I’ve been given many reasons to ponder the nature of friendship these past months — a most cherished value, to be a good friend. I certainly haven’t come up with anything new or profound, but this song, Sonya Alone, heard at Dave Malloy’s exhilarating electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, says everything I feel about what a great friendship should be, especially a friendship between girls. It makes me ache each time I hear Brittain Ashford sing Sonya’s heartbreaking aria for Natasha. Listen.
How many birthday cakes does a 9 year old boy need?
One for the football party, 22 boys in the park in the snow playing the game.
One for Jasper’s class party at school to celebrate his birthday.
One for the family birthday at home with his aunts and nonna and because Almond Cake is his favorite.
And lastly, one because he is a Valentine, born February 14, 2004.
So the answer: four cakes for three parties. His sister, Ana Livia Svenvold McPhee, loves to bake and design cakes and she made them all. The last cake was actually donated to her class at school because, really, three cakes were enough.
Recently my daughter read Our Town with her 7th grade English class. From the pages of the book fell an email from my cousin, Charles McPhee, dated 10/08/2009 — one year and seven months, to the day, before he would die of ALS, the illness that had already ravaged him by this point. The email was written with a device attached to his forehead. With the help of that device, painstakingly, he had typed his own quite humorous farewell (“As all of you here today know, I never like to leave a party early ….”) to be read by my father at his funeral. And it was. He was 49 years old. In his 10/8/09 email, speaking of other things, he asked:
do you know the last section of ‘our town,’ where Emily has died and waits with the other dead in the cemetery above Grovers Corners. she decides to re-live a day … and when you get a moment re-read it. it is My favorite description of consciousness.
I read the play then and again today. My daughter has just read it. I had put the email in the book so it would fall out and come to me again, so that he would speak to me again and remind me again and the email goes back into the book now so that I can forget and be surprised and remember all over again — not Charles. I will never forget Charles. Rather the consciousness he speaks of and that he understood as a young man and as a healthy man and as a dying man, and that he still speaks of — one year and nine months, to the day, since he died.
“Yes,” he thinks. “I should never have let myself get out of the habit of prayer.” He turns from the window. One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to understand.
William Faulkner, Light In August