When Your Friend’s Parent Dies

My heart leaped when I heard her voice on my answering machine. It was Judy, who we teased so in college for her youth: she was just 16 for most of our freshman year. Judy my roommate and bridesmaid from the days when young women had hair down to their elbows and dressed in gowns as flowing in gossamer as you’d see on a host of angels.

But glad as I was to hear her voice, I was that sad to learn why she called: Her mother was hospitalized near here and she had dropped everything back in Manhattan to come sit by her for her final weeks.

I don’t know how many times I saw Judy during this period.

Once was for perhaps the saddest New Year’s Eve dinner she will ever spend, with her mother going and her dad having gone just last June.  Once it was to meet at my dry cleaners, where she left off the clothes in which her mother would be buried.  Once I brought her straight from the hospital to the movies, where the two of us sat in the theater’s garage, downing the chicken cassoulet I had thrown together so she could eat before the show.

Naturally, I saw her at the funeral, where she rose and spoke so movingly  of her mom’s life, beginning in 1920s Brooklyn and going on through the marriage and parenthood, right up to her final years when, even with growing dementia, she could still beat the pants off her husband in Scrabble. This is the lady above.

And this is Judy on the piano bench at 12.

She spoke of her childhood and family life in Brooklyn, then Cincinnati, then Dayton. She told what her mother had loved: Her children. Music on the stereo.  Things of beauty, like the high-end jewelry she sold for years in her career.

I took in every word.

And afterward, as I stood studying the gorgeous photo of her mom as a young woman, Judy came and stood beside me.

“YOU love pictures!” she said. “I have literally hundreds of them back in my hotel room. Would you like to come see them the tomorrow night as I pack everything up, maybe even keep some for yourself?”

I said I would relish having one last visit with her and this time I brought chili and a Waldorf salad. “Why are you always feeding me?!” she laughed when she opened her door.

As we ate, she told me the story of her family, who had come here in the early 1900s from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. She spoke too of the ones who did not come, on her dad’s side; whose letters had abruptly and heartbreakingly stopped – just stopped – as Hitler’s dark shadow stretched over Europe.

I heard about Brooklyn grandmothers in funny old grandmother shoes.

I heard about her family’s migration to suburban Cincinnati where grandmothers drove actual cars and wore sleek Jackie-style pumps.

We spoke of all this and then turned to the hundreds of photos, from jocular candids to formal studio groupings and beyond.

“Take some!” she urged.

She also gave me a brooch, a single gold ‘S’ for her mother’s name.

“Your LAST name begins with ‘S’” she said. “At least it did when I met you. And I have no family member with this initial.”

“But you might someday,” I said. “I will keep it for you until then.” And so I will.

I took a lot of photos too and in the days following scanned them and saved them on my computer, where I go and look at them often.

I look at them very often, in fact, struck as I am by my good fortune in being near her during this passage; struck as I remain by the generosity of spirit that takes a mere friend from the old days and turns her into family.

And this is the Judy I met at 16, here seen at 20 the day before our Smith graduation:

No friends like the old friends

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8 thoughts on “When Your Friend’s Parent Dies

  1. Often your posts make me cry, sometimes in sadness & sometimes in recognition of a joy. Your daily thoughts add so much to my day.

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