Later, when she has recovered a little and made the rounds, I steer her toward the table where she makes herself a small plate of food. Then I realize she is the only one in the room without a chair. I haven't provided a seat for the guest of honor! I hastily give her mine.
There are Chinese noodles in her whipped cream. Her salad dressing has merged with the barbecue sauce from the meat balls and formed a lake around her Jello. Everything that was supposed to be hot is cold. She doesn't seem to mind. She sits blissfully crunching on carrot sticks while I make the presentation of the book of messages from those who could not come. I read aloud selections from some of them.
My closest childhood friend, now stationed with her husband and sons in Germany, has sent a nostalgic letter which brings tears to my eyes--and Mum's:
"My earliest memory of Barbara is that of her sitting at our kitchen table, talking to my mother over a cup of coffee. Her daughter, Jessica, and I played contentedly with our dolls on the worn linoleum floor. The washing machine chug chugged in the corner.
"There came to be times in my adult life when I would say to my mother, as I called from many miles away, that I wished I had a "Barbara" like she did when she was my age.
"Later, Barbara moved to Japan with her husband-anthropologist and her three children. Every few years [she] would come back to the States. She always brought intriguing Japanese gifts for us and it was like Marco Polo returning from the Far East with undreamed of treasures.
"After several years in Japan, Barbara's family embarked on a round-the-world trip in their Japanese-built yacht, the Phoenix. They were soon to sail the Phoenix through the U.S. atomic testing zone as an official anti-nuclear protest.
"When Barbara came back to the States now, she was filled with a mission. Her husband had studied the genetic after-effects of the Hiroshima bomb. And Barbara had studied the emotional effects. I remember sitting in a backyard in Yellow Springs [Ohio] where a group of women sat in a circle on folding metal chairs listening to Barbara talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember how green the grass was that day and how pretty Barbara looked. She has to have one of the world's warmest smiles.
Years later, Barbara visited me in New York City. As [she] and I sat in my small office talking about her marriage--and her divorce--I realized for the first time that Barbara was not just my mother's friend. She was my friend, too.
"Still, I was confused when Barbara came to my apartment that evening and refused to eat. She was on a hunger strike protesting something. I thought it was rude of her. But there was a still small voice telling me that maybe there were more important issues than eating and being polite. Barbara was not judging me or urging me to join her. She was simply doing what she, in conscience, felt she must do.
"I began to see Barbara as a heroine, a person who spoke out in ways and places that were 'inappropriate.' I put her in a class with Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Barbara doesn't agree with my appraisal of the [world] situation as a largely Feminist issue. She sees the problem to be basically a spiritual one.
"Despite the ups and downs in her life--or perhaps because of them--Barbara is a person full of love for mankind, apparently even rebellious young souls like myself. She has planted seeds in my mind and heart, but the soil of my life produces a plant which may not be what she had in mind! Nevertheless, I feel accepted and loved by her.
"I only wish that Barbara still lived down the street and that she could sit in my kitchen with me, my mother, Jessica, and our children."