IT WAS A STORY I KEPT TRYING to find a way to tell and couldn’t. Except I could tell it, and told it over and over again to my friends, my rabbi, my children, and my husband. But even as I told it, I didn’t understand it myself. Except that’s not accurate, either. I knew what had happened and even, to some extent, why. I had some inkling about what motivated the various parties, what had primed them to make the decisions they did—bad ones, as far as I could tell. But who was I to judge? To say I might have done better?
But it’s all so complicated, and my own role almost nonexistent. But that’s not entirely accurate either, as I was there for all of it, a witness with an insider’s perch, though it wasn’t until my friend died the way she died, and lines were drawn, that I became aware of my own privileged role.
Well, I’ll cut to the chase. My friend was killed in a freak accident. She’d taken her bike to Saint Francisville for one of her regular excursions—she liked to get out of Baton Rouge and bike up and down the deeply shaded hills. As she was cycling up a steep incline, her bike hit a snag. A flat tire, a slipped derailleur? She decided it would be easier to fix it at the top of the hill and began to walk her bike up to where a companion—she almost always took a friend on her excursions—was waiting for her. She was a stickler for bike safety, so it was odd that she stayed on the same side of the road she’d been peddling on, with the flow of traffic. Traffic isn’t heavy in East Feliciana Parish, but it was unlike her nonetheless.
She was run over. I always imagine it was a pickup truck, but it could have been anything. The driver, apparently, simply didn’t see her. Did the driver stop? I don’t know. She was airlifted to the nearest hospital, but she was already gone. Someone told me she died on impact.
How was she the best friend I’d ever had? When my eldest son was married in 2014, in Jerusalem, she flew from Baton Rouge to Chicago, and from Chicago to Tel Aviv, and when she got to Tel Aviv, she was delayed for an air raid. The Gaza War was winding down, but rockets were still regularly being fired from Gaza into Israel. When she finally arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem, she was brimming over with tales of the new friends she’d made in the air raid shelter. The point isn’t that she possessed a remarkably infectious enthusiasm for just about everything, but that she’d showed up to begin with. This for an occasion that my own siblings—put off by the headlines of bombings and airstrikes—didn’t attend. “Jennifer and I are cousins,” she’d explain when anyone asked about her connection to our family. Sometimes she’d put it slightly differently: I can hear her voice in my head now: “I’m Olivia, Jennifer’s cousin.”
She wasn’t, of course. It was her short explanation of the complex and attenuated way we’d become chosen family. Olivia was about as high-Wasp as anyone I’d ever met, with her undergraduate degree from Smith and, before that, her four years at an all-girls boarding school in Pennsylvania, where she claimed she’d learned a song called “We Are Anglicans.” She loved to regale us with it when she came over for Shabbat:
——We are Anglicans.
——We’re C of E.
——We’re not Catholics.
——We’re not Methodists.
——Anglicans are we.
My husband and I had a wonderful old house in Baton Rouge’s Garden District, not far from LSU, where both he and Olivia were on the faculty—my husband as a professor of law and Olivia as a professor of English and linguistics, with a specialty in early medieval law and languages. She spent so much time at our house and was such a part of our routines that she started putting me down as her next of kin on various forms, and soon after started introducing herself as my cousin. It was a bit of a shtick, but it got to the heart of the matter. She took our kids to LSU baseball and basketball games, came by unannounced for dinner, and on two separate occasions moved in with us. She saw us at our ugliest, at moments that, when I look back on them, and my role in making things worse, I cringe.
Then my husband took a position at Rutgers, and we moved to New Jersey.
In Israel, a wedding is an ongoing affair. There are celebratory dinners before and after. I’m not much for socializing, especially serial celebrations (where I tend to eat and drink too much and then feel queasy), but this was for my elder son, who had just been in the thick of things in Gaza as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, and we just kept thanking God that he had made it to his chuppah alive and well. One night after dinner, when my son’s new mother-in-law asked Olivia how we were related, Olivia said: “Do you see any of Jennifer’s siblings here?”
