featured photo

More Jill Johnston
Flash Reviews
Go Home

The Johnston Letter, Volume 5, Number 2
Twelve-Part Variation on the Death of a Mother

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 1979 Jill Johnston
Afterward copyright 2010 Ingrid Nyeboe

(Editor's note: This weekend the Judson Memorial Church celebrates "Judson Memorial Church and the Avant-Garde, 1954-1977," Oct. 29 & 30 with performances of work by Yvonne Rainer, Remy Charlip, Aileen Passloff, and others. Just as Judson alumni went on to bigger and broader things, so did its premiere chronicler, Jill Johnston, who went on from being the Village Voice's first dance critic to becoming one of the pioneers of the new journalism. Johnston passed away September 18, but the legacy of her writing is eternal, and we celebrate it today. The afterward by Ingrid Nyeboe celebrates a life and a life together.)


November 15 the evening news networks carried obituary film clips of Margaret Mead's life. At the end of the collage on each network she was shown in her cape waving good-bye to somebody, possibly Samoan children or friends in New York. The film was repeated on the late news, and I flipped the channels back and forth to catch the same segments over and over again, especially the last one showing her waving goodbye. Then I went to the phone and called a friend to say Margaret Mead had died and I felt very sad but I wasn't sure why since Margaret Mead never meant that much to me. I never read her books and someone gave me her autobiography but I only read ten pages of it. A year ago I sent her autobiography to my daughter but I don't think she read it either. The next day, November 16, at 11 a.m., the friend I called the night before called to tell me she had some "very bad news" for me, that my mother had died yesterday November 15 at 1:15 p.m. My mother was born in 1901 and so was Margaret Mead, so the only difference between them was that Margaret Mead was known to the world and my mother only to her family and friends.


November 13 I had a dream I was dying of nickel-sized red indentations all over my body. That was the day my mother went to the hospital. The last time I saw her was Sunday November 5. She said she didn't feel very well. She'd just had a perm and she looked curly and gaunt. She gave me a faded photo of herself and her father in a surrey when she was eight or ten. She gave me her camera the time I saw her before that and the time I saw her before that she gave me her mother's opera glasses. I was living only six miles away from her, seven miles closer than I was before September, and the closer I got the further away I told her I was. I told her I was living in the next state away at the far eastern end of it. I gave her two phone numbers through which I could be reached, but she went to the hospital without trying to call them or asking anybody else to. She didn't want to bother me or she wanted to die alone or she thought I would not want to be with her or she lost consciousness before she could think of telephone numbers or she thought this was just one more trip to the hospital -- possibly all of the above. When two people who are intimate begin separating, each one may pretend to leave the other before the other one leaves the one who is leaving.


November 13 when my mother went to the hospital I was driving north to a medical center myself. I thought I had a unique disease of the left arm, and I knew a tiny little doctor in a clinic two hours north who could tell me what was wrong. As soon as I crossed the border into the "next state" the red emergency light in my car began flashing intermittently. Along the way I called a mechanic I used to know who worked not too far from the clinic and he said he would see my car after I saw the doctor. When I left the clinic the emergency light was flashing red continuously. The doctor prescribed X-rays and codeine and said he suspected a dislocation. The mechanic took me to supper and charged my battery and said he suspected I needed a new alternator. My arm was separating from my shoulder. My car was separating from its alternator. My mother was separating from her body. My mother needless to say was separating from me. And my car also was separating from me; on the way back home the lights dimmed and the power failed completely. In this strange town I was rescued by the police who drove me to a motel for the night. In the morning I was rescued by a man in a garage who drove me to the gas station where I had coasted in and parked the night before. At home November 14 I was on the phone calling various automotive centers about parts. November 15 I called the hospital where my mother had just died to make an appointment for X-rays of my arm. That night I mourned the death of Margaret Mead on television. November 16 I was told that the hospital had been trying to reach me the day before everywhere. They reached my mother's lawyer who called my mother's best friend in Florida who called my daughter in Tennessee who called my son in Texas who called someone I knew in Massachusetts who called me. I knew my mother was dying but my arm and my car had become the executors of my knowledge.


