It’s been a sojourn of mortality, this couple of weeks. A dear friend in L.A is helping the wife of her ex, who is also dying of colon cancer himself, to pass. The wife had both lungs transplanted ten years ago, and it's time. The ex is in no condition to do anything. I think two things—a: you're never really divorced when there are kids involved, and b: some people are too good for this world. The wife walked out of the hospital the day I arrived in NY—Against Medical Advice—and has refused any and all treatment since. Somehow she is hanging
on, actually making plans for when *he* "gets better."
AND—so long as we're on the topics of courage, love, human nature, loss, grief, hope...um...each one of them a book the size of War and Peace of course...
My oldest and best friend was a kid named Andrew Blaine Offerman III. His father was a fine portrait photographer, all black and white chiaroscuro in the manner of the Canadian Yousuf Karsh. Andrew Offerman Jr. was my surrogate dad while I was growing up and my own father was too busy holding down two (and sometimes three) jobs. I spent countless wonderful hours in his darkroom; he taught me everything I know about photography, and a lot about life as well. His wife, Andy's mother, was Ginny. Virginia. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and I remember her from before kindergarten, from when Andy and I used to play under her kitchen table in their little apartment above the studio.
Ginny worked in the studio every day, and was especially expert at coaxing the best from the children they photographed. She was a wonderful mother to Andy and his two younger brothers. The middle brother married my high school girlfriend and is today the world's leading authority on some particular peculiar sort of algae. You could look it up.
I discovered, when I was thinking of putting the boys into
a Waldorf school, a Rudolf Steiner school, that young Andy
had put all four of his boys (there had never been a girl
child born in the family, believe it or not, until Andy
III's sixth or seventh grandchild, new-born just a couple
weeks ago)...had put all four of his boys into the
*original* NYC Steiner "country school," not far from my old home town.
On a visit back home, long after Andy's dad had died in
the same month as my mother, I visited the school with
Ginny, who had become a board member there. She was in her
early seventies at this point, and it was the longest period of time we'd spent together in years. It so happened that the oldest living Waldorf teacher, trained by Rudolf Steiner himself, was visiting the school that day. He was, I think, in his mid-nineties at the time, and he proudly told me that even his first students were in their nineties. I happened to have a video camera, and I shot a long conversation between him and Ginny—a precious historical document when you think about it—on the first of May that year. And I also shot the school's May Day celebration. I've never edited those dailies.
Ginny was the first female college graduate I'd ever known,
other than my teachers of course. She taught me to swim. All the kids always gathered at her house because she had a
pool, a big yard, and she was the mom who, we thought, had
invented s'mores. By the time I was a boy scout, at the age of eleven, I had probably eaten more dinners at her house than my own.
But also, by the time I turned eleven, things had grown
more complicated, as they usually do. Ginny was no longer
"pretty" to me in a "mom sort of way." She had become the
stuff of my fervid adolescent imagination. She was the first woman I had ever seen in a bikini.
We were at boy scout camp. There was a kid there from the
city named Herman Bieber. (I have always thought his name to be too ironic for words, but there you are). One day Herman Bieber announced to us that he was the "President of the Dirty Club" back home. He had a trunk full of magazines like Swank and Argossy, pretty tame stuff by today's standards, but extremely heady reading (sic) for a couple of tenderfeet like Andy and me back then. As we perused his treasures, Herman Bieber proceeded to illuminate for us the ways of the world (if I may borrow the phrase) as he repeatedly threw his (illegal) bayonet into centerfolds tacked to a nearby tree. Herman Bieber has no doubt grown up to be a very peculiar psychopath, but that is neither here nor there.
I distinctly remember the two of us talking it over back in the tent: Andy said to me "My dad would never do that to my mom." And I was thinking "Of course he would. And so would I!" I was always just a little bit ahead of Andy. It was my idea to start our folk/blues duet. I got the idea from
Ginny, who'd loaned me her old Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston records. She bought us our performance wardrobe, drove us to gigs until we were old enough to drive ourselves. One summer, on her nickel, we saw Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carlos Montoya, Ian & Sylvia, Josh White, and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as the Boston Symphony.
