Noticing the box with half my mother’s ashes, I thought again of three good folk I knew who died unnaturally young — or maybe naturally if you consider invidious, insidious disease to be our shared fate. Certainly going before 60 doesn’t seem right to me.
Today would have been my mother’s 89th birthday. She was outside the too-young range. She died 9 years ago.
At 33, Paula Delancey went first. We went to high school together, dated, and in our early 20s ended up becoming really close friends. She went to the CIA (as in chef’s school up the Hudson) and spent weekends in my West Village apartment. Hyde Park NY was not theater central nor where her friends lived and played.
“Her ambition is to be happy,” was beside her HS-yearbook pic.She was terrifically bright and well read. I couldn’t believe what a vapid, inane thing to write. Now of course, the older I get, the wiser that aim is.
She was a lot of fun, constantly laughing and joking, even ridiculing her own blunders and shortcomings.She looked forward to being a fabulous old lady.
The pic is, right to left, Paula, Isabel Wolfe (now Frischman) and I in Isabel’s NYC apartment.
She never got there. After being the first woman ever to graduate at the head of her class at the CIA, she worked in several NYC restaurants and then was head chef at a couple of others. She ended up making great money, taking her mother on an extended luxury trip to Paris and heading toward those two goals of being a grande dame and staying happy. Then she got cancer of the spine.
Apparently there’s little to do. She gave NYU Medical its best shot at chemo, radiation and surgery. She faded, continuing to sicken, go bald and suffer. She died in 1981. That was my first eulogy, delivered to a chapel in Brick Township NJ filled with a few of her friends and many of her aged parents’.
At 40 , Neil Passariello was also far too young and far too vital to have died. This month he will have been dead 23 years.
He was the long-term partner of my friend from college, Jasper Lawson. He died of effects related to AIDS. He was finishing his doctorate in clinical psychology (Jasper already that one). There is a regular colloquium in his honor.
I like to think I gave him a last bit of earthly pleasure. When he was in the bed where he died, I bought a bouquet of coriander I picked from my garden. He loved the herb and would say every meal needed a dish with cilantro and of course a pasta course. He no longer opened his eyes when we visited that last time, but he definitely smiled as I held the coriander close to him.
Surely all of his family and friends remember him as funny, dramatic, loud and passionate. An Italian-American, he referred to his heritage as he spoke intensely of food, of sex, of music. He could and did literally break out into song, generally an aria from an Italian opera.
His death did not seem right or timely or fair. He made others’ lives better and more fun, both personally and professionally.
Jasper and I have laughed more than once about how Neil made Jasper seem so WASPy, mannered and tame in contrast.
Jasper’s husband, Jay Landers, is remarkably patient when friends accidentally refer to him as Neil. On occasion, I make that faux pas. Supposedly that is expected with first “spouses,” although Neil died before same-sex marriage was legal. His intensity brings him to mind, quite understandably.
At 57. John Rehfield still fits in the too-young category. He was remarkable in many ways. I can say for certain he was one of my two favorite managers (I married the other one).
John was a trade-magazine anomaly in being a civil engineer who was a good, no, a superb writer. He won every possible award in construction and trade journalism. He hired me to write for Construction Equipment knowing my only building experience was on carpentry crews during college summers. The day he hired me he said he could teach me anything I needed to know about construction but he couldn’t teach his engineers how to write.
He was very tall and light bulb shaped (his head at the screw end) and even laughed at his odd physique. He was an incessant punster. He came to work at dawn and completed his own before the rest of us arrived. He spent his day dealing with company matters and forever being there to help his writers, editors and art director. Oh, and he always wore a Mickey Mouse watch; he explained that he bought his children Disney stock when they were born, largely for the cartoon characters around the border of the certificates. They became surprisingly wealthy as the stock split repeatedly. He figured the watch was the least loyalty he could show.
He did wonderful motivational deeds too. Every so often and not related to the scheduled reviews, he’d come around to mention he was giving me a raise, just because I was doing a good job and writing good articles. I overheard him yelling at the publisher, telling him to keep his sales reps away from me; I ran the national directory of equipment and they all wanted favors for their customers.
Alas, Conover-Mast, across from the Daily News building in the literally heart of Manhattan, fell prey to Boston-based Cahners. The new parent sent the kids to Boston or Chicago. Moving to lower-tier towns was too much for those of us young and single. Most of us didn’t go.
Within 7 years, John died of cancer. Even though my sister and her kids were in Chicago, I would have felt stranded had I followed him there. I prefer to recall him as healthy and funny.
In fact, I remember each of these three for their virtue and joy they took in life.