This is only the second memoir I’ve elected to read in my adult life. The first was Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime.
I have to say, this was a great follow-up to reading Born A Crime.
When I first dived into this memoir, I didn’t feel like Mrs. Rachel Levy Lesser and I would have anything in common. Honestly, her talking about her life annoyed me. To really unpack that statement, it stung me in my childhood.
While I lived a life a bit more affluent than many of the kids I grew up with, I was never sleep-away-camp, boarding school, generational-wealth well-off. Don’t feel sorry for me though. I had an awesome childhood and am eternally grateful to my parents for giving me an amazing life. But I’ve always been a dreamer, which is a blessing and curse. It’s hard for me to be present as I’m always daydreaming about something. I’m always searching for the next big thing to add to myself — stuff, knowledge, or experiences. The life Lesser described she had growing up was what I always dreamed up for myself when I was a little girl. Prep schools, awesome education, expensive clothes for gifts because I’m sad, all that good Parent Trap stuff.
When Lesser told me how hard it was to fit in at her boarding school as a middle schooler who didn’t fit the fashion or beauty standards, I rolled my eyes and audibly sighed and let the book fall out of my hands.
When she decided to bury her identity so her mom supported her by taking her on an expensive shopping trip, my eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head.
In my own version of a Julia Roberts Pretty Woman makeover, I decided that I would do whatever it took to become, or at least look like, the all-too-cute-and-together girls at school. I dragged my mother with me to the preppy shops in Princeton, where she said yes to just about every Laura Ashley long skirt and J. Crew cable-knit sweater, and even a pair of Sebago penny loafers…
Life’s Accessories | PG 18
But then I thought for a second about how judgmental and dismissive I was being to this woman I had never met. I didn’t like it. That’s never been a part of who I am or my values. This woman didn’t have control of her family history and the opportunities presented to her no more than I had of mine. I sat her memoir down, went and drank some water, cooked dinner for my husband, pet all the animals one more time, and went to bed. In the morning I picked the book back up.
I started it over. I decided I would connect with the memoir Life’s Accessories rather than filter it through my personal baggage (no pun intended).
I’m really glad I did. I’m not sure how just reading this book helped me, but it did. It was therapy for two huge holes in me that need healing:
1. Middle school Chá Merri who was thrust in a world she didn’t understand.
2. Chá Merri right now. The one who just experienced real grief for the first time after losing her best friend and little sister.
Clothes are a choice you make to either stand out or hide from the world
That’s not a quote from the memoir but its a takeaway I got. As I read that middle school section for the second time I replayed my own painful years. Lesser and I made the same choice but in different ways.
While I held on to my weird style, I chose to dumb down my language. My mother, a school teacher at the time, had taught me to speak in perfect English. In middle school, I switched from a private school to a public school and those kids thought my proper speaking was too “white” and of course “uncool.” I didn’t understand slang and didn’t know how to incorporate it into sentences. I read encyclopedias and worked ahead in my math books for fun.
One night, after being called “white” and “uppity” I decided I would have no more of it. I went home and, I kid you not, I googled all the slang words I could find. I looked up how to use them in sentences. I looked up cuss words (because I didn’t know any) and tried to learn what they meant. (I didn’t use any then though because that was too scandalous for young Chá Merri.)
I buried myself, just like Lesser did. And just like Lesser, I still didn’t find any friends by doing so.
I realized that’s why it hurt so bad to read about her middle school years, about her being thrust into an unknown environment and being ripped from her previously perfect world, was because it was too relatable. It was a pain I had chosen to bury rather than heal from.
Now, it was in front of my face. And now that I had torn down that wall I was ready to embrace Lesser’s truths.
One of my favorite parts of the memoir was Lesser’s romancing of sleep-away camps. I loved hearing about sleep-away camp and knowing it was a real thing that maybe I could help pay to send my nephew to one day. It wasn’t just a dream I made up after watching The Parent Trap. As I read about her accomplishment of becoming color captain, I felt some joy myself. It was as if I, too, had become the color captain.
When I see the gray-team necklace, I think of the great summer of 1990. That summer seems like a million years ago, in a place only those who lived it with me could ever really understand. That small, thin piece of tin reminds me of what it felt like to have found my place in my own little piece of the world for the very first time. It reminds me of the great sense of self, of honor, of responsibility that came with color-war team captain status.
Life’s Accessories | PG 33
That feeling she described is what college felt like to me. When I found my friends Brandon and Rendia, when I met Chris and Jenna in the lobby playing video games. That was the first time in my life I felt like I was truly accepted for being 100% myself. It was a beautiful feeling.
