My friend Jacqueline Kahn (pictured here with her husband Laurie, on their 60th anniversary trip) died yesterday morning. I want to tell you a little bit about her, and what she meant to me.
First, you have to know that in the 4th grade, I broke my leg. I broke it by hitting a moving Ford Pinto. Technically I was at a cross walk so I was not at fault, but there was a parked car directly in front of me and I ran out into the street, and the poor man who hit me couldn’t have possibly stopped in time. Regardless, my leg was well and truly smashed up, and I was in a cast and wheelchair for a big chunk of my 4th grade year.
The folks at my school decided it was not a great idea to have me tooling around the playground in a wheelchair, so for recess and lunchtimes I was carted into the school office, where Jackie was working, I believe, as a receptionist/secretary. I was ten and very very very chatty, so naturally I spent a lot of time blathering in her direction. Jackie, to her credit, was kind to me and talked back, rather than just genially ignoring me. Later, when my leg healed, I in my ten-year-old egotism thought that she would be sad that I was no longer there, so every day after that, as I headed to the bus to take me home, I would stop in and tell her a joke before I left.
I did that every single day through the end of my sixth grade year, my last year at elementary school. Most of the jokes were terrible. Jackie, bless her, continued to be kind to me.
And more than that. My mother went through a terrible divorce early in my sixth grade year, after which my mother, sister and I were briefly homeless, and then moved several times in the course of that last year, to cities other than Covina, which is where my school was. When we moved out of Covina, I should have no longer been able to attend Ben Lomond, the elementary school I was in. But of course I didn’t want that, and my mother didn’t want that, and I’m pretty sure that my mother didn’t go out of her way to tell anyone we had moved. But sooner or later it got out, and I think there was some question about whether or not I would be able to continue at Ben Lomond.
What happened then, as I understand it, is that Jackie said that if I was made to leave the school, she would quit her job.
And that was that. I stayed.
I didn’t know any of this at the time, of course. I learned about it much later. But I can’t tell you how important it was. As I said: Rough divorce, homelessness, and shuttling around to several houses, all in the space of a few months. We were terribly poor and because my mother had to find work where she could, when she could, I and my sister were left along to our own devices a lot of the time. What stability I had — honestly, the one place I could depend on not suddenly changing — came from my elementary school, where I had Jackie, my teachers (particularly Keith Johnson, my 6th grade teacher) and my friends. If I were to have lost that, among everything else I lost, I couldn’t tell you how I would have dealt with it. I suspect I would have dealt with it poorly. So I think I can say without exaggeration that Jackie’s act saved me, in ways I wasn’t aware of at the time, but am aware of now.
Jackie’s kindness to me didn’t stop once I left elementary school. We became friends and she was someone I depended on. She stayed in contact with me in junior high and high school. She took me to movies — a lot of movies, and good movies because she was a film buff — and let me visit her house, where she kept Corgis before Corgis were cool. In many ways she made me part of her extended family. I knew it and loved it, and thought of her in so many ways as another grandmother, equal to, and in most ways one I was closer to, then my own actual grandmothers.
In high school she read my stories and came to all the plays I was in. When I went off to college I would come back on holidays to see her and say hello. When it became clear Krissy and I were a serious item, I took her to Jackie’s house so she could meet her (she approved). She was there for my wedding. When I moved away she kept in touch with me through e-mail, sharing her own writing (she was a playwright, and a pretty good one) and keeping me up to date with her family, as I kept her up to date with mine. When my very first book came out, in 2000, I co-dedicated the book to her. She liked that. I knew she was proud of me and the life I’ve made.
And now she’s gone.
I had advance warning of this day, so I was able to prepare for it, which I think in many ways was a kindness. She was so important to me that having the news cold would have come like a hammer blow. Instead I had time to think of her and the totality of her life and everything I owe to her, in ways obvious and not so obvious, so that when this final door closed I could feel, not pain, but joy in a life that was well-lived and was generous enough to encompass me in it.
Jacqueline Kahn was a woman who was good to me as a child, a friend to me as an adult, and always, a home spirit — someone I knew cared for me, no matter what, and with whom I felt safe, and cherished, and loved. I love her, and will miss her, and will carry her and her kindness in my heart all of my days.
All my love now goes to her family, and to all of those who knew her and cared for her, and for whom she cared. May her memory be a blessing to each of them.
And thank you for letting me share a little bit of who she was with you. When you see me, you see a little bit of her in me. I’m glad of that. She was the best of people.