When we started Persimmon Tree, E.M. Broner—known to friends as Esther—was our greatest ally. Imagine what a gift it was to have this ebullient, accomplished woman going around and waxing enthusiastically about our new project. Esther was loved by and connected to what seemed like a zillion people in New York, where she lived, and her efforts brought us a great deal of early recognition and legitimacy.
Esther’s support kept on as the magazine developed and grew. Hardly an issue went by without her emailing us, letting us know which pieces she especially appreciated. She had a way of getting to the heart of what authors were saying. Taken from her email about the Fall 2007 issue:‘“The Englishwoman Liz Strachman’s ‘Holding on with Love,’ is so tender and avoids sentimentality but is filled with love and living. And Melanie Kaye / Kantrowitz’s fiction is crisp and a whole review of a time/times.” She always ended her emails with some form of “You’re doing a GREAT job!”
This was Esther: noticing what worked, naming it, and appreciating it. We always thought of her as an ex-officio contributing editor, even though she wasn’t on our masthead. She certainly sent a lot of authors our way and made a lot of excellent suggestions. We published some of her work, too—click onto the Archive to read her short story “Life’s Adventures” and the conversation she had with Mary Gordon, “The Writing Life.”
When Esther’s health declined, it wasn’t always easy for her to read the magazine, but she wanted to stay current—and she did, until she died this summer, in June. In the best of all worlds, she would have lived another decade or so, writing, teaching, mentoring, spending time with her friends and family. She would have continued inspiring us and all those whose lives she touched. But since she is no longer with us, we want to honor and remember her in this Fall issue—the first issue she won’t be reading—with two special pieces, written by contributing editors Marcia Freedman and Sue Leonard, who were among her very closest friends.
Sister, Mentor, Comrade, Friend
by Marcia Freedman
My daughter lives in a small New Zealand town that has a yearly wearable art competition. Since the town’s founders were Scots, one requirement is that there has to be some tartan in the design. The competition is called Tartan Art. I can hear Esther interrupting: “Tart and art? It’s a bake sale for artists?” A few weeks after Esther died, Jenny told me she’d awakened one morning with an inspiration to enter next year’s competition with a design called Tartan Esther. When I told this story to one of Esther’s daughters, she broke in, exclaiming, “My mom loved tartan. She always wore a green and blue tartan tam in the winter.”
Esther would approve of my beginning this piece with a story about our daughters. For Esther, life was a collection of stories. A plumber came to fix a leaky showerhead after months of complaining about it to the super, Harry. “Harry doesn’t hurry,” Esther said. “The plumber spent the morning breaking through and removing the tile, ‘So I can see what’s wrong with the pipes,’ he said. Then he spent another hour taping black plastic over the exposed pipes so I couldn’t see what was wrong with the tile. ‘So what’s wrong with the pipes?’ I asked. ‘A lot,’ he said. ‘I can’t do more until the management approves.’” “Did they?” I ask. “Harry doesn’t hurry,” Esther finishes with loud, cackling laughter that is so enthusiastic and full-hearted everyone hearing it joins in.
Stories took a darker turn if what occurred was not to her liking, however. We were at the New York MOMA, surrounded by the beauty of Monet’s huge “Water Lilies” triptych, when Esther broke into our reverie. “Look over there,” she said, indicating an older man with his arm around a teen-aged girl. “What do you think that’s about?” I looked at her narrowed eyes and played devil’s advocate. “Maybe he’s her father, or grandfather,” I said. “Doesn’t matter,” she said, “not the way he’s touching her.”
Esther lived her life giving story to all that happened to her and around her, not just for her friends, but for the world. Of her eleven books, six are catalogued as non-fiction, but they, too, are organized around story. When finally, at Esther’s urging, I wrote my memoir, it very naturally took the form of a collection of stories.
