Beyond Boyland: The Correspondence of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones

book cover

Excerpted and adapted from Love, H: The Letters of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones.

Letters stop time—even old they’re always news. “Letters Lift Spirits,” declares one vintage postage stamp, another “Letters Preserve Memories,” and a third, with reverence, “Letters Mingle Souls.” “Love, H” is all this as well as a story with a backstory. Thematically, collections from women emphasize friendship, and a lengthy correspondence unfolds not just a friendship but a sympathetic intimacy, an I and a You. So who will you meet here? A couple of plainspoken women, avant-garde by nature, not analysis. Expansive, introspective, reportorial, confessional, two participants in a gradual redefinition. In 1960, when we began to write, like most women then Helene Dorn and I were married with children. What set us apart were our men and our context: the Beat / Black Mountain / San Francisco / New York bohemia of that time, the Kerouac Ginsberg O’Hara deKooning nexus that has had such a lasting impact on American culture. The place I call Boyland. Each of us had arrived there with something in mind—she to paint, I to write—and then foundered on love, on the hardships and distractions of marriage and motherhood. Still, we were taking it all in, putting things by…

It took twenty years, and some persuasion, before I agreed to write “How I Became Hettie Jones,” my memoir of that sixties bohemia. I’d been working on children’s books and poetry and stories, as well as editing and teaching, and I couldn’t see the purpose—I thought people just wanted gossip—until, finally, I began to see that particular story as a way to teach. Since then, given the book’s success, but that it concerns only the 1950s and ’60s, people (women especially) have been asking, “When are you going to write ‘Remaining Hettie Jones’?” Another twenty years passed while I considered addressing this challenge. Why continue the story? Of what use would it be? What attraction? Scholars have tended to heroicize “beat chicks” who lived through that scene and got out alive. But afterward, lacking the anchor of male celebrity, they . . . ah, what did they do? Where did they go? What kept them alive? How did I remain Hettie Jones?

****

In “”How I Became” I wrote that these letters “kept me from sinking.” Now they’ve kept time—the right time, because it’s easy to be wrong. It was Helene who sent me, as I was writing that book, Kay Boyle’s warning against memory’s “dreamy evasive eyes.” But here, in our letters, eyes peeled, we look straight out from wherever we were.

****

The focus of “Love, H” is wide-ranging, and like any story, it has its moods. Ecstatic: “Norway commission verified!” “Book contract signed!” Contemplative: “I wonder what it is that I want, more than this.” Reports from the battleground of women’s rights: “Nuns for Choice marching alongside welldressed New Hampshire Republican Women for Choice!” And accounts from the life to which we remained irrevocably connected: “The funeral service was lovely—chanting, and the Kaddish, and little statements . . . the place crowded with people sitting on the floor and squeezed around the perimeter on chairs; me—a seat away from Bob Creeley—on a little table, since no chairs left by the time I arrived promptly at 9. Everyone up early for Allen.”

In making this selection I’ve been concerned most of all with literature and art and our attempts to locate our own efforts within these disciplines. But art was just one part of the ongoing struggle to sustain ourselves in a culture only beginning to recognize the working woman’s place in it, and how she might achieve the necessary balance for such a venture. Given that the quest for this balance is ongoing, my purpose here is to submit some guidance, in the hope that how we remained will help others envision lives of their own choosing, and to offer young women what we lacked, frontline stories of success and failure at trying to be an artist in a woman’s life. Which is opposite the way that’s usually phrased. H.J.
 

1960’s

HELENE: COLCHESTER, ENGLAND 6 FEB.
Hokay . . .The clock in my room just chimed 10 and the sun came out at the same time. The birds are singing fools and I feel much like they sound. We haven’t seen the sun for days and days and days. The gardener is working in “Grandma Palmer’s” garden below us—he goes with the house, the contract says. And thinks I want to play Lady Chatterley w/him because I’m all the time looking out the windows (it’s a lovely landscape—beautiful trees, red brick walls, tiled cottage roofs, even a greenhouse. And thousands of birds). And I’m sure he thinks it’s him I’m digging.

