Brina’s not really gone. She’s just sneaking in a little more reading time.
That was the issue in my favorite Brina-and-David argument of all time. “We had the biggest fight,” she all but whispered into the phone, for fear he would overhear. At dinnertime the night before, they were about to go out for Thai. Brina went into the bathroom for a few minutes; she emerged to find David exploding with accusation: “You were sneaking in a little more reading time!”
Though stunned by his anger, she reacted in her usual calm manner. “David,” she reasoned, “I own the book. I don’t need to sneak in more reading time.”
I almost rolled off the sofa laughing. This was funnier than the time she called to announce, “I’m definitely divorcing David” – that time it was something about the washing machine. I’ve been using the line ever since, most recently in Germany while visiting the family of my friend Steffen Muench, who died unexpectedly in August, at 48 (Personal History, Aug. 27). Steffen’s sister-in-law was translating his eulogy for me, since I had missed the funeral, having been, naturally, on a trip elsewhere at the time. While I waited for the translation, I disappeared upstairs to, yes, sneak in a little more reading time. Later, I sneaked up once again, to read the eulogy and then to check my e-mail, where I found messages from David and their son, Joshua, that Brina had died.
In 2007 the British writer Alan Bennett published a comic novella, “The Uncommon Reader,” that posited what might happen if Queen Elizabeth II suddenly discovered books and became a voracious reader. Over the years, Brina and I had speculated many times about what Her Majesty carried in the purse that was always slung over her forearm – “even on her own boat!” I couldn’t wait to send Brina a copy of the Bennett book, especially after I read the passage in which the Queen, riding in her ceremonial horse-drawn carriage, pulled a small book out of her purse and began reading. I notated the margin: “sneaking in a little more reading time.”
And why not? Brina envisioned a Nation of Readers, so why shouldn’t the Queen of England want to be a citizen? She didn’t care so much about national boundaries. But, much as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a novel about families defined not by DNA but by the happenstance of shared middle names, Brina thought we should recognize an international nation of people who read books, and valued them above most other things in life.
I met Brina in 1984 in a writer’s block workshop at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. She had recently turned 50, and ever after, whenever we spoke on the phone, the picture I saw in my mind was Brina at just that age, with soft cheeks and a head of short black curls just starting to gray. She was trying to write personal essays as part of figuring out what came next in her life; I, at 29, had so little confidence in my ability to write that I was too paralyzed to finish a simple travel story. Neither of us owned a computer. We wouldn’t have seemed the likeliest candidates to develop a friendship that would continue after the group ran its course a couple of years later, but from time to time Brina would call me on the phone. Eventually something clicked.
It took me two years to figure out how her mind worked. Mine is linear in the extreme, while hers operated in a spiral pattern. A conversation would start at Point A, then wind around to points, B, C and beyond, yet it would end up back at Point A every time. Once I understood that I needed to bookmark my brain at Point A, we could have wide-ranging conversations about anything.
Over time, we discovered we had much more in common than we might have thought. We had both been compelled to work in family businesses at an early age by domineering fathers who didn’t necessarily have our interests in mind. We were both a little ashamed of our educations – she for not having finished Barnard, I for having had to settle for less than a brand-name university. We had both wasted a lot of time and energy on disappointing boyfriends before meetings the loves of our lives. “Never marry a man whose face doesn’t light up when he sees you,” she said. I saw David’s face light up many times.
By the end of the writer’s block workshop, that story I couldn’t finish had been the lead of The Boston Globe’s Travel section, the first of many; it is the first chapter of the travel memoir on which I’ve been working these last two years. Later, Brina began to teach writing at the Cambridge Center. I took one of her courses; she took one of mine.
She published relatively little herself, but her guidance and encouragement helped dozens of writers find their own voices – most notably Dorothy J. Irving, who published her delightful memoir of her family’s life in the U.S. Foreign Service, and Thomas Anthony Donahoe, who read an essay in Brina’s class about meeting the children he fathered as a sperm donor that swiftly became a Modern Love column in The New York Times. Perhaps Brina’s greatest contribution to American journalism was her observation that when you’re writing for a morning newspaper, “you’re writing for people who may not have had their second cup of coffee yet.” I used that line many, many times in my 20 years at The Times, and I like to think it’s still floating around the newsroom.
She listened through the inevitable ups and downs of my newspaper career. I listened to her daily analyses of the O.J. Simpson trial and explained to her that the American Dream had less to do with freedom from fear of, say, pogroms than it did with owning real estate. “We have sort of a mother-daughter relationship,” she once told David.
“Who’s the mother and who’s the daughter?”
“Depends what day it is.”
Brina really didn’t need another daughter; she already had three of her own. She often said of Sho: “As long as she’s alive, I ain’t dead.” A few years ago I headed out to Fire Island to see Sho, who had told me how to spot her on the pier: “I look a little more like my mother every year.” She was right. Walking down a street in New York with Josh and Ian some years ago, I was struck by how Josh walked exactly like Brina, leaning slightly back, arms behind him with fingers spread out just the way she walked, and I realized he couldn’t possibly be anyone else’s son. I haven’t seen Sarah or Miriam for quite a few years now, but I suspect they, and Becky and Grace too, have a good deal of Brina in them.
She never divorced David, of course. She did call one Sunday afternoon, circa 1994, to tell me very matter-of-factly, “David almost died last night” – the softshell crab incident – and she was clearly shaken by even the idea of ever losing him. After that, she was watchful whenever he dipped into the popcorn shrimp at Border Café.
Brina was at heart a storyteller, a far better one than I will ever be. It’s her stories I’ll remember most: the ones she typed into a seemingly endless series of Macs; the ones she spoke into one tape recorder after another; the ones I heard over the phone for 26 years. Now, though, words flow from my fingers almost as easily as the stories flowing from her lips. I started writing this on a train somewhere between Berlin and Stuttgart, but not until after I had sneaked in enough time to finish the novel I was reading. Brina would understand. I just wish she had managed to sneak in a little more writing time.