My friend Dottie died. It happened the day I was mailing her a postcard from Viet Nam. I didn’t find out about her death until a couple days ago, when an email bounced back. I immediately sent another, thinking maybe a spam filter didn’t like my links. It also returned “Undeliverable.” I hoped maybe she changed email addresses and forgot to tell me. That would be easy to do, I thought. While we had mutual affection, I was a newer friend, a long distance pal, not integral to her daily life. But something told me this wasn’t a change of email. I confirmed it immediately with an internet search.
It wasn’t unusual that we would go a month or more between emails. Quarterly updates, in fact, were the “norm.” Friendships ebb and flow throughout our lives, and with my itinerant lifestyle, these long-distance friendships are sometimes stronger. We quell the senseless chatter and focus on the crux of our connection; exchanging what we have in common, leaving out the filler. This kind of relationship can just as easily be called an acquaintance as a friendship. Whatever I was to her, I will always consider her a friend and mentor. And the nature of my friendship with Dottie was long distance, casual, encouraging.
I could never do the kind of justice to Dottie’s character and life as well as her amazing friends. I cried and laughed as I read through online tributes. I knew the only thing I could write, to share with those who already knew her better, was my own words of admiration, of a few of our brief exchanges, and about the poetry that inspired my own.
For tributes to Dottie, please refer to the following:
I first met Dottie in the spring of 2010, at a reading she gave for Green Poets of Santa Monica. I was a fledgling member of the group and wasn’t sure what to expect of this woman whose reading would be accompanied by a jazz trombonist. I knew I enjoyed her writing, smitten already with “Love Poem,” published in Poetry, to which I subscribed.
In a lightning bolt
I see our statue of Buddha
(a wedding gift from Uncle Gene)
which always sat
on top of the speaker cabinet.
When a visitor asked,
“So, does Buddha like jazz?”
you said, “I hope so.
He’s been getting it up the ass
for a long time.”
Source: Poetry (March 2010). http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/238804
I read this poem to my husband the night before she came to our Green Poets group. We laughed and what-if’d late into the night about her, and about “Love Poem.” I paralleled our own friendship and conversations to those of Dottie and her husband. We discussed how we might move on if he died, if I died. My husband fell asleep chuckling over our sad, wondrous, absurd conversation. After a few restless tosses, I got up and wrote a response to “Love Poem” and a few others.
I went to the reading still uncertain about whether I wanted to spoil the writing I loved by adding in some kind of hokey accompaniment. I was hooked immediately, surprised by how much a single instrument (played by Michael Vlatkovich) could really cover the range of tone and voice in her work. And it wasn’t as simple as a read-and-response by the instrument. She anticipated, adjusted and paced herself in response to it as well.
Dottie read from a variety of work, including her collection of Henny Youngman poetry, some poetry for children, and pieces about her late husband, Richard. She was happy that I had my copy of Poetry, and signed “Love Poem” for me.
We later discussed how she wished they would have just used her name as Dottie, instead of Dorothea. We talked about Pennsylvania and exchanged emails.For as crazy-excited as I was over meeting her and asking about her work, she was continuously gracious and even agreed to participate in the Flat Stanley pictures I was taking for a friend’s daughter back in Pennsylvania.
I gave her the response poem I had written to “Love Poem.” I hoped it might be good enough to share with her, even in its rough state. She tucked it away in her vast folder of papers and her own poetry. This would be the only time Dottie and I would ever talk in person.
Our first correspondence came on April 2nd: “Hi, Marla: First chance I’ve had to thank you for the poem and for your cheery good vibes. We both enjoyed performing for such an enthusiastic group. I thought your poem was not only flattering, but very good. You obviously know what you’re doing, and I congratulate you.”
She gave me a suggestion to submit the poem and encouraged my writing. But I never submitted it, clutching it tightly to my breast as a private moment of praise from Writer…to writer.
I left L.A. soon after, with my husband on his next assignment and our friendship grew long-distance. She was one of the first I told about publishing my poem, “Alex” in The Hummingbird Review, and I asked if I could list her among the poets I am “stalking” on my newly formed website. In the fall of 2010, my husband sent a mass email to my mailing list, asking everyone for words about me to present at my 40th birthday party.
