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My Standing Date with the Notorious RBG

I'm sitting at my computer, staring at a blank screen, wondering what I could write that could accurately portray a woman of such importance, such gravitas, that her very entrance into a room caused immediate stillness, followed by spontaneous, sudden applause. I'm talking, of course, of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with whom I have had the pleasure to share small moments for the past several years.

So, tonight, at the announcement of her passing on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, I'm going to attempt it. Bear with me.

For the past several years, I have been Ruth's "handler" at a fundraising event in Chicago for a small, non-profit classical music label called "Cédille Records." According to its website, "Cédille Chicago, NFP is dedicated to bringing Chicago’s finest classical musicians to a worldwide audience by recording, distributing, and promoting their work." It was founded by James Ginsburg — yes, the last name is no coincidence; he's her son, whom I know as "Jim." For anyone who's followed Justice Ginsburg's life, you would know that she had a deep love for classical music, opera in particular. She and her late husband, Marty, clearly passed that down to their son, for which hundreds of Chicago artists and composers will be forever grateful.

Many years after its founding, a dear friend of mine, Julie, joined Cédille as their Director of Development and started planning the Cédille Soirée, a gala benefitting the nonprofit. For the label's twenty-fifth anniversary, Justice Ginsburg would present the inaugural award during the gala's concert named in honor of her late husband, the Martin D. Ginsburg Award. She also graciously agreed to meet people at a reception with Cédille supporters before the concert and take photos with them.

Julie had asked me if I would like to attend. She knew that, given my history as a music major with a concentration in classical voice (read: opera), I would love to attend the concert beforehand. She was right, of course, but my husband and I had just bought a house, so the cost of the ticket was out of range for me that year. I did offer to volunteer if she needed help and she took me up on it, asking if I'd help stuff programs and arrange floral centerpieces.

I was so excited! I was getting a chance to be in the same room with a Supreme Court Justice and get to attend a concert of incredible musicians for free. I felt like I'd won the lottery! And then the call came in two days before the event. Julie sounded a touch on edge. (Just so you know, Julie is never panicked. She's probably the most unflappable person I know.) "Allison, I have a favor to ask you. The volunteer I had scheduled to be her handler just cancelled and everyone else is assigned to other jobs for the event. I know I can trust you not to screw this up, so will you do it?" I was so caught off guard that I had to ask, "What am I doing? Who's 'she?' " And, doing her best not to sound exasperated with me, she very calmly said, "Um, RBG. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Would you be her handler?" OMG. OMG! OMG!! Are you kidding me?! Challenge accepted!!!

I arrived at the event early (to help stuff programs and arrange flowers) and got a full debriefing of what my handler job would entail. I would join the Federal Marshals to meet Justice Ginsburg (with more Federal Marshals) at the service entrance and then guide her to the reception, then to the concert, and finally to dinner. Before her arrival, the building was thoroughly searched by security (including a particularly wonderful K-9 dog named Hope who gave me a bored sniff). Let me just say that the Federal Marshals are some of the coolest people ever. I mean cool. Really. Related: Also don't mess with them. They see things most people would miss and scan constantly with their eyes, picking up on the smallest details. Amazing, actually.

Anyway, Supreme Court Justices don't use main doors or elevators. It's too dangerous. So, I became very acquainted with the loading dock and service elevator. It feels very strange to stand in formalwear and three-inch heels on a loading dock waiting for someone so important.

And then the bulletproof SUV pulls in.

I did this for so many years and the moment is always the same. Your stomach is a ball of nerves. Your tongue feels like jelly and your heart is in your throat. "Don't screw it up," is about the only thing going through your head.

She steps out of the car and you're surprised (again) with how tiny she is. She had to have been about 85 pounds dripping wet. I'm 5'2" and I feel like I'm towering over her. We're both in heels.

"Welcome to Chicago, Justice Ginsburg!" I say with a smile and I usher her to the service elevator. The catering staff is peering through the glass window to the loading dock, whispering to each other. We take the elevator up to the holding room to get ready for the reception.

