It was a gift from her to us and our final gift from us to her, a bonus year, although she wouldn’t have agreed. “Put me on an ice float with one day’s food ration like the Eskimos when it’s my time!” said she when still young and spicy enough to approach the inevitable closure with levity and panache, her signature approach still at the end of her almost 95 year run on this stage. My mother-in-law was a pip! One of the very last of the big time spenders and red hot mamas telling it like it was from her point of view which was, of course, the only point of view. A radio, TV, and stage actress ‘back in the day’, gravelly voiced and a fashionably card carrying Communist who was acting during the Black List (and she knew many) McCarthy era. She was that ‘never say die’, all is possible and ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ generation, which we refer to as dinosaurs. There used to be many more, and sad to say they, too, are becoming extinct.
Yes, she was a hoot. We called her several nick names, Diamond Jim Brady was one, picking up the tab whenever possible not only just for the bravado of it regardless of affordability, but also to make it easy on everyone. Money should never be an issue. Her take was like Scarlet O’Hara’s, “… after all, tomorrow is another day”. Smoothing the way to ensure everyone should be HAVING FUN — money was, after all, just…….money. Don’t spoil the fun. No waves. She was ‘a sport’. A classy gal. Never cast a shadow on a good time because of money! It comes, it goes…but the memories, ahhh those last forever and should be happy. Let’s live!
Another name? Auntie Mame, of course, to everyone — Hariet by birth. She came by all honestly with her uncle being Sam the Horse Thief who owned the Hudson Burlesque in New Jersey and married Nell a stripper. Sound somewhat familiar? Sky Masterson, Nathan Detroit, Adelaide? The story is that Damon Runyan’s blue print for his unforgettable characters in “Guys and Dolls” was Hariet’s Uncle Sam. Larger than life, just as colorful, and cut from the same cloth. Wish I’d known him also.
No more tomorrows for Hariet now, but she did have a bonus year of unexpected tomorrows, unexpected by all doctors after several strokes and debilitating health issues at almost 95 years on her largest and most challenging stage — her life. To the end at home she was an unsinkable Molly Brown. No looking back at yesterday’s news, it was yesterday’s news after all. But as with all of us, the inescapability of the final curtain can be made easier with the best food. She herself was a gourmet chef, so there was no fooling her, no schnibbling, as she used to put it, with the ingredients: taste and quality were utmost. “And that, my dear….” is a significant reason why she was so strong to the last.
I always go on the premise that where there’s life and good food, there’s not only hope but also replenishing. What Hariet wanted, regardless of doctors or caregivers or even us, Hariet got. And I’m so happy to say that this past year, though very difficult, was one of the most loving, rewarding, instructive, pleasing, and educationally eye-opening of my life. The doctors credited her last eleven months of survival to the natural food that was prepared for her daily, and that she devoured with relish even though the choices became somewhat narrow throughout the year. Fresh and organic fare with herbs and spices that varied the taste and venue while simplicity was the standard, and basic ingredients were very often the same for several days during the week, every week. It was amazing to see what good food can do even under these trying circumstances. We had seen this before with her as she advanced in years and didn’t feel like cooking, resorting to the previously abhorrent use of frozen dinners and liquid nutrition among others or nothing at all. In a matter of a few days with organic and fresh meals, her pallor would change from ashen gray to rosy pink, as the pixie twinkle returned to her violet eyes.
Her doctor who had been so amazed with her throughout the years and loved her, as did all who came to know her, made consistent house calls, really!, always expected the worst but found her rallying, always cheerful and healthy for her condition. He applauded the food and said that that’s what probably made so much difference adding to her longevity and mental cognizance helping her to approach her destiny with dignity. Clearly, outwardly, coping with any cold reality was never part of her character (the stage, my dear, was everything), but neither did she ever want to be away from the action. We believe that being in her home, the care and love in preparation and the purity of her food helped her cope with her final reality as we witnessed her coming to terms with her deepest secrets. At the very end we all bid her “good night” and were present as she quietly drifted out of this dimension but probably bolted into the next impatiently champing at the bit for her new curtain rise. Never a moment’s rest — “roll with the punches” and “when life deals you lemons….” That was Hariet. How can you take a cruise without your own hairdresser and his lover to stage your nightly, elegant shipboard appearances so every curl, every wave, every hair, and every makeup dab enhanced those beautiful evening gown changes. Never. That was Hariet, “my dear”!
She had always relished great food and was known for demanding that chefs from around the world make their appearance at her various ports of call, after divinely devouring one of their dinners, for her unreserved appreciation when they deserved it, and their recipes — which they actually gave her. Her praises were unrestrained and genuine — as were her criticisms which were gently respectful. But either way, you basked in her glow. Eating was not just ‘eating’, she celebrated all food. Her joy was ours. We helped her celebrate to the end still glowing from her grateful appreciation of our efforts to the last.
It’s an honor to toast you Hariet, a bona fide diva, coifed, begowned, bejeweled, and utterly beguiling taking one more well deserved curtain call to our standing ‘O’! Brava!