Marion Winik shares the story of her friendship with an unlikely BFF, whose untimely death still makes no sense.
At the time I met him in 1999, my second husband Crispin was renting a little white house on an emu farm in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania. It was on Granary Road, or Grainary Rd, or Grainery Rd, depending on which of its three signs you were looking at. Orthography is a bit of a gamble in South Central Pennsylvania; if no one knows for sure how to spell anything, at least they cover their bets.
One day while Crispin was out shooting hoops in the driveway with his little son, they noticed smoke rising over the hills of the farm next door. Crispin is not much for visiting, socializing or anything else that interrupts one’s reading, but as it became clear that this was not a barbecue but an uncontrolled field fire, he accepted that it was time to meet the neighbors.
It’s always a slow news day in Southern York County, so when there’s an alarm, the hooks and ladders come wailing from every firehouse in the region: Jacobus, Seven Valleys, Glen Rock, Shrewsbury, New Freedom. (I would learn to appreciate this a few years later when a much larger fire was set by my eleven-year-old son Vince, and the combined forces were barely able to extinguish it before it ignited a barn.)
Once the flames were quenched and the engines departed, Chuck Payne invited Crispin in to meet the family properly — his pretty wife, Laurie, their daughters, Sarah and Jessie, the twins, Bobby and Mike. What a surprise when it turned out that Crispin and Laurie had grown up two blocks from each other in Chevy Chase, DC. Crispin was six years older, but they had gone to the same Montessori, and he and his brother Adam had been friends with two of her older brothers.
Perhaps I have begun this account of my friendship with the beautiful and pure-hearted Laurie Payne a few years earlier than strictly necessary but I wouldn’t want to leave out the fire.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Crispin would never have seen the Paynes again, what with all those books to read, but his daughter Emma was the same age as Jessie, and there were porches to be crawled under and kittens to be cuddled, and so when I arrived from Texas as a blushing bride, a friendship was still in place. Though our newly blended family lived not on the emu farm but seven miles south, the connection was reinforced when Vince took up bass guitar and started a band with Bobby, who had just acquired his first drum set. Their guitarist was a good-natured boy named Ryan who wore a puka-shell necklace.
The band was excellent news for me, pining away of loneliness in my big brick house overlooking Forrest, a.k.a. Forest, Avenue. Finally, I was about to get a hamster-sister, running the obstacle course of motherly duties alongside me.
Though I had imagined that parenthood would curtail one’s social life, once I started raising kids in Austin, Texas, in the late 1980s, I realized I was moving as part of a horde, which by the way is the technical term for a group of hamsters. I saw the same moms at the grocery store, the playing fields, at Back-to-School night. Soon my life was full of post-carpool hangouts with these women. It was our alternative to the rat race, lounging around the Habitrail with our chardonnay.
I imagined I would find friends the same way in my new home, but things are different in the country. In the country, kids play with their cousins; carpooling is hard to arrange; the nearest neighbor lives half a mile away. By the time the boys began to have band practice up in Seven Valleys, I was so desperate, Laurie would have needed a crowbar to get me out of her kitchen.
Yet we weren’t an obvious pair. She was six years younger than me, with a pixie haircut, wide, innocent blue eyes, perfect nails and makeup, tailored slacks — like a stewardess from the sixties or a dreamy first-grade teacher. She was Catholic, Republican and pro-life, had married and had her first baby around 20. Maybe in the city we wouldn’t have gotten around all those differences. But out here there was no one who was on the same page as me about anything, or very few, and Laurie was a rare combination of open-minded and steadfast. You could talk to her about anything. You really could agree to disagree.
She often proclaimed to people that we were like sisters, and that made me proud — probably more so than if we had been two peas in a pod. Our friendship had a certain counterintuitive magic. We celebrated holidays together as if we were family, Chuck’s grilled steaks and my Pad Thai side by side.
