Jack and I recently learned of the death of Frank Ludden. Frank and his wife, Louise, owned the Sunset Lounge on Long Island, where Jack’s parents, Jack, Sr., and Fitz, would go on their “date nights.” According to the story that Jack tells, an elderly woman would go to the bar most nights to have a drink or two. When she was through drinking, Frank would drive her home. Having no kinfolk, when she died, she left her house to Frank and Louise, who used the proceeds from the sale to move to Kissimmee, Fla., where they spent what would be Frank’s last years.
Frank would call often. A “professional Irishman,” as Jack, Sr., called him, he would always say to me, “Hi, darlin’. How are ya?” before asking, “Is himself around?” You couldn’t help but be charmed.
Often Jack wasn’t home, and I would report Frank’s call when he returned. After he and Louise moved to Florida, virtually every call ended with, “Come see us now. We have a bedroom for ya.”
I don’t know how many times I told Jack, “Okay, this fall/spring/winter/summer, we need to make a trip to Orlando. We’ll go see Frank and Louise and then head on down to see my sister in Satellite Beach.”
Jack always said, “Yes, we need to do that.”
But, somehow, it never happened. Then, recently, Jack was talking to a friend on Long Island who said, “Did you hear about Frank Ludden?” Jack’s heart just dropped to the floor. Frank had been diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. He had undergone two chemo treatments, but his heart couldn’t handle them. He died some weeks ago. We never knew, either about his illness or his death. When Jack said, “I have some really bad news,” Frank never entered my mind.
The day after we learned of Frank’s death, I went to work, and I called my dear friend, Mary Alice. Mary Alice is now about 82, but I have known her for more than 30 years. We sang next to each other in the choir at Sacred Heart Church downtown. She was a spectacular soprano. We went, many times, to Churchill Arms in Buckhead, where a pianist played and everyone sang.
She and I made a trip to New Orleans together, where we did all the things you think you are going to do but never get around to when you’re in New Orleans. We did the cemetery bus tour. We didn’t even notice that the driver had kept the front seat vacant. At every hotel stop, he would say to the boarding customers, “Are you here for the city tour?” and they would say, “Yes,” and he would crack, “What city?” until, after the third or fourth stop, Mary Alice and I yelled out (from the back of the bus), “What city?”
And he turned around and said, “You two! Get up here!” before installing the two of us in the front seat where he said, “I can keep an eye on you here.”
We also did the swamp tour, which Mary Alice enjoyed until it came time to hold the 10-inch alligator, which she had no interest in doing.
Prior to our trip, Mary Alice had had foot surgery, so it wasn’t easy for her to walk great distances. That worked out fine: We would walk a block and go into a bar, walk a block and go into another bar.
Many people who saw us would say, “Oh! Is this your mother?” and I would always respond, “No, she’s my friend.”
Mary Alice is the quintessential Southern lady, with a few quirks. She loves gossip, and knows everything bad and good about the Atlanta Archdiocese. But she doesn’t judge (at least, she doesn’t judge me), which is how we remained friends for so very long.
She was a true party animal, and she loved to be known as “Mary, Queen of Scotch,” a title her late husband, Paul, gave her. (Paul, who died in 1990, was a character in his own right. He had big letters – N, O, E, and L – that he would put across the front of their house in Decatur every Christmas. Only they would never spell out NOEL; they would spell out LONE or LEON or ONLE. Anything but NOEL. I still have a Polaroid photo of his house with “LONE” across the front porch that I use as an ornament on my Christmas tree.)
Anyway, years ago, she moved to Monroe. Since then, I have seen her infrequently, though I think about her often. So that day, with thoughts of Frank in my head and my heart, I called her. I told her I was coming to see her, take her to dinner and spend the night. And I did. We spent the night watching TCM’s Frank Sinatra film festival and the next morning watching Ted Kennedy’s funeral.
Because, dammit, I will not let another person I care about slip away without letting them know how much I care for them. Not that Mary Alice is ailing; she isn’t. But I want to enjoy her company while I can.
And I just want to say: Is there someone you’ve been thinking of? Someone you keep thinking about calling, but just don’t seem to find the time to do so? Do it. Do it now. Life is short. Regrets are forever.
I will forever regret not visiting Frank and Louise, and I resolve not to feel that regret again.
Photo: Janet and Mary Alice at Pete Fountain’s jazz club in New Orleans.