Fifty-four years ago today the world gained a joyful citizen, the radiant Elizabeth Ann O’Leary. Unfortunately for the world and for all of us who loved Beth, she moved on ten years ago, just shy of her 44 birthday.
A few weeks ago on the tenth anniversary of her death, I visited her grave and left a few poems. I’m posting them today on her birthday rather than on her death-day, because I can’t mark her free spirit with anything less than celebration.
We met at a gardening lecture twenty years ago, a month after I had moved from Maryland to Michigan. She was also a transplant, a native of Chicago’s southside. Over the buffet line we exchanged a what-the-hell-are-we-doing-here look and that, as the line from Casablanca goes, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I was drawn to her from the first because she made the Michigan suburbs feel less confining. She was an eccentric, an original, a nonconformist, a bohemian Auntie Mame. Like Mame, her enthusiasms were infectious. I loved sitting in her kitchen with a cup of tea as she pulled out the latest CD she was listening to or herbal remedy she was taking or the bargain dress she had found at T.J. Maxx. She was a voluble talker, but an intense listener as well. She would listen as if every word went straight to her soul.
With her milky skin and brilliant eyes and slightly irregular teeth, her beauty was of the Irish variety. Irish too was her sense of fun. When she laughed, which was often, she leaned back with the weight of her merriment or forward towards her companion, often too close. She had no respect for the accepted boundaries of personal space. Nose-to-nose or forehead-to-forehead she delivered her asides and confidences sotto voce with vaudevillian zest.
I thought about her penchant for close talking the other day when I watched my daughter and her best friend snuggling together on the couch, leaning head to head, legs and arms draped over each other as they laughed and whispered and shrieked. When do girls unlearn this intimacy, I wondered, remembering my own girlhood chum Peaches. When do they grow wary of the physicality of their friendships? Probably around the same time girls learn to reign in their bodies and voices, to not be so loud and wild, to dress for boys and not scare them off. Beth never unlearned herself. Girlish in the best sense, that was Beth. She moved through the world like a schoolgirl loose in the halls, her crazy bush of red hair expressing all the wild energy just barely contained in her tall, slender form.
We took an Irish set dancing class together once. As soon as the instructor told us that the movements of set dancing were tight and close, the dance having originated in small Irish kitchens, I should have hauled Beth out. She was far too exuberant for tiny spaces. Sure enough, the first time she swung a new partner, the woman cradled her wrist like Beth had broken it and said, “Ow! You hurt me!” Beth was momentarily mortified, but on the way home we couldn’t stop laughing about it, especially after we saw her chiropractor hopping around in a clogging class downstairs.
The poems I put at her grave on September 2 all came from a book she revered called Anam Cara by Irish poet, philosopher and priest John O’Donohue. “Anam cara” is Gaelic for “soul friend.” What I love about the concept of anam cara is that death doesn’t divide friends of the soul. (You can read more from O’Donohue about anam cara here.)
The first two poems are more accurately described as blessings. Of blessings O’Donohue wrote this: “A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen. . . It is a gracious invocation where the human heart pleads with the divine heart. . . When a blessing is invoked, a window opens in eternal time.”
The last poem is by 13th century Persian poet Rumi. When I came across it in O’Donohue’s book, I recognized my own anam cara. It speaks to me of Beth’s love of life. It reminds me how much I loved her.
Some nights stay up till dawn.
As the moon sometimes does for the Sun.
Be a full bucket pulled up the dark way
of a well, then lifted out into light.
Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.
Someone fills the cup in front of us.
We taste only sacredness.
Happy Birthday, sweet Beth.