Yup! He just came in. I was looking out the window over the kitchen sink when blam—into my view comes his gray hair. Now he’s on the other side, raking or something. No, by god, he has one of those magnificent witch brooms (huge) and he’s sweeping the grass w/it! How about that— they sweep the grass in East Anglia.

But enough of my affair—you’d think that very funny could you see him!

I wish I could write all kinds of soothing things—you are a Greek tragedy and it is all so miserably real and it’s horrible knowing there’s nothing I can say, really. For god’s sake write as often as you please, at least it’s something I can do, hold it too.
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK, FRIDAY MARCH 4 66
Dearest Helene, Hurrah the typewriter is fixed! (Because I took a typing job one day when there was nothing else available, wouldn’t you know it wd have to be a crisis.)

Anyway, with help by chance from Joel [Oppenheimer] I’ve just landed a job as an editor for University Books, unfortunately an hour and a half from here by subway and bus. I go there four days and spend Fri at home reading. Spent this week working on copy for The Encyclopedia of Psychic Science—from which you can gather that they publish for what Joyce [Johnson] calls “the nut market” but also the Psychedelic Review of Tim Leary and works by Gurdjieff. So it will be good. That is, I am going to make it good. I am tired of wailing and depending on other people for anything.

The washing machine died and needs $75 to come back to life. Have had to stop taking Enovid birth control because of dreadful fatness and exhaustion. It’s good to be normal—and if I stand on my head every time I want to fuck, instead of fucking, I’ll be all right.

I must get back to the life and times of séances and spiritualism. Did you ever see a verified photo of a medium with ectoplasm extruding from her nose, with pictures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the ecto?

My love to you all, to Jeremy [Prynne] for the nice little squiggle on yr postcard arrived this morning, and to the English ghosts for their being worthy of the literature that’s going to keep us in the green!

[On the back of the envelope containing this letter]: Monday, cdn’t mail, no stamp. Boss going to lend me $ for car big as a house, drove it tonight.
 

HELENE: 11TH MARCH 1966
Dearest Het—So very good to get your letter—the job sounds crazy: come to me my Psychedelic Bayyaayaabee!!! Looks like we’ll be here next year . . .
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK 3/11/66
Dearest Helene, I’m cooking a chicken—also, at the same time, finding you on the map. Jesus, those names . . . Wivenhoe, Shoeburyness, Clacton, Burnham on Crouch, Foulness Island—Foulness Island! Cardigan, Hereford, Gloucester . . .Everything from sweaters to cows to Shakespeare, what a language.

Editing now a book written by a priest who ran away from his order because of his balls. I like my new job v. much.

I’m buying a station wagon (Ford ’59) from the handsome garage man next door. If boss doesn’t come through I’ll have to borrow…. Anyway with the help of god and influence I’ll be able to drive to work next week. Do you hear how hard I am? Can you believe me? I am out to take the most of what’s available, and screw anyone in the way.

You cannot imagine the kind of attitude that seems to grow up inside one when the only available opportunities for any kind of life have to come from oneself, entirely. I don’t mean just money, but all kinds of things. Like I have to anticipate who to come on to in what kind of way, for what kind of advantage. Men, women—if you talk to the typewriter repairman in a nice way, even though he hasn’t fixed your typewriter after two days of promises and keeps you waiting 20 minutes with your dog while your children are alone in the house—but if you keep your temper and be pleasant and interested in his work, he will carry the typewriter up the stairs for you so it won’t break again when you bump it up in a shopping cart. If you are pleasant to the schoolmarm and tell her your troubles and display your earnestness she will assure you your children will get a scholarship. If you are sweet to the tv repairman who is leching after you, he will fix your tv set three times, and if you look tearfully at the cop and tell him you are honestly trying to keep your dog from shitting on the curb instead of in the gutter, he won’t give you a summons…

I am getting tired, I think, which makes me a little bugged…
 

1970’s

HETTIE: NEW YORK, SUN NIGHT 14TH NOV. 1976
Dearest Helene, I have for the most part stopped going out (again). It’s just making scenes in bars, I hate it, tolerable only if music and hardly even then, small talk, sexual arrangement through alcohol.

