Greta, you nearly lived a century. I know that your 36,500th day on the planet would have been full of grumbling. You were a first-rate grumbler. Those with the gift for a good grumbling are real charmers; you were like Woody Allen that way. But where is my head at? Why am I starting this way? I guess I’m not sure how to talk about you, and the impact that you had on my life. You were a remarkable, authentic person and a bon vivant. I can say that now, where I wouldn’t call you a bon vivant to your face because you would find in my French some nuance of mispronunciation. Maybe I’m comfortable teasing you even in death because you were so dear to me.
When Greta’s son-in-law, Tom, asked me to speak at her service, I wanted to find some way to capture her spirit, to describe the rhythm of that sprawling composition that was her life, of which I only knew the final years. An impossible task. But I was able to find this journal entry from December 31st, 2010:
I arranged flowers tonight with Greta. Once a month, a man from the local grocery store comes by to donate the wilting or otherwise unsellable bouquets to the senior community where I work. I took her the best of the bunch: bright orange lilies, light roses and daisies in a white basket. She had no use for the lillies, and she hated the basket (2 out of 4 is not so bad when you’re dealing with Greta) so we broke up the arrangement and put the flowers into separate vases together.
As we worked, she talked about her beautiful wild garden at her old house, and the jerk who moved in and destroyed it because he thought it was a bother. She shows me a picture of her smiling in sunlight with a dark blue beret, behind a lantana bush that nearly dwarfs her. She heckles me to bring her more of my poetry, probing especially hard for something about Greece after my recent trip. I brought her back a pillowcase with a hand-knit scene of the white rooftops of Santorini, which she has draped over her armchair in the living room. She accepted it guiltily and told me I should have given it to my mother.
She has an appetite for mischief. She has decided that the violas that grow in front of the building are the best for her infamous hand-made cards. She dries and presses the petals in her dictionary. In the cover of night, armed with a pair of scissors, I have been sent many times into the gardens around the building to retrieve them for her.
Tonight, she asked me if I read Dylan Thomas, that peerless Welshman, and she told me that she saw him read poetry in the 1940’s when he toured America. She recalled wonderful details: how his voice trembled, how he mopped his brow with a sweaty rag that his white knuckles curled around atop the podium. She marvels at my height, and insists that my legs are too long for my body, which is why I’m given the privilege of reaching her mailbox for her every evening at 5:45, right before supper. She is one of my favorite people, and a dear dear friend.
“I thought you were my accomplice…”
I met Greta in 2010, at the retirement community where I’ve been employed in various capacities for nearly 6 years. She used a walker at first, and her legs were always wrapped in a fraying edema bandage from knee to ankle. She made very small, meticulous steps through the hallways and the dining room. She may have had slowest pace of anyone in the building, and she would curse her legs with each step, as if they were uncooperative beasts of burden. The image seems like a terribly sad one, but somehow Greta deflected sympathy without a word. She had this tenacity that just wouldn’t allow it. I often joined her on the walk back to her apartment after dinner because her antics and her sass made me laugh. When we reached her apartment, sometimes she would give me some ginger snaps, or a New Yorker magazine that she had finished reading. She always had an opinion about the cover illustrations. “What is this guy thinking? They put this on the front!? Look at this junk!”
Her apartment had a jumbled, creative vibe. The dining room had been converted into a card-making workshop with piles and piles of stuff. Everything was a valuable resource to Greta; magazines, construction paper, lace, flower petals, fabric. During her service, her friend Pam described her as a “magpie with an artist’s eye.” I loved that. It’s very true of her.
A crowd of potted plants, either flourishing or long dead, were always huddled together beneath the window. Impressionist prints and artwork from various friends and neighbors hung on the walls. She had a network of pen pals all over the world- Japan, Oaxaca, Paris- who sent her little presents of postcards, pictures, baubles. She was fond of each item, and always found a place for them on shelves, or between the pages of books. Because I helped her get her mail, I was always at the right place at the right time to witness her excitement at receiving a postcard or a letter with those exotic marks of international postage. She told me that for years she wrote long letters to her Parisian friends in an effort to teach herself French. Using only a translator’s dictionary and rudimentary grammar, her letters were always savored by their recipients for their malapropisms and unexpected turns of phrase. Her dearest French friend would celebrate them as “poetry,” while her friend’s husband thought them utter nonsense. Greta of course was always certain of their quality.