November 17 I read Margaret Mead's obituary in the Times. Her father had hoped for a son and once said to his daughter it was a pity she was not a boy, that she would have gone far. In my mother's funeral instructions under Daughter she had written: Calls herself Johnston instead of Lanham which is her married name. Clearly my mother thought I had gone far enough as a married woman, or she thought I would go far if I stayed that way. Since she knew I was legally divorced long ago, this seemed like her strongest posthumous message. During a recent visit she told me her big mistake was giving me the name Johnston, presumably because it gave me a clue to my father's identity. After her memorial service her best friend agreed with me that her biggest mistake was not telling me all about it. In September I flew to London and met my father's only son, and I never told her I met him or even that I left the country. I know my mother had hoped for a daughter, so her regrets over my name were consistent with her deepest wish to have me for herself alone. However she gave me my father's name for practical legal and social purposes, and she never accepted the consequences of her correct adjustment to patriarchal realities. Her deepest wish to have me for herself was in conflict with those realities, which ultimately obscured her original interest. Even in death she tried to be legal and correct, by indicating that one mistake should be rectified by another, the name of one strange man for the name of another strange man, the latter by now ironically long illegal through divorce. By coincidence on November 15 the day she died I mailed a letter to my half brother in London. He had written saying he liked me (too) and hoped as I did that we might be friends. The only mistake my mother made was not making friends with this man's father. I'm not sure how far we can go, either as a boy or as a girl whose father thought it was a pity she was not a boy but went pretty far anyway, without being friends. Three years ago I decided I was not going anywhere before making friends with my mother.


November 16 I drove to New York and stopped to see my mother's lawyer on the way. I told him her designation of me as a married woman in her papers was illegal and also that she was never a married woman herself. I transferred all my unfriendly feelings towards my mother over this terrible ancient matter between us to her lawyer, whose mask of professional kindliness and paternal endurance remained undisturbed. He told me how much he liked my mother, and that he never knew about this matter of my father, and that he was glad to meet me, and he suggested December 15 as a date for the memorial service because he would be away on vacation until then. November 17 in New York I went to a birthday party in the black suit I'd bought for my "historic" meeting in London. Before the party I went to a Nasheral where several women had gathered to discuss transitional problems. I told them my mother had just died; but the transition they were discussing didn't include dying mothers. At the birthday party I tried to make death a subject by soliciting responses to the news that my mother had just died. I was enjoying the news for its shock value, so evidently I was looking for external reflections of an inner state that I was not yet feeling. Or perhaps I should say I was looking for the external reflections of a state that would defer the onslaught of feelings which naturally attend or follow this state. But since we are not living altogether naturally, the state of shock may be all we can or want to experience when we hear the news that we fear may destroy us. In a permanent state of shock we don't have to experience any feelings at all. We may actually be living in a culture which is in a permanent state of shock. If so, many people prefer not to hear any new shocking news, which could release feelings that were buried by some original shock; while others may enjoy or need shocking news to continue to distance themselves from the same feelings. Terrible things are happening to others but not to us. Guyana was terrible enough to guarantee a temporary distraction. I read all the news about it and any morbid news I saw that I normally ignore. November 22 an entry in my record book reads: The country is obsessed and aghast at a mass suicide of a commune in Guyana in South America. The same day I entered a few sentences from the Times about the violent death of English playwright Joe Orton in the sixties. A week had passed since the death of my mother and the only thing I was feeling was a lot of pain in my left arm.


