Ernest Hemingway filled my summer with hours of the finest page turning. The lure to Papa and his stories began a few summers ago when a quite lengthy Hemingway biography found its way into my wheelhouse. There are no small volumes that could fully embrace his life and his legend.
My friend, Kate, recalling my fondness for all things Hemingway, placed a copy of Paula McLain’s book, The Paris Wife, in my hands as I departed for a beach vacation. It’s a story about Hemingway’s first marriage while living in 1920’s Paris. It wasn’t hard for me to dream about sharing a city in full bloom with the likes of the Hemingway’s, the Fitzgerald’s, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. Paris was quite a writer’s paradise.
Yet it was North Carolina’s surf and sunshine that helped me polish off one book and dive into yet another, this one about the third Mrs. Hemingway, in McClain’s Love and Ruin. You can learn a lot about a man by getting to know the women in his life.
As the summer summered on, I have polished off stories written by the great author himself, including Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises, the latter being another gift from my dear friend Kate.
She reads me like a book.
I have turned the first pages of A Moveable Feast, as A Farewell to Arms and a collection of Hemingway’s short stories sit bedside, waiting their turn.
I believe what charms me most about the perfectly imperfect man is who he chose to sit among his table of friends. They were war veterans, writers and publishers, artists, movie stars, bullfighters, and fishermen. They were certainly an eclectic group who entertained him. Or did Hemingway entertain them? Either way, his relationships were well-crafted. Although a few were short-lived, most were long-lasting. Some even triggered the darkness of Hemingway’s depression when death began to unseat those sitting in the most revered seats at his table.
Hemingway’s closest friends inspired many of the great characters in his books. They schooled him in a multitude of subjects and gave him advice that, in part, shaped him into greatness.
Thanks to Papa, I have come to better understand that good friends can help shape us into our best selves. Mine have certainly left their fingerprints in molding me.
This year the fingerprints have been many.
In February a dear friend celebrated her 48th birthday with a surprise dinner planned by her husband. Friends since elementary school, the dozen or so of us seldom get to spend time together outside of our annual Christmas gathering. The surprise birthday table was almost full that night, but regretfully my seat was empty. A work commitment got in the way. My absence gnawed at me.
Yet something was gnawing at all of us.
Our dozen have stood together in various shades of bridesmaid’s dresses, lime sherbet-hued satin and lace, a personal favorite. We have offered support when marriages have failed. We have celebrated births, adoptions, stepchildren and even grandchildren. We have delivered food in sickness and in health. We have gathered to mourn the passing of some great men in our lives. As I stood up to deliver a passionate farewell at my dad’s memorial service, it was in seeing so many of their faces that inspired my words to flow without a barrage of tears. Our support of each other has been unwavering.
Maybe it was just missing the safe space girlfriends can provide, or maybe it was realizing that we have probably lived more years than we have left, that we have begun to meet once a month for dinner and drinks.
The hugs are plentiful, the advice is free, and the laughter is unapologetic.
We are now a colorful assortment of medical and legal professionals, educators, writers, and public servants, yet when we gather at a table, we become storytellers, therapists, and super sleuths. For those dating the singles among us, beware. Or just be aware. We have checked you out. The long group chats are very telling.
In addition to our monthly dinners, the ladies have met for BINGO nights at the local American Legion and again at a preschool fundraiser. Some have double-dated at the bowling lanes, competed at trivia night at a deli in town, and even brought the guys to try out the new ax-throwing pub a few towns away. I’m assuming the gentlemen who tagged along heeded my aforementioned warnings. They are still laughing with us and at us I’m sure.
My heartstrings just haven’t stopped strumming.
My June birthday set the wheels in motion for reconnecting with many of my closest college friends too, some of whom I have not seen in 25 years. My husband recently joined me and my fellow Tarheels for a weekend in Chapel Hill, where even a hurricane didn’t stop some of those from Florida, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina to meet up under Carolina Blue skies for a weekend of tailgates and football. We’re already planning to make this a repeat event, when with fingers-crossed, a few of our missing pieces can join us. Their absence gnawed at us too.
Upon my refrigerator is a quote, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that my friend Kate said made her think of me.
Hemingway has helped me to understand that the gnawing I have recently felt could perhaps be a nudge toward feeling fully alive. It’s a vision of midlife that is less of a crisis and more of a personal achievement.
I’m breathing deeply, savoring the taste of good food, laughing every day, and getting angry only about those things worthy of my anger. I still have work to do in the sleep department, but being wholly alive is a work in progress.
Like Hemingway, I am filling my days with those things, those people, those moments and experiences that make me feel that all is well in the world. It doesn’t necessarily take a bullfight or reeling in the big fish, but for me, having a full table sure does feel good.