Laurie was crazy about Vince, couldn’t say enough about how smart and sweet he was, and remained his fan as the hayfield fire gave way to the ski-trip marijuana incident and finally the infamous cemetery desecration, involving thirty-two headstones and 99 Bananas. She was sure Vince had just been hanging around with the wrong people, or that he would soon learn his lesson, or both. Interestingly, her son Bobby managed to be involved in none of these things, more because he was a homebody than a saint.
The boys’ first “gig” was a Battle of the Bands during a PTA Fall Festival Laurie was running at the high school, where she worked an aide. The boys came in fifth, but a prize for fifth place had shown up on the awards table, a sheet cake surreptitiously transferred from the bake sale at the last minute.
We had about three more years together as groupie moms, the two of us a fine little fan club in our 27 Lights tank tops, gingerly swaying to the music due to our various back and knee troubles.
At the time, I was doing a lot of freelance writing for women’s magazines, and Laurie was very proud of this. The first time she appeared as a “case” in one of my articles (an occupational hazard of friendship with a freelance writer) it was in a piece for Brides Magazine about being jealous of your husband’s exes. I explained the premise to her. It had grown out of my own ferocious feelings toward a woman I’d never met, the woman Crispin had been engaged to before I met him. A 23-year-old philosophy PhD candidate, a one-time nude model, this girl was an expert seamstress who designed and sewed jackets. With lining. (I knew this because there was one hanging in my closet.) Furthermore, she was both anorexic and a gourmet cook. In an extreme lapse of judgment, Crispin had described her to me “smart as whip and cuter than is right.”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” she told me when I unloaded all this, though her story was not quite as outrageous as mine. She had met Chuck at 19, working as a hostess in the hotel dining room where he was the chef; she’d fallen for him right away and quickly they became a steady item. A few months later, at his 24th birthday party, an attractive woman made a major entrance, pausing at the top of the stairs until her eyes found Chuck. When Laurie saw the reaction on his face, she’d had to flee the room before she started to cry. It’s Dina, some girls from the hotel explained to her. They went out for like a year before you came along, then she dumped him.
In due time, Chuck was able to convince Laurie that he was over the deadly Dina, and they put her behind them — until a fateful day years later when Laurie came home with a fresh manicure. Chuck picked up her hand admiringly and said something about how sexy a woman’s hands can be. “‘Like Dina’s,’ he said! ‘Dina’s hands were gorgeous!’ Oh my God, I thought I would kill him,” Laurie sputtered. “I didn’t get a manicure for years after that.”
Maybe. I never saw her once without polished, perfect nails, not ever, even in the days when every other bit of her immaculate grooming was out the window.
Later, I wrote another article she helped with, this one for Redbook. It was called The Five Marriage Milestones, and it covered the first fight, the first baby, the first divorce among your friends, the first health crisis and the first time your husband seriously embarrasses you in public. Laurie was the health crisis — her back trouble and chronic pain had now advanced to the point of surgery. In the article, she described Chuck’s reaction to the situation.
“In the weeks before the operation, he sort of went into his cave,” she said. “He was so withdrawn, he wasn’t talking to me at all. It was awful. Finally I asked him what was wrong. ‘I know you’re scared, ‘I told him. And he said, ‘I’m just afraid something’s going to happen to you. What if you die, what if you’re paralyzed?'”
They had weathered the crisis, she went on to say, and had come out stronger.
Good thing, because the real trouble was just about to start.
When our visits began to take place in her bedroom rather than her kitchen, I noticed that the Redbook article was in a frame on her dresser. That surgery hadn’t solved the problem, because the problem was kidney cancer — it had been camouflaged by the back pain. Now, many doctors and hospitals and pain clinics and a couple hundred bottles of Vicodin later, there was nothing to be done.
