I was friends with Lee Haupt for thirty years. But I think perhaps I knew her longer than that, when she was the friend of friends, the acquaintance of my parents, the doubles partner of my childhood tennis coach, Chris Scott.
I went to college early, at sixteen, and I played on the tennis team of the University of Chicago—number two singles and number one doubles. I also played recreationally at my parents' faculty club, the Quadrangle Club, on beautiful Har-Tru (green clay) courts, where Lee also played. A couple of summers into my college degree, Lee stopped me and asked if I would play with her one day. She was a little younger than I am now, in her mid-forties, but she was competitive and wanted a good game. (In fact, I never knew her exact age until her funeral). I had the stylistic form of a young adult who had been trained from the age of nine, she had the form of an extremely athletic adult who had picked up the sport later in life. The entire time I knew her, she took occasional touch-up lessons to work on what she thought were problem areas of her strokes—always striving to be better.
Lee quickly figured out something about me that no one else had figured out: how to pin me down for a regular game. As a result, she spent more cumulative hours with me than any friend I've ever had. At the time, I think her schedule favored Thursday mornings, so after a couple of games she said, "Why don't we just meet at 9 AM every Thursday?" The day of the week eventually changed to Friday morning at 9 over the decades, and later to 10 AM, but we only missed a week if one of us was sick or out of town. The advantage of a regular, expected game was that, as distractible as I was, I eventually learned not to schedule anything during that time slot. (Parent-teacher conferences? Doctor's appointment? Sorry, not on Friday at 9.) Still, in a tradition that was either touching or indicative of my reputation for forgetfulness, Lee called me every tennis morning at exactly 8, for thirty years, to make sure I was still coming. We played at the Quad Club in the summer, and in the winter we played at an indoor facility at 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue that changed ownership often enough I can't remember all the names. It was an L.A. Fitness last year, but won't be this year.
And for thirty years, I was four to seven minutes late for our game, regardless of her 8 AM call. If she were Catholic, she'd be a saint right now.
Lee and I played together through my four pregnancies and C-sections, through my ankle injury and surgery, through my dislocated pinky, through my MBA and PhD. We played together through her years as a humanities professor at a city college, her stint as the dean of her department, her "retirement" as the manager of her husband's architecture firm, her shoulder surgery, her knee replacement surgery, and her most recent cancer surgery. The moment we could physically hobble back onto the court after one of these surgeries, we'd start our games again, sometimes only with 15-minutes of mini-tennis. When her knee collapsed over the last five to seven years, before the Titanium knee, we invented a game called Monument Tennis, to minimize running for her: every shot had to land beyond the service line to be good. We got some strange looks from nearby players when we called seemingly perfect drop-shots "out." You can learn a surprising amount from Monument Tennis—how to hit consistently deep shots, how to master Zen-like patience through eternally long points—you should try it some time.
We didn't chat much when we changed courts during our matches. A couple of sips of water, a towel-down, a sentence or two of conversation starting right up where we had left off two games ago, and we were back at it. We were too serious for long rests. But we talked before and after our game. Lee never failed to ask about my kids and my writing. She was an aspiring author who had a complete draft of a detective story on her computer, which she was still polishing until the day she could no longer type or concentrate because of the effects of chemotherapy. Her standards were so high, and her inner critic so strong, she never showed it to anyone but her husband, Michael. I told her that whenever she was ready, I wanted to be her first reader. To this day I only know that the hero is an architect, or trained as one, like Michael. I presume there is a murder, and that the hero is gentle and kind with a sharp wit, but I'm only guessing.
We also talked about food, especially about cooking techniques, about travel, about doctors, about our childhoods, about private worries when we were feeling deep, and the pronounced quirks of mutual friends when we were shallow. She made me laugh by slapping mosquitoes dead on her body and leaving the squashed carcass there "as an example to the others." A person who always weighed the same amount, plus or minus only a few pounds, she lamented her slowing metabolism in later middle-age, and joked that she was weaning herself from food to maintain her weight (I distinctly recall when she was down to twelve strands of pasta with dinner, and then ten). But the nightly bottle of beer she would not sacrifice.
I'm not sure whether we happened to be very alike, or we grew to be like each other, the way married couples do. We both had a critical eye and were outspoken about our strong opinions. We both walked as if we'd never worn a dress or heels in our lives—with a wide stance and a forward lean, with purpose. We hated hotel linens and adored 100% cotton sports bras, which no one makes anymore. We favored little to no makeup, and bobs that celebrated our curly, sometimes frizzy hair.
Even in the ways we were unalike, we were strangely alike. Lee was a Democrat and I'm a Libertarian, but neither of us felt the need to argue politics; both of us believed in personal responsibility. Lee never had biological children and I had four, but we adored the children we were given and had a passion for shaping them into people we could respect. We both entertained often, but Lee shopped and prepared a week ahead of time while I flailed at the last minute. Lee understood the need to travel and I avoid it, but we both got anxious before every trip, preparing as if we were never coming back, knowing others would have to figure out our filing system.
In thirty-plus years, Lee taught me things I have forgotten came from her, things that are simply a part of me. What I actively recall comes to me in the form of offhand snippets or fond stories: She introduced me to sunblock when the rest of the world was wearing suntan lotion. She taught me a handful of Yiddish words. She was the first person I knew who roasted vegetables for a crowd. But more important than all of this, Lee taught me how to be a friend—how to openly care about someone’s life and feelings and hopes, how to show up every Thursday at 9 AM…and that 9:07 will also do.