My friend, Gloria
My friend, Gloria, died last week. She was my family’s au pair when I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. She lived with us from before I was born until I was five and then again a few years later. We have stayed in touch my entire life.
It’s embarrassing how little I knew about her. It’s also lovely, though more on this later. I think she was from Maryland, though I could be making that up. I think she was adopted out of an orphanage (also possibly untrue). She came to work for us because my brother, then a toddler, liked her. What wasn’t to like? She was warm and kind and funny. She styled her hair like Rod Stewart. She used to wear roll-on lip gloss from a glass bottle covered in red flowers. I can still smell that gloss if I try. She never kissed you once, but in a series—little feather kisses—like she was snacking on the goodness of a kid (she was). She had a great laugh, a great smile (I think she had a bridge because I remember this little flash a silver whenever she opened her mouth). She could fill a room with her brand of joy and crazy. Children loved her.
In 1980, Gloria got married. We gave her our blue Trans-Am with an eagle splashed across the hood as a wedding present. A few years later she was in a car accident that killed a friend and totaled the Trans-Am. The friend was wearing a seatbelt, Gloria wasn’t, and so for years after—maybe ever since—she refused to wear a seatbelt no matter what car she was in. She was stubborn. Once she had an idea in her head, it could not be dislodged. I remember that wedding. I especially remember my little heart breaking for the first time because she was leaving us and soon we’d be leaving her, moving to NYC. I clung to her for as much of the wedding as I could.
The years passed; we stayed in touch. Then her marriage began to founder. Her husband worked for a cable company but I’m pretty sure he was mafia. He had rolls of cash snuggled into his sock drawer. Unrelated, he was obese and also he was mean.
They got divorced and Gloria moved to NYC to live with us. I was ecstatic. I think she had a fling with our building’s handyman. She’d go to Swenson’s, the ice cream place, and put down 12 scoops in one go (maybe it was 8). She guzzled Mylanta from the bottle—ulcers. She got mugged coming out of a subway station. She hated New York. Her ex-husband lost 300 pounds. He dedicated Phil Collins songs to her like “Against all Odds.” He came to visit, made a memorably cruel comment to me about my late and stunted pubescence, and wooed her back. Gloria returned to Cleveland and they got remarried.
She sent me birthday cards and Valentine’s Day cards and St Patrick’s Day cards. I could recognize her loopy script anywhere. She’d send me pictures of her various pets—she loved animals. She once had a bunny who liked to hang out in her fridge. One time when I was visiting, that bunny charged across the kitchen and bit me. She had several exotic birds over the years who’d eat scrambled eggs out of her mouth. Her favorites were Glenn and Indigo, which is my daughter’s name. This is a coincidence—I’d forgotten about the bird when naming my kid, but maybe on some level I hadn’t. The birds, the pets, were surrogates for the children of her own she never had, but wanted.
Gloria’s health wasn’t great. She had heart trouble and one day made an announcement at the bar she used to go to, something like: I need a husband and health insurance. In return, I will cook and clean for you. Any takers? There was one. A guy she knew slightly from the bar. He agreed to marry her and so he did, on Halloween, a few weeks later. They stayed together for 30 years until the day she died. “The sun rises and sets with Bill,” is what she used to say to me. Are soulmates a real thing? Gloria and Bill seem to suggest yes.
The years went by. She had to have her aortic valve replaced. She had multiple strokes and problems with blood clotting. Her knees were bad. She had congestive heart failure. And still she sent me cards and picked up the phone to call me and forgot my birthday only once in 47 years and this because she was in the hospital.
I still have every single card she ever sent me, including this one, which has followed me from desk to desk for 40 years:
Gloria was a Trumper. She once told me she kept a gun on her kitchen table to defend her home. Her politics were gross to me. Much of what she believed in was gross to me. We almost never talked about it.
Which brings me to what I’ve been mulling over since she died, which has to do with love—a rare and special kind of love—the kind that is uncomplicated. Love for partners, kids, parents, siblings, friends—it’s all powerful and wonderful and also fraught and freighted with judgment, good and bad. But Gloria gave me the chance to experience something different. Something simple and clean, lovely and forever.
When my daughter was born, Gloria made her a blanket and sent her a stuffed animal (I still have the stuffed green platypus Gloria gave me when I was ten—it was my most talismanic possession for years), and quickly she became part of the experience of my parenthood. A few days before she died, I told her I’d keep her memory alive with my daughter and through my daughter. And that I hope my girl can find someone in her life to feel similarly about. It’s a gift I cannot give her, so, as with most things as a parent, I will just have to hope from the sidelines.
Gloria didn’t want a memorial or funeral—“Here today, gone tomorrow” was her attitude—she was very practical and funny, true to herself to the end. And so, having no other way to say good-bye, I will just have to say it here. I love you, Gloria. You’ll always be with me.
As a fellow writer, I can honestly say this is one of the most accomplished pieces I've seen on substack. You brought her back to life.