I’ve been mourning a death that hits me particularly hard. Barbara Little Horse, one of my closest friends from New York City, died last summer, but I only learned of her death last week. On March 12, Facebook said it was her birthday, so I sent her a message, then decided to check out her page, since we’d been out of touch for a while. There I found a birthday message from her sister saying how much she missed her, reading ominously like one of those In Memoriam messages that follow the obituaries.
I sent the sister, Judith Baller-Fabian, a query and while I waited for an answer, I Googled Barbara’s name. I found professional contact information related to her career as a psychotherapist, and even the abstract of a research study – probably the dissertation for the Ph.D. she earned when she was well into middle-age – titled “Psychoanalytic Aspects of Charismatic Charm.” But only when I did a search for “Barbara Little Horse death” did I come across a paid death notice from the New York Times stating she had died on July 22, 2013, “after a brief illness.” Judi later wrote back, telling me Barbara died of a “very aggressive lung cancer that her doctor believed was caused by her working so close to Ground Zero.”
I’d love to read Barbara’s study on “Charismatic Charm.” The phrase perfectly describes my friend, who embraced life with enthusiasm and verve. She was born in 1934, and according to her obituary, “Until her death she was a strong swimmer and avid wind surfer as well as a frequent participant at Cajun and Zydeco dance festivals.”
I vividly remember the night we met, because I’d come dangerously close to suicide. The year was 1970, and I got unusually high on marijuana, something that rarely happened because I’m a nonsmoker and have never liked to inhale. I’d been smoking with a studly young artist/carpenter in my fifth-floor SoHo loft, and after he left, I felt strangely drawn to the rear windows and barely fought off a sudden impulse to hurl myself down to the courtyard below.
Fortunately I came down safely, in body and in mind. I descended the stairs to street level, began walking, and the impulse passed. By purest serendipity, I had a destination: the very first meeting of my new Redstockings consciousness raising group, in a Greenwich Village apartment. These were the early days of the feminist resurgence, and after the excesses of the Sixties, the group was a true lifesaver. But perhaps meeting Barbara Little Horse was the best, most enduring thing about it.
The Redstockings were radical feminists, and our group spent many hours dissecting our relationships with the male chauvinist pigs in our lives, past and present. Barbara and I were both between relationships, both previously married. (She had three children with her first husband; her second, a Native American biker, gave her the exotic last name she continued to use thereafter.) Though we may have dissed men in our meetings, we by no means gave up on them, but feminism encouraged us to build strong relationships with women rather than viewing them primarily as rivals in the hunt for the masculine other.
Together we crashed countless parties. I dragged her to rock concerts and jazz clubs; she turned me on to Waylon Jennings, whose macho outlaw image reminded her of her Indian ex, and whom we heard at The Bottom Line. I swam with her at the YMCA and we shared countless dinners in the Italian restaurants near her walk-up apartment just south of Washington Square. One of those nights, she introduced me to a new and unfamiliar dessert called tiramisu. All those times we spent together were brightened by Barbara’s enthusiasm and laughter.
In 1975, I married and gave birth to a daughter, but Barbara and I stayed close. We both moved on in our professional lives, acquired graduate degrees in human services. When my husband and I traded our Prince Street loft for a house in the woods near New Paltz, she came to visit, and she loved cross-country skiing at the Mohonk Preserve with its glorious panoramic views.
As time went on, she traveled the world. She was especially excited about her trips to Maui – or was it Fiji? – to study with Tony Robbins. But to the end, she kept her Manhattan pied-a-terre, the little rent-controlled walk-up on Thompson Street in the Village. When I visited the city, I sometimes camped out on the sofa bed in her living room, with her Abyssinian cat watching over me. Gradually, those visits tapered off. Occasionally we touched base on line, but I never knew she was ill – not until I read her sister’s message on Facebook.
I’ll be 72 in July, and Barbara was seven years my senior, but I think of her as my contemporary, and I wonder how many other old friends have passed on without my knowledge. Now and then I’ve Googled some of their names, but many leave only the faintest of footprints online. Should I type the word “death” into my searches? No, not yet – the death of Barbara Little Horse is more than enough to cope with. But writing about her has brought her vividly back, and she’ll always remain forever young in my memories.