Book of Life

Book of Life

Local writer and newly minted book author Bonnie Goldberg is among the most pleasant people you’ll ever meet. Little would you know that she had to win her geniality in battle, through a series of trials few if any of us can truly understand.

Once upon a time, she was a young mother married to a young father—tennis player, synagogue leader and life insurance salesman Allen Goldberg. Everything was fine, but, worried that some calamity might leave the family unsupported, Allen became a customer, buying himself life coverage every five years. He bought a block at age 25, another at 30. He was en route to his third when, at age 35, some 47 years ago, the requisite medical exam found sclerosing cholangitis, a rare chronic liver disease that would prove fatal without a transplant. Among other things, this meant he could no longer buy the product he spent his days selling, because nobody would sell it to him—“a life insurance agent who was uninsurable,” as Bonnie puts it.

Her husband took the news in stride, she says, but as his symptoms gradually worsened, the family was left hanging, indefinitely, on the hope of a new liver. A few years after the diagnosis, when Allen could no longer manage his business by himself, Bonnie, already responsible for so much at home, started going to the office. Confined to bed, Allen taught her the ins and outs, often guiding her over the phone. Eventually, even that was too taxing, and the business became Bonnie’s to lead.

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A total of 14 years passed before a transplant came through. It was supposed to be a turning point, but in the six weeks after the surgery, “everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong,” Bonnie says. Allen passed away, and “my world was chaos… He had died on a Wednesday. The funeral was Friday.” And somehow, between those proximate events, three rounds of bad financial news arrived. First was a massive hospital bill (which, in another ironic turn, their insurer would spend 11 months refusing to pay, backed by an army of lawyers and collection agents). Then came the first of several large unexpected bills related to struggling real estate partnerships her husband had pursued as a means of funding their children’s college expenses—a $3,000 arrow tipped with a threat: “If you don’t pay us immediately, you will lose the total investment.” Last came a dreaded audit notice from the IRS. “I wasn’t sure I was going to survive just that week,” she recalls. Implying the compounding toll of all these circumstances, which included the stresses of being a single parent, she notes that, a year after her husband’s death, she faced her first of three bouts with cancer.

There were compelling reasons to carry on—her children, of course, and her fundraising work for liver research, which she and Allen had started together. But there was also something she couldn’t have predicted: a request to write a theater review for The Milford Citizen, “a little newspaper in Milford,” which Bonnie says “literally saved my life.” It did so in part by summoning fond memories and feelings from her “wonderful childhood,” when, by age 5, she was basking in New Haven’s heyday as a staging ground for Broadway.

Her first review pleased the Citizen’s editor, and it turned into a recurring engagement, which “gave me a direction. It gave me something to lean on. And it gave me back theater.” She’s reviewed shows ever since (including, on occasion, for Daily Nutmeg, between 2013 and 2015), sometimes three or four of them a week, including on her blog. “I tell people that, by day, my life is black and white and gray, because I sell life insurance—which is very much guaranteed-issue product—and at night, my world is technicolor.” (That’s right: To this day, she runs the life insurance business, which is still called Allen H. Goldberg & Associates.)

At the same time she was starting as a theater reviewer, another writing project emerged, this time from within. Soon after her husband’s death, “I realized I didn’t want to lose what I remembered about . And I needed to focus on positive things, and be thankful for what we had. So I started writing little notes and putting them in a shopping bag,” she says, laughing, a little water pooling in her eyes. At some point, the scope of the project widened, “and as I thought of something, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll put it in.’ And this went on for years. And then eventually I realized that some of the thoughts fit into categories, like chapters,” which gave her the big thought of turning them into a book.

It was the pandemic that gave her the spare time to do so, and, 33 years after she started, the result—produced with help from loved ones and self-published via Amazon in March—is Little Thoughts on a Big Planet. The little thoughts, ranging from sweet to serious and earnest to droll, are kind of like aphorisms, except they’re infused with biographical and situational details. Some entries are too gooey, predictable or overstuffed for my taste. Others move me and charm me, get me thinking or make me laugh.

Chapter 1 is titled “Nothing is as good as…,” which, per the book’s format, provides the beginning of each of the chapter’s hundreds of entries. “ seagulls wheeling across a purple and pink twilight sky on the Cape Cod shore.” “ playing tooth fairy and leaving a quarter and later being informed I’m cheap.” “ daydreaming about opening a shop of intimate apparel and naming it ‘Bottoms Up.’” “ a rousing game of cribbage where you double skunk your opponent, the one who taught you all you know about the game. Sorry, Myles.” You’re with her as she vacations, parents, imagines, plays, and it begins to feel like you’re reading something bigger than little thoughts. Throughout the seven chapters—including “You know you’re getting old when…,” “How wonderful it would be…,” “You know there’s hope for the world when…”—Bonnie’s rich inner and outer lives, sliced a thousand ways and arranged out of order, are revealed.

Her husband appears frequently, and you start to see a vivid, intimate picture of a man loved for both his strengths and his shortcomings. In Chapter 6, titled “It wasn’t funny…,” a diptych relates moments from their honeymoon that are, in fact, funny, at least in hindsight: “ when, at Yellowstone National Park, my new husband was afraid to light a fire because he thought he’d probably burn the cabin down, so we had to wear every item in our suitcase so we wouldn’t freeze / and later at Carmel, California, in a lovely all-white suite, he does light a fire in the white marble fireplace and doesn’t know there’s something called a flue.”

“When you live to the ripe old age I have gotten to,” Bonnie says, “there’s a lot of time for things to happen. And some of them are just delightful to recall, and some of them are so painful,” though she’s good at finding the good. A notecard that turned up while she was compiling the book brought her back to the night her husband was finally getting his transplant. “Had we been here in New Haven, people would’ve come to sit with me and visit. But we were up in Boston, so relatively few people came.” One of them was a neighbor, Larry Klein, who stood with her at Allen’s bedside on a particularly difficult night. “It didn’t look good at all,” Bonnie says. Her husband “was in a coma, so he didn’t even know we were there.” Still, she was worried about his bare feet in the frigid ICU and said so to Klein, who promptly “sat down, took off his socks—nice, thick wool socks—and put them on him.”

It was a little thoughtfulness on a big planet, and to Bonnie, it meant the world.

Little Thoughts on a Big Planet
by Bonnie Goldberg
Buy The Book

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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