Tribute to Patricia MacLachlan

Dear Patio,

I finally dreamed about you. It was a dream within a dream.

“What are you working on?” you asked.

“Your eulogy,” I answered.

“Oh LeeLee, you can do that,” you said.

“Pad, I miss our daily phone calls. I wish I could talk to you.”

“Just write me a letter,” you said, which was just what I needed to hear so I could begin to write about you word after word after word.

You always did give the best advice, Pad; we were kindred souls after all. They say trouble shared is trouble halved, but when I told you something that was bothering me and you said, “Oh, Lambie, just put it in a little boat and let it float down the river,” my trouble magically disappeared. They also say, “Joy shared is joy doubled,” but with you, sharing good news magnified the joy at least a million times. The week before you died, I sat on the edge of your bed and told you about some new book deals. And even though you were having a sick day, you said, “I am so happy lying here hearing all this good news.” And then you took my hand and I told you how soft your skin was. And you said, “You have to be very sick to have such soft skin.” And I said “Or very old,” and you said, “You bitch” one of three names you frequently called me, and we burst out laughing. And that’s the last conversation I ever had with you. (Photo: Mary Vazquez)

Patty, describing the iridescence of you, is like painting the wind. Here are the facts and fictions of you: You were more perfect than the moon: elegant and crass, strong and vulnerable, tough and fragile, introverted and rowdy, and of course utterly outrageous. When I met you for the very first time, you said, “I love those shoes so much I want to screw them” (though you didn’t use the word “screw”). Then you proclaimed me an unclaimed treasure with troubled hair and renamed Mary your sister, Sizzle. You welcomed us into your family and we knew what a great honor that was. Because to you, family was everything.

When you talked about John, Jamie, or Emily, the quality of your voice changed. It softened with love. And when you talked about Sofia, Ella, Nicky, Anna, Harry, or Lucy, your voice swelled with pride. Though no one asked me, I think you were born to be a grandmother. Every single day when we talked on the phone, you told me something wondrous one of your grandchildren said or did. They delighted and astounded you. And of course they found their way into your books. And when we read your work in writers group and someone thought a line of dialogue sounded too mature or sophisticated or wise for a child, you’d simply smile and say, “You don’t know my grandchildren.”

You loved your own children, their spouses, Karen, Dean, and Lauren, and your grandchildren with a fierce tenderness and a tender fierceness. You adored all children and treated them with respect and kindness. You often said that children were heroic and you were awed by how much they endured. You especially loved getting letters from children. One child wrote to you and said, “Nobody — and I mean nobody — writes like Patricia MacLachlan.” You had that note up on your refrigerator for a long time. Another child wrote you a letter that said, “Dear Mrs. MacLachlan, your book is the second greatest I’ve ever read.” That note made you chuckle. Another writer might have been insulted that this child didn’t think your book was the greatest book they’d ever read. But not you. You loved the honesty of this child.

Patty, though you won many, many awards, that type of recognition wasn’t the most important thing to you — I mean, who else would lose their Newbery Medal? Though I remember that you did laugh with delight when I showed you a furniture catalog that carried a “bookshelf, plain and tall.” To you, the most important thing was that your books touched children’s hearts and comforted them. And when I say children, I mean children of all ages, including this grownup child.

In the last months of your life, you were still writing, usually at night — because as we both know, you love the night when it’s quiet enough for brilliant new book ideas to bubble up in your mind. You’d get up at 4:30, make some coffee, play some solitaire on your computer, and then type out another plotless wonder. And though you could write on your computer, you could no longer see the words once they were printed out on paper, so you asked me to read whatever you were working on out loud in writers group. Ah, writers group. As you often said, we are a collection of complicated women. You were endlessly amused by us and you amused us endlessly. Once you pulled down your pants to show us your rear end which had turned the color of an eggplant after you tried and failed to leap over the baby gate at the bottom of your stairs. Once you described in detail an erotic dream you had about a Secret Service man who wasn’t real — he was a character in your White House book — but obviously he was very real to you. Once we ate slabs of coconut cake so thick you said yours was sitting in your stomach like a floor tile. And of course once we ate a pie. More than once our chaotic meetings were full of chatter that you said sounded like so much chicken talk. But when it was time to read manuscripts and you fished your pages out of that enormous gray felt tote bag, and handed them to me, everyone would quiet down and sit up eagerly, waiting for the magic. And as soon as the first word flew out of my mouth, the very air in the room changed. You know how snowflakes fall and the whole world hushes? That’s what happened when your words rained down upon us. We breathed differently. We leaned back, our bones relaxed, and we melted into your story.