November 24 I drove to the hospital where my mother died to have the X-rays taken that I didn't the week I cancelled my appointment. I thought it was bizarre standing up in a white sheet under bright lights being shot by an X-ray technician in the place where my mother had just died. Afterwards I walked over a couple of corridors to the intensive care unit where I visited her every day last April during Easter week. It appeared she was going to die then, but she rose again on the third day which was Good Friday. I had never seen her ill in a hospital or anywhere else for that matter. I felt very sad for her that week. I saw her as a helpless old baby. I saw her as her mother's little girl. I knew her mother would feel very sad for her. I imagined myself her mother and how sad she would feel. Her little girl old and helpless in a stark forbidding place of bleeping heart machines. I held her old baby's hand and mumbled intimate hopeful things in her ear wondering of she heard me in the region where she had disappeared. I wondered later if I kept her alive just by being there, and if so if that was a good thing. Her doctor had given her two years to live and her time was up, or she was complying with his prediction by dying "on time." She was always compliant and would not have wanted to challenge the doctor's credibility. But she had another side to her that was subversive and rebellious and might like to confound a hard judgment if she could get away with it. I met the doctor myself at her bedside, where she was propped up and surfacing momentarily from the dead, a deeply jaundiced wasted emaciated version of herself, focusing all she had left in a desperate silent plea for knowledge of her condition first to this doctor who was waving his clipboard and talking about a bypass operation that my mother had refused to have which he had told her would give her five years instead of two, and then to me to beg for my approval of the doctor. I didn't approve of him at all, but under the circumstances I tried to reassure her and nodded my approval as he left the room briskly with his clipboard, not having recognized me in any way. That was last April. Now on November 24 I stood in the same place, this time talking to a nurse with an angry face who told me my mother was not there because she had died. I said I know, and looked around for someone friendlier who might tell me something of my mother's last hours. The nurse with the angry face told me I should talk to the nursing supervisor, so I walked over to her office which was near the front entrance to the hospital. There for the first time since the 15th the feelings I had buried in my left arm surfaced through the mediation of this nursing supervisor. I sat in her office while she went upstairs to get my mother's file. When she returned she fingered the folder as if it was a deck of cards or coins or tea leaves, indicating that it wasn't the contents that were important but its function as her medium for transmitting compassion for my mother and me. Her left eye was congenitally droopy, a sign of special power, I believe. I was fixed by her quiet attention and the droopy left eye. I could see there was nothing but information in the folder, which she glanced through dutifully, noting the exact time of death. The meaningful information she had was a slight remembrance of my mother as a grandmother when she entertained my children on a lake nearby in the summertime. By this she conveyed she knew my mother as a person; then after a silent moment or two she said, "I'm very sorry about your mother" and I knew she truly was and I mumbled I was very sorry I had not been there and thanked her and fled with my feeling to my car.


November 24 I now had a car that worked and an arm that didn't and a head that was connected to my arm. I was sharing my grief with my arm, but my arm continued to know more than I did. Though I could write with it if I wanted to, its condition demanded so much energy thinking about it that writing was out of the question. That my writing arm was malfunctioning and that my mother was always suspicious of what I was writing was not a difficult connection to make. The connection I was having difficulty with was this new alignment between my arm and what was happening to me. Clearly I had transferred functions under stress, but I lagged much further behind the signals of my arm's new function than my writing ever lagged behind my thoughts. My writing arm's new function was threefold: it was forcing me to consider my novel situation by making me appear helpless because of its uselessness, and by heeding the pain I felt in it every time I was surprised or startled to connect me with my grief and anger and to notify me of important business to be done when somebody dies and it's your responsibility to do it. I was avoiding responsibility by allowing the helpless result of my arm's message to dominate its other messages to take care of business. Through helplessness I could express my new situation of life without mother. Whenever possible I had people helping me on and off with shirts sweaters and jackets. I was a helpless old baby like my mother without a mother to hold her hand as she lay dying. The last two words I happened to write before I heard she died were "Mother's mother" -- M.M. -- Margaret Mead. When I began writing again what I wrote was a letter every day for a week to a different friend about my mother.


