At my age, it’s not easy to make new friends. But four years ago, at the age of 99, Lee became my friend. Just recently, a week after her 103rd birthday, she died.
Many local tributes poured in to our town’s media. Numerous friends offered insights into this extraordinary woman. “Lee was intellectually curious, bold and worldly, and dedicated to a healthy lifestyle including exercise and mobility long before it became popular. She played tennis, did yoga, and did splits into her 90s.” Another friend remarked that she was a “Local tennis champion – often playing on her back yard tennis court, skiing every winter, and yoga and daily exercise routines.” She held fund raisers to support Democratic political candidates; in her home are pictures of her with the Clintons, among others.
But the purpose of this post is not to inform you of her strong character, many talents and charitable nature. Rather, I want to share with you how she impacted my life.
I enjoy the beach and frequently bicycle to it from home. Any time of year, the beach is a haven and peaceful retreat. One summer day, I saw an elderly lady sitting on a bench with her face inclined towards the sun’s rays. “Here,” I thought, “is a woman who, like me, knows the joy of the sun’s warmth.” I started a conversation with her and, after exchanging introductory remarks in which she discovered that my husband’s father had a TV repair shop in Westport during the 50’s and 60’s, that I was a former math teacher, and that we moved to town in 1979, she shared a bit of her long history here as well.
She asked for my email address. “I must invite you to my next Cultural Salon,” said Lee. Not knowing what to expect, we showed up at her welcoming house with a bottle of wine and sat down among others who were invited to enjoy a fabulous piano concert performed by a well-known musician on her grand piano. From one of her tributes: “The cosmopolitan range of her interests and connections was breath taking: opera singers, musicians, journalists, political columnists, photographers, artists, human rights activists, politicians, economists and authors. For many years, each shared their ideas and talents in Lee’s living room to an appreciative audience, who were thrilled to attend and join in the lively discussion that followed.”
We continued to enjoy the monthly Salon. Meanwhile, Lee and I would see each other on the beach. Early on, she asked if I played backgammon. Not to brag, but I was in and won several local and state tournaments in the ‘70’s so we proceeded to play. She was good! She had a little set she used on the beach in which 2 missing white checkers were replaced by beach stones. She kept scores of her various games with others in a little notebook. In the photo on the right she is celebrating her 100th birthday in a rehab center; she had just broken her hip. She was up and moving weeks later!
Any time I asked how she was her answer was always upbeat and positive. “Fabulous!” she’d say, and looked it! Her longtime caregiver, Gina, made sure she was dressed well, perfectly coiffed and brought healthy snacks (usually pistachio nuts) to enjoy at the beach. I knew their schedule; most days, Lee and Gina were at the beach around 3 and so was I.
At one point, I wanted her to know how much I enjoyed her company, philosophy, and stories. Being able to express myself better in writing than in person, I mailed her a handwritten note. She phoned me to say that she so appreciated it … nobody writes anymore!
One of my favorite stories that she related told about the time that Liz Taylor and Mike Todd wanted to rent a house in Westport and they told the realtor they wanted hers. Lee and her husband Nat (who owned the local department store) had 4 children and didn’t want to leave town (where would they go?) for the summer. A plan was proposed; Mike Todd paid for the entire family to travel by ocean liner and to rent a chalet in Switzerland for the summer.
When she turned 101, she had this card made and presented it to me, saying, “101 and still not done!” The photo shows her, at a mere 80 years old, doing a split on the beach on Block Island.
Last summer, since Covid was rampant, we didn’t travel and so I was down at the beach even more frequently than usual. I always made it over to Lee’s car (by this time she was not able to walk well) and chatted with her and Gina. The last time I saw her was November and remarked that she would be 103 in Jan! (She was born during the Spanish flu and grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. When I asked what made her move to Westport, she said, “Nat lived there!”)
The difference in our ages was more than ¼ century but we shared many things: the love of the beach, a strong connection to Westport, an intellectual curiosity, appreciation of culture, backgammon, stories of our past, and, of course, keeping fit and moving! I will miss her and our beachside chats.