Monday, April 24, 2006

Searching for Dorothy

In my other life, before I became a magazine editor and eventually started editing freelance so I could stay home with my kiddo, I was a librarian. Guys always told me I didn't "look like a librarian" because I wore jeans and boots and clingy tops and had long, curly hair. (I still have the long hair, but that's about it!) I didn't intend to become a librarian; rather, I sort of fell into it. If you're ever wondering what you can do with an English degree, I'm here to tell you that one option is to become a clerical temp. at an aerospace firm and take the librarian job when one of the librarians retires to look after her ill daughter and your temp. time runs out and the company offers you a mega-raise.

My co-librarian was a kind, unassuming older woman named Dorothy. Upon learning that my official job title was "librarian," she expressed disbelief because it had taken her years to earn that title. Of course, she started back in the days when aerospace librarians had library science degrees instead of plain English degrees, and folks with my level of experience were called “library assistants.”

The work involved some primitive online research, a lot of cataloging (typing up those old-fashioned cross-reference cards that go in those cute wooden drawers), a lot of filing and even more refiling of government specifications, and ordering books. I grew bored and started to hate my job; surely I didn't do it as well as Dorothy or my predecessor. Nevertheless, Dorothy had a kind, quietly humorous way about her; she put up with me the way an older dog tolerates a puppy, trying to teach me as best she could, listening to me run my uppity mouth, occasionally becoming gently annoyed with my immature attitude, but usually indulging me and my shortcomings. In fact, during the years that we knew each other, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone -- not that she didn't have the opportunity. I'm sorry to say that she heard me say plenty about others.

She and my predecessor had somehow developed a custom of bringing in Pepperidge Farm cookies and having a short tea break each morning, and I gamely took my turn bringing in the treats when it was time. I can recall running out to the store late some nights, having remembered at the last minute that I was on cookie duty, and not wanting to let Dorothy down. The two of us politely discussed little bits of our lives as we nibbled our cookies, never eating more than two cookies apiece. For Dorothy, two cookies was an extravagance; I gladly would have wolfed down the entire box, but didn't want to appear unladylike in front of the woman I was beginning to regard as somewhat of a friend and grandmotherly figure.

She was small and wore the same few humble outfits all week: combinations of cotton slacks and short-sleeved, plaid, cotton blouses. She wore pink lipstick and a little powder, and had short, wiry, curly, gray hair that she said she could never do anything with. I once saw her old badge photo, from her early years at the company, and her hair was pretty much the same; it was brown, but just as uncontrollable as ever. After our tea-and-cookies breaks, she would powder her lips and apply her pink lipstick. I can't be sure, but I think she may have used the same compact for the entire time that I knew her. She also saved every piece of string, every brown paper and every packing peanut that came into the library. That she'd been raised during the Depression was evident in her economy.

Occasionally Dorothy would tell me stories about her childhood. She'd been born in Santa Ana, and her dad had been a tailor. Each summer, he would rent a cottage a few miles away on Balboa Island on Collins Street, right near the ocean, and there the family would stay for a few weeks, enjoying the tiny beach and the general beach culture. This must have been during the late thirties. Her dad continued to work during these vacations, commuting from the island to his Santa Ana shop. After I rented my first apartment, Balboa Island quickly became my favorite walking place; sometimes as I wandered down Collins Street, I'd seek out cottages that appeared to be originals, wondering if perhaps I'd found Dorothy's childhood vacation spot.

Sometimes she would tell me about her college years. She'd attended Occidental College in Los Angeles during the fifties or so, and somehow had been nicknamed Pooh when her friends had decided to name everyone in their circle after Winnie the Pooh characters. Dorothy said she'd initially felt special because she got to be Pooh – the star! -- until she'd read that Pooh was "A Bear of Little Brain." I imagined her as she might have been, young and living in more innocent times.

Dorothy never spoke of any beaus, but she sometimes told me about two friends of hers, a man and a woman both named Beverly, who married each other years ago. “It was so funny when the minister said, 'Do you, Beverly, take Beverly...'” she'd recall with a smile.

Eventually the aerospace company began to suffer financially and, in a preemptive effort to thin the herd, offered early retirement packages to employees who were getting close to "that age" and would otherwise be laid off. Dorothy took early retirement and opted out of the medical insurance package included by the company. She was a Christian Scientist and did not go to the doctor, although I think she went to the dentist. We never discussed this in detail, although she mentioned it when we talked about her early retirement benefits.

