Missing The Old Country

Judith Schmidt: 81, widowed, 1 child, therapist

Best friend of years: Shirley Glickman and Nina Liebman, died ... Shirley from cancer at age 65 and Nina from cancer in 1980 when she was 50

“I think there is an emotional language that women can speak. They know what it’s like to bring life into the world, to take care of life.”

How did you meet?

How did you meet Shirley?

I met Shirley probably in 1958. I had graduated college as a psychology and literature major and I knew nothing about teaching, but I needed a job. In those days, they were desperate for teachers. I started to teach a second grade class in East Harlem and I walked into my classroom and I fell in love with the kids, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

That first week there was an assembly and on the stage there was a teacher with her class. She sat in a chair with a rabbit on her lap and was directing the children to portray the children’s book Madeline. She read the story and the children made the story come alive by forming two straight lines. I looked and said, “I want to be a teacher like her.” We started to have coffee after school.

We grew close like sisters. And that summer, we went to Mexico together. This was 1959/1960. We took a Greyhound bus and rented an apartment on the roof of a building in Mexico City. I’ll never forget every morning we heard a guy’s voice calling out, “Hello, hello.” And I said, “This guy is saying hello.” Meantime, every day Shirley, who is much more outgoing and forceful than I am, would go down to the landlady and say, “There is no ice in the ice bucket.” And the woman would say, “But every morning he is coming up with the hielo.”

I remember little details like that. I remember the time Shirl and I went to a nightclub in Cuernavaca and I was sitting in a corner writing poetry and Shirl was playing the drums with the drummer. We got home very, very late and the police came up to us because our parents – hers in the Bronx, mine in Brooklyn – found out that there had been an earthquake in Mexico City. My father was having ten men pray as a minyan in the synagogue for us. Our parents were trying to reach us and in the meantime we were up all night dancing and drumming.

When we were coming back from Mexico City we didn’t have a cent. We were waiting for money to be wired. But I had my iron. I was in the restroom and I was wearing a Mexican shirt and a long skirt. I had long black hair down to my waist. I took out my iron like I was offering to iron clothes for the money. Shirley had a little box to collect the money. We had such memories together.

What was the friendship like?

What was the friendship with Shirl like?

Shirl was a wonderful writer and teacher and full of life. I was a very, very shy person and Shirley brought me out. I’ll give you an example. When we would walk in the street, Shirl would put her arm through mine. I remember sometimes we’d be walking and I’d say to myself, “Judy, put your arm through hers.” I couldn’t do it. Last week, her daughter Paula and I were spending the day in Soho, and we were walking and I put my arm through Paula’s arm and I said, “Shirl, I did it.” At a very, very deep level she helped me learn how to come out of my introversion.

I was an only child and we were very poor; after me, my mother had six abortions. I always craved a sister or brother and Shirl was that sister. She was absolutely constant in her devotion. For example, she had just had radiation for her cancer and I had to have gum surgery and Shirl said, “I’ll go with you.” I said, “No you won’t, you are recuperating and my friend Gloria is going with me.” But when I walked into the dentist’s office Shirl was sitting there. She was a true blue, constant, devoted friend. The sister I never had. It was devastating when I lost her. I call her my old country. I have very, very dear friends, but it will never be like it was with her.

Our families were close; I was close to her sister, to Paula, to her brother-in-law, and to her father. She was very close to my mother. My parents observed the High Holy Days and they fasted and I had made a promise to them when I was a teenager that as long as I was able to physically I would be there to have food on the table at the end of the fast. And after my father passed away, Shirl would come with me before the Shofar was blown at the end of Yom Kippur and we would go to pick my mother up until my mother was too old to do that anymore. Shirl was family.

She passed away when she was just 65. Her daughter Paula, who is my godchild and is 52 now, was born two years before my daughter was born. My daughter lived for four years. She passed away when she was four, but the two girls were like sisters, and now Paula’s like my daughter. Echoes of the old country.

What was your friendship with Nina like?

Nina and I met when we were teaching in the same school on the Lower East Side. In 1963, they were doing fire drills for the atomic bomb air raids. They had the children go under their desks and Nina and I protested. We went to the principal and said, “We won’t do this because it’s a lie. It won’t save the children.” That’s the way we came to be close. When my daughter was born, Nina moved to Greenwich Village and lived next door to me. When my daughter was one year old, Nina adopted a son from Korea. She couldn’t have children because she had had breast cancer. Jimmy was 18 months old and Leslie was a year old. We raised our children together and it was like one family, the doors were always open, the kids bathed together, they ate together. When Leslie was upset with me, she’d say, “You’re my favorite hate, I’m going to Nini’s house.” And she would just leave. At two-and-a-half she was able to go next door.

We were moms together and arranged our work schedules so that we could do childcare for one another. My husband at that time was an attorney and very involved with draft resisters, so he traveled a lot to Canada and Texas. Nina was with me the night that my daughter became ill. She went to the hospital with me and was there in all of the aftermath with Jimmy asking, “Leslie, where is Leslie?” We lived through a real tragedy together. Shortly after Leslie died, Nina moved to Staten Island. Two years later she adopted another son, Jesse, from Korea. I was very, very close to the children.

By the time Jimmy was in high school, I would come out to Staten Island and take care of the kids, stay there, go into Manhattan to work while Nina was going through treatment and surgery. I was with Jess when Nina died in the emergency room. I was the one who, at her request, read her journals and burned them.

The way Shirl carried me, I carried Nina. I have very, very dear friends, but it’s not the same, even with my women friends. There is something about holding a certain kind of shared history. I have friends now that I know for 30 years: my professional partner, my teaching partner. We run an institute where we have worked together for 30 years. We would do anything for one another. But it’s not the same.

Like tomorrow, I’m going for Alexis’s colonoscopy with her and she will go for my cataract surgery. We are there for each other, but there is something different. With my friends now we would do anything for each other, but they don’t know my past and they didn’t know my daughter. I don’t think that has to do with the nature of friendship. I think it has to do with age.

Describe how the friendship ended.

When I look back, what I find very interesting is that Nina and Shirl knew each other, but they were not close. I had very separate relationships with them. When Paula entered high school, Shirl moved out of Manhattan to Great Neck so Paula could go to school there. Nina died in 1980, also of cancer. Shirl didn’t pass away until 1990, so there was an overlap in our friendships.

How did you cope with her loss?

After Nina died, I remained very, very close to her children. They relied on me until they could spread their wings and take off. For me, it left a tremendous hole to lose the daily contact with them. I really had to use everything I had to make new connections because, as I say, I’m not the most outgoing of people. Friendships don’t come easily to me, though with my friends I’m very, very devoted and they know that. I will talk about anything with them.

I’m very grateful for Paula and Paula’s children, that we have each other, that connection carries on. Next Mother’s Day I will go to New Orleans with Paula to visit her daughter. It is a great honor to me and a great honor to Shirley and our friendship that our relationship lives on.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?

There is an emotional language that women can speak. We know what it’s like to bring life into the world, to take care of life. I think women “take care of” in a different way. That might be sexist, I don’t know. I have very, very dear close male friends, but there is a way, there is an emotional resonance with some women, not all women, that I feel understood and cared for differently. How would I name that difference? It feels more instinctual.

Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Judith, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!