Her name is Harriet and I met her at our Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ. She became my piano teacher and really, my second mother. Think of a mother you could choose, and who chose you. Very different. She taught me how to play piano at a very late age, but sometimes our piano lessons involved nothing more about the piano than sitting close to one another in front of it. She would point out life lessons I was learning, listen to my troubles or my triumphs, and give me courage and encouragement to keep on doing what I was doing. At the time we met, our boys were seven and ten. She knew intimately our life, our help, our trials and tribulations. We went through her husband’s passing early on. Her first husband invented Play Dough, her second husband invented the Air Cast. She never lacked money, drove a stick shift 700 series BMW in those days and had two grand pianos, back to back in her living room. She raised seven kids, four of her own and three of her second husband’s.
When you choose someone to be in your life as a second parent, it is so very different. She saw me for what I am – not for what my mother wanted me to be (to stay in St. Louis nearby and have lunch and go shopping with her on Saturdays. Yuck.)
She had a huge home in Summit overlooking NYC, one in Vermont and one in Nantucket. We spent time in all of them – she was so generous. When I told her I was thinking of moving back to the city, she understood ALL that that entailed. In the middle of our move, she came over and insisted that all of our furniture for the yet to be found country house, would not go to storage at Westy’s but would go to her house until we found a place. She kept it for a year and still has a few items, five and a half years later.
She taught me to never throw away a roast duck carcass but to make duck soup (yummy), the benefits of hanging your wash out to dry (her favorite thing to do) and pointed out when I was doing things right by my kids and when I needed to do something different (not pointing out something wrong, as my own mother might do). There was a time when we were in our little temporary apartment, before moving in to NYC, that she was over for dinner every Sunday night. Such fun we had in this little dinky kitchen. She had her chair, watching me cook, and all was well. She loved my food. She once said that she would bet that my boys would always live close to us, partly because of my cooking. I sure hope she’s right.
A mutual friend once remarked that Harriet could party like a high schooler, and she could. She loved Grey Goose on the rocks, several small drinks throughout the evening, and never liked wine. She was a true party girl and full of life wisdom.
We just saw each other in early May, partied like old times, cooked her a big dinner, spent the night, and she was fine. She was 82. In late June she was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer, Waldenström Macroglobulinemia, plus leukemia. This was zapping her strength and also affecting her cognitive abilities due to her blood thickening. Her natural children moved her up to a hospice house in Vermont. I had been in touch by phone and we planned to go up there this Sunday. I learned yesterday evening that she passed on Monday morning. I am so very sad. As soon as I heard, I could do nothing but go to the piano and try to play through tears. I’m so very disappointed we did not get to see her one last time.
Yesterday morning, while walking to catch a bus on upper Fifth Avenue, I saw this brownstone stoop. I thought it looked like a stairway to heaven for Harriet. I did not know then that she was gone.