Kay Thompson lived in The Plaza Hotel, Fifth Avenue at 59th St. also the home of Eloise, whose exploits Thompson chronicled in a series of books that filled generations of precocious six-year-olds with the desire to grow up quickly and become New Yorkers. A painting of Eloise by her illustrator Hilary Knight (his second; the original was pinched) hangs opposite the hotel’s Palm Court.
What I remember about ELOISE, the character, is that she lived in The Plaza. Either the adults around her had to drink and smoke a lot to deal with all her commands or she had to give extra instructions because the adults in her service were — drunk?
The Plaza was surrounded by scaffolding when I arrived. Like many New York landmarks, the Palm Court was closed. No afternoon tea like a duchess looking to fend off hunger between lunch and dinner.
I miss an occasional triple tier of finger sandwiches and tiny tarts, but what I miss more, with my heart and soul, is Eloise. Not the character, but my actual best friend in real life.
I have not seen Eloise since the last week of February, before we went into Covid lockdown. On a beautiful winter day, I walked several miles along the Hudson River to visit her family. She had just had a second baby and I was already thinking about how much harder it would be for us to steal time between parenting, business trips and other responsibilities. Eloise understands me as if I am made of an infinite number of etched panes of glass, and she knows how to look straight through and find the exact spot where the words I need to hear are carved.
“Life is a rich tapestry,” she says, no matter the circumstances. Or, “you just had an experience.”
I have never met anyone with her ability to put even the most complex emotions into context.
The first time Eloise gave birth was in the same Brooklyn hospital where I was born. Her infant was being watched for a problem that turned out to be incidental. She handed me the baby and reached into her bag for my wrapped birthday present, a necklace with three delicate charms on it to symbolize the two of us and the baby, Josephine. When Sylvia was born, just pre-pandemic, Eloise gave me another charm, this time a bronze medallion stamped with the Capitoline She-Wolf of Rome suckling Romulus and Remus. This was my first indication that 2020 was not going to be a regular year.
Josephine and I celebrated her first three birthdays together with one cake, just as I did with my great-grandfather until I was sixteen. This year, she celebrated her pandemic birthday on two separate screens. I lit a sparkler for her while we each ate cake from miles apart.
I’m grateful for the miracle of connectivity, but I want to hug her. Last week she was inconsolable because she found out unicorns aren’t real. I sent her a sequined unicorn tutu and a headband with a horn along with a letter to let her know that when we find magic in this world, it is real if we become the thing we love.
“I love it so much,” she told me when she called. “I’m going to be magic forever and ever and ever, every single day until I die.”
She said it just like that.
Last year, when she turned three, we had Sand Birthday in Montauk. I taught her how to fly a kite to the end of the string, something I’ve been doing for many years. I am writing this post from Montauk, the first time I have left the city since the pandemic began, to fly my bird kite to the end of the string.
The tail end of hurricane winds were blowing hard, and the icy air felt as if a million tiny invisible ninjas were throwing crystal stars at my face. I was the only person on the beach.
Usually when I visit Montauk, I collect a certain kind of beach stone. Smooth, round and flat, stackable from eons of being tumbled by the incessant ocean. This time, I haven’t found a single one. Instead, the surf has coughed up every tooth that has ever grown in a shark’s head. I wouldn’t even know how to tell the difference between a shell and a shark’s tooth had I not met a man on a different beach many years ago. He had a metal detector and he was looking for something else. Maybe he didn’t know what he was looking for until he found it. I happened to pass him just as he found a shark’s tooth and he asked me if I wanted to learn.
This lesson has now come in handy. Every time I pick one up I think about the fact that it came from an actual shark that once lived, swimming through these cold waters in search of whatever it is sharks need, just like people. I also think about the way sharks terrify us with their rows of sharp teeth, even though we kill many more of them than they do of us. The remaining teeth are fossils, bleached by the sun and smoothed by years of waves. How many generations of sharks’ teeth am I carrying in my pockets as I fly my kite?
As the kite got further and further away, smaller in the cold sky, the string connected us. The harder the wind pulled, the more I clung, afraid to let go, afraid that my beautiful kite would become litter in the ocean, afraid that the only thing connecting any of us is no stronger than a string that can snap or get pulled from our hands. I held tight. But the thing about a kite is you have to let it go. I did, until there was no string left.
And still, I couldn’t help but think — I just want to be in the Plaza with Eloise, my Eloise, the real Eloise, making outlandish demands of the staff like the character in Kay Thompson’s book to keep the world at bay and bring us tea, pastries and little sandwiches. I want the entire Plaza to ourselves. I want to run around laughing with no masks on. I want to have a conversation without being interrupted by the pandemic, a scheduled work Zoom or other people, even those we love.
I pulled my kite back in an inch at a time. It crashed into the ocean at the end. I left my shoes on the shore and ran as hard as I could, chasing the end of the string and stepping on it just in time to salvage it.