Judy was my mother’s best friend from the time they were both 13. Neither girl had a sister, and Judy didn’t even have brothers, and her parents were a bit offbeat, besides. Her father, Mr. Williams, was an internationally known astrologer whose counsel, I was told, was sought by major companies. Mrs. Williams was a nervous sort. She used to go up to the school at the start of classes every year to instruct the teachers and staff that Judy was to be called only by her full name, Judith Ellen. At home, Mom remembered, Mrs. Williams liked to economize by wearing old cocktail dresses to clean the house.
Judy and Mom lived about a block apart in Bayside, Queens. They went to the same public high school, where Judy was valedictorian, and they went off to college together, at Syracuse, and were sorority sisters and roommates. They both majored in political science, and they both married men they met through one of their instructors. Mom got the lanky Texan who shared his office, and Judy, in an attested case of love at first sight, fell for his cousin from Ellsworth, Maine, Bob Brown.
Mom and Judy never lived in the same place again after college, but the Browns and their three children visited us in various locations, and several times on family trips we went to their house outside Rochester.
It was a long, one-story house in a wooded neighborhood with a huge screened porch for barbecues and kids’ roller skating. Judy and Bob had built it themselves. They’d spent their savings on an architect and materials, then recruited friends to help them with the actual construction. Bob, ever ingenious, used to get tools free. He would contact a company to complain about the impenetrable instruction booklet that came with, say, its power drill. Then he’d offer to rewrite the instructions in exchange for the drill. For him, this worked like a charm.
Though he never went to college, Bob became an executive with Eastman Kodak, mainly, I suspect, to support his many avocations. He was a potter and cabinet maker, and a birder before it was cool. He made wine. For years he owned a pig farm and relished learning about, and writing about, the raising and marketing of hogs. But the farm turned out to be a sinkhole for money, and eventually he had to give it up.
My move to nearby Buffalo for a job at the (now defunct) Courier-Express happened to coincide with the Browns’ dismantling of their pig farm, and they generously let me take my pick of the farmhouse furnishings. To this day I have in my living room a pair of 1920s torchères that came from the Williams’s house in Bayside by way of rural upstate New York.
Along with his zest for making things, Bob had about him a nice spark of irreverence. I called him once to ask what kind of bird seed we should put in our feeder. I’ve forgotten his advice, but his opening words still delight me: “The first thing you have to understand is that most commercial mixtures aren’t worth the powder to blast them to hell.”
In their later years, after Judy retired from her longtime job as director of public relations for the University of Rochester, she and Bob spent as much time as they could at their rustic cabin near Ellsworth. My mother, widowed by then, would visit. I’d hear about Bob’s mussels and his beans baked in beer in a stoneware crock. He took up pen and ink drawing, too, and his favorite subject, adorning every note and Christmas card for years, was the coast of Maine.
Recently, The Weekly Standard cruise out of Boston put in at Bar Harbor. I was up early the morning of our arrival and saw the sunrise over the open sea, then watched the ship turn inland. For some while, we steamed past uninhabited shores, and I stayed on the balcony outside our cabin reading.
At one point, I looked up and was startled to find myself face to face with a Bob Brown landscape: a panorama of pine-covered islands and scattered islets barely big enough for three trees, in a wide expanse of silver water, with long, low tiers of mountains stretching the length of the horizon behind. It was exactly as Bob would have drawn it—did draw it. I had the uncanny feeling of seeing through Bob’s eyes.
Judy and Bob have been dead for years, of course, as have my parents—my father since 1968. In my experience, one doesn’t entirely get used to the gone-ness of the dead. Stranger still is their sudden presence, as if fully alive.