After Dorothy left, I was alone in the library, as the company couldn't afford to hire a new librarian. As other employees left the company or were laid off, fewer people dropped in and the library became quieter and quieter. Eventually the company moved to a new, smaller facility; I continued the auctioning and packing of books that Dorothy and I had begun, and soon the library was reduced to about a quarter of its original size.

Once in a while Dorothy would meet me for lunch and we'd talk about her family and my life. She'd never married, but had a best friend -- a woman. I house-sat once for Dorothy's friend and took care of her beagle for a week. I sometimes wondered if this friend was her partner; the two of them attended each other's family functions and owned a vacation home together, but didn't live together. Although I always wanted to ask about it, if for no other reason than to let Dorothy be more herself with me, it wasn't any of my business, and we never discussed it.

After she retired, I invited Dorothy to my little apartment exactly one time. I never went to her house; she always said it was too messy, with stuff all over the dining room table and all the counters. I can still remember her sitting on my grandmother's old, fussy, pink sofa with scrolling wooden trim. She was wearing her usual cotton slacks and a short-sleeved, plaid blouse, and I was so proud to have her in my home. By that time, I was in my late twenties and had already lost both of my grandmothers and I so wanted Dorothy to see my very own place.

One time I invited her to see La Bohème -- her favorite -- then foolishly failed to buy tickets before they sold out. Feeling extremely stupid and embarrassed, I agonized over how to break the news to Dorothy, but she was characteristically more than gracious, and told me it was perfectly fine, as she'd seen it some years ago already. Sometime later I bought a boxed set of the opera and gave it to her, partly out of guilt and partly in thanks for her understanding.

The aerospace company continued to go further down the tubes and I hated my job more and more, especially since Dorothy wasn't there. I started making stupid mistakes, including forgetting to reclose a classified file cabinet (after an engineer dropped in to read a spec after hours), much to my boss's displeasure. Although no documents were missing, a security guard had discovered my mistake and filed a mandatory report. I took it as a sign that it was time for me to get while the getting was good, and consulted a manager friend for advice. He tipped me off when my department was told to reduce its head count and recommended the verbiage for my letter in which I volunteered for layoff. My boss was happy to be able to trim the head count without causing a lot of upset, and I was given several weeks' pay, with two additional weeks in lieu of notice. I had a government clearance and had access to too many classified documents for the company to want to keep me around for those two weeks, and the arrangement suited me just fine.

Within a month or two, as I lived off my severance pay, considering my direction, I was hired by a friend who was starting a Web magazine. I'd edited government proposals while still at the aerospace company (helping the overburdened editing staff), and proofed the company newsletter, so I had enough experience to get my foot in the door. After I proofed the first issue of the magazine (for free) and found hundreds of errors, I walked into my friend's office, showed him what I'd found, and told him he needed me. He hired me the very next day, and I credit him with helping me make the transition to work that I was much better at doing, and which made me happy.

I told Dorothy about my new job. She was so happy for me and, always the master of understatement, agreed that it suited me much better than the library job. Soon we began meeting for lunch again; she'd drive to my new office and we'd go to IHOP because it was cheap and close. She had developed what appeared to be a melanoma on her temple. It had started as an age spot and continued to grow, and it had become unsightly. She covered it with a band-aid; later it would take two band-aids to cover it. She dabbed at it with a tissue at times, embarrassed and looking at me apologetically from the corner of her eye as I looked away, not wanting to intrude or say what I so wanted to say: Please, please go to a doctor! We never discussed it; our friendship was such that we didn't mention certain things. Besides, I knew she would have to do what she believed was right for her, and going to the doctor wasn't in that category. Her religious beliefs didn't allow it, and her steady dignity prevented her from complaining about it.

After each lunch together, we'd awkwardly hug and joke a bit before parting. Looking back, I see that I should have hugged her more, but I was stupid then, and didn't know how to get over myself and just...connect.