And that’s how it was. She was a steady, unjudgmental, constant, and consistently down-to-earth mother, sister, somewhat older friend. She was also, frequently, my fourth child, as she’d lost her own mother when she was in college. In some ways we were each other’s mothers. I was not raised without love, but my three siblings and I were set up to compete for our father’s notice and approval. The one who made his heart shine was my older sister, who got there first and was most like him. Then I came along, a disappointing second girl who even in infancy took after my mother’s side of the family, and that was that. Then Olivia fell into my life and, though she drove me crazy in large ways and small—unlike me, she was unable or unwilling to slice and dice every jiggle and wiggle of human behavior by analyzing root causes and family dynamics—like a steadfast, unwavering, and endlessly available parent, she was always there for me.
But a year after our son’s wedding, she was dead. The person I counted on for a steady stream of unpretentious, undramatic, and bullshit-free love and support was gone. Just gone. And that’s when the drama began.
Olivia grew up in a wooded section of McLean, Virginia, the same suburb where my parents chose to raise their four children. At that time, McLean was mostly countryside: woods, farmland, fields, horse barns, rolling country roads, ponds and streams and brooks we played in and skated on. But I didn’t know Olivia then. She was eight years my senior, and her widowed father had not yet married the divorced mother of my childhood best friend. I met Kim when I was four. My mother brought me and my brother to her house because she had some business to conduct with Kim’s mother. I still remember our face-off, me and my brother David against Kim and her brother Chaz, in the astonishingly neat and clean playroom off the kitchen.
In the first grade we were enrolled in the same day school, and though Kim and I were in different classrooms, come recess we spent every moment together. In the second grade we were in the same class, and having Kim by my side all day long was magic. Third grade, ditto. Then fourth grade came along, and things began to go dark. Kim and I were still friends, but where she buzzed among the pretty and popular girls, I felt myself relegated to lower social strata. My home life had given me a growing conviction that I was second-rate and unlovable. Also, my Jewishness, which I’d never particularly felt before, now seemed to me to set me apart, adding to my weirdness.
I don’t mean to imply that I was subjected to anti-Semitism. On the whole my classmates and their parents were open-minded, liberal-leaning members of Washington’s governing classes: lawyers, justice department officials, secondary school and college administrators, scientists with labs at the NIH, many of them with deep pockets full of old money. There were also spooks, only we didn’t call them that. What we knew was: “So-and-so’s dad works in the foreign service.”
Olivia came from just such a family, with a father who went into the CIA directly from Yale and a mother who gamely went along, all in service to the country, a deep sense of noblesse oblige. The second of four, Olivia was born in East Germany and as an adult spoke fluent German (along with many other languages). By the time she was embedded in our family, her father had long since retired, first to take care of his dying wife (Olivia’s mother) and then because he had no need to earn an income. The family’s wealth harkened back to Standard Oil. How much was left? From the looks of things—the ski house in Vermont, the graceful house in McLean, vacations, private colleges—there was plenty.
Kim’s father, from a similar background, was a museum director. When his marriage to Kim’s mother ended, he bought a large house in Georgetown and filled it with beautiful things: art, Turkish rugs, gorgeous fabrics, early American furniture. Kim’s mother remained in the family house in Virginia, where she carpooled, played tennis, and kept horses. Beyond the stables were acres of wide-open fields and woods. It was gloriously, breathtakingly lovely.
Being a Jew among Wasps was my normal life, so I didn’t think much of it until I got to college, where there were all kinds of Jews, including the kind who grew up in Jewish neighborhoods, or at least in towns where there were other Jews, talked with their hands, and had distinctive accents from the Jersey shore, Queens, and Brooklyn.
To this day I don’t understand what my parents could have been thinking when they moved us to suburban Wasp paradise. Or when they doubled down by sending us to a private, English-style day school. It wasn’t just the Christmas play and Monday morning assemblies with the Lord’s Prayer and viciously conducted field hockey games. There was something about the unspoken culture of the place that was foreign to me. Though I was never openly rejected, I wasn’t part of things and felt that I never could be.
Ah, but we all grew up anyway, with weddings and babies and visits back and forth, and Kim and I, who over the years had less and less to talk about, remained steadfast if infrequent friends. Around the time I moved, with three children, to Baton Rouge, she and her husband settled in Geneva, Switzerland. My tie to Kim’s family—which had long since become a blended stepfamily where everyone got along pretty well—was now through Olivia.
