She Knew How Fragile Writers Could Be

E-mails were short, sometimes five words.

I used to send Judith gifts around Mother's Day. Not on, but around -- because she wasn't my mother. But among her many titles -- mentor, boss, friend -- there was also this: the mysterious figure who wore the mantle of Mother Reader.

She guarded the Reader the way a mother bear guards its cub and was forever popping out new ideas for stories, new directions for the paper to take. I was one of those new directions. She had ferreted out my husband from the same liberal-arts college I attended. Perhaps because my background was similar to his, she decided to take a chance on me. I was delighted to find that she liked my writing and tried to follow the advice she dispensed in her low voice over the telephone: "Show, don't tell." "Write what you know." "Use strong verbs." "Honey, don't worry."

Judith was a writer herself, and she knew how fragile writers could be. She knew when to praise, when to cajole, when to discipline. What astounded me was that she could do it with so few words. E-mails were short, sometimes five words. Phone calls ended abruptly, either with a "Bye" or a click. Words were precious to Judith; she didn't waste them. It was part of what kept her mysterious.

As the years rolled by, she kept that mystery (and the power that came with it), but we still managed to grow closer. I wrote more pieces for the paper, and Judith's confidence in me grew. She assigned me to write a 1500-word story profiling a homeless woman. When I decided to try helping out my story subject (with unfortunate results), she let me turn that assignment into a 14,000-word cover story chronicling the experience. Later, I wrote other covers (diamonds, bras, mustaches), usually at her suggestion.

She sent poems:

  • It could happen any time, tornado,
  • earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
  • Or sunshine, love, salvation....

  • — from "Yes" by William Stafford

What happened to Judith was cancer. And when she became ill, she pulled back the curtain a bit and started sharing anecdotes from her life. I grew more loyal to her every day, amazed I could be so fiercely attached to someone I did not know well. I wanted so much to help her, and I prayed with great fervor for her healing.

As death grew closer, she opened up even more. During the years that I knew her, she wrote me only five pen-and-paper letters. This one came near the end: "I have been so sick so much of the time -- from the chemotherapy, not the cancer itself -- that I have answered no mail. What I do with the energy I have is to try to keep up with my Reader work and help Jim. I enjoy the work, in part because it takes my mind off of how nauseated I am, and naturally -- or 'natch,' as Scott Fitzgerald-types must have said -- I enjoy helping Jim. I have worked for him now for a few months more than twenty years. I am so proud of how far this paper has come. I want so badly to get well, if only to keep going on making that cover look better."

She was still Mother Reader.

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