The first two lines of a greatly appreciated personal email today, from a man whose mother died a few nights ago:
My Mom and your buddy passed away peacefully in her sleep Wednesday am. She got this, her final wish, a royal death.
She would have been 98 in a matter of weeks, and it was only recently that I heard her voice tiredness for the first time.
I knew her for more than 40 years, making her around my age now when I met her, a small coincidence that just occurred to me. If I could live the rest of my years as well as she did those 40 that remained to her, I would be very blessed.
The only memory of her that is not pure sunshine is recalling how demanding a mother she sometimes seemed to be. All mothers cause some vexation to their children, as, sadly, we all do to our mothers. Though I could see what could be vexing about her as a parent, I was privileged to never experience it personally. As her oldest son noted, over the years we became buddies.
“I want to be Sophie when I grow up,” Sekhnet said often. If talking to Sophie she’d say “I want to be you when I grown up!” and Sophie would laugh the easy, distinctive laugh she practiced often. What Sekhnet meant was Sophie’s joy for life, her sense of adventure, her ready embrace of the good side of whatever else the thing might be. Her robustness and optimism, the way she drew people to her by these qualities.
She became friendly with my parents in 1999 when they met for the first time. My parents came up from Florida for my law school graduation in the spring. The graduation was in Newark, New Jersey. Sophie emailed my parents, inviting them to stay with her and her husband in their nearby home. The email was typical of Sophie — charming, well-written, mischievous.
She laid out the many advantages of staying in her home and stressed what a pleasure it was for her and her husband to be able to offer this hospitality, and how small an effort. “If you say no, we’ll say you’re being stubborn,” she ended, closing the deal. The two couples became friends at once.
Her husband died, and, not long afterwards, my father was hospitalized suddenly with only days to live. Sophie was then close to ninety and had stopped driving on the dangerous Florida speedways, but she wanted to say goodbye. She took local streets, a trip that took several times as long as going by the turnpike, and a journey much longer than any she’d driven in years. I will always remember her face as she sat by my father’s bed a few hours before he died. It was like the sun. She beamed a smile on him as he feebly gestured and made such small talk as he could. She showered him with love and a huge smile in a room where everyone else was frowning and fretting. It was about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. She stayed a short time, hugged and kissed us all, and made her way back the way she’d come, while there was plenty of sunlight to navigate by.
A few years later she and my mother booked an apartment in a residential building in the West Village that was rented out as a cut-rate B & B. Sophie and my mother were going to share a place for a week and then my mother would move to a studio apartment for the second week of her last visit to New York. I brought them to the apartment and when they opened the door my mother looked around and let out a gasp. “Oh, my God,” she said to Sophie, looking around at walls that needed painting, almost no furniture, a mattress on the floor in the living room “what a dump!”. My mother turned her expressive face to Sophie– the expression was of someone about to throw up. This cracked Sophie up.
“Oh, Evelyn!” she laughed “it’s an adventure!” She immediately offered my mother the better of the bedrooms and they had a very nice little adventure together in that perfectly adequate semi-shabby apartment on West 15th Street.
Walking with them during that visit illustrated another contrast between my mother, a glass half-empty gal, and Sophie, for whom the glass was always, at the very least, half-full. My mother walked with a cane at that point and would walk quickly until she had to stop, breathless and feeling she was about to die. “I can’t breathe!” she’d say with some degree of panic, “I can’t breathe, I have a sharp pain…” she’d point to her heart and double over slightly as she struggled to catch her breath. I’d talk soothingly to her as she caught her breath and then she’d be fine, dash off on her next sprint. Sekhnet and I switched walking partners after she and Sophie caught up to us.
Sophie walked slowly and deliberately at 92. She would take your arm and cause you to walk at her pace. She would converse, and observe, and laugh, never running short of breath, walking at a slower than average NYC pace. She made the whole process of being old and wanting to see and do everything seem effortless.
One trouble with living long and having old friends is that eventually they all die. Sophie kept up with the children and grandchildren of old friends and continued to make new friends everywhere she went. She was an inspiration, my life was enriched by knowing her, watching her remarkable example. I hope very much that Sekhnet gets her wish and grows up to be her.