December 4 I was sitting at my desk contemplating one of these letters when the sudden appearance of a man with long gray hair at the sliding glass doors before me caused me to jump with surprise or shock which sent a terrible spasm down through my deltoid muscle. I lurched over to the door clutching my arm as if I'd been shot. I let him in and explained the problem and gave him a cup of coffee. Just after he left I tripped over a long telephone wire and crumpled up on a rug clutching the arm again in yet another imitation of having been shot. Early that morning a phone call that woke me up had had the same effect. Another phone call in the middle of the night had had the same effect. I was not safe even in bed. And suddenly I remembered a day last year when I visited my mother and she told me she was not afraid to die, at which moment her phone rang. At last I got the message. My mother was calling me, so to speak, and there must be something she wanted. What could she want? I looked at her funeral instructions and read the paper carefully. The first time I looked at it all I saw was a note about my definition as her Daughter. This time I saw a note about a memorial service. That was it, the memorial service. I had not paid my proper respects, and over two weeks had passed since her death. But I had allowed her lawyer to set the date of December 15 when he told me he would be back from a vacation. Now I said to myself I would not wait for the lawyer, that it was improper to wait so long, and immediately I got on the phone to call her best friend in Florida and the retirement community where she had lived to make arrangements for a service. It seemed as if both her best friend and the retirement community had been awaiting my calls. The woman in charge of these things at the community said all my mother's friends had been asking when there was to be a service. Her best friend in Florida was ready to fly north at the moment and she agreed on December 9 and also offered to contact a reverend she liked whom she said my mother would have liked, to lead the service. Other details were dispatched that day, and I was no longer so incessantly surprised or startled. Now I could go on being helpless without experiencing so much pain. The way I had become helpless was by minimizing the movements of my arm to avoid that pain. When you minimize the movements of a joint its muscles atrophy and the joint locks and freezes. I had something called a frozen shoulder. My arm was in cold storage for this alarming transition from life with mother to life without mother.


