Mom got a phonecall today. It concerned a death. For many years, mom was friends with a Hungarian woman who taught French at the university here; mom had been a student of hers, and even after Madame retired, they were close friends.
I remember being about eleven or so when my parents went to Europe for a vacation; since there were no relatives to babysit, I stayed with Frances and her parents, and also with Madame. She would walk me to school every morning and, as we walked, she would talk and I would listen; among the things she spoke of was the complete account of the achievements of Charlemagne, encapsulated to fit the fifteen minutes it took to walk from her apartment above the bakery to the elementary school. After school, she would help me with my math homework and mutter the calculations under her breath, always in Hungarian, while she checked things using a little slate and a piece of chalk.
Years later, we would talk about books and current events; she was scandalized because I revealed I had no idea who Charlie Rose was, and that I didn't watch his show. She would issue forceful pronouncements about the behavior of this president or that politician, daring me to debate with her. I would lend her books on mythology, and she'd suggest something more popular like The DaVinci Code.
About eight years ago, she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralized; she went to a convalescent home and, with the help of physical therapists, was able to regain some of the abilities she lost. Later, she moved elsewhere, and then moved again, this time to Switzerland. She came back for her birthday a few years ago. It was difficult for me to see how much she'd changed from the vibrant, outspoken, strong person she'd been all through my childhood. Her daughter, in the meantime, kept us updated through letters with reports of both progress and decline; other friends who went abroad to visit her at the nursing home in Switzerland also told us how she was doing.
Today we got a phonecall telling us she's dead. Mom took the call and, somewhere between the birth of her friend's first grandchild and a bouncing e-mail, there came the news.
Through her life, she was a dancer, a swordswoman, a nurse, a physical therapist, and a teacher. She was a traveller, a reader, an avid witness to the changes in the political climate. She wrote letters, read books, took long walks every day, and took the time to help an eleven-year-old learn long division. She loved coffee ice cream, tulips and white carnations, believed strongly in the benefits of charcoal tablets, and enjoyed watching sunsets from the window of her apartment above the bakery. She was gracious, generous, a wonderful storyteller and listener, and enjoyed friendships with people of all ages and walks of life.
I'll miss you, Madame.