Greta with my dog Otis in 2011
She finally got a power scooter a year or two after moving into the community, which was a godsend for her. Her legs soon went out completely and she could no longer stand for very long. I started doing her dishes when I came over, and I loved the complete randomness of the treasures in her cabinets. One might find a Victorian teacup with a gilded handle nested in a chipped coffee mug, a mason jar, a stack of various plates as cohesive as the cover of Let It Bleed. She just liked stuff, by God, all kinds of stuff, and she kept every bit of it without any regard for convention. I’m not one to be surprised by bohemian digs, but I can’t stress how uncommon this is where I work, a place where every “proper” woman has a complete set of china and all of her crystal birds and porcelain angels fussily arranged in a curio cabinet. Greta, on the other hand, was lovably and unaffectedly eccentric. It set her apart.
My hand-made cards from Greta
We wrote silly notes back and forth all the time. She made me cards for every holiday, every trip I took, sometimes for no reason at all. I brought her books to read, cooked for her okra and tomatoes with lots of garlic, and tried to connect her with other kindred spirits who lived at the nursing home. As the wife of a Professor of Aesthetic Philosophy, she traveled all over the world to attend seminars, gallery openings and exhibitions at international art museums. Her taste for beauty was untamed and broad; she was charmed by Cezanne’s apples, by fresh flowers, by patterned Mexican fabrics, by the novels of Flaubert. She once told me that as a young woman, she would prepare for herself the food, cocktails, or other indulgences consumed by the characters in the novels she was reading. She showed me a picture of her seated in a French cafe on the street, dressed in white from head to toe, a cigarette perched between her fingertips. It was like an image from LIFE magazine. She had this quality that Tom Waits has, where every photo of her makes it seem like she is not “real” somehow. Like she is so immersed in her environment that the photo is lying to you somehow by conveying her image.
Greta cursed like a day laborer. It was amazing. If I spent more than ten minutes in her apartment, she was guaranteed to reverse her power scooter into a piece of furniture, denting it horribly and groaning, “Godammit!” or worse. Never before had anybody earned my respect with their skill for composing profanity. I guess I had it pretty good, because the worst thing she ever called me was a “dumb-bell,” which happened pretty often. Aside from French, she spoke pretty good Swedish as far as I could tell. She taught me a Swedish nursery rhyme traditionally accompanied by some knee-bouncing of a little one: “Rida rida ranka, hesten heter Blanka.” Ride Ride horse, it’s name is Blanka. …Guess it works better in the Swedish.
She lived in Sweden until she was a young girl. She told me her father was a harmonica player and a wonderful singer. When he came home late from the tavern, it was his singing that woke up the whole house. She loved to sing as well. I remember her reciting long passages of Gilbert & Sullivan songs. She also would sing this Bobby Darin song quite a few times (it must have been a favorite of hers):
Ooh … the ER-I-EE was risin’
And the gin was gettin’ low
And I scarcely think
We’ll get a little drink ‘
til we get to Buffalo….
Hear the song .
She would sing as she scooted through the lobby, sing in the hallways, sometimes even burst into song as we were speaking. Her voice was unrefined and her singing had this defiance to it that I loved. It was for her pleasure alone and nobody else’s. As someone who loves to sing and has no real ability, I can relate to the joy of it. I recognized a compatriot when I saw one.
I shared my poetry with her, at a time in my life when I did not share anything with anyone. She was encouraging, and I almost regretted it, as hard as she pressed me for more material throughout our friendship. She especially enjoyed a poem that I wrote about my own grandparents, and she would recite lines from it with admiration. It was unbelievable that such an amazing person would enjoy my work. As she taught me more and more French words, she began telling me I had an aptitude for language. It was her persuasion that pushed me into the local community college for a semester of French.
Greta had an amazing impact on my life. She listened to me. She encouraged me. She called me out when I was wrong. She was deliciously impolite. You never had to guess what she was thinking because she always spoke her mind. And she showed me a different mode of being alive, one that I’m so glad I found in her at that time in my life. She radiated positivity and strength; and whether she knew it or not, she shared it with everyone. She was celebratory of the things that charmed her; she loved to gush. “love, Love, LOVE” is a phrase she used in her cards, because just one “love” did not capture the way that she felt. One love does not capture how her friends and family felt about her either. She savored her life, and she lived it with an almost reckless joy. She wore freaking berets to dinner. Who does that?!
I shared this poem with her in the last few months of her life. She loved it.
She made me a Valentine note as thanks that I’ll treasure forever.
Her departure is a great loss to the world. There will never be another spirit like hers. If I could live as long as her, and know her joy, see the world like she saw it, I would be such a lucky soul.
Rest in peace, Greta.