December 9 the weather man said the main feature for today was rain. I thought of the birds singing in a tree of dead leaves in New York the week before. The dead tree of new life in an old and dying metropolis, the mother city of singing birds and dead leaves on old trees. The weather in Connecticut was abysmal. The memorial service was set for two o'clock. I wanted everything to be perfect. I moved very slowly and deliberately from room to room gathering what I needed to prepare for the event. I accompanied myself with the Ode of St. Cecilia's Day bought three years ago to celebrate Easter. If I was moving slowly and deliberately to avoid hurting my arm, I would say that the arm was rendering an extra service of making me move in a way appropriate to the preparations for a solemn occasion, for which I had no precedent. But I had also become astral and somewhat detached from the physical plane these past few days, thus every detail seemed strange and of special significance. Especially strange was a vision of a figure in black as I left the house and got in my car to drive to the service. I thought I saw a tiny woman in a black coat with white permed hair walking through some trees and disappearing behind a red barn. I got out of the car and ran a few yards to try and catch a glimpse of her but either she was gone and/or I had conjured her up. I was astral enough to be dreaming what I was seeing if it looked unfamiliar. The familiar was strange enough, therefore a vision was not so unnatural. Visions normally occur in transit from one state to another, when the physical and astral planes are blurred. The strongest dreams we have are those just before waking or those on our way to sleeping. In transit we are neither awake nor asleep, but both. I was in transit in general, but leaving the house at that moment to drive to my mother's last rites made me feel especially transparent. I had a black umbrella and I was wearing the black suit I had worn in September to meet my half brother in London, the city where my mother gave birth to me. On the vest of the suit just under my heart I had pinned my grandmother's round silver pin that my mother had given me after she recovered last April. I was going to her service as her mother and her father and her only child as well. On the way I stopped to buy some flowers and a cake. I wanted lilies but settled for a white poinsettia plant. I wanted a crumb cake because the last time I saw my mother she had asked me to bring her one. Now I would sit down after the service with her best friend and two other friends in one of their apartments in the retirement community and eat the same kind of cake. I arrived with the cake and the plant at the door of the community room under my black umbrella at precisely two o'clock. There her best friend Helen greeted me and introduced me to a cheerful old lady in charge of the event. I presented the plant, which became the subject of elaborate subtle formalities regarding its proper disposition. Finally under Helen's guidance it was placed between the pulpit and the piano and I said I would like to leave it in the community room, causing the little lady in charge to smile gleefully and clap her hands together silently. Then I folded the wrapper very slowly and carefully as if it was a ceremonial flag. Next the reverend appeared and shook my hand heartily and drew a diagram on a scrap of paper of street and houses illustrating the spot where he thought my mother had lived one summer in the sixties. Next I became a sort of receiving line to lots of little white haired old ladies who said they would miss my mother. My role had been cast by ancient custom, and all I had to do was respond to the cues of those who had already played these parts. I met two elderly sisters in whose house my mother had lived for seven years. Only one woman seemed indignant about my mother's death. She introduced herself as Agnes and said she was a good friend of my mother's. She said the doctors shouldn't issue death sentences, and that this weighed heavily on my mother. Then almost everyone was seated, and I very much wanted to sit unobtrusively in the back, but Helen said we should sit up front and I followed her reluctantly and self-consciously to a couple of chairs before my plant between the pulpit and the piano. My mother had often said she hated the old custom of laying out a body in a casket. By now her body was long cremated. A man I know told me that when he died he hoped everybody would have a party and stand him up in a corner to enjoy it. A woman I know told me that it was important for her to see her grandmother's body. Another woman said the same of her mother. I suppose I felt the same because I tried to imagine my mother's body after she died. However I was glad her body was not at her service. I agreed with my mother about more things than I often cared to consider. I felt her presence there anyway as soon as the ceremony commenced and the lady at the piano played "Abide With Me." I was immediately overcome by the event and expressed myself in the conventional manner. I was also extremely embarrassed and struggled as quickly as I was overcome to regain control of myself. Helen passed me a Kleenex as if by sleight of hand and as soon as I blew my nose in a muffled fashion I was back in control. I had plenty left over for other times and places. I would not die bleeding to death like my mother, whose refusal to cry, I had decided, was the source of her disease, which originated in childhood with upset stomachs and culminated in hepatitis when she was eighteen at the time of death of her father. Not long before she died she told me how much she resented her own mother crying when her father died. I pointed out that she had lived with him for quite a few years and naturally she would feel very sad when he died, but my mother was unrelenting in her judgment of her mother's expression of weakness. Her own grief apparently was absorbed by her disease, by which she changed tears to blood. Possibly it was my mother's judgment of this expression of weakness that embarrassed me at her service. Possibly it felt incongruous being womanly in a black masculine suit. Possibly I didn't want to satisfy the assembly by expressing their sadness for them. Possibly they would be as anxious about it as my mother if they were brought up in the same suppressed tradition. I recovered by concentrating on the words of the cheerful reverend as he intoned the proper prayers and eulogized my mother. He said my mother was a good conversationalist and a talented artist and a courageous person and a good grandmother. After the service someone else said she held her cards close to her chest and someone else said they liked the way she laughed. I heard some thing I knew about her and I learned some things about how others saw her. I liked the way she laughed too. I thought she held her cards very close to her chest indeed. I know she was courageous, but I had mixed feelings about her as a grandmother. I know also that she was a talented artist, and I wish she had had the encouragement she needed to take her art more seriously. From Helen I learned that my mother played the piano, a new piece of information that made me realize how little of our lives we had shared together, and how alike we were in ways I had often denied. Just as the service ended, in that pause before an assembled company rises to depart as they realize that what they came for is over, a low murmur of my name rose behind me and subsided as quickly as it became audible. I stood in the world for my mother now. I was acknowledged as her daughter and heir to her place in the world. I shook hands with more of her friends, bowing slightly to receive their greetings. I would go on with my mother's life -- in my own way. Being in your own way is a way of being different from mother. Being in your own way is a way of reminding yourself you're as much the same as you are different. After the service, upstairs on a tour of the premises, Helen looked out a window and pointed to a bird on top of a tree and said the view keeps changing all the time.


