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Florence in Words

Mariam K. Chamberlain, 1918-2013, Her Life and Death

Mariam and Florence travelingMariamMariam at dinner

Even on the last day of Mariam’s life, I had no expectation of her death. As most of you know, by noon last Tuesday, the aortal valve was in place and all that had to be done was some “sewing.” Six hours later, and with a dozen doctors attempting to save her, she was lost to us. I am going to talk only briefly and personally about what Mariam has meant to me over 41 years of friendship. To begin with, she was my mentor, and then my partner in the work on women’s studies in the U.S. and internationally. Often, she led the way, in part because she had the financial power of the Ford Foundation behind her, in part because she had a vision and strategies she had learned through management education. By the 1990s, she became the head of my New York family of choice, the mother of us all, though she wasn’t old enough to be my mother. Still, she was eleven years older, as she reminded me from time to time during our friendship. And further, with her gone, I’m the mother. That’s hard to acknowledge.

We met in the spring of 1971, around a large oval table at the Ford Foundation. I never did understand why I was among the august body of feminists she had selected to advise her. I was also the only person in the room who did not understand that Mariam had called the meeting to discuss how she was to spend a new allocation specifically for collegiate women’s education. As one of the early people called on to speak, I blithely said that colleges didn’t need funding, since they had already begun to establish hundreds of women’s studies courses and even a few programs on their own, that funding should go to secondary schools. I added that my office had a list of collegiate women’s studies courses and programs. All those present politely ignored me as they made their own cases for supporting collegiate students and faculties. But Mariam had heard me say something very interesting to her, and at the end of the meeting she said she’d like to see me again. What she had heard was that I had information, data, as the economist in her would call it. And like me, she wanted more of it. She offered to fund a national survey of all colleges and universities, to be conducted by the Feminist Press, and so a year or two later we produced a volume called Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies. Mariam used that volume to decide where to invest other funds in building the research centers she began to fund in the mid-1970s. She had the vision to see that the academically strongest women’s studies programs might also become key research centers, theorizing that such research would feed back into teaching programs, and would allow for the development not only of B.A. programs, but Master’s and Doctorates as well.

In 1980, she appointed me a consultant to the Ford Foundation, and with the mantra “enough of women’s studies in the U.S.,” she took me with her to look at women’s studies in Oxford, London, Paris, and Rome. What it was like to be with Mariam then? What was she like?

She was beautiful, slim and elegant, in Chanel suits and Marimeko dresses. She was also powerful. With a stroke of a pen she could—and did—give me a fellowship that sent me into a dozen archives to research the history of women’s education, and to search for early foremothers of women’s studies among those in the first feminist movement. Again, I should note, she, like me, wanted information. And she was delighted when I discovered that two women—at Wellesley and the University of Washington in Seattle—who had taught courses on women in the work force were both economists.

In the nineteen-eighties, Mariam was sophisticated, accustomed to traveling comfortably. Her Armenian working class roots were invisible to me. For many years, until an incident on an airplane, I didn’t even know she could speak Armenian. We were traveling from Europe to the U.S., and some children were running up and down the aisle, when a small girl, perhaps five years old, stopped directly in front of Mariam in the aisle seat and spoke to her in a language totally unfamiliar to me. The child dashed off and, before I could speak to Mariam, quickly returned with her brother who was a few years older, and he and Mariam had another conversation. When they had both gone, Mariam explained that they were Armenian children being sent to Los Angeles to live with relatives, and that she had assured them, in response to their questions, that there were many Armenians in Los Angeles.

Recently we talked about the kinds of accents in our own childhood speech patterns, and Mariam remembered that she had felt comfortable speaking with a working class Boston accent at Radcliffe, since there were other “townie” students who spoke in that way. But when she began to work in Washington for the OSS, she said she was not pleased that other people there made fun of her speech, and so she simply rid herself of her working class Bostonian accent, just like that, without any fuss.

Mariam, who had traveled before for the Ford Foundation in Europe, was at home in European cities. And she could walk and walk and walk. Unprepared on that first trip with her, I wore out two pairs of shoes I had brought with me—clear through the soles, especially on Parisian cobblestones. And so she took me shopping for new shoes. She was fun and funny. And she ate well, laughed at my sometimes ordering spinach three times a day, and, unlike me, knew the wine list. She was a perfect traveling companion.

