Readers, I am lucky in that I've always sought and found refuge with wonderful people in my jobs. At Family Circle, if things were boring reading complaints from readers or if I needed a break for a creative burst, I'd either go to the craft room where Ellie Shrumm was, and sew up a pillow or I'd go to the kitchen to hang with my tiny Czechoslovakian friend Frances Sliwa. At Crown BFYR, my first job in children's books, we had two huge floors of editors. They were fantastic. At this time I worked for Simon Boughton. Nearby were Tracy Gates, Jane Gerver, Anne Schwartz, Janet Schulman, Stephanie Spinner, Kate Klimo, Anne Bobco, Denise Cronin, Isabel Warren-Lynch, Jim Thomas, Mallory Loehr, Melanie Cecka, Karen Hirsch, Becky Terhune, Joan Slattery, Maureen Sullivan, Ruth Catcher, and so many others.
And there was Frances.
If I was 23, she must have been around 60-something. Gray hair, blue eyes, long skirts and loose knit sweaters, she was the young, WASPY grandmother-type down the hall who always had time and space and most of all interest--to listen. I could complain, ask questions, or anything I needed. And she shared her stories, too.
So who was she in the grand scheme of things? Oh, just Phillip Pullman's, Louis Sachar's, Peter Sis's, Suzanne Fisher Staples', and Leo Lionni's editor. You know! Just your average editor. But I tell you something, it wasn't who she edited at all. I mean, yes, those were outrageously fantastic people. But it wasn't about any of them. It was Frances. It was just her calmness, her gaze, her safety. Her love. How could one person have that much to give to some youngster like myself? She did! Who knows if she showed this affection to others. Tell me, everyone! It wasn't just me, was it? Wouldn't it be nice if it was? But I know everyone loved Frances.
When I think of years later when I had my own assistants and interns, I like to think I modeled my own sense of how positive it was for affection to be felt between senior and junior editors--on what I felt from Frances. Anne Schwartz, too, was such an important mentor--fun, feisty, brilliant, always annoyed with something! I truly believe that the two of them were the Yin and Yang of Knopf. (You can't forget how much fun it was to visit Janet Schulman's office, but I grew closer with her later once Frances and Anne had moved on.) Oh, what I'd give to go back for one day to those offices on 201 East 50th Street. Just for the day!
Sorry to ramble. Seeing Frances today brought up so many memories for me. What's more important than my little trip down memory lane is telling friends and loved ones of Frances who have not yet heard much about her, that though she is suffering from the effects of a devastating stroke, she is still completely Frances. She is able to move her left side, including her leg, her arm, and the left side of her face. The heartbreak for her and for us is that right now she cannot speak. She does say a lot with her left hand though. Yes--she held it out to me several times, and allowed me to massage it and put on lotion. When Kate arrived, the hand went right up, and the two of them constantly held on to one another as Kate did her magic--sharing stories with me, being utterly positive, and making her mom feel the love that is so evident between them.
I had been warned on the Lotsa Helping Hands website that Frances cries a lot, and it's true. And thank goodness she does. Crying is a magnificent, expressive way to show feelings of love, frustration, and sadness--all at once. When she recognized me, her beautiful blue eyes crumpled, and her face said everything. It felt like she was saying, "Jill, you came! I'm in here and there's just about nothing I can do to tell you what I want to tell you. So this is it! It's not fair! But I'm glad you came."
Not surprisingly, it was very poignant for me, because I lost my dad suddenly last year, and never had the chance to see him after his fatal episode. I told Frances, "You are alive! You are alive! You made it." We both cried.
But here's the truth: It is very, very hard for her. She's so strong. She has so much she wants to say, and her brain and body aren't ready to let it happen. As I sat in front of her, I realized she hadn't eaten breakfast yet, so I helped her with oatmeal, egg, and apple sauce. She was so feisty. She took each container in her hand, and brought it to her mouth. After a while, I'd ask: Can I use the spoon and help? She would nod yes. There are lots and lots of nods. And she was hungry. Morning, if you're wondering, is a lovely time to visit. I kept wondering if sign language would be useful for stroke victims. Well, of course it would, but . . . .. (People, learn it now!)
When Frances's beautiful daughter, Kate came about an hour into my visit, I was just starting to feel concerned. I had so many questions and Frances couldn't answer them. I felt I needed help. Was Frances tired? Was my endless chatter going to drive her nuts? Was she uncomfortable in any way?
Had it been inappropriate to read her the first two paragraphs of my novel? I realized that writers can really come in and torture Frances if there's no guard there! I said this to her--I said, "Gosh, maybe it's awful!" The I realized I wasn't pitching Frances my novel. I was just trying to share something of myself with her, something else to think about, besides feeling sad and frustrated. I made her laugh a lot. And at those times, I heard her strong voice in there. I told her: "I hear your voice."
I brought in some tea (she liked a taste) French macaroons (she liked the colors) and tiny madeleines (she agreed they were adorable). She looks intently into the eyes of her friends and loved ones, almost like a baby does. I told her she was definitely the prettiest gal in the place. And the truth is that if you go see her, yes, she's thin, and yes, she's very challenged. But she is improving, and she still looks absolutely as beautiful as always. She doesn't look away in sadness or want pity. She stares right at you, as if any moment she will open her mouth and just say: "I'd love a cup of tea. Would you?"
I hope this happens very, very soon, because no one deserves another chance more than Frances.