Now, if any of you have seen the (excellent) documentary, "RBG," you'll know that Justice Ginsburg was an introvert. Meeting a seemingly unending line of people was probably the closest thing to hell for her. But, as they say, "A mother's love knows no bounds." My job was to stand near her and monitor crowd behavior. If someone was taking too much time or getting too aggressive, I would swoop in and say something like, "Thank you so much for your support of Cédille! Justice Ginsburg has many people to greet tonight. Are you ready for your photo?" And then the photographer would take their picture, get their name and email, and I would gently show them out and usher the next person to the table.

I was a (fancily dressed) fly on the wall for years at this event. Some of the conversations were absolutely inspiring. I remember so vividly a woman who had spent almost everything she had on a ticket just for the chance to tell Justice Ginsburg that she (Justice Ginsburg) was the reason her family had immigrated from Poland. Justice Ginsburg's leadership in gender equality gave her parents hope that their daughter could live a good life in America. After the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, a gay couple thanked her for the chance to live freely and start their family in peace. There were so many moving moments. I found myself getting choked up on more than one occasion.

And there were also some that caused me to turn away to keep from giggling. In the past few years, the conversations veered toward, "Have you tried pomegranate juice? It's supposed to be very high in antioxidants!" and "You know, blueberries are supposed to be a superfood! Do you eat blueberries?" I mean, the sheer number of people asking about her knowledge of healthy fruits and vegetables got to be ridiculous. To her credit, she graciously answered each of them with a smile and something like, "Yes, I do enjoy blueberries."

Some of my absolute favorite moments though, were when people would bring their children to see her. Now, I'll tell you that she didn't seem thrilled by having to smile for what felt like a million photos, but when she would see a child, she would absolutely light up. It was like she was beaming from the tips of her toes out through the top of her head. She asked children about themselves and listened closely to the answers. She signed copies of I Dissent, a children's book about her life, with absolute joy. (I got the gumption to bring in my own copy for her to dedicate to my children, which she happily did and teased me a little about my girls having double names and my boys only having singles.)

Me and Nortorious RBG
Signing my kids' copy of "I Dissent"

One year, a young couple brought in their baby girl, dressed to the nines in a Burberry dress, black patent leather Mary Jane shoes, and a big burgundy bow headband around her mostly bald little head. The baby was probably about six months old and, when Justice Ginsburg saw her, she flipped into grandma mode. Both hands reached out to hold that baby girl. She looked like she was absolutely in heaven. And when the couple said, "We named her after you! We'd like you to meet ... Ginsburg!" she only flinched for a split second (while I'm sure she probably thought, "Ruth would have also been a fine name for her,") before oohing and aahing over the child's perfect little chubby fingers grabbing her own weathered hand.

From the reception, we'd head to the concert, which included the presentation of the Martin D. Ginsburg award. She handed me a printed copy of her speech and asked that I place it at the podium. When I went to deliver the speech to the podium, another team member said, "Oh, don't worry. It's already there." So, I peeked at the podium, saw that the speech was in place, and held onto the extra copy. We entered the auditorium through the stage door (again, no main entrances) and slipped into our seats in the auditorium undetected. The concert started. It was truly spectacular. A music-lover's dream. Every note played with such feeling and intention. It's hard to say whether the performers always play that well (entirely possible) or if their experiences were heightened also, knowing who was in the audience, but I was nearly breathless by the time Justice Ginsburg made her way to the podium.

She began her speech and I followed along in the extra copy. That's when I realized that the papers at the podium were shuffled. When she turned the page, her words no longer matched what I had in my lap. I sat open-mouthed, my heart racing, as she very calmly moved the pages around, all while paraphrasing exactly what she had meant to say and picked up in the third paragraph, right where she should have. She didn't miss a beat. I was the only other person in that room who knew that her speech hadn't gone word for word as she had intended. When I would hear people say, "Oh, she's got to be slipping," that moment played so vividly in my mind. Nothing about her mind was slipping. Absolutely nothing.

After the speech, we'd ride the service elevator again to the seated dinner, where, for the first several years, I'd usher her to the table and say goodbye. In later years, I'd wait by the table to help if I was needed. I know that she enjoyed Campari and soda to drink as a cocktail and liked a glass of white wine with dinner. She wore tiny, delicate lace gloves and would touch up her hair in the mirror (those darned flyaways!), just as anyone else.