Being a family member or close friend of a story-telling writer is always to be at risk of exposure. My turn came when Esther published her masterpiece, Weave of Women, in 1978. The work is a narrative of rituals performed by and for a collective of women living in Jerusalem, marking the triumphs and defeats of their lives. The characters are based on me and many of my friends, including the woman I lived with at the time. I was a mother, and she was not yet. I was not yet a lesbian, and she was never to be.
Over the month following Esther’s death, I savored the great gift of solitude at a writer’s residence for women, Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington. I wrote, of course. Esther was with me when I woke in the morning and after dinner every evening, propelling me to the desk. My promise to her just before she died, to write this second memoir and dedicate it to her, was with me all the time. So were her books, lined up on my desk, back cover out, so I could see pictures of her at many ages. The photo I love the most is a dark, almost silhouetted image on the back of the hardcover jacket of Weave. She is in profile, her unruly mass of black hair is contained by a broad-brimmed hat, and a long index finger is raised to make a point. The finger is elegant, and even in silhouette, you can see that the nail is manicured.
Slowly I reread Weave for the first time since it was published in 1978. I read about events in my life that were relatively small to me and mostly never entered into the memoir I wrote of that time and place. But in E.M. Broner’s imaginings, they became fabulously comic and occasionally tragic morality tales. The distance between my reality and Esther’s surreality was great enough to read Weave without too much self-consciousness—until I came, late in the book, upon a long and very accurate physical description of me that, curiously, I do not remember noticing the first time I read the book. Perhaps because, not yet forty at the time, I was still living the story she reified in its telling and could not yet see the story it was.
Halfway through my stay at Hedgebrook, I wrote the following words in my journal: “I leave my cottage for a walk in the woods. It is late afternoon, but this far north the sun is still high. A slight breeze stirs the tops of the tallest trees into a murmur that makes me think there is a stream nearby, though I know there isn’t. All is dark and gloomy until I enter a patch of sunlight that breaks through the forest cover. The shimmering leaves of the quaking aspen and alder trees sparkle, and I am reminded of Esther’s sparkling wand touching my forehead to mark the passage of my 50th year. I am overcome with grief, and cry snottily and loudly for a long time. Tonight, when I boot up my computer after dinner, I see that it is July 21, one month to the day since Esther died. It is her Shloshim, the closing of the second period of mourning for Jews. “Get to work,” I hear her say. And I do, understanding that this is not a command for this evening only.”
In that growing portion of the Jewish religious world that embraces feminism, E.M. Broner is known for pioneering to make a central and honored place for women by breaking through barriers that have traditionally excluded them. This has given a new shape to Jewish religious practice. She did it, as always, in outrageous ways. InMournings and Morning she describes her daily struggle to honor her father by saying the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, in a small Orthodox synagogue in her Manhattan neighborhood. It is traditional for a son to say this prayer every day for a year after the death of a parent. Esther appeared each morning, and the small minyanof old men that reliably assembled for morning prayers was horrified to see a woman and hear a raucous female voice among them. Kol b’isha ervah, the Jewish texts prescribe—a woman’s voice is obscene. Particularly this woman, who refused to go away no matter what they did to offend her, including hanging a shower curtain behind which she had to pray so that, heard, she would at least not be seen. She retaliated by coming to services wearing a shower cap.
In Bringing Home the Light, a book of ritual and ceremony for women of all faiths, or none, for times in our lives that are not otherwise marked by ceremony but should be, Esther prescribes how to mourn the death of a close friend, which she says “is like an amputation.” And so it is. When you have, for forty years, counted on someone to be ecstatically happy to hear your voice on the phone, exclaiming “Oh my darling girl.” When you have counted on someone not only to have your back but to give you a gentle push forward; when you have counted on someone to generously share contacts and networks to get your work into the world, and when you have counted on someone to stop you when you abuse the serial comma and overuse adjectives—the loss is an amputation.
