A Million Ways to Startle

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I was just writing a note to a few friends and needed to look up someone’s email address. Scrolling down the list, I was brought up short by noticing one I needed to delete. It belongs, or belonged, to my friend Luis Kemnitzer who died two weeks ago. Last weekend Jojo and I drove down to SF to the St. Martin de Porres soup kitchen where his memorial was held. It was a wonderful, painful, moving, bittersweet afternoon.

So many old friends were there from the anarchist community, from my life in San Francisco and before that Santa Cruz, and it was great to see them all. The last time all of us were gathered like that was at Geoff Yippie’s memorial some years ago, and several of us remembered Tommy from Sanchez House declaring at that memorial, “The next time we meet it shouldn’t be because another of us died. I’ll start an annual picnic in Yippie’s honor, so we can meet every year!” Then of course Tommy moved to the East Coast and the picnic/reunion never happened.

Among those in attendance on Sunday were almost all the Princesses of Plutonium affinity group, which I had been part of at the Nevada Test Site action in 1988 — actually, Lyra and I were both Princesses that year. She was the youngest member of the affinity group, being only about nine months old at the time, and though I had strong misgivings about camping amidst the radioactive dust with an infant, my desire to take part in the action was stronger and so off we went. Ah, youth! I remember Luis and his wife Moher Downing quite clearly from this action. Luis always had some funny comment, I just loved getting his perspective on what was going on. Moher fascinated me, because she would always take Lyra out of my arms and carry her around the camp. I thought she was doing it as a favor to me so I could rest, which made me feel somehow guilty and unable to rest. Eventually I figured out that no, she just really loved babies and considered it really fun to hang out with adorable little Lyra.

Even though they were older than the rest of us — Luis by then was 60 — when Moher and Luis were at an action it always felt more like a party. Come to think of it, when they were at a party it always felt more like a party, too. I remember hiking one hot, dry, windy day in the dusty desert when Lyra was fretting in her backpack and I was getting desperate for things to keep her occupied (she had diarrhea the entire time in the desert, which added an extra level of upkeep to say the least). Finally I took the dust mask off my face and gave it to her to play with as we walked. I met up with Moher a few minutes later when I stopped to take off the backpack and get a drink of water. Moher pointed to Lyra in her seat, who was not just playing with the dust mask, she had it in her mouth, sucking on the outer side that traps all the radioactive dust. Moher and I just looked at each other. What can you say in a moment like that? At what point in the history of ironies and horrors at the Nevada Test Site do you begin your narrative of that particular moment? To what parenting manual do you refer when considering whether that was the correct choice of items to amuse your baby? If this is not your child, what is the proper tone to strike when pointing out what the child is doing? To Moher’s everlasting credit, I believe she sighed, shook her head, and we had a laugh at the macabre humor of it all. Then I found something else for Lyra to play with.

Sunday’s memorial was the first time I’d seen Moher since her stroke of a couple months back, and she looked tired. I must find another time to visit with her, but it won’t be this weekend. Tomorrow I drive down for yet another memorial service, this time for Virginia, a friend who died on the same day as Luis. Virginia always came to our May Day parties with my friends: her daughter Liz, Liz’s partner and my ex-housemate Breakfast, and their charming children Max and Natalie. I will always remember Virginia’s captivating smile, white hair, tanned face, gnarled artist’s hands, and incredibly bright eyes as she sat and watched the party unfold. She took such joy in life, and I will miss her.

I can hardly bear it, but now I will delete Luis’ email address from my book. A simple keystroke, that’s all it is, and one less way for me to be startled in the future. But that’s not all it is, and I mourn the loss of that man from my life. I hear the click of heels down a long hallway, feel a shift in the air, as my circle of friends thins out almost imperceptibly and we all take a step closer to the exit door.

2 thoughts on “A Million Ways to Startle

  1. Craig Harris

    I was Geoff Yippie’s room-mate when he first came to New Paltz, NY in 1976, still miss him….
    thanks for the reminder…..

  2. amy b

    Interesting to hear about Geoff. Sorry to miss his memorial. I’m looking for his obituary to send out to some people.

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