Tho everything is all right. I am working on my YA novel all the time, with great glee and satisfied farts into my chair. Young man takes me to dinner occasionally—all very asexual and literary, so unlike, as Joyce recalled, people banging on your door at four in the morning yelling because they wanted to screw you.

Down here in sin city even at 36 degrees the whores (read young poorgirls) walk around in minis outside my door, I always want to give them hot chocolate.
 

HELENE:

You are invited to a reception during the opening of Gloucester’s new art gallery stagecoach house at 302 Essex Avenue from seven to ten o’clock in the evening on Wednesday, December 15, 1976 On exhibit in a one-artist show will be work by Helene Dorn, a Gloucester resident. Helene Dorn has said of her work: “There is a religiosity in these mosaics. I take great care to honor what I find.”

GLOUCESTER, DEC. 8, 1976 Which is why I haven’t answered yr great pre-Thanksgiving letter—show came all of a sudden, like, w/3 weeks to prepare, I hope I can do it! O how I would love to have you here—cld. you possibly??? No, of course not, but what a nifty dream—I’m in a slight case of panic—I love you all v. much.
 

1980’s

HETTIE: NEW YORK, 4/6/84
“And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like,
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds,
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.
Surely you can see that.”
—Brecht, last poem in Poems 1913–1956

Hi—the above was quoted in some endless Voice review of Brecht but I wouldn’t have minded if they’d just printed this, LARGE. So many times I do that, trying to stress the validity of common language, and end up feeling that people think it’s just corny.

Favorite new word—“domestic”—as in poetry, sensibility, etc etc. Another way to dismiss women; I reckon we’ll see an article about it soon.

I’ve been writing steadily on book and have some 50+ pages now, but I’ve been delivering all this to my agent, bit by bit, and have not heard one word. It’s eerie and I’m terrified she thinks it’s so bad that, etc etc.— vaguely discouraged about it tonight, but fuck it. If it ain’t good it ain’t…

Did you get horribly snowed under that last time? and washed out by the recent deluge? What a messy spring—everyone here is muttering and complaining, everyone wants to go outside and watch the break dancers.

Restless, restless. Must be spring. Miles Davis on the radio can put me into a spate of labored breathing!
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK, 10/20/84
Hello hullo! The teaching is less problematic in the sense that I’m not so nervous about it anymore, but it still takes up more time than I bargained for. And the politics of the whole thing. I’ve yet to “chat” (as he put it) with the head of the Eng Dept. in the interest of getting hired again; inside me there’s this tremendous reluctance. Went to a faculty meeting and was so put off by the gray-haired, gray-faced, gray-suited men (only a few women) and not one black, brown or otherwise colored person in the roomful while outside the door the student body passed, the majority of whom are bl, br, or otherwise c. Oh oh oh oh oh.,,
 

HETTIE: 5/31 85
Dear Dungeon-Dweller!

Iffy or not, they oughta give it to you, mebbe you could cut in a new window or two; anyway the price is right. So I am sending this with hope which seems to spring eternally through godawfulness.

The landlord will be around this afternoon, picking up the key from the former occupants of the store, the Chinese people he “vacated”—if I meet him I’ll . . . I’ll . . . What’ll I do? Turn away I guess, ugh. Have been sick-ill and am taking antibiotics.

8PM

In the last light, Sing Foon Ma has all his remaining merchandise on the street, selling to the last, good for him . . . One gets to know people—this couple, their children, two tiny boys not yet in school when they moved in, then the wife’s mother, such an elegant, skinny-as-a-rail, chain-smoking woman, still gorgeous at 75. Then watched them through another pregnancy, amnio because she was over 35, then the birth of a girl—girls are better! crowed the mother, in opposition to everything taught—and now to lose them into what Kerouac called cityCityCITY . . . No fair, no fair, their older son one of those smart/kind kids, in the classes for gifted children and always with his arms out to his baby sister, both boys constantly correcting, in slangy American, their mother’s incorrect pronunciation (“Not custom, Ma, you mean customer!”). I’m going to miss all of them.
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK, 5/25/86
Hello . . . last night told your story to some young people whose lives have never been really difficult or unsettled—even at weddings I have to bring along my political head, I guess. And one woman did say, “It does not seem right that a woman should have to give up her kitchen table.”

