Other girls had canopy beds or family trips to Luray Caverns, or big sisters who painted their toenails for them. I had my Cousin Barbara Tarbuck – even if she lived in Detroit and I was an only child in North Carolina, even if I hardly ever saw her red-haired beauty. She was always with me: in my inner world, not just in the elegant green velvet hand-me-down dress her mother mailed to me.
Barbara was six years older than I, already acting in radio plays with professional actors when she was only nine years old. Think of it – my cousin on the radio! I saw her in my mind’s eye, surrounded by legions of fans and friends, fending off overzealous admirers. I wasn’t. My Canadian parents and I were a thousand miles away, recoiling at Colored and White drinking fountains. Kids made fun of my accent and my ineptitude at sports and singing.
I felt more than left out; I felt unwanted.
It was much easier to bear because Barbara loved me, and I could aspire to be like her. I adored her from afar, the way I adored Dorothy Gale or Nancy Drew. But Barbara was a real person, in my own family. If she’d lived in North Carolina, she would have protected me from the mean kids. I just knew it.
Apart from those fantasies, Barbara’s life told me that my dreams could come true, even after I grew up. From the gritty public schools of Detroit and Wayne State University, she won a Fulbright to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her career blossomed, first in New York for ten years of theater that included Broadway, then in Los Angeles, where she also acted for TV and movies, plus directing and teaching.
Our visits as adults began when I was in Washington doing poorly paid public interest work, and she was an actress in New York, first struggling and then modestly successful. I brought her questions I couldn’t ask anybody else, especially about men and my mother. We came from the same stormy ground. As she regaled me with her stories, Barbara showed me it was OK to be ambitious and single-minded, that a whole life could be woven around the love of an art. You were allowed to give up on a relationship, a marriage. Flings were fine, even ill-advised ones. Barbara was a fierce woman. I had been brought up to be so much nicer than she was, and she helped me get over that.
We talked in her exposed-brick apartment for as long as she could sit still. Even her best friend describes her as a “loveable narcissist.” I don’t think I ever had her full attention for more than ten minutes at a stretch in those years, but it was delicious while it lasted. Then, when she got restless, I had the joy of walking down the streets of New York beside my beautiful, brilliant cousin, who was part of it all.
In the evenings, I was fascinated by Barbara on the stage: someone I recognized but did not recognize, so fully did she inhabit the characters she played. I loved seeing her perform, whether a one-woman show in an attic, or “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway. When I asked how she kept her performance so fresh night after night, Barbara looked astonished. “But it’s always different! The audience is never the same. The other actors are in a particular mood, or they stress a word you didn’t hear the same way the night before.” The effort Barbara put into her art was breathtaking – and she was a quick study. She never let a single experience go to waste. While she was on tour in Washington, D.C., she was startled by a unnerving noise when she came back late. Before she went to investigate, Barbara stopped to memorize her facial expression and body position. “I’ll use that one day on the stage,” she said.
Barbara moved across the country to Los Angeles “for two reasons: money and power.” She’d had enough of being a starving actress, even with her successes. I was about thirty years old when I visited her for the first time. She and her future husband were living in a petite redwood cottage embraced by orange and other trees that were mythical to me. Waking up there for the first time, I was just as transported as I had been in Manhattan. Once again, Barbara was introducing me to another world. California was good to her, professionally and personally. She became financially stable for the first time, and had found the right man to marry. Soon, Barbara had a child at age 40 without missing a beat (or cancelling a rehearsal, I suspect). Her daughter was an intelligent child with red-gold hair, often reared by her father when Barbara was on the road. They bought the small property in Santa Monica which is still the family home decades later.
As my own friendships and work world expanded, Barbara was no longer the unique star she’d been when I was a child, but I still loved visiting my cousin. Although we had grown up far from each other, it hardly mattered. We had some things in common that even my closest chosen family didn’t offer. We came from the same earth, the same story of a Nova Scotia coal miner’s teenaged daughter seduced by the radical union organizer who became our grandfather. His foolscap yellow letters educated us both politically, some sent to her in Detroit and others to me in Durham.
Into the crucible of Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage had come first my father, then her mother and three more. My father had his mother’s sweetness and his father’s brilliance and devotion to apple trees and gardens. Barbara’s mother was just as smart, but sharp-tongued and thwarted after being denied an education. Her dreams poured into her daughter like fire water.
We understood all this and more about each other. We even spoke the same language, epitomized in the following exchange. Barbara once said, “So I drove out him out there. It wasn’t hours, but it was” – here she paused and we simultaneously said “a fur piece” and burst out laughing. Oh, that laugh! Loud, insouciant, carrying the echoes of our grandparents. Barbara’s voice wasn’t just what she was born with, rich and textured, but an instrument that she had cultivated for decades, much as one would an apple tree.
While I was emerging as a writer in my fifties, I came to Los Angeles to study with Deena Metzger more or less annually. After an intense week of soul-searching and writing, I’d meet up with Barbara and we’d talk for hours as always – in the arid Pine Mountain forests or along Venice Beach, or in her postage stamp back yard in Santa Monica. I learned what she was up to. Not just acting, although that was always the heart of it. She found plenty of artistic challenge in her Los Angeles work, somewhat to her surprise, and loved directing and teaching at UCLA. Once I accompanied her to a rehearsal of a play she was directing, and watched her adjust an actor’s body language. How did a slightly different arm gesture make a whole different character? It was part of the art she had devoted herself to ever since she met the professional radio actors in her childhood, people who had worked on national programs like The Lone Ranger.
Although I was a bit player in Barbara’s life, I held her stories: her trip to Florida when her father burned to death in a trailer, a secret relationship, the spot on the back of her right calf that she covered with makeup as a young woman, her agony over her brother abandoning his children, her decision to have a baby at age 40 and how easy (!) it was physically, her refusal to have a facelift even if it cost her some work. We once stopped communicating for a few years because she said something that I couldn’t stomach, but eventually we reconnected. We both knew we were right, but the relationship was just too valuable to let it go.
I wasn’t the only person Barbara never gave up on. She didn’t let her mother’s shrill and sometimes egregious behavior drive her away. When her smart and handsome husband became devastatingly disabled, she made sure he had the right care until the end of his life. It was Barbara who made sure our cousin with developmental disabilities got two idyllic weeks in California every year. She even did what she could to pick up the pieces with her brother’s children. She made a deep relationship with the next generation of Nova Scotia cousins. I can only imagine what she was capable of with her friends, colleagues and students whom I don’t know. No wonder so many people were bereft on December 27, 2016, when she died at 74, less than a month after being diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, a rare brain disorder.
A few days after the diagnosis, I flew from Vermont to California. Barbara was performing, as always, raving but enchanting apart from a few meltdown moments. At one point, I caught her attention and said, “Barbara, I have loved you my whole life.” I said it twice to be sure she understood, and she did. No one else is living to whom I can say those words.
A photograph (which I hope I’ll find one day) depicts an idyllic visit to Detroit when Barbara was a suave thirteen-year-old, I a plump seven. She has breasts; I have pudge. Her hair is swept up in a fashionable duck tail; mine has the frizz of the last failed permanent wave. She already looks like a star, but a loving one. We’re standing close to each other. I’m squinting but my face is completely happy. I belonged to her. Now she’s gone.