Remembering an old friend



Sara Kaiser poses as a model at RISD and at the Providence Art Club. She is a delicate young woman with refined features. I met her when she worked as a home companion for a friend of mine who required hospice care and has since passed away. The patient left no relatives and arranged her own memorial ceremony at Swan Point, but that event took place only recently, four seasons later. There were no ashes in the brass jar on the altar table – only a few symbols of her personality. A vase of white hydrangea, her high school portrait, a few of her favorite things and a sheaf of articles about her activities and accomplishments in the community. One of those was her effort through the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission to bring the Polish and Jewish subcommittees together in their aims and programs.

But this is about Sara, her Sunday-evening regular visitor, who sat by my friend’s bedside, kept her company and shared conversations with her. I asked Sara to have a private service with me to talk about the character of the remarkable person we both had the privilege to know. “She knit me this scarf and hat I’m wearing and made this bracelet. She was a brilliant artist and designer,” Sara started out.

She continued her tale. “I juggled a little and did a somersault to distract her from her fears and anxieties, and she gave me advice and counsel about my personal problems. She taught me how to protect myself from being stepped on or taken advantage of. She especially wanted me to meet you; she thought a lot of you!”

During her brief break from modeling – “it’s not easy, and I need to stretch after straining to be still and unmoving...” – Sara and I both sipped our small bowls of chicken soup. As we talked, I clinked my glass of wine against her glass of ice water to toast the memory of our lady of sorrows and of good cheer.

When it was my turn to wax nostalgic, I said, “Did I love her? What is love? Not the kind of romantic love one might think of, no. She was much too shy and withdrawn for direct human touch. She hid behind her gestures of generosity and social activism. She only had her stray cat on her invalid bed for intimate touch. But through the gifts, of things and words, she created a wide world, of human beings, animals and images she caught with her camera.”

I tried to explain to Sara what had happened at the Swan Point service. The congregants were mostly strangers to one another or, worse, foes and rivals for the objects promised to them from the treasure chest of a home now sealed off to be sold and emptied of its contents. Well, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played, and other nurses and neighbors told stories. A Hospice chaplain presented prayers. A fellow traveler, who had accompanied her to Italy, reminisced, “She liked Saint Anthony and Italian cuisine!” And a couple of representatives of her political campaigns to help the poor beasts of Slater Park Zoo and the natural resources of its grounds, as well as enthusiasts for the local musical scene were present.

So, anyway, Sara and I had to rush through our luncheon and our one-on-one eulogy, but I found myself both moved and inspired by our rendezvous, especially because it was the phantom angel who had asked us to get together. I do have a photograph my friend had given to me. It’s of Rockport, Mass., a harbor she had loved to visit. A woman at the funeral – if that is what it had amounted to – had my friend’s ashes in her purse and intended to take them to Rockport and scatter them there in secret.

I am haunted by the spirit of the soul whose wishes brought me and Sara to this little table at the window across from the WWII Arcade on South Main St. Sara surprised me with her odyssey. “My family came to Rhode Island from Hitler’s Germany. One of my great-grandparents survived the war because he was a dentist. His skills were useful to the Nazis; he could supply the murderers with gold from the teeth of the murdered.” “One of the four benches there declares, “Freedom From Fear,” I told her. “I will send you my portrait,” promised Sara, and I also offered the photograph of Rockport. For the remainder of that day, I felt as though I dwelt in a kind of a fairyland, where

spirits and souls reign and hold court.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at RISD.