I helped as best I could. I came over with pot roast and lo mein and spaghetti and meatballs. My mother was dying at this time too, in New Jersey, and my marriage was in freefall. There wasn’t enough chardonnay or Vicodin in the world for what I was feeling, but I was even more addicted to driving in circles from New Jersey to Seven Valleys to Glen Rock, to making lasagna and tossing salads, to somehow taking care of my own children and students in between.
Chuck was a rock-solid hero through this brutal period, holding down the fort, holding everyone together, taking care of his adored wife with focus and ferocity while still commuting to work almost every day. It was great to see his eyes light up when reinforcements arrived, in the form of me and my casserole dish, in his driveway.
On top of everything else, Chuck and Laurie’s 21-year-old daughter Sarah had gotten pregnant and had a baby. This was the same age Laurie had been when she had Sarah. Doubts about this situation had not been encouraged, and it was no time to argue with Laurie. Sometimes when things are complicated, it’s okay if they get even more complicated. Throw a baby into that house and at least you get the joyousness of the birth and the happiness of the young parents, the delighted grandparents, the high chair and rocker and Pack-n-Play along with the pill bottles and IV poles and hospital bed.
I would sit and hold little Ava as long as they’d let me, and Laurie and I would talk about my problems — maybe because I was the one with problems that would actually be resolved, though badly and sadly. “How’s Jane?” Laurie would ask, and I would give her the report on my mother, who in her youth had been a bit of a Laurie herself — the pert, blue-eyed brunette Republican part, anyway. My mother always wanted the update on Laurie too, and for months I was carrying good wishes back and forth across the Pennsylvania Turnpike from one cancer bedroom to another.
As for my marriage, Laurie was really, really worried. She could see very well what Crispin and I were doing to each other, how bad it was for everyone involved, and how profoundly I was falling apart. The more helpless she felt, the more strongly worded her advice to all of us, especially her kids, became. It was unimaginable that she would have to leave us, leave them. Sarah, a new young mother; Jessie, just starting college; Bobby the homebody still finding his way. The last time she left the house was when they took her to Parris Island to see Mike sworn in as a Marine. She went in a wheelchair, and it wore her out beyond imagining.
Finally, we all had to know what we knew.
She was a grandmother at 43, and she died at 44, a couple months after my mom, a couple months before my marriage dissolved in a pool of alcohol and rage. I really was a mess by this time, and Laurie’s various Christian and New Age-y relatives were not thrilled with me, though her mother, an eccentric DC lady of the Watergate era, liked me just fine. I stood near her that surreal, stunned day in the cemetery, the one right next to the high school on Fissel’s Church Road, which is often spelled without the apostrophe.
The boys still have that band, would you believe, more than half their lives now. I still try to go to every show. Last week they threw a crawfish boil out in the meadow at the farm, in the spot where Laurie’s extended family used to make apple butter every fall, in a rough wooden cauldron the size of a Volkswagen suspended over a bonfire.
Chuck was at the crawfish boil with his new fiancee, a pretty blond lady with perfect nails. It was four years of total darkness before that light went on. I know Laurie would be pleased about this. She would be pleased about Sarah’s twins and Jessie’s career as a social worker and Mike surviving the Marines. She would be thrilled to hear Bobby on drums. On the other hand, she would not like at all what has happened to Hannah Montana.
Speaking of which, I do not like having my Oscar parties without her, in fact did not have them for several years, even though she always won all our money with her flawless celebrity knowledge. Maybe it’s because I was so overwhelmed and impaired and attacked on every side at the time of her death, maybe it’s because she was just too young, but honestly I am still trying to let her go. With all the people I have made peace with losing — my first husband, both my parents, oh, don’t get me started — I still struggle with this one. Like a hamster who looks over and sees the chute beside her is empty, and just doesn’t see how it is possible.
“The Story of Laurie” is from Marion Winik’s new short e-book, The End of the World As We Know It: Essays About Motherhood. The book includes essays from the Baltimore Fishbowl, Ladies Home Journal, Oprah Magazine, and the New York Times. The book costs $2.99, and can be purchased at shebooks.