When Carly and I were among strangers, we would sometimes hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes as if newlyweds, and tell gawkers: “It’s ok. We’ve only been married two days. We’ll get over it.” Of course, we never did—not in 26 years of marriage.
My wife was an easy love, affectionate, caring, loyal, even-tempered, and almost always logical: we discussed rather than argued. But in many ways, albeit not the very most important ones such as values, we were opposites. Perhaps our real-life Love Story can offer a little hope in this era of widening chasms of class, ethnicity, religion, and geography.
I was a D.C. area native raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, on its way back then to becoming an upper-middle-class citadel. Carly had grown up in Conover, North Carolina, a little blue-collar town known partly for the NASCAR auto racers from there. She worshipped all things Southern except for the bigotry, which she abhored. Not that the North was perfect. We agreed to disagree over the Confederate flag. Same over food. The more fried it was, the more Carly savored it. I was a health-fixated lactovegetarian.
She loved not only Jane Austen novels but also bodice-rippers with Fabio-chested men on the covers. I read Sinclair Lewis, say, or Philip Roth or, more commonly, staid nonfiction. She watched network TV reruns. I favored MSNBC and quirky movies on Netflix. Carly enjoyed classic rock. Me, too, but also baroque.
Carly was Methodist, complete with a minister brother-in-law. I was Jewish. Never, though, did religion come between Carly and me. Values above all! The Rev. William Draughn and I enjoyed many talks and walks together despite opposite political views. Both of us, regardless of our different beliefs, hated the cruelty that the American plutocracy had inflicted on the rest of the country. I’m looking forward to another hike with Bill up Stone Mountain in the Blue Ridge Range.
Sometimes Bill joked about my wife’s “Hebrew name.” “Carly” was not her original name—she loved to sing and picked up her new one from the pop star Carly Simon, while noting that it could mean “little” or “womanly.” Her favorite Simon song was “You Belong to Me.” Carly Rothman disliked “Tommie Nell” even though she was meticulous in using it in doctors’ offices since it was her legal name. Her parents had named her Tommie because they liked the sound of it; perhaps they also appreciated the overlap with her father’s name, Tom. But “Tommie” just wasn’t feminine enough for Carly even with the ie instead of a y. I couldn’t have cared less. I would have loved her by any name. Out of respect for her family, when visiting Carolina, phoning or emailing, I always tried to say “TN” or “Tommie Nell.” By law, a certain percentage of Southern newborns each year must bear double names.
Telecommuting for an education association, Carly was the same as toward me: likable, considerate, empathetic. Her bosses relished her swiftness in learning new software—she lived up to her maiden name, “Sharpe”—but complained she spent too much time on individual calls helping the association’s members. I wouldn’t have wanted Carly any other way. I preferred a caring friend and lover, not a heel-clicking careerist. Even in a business sense, it would have been better to let Carly be Carly, given all the people she charmed in the service of her employer with both her beautiful voice and her Tar Heel friendliness. That said, the newlywed shtick notwithstanding, she tended to be far more of an extrovert on the phone than in person, and definitely not a partier.
For medical reasons but perhaps also by temperament, Carly even was teetotaler. I was, too. Call me in that way an honorary traditional Methodist. She herself was an honorary Jew fond of the related humor and cuisine. Her biggest weakness was macaroons.
Physical attraction? Of course. Carly’s hair was long and thick, and she stood 6’1″ in her prime. I enjoyed being vicariously tall. She overdid “zaftig”—I worried about her health and urged her to diet—but I’ve always believed that feminine beauty can defy American stereotypes. Carly’s pale skin was that of a woman decades younger, a miracle of wrinkleless.
Due to Carly’s delicate health, we never had children. But our stuffed animals were very articulate, and when she and I disagreed, they generally took her side. Allergy-ridden, Carly couldn’t enjoy the companionship of a real dog or cat. Dander from the Golden Retriever that she owned, before our marriage, had sent her to the emergency room and almost killed her. Toward the end of her life, she would watch the Kitten Rescue webcam site out of Los Angeles, keeping up with all the gossip about each cat’s health and odds of adoption. I’ve always been a rotten recaller of human faces. But from several thousand miles away, Carly knew her kittens cold.
