The Circle Becomes Smaller

No Longer Part of the Earthly Circle: Buddy, My Mother Jan, and Bobbie Hamming It Up Circa 1980

“The circle becomes smaller,” said Esty, a French nonagenarian who lives in New York. She and I were on the phone discussing the death of our friend Bobbie Carlin last week.

Bobbie’s death has been a shock to most of us who knew her. At 81 she wasn’t young. Nevertheless, she had such a tenacious hold on life that it is hard to believe she is gone.

I knew Bobbie for much of my life. Her daughter Susan and I became friends as teenagers. Soon my parents teamed up with Bobbie and her funny, darling husband Buddy for escapades and anniversary parties.

In February I wrote about visiting Bobbie in New York City. She was like a second mother to me … in good ways and bad.

I’ll never forget my frustration one day about ten years ago when she and my mother were chatting in our living room in Massachusetts. I peeked in to say goodbye since I was leaving for a friend’s wedding.

They shot identical looks at my sundress and uttered in unison three words every daughter dreads: “You’re wearing THAT?”

It took me some time to convince them that since the wedding was an informal garden party my attire was entirely appropriate. (The fact that I was wearing a hat apparently helped.) I was almost late for the wedding and wondered as I sped along the road whether I really needed one mother, let alone two. I was, after all, an adult.

Today, of course, I’d be happy to have either of them around to criticize my wardrobe. I’d still stand up for my goddess-given right to dress as I saw fit. But I’d try to be a little more patient with their perceived mandate to express their opinions.

In many ways my circle and my world will indeed be smaller and less rich without Bobbie. She was maddeningly opinionated, but she could laugh at just about anything. She was familiar with every inch of her beloved city. And she knew every Broadway song ever written.

She prided herself on being ageless. The only time she ever allowed a white hair on her head was when she and her hairdresser decided on a look they called “tortoiseshell,” a combination of red, black, and white tufts. It sounds weird, but it was hugely flattering—especially when the tortoise slipped on a pair of huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses.

Bobbie knew how to dress better than anyone else I have ever known and was always perfectly turned out.

When I complained once at being caught by a camera in informal clothes and no makeup, she told me, “A person should never leave the house unless she is prepared to be network television.”

I laughed because I NEVER look prepared to be network television. She was deadly serious, however.

Bobbie pretended she wasn’t sentimental. When the smart, graceful, and remarkably un-neurotic Susan became pregnant for the first time, someone asked the grandmother-to-be what she wanted to be called by the newest generation. Grandma? Nana? Grand-mère?

“They may call me Mrs. Carlin,” she replied loftily.

In the end Ian, Gillian, and Danielle called her “Barbar,” a shortened version of her formal name, Barbara. And she loved them—as she loved New York, cheap theater tickets, stylish boots, her dancer daughter, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, and makeup samples from Saks Fifth Avenue—extravagantly.

When I think about it, the truth is not that my circle and the world are smaller because Bobbie died but that they are larger because she lived.

I will never be able to emulate her sartorial style, which relied in large part on very slender legs. I hope, however, that I can match her passion for life.

For now, I’ll settle for singing a chorus of “My Funny Valentine” around the house in her honor. She loved that song. And she was indeed the funniest of valentines.

Bobbie in February

To hear me sing “My Funny Valentine” (pardon my recording technology–not to mention my piano playing!), click on the “Play” button below.