dinner together. Sometimes we slept; but mostly we wept and tried not to talk about anything that wasn’t alive.
Two years later Sarah met Saul. I was thrilled, but, of course, like any good girlfriend, I had to check him out for myself. He passed all of my checks for Sarah: smart, (Sarah’s men always had to be smart), charming, and funny. They seemed to have art, culture, and politics in common. But most surprisingly, Sarah had not only claimed, but she had embraced her Judaism. When we first met in Atlanta she told she was German. I didn’t care what she called herself. But I did find it odd that we never conversed about her conversion. I felt like after not seeing my oldest friend for two years, and when we meet she’s wearing a hijab and had converted to Muslim. But she had never mentioned it to me during all the times we talked over the phone.
Our lives had changed. We had grown up, reared children, buried men; but we were still evolving, evolving to be the best of ourselves, be that a newly found culture or becoming a writer. I was not upset about the conversion, but stunned and surprised that I didn’t know anything about it.
My son always said, “If there is a war, I want Sarah on my side.” I agree with him. Sarah loves him like her own children.
I was driving to Sarah’s on September 11, 2001. Michael was going to drive with me to Boston over the weekend, and take the train back to the City. I was so excited, my first sabbatical, and I had been awarded a research fellowship at Brandeis University to work on a book about my experience as an African American Fulbright scholar in Germany. I felt very Jewish, at least “honorary.”
The five-six hour drive from Morgantown took me twelve hours. I left West Virginia at 6:00 a.m. on a glorious Tuesday morning hoping to get to Jersey City, where Michael lived, long before dark. The sky was clear as glass and blue as the Atlantic. I felt like the luckiest person alive.
Everybody was calling me wanting to know where I was. The first call came from Melbourne. “Where are you?” Australian friend asked.
“What do mean? I am on open highway driving toward freedom and listening to Aretha Franklin sing “Driving on the Freeway.” I laughed. “Freedom.”
“You need to turn on the radio.” She faded. This was my first cell phone; I felt connected to the world zipping along the expressway watching the soft colors of early fall embrace the trees. I would be in New England for the autumn season. What could be better? I turned on the radio and found a sketchy NPR station. It seemed as though a small plane had landed on one of the towers in the City. “What a bad pilot,” I said out loud. The radio station died into static. The phone rang again. “Hi Ethel, it’s Ken (one of my son’s friends), Michael wanted me to call to let you he’s fine.” Thank you Ken. Before I could ask him about his parents, he said he was in a hurry and had to go. What a nice young man, I thought.
Australian friend called again. “Do you understand what is happening?”
“I heard about the small plane landing on one of Towers.”
“Ethel, listen to me, the United States is under attack; two planes have flown into the Towers. Thousands of folks are dead. Both Towers are gone.”
“What?” My hands shook while searching for a radio station. My heart beat fast. Stay focused on the highway. “Hello.” We were lost again.
The next phone call was from Jane, my Morgantown friend. God Ethel, it’s horrible. Everybody has been calling about you. They knew you were headed to NYC.”
“I am so scared Jane.”
“Of course you are. Have you thought about turning around?” I lost her before I could answer.
NPR finally came in clear over the electric skies of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Another plane had gone down near Pittsburgh. Where was I to turn around to? Planes were down in front of me and behind me. Am I going to die alone on this damn highway? Was the world coming to an end?
Australian friend called again. “ Finally, you’ve caught up with the news. Folks here have been up all night following this story. Everybody is walking around like zombies. Ethel, the world is with the United States.”
“What am I suppose to do?”
“Don’t turn around; if you do you won’t go back. All we can do is pray.”
“I don’t know what to do.” I cried.
“Get off of the expressway and get yourself together. You can do this. Recharge your phone and buy some ginger ale to help with the throwing up. Eat some saltines. And whatever you do, keep driving until you can’t drive any farther.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll try.” Australian friend and I met when our sons were roommates at a New England boarding school. Her son had spent time with us since Australia is so far away. And my son had traveled to visit them a couple of summers.
