A New Priority

By Patty Friedman

I was terrified of giving that speech for a full five months. I’d have thought that, having spent four years at Smith College, I wouldn’t have found the place intimidating anymore. But decades of reading alumnae news, full of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and far too many wives and daughters of Republican presidents, gave the school a scary cachet. I was going to be the keynote speaker at the summer symposium, and I wanted to be worthy of my diploma. I wrote that speech in my head every morning for five months.

The invitation for the late June symposium came in early January: this is the efficiency with which powerful women operate. Yes, I said, I’m free–except that my daughter is expecting my first grandchild in early June. But, I reasoned, if anything is going to go wrong, I will have plenty of time to see it through and show up.

The topic of the symposium was “Home,” and though I was asked to talk about how, as a novelist, I dealt with my characters in the context of where they lived, I modestly told my friends that I knew the real reason I’d been invited to speak. I am a New Orleans writer, and I could lay claim to the brilliant distinction of not having evacuated for Katrina. My desperate attachment to my house–which resulted in my being rescued by rowboat a week after the storm–was good material. An even better subplot of my life, which I wasn’t going up to Smith to share, was that my daughter Esme and her fiance Casey had had the great good sense to get out of New Orleans before the storm. But because she had a dog, she went with her brother to Houston, and Casey went with his parents to Dallas. After a week of grieving in Houston over my sure death, Esme celebrated my rescue with a reunion in Dallas.

And that is when I became a grandmother.

As a novelist, I laid claim to baby-naming rights, but to all who would listen I called the on-sonogram girl Katrina Fema. She was the result of Hurricane Katrina, and would never bear that name, but that’s what I called her. She gestated beautifully and when the obstetrician refused to induce on the menacing date of 6/6/6 Summer Amalia Roberson came uneventfully on 6/7/6. And when 6/22/6 arrived, I jetted off to Massachusetts to see Smith College for the first time in decades. What could go wrong?

Friday night I gave the keynote speech, and I made no goofs. When the dinner was over, I was as ready as I could be to go right back to sophomore year and deal with every existential question I’d ever raised about the meaning of life. I had to do a seminar the next morning, but as far as I was concerned, I was ready to sit on a sofa for the rest of my life and eat sweets.

The seminar was in the Browsing Room of the Neilsen Library, the centerpiece of the campus. The Browsing Room is a front room filled with antique furniture and old books on shelves lining the walls, and it always seemed dark and comforting when I would go in there to avoid studying. I could remember sitting in a wingback chair with a friend in a matching chair as we watched Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower have a fight on the lawn of the library. This morning the furniture was rearranged so that folding chairs faced a podium. I was going to be the center of attention in the Browsing Room.

But this wasn’t just me back at Smith triumphant; it wasn’t just me back in the past.

In my pocket was my 21st-century cell phone, and it was turned on. Summer was in the emergency room. Something was very wrong with her breathing, and the doctors suspected her heart.

I started the seminar, sitting on the table, dangling my legs, trying to be casual. But I was fumbling. So I stopped what I was doing, and I explained. And I realized that here I was, at a fiercely female school, and it meant that every single person in front of me understood that intellectual matters didn’t count when we were thinking about babies. So when the cell phone rang in the middle of a sentence, Pat Skarda, professor of English, took over the seminar.

And I went back to my dorm room and went past all the existential questions of sophomore year. I called every man I knew who’d ever specialized in cardiology. I called my financial advisor and let her know I’d sell my portfolio and my house if Summer needed to be airlifted to Duke. I booked a flight out at midnight. I canceled a panel for the next afternoon, one that would have been good publicity for me as a writer.

Summer had open-heart surgery and will have to have it again. I have the answer to all my questions. When my next novel came out, the dedication read, “For Summer Amalia Roberson, the love of my life, with apologies for calling you Katrina Fema while you were in utero.” She already has two promised letters of recommendation for Smith Class of 2027. One from Pat Skarda.

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