Farewell to Penny: Losing a Lot More Than a Best Friend

Penny is gone, and I can’t think of anything else. Penny, my best friend, dead in Plano, Tex., in her 40s.

She was my friend in high school, but we drifted apart. I think I’ve seen her two times in 20 years. So why do I feel as if I’ve just lost my best friend?

Our paths kept almost crossing, but we rarely managed to be in the same state at the same time. The last time I saw her was 10 years ago in front of the merry-go-round on the beach

boardwalk at Santa Cruz. We both had little girls and walked all over town pushing our umbrella strollers and catching up. She was traveling in California, and the meeting gave me a chance to learn her strange story.


I left the hometown, Chicago, before she did and moved to New York. The year I left New York, Penny moved there. She was employed as a social worker and studied acting. She met a guy named Shelley, an adman, and they got married. Following a spiritual leader with the unlikely name of Lester, they moved to Sedona, Ariz.

Later, Penny became a “born-again” Christian, finally a “charismatic Catholic.” She said to me, “You know me . . . I’ll always be a charismatic something.” She and her husband, who changed his name to John, became caretakers at an unusual Catholic church built into the beautiful red rocks of mountainous Sedona.

Did I mention that when I knew her she was your proverbial “nice Jewish girl”?

When we met in California, her conversation was peppered with phrases she repeated like slogans--"Praise the Lord” and “What a blessing.” For weeks afterward, every time I saw a pretty flower, a little voice would go off in my head, “What a blessing!”


I thought Penny was a saint. Not because she spent her adolescent summers working at a camp for severely handicapped people. Not because she left college to work with Chicago’s toughest street gangs. But because she once refused to go to a popular girl’s pajama party because I wasn’t invited. She told me my corny poems were wonderful. She sat up with me playing her brother’s Frank Sinatra album, “Only the Lonely,” after Tommy and I broke up.

Six weeks ago she called me after seeing my column in the Plano paper. I hadn’t heard from her in at least eight years. She told me she had four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 6. She and her husband ran a drug treatment program for teen-agers in Plano. Just that week I had seen a survey listing her town as one of the safest places in America and mine as one of the most dangerous.

The conversation was fairly mundane until I asked how she was doing. “I’m kind of walking in a miracle now,” she said. “In May I was told I had cancer.”

She told me how she prayed and believed she was getting better. That her hair had fallen out from the radiation therapy. That she could put up with anything as long as it was temporary. That her doctor didn’t understand why she prayed. That she had never been separated from her children.

Last week her husband called and said she was gone. I just can’t believe it. Penny not in this world? Penny whom I tried to make smile with her braces on. Penny who tinted her hair honey blonde and became a knockout at 16. Penny who taught me how to do the twist.

I got out the old yearbook and said goodby to her picture. I read what she wrote: ". . . Alice, since that day that I found out that you knew the words to ‘Daddy Cool’ I’ve admired you. It’s funny that a song like that could start such a wonderful friendship. The summer when we began our diets and lost all that weight, our trip to Wisconsin to see your sister, all our wonderful times that I’ll never forget. . . . Our midnight talks, those were the times we really let our hair down. . . . I can only hope (sorry to repeat same words again) that no matter what the future holds for us I can always say that Alice Nelson is my friend. As long as I can say that I know I will not be lost or insecure. May God bless you and grant your every wish. Please, Alice, always stay as wonderful as you are now, for no one could ever ask for more in a friend. Love always, Penny.”

You see what I lost. No one will ever talk like that to me again. Oh Reader, if you ever had a best friend, call her today.