Abbie, Kihm, [Bill] and Dorothy
November 12, 2004
Dorothy Reddington was no mystery to me. Yes, when Laurie and I walked into Sage Chapel on the Cornell University campus for her memorial service, Roy Orbison’s “Mystery Girl” was playing. And there was some mystery about where the rest rooms were in this ancient building, the latter being solved by a long walk down stairs, through catacombs of choir lockers into a stall barely separated from the choir office where a sign in a small window read, “Do not adjust the vent. The organ will go out of tune.” And there was a mystery about the woman sitting in a front pew.
But Dorothy was no mystery. She was simply one of the best people I ever knew. Name a category. She had them all gently in hand. She was charming, fun, good-hearted, caring, well-read, honest, incisive, a world traveler, light packer, a beauty, a fabulous hostess, and a friend whose picture should be in the dictionary next to the word “friend.”
One friend said, “Dorothy once told me that basically she would be friends with anybody who wanted to be friends with her.” And she would be a good friend, for life. After the service, I found myself saying, “I only knew Dorothy for 30 years.” I was talking to women who were in kindergarten with her, friends Dorothy never let slip away.
And Dorothy loved to introduce her friends to her other friends, and watch new friendships grow. I have her to thank for one of the most important friendships in my life, a woman she dragged me out to see after dinner at my apartment many, many years ago, out into a Syracuse winter night. I said, “Watch the steps; they’re icy.” And Dorothy said, “Don’t worry,” and levitated instantly, like I was a magician supposed to pass a hoop around her horizontal body before she came crashing to the sidewalk. And then she was laughing and dusting snow off her coat and we were in the car before I had time to worry about life-threatening injuries. That was the night I met Melissa.
Some 30 years later, I sat in Sage Chapel with Melissa, and Laurie, and the most remarkable assembly of friends and family I have ever seen, or am ever likely to see. Thoughtful to the last, Dorothy had arranged everything with the help of friends and given everyone weeks to dry their eyes and make travel arrangements. I saw well-spoken women with pearls; I saw a woman with green hair.
Friend after friend stepped up to the pulpit and spoke of Dorothy’s love, her laughter, quoting from the authors she loved, and making me cry just because I was in a room filled with people who understood the beauty and the power of the written word, a whole room filled with readers, Dorothy’s friends.
Then and now I felt unworthy of Dorothy’s friendship. I sat in the pew and sobbed, and felt unworthy, and imagined her saying, “Oh, Kihm” and offering me a glass of wine. “No,” Melissa said later, “she would have said, ‘Oh, Kihm,’ rolled her eyes, and given you a glass of wine.”
And then the woman in the front pew got up to sing. In a speaking voice raspy with years of rock and roll, she introduced the song as one Dorothy had asked her to sing, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that she had set to music when she and Dorothy were students at Georgetown. She could not believe Dorothy remembered it. But that was Dorothy. And this was her friend Annie, a singer in a rock band, then and now, singing, beautifully, a cappella:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
And because this was 2004, a cell phone went off in the middle and a woman two pews in front of me began rooting in her bag like a Jack Russell diving for a mole. But Annie kept singing and we kept listening. I met Annie afterwards; she was a marvel, just the kind of person Dorothy would love to bring into the lives of others. Red cowboy boots. Energy that crackled. Wild eyes.
Seeing Dorothy’s son Bill, a young man now, in the pulpit, speaking about his mother, I remembered comparing notes on the telephone when both Bill and Abbie were little. Dorothy told me, “All I wanted was a cello-playing physicist, but what I got was a little boy who goes outside every morning looking for a rock bigger than the rock he found the day before, and trying to throw it farther than he threw it the day before.” And then she told me about his reaction the first time he saw a motorcycle, his headlong rush to climb aboard. She said, “Kihm, I forgive men everything. They just can’t help themselves.”
Sitting in the pew, I remembered Dorothy’s words of forgiveness, and thought what a truly Christlike woman she was — forgiving, full of grace, freely sharing her friendship.
I sit this morning with the program from her memorial service. On the front, “Dorothy Reddington, April 16, 1947 – August 9, 2004.” And on the back, these words from poet Thomas McGrath:
How could I have come so far
(And always on such dark trails!)
I must have traveled by the light
Shining from the faces of those I have loved.
I was so lucky to have known her, to have been her friend.
Photos: Abbie, Kihm, Bill and Dorothy by Laurie Winship. Dorothy and Bill by Sheryl Sinkow.