The view is the same and different, as I am the same as my mother and different. I wanted to think I was only different for a long time. Then at the end as her life was ending I was afraid I was nothing but the same. Naturally if I were nothing but the same I would die when she did. November 18 at 4 in the morning I had a dream I was old and dying and crying. I had been superstitious about being the same and dying. I had seized upon any coincidence to confirm my fate. In July or August sometime her car had a flat rear tire and so did mine. In October I hurt my left leg and she sprained her right ankle. Last April when I returned from a trip to California I found my oval mirror broken on the floor. I pieced it together and said to a friend I wondered if my mother was alright. And in fact she wasn't, as I found out the next day. When I returned from London in September the same mirror had cracked in those places where it had been repaired, and this time I thought she must have been ill while I was away and in fact she had been. The mirror was the mirror I bought three years ago right after visiting her for the first time with the intention of making friends. Later I had the idea that the reason I bought it was to see myself in the sense of seeing myself differently from the way my mother saw me. Finally the mirror behaved like my car and arm as if it was an extension of my mother's intelligence. But unlike my car and my arm the mirror had no reason to take me anyplace during the critical last days when it seemed essential to define myself differently, if only by being someplace else. In fact I made a decision about the mirror that rendered it useless in this respect. I decided not to repair it again, and I left it on the floor in its oak frame in its cracked condition. I decided it was up to my mother this time, that if the mirror were associated with her magically, I would let her, i.e. the mirror, live or die without any interference on my part. If I left her there to die, the day I was speeding north to see the doctor about my arm I was escaping my mother the mirror, which had apparently failed me in its first function of providing a reflection that was different from the way my mother saw me. Or rather I should say that I had given up on its first function myself. In the end I let it be my mother, laying on the floor in my bedroom, too much the same for comfort, in as bad a state as my arm and my car. A critical issue of difference and sameness was hanging in the balance. One opinion about the condition of my arm was that it was dislocated, another that it had fused. Both friends and professionals disagreed on whether it had dislocated or fused. Finally it was apparent to me at least that it had done both. Certainly it was dislocated, if not literally, figuratively, in that it had separated its "normal" physical function as an arm from the rest of my body. And certainly it had fused in that its tendons and ligaments had glued or adhered such that the shoulder was frozen. When two people who are intimate begin separating, they join in one sense and differentiate in another. They join in the hereafter and differentiate in the here and now, or vice versa. As soon as I was accustomed to feeling both the same and different, I had only to defrost my arm and to deal with all my regrets.


December 17 I found myself standing in my mother's emptied apartment haranguing her best friend, who long ago apparently had realized that such outbursts had nothing to do with her. I was filled with remorse and anger. For her part Helen had only wistfully expressed her hope that my mother had received her last letter from Florida. In trying to sort out my feelings I can't distinguish clearly between feelings of sheer loss and feelings of remorse for what was not accomplished before I lost her. I never told her I loved her. I didn't hug her enough. I didn't bring her enough plants and crumb cakes. I only took her out to lunch once. I lied about where I was living. I was not there when she died. I had waited much too long to make friends. I had waited so long that our friendship was a lot more formal than it was intimate. I gave up on anything more intimate for fear that an emotional breakthrough would cause her to hemorrhage and die. I found it difficult to accept her limitations and our limitations together. I found it difficult to accept the crucial fact that she never accepted the conditions of my birth. Since naturally she was guilty about this herself, she was surprised when I told her I was glad she was my mother. But I told her I was glad she was my mother because she made a very interesting story for me. The way she interpreted the compliment was that it made her a grandmother. When she nearly died last April she had asked me to think well of her when she was gone. I told her I knew she had done the best she could and that was the best I could do. If our best is always the best we can do, what is there left not to accept? So perhaps I had accepted her after all. Whatever our regrets, we had done the best we could. We might keep on doing better, but whatever is better is not really better than we did before when we could only do what was best at that time. And since one of the things she had to do was leave me, I had to accept that too. That seemed the most difficult part. I must have pretended she was not going to leave me after all. I took her for granted as always. I was not in touch with her for years, but I knew she was there if I wanted her. She was never there for me the way I wanted her to be, but she was there nonetheless. Then in the last three years when I no longer wanted or needed her to be there the way I always had, I was accustomed to her bright happy hello whenever I called her and now I would never hear her voice again, at least in the physical plane of attachment. December 17 when I stood in her emptied apartment haranguing her friend, I must have been missing her. I took her watercolors and family photos but I didn't want any of her other things. I wanted to resume our relationship and keep on making our lives better and more acceptable to each other. I stood facing the "good mother" in the form of her best friend, and I was still her "bad daughter" in only the initial stages of transformation. I would have to work out the rest of it myself. I had made my arm my bad baby, a limb wing somebody called it, and at the end of December I went out to dinner with a friend whose father is a doctor who told me I'd better start using it or I wouldn't have one to use.


