It was only fitting that I was in Europe when I got the news that my old friend had died. My friend, a woman way ahead of her time, had herself spent quite a bit of time in Europe. In fact, she had moved to Paris with a girlfriend while she was in her 20s and had met her future husband while on a ski trip in the Swiss Alps. The details of it all are fuzzy to me. After all, I met her and heard her stories when I was almost 19 years old and she was almost 60. 18 going on 19 is an age where you’re often clueless about people that much older than you. You don’t realize that people who seemed “ordinary” might actually have stories that are “extraordinary.”
We worked together and my friend took me under her wing and treated me as her third daughter (she really missed having her daughters around as they had both moved to Texas). Growing up in a predominantly Catholic suburb of Cleveland, she was my first Jewish friend. I didn’t know exactly what being Jewish meant, other than she would praise me when she caught me doing “mitzvahs” (good deeds) or say “mazel tov” (good luck) whenever I embarked on a new adventure. (She actually wasn’t born a Jew; she converted after marriage to show her devotion to her much-adored husband which probably explains why she always bought me Christmas gifts!)
I worked with her for less an 1-1/2 years, but our friendship lasted another 22 years, even after she left Cleveland for Oklahoma (to take care of her sick mother after her husband died), then Oklahoma for Texas (to be closer to her daughters after her mother died). I haven’t seen her since 1992, but I can clearly see her sucking on a cigarette (her only bad habit as far as I knew) and hear her distinct gravelly voice.
I liked my friend because she could laugh at herself (a rare quality in people as I’ve come to discover). I loved her because she was always a source of unconditional support — another rare quality. She believed in me when I didn’t know how to believe in myself.
I tried to honor my old (old) friend in her life out of respect and appreciation for all she taught me. And it was good to say goodbye with no regrets — I knew she loved me and she knew I loved her. I had known that in my heart, but it was nice to hear it out loud when I finally – 24 years later – met her daughters. The gathering after her burial was an event I’ll never forget – her daughters (whose resemblance to their mother in looks, mannerisms and humor was unnerving but comforting), some other family and one outsider (me) sitting around a firelit living room on a cold January day sharing stories. We laughed and cried and celebrated the life of that “little old lady in tennis shoes” (as she always called herself); it was a fitting tribute to a woman who will live on in more ways than she could have ever imagined.