Update from Italy: Farewell to a Friend

Preparing to lay Liz to rest in the English Cemetery, Florence. Pictured, L to R: Haswell Beni, Fr. Richard Easterling, Sister Julia Holloway, Jean Matranga (holding urn), Jean’s son, Priscilla Fontanelli.

The funeral for our friend Liz Cole almost two weeks ago, on January 20. Her burial was on Saturday at noon. I was grateful that The Florentine updated the piece they ran about her with the service time – I adapted it from my original post on my website about Liz’s sudden and unexpected passing two weeks ago. In these days of whack-a-mole Covid positive results and the attendant restrictions on activity, who knows if anyone will be able to go a certain place on a certain day. Liz had many close friends, that much was clear, whether she’d known them a lifetime or just the last few years of her life, as she did me. The group slowly gathered in the median in front of the English Cemetery, at the gate, under the arch, among the graves.

The English Cemetery holds a special place in my heart and imagination. I pass it two, three, four times a day. It’s a block from where we live in Piazza D’Azeglio. I love the stones and bones, the exuberant purple irises that tuft up each spring by the thousands, the way it always catches the sunshine, the famous expatriate forebears buried there. I first saw it years ago, tagging along with a friend who was visiting with her language class, and there I met the incomparable Julia Holloway (as introduced in the article linked above at the start of this paragraph), Elizabeth Barrett Browning scholar, recently named Mother Superior of the Order of the Holy Family, and freelance saint. I often see Julia in town on her bike, veil flying in the wind, pedaling in her long chambray skirts. I am grateful for all the work she has done in Florence with the least among us, the most invisible, the most needy, while simultaneously admiring her academic accomplishments and scholarship in English poetry. It’s not easy to secure a burial in the English Cemetery. Most people buried there now reserved their spaces decades ago. Liz always planned ahead like that. Fr. Richard told me once laughing that she gave him her cremation card when they first met last year.

My son Victor willingly accompanied me. I’ve never been to a funeral before! he exclaimed. Well, this will be an easy one, then, I said. Outdoor in a garden with an urn. What’s an urn? Holds the cremains, I said. Here, hold the primroses. Vic took the small pot of primroses from me. I adjusted the satin bow. A small gesture, well fit to the day. Did you know the Etruscans cremated their dead too? he asked me. Full of fun facts, this fifth grader. I didn’t actually know that, I said. Then I remembered their penchant for alabaster urns. Makes sense.

We couldn’t have ordered better weather. The day was clean, blue and bright, and calm. We gathered around the grave for the brief liturgy. Jean gave the ashes to the staff, who carefully placed them in a cement vault, placed the lid on the vault, caulked it, and laid a felt on top of it, then shoveled the wet dirt atop it. They motioned that people who brought flowers should pass them up, so we did, and in went the little pot of primroses. The gardeners stuck the cut flowers in the dirt vertically. The satin ribbon that had festooned the plastic pot was cast to one side.

I stood with my friend Roseanne under the spire of a Tuscan cedar. We shared memories of Liz, our regrets, how we were feeling. Victor and her three daughters stood behind us. The cedar branches clawed at our hair. It’s amazing, I said, a life so large and so well-lived, and it all comes to this, as will we all, gesturing to the fresh hillock of dirt. If we’re lucky. I looked around at the sunlit garden, the hill of handsome stones and turf, the cedar trees lining the path and ringing the parameter. If we’re lucky. The non-stop traffic on the viale swarmed around all side of the island, people in a hurry to come and go, arrive here or there.

Victor was hungry. And thirsty. And tired. Also, his feet hurt, and his legs. I made our farewells more quickly than I would have liked but understood the trade-off – if a ten-year-old boy volunteers for funeral duty, then the visit ends when the boy says. I thanks Julia for all her work, and gave her Jason’s best – they have some professional activities in common.

I had been wishing that I had something of Liz’s to remember her by. Then I remembered the Doufou Le Creuset Dutch oven she gave me last spring, orange as a pumpkin and enormous, which I’d brought home in the basket, still in its original box. It had been a wedding gift, she told me. She was never ever going to use it! She looked for it for months before she and her aide found it, triumphant. The cast iron weighs a ton and the bike wobbled on the uneven flagstones. I took it home and looked it up, not sure what to do with it. But then last month we remembered we should be using it for our weekly roasts. They turn out beautifully in it, juicy and perfect. The orange is so cheery, and the piece so durable. I’ll have it for the rest of my life, from one foodie to another, and remember her every time I tuck in a roast with chopped vegetables on a weekend night for a reliably fantastic meal.

Says Eleanor, it is nice she is so close, you can see her every time you ride on the bike path. And she’s right. Thank you, Liz, for everything, and again for making space in your life for a new younger friend to whom you gave so much. You will be missed immeasurably.

The exchange of sympathy for gratitude is the most princely thing! – EBB

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