The friends of Laurie Colwin gathered at Amsterdam Avenue in New York last week on a morning when her favorite city was bathed in brilliant sunlight. As can be imagined by anyone who has read any of Laurie's books, a large hall was required for this assembly; it was filled to overflowing. What is far more difficult to imagine is the occasion: The place was the Riverside Memorial Chapel and the event was Laurie's funeral.
Even now, more than a week after her death, this loss remains incomprehensible to those of us so privileged as to have known and loved her. She was, when she failed to wake from slumber on the morning of Oct. 24, a mere 48 years of age and, so far as anyone knew, in vigorous health. She had recently completed two manuscripts -- her ninth and 10th books -- and had seen them on their way to her publisher. She had been, when last we talked, as sassy and ebullient and affectionate as ever, full of chatter about books and authors and, most particularly, about her beloved young daughter, Rosa.
Small wonder then that those of us who came to the Riverside had upon our faces stunned, bewildered looks. Never have I been in a room so saturated with shock and grief. A couple of days earlier one of Laurie's friends, trying to find comfort in the unacceptable, had said that hers had been "a merciful death" because it had come without warning or pain, and perhaps this is true; but none of us was having any of that on Tuesday morning. Laurie had been taken away from us for no good or explicable reason and all we wanted was to have her back, no questions asked.
What a joy she was! On the train to and from New York I reread some of her stories, rejoicing once again in the piercing wit, terrifying wisdom and bottomless human sympathy with which every page of them is suffused. She was, as her kind and gentle husband, Juris Jurjevics, said at her funeral service, a master of the "comedy of manners"; the intensely loyal readership she accumulated over the years was testimony enough to the enduring pleasures such comedies afford.
Laurie knew that the line between joy and sorrow can be so fine as to be indistinguishable, but she set herself on the side of the angels. Her books had titles like "Family Happiness" and "Happy All the Time." There wasn't an ounce of manipulative or false sentiment in them, but they celebrated those things in life that lift and gladden the heart. Like her heroine Polly Demarest in "Family Happiness" -- "heroine" most certainly is the word -- Laurie "believed that all people unless impeded wanted family, needed family, that family was what life was for," because:
"After all, family life was the mortar that kept the bricks together; the pitch that made the basket watertight; the chinking that kept out the wind and the weather. It was life itself, without an inch to spare. A person immersed in the realities of family life did not stop to ponder the meaning of life: that person was in life, up to his or her neck and beyond. The family was the beginning, the future, and the past. It protected the weak and the strong. It brought the like-minded together and gave the unalike a common cause. It gave shelter and hope."
Laurie's own family, as Juris reminded us last Tuesday, had come to this country 11 generations ago, a fact of which she was deeply proud. Like Polly Demarest's, her people "were of old, old Jewish families, the sort that are more identifiably old American than Jewish." But however much pride and love she may have fastened on her forebears, her real family was in the tiny apartment on West 20th Street that she shared with Juris and Rosa and in the vast extended circle of friends upon whom she lavished attentions that were sometimes prickly, sometimes motherly, sometimes jocular, always loving.
She was born to be a mother, yet she waited nearly 40 years to become one. When at last she did, she was consumed by it. "Our darling is home with us," she wrote me a month after Rosa's birth in the spring of 1984. "We are both a little sleep-deprived but it is heaven to have our critter home with us." A year later: "She is extremely chatty and quite amazingly gorgeous which you are not supposed to say about your child but it is true." A few weeks later she sent a picture, which ever since has hung on the bulletin board above my desk; it shows Rosa in the arms of her mother, upon whose face is the look of perfect happiness.
It is a pretty face, though not a beautiful one; Laurie's real beauty lay in deeper places. She was short in stature and brisk in manner: "I love to shove around people who are older, taller, more distinguished and better educated than me." She had opinions the way rabbits have bunnies. Once, after subjecting me to two pages of heated remonstrance on literary matters, she drew a box across the middle of the page, in it wrote: "In my opinion," and then added: "I feel I should wear this embroidered on all my clothes."
Yet as liberally as she dispensed these opinions -- she made a couple of cameo appearances in this space as "my friend the ferociously opinionated novelist" -- she did so without, at least to my knowledge, ever giving offense. Indeed, at the service last week every mention of her exuberant combativeness was greeted with wistful laughter. One of the qualities people so adored about her was the utter honesty with which she presented herself to the world; she loved to talk and to write, and she assumed that it was quite impossible to do either without letting the inner self come to the fore.
Not only that, but she got as good as she gave. Once, after reading her novel "Goodbye Without Leaving" in galley proofs, I wrote her a letter containing a somewhat lukewarm assessment of it. I heard nothing in return. This worried me, and I told her so. In reply she said my original letter no doubt had gotten lost in a pile of mail and then let the inner self have its say: "What I want in this world is some smart and decent criticism not adulation. What kind of girl do you take me for, anyway."
I never really told her what kind of girl I took her for, but I like to think she knew. She had a heart as big as the world; maybe it was too big, because it was her heart that killed her. It was big enough to take in not merely her family and her friends and her work, but those she scarcely knew. When homeless people started crowding the sidewalks of New York, she marched off to the Olivieri Center for Homeless Women and cooked their meals, cooking being yet another marvelous thing at which she was spectacularly gifted. When she and Juris enrolled Rosa at the City and Country School, she became its ardent if impecunious supporter: If she thought something was good enough to believe in, she assumed it was good enough to work for as well.
Her death is a terrible, insupportable loss. She should have lived at least another three decades: watching Rosa grow into womanhood, giving support and sustenance to her friends, writing a dozen more books. But fate, random and cruel as it can be, has chosen otherwise. So let us be grateful then, those who knew her and those who did not, that she left us her books, and let us be grateful all the more that by some miracle she was granted the time to leave us two as yet unseen. Through those books, she lives.
A banal sentiment, but true. The libraries of the world are filled with the living testaments of countless thousands long since gone. Laurie was proud, one of her friends said on Tuesday, that all of her books are still in print; this is because Laurie knew that those books were her lasting presence in the world. They are her legacy and they are our consolation. Right now, though, that consolation is not enough. Dear girl, dear friend, the world is too much smaller without you.