I was waiting in the reception area to meet with Marsha Smelkinson, who I'd never laid eyes on. The first woman through the door was about six-feet tall, broad-shouldered with a towering afro and a pounding stride. She snapped exasperatingly at the cowering receptionist before stomping down the hall. The next woman who came in was petite, despite being about six months pregnant. She had black hair cut in a bob with thick bangs above round red glasses. She also had one of the most beautiful smiles I'd ever seen—a smile of genuine delight with smooth white teeth.
I sat there, clutching my college resume and silently repeating, "Please let it be the small pregnant one, please let it be the small pregnant one."
As luck would have it, it wasn't. It was the big, scary one. Who ended up being a brilliant and innovative marketer, a sensitive and warm-hearted soul, and someone whose aggression masked a deep-rooted insecurity. The "little one" was Karen, a smart cookie who'd lived in New York and Miami, had a no-nonsense demeanor, was scrupulously organized, and who lived by the phrase "just do it" way before Nike ever claimed it.
I was indeed their intern that summer, a roller-coaster of a ride where I broke up with one boyfriend, found a new very inappropriate one, went sky-diving and did a fair amount of growing up. Around the office, I was soon referred to as "R. Jane" which started innocently enough with comments such as, "We'll send our Jane over to drop off the layout."
I came back down from college for a baby shower for Karen. Weeks later, she gave birth on a Friday to her son Michael. She dropped by the office on Monday to check it. That's Karen.
I moved down to Hilton Head after graduation and within a year and a half, I was a full-time employee of Smelkinson Cerrati & Co. Over the next three and a half years, I travelled with Karen, her husband Al and Mikey to Disneyworld, was taught how to drive my 1976 yellow Triumph Spitfire by Al (I'd already bought the car and really didn't have a clue how to drive a stick shift), took Karen to get her ears pierced at lunchtime and entertained dozens of kids at Mikey's birthday parties. Together we made it through sick dachshunds, Little League and Pee wee soccer, Montessori School Mother's Day pageants and the best of all, the birth of her son Eric after two heart-breaking miscarriages.
Soon after Eric was born, I left Hilton Head and moved first to Greenville, SC and then to Boston. Karen — sometimes with the boys but more often without—would fly in for long weekends. We'd go see touring companies of Broadway musicals, take harbour cruises (some more successful than others - there was a particularly gruesome "comedy" cruise), or rent a convertible and drive up to Maine, eating lobster rolls and lobster stew twice in a single day. We'd walk the Freedom Trail with Mike and Eric, go on pirate cruises and Duck Boat tours.
Days before Christmas one year, I had a business trip to New York, where the Cerratis were spending the holidays with Al's mother. We met up at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and posed for photos, then went to Cafe Un Deux Trois for dinner before the Cerratis headed off to Radio City for the Christmas Spectacular and I flew back to Boston. Cards were handed to tables around the room and the entire restaurant sang an increasingly exuberant rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas." The New York adventures continued when I moved to New York in 1998.
I'd always said that I wanted to go to Paris for the first time on my honeymoon, it seemed the height of romance (I've since changed that to Venice but time is running out for the potential groom to show up.) In her typically straight-forward manner, Karen finally said "How long are you going to wait for some man who may or may not show up before you go to Paris?"
I pondered this.
"Forty," I replied, safely entrenched in my 30's and confident that he'd show up in the next few years, "If I'm not married by 40, I'll go to Paris on my own."
Well, the year I turned 40, I went to Paris...with my friend Nannette who also had turned 40 six months earlier and Karen sent us both to a celebratory dinner on the Bateaux Mouche. (She also surprised me with a party of about 40 of my assorted friends from New York, Hilton Head and Boston—worlds colliding! Earlier in the day, while we were having pre-party makeup applications at Barneys, my present-to-myself Prada bag was stolen right out from under me. On the way to file a report at the police station, we passed Woody Allen and Son Yi. "Oooh! That makes having your bag stolen worthwhile," Karen cooed. I begged to differ.)
The next summer, Karen and I went to Paris, then onto Florence. The next time I went to Paris it was with my friend Lori, then Mary (and Carol), then Karen again, then Susan, Karen and lastly Sandy. Still haven't made it to Paris with a husband, though I did have a steamy makeout session under the chestnut trees on Blvd. St. Germain very late one April evening with a handsome American hedge fund manager we'd met over dinner at Cafe Atlas. That was fun....) On our last trip to Paris, Karen and I were joined by her son Eric, just graduated from Tulane and on the end of his grand European tour. Through many trips to New York with his Mom, Eric has learned he'll have a much better time if he sticks with us, rather then head off to drink beer in an anonymous bar with his pals.
We share a love of the glamorous side of travel—the adventure, the intrigue, the weeks of endless planning. It's taken us from Jerusalem to the west coast of Mexico and I can only assume, many more locations to come.
There are moments when I consider that I've given a friend a "Golden Ticket" - a lifelong pass that cannot be revoked (okay, maybe only the most dire of circumstances, like murder). Karen earned hers when my Dad was in a rehab facility during the last weeks of his battle with lung cancer. Every day without fail, Karen would show up for an hour, first taking my Mom for a walk around the beautiful grounds, then taking me for a walk. It saved our sanity, literally. With just my Mom and I dealing with Dad's illness and inevitable death, there were times when tensions had us at each other's throats. Karen defused those emotional timebombs before they had a chance to detonate. When my Mom died unexpectedly seven years later, Karen was the third person I called that early morning, after 911 and our minister. She was there with me through every decision I had to make, always with support for my decisions and encouragement. When I was overwhelmed, she gently stepped in.
Over the years, my relationship with Karen has become one of sisters—although neither of us have a sister so its our best guess. We're yin to the other's yang. Karen's pragmatic with a dose of the romantic, I'm a romantic with a dollop of pragmatism. She writes concise lists, I compose pages (volumes) of prose. She is a very private person, I wear my heart on my sleeve. And yet for our differences, we complement each other—like salty/sweet—we bring out the best in each other. Our lives have become tightly braided together over the past 31 years and I imagine they will continue to over the next 30 years to come.
There's family you're born with and then there's your family of choice. I choose Karen.