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My Dinners With Elaine

I wrote this piece and read it aloud at the Memorial Service for Elaine Cooke Shipman held April 7, 2013, in New York City. Please share it, quote it, or publish it if you wish. My apology to Cleveland Place Restaurant for the literary comic relief. The food there was very good. The quote is Shakespeare about Cleopatra.

After Carl died, for a long time, Elaine wouldn’t go into Rocky’s Restaurant where she had eaten so frequently with him. To know and to love Elaine, you had to love her relationship with Carl. She had at first not felt that she could love him, but he had asked her to give the relationship a chance. And she had, and it turned out that she could, and they became a loving couple.

After Carl died, she and I got together more frequently, mostly over dinner, out, or at her place, just the two of us, or with guests or friends. She always loved Mexican connections. She and Carl had traveled to Mexico and had had adventures there. She served dark mole when she had the ingredients. Richard Owens and Javier, both of whom have since died, were favorite guests, Javier seducing the table with elaborate stories about his aunts in Mexico City.

Privately our only disagreement had to do with how safe Mexico is. She refused to give in to fear, so I always let her have it her way. I wasn’t planning to travel there any time soon anyway.

I cooked dinner for Elaine once in my very small tenement apartment. She said that she loved the place, sloping floors, shower in the kitchen and all. She was sort of a connoisseur of cheap little Downtown apartments, so once she gave her approval to mine, I felt relaxed to have her as a guest.

Today my stories about Elaine are two. Both take place in restaurants. One story is about the nature of our friendship and the other about the nature of her beauty, how “she made hungry where most she satisfied.”

We took a chance that a small new restaurant, just barely opened, The Cleveland Place, might have a table for two a few minutes before six. She sat facing the front windows looking out on Petrosino Square. I looked at her throughout dinner never thinking about the scarf tied around her head, never noticing how close it clung to her scalp, never imagining that she could be sick.

We shared a kale appetizer and we both ordered fish.

I never knew her to drink alcohol, even before she was sick. The waiter served my wine. My memory is that Elaine and I both started to laugh upon seeing how meager the serving was — two finger-tips tall in a narrow glass. The second glass of wine was every bit as short as the first.

Our times together were like gold, our rewards for hard work, righteous living, and our commitment to the world of art and expression. I think that she had in her mind a totem of women she loved and admired. I was lucky to be one of them. Judith Martin of the Paper Bag Players was there, just under Elaine’s grandmother and aunts from North Carolina, then Lucille Jacobs, then “Tante” Edith Stephens, and towards the bottom were Noelle and me, as she called us, “her Celtic sisters.” Her approval of me mattered. Whenever I questioned my life and its accomplishments, I could fall back onto my sureness that Elaine thought I was important.

The fish that we ordered was good, although the advertised eggplant accompanying it was less than a square inch in size. My memory again is that we laughed about that too, and continued to laugh when our espressos arrived in shot glasses—three sips only. But she barely finished hers, another sign of her illness that I was blind to.

We first met at Parsons in 1981 because Jack Rugge had died and I had been called in to be the substitute teacher. Elaine was the assigned model and she waited to work while I asked the students if they wanted to draw right away, or if they preferred to talk first about having lost their teacher. Of course they were so upset that they wanted to talk. They talked and talked and we never got around to drawing. It was an auspicious first meeting, given that Elaine and I never developed an artist-model relationship and were never interested in having one. We never spoke about this, but I knew that we were in agreement. She was not my muse and I was not her employer. We were sisters in the arts always operating as equals.

Dessert was no larger than a petit four with a spoonful of cream and a coin-sized drop of caramel sauce. My memory again is that we laughed about the smallness of the serving, but actually I don’t know if we were really laughing at all, or if it is the pleasure of my having known Elaine that fills my memory of even this insufficient meal with joy.

Go back a few years to the the corner of Crosby and Broome to the sunny sidewalk restaurant l’Orange Bleu with North African cuisine. It is Sunday brunch. Elaine’s hair is in a glorious close Afro cut. Her sleeveless dress is simple and classic, its color the perfect value and hue to complement her dark skin. She has ordered in French from the largely French menu. Three partners own the restaurant, one a tall dark African with dreadlocks, one a red-headed French-Algerian type, and the shortest one perhaps a Moroccan Arab. They are standing at a distance looking our way, discussing something of some importance, perhaps even arguing.

Their argument apparently having come to an impasse, the shortest man breaks away and walks up to our table, stands next to Elaine, gathers up his courage, and asks her, point blank,

“Tell me please, we must know. What country did you come from?”

And that is my question today:

“Where did this infinitely beautiful creature come from, and where has she gone?”

Photo by Charles H. Connelly, taken February 24, following the performance at Spring Studio of Elaine's recent piece ‘Untitled City’ the night before she went into the hospital

copyright © 2015 Minerva Durham