Esther couldn’t possibly set up her answering machine or figure out how to use a cell phone, but she sufficiently conquered email and the computer to be able to write and correspond in the digital age. Still, she always wrote in longhand first. In one of our last visits, she extended that long slender index finger and drew it cursively along the surface of the formica table of a neighborhood New York cafe. “This finger, she said, “exudes ink.”
Esther published her last book, The Red Squad, at 81. The night before the scheduled book party at Gloria Steinem’s, I sat at her bedside at Mt. Sinai Hospital after a stent implant. She had been near death the night before. She was released the next morning, against medical advice, in time to keep her hair and manicure appointments, dress extravagantly, and sit regally at the party, surrounded by her adoring young agent and editor. Hovering near, I wasn’t jealous when I heard her address them as “you darling girl.” They were, after all, darling girls just about our daughters’ age, full of life and purpose, seriously ready to make their particular marks on the world. And there was Esther, radiant in her armchair throne, back from the brink of death triumphant, her eleventh book just published. A woman who had made her mark on the world and sistered many others to do so as well.
Esther’s last gift to us was presented, oddly, at her funeral. The young female rabbi of the synagogue she attended read Esther’s reinterpretation of the famous lines fromProverbs 31, “A Woman of Valor,” an ode to traditional female virtues reviled by feminists for its praise of self-sacrifice. After the service, when we asked the rabbi where she had gotten this beautifully reinterpreted ode, she replied that Esther had written it and simply put it into her hand several years ago.
Here is the original.
A woman of valor-seek her out,
for she is to be valued above rubies.
Her husband trusts her,
and they cannot fail to prosper.
All the days of her life
she is good to him.
She opens her hands to those in need
and offers her help to the poor.
Adorned with strength and dignity,
she looks to the future with cheerful trust.
Her speech is wise,
and the law of kindness is on her lips.
Her children rise up to call her blessed,
her husband likewise praises her:
‘Many women have done well,
but you surpass them all.’
Charm is deceptive and beauty shortlived,
but a woman loyal to God has truly earned praise.
Give her honor for her work;
her life proclaims her praise.
And here is E.M. Broner’s reinvention.
Who can find a wise woman? For her price is far above rubies.
Those in her house safely trust her for she heeds the words of her children,
She works alongside her beloved, but outside the walls of her house,
Outside the gates of her garden, she hears the cries in the city,
The cries of women in distress She is their rescuer.
She rises at dawn to organize. She rises before light to make orderly the day.
She stretches out her hand to unchain the chained woman,
The woman without recourse, the women not paid their worth on this earth.
She travels back from the city to the shade of her garden.
She casts off her fine linen of purple and crimson.
Clad in dignity and compassion, she seeks peace in the household,
The ways of peace in the city.
Of praise she is worthy.
Many women have done wisely
But she, my beloved, inside or outside of her garden wall,
Is the most precious of them all.
We came back to an empty room: the home she had filled with her warmth, the home where she mothered all visitors. Visit in cold weather, she offers a shawl; if rainy, a towel and slippers; hot outside, how about a cold drink to up the power of weak air conditioning? Now: no greeting; no fussing; not even the Murphy bed; no Esther. I did not want to be there.
People drift in, greet and hug. They bring food, drink. An upstairs neighbor, going away for the weekend, comes down with his keys, saying he has emptied two shelves of his refrigerator in case we need more space to chill food.
Shiva, the first seven days of mourning after a Jewish funeral, begins. We talk, we eat, some of us ravenously, we wait. Her granddaughter Alexandra, just in from England, leads the service. I refuse a prayer book. Stories are told, of course. Love is shared. On the other days, rabbis will lead the services. Rabbis, all women as they should be for Esther Broner, our Feminist Seder Mother. We stand on her shoulders, they say. One rabbi, male, tells us: before Esther’s work no women were ordained. An exaggeration?
Shiva is for family, for friends, for anyone who wants to come, for anyone who wants to share. Pain, sweetness, stories, stories, fill the room. A woman none of us knows speaks: “My grandmother was a psychic. My mother was a psychic. I saw Esther sitting on the coffin at her funeral and I see her now in this room.” No one smiles or rolls eyes. Still, Esther did say, in Journal Nocturnal, her first novel, “absence can be a presence.”