Ginny reacted with total calmness the night I called her from the road. We were coming home from a performance at WRGB in Schenectady, Andy was driving, and we'd been rear-ended in her brand-new Oldsmobile convertible, but she trusted me, as ever, to take care of her first-born and myself. We got hustled by a small-time Justice of the Peace at two A.M. and ended up paying a fine for making an improper left turn.
Ginny was the captain of the ski patrol. She taught Water Safety Instruction at the district level and probably trained 2000 lifeguards in her time. She had the most amazing legs, and she *always* wore skirts and heels to work, so she was constantly down on the floor with those kids, half in and out of her skirts and blouses ALL the time. It was, you understand, paradise for the boy who was to become a professional voyeur.
That day at the Steiner school, so comfortable in each
others' mature company, Ginny told me for the first time
about how she and Andy, as newly-weds, had lit out for
Hollywood, pulling everything they owned in a little
Airstream trailer behind them. They photographed America as they went, and their pictures provided an income for decades, as calendar companies and greeting card companies published their iconic images. You've seen them, I'm sure: California redwoods. The Grand Canyon. Cornfields in Iowa, the streets of San Francisco.
They'd no sooner reached LA than Andy developed testicular
Cancer. They returned to the Hudson Valley and miraculously had the three boys, Hollywood dreams forever deferred. Andy spent the rest of his life photographing Hudson Valley wildlife—particularly white-tailed deer—with an old Nazi-era Arriflex he bought. It was the most beautiful camera I'd ever seen, and its pictures *moved*. I remember watching his mostly-completed film on the life cycle of deer the week both he and my mother died. Ginny did the narration because she had a flair for the dramatic.
I felt compelled to tell her that day about how, in a very significant way, Andy had never really died. The things he taught me I have myself passed on to my own apprentices and assistants over the years. His work and his life had defined my own. Tears welled in her eyes and she said:
"Oh River, will you marry me?"
We laughed, I perhaps more than she because of this lengthy backstory I've just related. She invited me to spend the night at her place, since my brother and I had had an argument about something or other. She gave me one of Andy's jackets, brand new still, even after all these years. At one point, after we'd watched the Steiner video, she asked: "Would you like to see my knees?" I was a bit flabbergasted as she lifted her skirts to reveal two surgical scars. She quickly leapt to her feet, still athletic, and returned with the x-rays of her knee replacement surgeries. It was like I had fallen into the pages of some sort of bizarre storybook, and my dreams that night were lucid.
I asked my brother the day I arrived home: "Have you seen Ginny?"
"I think she died, didn't she?"
Next day I visited the studio. They've gone digital, of course, and everything's a little duller, a little less vibrant, if totally in "living" color. Andy and his wife Barbara were delighted to see me, in spite of the fact
that—I swear to god—his cousin, Ginny's sister's child, had been murdered by her insane husband just the day before. The man then turned the gun on himself. I'd read about it in the paper, but at that point their identities hadn't been revealed.
"So how's mom?"
"Not so good," Andy said. "She'd totally blind now, and living up in Pine Haven. It won't be long."
Well, I was glad to know she was still with us.
Patricia, my sister-in-law, and I decided to visit Ginny two days ago. We found her—blind and deaf in a wheelchair—the tiniest shadow of herself. "Just wake her," said the nurse. "That's what we do, any time of the day or night, for her medicine."
We walked around for a while, visited the infirm mothers of
a few other people we know. We thought we'd give Ginny a
little time to awaken naturally, but by the time we'd gotten back to her room, no, there she was, quiet, head bowed. Tiny. So tiny.
I knelt. Touched her gently, calling her name. Shook her a
little harder. She was wearing a skirt, still.
"Ginny?" said Patricia. "It's riverrun. Come to see you
all the way from California."
Ginny's nose crinkled the tiniest bit, and she fell back into
whatever place time has taken her.
We're going back today, because this is the way we are, and
this is the true way of the world.