“You are so close. And remember Michael is okay.”
My son took the Path from New Jersey to work and changed trains everyday near the Towers. Sometimes he had coffee with a friend who worked at American Express. Now I understood why Ken had called me. I felt thankful and terrified. I didn’t think I could drive another mile when I heard the radio announcer, “All planes in the United States are grounded. No planes will go out and none will come in.”
I exited off of the highway at a Burger King. I charged my phone and talked to other teary-eyed weary travelers. Most were on their way to Pittsburgh. One woman volunteered to watch my phone while I went next door, filled my car with gas and bought ginger ale, saltines, ice, and paper bags.
At the Burger King, strangers were hugging and crying. We wished each other well on our journeys. I cleaned my car and pulled onto the main highway. All I wanted to do was to get to Sarah’s and embrace my son. Other than my small family in Alabama, they were it.
I pushed on toward the Pulaski Skyway, although I didn’t remember how. Since the traffic was so backed up it was easy for me to throw up. Balls of black smoke towered high in the sky in front of me. I rolled my car window down; I smelled a combination of human flesh and electricity. I threw up again. My stomach was twisted in extreme pain since I hadn’t eaten all day. I drank more ginger ale.
While I was vomiting two painters in a truck noticed me, and my license plates.
“How long have you been driving?” One asked.
“Twelve hours,” I tried to get out.
“You drove all the way from West Virginia? Where are you going?”
“Tonnele Ave,” I cried.
“We’ll get you there. We know exactly where it is. Stay with us. Everything is going to be okay.“ I thought I heard. “You done the hard work already.”
“Okay.” I shook my head since I wasn’t able to talk. Tonnele Avenue was the last exit before the Holland Tunnel, which was closed.
I was thankful for the two house painters, and was even more thankful that I had keys to my son’s apartment. His phone was working. I couldn’t reach Sarah. Michael had left a message on my cellphone staying he was staying in the City since there was no public transportation. The only way of getting around was by bike or foot.
I took a shower and called my family in Alabama. Then I turned on the television. I felt as though I was watching a movie that friends told me I had to see. I stood frozen, seeing the replay of the falling towers, over and over in disbelief and horror.
The next day I was able to get into the City, to Sarah’s. Michael and I spoke; he was fine, but had been worried about me. At Sarah’s, folks gathered outside of her building at our 94th and Park Avenue trying to sing gospels. They were surprised and disappointed when they learned I couldn’t sing.
Later, at dinner, the political ramifications of the bombing hit me; George W. Bush was President. “Oh my God, I wish Al Gore was President,” I blurted out.
“Why?” Sarah asked.
“Because he’s less hawkish than W, and a lot smarter.”
“Not really, Gore dropped out of Divinity School. Bush didn’t.”
“Sarah, Bush’s mother wouldn’t call him smart.” I laughed. Then it hit me that my oldest friend had changed politics too. How did all of this change happened without me knowing? Was this what happens when you don’t see each for a few years? Friends must be informed about major changes in each other’s life. In Atlanta, we had volunteered for League of Women Voters and had been on boards of many progressive organizations, especially those having to do with the right of women to make decisions about their bodies. I was confused, scared, and a bit angry. Why didn’t I know about all of this?
Had I changed too? Maybe we all had. My politics were the same. How could they be anything else? My Harvard educated son can’t get a taxi in New York City. Black and brown males are frisked at rate of eighty percent higher than white males, just because they are breathing the same air. Police are supposed to protect and serve; but instead they are shooting down our children in the streets. All of the hard fought for battles of the Civil Rights Movement were disappearing, by way of stripping those laws down to their last gem clip. How can my politics be anything else?