At that time, I also had a necklace that was significant to me. It was a dog tag that had one-half of a heart on it. My boyfriend of that time had the other half. I no longer wear it but I still have it in a memory box. Not because I miss that guy (I don’t at all. We were kids and we were not good for each other.) but because, for me, it reminds me of the time I served in Residence Hall Association and made some great friends.
So, I totally related and totally was feeling this color-war thing. I now plan on forcing my husband and friends to create our own.
It’s a memoir so of course it continues to follow Lesser through all of her life. I got to see her go to college, find love, experience heartbreak, climb the corporate ladder, find love again…But the part that really got me, the part that I really needed to hear, was her journey through her mom’s passing.
The words you’ll never get to say are the ones I miss the most
That’s also not a quote from the book, but it’s the phrase that welled up in me as I read through her journey with grief.
Our stories here are not the same but I believe the pain is similar.
Lesser lost her mother as she slowly died from cancer. She went through therapy as her mother’s condition worsened to try and deal with the inevitability.
I lost my best friend and little sister quite suddenly. She was perfectly healthy. I know due to our personal conversations it was stress and heartache but there was no official cause of death given.
Three weeks before she died, I had a dream that she passed. I brushed it off as a bad dream. Desi was the healthiest person I knew. She lived and breathed health. She went to the gym like all the time. Our hangout sessions had three main ingredients: sushi, shopping, and working out.
There was no way my little sister was going to die. It was probably just something I watched.
Exactly one week after I had that dream, I got a call that she had passed out and was in the hospital. I drove 3 hours to go see her. They had her sedated and she was incoherent. People flooded the room to see her, but she wouldn’t wake up. She would sometimes open her eyes, but she wasn’t mentally present.
When all of the other people left, I stayed behind. I spoke to her. I turned on Friends, our favorite show to watch together. Nothing. I started to sing to her. I sang Everything Stays, my favorite song from Adventure Time. I sang every Drake song I could find because Drake was her favorite artist. I made her watch anime with me as a joke since she hated it. I laughed and told her if she didn’t wake up I would keep playing anime. Then I went silent. I just watched her and held her hand.
Suddenly, her heart monitor beeped loudly. She opened her eyes. She struggled to move her head but she looked at me. Directly at me. Her eyes started to roll back so I yelled.
“Desi G! It’s me, Char. I’m over here.”
She fought hard and looked at me. I got up, she followed me around the room with her eyes. I explained to her softly that she was in the hospital and was on a breathing machine but she was going to be okay. The doctor had told me earlier that people freak out when they wake up and find themselves on breathing machines after passing out. So I tried to make everything as calm as possible and explain to her the whole situation.
I called for a nurse. They increased her sedation meds. They said they wanted her to sleep until the morning when the doctor could look at her.
She refused to go to sleep. She just kept her eyes on me. I leaned over her and whispered,
“Desi, it’s okay. I’ll be here. Go to sleep girl.”
She went to sleep. I waited until she was soundly passed out at around 12 a.m. and went to my crappy Air BnB I had booked in a rush. I didn’t sleep. I made it back to the hospital at 6 a.m.
A few hours later we woke her up. Soon she started walking around. Her throat was sore from having the tube shoved down it and she couldn’t speak above a faint whisper. She refused to speak to anyone except me. She communicated to everyone through me. We exchanged inside jokes in whispers and looks. I was both her translator and buffer.
She pretty much slept the entire day, trying to get the meds out of her system.
The next day she was her complete self. Goofy, joking, smiling her huge smile. But she was actually scared and sad so I stayed in the hospital that night. I slept in her bed with her, just like when we were younger. I use the term “slept” lightly as I didn’t really do any. Hospital beds aren’t made for two grown, hipped women. But I’m glad I pushed through for her. Before she went to sleep we talked about life’s hardships. We planned our next trip together. I told her she was going to be okay and that we would accomplish all our dreams together like we planned.
I had to go back to work so the next afternoon I told Desi I was driving the 3 hours back home. I FaceTimed her on my drive home. I cried when we hung up. I felt like I had abandoned her, but I had to go to work. I had to take care of my husband, my dogs, my bills.
But she was okay. That’s all that mattered. That’s what I chose to focus on.
She checked out on a Tuesday. They had no clue what was wrong with her but she was fine now. She would follow up with some specialists in a couple of weeks. I called her every morning before I went to work, on my lunch break, and on my way home from work. Our routine was back in place.
That Thursday morning when we spoke she told me some hard stuff I didn’t know how to help her with. I tried to encourage her but I knew it wasn’t enough. It was heavy, heavy stuff.
Thursday evening she passed out again suddenly. She didn’t wake back up. They weren’t able to revive her.
My impossible dream had come true.
