It’s a funny thing eulogizing someone a year after they’ve died. I sit down to write about her frequently but never accomplish more than writing her name, Emma Bee Bernstein. So it is strange that today, and begrudgingly so, is the first time I’m attempting to pen a piece remembering emma. We both had the same penchant for hyperbole and mythologizing and I think I was afraid that all the practice we’d had couldn’t prepare me to honor her memory. But I will try.
I remember when I became friends with Emma. We were both placed on the same camp Olympic team, Guatemala, in the summer of 1996. It was my first summer at Camp Kinderland and I was sick over being split up from my only friends and comfort, Sonja and Jesse. I was afraid Emma didn’t like me, maybe because I was new---unfamiliar with the traditions, songs and tales that came along with Camp Kinderland. But then she sat down next to me on the soccer field during a match against the blue team, clad head-to-toe in our team’s color, red. She had on a red wife-beater with red sophie shorts, a red head-band and red knee-high socks, on her feet were converse with (what I’d like to remember) red shoelaces and, of course, against her tragically beautiful pale skin was her signature red lipstick. And there began my most unique 12-year friendship with my emma bee, or as I called her, spoc. She called me Collzra.
Most of what I did in those first few months of friendship with Emma was laugh. She was as tireless as I at night. It’s funny, as I recall it now, it feels like all of our moments at Camp Kinderland those first two years were like the movie NOW AND THEN, filled with boy-talk, nail-painting (emma had tiny little nails and stubby little hands that she hated but wouldn’t allow to go unpolished) and laughing about nothing at all. Those foundational summers were perfection. We were connected to one another---our truest, barest, youthful selves. She accepted me though I was a difficult person, masking my insecurity with a hardness and a harshness that was unmatched at camp. She accepted me with an ease and a respect that I had a much harder time doing for her as the years went on and things became more difficult for her. And for that I am very sorry to emma.
High School approached rapidly. Emma wanted to go to St. Ann’s and didn’t get in. I remember her crying. She cried all night. I got into St. Ann’s but I couldn’t go without my partner. So we both decided on Friends Seminary. Together, as it were, we faced High School. Like in camp, Emma had a much easier time adapting. She threw herself into her studies with a vigor and passion I’ve still never encountered in anyone since. Her appetite for learning was astounding. It made her almost manic. I remember being angry that I didn’t have that same ferocity for all things studying. I was scared perhaps, that if I tried I wouldn’t get it like she did.
She dyed her hair pink and befriended the “fringe”, which at Friends were just the kids that liked “The Velvet Underground”, didn’t wear Gap, smoked cigarettes in the park behind our school and had an affection for socialism. We drifted in that first year. I resented her coolness, I resented how easy it was for people to love her. And love her people always did. But by the next year we were back on track. It always happened that way. Emma and I were as different as two people could be but there was an inextricable closeness that we couldn’t shake. She was very intentional in her close friendships and I always felt privileged to be on the inside.
Senior year of High School Emma was elected to give the senior speech. She recited "Changes" by Tupac. We had grown very close again, sleeping many nights at our friend Marissa’s house where we’d smoke pot and watch “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless” and romanticize our future boyfriends at our respective colleges. Somehow it was different when I spoke about future exploits, so many of which Emma already experienced. She was not afraid of new experiences and adventure like I was. Sometimes that was scary for me because her desire for spontaneity sometimes translated into recklessness and compromising situations, all of which I berated her for (too) much.
I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2007. She was nervous that I’d be judgmental and I was nervous that she’d be self-destructive and I’d have to feel her decisions with the same weight and intensity I had so many times before. She was more beautiful than ever, owning her curves, her style, her hair and her talent in a way that came together magically. And there were moments, in her small room on Central Park and Fullerton in Logan Square after a huge vegetarian meal of enchiladas and chiles rellenos from El Pacifico, where we’d laugh and laugh about the Halloween our English professor was dressed in all leather, or when a fellow camper had food in his teeth while he tried to shamelessly flirt with her.
What followed I’d rather not recall in a public forum because Emma accepted me. And here I must accept her and her decision with a respect and an undying love. It was hard for me to reconcile her death as I saw it for so long as an affront to me and my love and devotion to her. But now I understand that her sickness took a form that had nothing to do with me and what I tried to do for her. That she respected me and accepted me up until the very last day she lived. And I must do the same for her. Finally.
Emma loved regaling tales of yore. And she loved cutting her clothes. And she loved being sad. And she loved taking photographs of Toni. She loved Cindy Sherman. And she loved Top Chef but hated meat (most of the time). She loved dressing up in her grandmother’s clothes. She also loved her grandmother’s specialty, Barley. She loved Chanukah but didn’t care as much about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was the last time I saw my friend. She left the next morning for Venice. I miss her very much everyday but today on the one-year anniversary of her death, December 20th, 2009 I am devastated. I was supposed to go with her to the Bon Iver concert last winter but I was lazy and it was snowing, something that never stopped her from anything. It seems fitting to end with a line from the song entitled “For Emma”
“So apropos/Saw death on a sunny snow/For every life/Forgo the parable
/Seek the light/With all your lies/You're still very lovable/
I toured the light/so many foreign roads for Emma, forever ago." - Bon Iver