Volume 16 • Issue 32 | January 9 - 15, 2004

Life before and after it got interesting

By Jane Flanagan

A woman I was fond of died a few months ago. She was 87 and passed in her sleep. It was a life well-lived.

Gertie’s been on my mind because it’s a new year and I’m taking stock. When my time comes I want to end with a well-lived life, too. But I can see that it won’t be easy. It never is. It certainly wasn’t for Gertie.

Gertie Sagarin lived at St. Margaret’s House on Fulton St. She was a friend of my mother-in-law’s and came by our apartment whenever Miriam traveled north for a visit. As a young couple, Gertie and her husband, Eddie, pursued liberal causes in the Village. For years she also worked for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. And she was an extremely devoted and loyal friend, even when it wasn’t convenient.

The last thing that Gertie said to me was, “I like you, Jane.” We were standing in the doorway of my apartment. She startled me because at the time I didn’t think there was enough of me for an accomplished intellectual like Gertie to like. As a mother, a wife and someone with a job, I am constantly in motion and sometimes I seem to lose myself. I don’t have much time to read soul-enriching books, or for stimulating get togethers with women friends sharing angst, provocative thoughts or even a laugh.

These days when I find myself in the company of smart people discussing world events or intellectual topics, I sometimes feel at a loss.

So I’m not sure what prompted Gertie’s remark. But that afternoon I was asking her about the McCarthy period. I’d heard that her husband, a professor and writer, was under scrutiny during the McCarthy era and that their lives were very difficult. She seemed glad of my interest but reticent to discuss it.

Reticent to discuss it 50 years later. Talk about not easy.

Although I met her late in her life, long past her working prime, I was immediately impressed by Gertie. She had energy, enthusiasm and curiosity. Even in her eighties, she took full advantage of New York.

Over the recent New Year’s weekend, I found myself cleaning out a room stuffed with memorabilia from my life. One thing about being a writer is that I write. Starting at age 12 with a diary. I have spiral notebooks stemming from adolescence through my 20s. Flipping through them I discovered something. Even when I wasn’t juggling so many responsibilities I was boring.

As I was perusing a notebook, my son Rusty came charging into the room.

“I have to check your phone,” he said, officiously stepping over my mounds of strewn papers. At age five, he’s beginning to help my husband with household projects and he was testing the phone line.

At the moment Rusty walked in, I was deep in a journal entry about my angst over a romance gone sour. Rusty’s voice jarred me. I looked up and was immediately relieved. “Oh yeah, I’m not 25 – I’m 45. That’s my son. Thank God.”

For I realized that while I may lag in provocative conversations these days, this is certainly a “well-lived life” phase. Those endless journal entries were all about me. And they were not interesting. Now everything is about my son. And that is interesting.

Gertie knew that. She had a son, too. And I’ll bet once she was a mother it informed everything she did.

Soon enough, my son will be a teenager with his own life and little time for me. And then the dreaded day will come when he goes away to college. I’ll have plenty of time for reading. But I won’t be writing anguished journal entries. This world now has a child of mine in it. There’s too much to do.



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