Landlord here today painting over the No Paseran sign on the city gate. Looked right at me as I left the house but gave no sign of recognition. It’s too weird.

Cheery thought: all the young women in NY this season are wearing large, colorful earrings, bunches of things, the style is very Caribbean, w head wraps and what Lisa has referred to as “overkill”—large chunky necklaces and all in all a Carmen Miranda look, but in the best of temper, as with good intentions. And of course it makes me happy. Contrast them with the sober fem bankers and lawyers I sometimes catch on my nightly bike ride thru lower Manhattan.

But money wins. Nevertheless while it is winning we have color and form. So who has won what . . .

Thinking of you right this minute, 10:51pm . . .
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK, APRIL 16, 1989
Hi Dearie, Since I never thought of you as fragile it’s hard for me to imagine you skinny, but of course I worry allatime about your getting better and fatter. Rice and beans is it for rounding one out. Cornbread and greens made with a pork knuckle or a smoked turkey wing. Spareribs! You need to come to Harlem and eat some greasy fried chicken! Now that the weather is better the booksellers are out on the streets. I found an African novelist who also makes movies, Sembene Ousmane—a terrific novel called Xala. And some stories by Meridel LeSueur that I’d never read—have you read her? Impassioned recorder of women’s lives in the worst of the Depression. Poetic style, like Tillie Olsen.

O, I have forgotten to report the March! [on Washington for Abortion Rights–see note below]

Too terrific! A traffic jam on the way home—it took 3 hours to get from D.C. to Delaware, usually about 40 minutes I think! I was so excited—600,000 people, twice that which most of the media reported. Next day I’m telling Lisa all about it—“Mormons for choice—can you beat that? And nuns! And people from Alaska, men and women. Two Southern belles in straw boaters wrapped with chiffon ribbons, and long flowing skirts, gaily flinging their banner—Tennessee for Choice! The Grey Panthers! the Gay and Lesbian Coalition!”—and Lisa says, “Write the story, Mom!” And I say, “But Lisa, I’ve already written one story about abortion,” and she comes back, “But Mom, write another!” Oh, Helene, you would have so enjoyed the sight of all those thousands of women. Old Ladies in wheelchairs, mother-daughter banners. So well organized and fucking pleasant, all those faces. Well-dressed but casual Republicans from New Hampshire for Choice! All the colleges. People from Missouri, Texas, Wisconsin. We stood on the sidelines, the five of us from our yoga class, cheering. Two women I knew marched past me! We yelled and embraced and I saw that happening everywhere as people who hadn’t arranged to meet each other did. I kept yelling when people from far away came past, it seemed fitting to congratulate them, and their faces just split, grinning! Then over the loudspeaker we heard “X, please meet Y at the PortoSans, you have her plane ticket!” And the crowning jewel in the day was the fact that not once, not even once, did any of the PortoSans I visited lack toilet paper.We’d parked the car in the suburbs and then taken the Metro into the city, so it was pleasant on the way out to ride that incredibly smooth, new, unmarked train and watch the Washington Monument recede, and the capitol, looking like my geography book of 45 years ago. Left at 8am, didn’t get home until 2am, but the next day I was wired.

NOTE. In order to preserve the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, then under threat by a Pennsylvania law that would have required a waiting period as well as spousal notification. At that point estimated to be the largest gathering ever to march on Washington. H.J.
 

1990’s

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 6/17/90
5PM Found your message when I got back from wandering on Pavilion—It was wondrous—fog not yet lifted beyond the breakwater around Stage Fort Park, all the weekend sailboats Seurat-esque in the mist …Crazy, wonderful ocean coast weather.

Gathered a bunch of glass & stayed a lot longer than I’d intended. Did some work on requiem mask I’ve somehow got to do tho at this point it seems a disaster & I wonder why I continue—all this shit I have to get out of my heart/soul I guess. Quit when I realized I couldn’t see what I was doing. No more masks unless I can discover some transparent material to support the convex background necessary to make the head hang plumb—it’s a bitch, H. Jones.

