Virginia Lewis was my next door neighbor when I was kid growing up in Long Beach, California. An artist, she gave me my first books of poetry. I believe those books and her personality inspired me for the rest of my life.
Both housewives in the late 1950's, my mother and Virginia became best friends. But Virginia was the most interesting housewife of all my mother's friends. Besides painting wild, colorful creations on large canvases, she practiced yoga, meditated, and swam three miles in the ocean every day. She was a vegetarian who smoked Camel cigarettes and drank her whisky neat. Her husband was a fireman and a sailor. They had one daughter, my older sister's age. They owned a sailboat and took our family on trips to Catalina Island. Sometimes we sailed at night, and I remember looking at the stars and watching Virginia. She sat on the deck talking with my parents, jazz playing along with the sound of waves against the hull. Always tan, Virginia wore a black leotard top with a V-neck, a red swirling skirt. Her sandy-blonde hair was cut short like a boy's, and her laughter was husky and deeply feminine.
I was nine years old when Virginia gave me Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, who wrote a newspaper column for many years for the New York Sun. Archy is a cockroach, and Mehitabel is a cat in her ninth life. These two live in a journalist's house, and when he goes to work, Archy hops up on the typewriter and writes poetry. Free verse, of course, because in a previous incarnation, Archy was a free verse poet. Mehitabel offers him many stories from her treasure trove of nine incarnations. She has a great exuberance for living, "toujours gai," as she calls herself. Archy is more philosophical with a dark humor. Being a cockroach, he has to throw himself headfirst onto each key to operate the typewriter. He can't make capital letters because he doesn't weigh enough to hold down the shift key.
I thought this book was as amazing as Virginia. When she saw how much I adored Archy and Mehitabel, she gave me another volume of poetry, This Way We Walk, by Robert Burlingame. The poems were more literary, and the book included lithographs. The writing and art put a fire in my imagination. I had been writing my own first poems, and Virginia must have seen this hunger for the artistic life. My parents were not readers, but for some reason I loved to read and write. One of my first memories: I'm about four years old and pretending I can write, making furious scribbles all over lined paper and handing these messy missives to my mother who tapes them up on the refrigerator or the kitchen walls.
The last time I saw Virginia was at my mother's funeral, twenty-two years ago. She was twelve years older than my mother, so she must have been about seventy-one. She told me she still swam in the ocean every day, but "only a mile now." At the funeral, Virginia was the person I longed to see the most. I believe she was a wonderful influence on my mother, and sometimes I wish we had never moved away from Long Beach, as if staying there might have changed my mother's fate for the better.
Virginia taught me creativity, possibility, the rich world of the inner life. She inspired me to be an artist. A liberated, loving, and independent spirit, she stepped outside the limited lifestyle for women in the 1950's and 60's. Thank you, Virginia Lewis. While running my three miles a day, I often think of you.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society