Olivia’s dad, Kim’s mom, the many siblings—over the years I saw and spent time with all of them. So when everything went bad and I began to talk about it, to tell stories and ruminate, various friends suggested that what I had was a novel-in-waiting. My role would be as narrator, the outsider/insider Jew who has seen things unfold from the beginning. I’d be like the Jack Burden character in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Or perhaps a better model would be Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, with its story of the passionate childhood friendship of two girls from the same impoverished Naples neighborhood, and how that friendship forms the basis for all that came afterward. I thought of other, possible models: The long, comic tragedies of I.B. Singer. Philip Roth’s magisterial American Pastoral, in which the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, goes from being an active “I” to disappearing completely in the service of the story.
But before I’d put a single word down, I kept getting caught in the thickets: would I start with my own early memory of meeting Kim and her brother in the playroom? Or the kitchen of the house where Olivia had grown up—where, after Kim’s mother married Olivia’s father, Kim and her siblings moved into the bedrooms formerly inhabited by Olivia and her brothers? Or with Kim’s post-college years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa? Or, like Ferrante, in the aftermath of our friendship, after all the decades had been played out and the narrator comes to understand that for years she’d been loving a ghost? Was Kim a ghost, or merely not what I’d thought she was?
More urgently, what is permitted to be said, and by whom? What do you owe to the people you love, or once loved, or who might, despite all outward signs, still love you? What would make me, as writer, the arbiter of narration? Who among us doesn’t live in a glass house?
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, as its subtitle indicates, tells the story of the dissolution of a once prominent and wealthy family of Hanseatic merchants. Thomas Mann based the novel on his own family, setting in the northern German city of Lubeck, where indeed his father had presided over a sprawling network of warehouses, granaries, and shipping routes, and where his home was an ornate mansion.
In this variation of the story, I’d start with the filthy-rich ancestors of both families—Olivia’s as well as Kim’s—and leave the Jewish narrator out of it entirely. Like Mann’s, this would be a straight-up family saga, starting in that gorgeous old house of Kim’s childhood with its chintz curtains and furnishings, its perfect sunlight, its fields and forests. The pool where, as little girls, Kim and I took private swimming lessons. The dining room hung with oil portraits of stern ancestors. The tack room, with its smell of oiled leather, horses, and warm hay.
The divorce and a brief period of austerity follow, until Kim’s mother marries Olivia’s widowed father, and there’s another set of sun-streaked rooms, another long dirt road to the driveway leading through the horse fields to a bend where another lovely old house sits atop a rise, surrounded by old-growth gardens, entered through a side door that gives onto a mudroom filled with the family’s boots and jackets.
And then Kim and her two full siblings—with varying degrees of angst and misery—grew up and made their way into the world as best they could. Only by now the pile of money that had floated their family’s lifestyle was thinning. Then Kim’s father got sick and died, just shy of eighty. At his funeral, in Washington, I sat in the pews of the austere and chilly Episcopalian church feeling more self-consciously, Jewishly Jewish than I had since day school. A week later, Kim and her siblings discovered that their father had disinherited them in favor of his second wife and her son. Years later, Olivia’s father died, leaving Olivia’s elderly stepmother, who was suffering from dementia and could no longer live on her own, a widow.
By then I’d known Olivia’s father for more than forty years, and his wife and stepchildren for more than fifty. My husband and I attended his funeral, and afterward, while we were in the kitchen of his home, drinking coffee, his will was read aloud behind the closed doors of his study. Afterward, Kim told me that her mother was to inherit the entirety of his estate until her own death, at which point Kim and her two siblings were each to inherit a sum much smaller than what Kim had expected. His own four children—Olivia and her brothers—were to inherit the lion’s share.
Funny that with the passing of the decades, as Kim and I went from playing with dolls to riding horses through the woods to talking about sex to going to each other’s weddings, and later, when Olivia, who I had known only as Kim’s considerably older stepsister, came over to dinner in Baton Rouge and basically never left, I became a thread that wove through all the chapters of this singular family’s story. And me, a Jew!
Though there wasn’t an anti-Semitic cell in the entire clan, there was always this indefinable something that they had and I didn’t. It was more about old-money blue-blood class and style than about religion or ethnicity per se.