I let out a blood-curdling scream as tears poured down my face when my husband told me the news. I’d never heard that sound fall out of my mouth before. It didn’t sound human. It scared me. My head immediately pounded with a headache. My chest felt like it had been cut open. I dropped to my knees as my husband held on to me.
I wanted to die, too.
If she couldn’t be with me, I wanted to be with her. I couldn’t imagine ever walking down the red carpet, writing the books, opening the schools, accomplishing any goal without my Desi by my side.
It’s been almost 2 months now. It feels like she’s just mad at me and we’re not talking. We used to talk almost every single day. If we didn’t speak on the phone, we at least sent each other memes. We had planned our entire adult lives around each other, down to where our beach houses were going to be and what dresses we would wear on the red carpet for our movies we would co-write, co-produce, and co-star in.
I felt numb and angry at the same time. Similar to Lesser, I had an angry cry in the shower.
The night the amazing baby nurse left, I took an extended shower. As the tears mixed with the water dripping down from the giant showerhead [sic] meant to mimic a rain forest, I said, “What the f***!” out loud, knowing that the bathroom fan would drown out my sounds to the rest of the world, which somehow seemed to be functioning quite well outside my head and my bathroom...
Life’s Accessories | PG 84
And I really felt her petty pain about hating to see others with their mothers. I couldn’t stand to see people with their presumed best friends.
I’ve come a long way, though, since the days when I closed the elevator doors on random mothers and daughters shopping together arm in arm in department stores. “Sorry,” I’d say, in my best dumb-girl voice, as I violently pushed the DOOR CLOSE button with my thumb. “I’m trying to keep the door open, but it won’t work.”
Life’s Accessories | PG 143
I had the same feeling watching Tall Girl on Netflix. Desi was a tall beauty who didn’t see her awesomeness. I was her short, protective friend with a sharp tongue for anyone who tried to cut her. Just like the two main characters. I almost broke my TV trying to watch that movie. (I’m still avoiding Carole and Tuesday. Not even gonna give it a shot.) And when I went to two women’s conferences by myself, I refused to speak to anyone who was paired up.
Two weeks after Desi’s funeral, I was doing laundry in an effort to keep my mind busy. I found a pair of socks I had bought on our last birthday trip together. Our birthdays were only about 2 weeks apart so we always celebrated together. We were doing yoga as secret shoppers and I didn’t have any yoga socks with me. We purchased some from the studio before our session.
In the memoir, there’s a chapter called “Fleece Socks Will Keep You Warm at the University of Insomnia at Ann Arbor.” It’s the chapter where Lesser finds out her mother has cancer and is unable to sleep at night. After revealing this to her group, one friend gives her a gift of fleece socks.
Tara came over to my garden apartment the next day with a cute card and an even cuter pair of gray fleece socks. “To keep you warm here in Michigan,” the note said. I cried a little bit. And then I felt a tiny bit better…
Life’s Accessories | PG 77
My socks didn’t make me feel better. They made me sick. In a moment where I was perfectly fine as I distracted myself, they made me angry. They transported me back to a time where I had my best friend.
Lesser kept those socks. They warmed her feet as she finally slept again. I threw my socks away. They only brought me pain. So much pain that my chest stung, my face got hot, my eyes burned with tears, and I felt like I would throw up. I froze with the socks held up as so many thoughts swarmed my head. Then I got up and stuffed those socks as deep into the trash can as I could. And I made sure to do it very dramatically, with lots of huffs. I felt like it was the closest thing to a middle finger I could give to Death.
Just like Lesser and her mom, Desi and I lived a lot of our lives together through clothing. We were always dressing each other up like we were each other’s dolls. Those socks were the last thing we ever bought when we were shopping together. I couldn’t stand to see them. Just the memory of holding them made me angry. But reading how Lesser had socks that gave her peace gave me a new perspective.
As I read about her socks, I changed my feelings about mine. I replaced those bumpy yoga socks with her warm, gray fleece socks. And just as she felt warmed and comforted in the cold of Michigan, my cold heart felt warmed in the midst of my pain.
From a technical perspective, this book is expertly written. It was not only a catalyst for my emotional healing but a glob of honey in my pot of love for the writing craft.
The originality of concept and wonderful narrative coupled with Lesser’s refreshing openness was like a warm cup of tea on a cold winter day. (And tea is my favorite drink so that’s a huge compliment).
I’m glad that I checked my bias and started the book over with an open mind. I’m glad I set aside my pain so that I could have empathy for Lesser’s. I’m glad that this was the second memoir I decided to read. And I’m extremely glad that Mrs. Rachel Levy Lesser shared her Life’s Accessories with me.