On a Manhattan street corner last month, I phoned my friend Koryne, hoping she was alert.
“Hello?” her voice was hoarse.
Koryne has entered hospice care in a Minnesota nursing home.
Now 80, she once walked these same Upper West Side streets, as a mother then serving as ambassador for women to the United Nations. But it’d take me moving from Philadelphia to Minneapolis to work at this newspaper, eavesdropping at a Guthrie Theater play, and then writing an article about her for us to cross paths.
“Koryne! It’s Natalie,” I said. At 23 and on my second job in journalism, I often wonder why Koryne bothers making time for me. “You know, from the Star Tribune, now in New York … ”
“Yes, dear. How are you?”
“Oh, you know,” I responded. “You?”
During my year and a half in the Midwest, friendships with older women like Koryne helped me move forward during a period of enormous change. I moved to Minneapolis in June 2015 for an internship that turned into a full-time job at the Star Tribune. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the foremost woman in my life — my mother — was getting sicker from a decadelong battle with multiple sclerosis.
Young, single and broke, I hadn’t expected to lose my mom in the way I knew her — always polished, sending me off armed with snacks and fresh sheets to college. Her phone calls dwindled during my first few months in Minneapolis. Before long, the calls stopped coming entirely.
Koryne’s health, too, was failing, but I found our conversations were relaxed and familiar. We both felt comfortable enough to come as we are. So I’d call to check in and talk about our lives or the news. She was in and out of intensive care around the same time my 56-year-old mother underwent two serious neurosurgical procedures.
My mom, Jane, worked as a travel agent and secretary in her 20s and eventually stayed home to raise my younger brother and me. Always a homebody, my mom loved sweets, Diet Coke and David Bowie. She has big blue eyes and remained a youthful spirit as the baby of eight children. When she was first diagnosed with MS, I remember her tearing out of the waiting room where my brother and I sat as two gangly kids in the early 2000s.
Her symptoms crept up gradually. Normal life was no longer possible by 2015.
Even as her own freedoms waned, she always encouraged my ambitions.
A plane ride away, pursuing my own dreams, I often felt virulently selfish while living in Minneapolis. Women are socialized to be the caretakers. Or as my friend Emma from St. Paul puts it: Women are supposed to “do the kind things.”
Sickness can blur the lines between adult and child. Finding few peers in my situation, I felt unusually connected to older adults. The matriarchs I found in Minnesota weren’t blood-related, weren’t teachers, weren’t necessarily bosses — but they looked out for a newcomer.
The list goes on: a free air-conditioning unit from Janet. An invitation to Easter dinner, complete with an egg hunt and leftovers, from Connie. How to improve my writing — plus free Stevie Nicks tickets and tales of a past life in New York — from Sharyn. How to plan for family leave from Allie. How to bake, go gray gracefully someday and dish out a pensive raise of the eyebrow from Kim.
My slightly older roommate Emily, a designer at the paper, insisted I check my student loan balance and learn how to budget in general. We made pancakes on weekends and talked about music or careers or her brand-new perfect dog.
At the office, I idolized the intrepid reporting of Pam, a fierce runner who spent a few years in New Orleans. She could craft a killer lede like the next Susan Orlean. She sat two desks away and was tasked with the “big” stories — synthesizing narratives about the death of Prince, or the tragic kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old, or the funeral for an unarmed black man who was shot by police. And yet she found time to connect me with a friend whose own mother had lived with MS for decades..
Then there was Jackie, a reporter around my mom’s age who lost both parents while we worked together. We talked about caretaking and the importance of preserving my independence through a paycheck. She proved the possibility of living with intention and purpose — a woman in a rock band who’s unmarried and child-free.
And then there’s Koryne, a total firebrand. She was mentored by Jimmy Carter. She counts heroes like Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan as close friends. She co-founded a women’s caucus in Minnesota back in the 1970s and is still fervently politically engaged. We celebrated her 79th birthday last year with red velvet cake and wine while she passed around a signed copy of Steinem’s “My Life on the Road” memoir. I didn’t grow up with a grandmother, so Koryne’s friendship was a gift at just the right time.
I moved back to the East Coast in December, where I wanted to pursue my career and live closer to my mom. But I still treasure the group of unofficial mothers I met in Minnesota. They’re more evidence that guidance from older women exists anywhere I’m willing to look.
Between now and last Mother’s Day, my mom has lost her ability to speak clearly. She’s been on and off hospice care. I sometimes tell her about my articles, but she prefers to hear stories about my life.
So I’m bookmarking this one:
Shortly after the Women’s Marches around the world, I called Koryne, curious about her opinion.
“It doesn’t matter where women connect,” she said. “They just need to connect.”
She’s absolutely right, I told her.
“You’re so sweet,” she said. “I hope you have so much success in life. Bless you, and thank you for being my friend.”
Koryne, thank you.
Natalie Daher is a writer, journalist and feminist living in New York.