Nor did I know enough about Judaism to know what it was I did have. Then I did. I studied and read and learned how to speak Hebrew and traveled to Israel and even had an adult bat mitzvah, in Baton Rouge, with Olivia in attendance. And so I became proud of being a Jew, a Jewish Jew with Jewish hair and a Jewish penchant for talking with my hands, worrying about rising anti-Semitism, and throwing Yiddish expressions around.
Even so, how proud I was—and still am—of my years and years of fitting in with the goyim, with this one particular family of decent, well-educated, liberal-leaning ur-Wasps from the oldest old money that America has produced. I was the Jew who broke the mold, who was part of the family, who was Jewish but not to the extent that it mattered.
Mainly I loved and relied on Olivia to be my steadfast and funny friend (and funny she was), as once I’d loved her stepsister, whose friendship I still enjoyed, although as time went on, at a greater and greater remove.
You know what’s coming, right? But I didn’t. I would never have dreamed it possible. But there it was: Kim and her brother, though not their older sister, sued to have their stepfather’s will overturned. Apparently the will was drafted in such a way as to permit a semi to drive through it. It may have helped Kim and her brother’s cause that their mother was so far gone in her dementia. Apparently she was put on the stand and, according to Olivia, testified that the moneys inherited from Olivia’s father were primarily intended to help support her own children. Olivia became despondent with impotent rage. If they were so hard up, why hadn’t her stepsiblings simply asked for a greater share? Why had they gone straight to a lawsuit? She felt slapped, betrayed. They all did.
To this day I don’t know how much money was at stake. Though Olivia’s family had once had great wealth, Olivia herself lived in a modest cottage in a leafy Baton Rouge neighborhood, and as far as I know, two of her three brothers lived even more quietly. Only the eldest, who’d made his own fortune, lived in a big apartment on the Upper East Side. All this I knew only from Olivia’s descriptions, but there was no reason not to believe her. She wasn’t even good at white lying, which was a problem if you asked her if you had gained too much weight to wear your favorite red dress.
And just like that, it was done. The stepfamily that for decades had done well together, the grown children tending to each other as well as both parents regardless of biological kinship, was fissured. In a way, I was the last bridge. Kim was my oldest friend, and though I was on Olivia’s side in the dispute, Kim and I had no quarrel, nothing but a friendship that had outlasted itself, and why not? We were four, and then we were forty-four, and fifty-four. Olivia didn’t like it, but said she understood.
After Olivia died, for months I couldn’t stop crying. It was as if I’d lost my own mother, except that I’d already lost my mother. When my mother died, I felt a mixture of relief, sadness, and a feeling that I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t grieving properly, wasn’t feeling the great empty hole in my heart, the ripping of the fabric of the universe, that I was supposed to feel. My mother had a huge personality. Whenever I was with her, I felt my own self shrivel up into a hard, ugly ball of anxiety, self-doubt, and resentment.
My mother loved being a mother. She would have had a fifth child, but after four cesarean sections, her doctor advised against it. Our house in Virginia was spilling over with kids and pets and games, music on the record player, cookies and milk in the kitchen, toys on every surface, dress-up clothes festooned along the hallway, bicycles and roller skates scattered in the driveway, my mother’s hoots of laughter, the wide green lawn where we cavorted and played. But that was surface, only. There were problems brewing beneath. For me it began with debilitating stomachaches, then a lifelong struggle with depression, anxiety, and a conviction that I’d never be enough.
I loved my kids, but for me motherhood wasn’t so much an identity as a job description. Still, when my children were born, I swore I was going to do things better: I’d fill them up with so much love and self-acceptance that they’d never have to suffer, never be hobbled by self-doubt or depression. Yes, they’d experience setbacks, pain, and frustrations, the inevitable heartbreak of young love, and at least some humiliation at the hand of peers. But suffering, the kind that comes from the worm of self-hatred and shame that I (and, I believe, my siblings) suffered? No. The buck, I told God, stops here. My kids would float through life on a cushion of unconditional parental love.
There’s a Talmudic teaching that children are a co-creation of mother, father, and God, and that the job of parents is to raise the child to be what God intends. I was determined to honor this compact. Unlike my parents, I would not project my own wishes and desires onto my children. In particular, I wanted to inure them from linking their worth to the kind of status markers that were so important to my parents: the Ivy League, certain professions (but not others), athletic ability.