Carly loved high technology and the online world, which helped us get to know each other in depth, while she was living in Arizona, before we even met face to face. When she lacked access to a printer needed to turn in a school paper on time, I faxed her professor a copy of her email. She favored ebooks over paper ones and held cards to enjoy the digital offerings of three library systems. Carly owned a Nexus 7, on which she displayed OverDrive books in boldface using an older app (when will the newer Libby get a bold option?). She liked the ability to blow up the type. Tired most of the time from fibromyalgia in her last years, she could stretch out in bed and change the pages with less effort than a paper book required. I wish the anti-ebookers could understand what digital library books meant to my wife.
Not so coincidentally, Carly was on my mind in the early 1990s when I begin pushing for a national digital library system and dirt-cheap gadgets to read ebooks with, so that even Americans in the poorest Southern hamlets could pick from millions of titles. The library campaign goes on today on the LibraryEndowment.org site. Certain members of our academic and social elites laudably care about “digital preservation” but not quite so much about the nuts and bolts to let the masses share the riches and improve their lot. Some even want public libraries to back off from popular-level books, the very stuff that in digital format helped sustain my sick wife when she was unable to visit the stacks. A gift in Carly’s memory will be made to our public library here in Alexandria, Virginia, to increase its ebook collection.
Would that the super rich valued public, K-12 and academic libraries as much as others do! All the library endowments in the U.S. total only several billion or so. Harvard’s endowment alone is worth some $36 billion. Bill Gates and other Ivy-educated philanthropists would do well to remember the Carlys, donate far more than now to public libraries, and resist their gentrification, which could diminish tax support or at least their effectiveness as literacy-spreaders. Yes, public libraries are for education. But they are also for entertainment, often a first step toward the former. I was disappointed, then, when one preppie said libraries might have to get out of the bestseller business. No, sir—not at all if the elite will only care. Gates, far smarter and more enlightened than the typical billionaire but out of touch for now with his fellow Americans’ reading needs, is actually cutting back on his library philanthropy when instead he could be Carnegie II for real. Even better, this $85-billion man could be a Carnegie supporting a multi-donor library endowment.
Class conflicts, of course, rage on most everywhere in American life. But our marriage transcended them. The Rothmans were white-collar people. Carly’s father, Tom Sharpe, was a union electrician who almost lost a good part of his retirement benefits at GE due to cutbacks there. My late mother-in-law, Annie, worked in dusty textile mills despite her asthma. Carly could have thrived at Duke University, Melissa Gates’ alma mater, but her high school teachers and counselors never gave her the encouragement that the daughter of a well-off family might have enjoyed. The Duke dream died. Carly thought at one point of becoming a librarian, and sometimes I wondered if she read Jane Austen with “might have beens” in mind.
Even as an alum of an obscure community college, Carly was still a catch for me. Her emotional intelligence, along with the EQs of her parents, her sister, Kay, and The Reverend Bill, was off the charts. They got along flawlessly with difficult me, after all; what better recommendation? Simply put, the Sharpe family was an in-law joke in reverse. Other positives abounded. Kay was a gifted amateur artist who also shared Carly’s knack for gadgets and, in fact, worked as a computer programmer for a bank until a disability forced her to quit. Logical minds ran in the family. So much alike in many ways, the two sisters could spend hours and hours talking on the phone.
Sunday morning, at Capital Caring Hospice in Arlington, Virginia, it all ended for Carly and me—our happy times together, the newlywed shtick, the shared passion for ebooks, and the rest of the marriage. Carly was a mere 61. The normal survival period for pancreatic cancer, after diagnosis, which generally happens too late, is months or even weeks; that’s about how long it took her father to die of the the disease after learning his fate. Same for one of my favorite Southern writers, Pat Conroy. But Carly lasted two and a half years thanks to her oncologist, Dr. Ivan Aksentijevich, her radiologist, Harold Agbahiwe, her gastroenterologist, Frank Procaccino, her internist, Scott Whittaker, her physical therapist, Chaney Hindman, and the vigilant nurse case managers we hired, Liz Shifflett and Suzanne Hanas. Not all pancreatic cancer is the same. But as a lay person I truly believe that the high-quality care Carly received made a difference. This week or next, my family and I will scatter Carly’s ashes off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, in line with her wishes for cremation and the sea.
R.I.P. my dear Carly. I hope that your eternal life is like the happiest moments in a Mayberry RFD rerun and that you can eat all the Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits you want without gaining an ounce.