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December 15, 2020

Nicky’s Gift

Deborah Goodrich Royce was an actress in film and television for 10 years. Her first psychological thriller, FINDING MRS. FORD, was published in 2019 to rave reviews. Her second, RUBY FALLS, will release on May 4th and revolves around a fragile young actress, the new husband she barely knows, and her growing suspicion that the secrets he harbors may eclipse her own. 1978 was a difficult and challenging year for Deborah, but she was fortunate to have a close friend in her life, Nicky, who made her “feel lifted up from the world we inhabited.” That winter, he gave her a book that helped get her through those dark and uncertain times. It’s a novel that she cherishes to this day as it transports her to another world --- and serves as a powerful reminder of Nicky and his gift that will last a lifetime.


We sat in my car with the snow falling down --- it always seemed to fall in that place and that time --- and neither had the courage to open the door to step out into the darkening swirl. He did not kiss me, he never did, but he gave me things that made me feel lifted up from the world we inhabited. He drew pictures on the brown paper wrappings of New Yorker covers. He told stories of dinner parties that he and his girlfriend hosted, and of his mother who sat every day on her porch and ate only apples, lining up the cores on the railing. He told of his ancestor who may or may not have been the Howard Carter who opened the tomb of King Tut. His name was John, but we called him Nicky, and the gift he gave me was a window into a world I could create.

He made those hard, dark times funny in a dry and knowing way. He owned his circumstances as I had not yet figured out how to do. He enabled me to begin to see my life as a story, for that is how he treated his own. Before Nicky, I had not read the New Yorker. No one in my family had the luxury of time enough to sit on a porch eating apples. When people came to our house for a meal, it was not known as throwing a dinner party. We just called it having company. And I certainly could not claim an illustrious family member such as Howard Carter, even if Nicky made up his own personal tie to the explorer.

That year, the winter of ’78, when there wasn’t much gas and even less money and the snow kept falling and my father had just died, Nicky gave me all those things, in late-night dinners at a pancake house, over coffee grabbed in the college cafeteria, or sitting in a car in the snow. That night in the car, Nicky gave me a book, LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE, by Nancy Mitford. A book very much like Nicky. It told the story of a hard, dark time in the world --- the Depression and World War II --- and told it through the eyes of characters who were funny and insouciant and glamorous. It did not trivialize the world’s --- and the character’s --- problems. But at its core was a germ of intelligence and humor that made those problems more palatable.

I lost touch with Nicky years ago. Years after that, I heard he had died. I heard many things about his life and how difficult it had been, in ways I had been too young and naïve to imagine. Nicky and I were friends, nothing more, even if I had hoped for it. But what more is there than that? He gave me those memories, and he gave me that book, which I still reread regularly. It has remained my comfort book for the past 40 years. When my world grows dark and there are situations I cannot control (are there any situations I can control?), LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE transports me. Out of myself to a world of imagination and simultaneously back to a part of myself and the world I once lived in. When I open to the first page and reconnect with the characters and stories that Mitford created, I remind myself that --- even in the cold, dark winter --- with some wit, intelligence and grit, I will get through it. And it also reminds me of Nicky.

The book begins with the description of an old family photograph: “There they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment --- click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.”

Poignantly sad, yes. But also funny and true and vital. Nicky’s gift to me was a way of reframing my memories to give them importance and weight and a dose of humor. And my gift to him, I hope, is to tell the stories I know.