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Florence in Words

Mariam K. Chamberlain, 1918-2013: the operation was a success, but the patient died.

For forty two years, exactly half of my lifetime, and almost half of hers, we were friends. At the beginning, we looked the same age, though we were eleven years apart. Beginning in 1980, on behalf of women’s studies, we traveled together to London, Paris, and Rome, and then to international conferences in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and China; to others in Dublin, Costa Rica, Barbados, Oslo, Oxford, Paris again, and Beijing. Today, a sunny April 3, 2013, I sit a kind of “shiva” for her, though both of us practiced no religion.

I think about her wrapped body in the hospital morgue, as I sit near some of her things the hospital attendants insisted I take away with me: a small bag containing the few pieces of clothing she had worn to the hospital along with the chest brace she had worn for the past seven years; a plastic bag stuffed with her black down jacket and the hat I had knitted for her; and her small black handbag containing her glasses, her magnifying glasses, her address book, the ten dollar watch I gave her as a joke, and some other things I can’t remember. I am still wearing the huge ring she gave me the night before the surgery, joking that, like her, I must not take it off, though is it large and heavy. And I remember that she began to wear this ring, bought in an airport, perhaps as a bittersweet reminder of all the traveling she used to enjoy.

Can one sit “shiva” at the computer or on the telephone?

Dear Mariam, your small family are planning to bury your body in a ceremony that will place you in the Bronx, where your most beloved friends will wish you well, and then you will once again be celebrated in my apartment. All of this, dear Mariam, within a week of your death.

I am pleased only about one small thing: I took a photo of you (talking on the phone to Liz) right after you had eaten what none of knew was to be your last dinner. There in bed, in room 303 at Mount Sinai, you ate—with some relish—chicken, mashed potatoes, ice cream, and coffee. (Yes, we had had hospital pizza for lunch, an addiction we shared.) And I thought then also of the lunch we had shared at Parnell’s on Easter Sunday: You wanted nothing but eggs benedict, appropriate for Easter. As usual, you asked why there were so few people in the restaurant. But not as usual, you drank an early glass of white wine and with it cleared your plate. And you said you had enjoyed all of it.

When we come to celebrate Mariam, our feminist hero, we will not talk about food, I expect. And perhaps we will not even talk of friendship. But you would not be surprised to know that the first thing I have written about you dead is really about how much you enjoyed eating. We had thousands of meals together, dear Mariam, one aspect of a long and durable feminist relationship.
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