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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"What We Miss" (in memory of Miriam Olson)



what we miss

Often, unfortunately too often, when you make friends you may not truly get to know their companions, wives and husbands. Your attention on the devoted friend makes you somewhat oblivious of the “other.” Certainly that “other” may always be there, but even if you attempt to communicate, they sometimes remain in the background, the way Alice B. Toklas must almost always have been perceived in relationship to Gertrude Stein, or Nora Joyce must have appeared to most who visited her husband. I try very hard not to relate that way with my author’s or my friend’s companions, but it sometimes unintentionally happens.       
      When my dear friend Deborah Meadows married her long-time lover—the word which with she preferred to describe him—Howard, my spouse Howard and I attended a party at their home where I suddenly discovered that he was not, as I had misperceived, someone involved in the film industry, but was a remarkable scientific innovator who had created experimental imagining tools for medical devices. When I talked to his friends at the party and discovered his skills, I felt embarrassed for not knowing this about him.
      I, myself, have been misperceived, at many an art event, as simply Howard’s lover, an individual akin to a gay hairdresser—a career which might have given me much more financial security—or some other ancillary person. That I was a poet, a publisher, a somewhat significant commentator on culture never crossed some of these wealthy art collectors’ minds. We all have blind spots wherein we cannot completely perceive the “other” of our friends’ choices of companions. But it frustrated me at the time.
      Miriam Olson, my author friend Toby Olson’s wife, was never perceived from that perspective. I knew she was an important figure in the world of social workers. And I knew also something about her background, that she had taught at the Yale Psychiatric Institute and Colombia University and teaching at Fordham, before joining the faculty at Temple. But I rarely, in all the long years I knew and visited the two of them—sometimes nightly—truly asked her about what she was doing. Miriam was a force, a radiant, loving spirit, with an absolutely lilting laugh, who simply invited me into their home when she and Toby might have, just as easily—and perhaps should have—sent me back to my own apartment, just a few blocks away from their Philadelphia townhouse. Yet, week after week, they invited me in to share dinner with them, never complaining, Miriam delighted to cook a meal, after a long day at work in the university, as if I was a member of their family.
       It pains me today that, although I always loved Miriam, I seldom asked about her days of teaching or what she was currently working on. While Toby and I groused about the politics of the university English Department, I seldom heard Miriam complain once about her position in the Temple University Department of Social Administration, in which I knew she was a central figure.
       I loved Toby as a writer and friend, and I simply (as if such things are ever truly simple) felt at home in their place, intensively talking with him about literature, university politics, and….just life, while Miriam cooked up delicious meals, and their elderly cat, deaf and unable to even climb into our laps, wandered about the place. I loved that poor cat, picking it up and placing it into petting range. One evening, Toby, author David Bradley, and I, smoking marijuana, got high—or at least I did for one of the few times in my life, much to David’s,  Toby’s and Miriam’s amusement.
      Mostly, Toby, Miriam and I talked about films, about the then popular PBS television series, a literary recounting of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted (a work I now abhor), and other events of the day. I now realize, with somewhat cringing embarrassment, I must have been a terrible intrusion upon their lives; but I was never made to feel that, and Miriam’s laughter and loving personality made me always feel I was more than welcome.
       As I’ve written elsewhere in this My Year volumes, I visited them, as well, in their summer home at North Truro, on Cape Cod. Miriam was even more wonderful in what she describes as “camp Olson,” where Toby took me—a clumsy non-athletic creature—on hiking, biking, and other treks. I fell off a cliff. I shared his efforts at gathering clams and mussels by sinking into the bay. But I survived, ridiculously rising each time to declare “I’m okay.” Although Toby and I scrubbed and cleaned those mussels—a seemingly endless task—it was Miriam who infused them with wine and spices to create one of the most memorable meals of my life, which we shared with Charles and Susan Bernstein, who summered also on the Cape.
      Miriam was a magnificent presence who, I am afraid to say, I took for granted, never quite assimilating the glorious light which she always projected. If I was not always ignorant of that  human lighthouse, I was stupid; I was blind. She was too much like a mother to me—perhaps even to Toby!
      Now hearing of her death, after years of her disabling falls, followed by Alzheimer’s Disease, I can only wish her back into conversation, to talk to her about her personal concerns, her focuses on the health of women in this country.
      In her 1994 collection of essays on women’s health, Women’s Health and Social Work: Feminist Perspectives, Miriam was quite positive, seeing the time as a “period of renewed optimism” if guarded, by the new developments supported by the Clinton administration, and the growing interest in the concerns of the health of women, involving everything from general health care to rape, incest, and other abuses against what she describes as “the other.” 
     Citing changes going back to the 1960s, she argued that issues of women’s health, including those of older women, were improving. The rates in infant mortality and morbidity had improved, but not always for Black women or others of those living in poverty, “inadequate nourishment, sub-standard living conditions, including addiction,” issues that could be prevented. Quoting from Simone de Beauvoir, Olson makes it clear that women have long been perceived as second class citizens, treated through male-centered experiments, and often ignored as a gender unto themselves. Yet, Olson argues, it is not useful to simply understand these concepts as an issue only related to gender, a male/female divide, and that women need to learn from a broader perspective, that “social workers often failed to recognize their own involvement in actions based on problematic gender constructions or to speak on the inequality of women’s health that renders women’s health care less adequate.”  Olson, at end, argues for great advocacy among social workers, in short, an active rather than passive involvement with the social role in which they were involved. It was that active role that she played in life that, I might argue, defined her being.
      One might wonder how she would have responded to the increasing attacks from the right on issues regarding women’s health and rights, including the right’s increasing attacks on abortion, definitions of rape, and other women’s health issues. Just two days ago, former Republican candidate for president, Mike Huckabee, vociferously complained that Democrats were working against women by suggesting that they could not control their “libidos” and sexual activities. I think Miriam, who in her last few days had not been not able to swallow or even drink, might have stood up and screamed had she been able.
      But then, Miriam, always the lovely conciliator, might simply have set him straight: women “in our society are able to do anything, but we do need fair laws to protect us and our health.”
     And she might have laughed, as she did so wonderfully, amused by the world in which she was entrapped.
     I wish I had might have been able to show my appreciation to this woman when I weekly encountered her. I did know, I now realize, but took her gifts for granted. I so sorely miss them.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2014.

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