The most vivid memories I have of Bertrice Small aren’t between the pages of her books. While there are others who knew her far longer and far more intimately than I did, these are the memories that come most to mind.
Bertrice Small was my very first phone call. I was three days old, newly brought back to my parents’ New York apartment from Viriginia, where I was born. Their way of letting close friends know they had adopted me was to put me on the phone, and, as Aunt Sunny herself told me, she was the first. Her exact words to my mother, were, according to her, “Oh my God, you stole a baby,” then delighted laughter when my mom assured her it was a legal adoption.
Okay, not technically my memory, but that was so completely Bertrice that I had to share it. Her voice is the most calming voice I have ever heard in person, and she was the first person I called when my father was taken off life support. I didn’t have to say anything; she said “it happened, didn’t it?” and we shared the moment, together. Those two phone calls alone could serve as memory enough. Bertrice Small was, beyond a pioneer in her genre, a true matriarch who could give any of her heroines a lesson or two (and she did) but the more time I spend on the matter, the more examples spring to mind. Photographs, alas, are currently in storage, but the memories can come at any time, and my copy of Lost Love Found will always have an extra special meaning, on more than one level, so I’ll let that suffice.
To me, this book will always symbolize friendship, not because of Valentina and Padraic’s story (which I love) but because of the friendship attached. Bertrice had originally wanted her dear friend, Elaine Duillo, to illustrate that cover. Unfortunately, contractual obligations made that impossible, and another illustrator friend, Robert McGinnis, stepped in to provide the cover art. I wish I could remember the entire story, because it was a good one, but I remember the animation in her voice and the spark in her eye when she told it. I do know that her covers sparked my ongoing interest of the works of both illustrators, different styles but equally talented.
My copy came to be courtesy of Nancy, a family friend, with whom I was spending the day. I insisted we stop in a bookstore because Lost Love Found would be out and I had to touch a copy, though I didn’t have the cash on me to buy it yet. It was there, and I plucked it from the shelf and read the first few pages. Put it back with a sigh of regret. Picked it up again and stroked the cover. Nancy, kind soul, bought it for me because it was clear the book and I had bonded, even though she didn’t read romance herself. A very Bertrice-like thing to do, and all the more special because Nancy passed away shortly after that. Now, when I reread or even pet the cover, it feels like they’re both there with me still.
It’s difficult to pick out the personal memories to share. As any two people do, we had our differences over the years, and navigating a child/adult relationship as it turns to teen/adult and then adult/adult is going to have some bumps in the road, but if I had to say only one thing about Bertrice Small, the person, it would be this: her heroines would be proud. I remember that calm, yet lively voice, telling family stories with as much imagination and care as any of her novels, doling out much needed advice and opinions, making command decisions when they were needed most and showing me that it was, indeed, womanly to be smart and strong.