This is a picture of my cousin Pam (and me, holding on for dear life) on my grandfather’s horse, at the annual Easter reunion on my grandparent’s farm, a million years ago.
When I was 11 years old, Pam taught me the Bus Stop Hustle and now, whenever I hear the song, I’m transported back to her den, following her lead as we stepped, twirled, and bumped, humming off-key under our voices.
I loved spending time with her as a kid. She was bold and fearless, doing triple somersaults on her trampoline in preparation for dive meets, shooting skeet, tumbling after her brothers like a puppy in a wolf-pack. When she bestowed on me hand-me-down mini-skirts and white denim bell-bottoms with vertical stripes composed of Union Jacks, I wore them like a badge of honor, as if her spunk could rub off on me – and they were the coolest clothes in my closet, until I grew bigger than her.
As we grew older, she continued to be fearless, standing up to her mom – to a certain extent – in ways I was afraid to stand up to mine. And when I was a debutante, she did her best to make me feel welcome, introducing me to her friends and to grasshoppers, a drink that felt elegant and sophisticated and was too sweet to encourage me to drink to excess. As tiny as she was, she was always larger than life, with a booming voice, a wild vocabulary, and a capacity for fun that was irrepressible.
Later her large life continued, with a wild wedding which, after decorum satisfying to her mother, ended with a sudden departure on a boat, her tiny garter wrapped around her husband’s forehead, cutting off circulation to his bald spot. At some point, in all this, I became aware of her chronic knee problems – a legacy of her sporty early life – but they didn’t slow her down and I didn’t pay much attention. While I was busy settling down to a desk-job, she and her husband boldly moved to Alaska and eventually back to Miami. I saw her from time to time at family events but she missed my wedding when her car broke down on the way to the airport, she said.
After her mother died, I took a couple of comp days after a conference in Orlando and popped down to visit her. We went to Parrot Jungle and let Lemurs crawl all over us because, she said, she had done that with her mother and the two of them had loved it. After a relationship of battles, I was happy that she had one positive memory of being with her mom. This may have been the trip where she told me that she had given up drinking, just to prove to her skeptical older brother that she could.
On later trips, we took an airboat through the everglades and met a man who had known our grandfather back in the day. I would never have known except that she, never afraid, struck up a conversation with him and pulled it out of him. We played scrabble in her back yard with her neighbors, and I was impressed by the friendships she had built within her community – someone told me that they had nicknamed her The Mayor. On another night, she slipped out back for a goodnight cigarette and then popped her head back in and silently motioned me outside. I wondered if there was a prowler or a problem with her house and was pleasantly surprised when she pointed out a tiny cardinal sleeping in the hedge, the only motion an almost imperceptible rise and fall of its delicate chest.
On another trip, we went to Key West. The trip down was great but, as we wandered about, a tension grew and the evening ended with a raucous drunken drag show, which I left precipitously, telling her I’d meet her back at our room. After that evening, I didn’t move forward with a trip we had discussed to Newfoundland and she didn’t mention it either.
I reached out again the following year – could we get together for lunch? I ended up spending a delightful couple of hours with her husband instead because she was having a bad day and hadn’t made it out of bed. There were other days that she hadn’t made it out of bed – after bad nights, where she hadn’t slept. She and her husband searched for an answer – some doctors, she said, diagnosed heavy metal poisoning. Others, she said, diagnosed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a diagnosis she fought because she didn’t like the idea of being a slave to a disease without a cure. She cursed her birth mother for refusing to share her medical history with her and the brother she had discovered by chance one night, bartending.
She came to New York once, and played with the idea of moving to town. That may have also been the trip when she confessed that she had envied my courage when I’d moved to New York. Planning our trip I wondered if I dared suggest something I really wanted to do because it seemed so nerdy, so square – and then was delighted when she said, “Can we do something really dorky and go to the Tree Frog exhibit at the Museum of Natural History?” That was her all over – always revealing unexpected interests and talents.
When my husband adopted our new cat, who shared her name, I texted her to let her know. “I bet she’s a feisty broad with a big mouth and a wicked look in her eye,” she responded. And she is.
I’m always nervous when I get together with someone I haven’t seen in years – maybe I won’t recognize them or we won’t have anything to talk about. It was a delightful surprise when I saw her for a weekend last October, at a milestone birthday party for a relative. She was quieter than usual, more grounded. And then we fell out of touch again for a few months.
When I spoke to my mom one Thursday in November, she told me that she’d received a call out of the blue that morning and had spent a wonderful hour on the phone with my cousin, and that talking with Pam always cheered her up. I was stuck on a bus that night and a train the next and exhausted over the weekend. But I added calling Pam to my list of things to do the next week.
But it was too late to make that call. Pam died, alone, over that weekend.
Many people will remember her for being a feisty broad with a big voice and wicked look in her eye. They’ll remember her larger-than-life, in-your-face attitude. Maybe they’ll remember how annoying that could be, as when we were in Key West.
I’ll remember that side of her, too. I’ll also remember how she noticed that tiny cardinal, sleeping gently in the hedge behind her house, and how she had so pointed it out to me, softly-voiced to keep from waking it. That was the Pam I loved spending time with. The Pam who loved dorky tree frogs. The Pam who shared my love of reading quirky books. The Pam she didn’t reveal to everyone.
RIP, Pam. I’ll miss you.