So now I’m sitting in the sun on my little porch having a beer and several cigarettes, my 49 cent bright red sun hat on my head, Squirrel at my 1989–1990 117 feet, surrounded by pansies & basil & all my house plants. The wind in the trees a truly lovely sound—like the ocean connecting w/the beach earlier—I would like a month of such days.
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 4/16/96
Hello and glad you’re home safe and sound and had a great time. This is to say that and quickly tell you a very funny story, the moral of which is NEVER GO TO THE SUPERMARKET BEFORE BREAKFAST EVEN IF YOU’RE OUT OF CAT FOOD AND ESPECIALLY NOT IF THE WEATHER FORECASTERS HAVE PREDICTED TORRENTIAL RAINS & WINDS FOR THE NEXT 2 DAYS.

I got the cat food. But the salmon steaks on sale l.ooked so lovely and I was by then, hungry, so I bought one thinking how nice to have it broiled, some rice w/peppers & scallions, a lovely dinner for myself in the rain…

That was yesterday. I got working on the Black Monk; talked a long time w/Paul; cldn’t stand my dirty hair any longer, washed it & my body; heated in the microwave a can of pork & beans … and went to bed at 3 a.m.

Well. I did do the salmon tonight—but turns out the red stuff I had in the paprika jar was cayenne. Good thing it was old. The oil, wine, lemon juice, garlic, & paprika basting calls for 1 tbs. of paprika. Since you are working on a cookbook, I thought this wld. amuse you like it did me. What a bummer, I can’t even give my cats the leftovers!

And while I was broiling this oh-wldn’t-that-be-nice-in-the-rain salmon steak, the smoke alarm started screaming and wldn’t stop no matter I opened the porch door, letting all that rain and 40s weather in. And my cats, naturally, are driving me crazy with all their smelling of this salmon…

I will never again eat salmon. I don’t care who cooks it, or how well it’s cooked, I will never again…
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 12/31/97 8:41pm.
I did go to hear Megawatts [her son Fred’s band] for abt. a half hour, though my sick body just wanted to be home, overclothed like you, sitting by the heater. But they are always great and it’s a delight to watch how they make people dance and have a wonderful time. The brisk air was probably good for me (it’s incredibly cold here) and it was fun to see Main Street so festive and all the people, especially the little kids. Masks and costumes and all that in this fierce cold! Gloucester’s first First Night. A couple of really fine ice sculptures, a marvelous Gloucester Sea Serpent and a railroad engine on the library lawn. The time and care involved in making them—it has been two days—they were sawing away at midnight last night, and today until close to 5 pm—whew! Makes me think of sand painting . . . they’ll be gone with the next warm air current. That’s love.

And when I stopped across the street from Harborlight Futon on my way, I saw a mime in their window. I love mimes—and she was beautiful, all black and white, making slow movements in that huge display window, nobody paying any attention to her. I stood watching her thinking what a drag it must be to perform w/no audience, and then my nose started running and I pulled a Kleenex out of my pocket and blew into it while I was watching (from across the street)—and she did that beautiful slow movement thing mimes do, drew with her white-gloved hand a Kleenex from her pocket and mimed a noseblow exactly like mine. I laughed and gave her a finger-up sign which she returned! I realized then that she’d been mimicking my movements from the very beginning. I love her and wish her well. As I do you, Mama…get well!!!

happy new year . . .
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 10/24
Letter from Lucia last week describing what she’d had to do—page after page!—to provide the powers a reason for her being reappointed to the creative writing department. The only thing she cld. remember of what she turned in was that she does know in one of the five demanded pages on her “poetics,” she wrote: “As Miles Davis said, ‘you know, those dark Arkansas roads at night. That’s the sound I’m after.’”

Lovely, no??? Is it a familiar quote? In all these years of being a Miles fan, I don’t remember it, and am sure I wld. had I ever read it.
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK, 10/24/98
That wonderful reference, though not the exact quote, comes from the autobiography Quincy Troupe wrote with Miles. [The roads led to his grandfather’s farm.] But oh how I sympathize with Lucia. I’ve started trying to write the syllabus they want, and I suppose it’s a good thing to get your brain in order, but I find it an interruption—how can I know what’s next when I haven’t seen what worked the previous week? Each group is different! And all that stuff—five pages on one’s poetics!

