Penny Nichols from Baton Rouge died yesterday.
I’m not referring to a metaphorical death. The death was real. But it wasn’t me. I’m P-e-n-n-i-e Nichols.
Penny Nichols’ heart stopped on April 12, and, although she was revived by paramedics, she slipped away on Sunday, April 18.
I’m sad. Some would say sadder than I should be. We weren’t close friends, yet I feel the loss as if we were.
We knew each other because of our names. It started when I received a phone call from New York in the era of clunky phone books with thin gray pages and 411 operators. I thought he knew me. He greeted me by name. Only after a few references to “that time together” did I realize he had the wrong Penny/Pennie. I offered to look up her number for him (after all, I already felt chummy with him). He was grateful. We laughed. I was pretty sure Penny would too.
After the second call for Penny not Pennie, I wrote Penny’s number down and pinned it in a place I could easily see. I learned things about her through the calls: her Pillsbury prize for a chicken recipe, antique linen upcycling, love of travel and wine, and more. I took to telling her friends as we would hang up, “Please tell Penny Pennie says hi!” I wanted to be her friend too.
One day she called me. This misdirection was for-Pennie-not-Penny: she had received a graduation announcement for one of my daughter’s friends. The misdirection gave us occasion to chat for the first time.
“We only live about three miles from each other!”
We laughed about the phone calls I had been receiving for fifteen years. We talked about the other two Penny Nichols in town.
“We should have a Penny/Pennie Nichols get together!”
“That would be lovely! Let’s do!”
Flash forward another five years, I was shopping at the farmer’s market. I was no longer receiving calls from Penny’s friends. 411 operators and phone books where Pennie Nichols preceded Penny Nichols entries were out of fashion. I gave a cheese vendor my debit card.
“Oh, you’re buying this for Penny?”
“You’re buying this for Penny Nichols?”
“Sure. I’m buying it for me. Why do you ask?”
After a few awkward moments, I convinced the vendor I hadn’t stolen Penny’s debit card. She directed me to Penny’s antique linen booth, and I met Penny for the first time. I was sure I wanted to be her friend.
Although we became Facebook friends, and I felt like I knew her well, we never hung out or traveled together.
Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because we never had the Penny/Pennie party. Or because I never joined her for tea or wine on her patio.
Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because I’m projecting. One day there will be an obit for Pennie Nichols. Some acquaintances have already called my daughter, concerned.
The projection is not just a name thing. When something happens to a friend, I tend to imagine myself in his or her shoes. I don’t think I’m the only one. I remember, when I divorced, most of my married friends shared stories about their marriages, their fantasies about divorcing or their struggles to avoid it. My divorce opened a door to stories they hadn’t shared before. Maybe they projected my circumstance on theirs, maybe they felt connected to my story. I’m not sure, but I do know that when something happens to someone else, we tend to personalize it, connect it to our own experiences.
Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be. I had been connected to Penny for over twenty years, after all, starting with that first call when I listened to her friend’s story for five minutes before I realized, I’m not that Penny.
Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be because I did lose a friend.
I didn’t die this week. But Penny did. And a little bit of Pennie and of a friendship imagined was swooped away with her.
I will miss the connection. A connection that wasn’t young, but a friendship that was just budding. Peace, Penny, for you and your family.
Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.