Note the Campari and Soda and Lace Gloves

But I think what I treasure the most were the times when I got to see her outside of the crowd. Before the receptions, we'd wait in a private room together. It was the two of us, a photographer, two Federal Marshals, and a dedicated server. The Federal Marshals aren't big talkers and the photographer and server were generally too nervous to say anything. The overall feeling of the room is the calm before the storm. Later, a handful of VIPs would get to have private one-on-one time to visit with her before the reception started, but until their arrival, it was just us. From the loading dock, I would guide her to this room, get her a drink and the program for the concert to review, and wait quietly. A couple of years in, the event moved to the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning & Leadership, and the holding room has one of the most breathtaking views of the Lake Michigan waterfront in the city. She asked me to come over and show her what everything was. "That's the Art Institute. They have a fascinating exhibition called 'Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity' going on right now. Over there is Grant Park, where [newly elected] President Obama gave his acceptance speech. That dome down there is the Adler Planetarium, which is next to the Field Museum of Natural History and the Shedd Aquarium. Over this way is Millennium Park. That area over there with that large sculpture is where the Chicago Symphony plays outdoor concerts in the summer ..." Was I talking too much? (I mean, I am my father's daughter, so it's entirely possible.) But I don't think so. She seemed to be soaking it all in. That night, when I said goodbye to her, she told me that I had been a wonderful hostess. Mission complete!

In other years, I got to see her — icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — as a human. I saw her as a mom, seeing her son for the first time coming in from her flight. I heard her ask about his cold, if he needed to see a doctor. (And the response was also so universal to all of us, essentially, "Moooooom, I'm fiiiiiine.") I think that's what's most meaningful to me. It was in the moments when we'd ride the service elevator from the concert to the dinner and we'd talk about our favorite parts of the concert. She told me about getting a special award from the Lyric Opera in Chicago (clearly a highlight for her) and she chuckled when I joked that the pair of young musicians (that we'd just been amazed by) looked to be about seventeen years old and might be out past curfew.

Signing "Notorious RBG" for Me

Two years ago, days before a, ahem, big birthday, I asked her to sign my copy of Notorious RBG, which she graciously did. I asked her what she thought of the name and she laughed quietly and said, "I quite enjoy that." I treasure that copy.

A few years ago, the event fell on September 11. That's a hard day for me anyway and I had what I call a "now or never" moment. Before I left at dinner, I told her that I had been in New York on September 11 and that I wanted to thank her for her service to our country. I told her that she was a role model for so many — myself included — and I felt honored to be in her presence. If she was annoyed by hearing people say things like that, she sure didn't show it and I was glad that I hadn't missed the chance.

Last year, at this event, the news had hit that the cancer had returned. All eyes were on her. She didn't attend the reception and she didn't bother to use the stage door to the theater either. When the Federal Marshals opened the main doors and we walked in, I was supporting her under one arm while another Federal Marshal was supporting her under the other. The room stopped. All eyes turned as we walked in, and, then out of the silence came clapping. In the next breath, the room was on its feet all cheering for her, some people in tears, as she made her way to her seat. She once again introduced that year's Martin D. Ginsburg Award recipient. This time, she walked to the podium by herself, no one under her arms. In heels. If there's ever been a picture of what strength looks like, that was it. I don't have a picture of the two of us from last year. It didn't feel right. Earlier, in the holding room, we held a quiet space. She rested. (I mean, she had performed a wedding earlier that morning and had given a talk the night before, so she had good reason to need to rest besides the cancer.) When I close my eyes, I can see her, hair slicked back into her trademark ponytail, looking out over Lake Michigan, leafing through the program of artists yet to see. This was a woman who never stopped learning, never stopped growing, never stopped thinking.

As I think about ways to honor her in death, I also remember the friendship she shared with Justice Scalia. After his death, so many people voiced their condolences to her and I saw that she felt the loss keenly. Music is what brought them together. Even though they had completely opposing viewpoints on so many things, they were an example of how to remain friends through disagreements and major differences of opinion. Music — all art, really — is truly what unites us. I'm going to make a donation to Cédille in her honor and I would encourage you to do the same. If lifting up the arts, if shining a light on local musicians and composers is a cause you can get behind, please consider it. It was clearly a cause that she believed in. That's enough for me.

Oh, and please vote.

Rest well, Justice Ginsburg. And thank you again for your service.

A still from "RBG" the Documentary while in my "handler" role


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