I found out last week that my childhood friend M.N. died of cancer. It happened in Greece, where she had lived since 1996. I am heartbroken. Our friendship extends back 25 years, long before this blog began, and the things we crafted for each other are part of the story that I will tell here. (Keep reading–or scroll to the bottom–to see some of the handmade crafts we shared.)
M.N. was one of the “great ones.” To call her a Renaissance woman was an understatement. She had an enormous joie de vivre and was super smart. M relished languages, especially French, which we studied together in junior high and high school. She was an artist, a wordsmith, a wit, and excelled at every academic subject. We even served as a team identifying insects for an academic competition one year in high school. (Lepidoptera!) The only class she ever told me was a little tough was her college Russian course. Something about declensions.
I’ll never forget how I met M. It was one of my first days—maybe my very first day—of junior high. Sixth grade wasn’t the easiest time for me; I was in that awkward phase and desperate to find my way in a new, much larger school. I was headed to the “enrichment center” that was located in our school library, which served as the classroom for one of my new courses. I walked in and there stood this tall, dark-haired, olive-skinned young woman. I say young woman with particular emphasis because she just seemed light-years more mature than any of the other students. I’d always felt like an adult in kid’s skin, and here, standing before me, was someone who was even taller than me and even more grown-up in her expression and manner. She was just shining as she greeted me confidently in a clear, friendly voice. I recall her wearing a flowing skirt and light t-shirt, and she looked like a Greek Karyatid, strong enough to hold up the entire building.
From that day on, I always admired how well M seemed to know herself, and her confidence and strength in her own opinions. Her dad was Greek and she celebrated being Greek, defending Greece’s culture and traditions with a fierce spirit. Her strong personality and tenacious ideas were tempered with a terrific sense of humor and enormous empathy for others. That said, she was never one to shy away from a debate on just about anything, but so many times she was just taking a position for fun, for entertaining her friends—like the times we bickered about the pronunciation of “orange” (under her mom’s New Jersey influence, she insisted on saying “a-ranj” while all the Chicagoans said “o-ranj”) or “bagel” (M’s “be-gel” vs. our “ba-gel”). Silly though it sounds, those are the kind of things you remember when your friend dies of cancer at 37.
When I think of M now, I recall the two times I spent with her in Europe. The first was a dream-come-true trip to Paris together on a summer scholarship from the Alliance Francaise. We’d both competed in a national French contest for years and finally, as we were graduating from high school, our top scores paid off with this amazing opportunity. We studied French at the Sorbonne’s summer school, and then we took the train to Brittany, where we stayed in a quaint little hotel in Dinan, a medieval town with ramparts and little winding cobble-stoned streets that we picked out of a guidebook. This picture gives you a sense of it:
Dinan, Rue du Jerzual, from public domain (Wikipedia)
We loved our stay there, soaking in cidre brut, café, and of course, crepes! I remember M buying heavy ceramic cider bowls for her whole family (people tend to drink alcoholic cider from bowls there) and a bottle of the highly-carbonated stuff to pack back in her bags, despite my urging her to pack light and beware of exploding bubbles at 30,000 feet. She laughed at me and of course went ahead and put all that stuff in her carry-ons, and proceeded to mock me gently for buying only tiny lightweight things (a hairpin, a pendant). In my mind, teasing was her only vice.
The second trip to Europe was after college, when I went to study in Paris once again. M was already living in Athens, following a dream she had to live in Greece for at least 2 years, and she worked as an English teacher. In March, I took a spring break trip to visit her. One highlight: we took a public bus to the Temple of Poseidon, on the coast at Sounio, at sunset. The light over the Mediterranean was magical, honestly the most beautiful pale apricot sky I’ve ever seen. That place has spirit welling over its edges.
Sounio, with Temple of Poseidon, at sunset; by Kuno Lechner (Wikipedia)
We agreed to take an overnight ferry to visit Crete, an island neither of us had seen or knew much about, and after surviving our sea-sickness, we saw the remains of ancient Knossos, home of the Minotaur. Then we waltzed around the narrow streets and poked into jewelry stores, sat down at cafes and ogled young men (I remember one in Nafplio she practically sent me off on a date with one rainy day!) and toured ruins and ramparts. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and to share it with a friend like M was priceless.
When she heard I was getting married, M thought of a unique gift. She was dating a silversmith, Nikos, and she asked him to craft a set of “stefanas,” wedding wreaths, out of silver.
Here’s a closer look at the note from the artist, with M’s translation:
It’s a Greek tradition she explained in this note:
They are beautiful–a bit tarnished (now, almost 9 years later), but I treasure them. Sadly, Nikos died in a motorcycle accident afterwards, a devastating blow to M.
I tried to stay connected to M, despite the distance once I moved to California. She continued living in Greece but did come back to the US to visit occasionally, and I saw her once in San Francisco, and a couple times in Chicago. After that, we talked by phone, about everything from politics to knitting to kindergarten.
When I heard she was sick I was horribly shocked. I didn’t know what to do with myself and wanted to help somehow, to do something. When I found out she needed chemo, I had a crafting idea: I knit her a “chemo cap” out of silky yarn and sent it along. She was a knitter, too, and said she liked the lace edge.
Later, when I learned that treatments were still not helping, I sent her another little piece of me, a log cabin quilt:
Her favorite color was green and brick and brown were the shades of her apartment, so I thought she’d like to hang it. She told me she loved it but didn’t want to take a photo of herself with it (as I’d first requested). She didn’t like what the disease had done to her. I worried more.
Later, when she was in the hospital, she conceived a new idea, 100 crafts in 100 days. M was eclectic in her crafts – I know she enjoyed knitting, but she dabbled in the more unusual, and told me about the pinata she constructed for a doctor’s child. She kindly made beaded necklaces in 3 of her crafting days for me and my daughters. She told us that she wanted us to know how much our support meant to her.
She numbered the necklaces (in the order of her 100 crafts – I’m wearing 44 right now) and included a “made with love” tag and an “evil eye” bead to keep the bad spirits away (blue circle). The girls love the tree frogs, dolphins and hearts she included.
In her final days, M.N. continued to work on her blog, where she treated her illness with humor and expounded on everything from the seaside to fresh eggs to her beautiful niece. I tried to talk with her again by phone for more than a month but she kept being sent to the hospital and it did not work out. I knew things were bad but still had hope. Then I heard the worst possible news just 3 days after her 37th birthday. M, you will live in our hearts forever. As our friend J.L. put it, “the world has been robbed.”
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