Dottie’s response: “Thanks to your invitation to contribute. I only met Marla once, but it was memorable. The occasion was a meeting of the Santa Monica Poetry Group, at Barnes and Noble, about 5 months ago. I was a guest poet, and I performed with my colleague who plays instant trombone responses to my poems. I was a little nervous, but Marla made both of us feel so welcome, and was so gracious, that I soon felt at home. I suspect her friends and family are not surprised to hear this from a relative stranger. She just seems to have that way of making people feel at ease, and I really appreciated it.”
In the spring of 2011, at The Association of Writing Professionals Conference in DC, I made sure to stop by the Poetry table and thanked them for being the first to introduce me to Dottie’s writing through their magazine. I told them I hoped to also read her Henny Youngman poetry there. I emailed Dottie about the encounter and received a quick reply:
“Nice to hear from you, Marla. Happy springtime!…Thanks for praising me to the poetry mag. person at AWP. Incidentally, a good friend of mine (and fine poet), Elaine Terranova, was also there. She is based in Philadelphia; we were at college together…For the past two months, I’ve been kind of crazy-busy, working on a manuscript for possible publication at the request of University of Chicago Press. They had seen me in Poetry Magazine, and liked the stuff. I finally sent them over a hundred poems. At one point, I was so focused on what I was doing that I accidentally tried to light the pen that was in my mouth, thinking it was a cigarette!…There’s no guarantee they’ll accept what I sent, but, as the saying goes, it is an honor to be nominated…So what is keeping you busy? I’m assuming you’re writing, no matter what else. Are you all settled in to your new life?…Do let me know if you’ll be in L.A. this summer. It would be nice to get together.”
No matter what was happening in her life, she always took a moment to ask after my writing, after my life, my travels and hoped, as I did, that we would meet again on my return visit to L.A.
From England in May, 2011 I sent Dottie a postcard of daffodils to commemorate my visit to the cottage of William Wordsworth (yes, I am a weirdo who often likes to take photos of the postcards she sends):
Shortly after my return, I opened my email to her response
“Marla: How cheery to get your lovely daffodil card! It really brightened my day…It’s been a very busy time for me. First there was a two-month stint putting together a manuscript at the request of University of Chicago Press. I may have told you about this…The other busy time for me was the last three weeks, when an old friend from Australia was visiting L.A. with her teenage son… This friend used to be the head of the Beatles’ fan club in Melbourne, and we met ages ago in Philadelphia, when I was working at a book and record store and she came in and introduced herself. It was wonderful to catch up with each other after such a long time. And her kid was very sweet…This coming weekend Michael and I have two gigs in Northern California. One is in Ukiah, at a jazz festival where we’ve been the opening act for about 8 years in a row. The other is at a festival in Sacramento…Forgive me for going on and on about myself. I want to know how you’re doing. Are you finding time to write? Is life good? …Let me know whenever you get a chance.”
She enjoyed the follow-up photos of my time spent in England, and we continued our correspondence after I changed email addresses. I talked about my plans to visit L.A. at Christmastime.
11/21/11: “It would be lovely to see you in Dec. I think I’ll be around. I know we’re doing a performance sometime then in Ventura…Things here are…going…all seems to be OK…Very chilly here…Very Christmassy — already!…Happy Thanksgiving and do let me know how you’re doing and what dates you’ll be here.”
In December, after I arrived in L.A., we exchanged phone numbers by emails and made arrangements for dinner at Spitfire Grill at the Santa Monica Airport. I would pick her up in my rental car. I got behind on our first planned dinner date of the 20th and had to reschedule. By Thursday, our rescheduled day, I had a sore throat. Uncertain whether it was allergies or getting sick, I decided to postpone one more week, and combine our dinner with having her to meet my husband. I had spoken of her so much, he was also looking forward to meeting her. We planned to get together the following week, between Christmas and New Year’s.
On Christmas Day, my aunt died. We flew home that week to get back for the funeral, never getting to our re-scheduled dinner date. We talked about getting together in February, when I would come in for the Southern California Writer’s Conference, but I ended up not spending time in L.A., only in San Diego for the conference. Her last email to me ended:
“Maybe it will work in Feb. Keep me posted.”
Two days ago, my VietNam emails bounced back. Our relationship slipped away as quietly as it began, as softly as it progressed. She had more impact on me, in her writing and her encouragement, than she will ever know. I hope some of you might take the time to read the beautiful tributes in the links above, read her poetry, and get to know this wonderful writer, her fabulous humor and strong voice..