It was the spring of 1976. I was 23, smart, fierce, on everybody’s most-likely-to succeed list. But as my undergraduate mentor had predicted, I was still a babe in the woods, having wandered 2,059 miles from the sheltering mountains of my childhood home. In the daytime, I swaggered around the Chapel Hill campus carrying piles of thick books on American history, picked arguments so I could wow people with my thesis that Southern liberals were always more Southern than liberal, collected accolades as I once collected gold stars.
At night, though, I was alone and tearful. Largely because of my thesis about the Southernness of Southern liberals, I had found no friends. I longed for those I had left behind in Globe and Tucson, with whom I could watch grainy foreign films at the Rialto, talk into the wee hours about “Birches” and Look Homeward, Angel, walk through the lane of orange trees near the dorm, so inspired by the intoxicating aroma that I tried out my atrophied right brain and waxed poetic. And of course I had never had a real boyfriend–only one clandestine relationship with the fiancé of a college friend, the first man who expressed a remote interest in relieving my frustrated virginity. And the situation in Chapel Hill was no different. It was 1976, after all, and too-bright women still stayed home on Saturday nights.
And then I got a letter from Margaret. Although she was neither small nor fragile, I always thought of Margaret as wispy–she of the long, soft curls and the enormous green eyes and the slight lisp of her voice that was never more than a whisper. Like me a lapsed Mormon, Margaret was three years my junior but my inspiration and my guru in matters of the world and of the heart. Her father and his paramour, a part-Indian artist of considerable local renown, first revealed to me the possibilities of a well-lived bohemian life, and Margaret was certainly her father’s daughter, always confidently outrée. Rules didn’t apply to her, so infractions were just delightfully Margaret to me, her rule-bound, hidebound disciple.
She must have been about 20 when she wrote the letter; it was three years past Roe v. Wade but sixteen years before Murphy Brown made single motherhood “just another lifestyle choice.” In short, Margaret told me that she had become pregnant, that she was no longer involved with the father, but that she would be keeping her child. It seemed such an un-Margaret choice that it became precisely Margaret–and in turn it became her perfectly.
And she closed with a whisper: “I am sending some orange blossoms because I remember how you loved them so.” She needn’t have noted the enclosure; the envelope and the pages of her letter signaled their magical perfume before I even opened the flap. And I could still smell the slight fragrance of orange blossom years after I lost track of my delightfully wispy friend.
The few times I have ferreted out details of Margaret’s life in the intervening forty years, they always reveal something new and unexpected. When we last met, she was married to the foundling whom her father and the artist had raised as a son. After a forest fire engulfed Tucson’s Mount Lemmon, I discovered a letter to the editor in which she described summers on the mountain, including Sunday school held at the local honky tonk because it had a piano. And now she lives in a straw-bale house in the Sonoran Desert.
I found Margaret again last week. I had sent a Facebook message asking one of her daughters to put us in touch, and on March 7 we exchanged selfies and a series of text messages. A week later, I received my letter from Margaret. A real letter. It came in the mailbox, with stamps on the envelope, seven sheets of yellow legal paper folded inside. Holding those pages, reading her still-new, still-raw narrative, savoring her natural flair for the mot juste, I remembered what long-distance friendships can be. They don’t have to be electronic and ephemeral; they don’t have to exist only in the cloud. They can be held and seen. They can sound like whispers. They can be wispy like clouds and Margaret. They can even smell like orange blossoms.