The magazine moved to a new office -- one that wasn't convenient for Dorothy to get to -- and we fell out of touch. Soon afterward, I met my son's dad, became pregnant, gave birth and got caught up in the drama and excitement that came with that experience. After a time, I still thought of Dorothy, but was too afraid to try to contact her because I suspected she was likely dying or already dead. That probably seems crummy of me. The truth is that I just didn't want that to be real; I wanted to picture her smiling on my pink sofa.

In 2003, when my son was about two-and-a-half years old, we moved into our current place, about 100 miles from home. The move came with its own drama and excitement; my son's dad took me to court in an attempt to gain custody, and that was dramatic and exciting as well. Sometime soon afterward, I dreamt of Dorothy. In my dream, she was happy and sunny and headed somewhere on a road trip; she said something about going to Sonoma. I can only imagine that my brain somehow confused "Sonoma" with "melanoma," but I wouldn't rule out any travel plans Dorothy might have had. In her younger years, she'd traveled to Europe with her best friend -- she'd told me stories about struggling to manage a stickshift on country roads there -- and I knew there were still places she wanted to see. Finding no information about her online, I summoned my courage and dialed her phone number: disconnected.

I continued to put off finding Dorothy until about two weeks ago, when I had another dream about her. In this one, she had died and was lying in state in a beautiful Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Again, the travel element. When I awoke, I was determined to find an answer to my unasked question. I spent the better part of a day searching death records, obituaries, genealogy sites, aerospace “alumni” sites and the like online.

The reward for my efforts was no reward at all: a 2003 death notice for someone bearing her surname and first two initials, a notice of trustee sale for her address, and the mailing address of her best friend. I was close, yet not as close as I wanted to be, so I wrote a letter to her friend, asking if Dorothy was “still with us.” In the letter, I must have apologized at least four times for bringing up what was likely to be a difficult subject; I told her I'd searched exhaustively and hadn't yet found a solid answer, although I was fairly certain about what it would be. I told her I'd uncovered some information online that led me to think that contacting her was the right thing to do. I told her about some happy memories I had of Dorothy, and said I would be saddened, but not surprised, if she confirmed what I already thought I knew. I told her I had a son, and apologized for not having searched for Dorothy sooner.

I mailed the letter last Monday; on Friday I received a reply.

I was headed out to a movie, and had stopped at my mailbox on my way to the garage. There was the card, addressed in unfamiliar handwriting. I opened it carefully, thinking perhaps a prayer card would fall out; I was that certain that Dorothy had passed. Instead of a prayer card, however, I found wobbly handwriting covering the entire inside as well as the back. At first, I didn't want to read J.'s note; soon I had to refrain from reading it while driving.

She was, as Dorothy had been, extremely gracious. In squiggling cursive, she confirmed Dorothy's passing -- January 6, 2003 – and apologized many times for not having notified me. She said Dorothy's family had taken her address/telephone book and notified as many people as possible. I know the information in Dorothy's book dated back to when I had my apartment; I'd lived in three different places since then, and was fairly unfindable.

J. said that “Dot,” as she affectionately called her, had developed some difficulty in navigating the stairs at home, so she'd moved into Dorothy's condo to help out, making a bed for her in the living room so she wouldn't have to use the stairs at all. She said that Dorothy had insisted on going Christmas shopping for her family (a daunting task, as she had two brothers and numerous nieces and nephews with too many children to count) in late 2002. On Christmas Day, the two of them drove to at least four family members' homes to celebrate. In retrospect, J. said, it was too much. By January 4, 2003, Dorothy's condition was such that J. had to bring in a nurse to assist her in caring for her friend. The nurse recommended that Dorothy be placed in a nursing home; on January 5, Dorothy was settled into the home and her family came to visit her. On the morning of January 6, she died. There'd been no service, although her niece had held a gathering at her home in Dorothy's honor. J. had been left to settle Dorothy's estate.

Dorothy had been a very special person, J. said, and the time since her passing had been very depressing. She said she'd be very happy to keep in touch with me, and painstakingly scrawled her phone number at the top of the card.

Although I miss Dorothy for what she taught me and for the person she was, and despite my nagging feelings of heaviness and sadness, I can only imagine how difficult her death has been for J. The hopeful, trusting part of me that wants to believe that things like dreams have meaning and purpose imagines that Dorothy was perhaps nudging J. and me into contact, for whatever comfort we can provide each other.

I'll be calling that number very soon. Maybe it'll do us both some good.