One of your grandchildren said it best. Once they were telling you about spending time in a peaceful place that they truly loved. They said, “Ahma, being there is like reading one of your books.” Pad, your stories create a safe harbor for everyone who reads them. The minute I open one of your books, I feel like someone’s strong, gentle arms are wrapped around me. I feel safe, I feel seen, I feel loved.

And that is how I felt during every moment of our friendship. Before you came, I didn’t know that something was missing from my life, but the moment our friendship was born, you gave me the true gift of a safe place in the world. I never had to ask, “Who loves me?” because you made it very clear that you could and did love someone like me. You gave me a place where I was completely loved, accepted, and known. I hope that, in turn, I gave the same to you. We had many a secret shared; you were the first to see the truth of me. And you loved me not in spite of it, but because of it.

Patio, wherever you are, I hope the news is always good, the Red Sox are always winning, and you are having a ball painting the game. I hope it’s a beautiful prairie day and you’re sitting beside a hundred year barn, surrounded by Nora’s chicks, listening to cat talk, and sipping a glass of unsweetened ice tea served with extra lemon on the side. I hope you’re singing, “Hey naked baby, hey naked baby,” or “the birdies fly away and they come back down” while bouncing a baby on your lap, I hope there’s a skylark flying over your head, a poet’s dog dozing at your feet, and another dashing by, its white fur flying.

Pad, I hope you’re surrounded by all that you love: flowers, books, paintings, music, dogs, cats, birds, snow horses, children, women to laugh with, and men to flirt with. I hope you’re sharing stories with Madonna and Philo, Pony and Bob, Bruce and Ann, Craig and Sean, Una and Marten. I hope a pack of beloved cats and dogs are gathered at your feet: Emmett and Charlie, Owen, Tess, and Neo, Romeo, Sylvie and Tom, Scottie and Casey, Tanga, Bossi, and Wupsi, Sammy and Sheba, and Ollie. I hope the coffee is strong, the wine is dry, the chocolate is dark and the applesauce is sweet. I hope you are being held by what you knew first: prairie dirt from all the places to love under your feet and a wide cloudless sky as blue as your beautiful eyes that can see clearly once again.

Pad, the moon’s almost here, my moon, your moon,  everybody’s moon, so I’ll sign off, but before I let you fly away to just dance, here’s a little snippet from your poet, Mary Oliver.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Patty, forgive me but I didn’t do it. I didn’t let you go. As my life begins without you, I still hold you close, knowing I will miss you all the remaining days of my journey down here on your friend Earth.

Here’s looking up your old address, Pad.

Lala Salama,

Love and seven kisses in a row,

Your little heifer,

LeeLee


Read more by and about Patricia MacLachlan, including "After the Call: Sarah, Then and Now" from the May/June 2022 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: The Newbery Centennial. List of Books by Patricia MacLachlan (in order of mention)

Dream Within a Dream 

Word After Word After Word 

Kindred Souls 

The Sick Day 

Three Names 

The Iridescence of Birds 

Painting the Wind 

The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt 

More Perfect Than the Moon 

Arthur, for the Very First Time 

Unclaimed Treasures 

No One Asked Me (forthcoming) 

Wondrous Rex 

Sarah, Plain and Tall 

Fiona Loves the Night 

Once I Ate a Pie 

Chicken Talk 

Waiting for the Magic 

Snowflakes Fall 

Before You Came 

The True Gift 

Who Loves Me? 

Someone like Me 

A Secret Shared 

You Were the First 

The Truth of Me 

Painting the Game (forthcoming) 

Prairie Days 

The Hundred Year Barn 

Nora’s Chicks 

Cat Talk 

Baby 

Skylark 

The Poet’s Dog 

White Fur Flying 

Snow Horses 

What You Know First 

All the Places to Love 

The Moon’s Almost Here 

My Moon, Your Moon 

Fly Away 

Just Dance 

My Poet 

I Didn’t Do It 

My Life Begins! 

Journey 

My Friend Earth 

Lala Salama 

Seven Kisses in a Row 

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman is the author of over seventy books, including Remembering Ethan; A Letter to Harvey Milk; October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; I Carry My Mother; The Boy Who Cried Fabulous; Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed; and Heather Has Two Mommies.

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