Oh, the gifts she gave—presents and more. The title of one of the short stories in that first book is “A Magic That Fixes.” She was magical, and she fixed many, many lives. Six years ago my daughter was having a difficult pregnancy—none of the so-called glow or excitement. I told Esther and, well, she fixed it. This is what Jen wrote to Esther just before she died:
Esther, do you remember when you blessed me and my pregnant belly? You brought me to a sacred space and read to me and blessed me with your eagle feather wand and put sparkles on my forehead. You are the only one I would ever have allowed to do that! And it opened up a new space to allow me to think about the joy of being a mother, of the wonder of this child I was about to bring into this world, that I hadn’t had before. Because that is what you do. You create beautiful ritual and open spaces for love and strength. I carry you with me.
Now we have Oscar, a clever, funny little boy. Every time I visited Esther she would say, as I was leaving, “Where is my Oscar story?” When she was in a coma at the end, I came to be near her and hold her hand and kiss her forehead. I told her an Oscar story before I left because Oscar was surely one of the gifts she gave me, too.
Esther was so much about stories—stories she told, stories she heard, stories she read. Our friendship was about stories and so often about books. We shared books, serious books we loved or wished we loved. Among the last books we passed back and forth were Maxine Hong Kingston’s recent lovely memoir, Hilary Spurling’s biography of Pearl Buck, and Equality by Fred Strebeigh, which Esther thought should be made into a movie so exciting was the narrative. But mostly, let me be honest, we shared mysteries.
We often shared mysteries we had read years ago if one of us had missed them, but Esther was impatient and bought hard covers of a new favorite. We both loved Sara Paretsky, although her latest was not exactly wonderful. And Tana French, In the Woods: brilliant. All the # 1 Ladies’ Detective books. And Deborah Crombie. Of course, Laurie R. King. Some of Louise Penny (Esther was more forgiving than I if a book was well-written). We seriously disagreed about Manning Henkel, though. I could not bear the gratuitous violence; she persisted because he is a fine writer and a really good person.
And then there was Sherlock Holmes. Every Tuesday on PBS another old episode; every Tuesday, Esther planned her evening around watching Sherlock Holmes; every Tuesday, all day, she wore her faded Sherlock Holmes T-shirt. And then, a treat we never expected: a new Sherlock series out of England. On a weekend night. We made a date, she fixed dinner, we watched. The first one was so-so, but the next episodes were delicious with Sherlock so pretty and Dr. Watson so believable. Usually I dislike updates, but this worked even with its cell phones and computers and CSI lab. We were furious when we realized they ended after the third one. (Would you believe filming on the next batch of episodes was halted recently because of the rioting in England?)
I have been feeling lonesome lately. When I hear about a new exhibit, my stomach lurches; I want to go, but I did museums with Esther. Then, to make matters worse (or maybe better), lo! PBS re-ran Sherlock-the-Modern. And Inspector Lewis will be back (also in re-runs). A completely new series, Aurelio Zen, would certainly have led to dinner and viewing. He mumbles, but he has, as they say at least a million times each episode, “a reputation for integrity.” I need to talk to my friend about this; together we would figure out whatever needs to be figured out.
I will never again answer the phone to hear her rich voice saying, “My adorable one, when will I see you?” How is it possible that this woman, this friend who filled a room with her warmth, her rich laugh, her wisdom, her concern and her love, could exist no longer. That is the mystery.
Sue Leonard taught every variety of history except American history for 45 years at independent high schools for girls, with a brief stint in a poverty program school for pregnant teens in Bedford Stuyvesant. In the mid-90s she was co-editor of the “Books and Arts” section of the Nation magazine. Now retired, Sue fills her days with reading, needlework, friends, family and long walks. She is a contributing editor at Persimmon Tree.