January 15 I flew to California to see a specialist about my bad baby arm. By then I had seen two G.P.s, two chiropractors, one orthopedist and one healer. Naturally I was flying to California for more than my arm, but I had some feeling of certainty about an orthopedist in San Francisco recommended by a dancer there. The orthopedist I saw near home told me the same thing the orthopedist in San Francisco told me, but the orthopedist in San Francisco works closely with a physical therapist and doesn't like to administer drugs. They both said I had a disorder which is an inflammation called variously bursitis or brachial neuritis or adhesive capsulitis or a rotator cuff syndrome commonly affecting people like me whose mothers have just died. Actually they just said it was a common disorder of unknown origin affecting people over twenty or thirty. For a while I thought I had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which is fatal, at least for those who believe they have it. The chiropractors I went to told me I had pinched nerves and bad alignment and they wanted to know if I had had a fall. A friend told me chiropractors always say you have pinched nerves and bad alignment and they always ask you if you've had a fall. My dentist told me some people are helped by voodoo. I don't know if the chiropractors helped me or not. One of them told me time was the best healer, always a helpful thing to hear. But time was his limit it seemed, because after four visits he drove me away by saying I complained too much and I had no appreciation of chiropractors and was not grateful for what he did for me. I was very grateful to the orthopedist in San Francisco, who provided a healer in the form of his physical therapist and also a more definite time of six months to a year. As time goes, this tallied with the remark of a friend that it takes six months to a year to deal with all the stuff that surfaces when a mother dies. I was grateful for the time and all the remarks and recommendations and diagnoses and terminologies, which I believe I spun in a great mental web which began to look like a cure. Certain suggestions I never implemented, but I wove them into my web in the form of medicinal messages. One friend recommended more vitamin E. One said Siberian ginseng and niacinamide. One said hot comfrey root bath, and almost everyone mentioned tiger balm. The night before I left California I sat in a hot tub under a starless sky in the Topanga Canyon facing a vague outline of distant mountains. I was a vague outline in a tub regarded by distant mountains. I was a little girl like my mother in a faded photo of herself in an old-fashioned tub. I was an old mother mountain posing proudly in a faded photo over a tub with a little girl in it. I was an endless faded photo of mothers and little girls merging and separating -- watching over each other like a mountain would over a tub under a starless western sky.

By and copyright Ingrid Nyeboe

This essay by Jill played a key role in our getting together. We began seeing each other in June 1980 and started living together in December. Our family lore has it that I stalked her since 1967 and succeeded. Although I am a person of great perseverance, I seriously doubt I could have held out for that long had my intentions back then been amorous.

In 1965 I entered the University of Copenhagen, Denmark as a candidate for a Ph.D. in theater (history) -- and in the summer of ?67 I was traveling around Europe. In those days it was customary for theater students to meander around checking out plays and offbeat activities happening in the rest of Europe. I picked up a Village Voice in Amsterdam, read Jill's Dance Journal, and was instantly smitten -- intellectually! True, from then on I passionately pursued her and her writing.

Some time around fall of '69, after my first visit to America, I began sending her an occasional letter, mostly in reference to something in her Dance Journal. I returned to New York City late fall of ?70 ostensibly with the purpose of doing research for my dissertation -- the Origin and Development of Off-Off-Broadway -- but primarily because I had fallen in love with the city. I felt at home right from my first visit, a response I'd never experienced before, not even in my own country. I was working at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club on the Lower East Side, creating an archive of Ellen Stewart's material amassed over her then approximately 10-year involvement with Off-Off-B'way theater, with the idea of using this research for my dissertation. Ellen also hired me to help out in her "management" office. La MaMa was a happening place -- writers, directors and actors constantly vying for Ellen's attention. The city was teeming with excitement in the arts and I was gullibly attending everything I could: theater, dance, music, art shows, poetry, happenings and a burgeoning movement yet to be named.