Then back in New York, we began to eat dinners together in the early 1980s two, sometimes three evenings a week, and sometimes these were working dinners, for I was still, if unofficially, consulting. Sometimes we were on our own and we might also go to a movie. Sundays, when she wasn’t department store shopping for some particular item—and shopping was serious work for Mariam, and her fun as well—she’d meet me near the Park and we’d wander through to the west side, go to Fairways for some particular thing, Zabar’s for something else, and then have lunch and walk back across to the east side. Yes, she was a good influence on me, and she seemed to be doing good things for her own health as well, though neither of us then knew anything about osteoporosis.

Through the next two decades, we traveled the world together, helping to support women’s studies, not only through the huge UN conferences in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing, but also through smaller international conferences in Dublin, Costa Rica, Uganda, among many other places, and in meetings in Oslo, Barbados, and Oxford of an international feminist economics organization she helped to found.

All changed in 2006, and Mariam wheelchair-bound became a different person. Perhaps none of us ever will understand what the loss of autonomous walking meant to this vibrant person. I just remembered that on 9/11, in the late afternoon, she was able to leave the NCRW office, and by chance caught a bus going to somewhere on 34th Street, but from there she walked home to Sutton Place South and 54th . She was an amazing walker.

Once in the wheelchair, Mariam changed some of her eating habits. We all joked about how little she ate, how she would not put butter on her bread. Was she dieting? I think now that she was. She was not going to be fat in a wheel chair. In the hospital she had to be weighed before surgery—and she was 100 pounds. Certainly, she had not gained weight.

Mariam and her helper at Florence's houseMariam and her nephew, TomFlorence and Tom at Mariam's funeral

And what of other habits, preferences, ways of living? I don’t have to describe these for those of you who are here. All changed. If she couldn’t shop for herself, she wouldn’t bother about what she was wearing. She told her caretakers to choose for her. Winter or summer, she would wear only long-sleeved cotton turtle necks and cotton exercise pants, the cotton socks I supplied her with and the unfashionable sturdy shoes I had to buy for her, on which she walked so rarely. She never looked again into the closets stuffed with the clothes, now probably vintage—and countless boxes of elegant shoes. She never inquired about them—they had become invisible. She wore only rarely some of the things I bought for her from Eileen Fisher, and those who saw her most often know how she fought me about a warm winter coat.

She read the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine and enjoyed talking with me about an article on women in corporate life, for example, or, as she put it, anything written by Louis Menand. From time to time, she’d ask me what I was working on, or what was going on at the Feminist Press. On rare occasions, she’d talk about her wish that the Feminist Press would collaborate with the National Council to publish more books focused on economic literacy, the subject she would have liked to continue working on.

In the early days of her injuries, she told me that when she awakened in the morning she sometimes imagined leaping out of bed and walking as usual. She did learn to walk with a walker, thanks to the valiant effort of two therapists, Melanie and Laurie, but she would never exercise this ability except in the apartment with someone standing by in the event of a fall. She never talked of walking; she never talked of the “old days.” She refused to go to the movies, and accepted the VCR I bought her and Liz’s subscription to Netflicks, insisting that she would watch one film a week, and only when Joan could set it up for her on a weekend evening. But why the rationing of such small pleasures?

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but for me, she was the strongest stoic I have ever known. She accepted her altered state without grousing about it, managing to maintain a public smile. Even to the few of us—particularly her caregivers, Thelma, Joan and Sahvi, and her therapists, Melanie and Laurie—she would never admit she was in pain, though she made soft whimpering sounds sometimes when she was being moved, or being asked to move. But never would she admit to being in bodily pain, much less could she talk about the deep pain for a life wrenched out of its active path into stasis.

So, yes, she allowed herself a few pleasures, but moderation ruled: there was chocolate, one or at most two pieces at a time. This was a rule she had learned from Neil, the ex-husband whom she never stopped loving. She credited him for her being slim. He had encouraged her to lose the ten or so extra pounds she had on her when they first met. Her other eating pleasures were macaroni and cheese, eggs benedict, many different cheeses, salty almonds, chocolate cake, and pizza—comfort foods rather than the steak I thought her body needed. She loved asking me, as we were going to her favorite local place, the Irish bar, Parnell’s, “What do you have a taste for?” And she was often thinking of something specific.

I’m glad we are going to Parnell’s this afternoon. She ate lunch or dinner there some three to six times a week over the past nearly seven years. She had probably tasted everything on their pub menu, and the waiters all knew her preference in white wine. She had her own table and her own seat at it, as she will always have at our tables and in our hearts.
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