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January 15, 2012

Remembering Marjorie Williams

by Anne Paddock
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Seven years ago, the world lost a great writer named Marjorie Williams who died at age 47 from liver cancer leaving behind a husband and two young children, ages 11 and 8. At the time of her death, Williams was an op-ed columnist with the Washington Post and a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair where she primarily wrote political profiles - not your typical rose smelling or hatchet job profiles but portraits that zeroed in on the character beyond what the image machine created. Somehow Williams managed to figure out what was at the core of a being – what drove him or her – and deftly tied in all the minutiae in their universe to show the reader who the person really was in an entertaining but truthful way.

Williams’ profiles were captivating to read and I always looked forward to her next essay. So, it was with much surprise when she published an article in Vanity Fair  in late 2004 about her diagnosis with liver cancer in 2001 at age 43 and her life as a cancer patient.  Told she only had months to live, Williams waged a battle to “lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes” because she had two very young children, ages 8 and 5, at the time.

Williams lived for three and a half years after her diagnosis and just a few months before she passed away, she wrote her last column in the Washington Post called “The Halloween of My Dreams” which described a day helping her daughter with a Halloween costume – glitter and all – and watching her 8-year old run out the door to go trick or treating.  The story touched my heart and I have never forgotten it.  For any mother who realizes those seemingly normal moments with our children are really gifts, it’s a must read.

My favorite Halloween of memory was the Halloween of 2002. We had just moved to Madrid but my 6-year old daughter was still focused on American holidays and wanted to dress up as a credit card. We went to the art supply store and bought big sheets of cardboard, string, and multi-colored markers.  When we got home, my daughter asked me for my credit cards, laid them out on the floor and set upon designing her own credit card on those big pieces of cardboard, using my small plastic cards as reference.  When she was done, we strung together the two sides to form a front and back billboard dress and she donned her tights, smart maryjanes, skirt and sweater underneath.

Ten years ago, most Spaniards had not heard of Halloween and the American holiday was certainly not celebrated in Madrid.  We lived in the city, in an 8-story building that had 2 pisos (apartments) on each floor so my daughter would be trick or treating in an apartment building for the first time.  Concerned that she wouldn’t have a “real” Halloween, I went to my neighbors and told them about Halloween and asked if they would give her a “dulce” (sweet) when she knocked on their door and said “Trick or Treat.” They responded enthusiastically and I was grateful for their willingness to participate. But, recruiting the neighbors wasn’t enough because I had a child who had two speeds: fast and stop; I knew she would be through the building in about ten minutes if I didn’t think of something else to make the trick or treating last.

I expressed my concerns to my husband and convinced him to participate in a plan we nicknamed Operation Halloween: he would take her to one floor of the building for trick or treating and then come to our door pretending I was a neighbor, then they would go to another floor, and come back to our door again pretending I was a different neighbor, and so on.  Each time she would knock on our door, I would be in a different costume pretending to be someone she didn’t know.  All I had to do was be a quick change artist.

Of course, my daughter knew what was going on but she played along because she never knew “who” was going to open the door and she could hardly contain her excitement. There was the businesswoman, the disco diva (don’t ask – a costume I kept), the khaki-clad guy(courtesy of my husband’s closet) with an eyeliner drawn moustache above my lips, the gown clad matron, and the gym rat. But, the costume that had my daughter bent over, belly laughing was the bikini, boa, and heel clad babe who upon answering the door told the little credit card in my best Zsa Zsa Gabor accent: “dahling, dahling…why are you letting that cardboard cover your body…you need to lose those layers and find the little Zsa Zsa in you.” Even my husband laughed.

My daughter loved that Halloween even though the bag of loot was minuscule compared to years before. It was the game and the fun we had in trying to make the event the Halloween of her dreams (and ultimately mine) that made the day so special.  Two years later when I read Marjorie Williams’s last column in the Washington Post about the Halloween of her dreams, I felt deep sadness.

Since Williams’ death, her husband, Timothy Noah, also a writer has published two books of her writings:  The Woman at the Washington Zoo and Reputation: Portraits in Power. The Woman at the Washington Zoo is a collection of both published and unpublished works that address the three big issues in her life:  politics – and specifically political portraits, family, and her fate.
Reputation is a collection of portraits of people who dominated politics and the media in our generation: George Bush, Colin Powell, Clark Clifford, Lee Atwater, Larry King, Patricia Duff, and more.  Both books are excellent collections of her profiles, essays and stories.  For a complete list of her writings that weren’t published in the books above, click on the following link:  http://www.womanatthewashingtonzoo.com/otherworks.html

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