I first met Tori MacMillan at her home in 1988 when I took my older daughter for her first piano lesson. The person who had recommended Tori to me had described her as “elegant and very interesting.”
It was early January. We had just had a winter storm, and the air had the crisp, clean smell that only comes with snow.
When I arrived at her house, Tori came out to my car to introduce herself and to take my daughter inside for her lesson. I will never forget hearing her lilting voice for the first time and thinking it was a perfect fit for a music teacher, that it suited someone who spent so much of her life listening to and playing the works of classical composers. At that moment, I instinctively knew that Tori would be the perfect teacher for my child.
Little did I know how much Tori would teach me over the next 23 years.
Although Tori and I were from different backgrounds, we soon became close friends. We bonded over our love of books and spent hours discussing our favorite authors. We began traveling to Southern Pines periodically to visit The Country Bookshop where we would find new books to read and show each other books we had read and loved. In the days before Amazon, a trip to a bookstore was a true delight, and we savored our time there. Every trip ended with lunch at Sweet Basil, a small café on the main street. Sweet Basil served the most delicious soup I have ever tasted.
While I treasure the memory of our trips to Southern Pines, it was the metaphorical travels, not the literal ones, that I enjoyed most. Tori and I came from different backgrounds, and her childhood was markedly different from mine.
I spent my entire childhood in one town and traveled to the beach just once a year to spend a week at my grandparents’ cottage.
I considered it a grand adventure to go to Raleigh with my mother and sisters to shop and have lunch.
By contrast, Tori was quite the traveler. Her father, a career soldier, was stationed all over the world. When Tori spoke of her childhood, she described in great detail being evacuated from the Philippines just as World War II was beginning and how calm her mother appeared to be amid all the chaos. She talked about living in Paris after the war and meeting the Duchess of Windsor. In her typical wry fashion, Tori joked that the Duchess was even thinner in person than she was in pictures.
But not all of her stories were so romantic.
Tori’s father was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp for three years and was one of the few survivors of the Bataan Death March. She once showed me a canteen her father had carried on that march. He had used a nail to scratch a map on the front of the canteen noting the villages they marched through. It was one of her most treasured possessions.
Tori spoke frequently of her brother who was killed in the Korean War. Years after his death, his remains were returned to Fayetteville where he was laid to rest with full military honors.
Tori was always proud of her family’s service to our country. Our friendship offered me an intimate view into the lives of military families and their private struggles with loss.
Listening to her speak about her father and brother with such reverence, I felt a renewed sense of patriotism and appreciation for the military that remain with me to this day.
Only once did Tori leave me nearly speechless with one of her stories. When she casually mentioned that she had spent a summer with William Faulkner and been given a tour of the small house where he wrote many of his novels, the English major in me responded with a combination of wonder and disbelief. Tori had befriended Jill Faulkner, William’s daughter, when they attended a girls’ boarding school and was invited to their home in Mississippi. When I asked her if she had asked him to autograph any of his books, she gave me a strange look and said, “I could never do anything like that.”
That reply was so typical of Tori—part Southern belle, part woman of the world. She was unfailingly kind and considerate of others.
I admired her optimism and intellectual curiosity and found her enthusiasm infectious. To her, life was a great adventure.
When Tori died in 2011 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer, I felt as though the world had less light and joy in it than before. I still miss her, but I like to think that somewhere she is conversing with Brahms and Mozart and charming them with her beautiful, lilting voice.
Mary Zahran, who thinks of her friend Tori every day, may be reached at email@example.com.