But it didn’t work. My husband and I, we were disgruntled. For one thing: Baton Rouge. Really? LSU was the best my husband could do? Of course, in our sane moments, we both realized that he’d done just fine, that though he’d hoped for a higher-tier, better-funded law school, LSU was solidly in the middle, and he got to live the life of a scholar, his true calling, rather than the life of a lawyer, which is where he’d started. On my side, it was the vagaries of publishing. Because like most writers and depressives I was a font of self-doubt, even when I did publish, the pleasure of seeing my work in print didn’t last, and I invariably returned to my set point of not-enough.
Despite my vow, the kids grew up with problems. Wounds. Things that I didn’t see coming. If I had seen what in retrospect seems inevitable, could I have prevented it? In short, was it my fault?
And this is where Olivia came in. Olivia, who loved Baton Rouge, loved LSU, and most of all loved us. Her very life, the way she operated in the world and inside the world of our family, was a testament to choosing connection, fellowship, love, and friendship over the passing whims of the fickle world.
Now, as my kids were leaving home and making their way in the world, I needed her to tell me that I’d done okay, that their imperfect trajectories weren’t my fault, but she was dead. I had other dear friends to whom I opened my heart. But only Olivia had been with us and part of us, year after year, when the kids were growing up and my husband and I regularly lost our shit and behaved in ways that, if we could do it all over again, we wouldn’t.
And then I started hearing from her. I hear her in my mind’s ear even now, as I write this. She says things like: “Sure, you messed up sometimes, but you actually did pretty well.” And: “It’ll be okay, but you’re going to have to wait.” And, once, “You were a really good mother.” Sometimes I force her to say such things: that is, the words I hear as if from Olivia are consciously scripted. She’s saying the lines I’ve written. Other times it feels more organic, like the words are coming from her. Perhaps some essence of her still exists, or perhaps I absorbed something from her, taking it into myself. Or perhaps it’s only myself I hear. I don’t know what it is, only that I want to believe her.
I have photos of her reading to our twins. I have photos of her leaning into our eldest as he towers over her in full IDF regalia, both of them beaming. Photos of her barbecuing hamburgers in her backyard. Photos of her wearing a kippah at our kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs.
A few years after Olivia’s death, when the fortieth reunion of our day school class rolled around, I took a train to Washington, stayed with my dad, and the next day drove out to the home of a former classmate in McLean, where some forty graduates had gathered on the lawn sporting gray hair and holding white wine. I still felt very Jewish and unlike the others, but with the passing of time had come the usual relaxation and acceptance. So I hadn’t fit in among my blue-eyed, blond-haired, prep-school-bound classmates? It no longer mattered. Just by showing up I was part of the gang.
What did matter was that Kim was also in attendance. Immediately after Olivia died, she had called me several times, asking for information I didn’t have and begging me to help her find closure. Her stepsiblings had made it clear that neither she nor her brother would be welcome at Olivia’s memorial service. Kim was upset, and on the phone she became demanding. By the time I was in Baton Rouge for Olivia’s memorial, I was done with her.
So I didn’t know that she and her husband had bought a home in Maine and were spending part of the year there. But there she was at the reunion, standing on the patio, and I decided there was no reason to avoid her. I approached and said hello.
She looked at me with a face devoid of comprehension.
“It’s me, Jennifer,” I said.
“Jennifer Moses. We were best friends.”
She blinked and said she hadn’t recognized me. Not knowing what else to do, I walked past her into the house, where the meal was now in full swing and former classmates were draped on sofas and chairs, catching up and laughing.
When I told the Olivia in my heart what had happened—I think the way I put it was, “What the fuck?”—Olivia’s voice said: “Yeah, that was pretty messed up, but on the other hand, she never did recognize you, did she?”
And the answer was no—no, she didn’t. Not since earliest childhood, when we swung on the swings and played with dolls and laughed so hard we peed our pants. Even so, how we’d clung on, Kim and I, the two of us holding on to one another even as our personalities and sensibilities and values diverged and the miles between us grew.
If Olivia talks to me in my waking life, it’s Kim who appears in my dreams. And there we are: little girls together in a tumble of bliss.
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently including The Man Who Loved His Wife (Mayapple), a collection of short stories in the Yiddish tradition. Her first book of poetry, Domesticity (Blue Jade), was published in February. She is also a painter.