While still in Denmark, I had been subscribing to the Voice, but now I began hanging out near its office each Tuesday evening, hungry for Jill's next column. And in ?71 I was not alone. There we were, an addicted crowd of fans waiting for our next fix. My brother, Jesper, gave me "Marmalade Me" and I carried it around for months, savoring the writing style and its zany evocation of the current zeitgeist. Jill's writing was mercurial and eloquent. My brother had arrived in the city in spring of '68 to become a fashion designer on 7th Avenue. He was my first mentor, and now he very excitedly took me around to artists' lofts and galleries in Soho, introducing me to the art scene and discussing its importance; originally he had studied art history at the University of Copenhagen. I went to the gay bars and dances advertised in somewhat cryptic ads in the Voice, and it was at one such dance that I met Jill in person for the first time. She was whirling around on the dance floor looking marvelous and vibrant; she bummed a cigarette off me, and we had a 5-minute chat amidst the noisy crowd. She never remembered this our first meeting!

In the following years, I began "commuting" between Copenhagen and New York, earnestly trying to finish my dissertation (which I did in 1973) but primarily involving myself in lesbian feminist activities and going to theater and art events. Whenever possible, I went to Jill's readings in and around the city. I attended Town (Bloody) Hall -- and was so totally blown away, it took me months to assimilate what had happened. I had always been a lesbian but now I knew it was okay, or better yet, it was the only and best thing to be.

Jill remembers me (finally) at an event in a church on Central Park West -- her recollection was: I asked intelligent questions. I remember exchanging phone numbers -- because (I said) I wanted to interview her for a women's newspaper in Copenhagen. This never materialized, although I tried valiantly to pin her down, even entraining to Springfield MA and calling her from there. She was living on Star Route in Huntington -- I recall thinking how nice that they named it for her!

In 1975, I entered Performance Studies at New York University to get an American Ph.D. I felt ignorant about American theater and figured this would take care of that; it didn't but that's another story. But it did enable me to stay forever in America on an endlessly extended student visa!

In early 1976 I found out my mother had cancer and returned to Denmark to help out -- actually I returned because I knew she was seriously ill and I had to try and broach several difficult issues between us, which had complicated my life and our relationship. I planned to stay a few months but April 13, four days after we celebrated my turning 30 with a big family party, my father dropped dead from a heart attack so there was no returning to my life in NYC. When I finally did come back, in September 1976, both my parents were dead and I was utterly out of it, barely functioning, mostly on automatic pilot. I wrote a letter to Jill about the deaths of my parents. She described it as matter of fact, understated but full of feelings, and said she filed the fact of me being an orphan in her memory. She also said she liked that I was a foreigner.

Periodically, Jill would call me and we'd meet at a cafe to chat. One such call came March 6, 1979 when she asked me to go with her to a reading she was doing of "Twelve-Part Variation on the Death of a Mother" at the Manhattan Theater Club. We met early that evening at a copy center so I could photocopy the pages of her manuscript! Then she took me to Sheindi's; I remember feeling quite at ease with her -- there was something familiar about her and her home. All I remember from the event at MTC is that I wept through Jill's entire performance. It evoked echoes of my own recent losses. Afterwards we went out dining with a crowd, then she drove me back home in Little Orange (her MGB) and before saying goodbye I said, "I'd like to come visit you."

Early spring 1979, I drove up to visit Jill in Limerock, CT. She was living in a huge renovated barn; her mother had died November 15, 1978, my parents had died April 13 and July 31, 1976 -- we were two orphans gazing at each other across an abyss of grief, bewilderment and desolation. My visit lasted into the late evening, so she invited me to stay overnight in her guest room. During that night I woke up knowing she and I would be together somehow, some day; I sensed with uncanny certainty that we were destined for each other. There was a magnanimous feeling between us, something to do with love (as different from falling in love), a simultaneously exciting and tranquil feeling, a sense of being home. Obviously, we were hardly ready at that moment -- we weren't really there. In the morning, while driving back to the city, I acknowledged that my feelings were about her not just her writing, and probably had been for a very long time. After that visit, we kept pursuing each other, she very, very subtly and I more tenaciously. And the rest is our 30-year history.

Essay ©Jill Johnston. Introduction ©Ingrid Nyeboe. Intro and essay previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. Essay originally published in the Village Voice on May 7, 1979. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

More Jill Johnston
Flash Reviews

Go Home