Which reminds me I have an appointment at SUNY Purchase next Thurs. to talk about the class in Poetic Techniques I’ve applied for this spring. I don’t know poetic techniques from those dark Arkansas roads, man.
 

2000’s

HETTIE: 7/6 ATTACHMENT IS A FUNNY WORD
Hi, glad you got it. I find some of the icons ambiguous. But that’s just me. Today have been twice to Barnes & Noble because when I went w/o list, I completely spaced and bought books to read on trip. Second time to get French phrase book and a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, whom I’ve never read, have you? Probably everyone has but me, as usual. But about ten years ago, I found a poem by Charlotte Mew, English, in Penguin Book of Women Poets, now yellowing and dry in my bookshelf, and never found any others, but now it appears that Penelope F. has written biography of her. Maybe I can find in library or somewhere. Her “Rooms” begins:

I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart.
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell,
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide—….
 

HELENE: 7/24: There you are in gay Paree. A very humid 82 degrees in here despite all fans going full speed. Walked in the heat . . . limped back here, fell into chair, drank 5 glasses of water and spent the rest of the afternoon, my legs up on a stool, reading Fitzgerald’s C. Mew & Her Friends, drinking beer & smoking cigarettes. Ain’t you glad you’re where you are??? (Yes, I know, avoid alcohol in hot weather.)

HELENE: 7/25: Finished the book except for Fitzgerald’s selection of poems . . . will read them tonight when hopefully it is cooler. It’s a fascinating book. I can’t bring up how it is that I did know of Mew when you sent me “Rooms”— maybe when I was reading V. Woolf & then her letters & of course Vita . . .

HELENE: 7/27: Here’s a quote from C.M. & Her Friends: “. . . they appeared in The English Woman, a short-lived monthly edited by Elisabeta Allen, the discarded wife of the publisher Grant Allen.” Off to fix food. Love, wherever you are . . . Discarded Wife.
 

So! There was a name for us—a category! Because I didn’t see these letters until several weeks later, I didn’t get to respond to such a revelation. That would have to wait. H.J.
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 11/02/01
Landlords!!! And the need for power (just plain old electrical kind). Bummers both. When I was a kid the most magical time in my life was our family’s spending each summer in my aunt & uncle’s “cabin” on the shore of Lake Pokegama. I loved the soft light of the kerosene lamps, and the ritual of lighting them. And the trip to the ice house with Jack to replenish the ice box. The ice house had a wonderful smell: big chunks buried in sawdust so they would last thru the summer. It was fun to pump water at the sink, wind up the big old victrola so it would play the ancient records. And feel the soft dirt road on my bare feet when I was allowed to go visit my Cherokee friends who lived in an incredible shack down the road (that’s another story).

Then power hit the area. All the magic gone. Zap! I cried for days. Of course it made life a lot easier for my mother.

You ain’t the only one w/a big mouth, this was to be a quick response!
 

HETTIE:

DUST—A SURVIVAL KIT 9/11–10/11 2001

9/25
Two weeks breathing the dead
each breath marking each
stunning absence

ourselves as coffin,
winding sheet, urn
worm
but oh, of what is God made?

10/2
We lived among blossoming words
until some of them exploded, like one
human exploding another

Say human again
try to feel the word on your lips

10/11
The dead have dispersed.
It has rained on them twice
they have drifted to sea
ascended in mist

Breathe them once again

and begin
 

HELENE: 4/12/02
Got Tom Clark’s bio of Ed late this afternoon. Am 46 pages into it and impressed with the care T.C. had in the writing. But also in that pit of remembrances. It’s getting late again, I’ve spent so much time thinking abt. the past, what a stupid occupation.
 

