In my mid-twenties I decided that I needed more older friends in my life. Living in western Washington in the nineties as a young, single woman, I cultivated a warm friendship with my mother’s cousin Carl and his wife Polly, who were old enough to be my grandparents. Our families were connected in a hundred ways, more closely than a family tree might betray. Carl had grown up in Detroit with my grandfather, his uncle. Carl and I were especially well-suited for trips long and far, meandering conversations, a good sauna, a better book, wild ideas, and nature appreciation. Carl and Polly enriched my life immeasurably for fifteen years. When Death knocked for them, he came first for Polly, then returned for Carl just three months later. On the night that the call came from Carl’s daughter to let me know he died, I sat on our couch at home and sobbed into a tea towel. My husband had come to know Carl and Polly well through me. He sat next to me, infant Victor in his left arm, and hugged me with his right.
Friends come and go in this life. Connections wax and wane. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can direct and drive their paths. You can’t. But you can be open to their appearance on the stage where you direct the theater piece of your life. Siblings disappear. Friends recede into the waves. Someone you dated decades ago might reappear in a calmer, friendlier format, revealing the core traits that informed a meaningful connection. Older relatives come back into your life as friends. Older friends are sometimes found. I treasure older friends for their perspective and calm. People who have made it into their seventies and eighties with their minds intact have seen all of life’s rich pageant. Nothing surprises them. I remember Carl’s consistent “Hmmm!” when I presented him with some new fact about a person or job or event that astonished me. “Hmmm!” Usually followed by “mmm-hmm!” and a nod. Yep. No surprise there. Check the footnotes. It all aligns.
I met Elisabeth at St. James Episcopal here in Florence. It must have been the autumn of 2018, September. I heard a confident voice hold forth from the end of a table. Who could it be? Was it really emanating from this diminutive, cheerful woman with the short light hair? I introduced myself. “Call me Liz,” she demanded. I told her she reminded me of my grandmother Esther. She was not at all offended. Later I shared with her an incredible picture of my grandmother sometime in the thirties on the north end of Gun Lake in Middleville, Michigan. Liz blinked and said I’d paid her too grand a compliment.
Liz and I found we had so much in common. The old-fashioned midwestern upbringing. Our travel bugs. Her books clubs and general resilience. Liz was the glue that held many friendships and groups together. She first arrived in Florence in 1958, on a steamship with the junior year abroad program at Smith College. She stayed. She saw and remembered everything. She was a reader and a writer and loved literature. At our weekly coffees in her frescoed library a stone’s throw from San Lorenzo, she regaled me with tales of Muriel Spark and other bright literary stars who’d passed through Florence. I borrowed books and brought them back. Her bookshelves alone were a story unto themselves, packed and layered, the collection of a woman who’d been reading her whole life. We talked about TV, trips we’d taken and wanted to take, parenting and children. She was especially taken by my children and asked about them often. I saw Liz regularly at church, but our weekly espresso dates were highlights of my week. Although she was game to receive offerings of my fresh-baked goods, she confided in me one afternoon, “Always eat fruit with your afternoon espresso, never pastry, and you’ll live to be a hundred.” Her phone never stopped ringing. I kept bringing her pastries, birthday gifts, tales from my life. She seemed to like my stories.
Liz knew everyone. It was rumored she was a founding member of Democrats Abroad of Italy. She’d been widowed years before, her Italian husband having preceded her in death. They had no children. This was always a surprise to me. Liz was hands-down great with children in a genuine way. I saw how she was with kids at church, and with my own kids. Patient, kind, direct, respectful.
The pandemic was hard for Liz. Her old friends struggled to come into town to visit her, what with lock-downs and quarantines and old-fashioned caution. She had a live-in helper who made sure she was independent to the end – as independent as she could be. Even as her body failed her, her mind was unfailingly sharp and inquisitive. I kept our weekly dates, but my quarantine last month before the holidays and then the Omicron wave in Tuscany kept me away since early December. Liz and I continued to email and text as always, just checking in. How are the kids? What are you baking? When are we catching up next? And so on.
And so when I received the message that Liz was in hospital on Monday evening I immediately messaged her. I am worried – are you okay? She didn’t respond. I was in the park chasing Eleanor on her bike. Dinner was prepping. The apartment was warm. I saw our priest called me and I’d missed the call in the chaos. A pit yawned in my gut. I knew what the call was about. It’s usually not good news when your priest calls you during dinner. I responded and said I’d call him back. But part of me just wanted to suspend the moment between not-knowing and knowing. He finally called me back a little bit later and said that Liz had died suddenly. I checked my phone and saw that she’d received my worried message, but had not responded. I realized I had sent it just before she’d died, most likely. A flurry of messages and emails flitted through my phone. It couldn’t seem real. How can a force of nature just wink out like a light? For crying out loud, she’s a woman who’s lived in Italy for sixty years – she should by rights have another two decades to go!
There was visitation beginning at 9:30 this morning at a chapel. I had to take the tram to get there, and then walk around an area I don’t know at all to locate it. I knew I was in the right place though when a Maserati hearse pulled out of the Ofisa garage. In Italy, you go out in style. I didn’t even know a Maserati hearse was a thing. I stopped in the tenth-century pieve (parish church) of Santo Stefano in Pane to light a candle and pray. I haven’t been to a funeral in ages.
After I sat in the church a good long while, I walked back out on Via delle Panche to the Ofisa. The address was in a very strange place, behind a collection of mechanic garages and (ironically) storage units. A collection of clean chapels were numbered in a semicircle around a graveled garden. The names of the deceased were on a marquee. Elisabeth Cole Robbins, Cappella III. A garden attendant in a starter jacket and a mask didn’t even look at me. Wrought-iron chairs and tables were arranged on each patio outside of each chapel, with clean ashtrays. The door was open. The room was beautiful. All new and neat as a pin, with everything a mourner might need: a box of tissues, hard candies, a registry, and most importantly, the body in a chilled closet behind glass double doors. No attendants, no sign-in, no weirdness. The fragrance of synthetic lilies was overwhelming. I wondered it it came from Liz or from the bamboo fragrance sticks in the bottle on the white wooden desk.
I sat with Liz for almost an hour. She looked very, very small, but good, like she was just napping on a satin pillow. I cried. We chatted in the way we hadn’t been able to, thanks to Covid and the rest of it. I wrote in my journal for a while. I thought she would appreciate the moment of quiet her repose occasioned for me. After we got all caught up, I put my gloves back on, slipped my journal and pen back into my bag, and excused myself back into the stream of life.
Thank you, Liz, for opening your heart and your home to this much younger, very effusive woman in the last three and a half years of your life. You blessed me, and I know you know, wherever you are, that your memory will be a blessing. May you rest in peace – you’ve earned it. May you please also continue to shake things up, wherever you are.