I wish I had taken Black social organizations more serious. My Black progressive friends and I had poked fun at such groups; we were young and hopeful. I didn’t have the pedigree or skin color to join any of them; but I could’ve figured it out. These organizations don’t insult me anymore, but seem necessary if we want to preserve a Black upper-middle class. I understand that the lives of Black folks have expanded into other races and cultures, which is supposed to be progress, but at a cost so high it meant abandoning our own culture.
After 9/11, Sarah and I agreed to not talk about politics. I found our new reality strange and difficult. My oldest friend was a new person; and now we have rules about what we can and cannot speak of. I knew that Saul was a German Jew and had escaped the Holocaust. I had never heard Sarah mention the Holocaust in the more than 35 years we’ve been friends.
Then it happened; I was so excited that I slipped and forgot our agreement. Sarah called me a few months later; we hadn’t talked in a while. I was always careful not to express my excitement about Obama being President, since she and Saul sounded more like FOX News when talking about the President; I wasn’t willing to listen. I had other friends with similar political views to mine. After all, we can’t get everything we need from one friend.
“What’s going on Sarah asked?”
“I am so excited. Angela Davis is coming to my University and she requested that I sit at the dinner table with her.” Sarah was quiet; then she had to go soon. I thought nothing of it since we’re all busy. When she didn’t call me back, I replayed the telephone conversation in my head; and kept reminding myself that I didn’t think of Angela Davis as politics. By that time Obama was in his second term as President.
About six weeks later Sarah emailed me, telling me that she was sorry to just be getting back to me, but she was so put off with my love of Angela Davis, that she couldn’t talk to me. Angela Davis had been negotiating for peace between the Israelis and Palestines, and for that Sarah hated her. This is what the woman does, travel around the world, including South Africa, trying to negotiate peace. I was shocked and angry.
I re-watched a documentary Free Angela Angela and felt even more proud of her. She was hunted down like a criminal; but she never broke. I wanted to be on her side of history.
Finally, I wrote Sarah back; the first thing I said was: In the words of Nelson Mandela, your enemies are not my enemies. Then I went on to ask her what did she want from me. Was I supposed to contact her to see if I could admire, care about, etc. folks she hated? I was damn angry by then.
We wrote each a few emails. I was puzzled, hurt, and didn’t know what to do with my emotions. Sarah told me that her mother had been a Holocaust survivor. I wrote her back and told her she didn’t own all of the pain in history. My mother work as a maid for 50 years earning $15 per week; and when my father was killed when the gas truck he drove exploded we received not one dollar.
With the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardener, and too many other black bodies, along with and the incarnation of black bodies, my political radar was overflowing.
It’s mid-May and I’ve finished grading finals for the semester. Around midnight my telephone rings. Sarah cries into the telephone, she’s afraid; Saul’s health isn’t good. And her kids are sick of her.
“Of course, they’re sick of you. We get sick of them too.” We laugh.
“Do you need me to come?”
“No, I just want to talk to you. Did I wake you?”
“No,” I lie. “It doesn’t matter I am done with classes for the semester.”
“Don’t be. I can pack up the dog and move in for a week or so. Just let me know.” Just like that the sun is shining on our friendship again, as we navigate our way through our wounded pasts.
Professor Ethel Morgan Smith: "I am the author of From Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Community at Hollins College. My essay “Love Means Nothing” was the winner of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Prize for Nonfiction. “Outside of Dreams” has just been published in Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers. My work has been published in: The New York Times; Callaloo; African American Review; That Mintoritything.com, and other national and international outlets.
"I have received the following awards: Fulbright-Tübingen, Germany; Rockefeller Foundation-Bellagio, Italy; DuPont-Randolph-Macon Woman’s College; American Academy in Rome-Visiting Artist; Brandeis University; Bread Loaf; and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. My novel in progress The House of Flowers placed second for the West Virginia Writers Contest, and my play for the stage African Violets placed third for the same contest. Other work in progress include: Blue Notes: Memoirs of an African American in Germany."