Yes, stupid to us, maybe, but Boyland had meant much to many, and I felt we owed the future its interviews, biographies, summations, interpretations, and, where possible, resuscitations. Pontiac was promoting a new car called Vibe, and—“God forgive us for cozying up to Mammon,” I wrote Helene—paying to associate it with the Beats. Joyce Johnson, Janine Pommy Vega, and I were billed as “Beat chicks Live!” though we got the small print. H.J.
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 4/13/02
Took time out to send note to Tom & Angelica Clark . . . In her answer to my last night’s email, Angelica sent this: “p.s. The young freelance designer who worked with us on the book was greatly impressed with you as the ‘heroine’ of the story (she said she thought ‘Helene would like it’; I’d hoped she would be proven right)!” Which I certainly don’t see so far, except for Creeley’s “Helene was the pioneer.” Life is weird.
 

I depended on writing to Helene to find my “lost” self, and every so often felt compelled to tell her:

HETTIE: It’s 11:25pm. I should be out of this room by now. But I remember years ago writing to you would bring me back to my own mind, to the self not embroiled in dailiness of little kids and my job at Partisan, and Roi, etc. etc. At least I could think from the center of something I felt was true. Well, 11:40!
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER, 6/2/02 Laughing, and probably a little bit mad, ’nother weird day, 9:27pm and just now at last! saw a star in what I’d thought was a very clear sky. Here’s a wonderful story:

Was feeling really all awry, shaky & lightheaded—the bp pills probably. I always blame them—and went out, in desperation, to walk a little & get some sun and fresher air.

Met my 86-year-old neighbor on my way to boulevard. He’s a sweet man, we’ve had chats before. But today he was full of some kind of grace he wanted to share with everyone. Explained to me the doctor had told him to walk every day. “That’s what I’m doing,” I said, “I feel fine everywhere except my legs. It’s my legs.” Then he asked me how old I was. I told him to guess. He looked at me for a minute at least and said “82.” When I told him I was 75, he wasn’t at all daunted, just grasped my hands and said “You’re a baby!” Then, still holding my hands, said “God bless you,” and when we parted, he on his way home, me off to the boulevard, I turned & called to him, “God bless us all!” He smiled and nodded yes. And I smiled all the way to the boulevard and back.
 

HETTIE: NEW YORK, 4/10/03
Today I came to the place in my book where you and I met, and it was such a delight to read it again and remember. And I do, truly, remember us standing looking into the window of the stocking store—the Bargain Hosiery Center!—and your saying “Bohemia, Momma” when you saw the black stockings.
 

HELENE: GLOUCESTER 1/9/04
Well, it’s Friday night & cold!…Joe [super] explained that I was freezing because the building …cldn’t handle the upper floors…45 min. later he arrived at my door with a miraculous little heater! That’s all for now. Love, H
 

And that was all. For now and forever. Helene stopped writing and answering the phone. Even her son Paul couldn’t reach her. Eventually she was hospitalized, sent to a nursing home, and then back to the hospital where she died, at the end of May, of the incurable bacterial infection we’ve since come to know is epidemic, familiarly known as C. dif.

I couldn’t believe her death. For years I was sure she’d willed it. I tried writing to her as though she were alive (useless), I missed her humor and her help, I will always miss Helene. Like her I couldn’t keep a diary, nor could any Dear Diary teach me to make garbage soup or nine raisins soaked in gin, or send me quotes from Virginia Woolf to calm me when I was fighting all my battles— literary and otherwise—without precedent and terribly alone.

This book is for the person who saved my life, who sat on her floor surrounded by paper and then wrote, “Such a story, our letters.” Which story remains what I’d asked: a conversation with a plainspoken woman, about what we were thinking and doing. The journey that itself was home.

These days, as she’d wished, Helene Dorn drifts in Gloucester Harbor. Her little “Discarded Wife” hangs in my hall, in line with this desk. She’s finely textured plaster of paris, a green so dark I sometimes catch her midnight blue. After she lost one shell earring, I gave her a set of silver stars, then added a pair of Helene’s that Fred sent—multihued wooden discs like color wheels. Discarded Wife is jazzed, her stubborn mouth almost smiles, everything has come to pass. As has her promise, “to know you’re not alone”:

“Goodnight, my equally dear dear friend. If I shortly pass out of this world, I’ll send you poems from the next one. Yeah. Love, H”

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