Shantih Shantih Shantih

She could have been Mrs. Eliot.

The mention of the Maharani and Paris in the last post reminded me of India and the friend I made, Elaine Wolfson. One of her tales was prefaced by casually asking, “you remember Maxim’s back room on Friday nights, don’t you? All the maharajahs in their finest?”

I would have been 8 years old at the time plus I’ve never been to Maxim’s. I said no so she continued on with whatever story she was telling.

We met on a three week architectural tour of India sponsored by the University of Miami Art Museum. There were 20 in the group, 3 from San Francisco, the rest from Florida. They included museum sponsors and donors like Elaine.

The Miami crowd stuck together and to a person didn’t care for Mrs. Wolfson. They thought she was a bitch.

There must have been some deep background behind that opinion because I didn’t notice anything terribly offensive. She was remote and self contained but that doesn’t warrant bete noire status. She’d sit at the front of the bus by herself not seeming to care if anyone sat with her or not. Over the first several days I slowly began to interact with her.

I’ve had a life-long penchant for making difficult people my friends. You have to pick your spots, it doesn’t always work. But sometimes you can sense when a determined effort might pay off.  I’ve found if you waste time obsessing on the prickly surface of these sorts you often miss out on the luscious creamy centers

One day someone asked me why I let Elaine speak to me the way she did. She was nervously watching me load her suitcase onto the bus when he heard her say something.

She was in her late 70’s, I was 30 years her junior. I was concentrating on helping her so what she said or how she said it didn’t register. It’s like toddlers who hate their mommies. Something needs attention that has no relation to what they’re saying.

Rollin’ on the Ganges. With Judy from the Miami Art Museum crowd.

As she and I became more friendly, others in the group took note. At breakfast one traveling companion said I’d been so kind to go buy Elaine water the day before in the blistering Jaipur sun. Without thinking I responded, “it was either that or mouth-to-mouth.”

My end of the table erupted with laughter.  I had slain the beast.

But I hadn’t intended for it to sound cruel. I really thought if she didn’t get something she would faint. She wasn’t at breakfast but she laughed too when I told her later.

The Miami crowd dismissed Elaine as a pretentious snob. But she wasn’t pretending. She’d lived it. She wasn’t softening her ways to please those who thought in superficial stereotypes.

On the train to Varanasi she told me stories of working in Manhattan as a hand model in the 1930’s. She would often travel to Connecticut for the weekends.

On one trip an attractive man sat next to her. He was very flirtatious and aggressive. He tried to convince her to get off at his stop with him. She was about to agree but at the last minute changed her mind. After the gentleman departed she realized it was T.S. Eliot.

Elaine wasn’t bothered by long silences in a conversation. I think she enjoyed them. She did, however, have the ability to end those silences quite abruptly. Once, out of the blue, it was, “do you ever drink alone?”

With my buddy at the Red Fort.

The highlight for most of the tour group was the roadside jewelry store we visited. The hen party descended on the joint in a cackling heat. Elaine found a seat and lit up a cigarette.

I did a brisk walk through the gallery to see the display then returned to the settee to sit next to her.  She turned to me saying, “I just don’t understand why women go so gaga over jewelry. They act so foolishly. It must be insecurity.”

Eventually she took a turn through the place. She was back quickly, none of the jewelry interested her. Elaine was at the stage of life where she was giving her pieces to her family and her maid. She didn’t need more bounty.

She did mention a tiny landscape in precious stones the size of an index card. The miniature mise en scene had caught my eye too. We talked about how beautiful but impractical it was. The $38,000 price tag didn’t phase her so we went to examine it again. She decided against it. It would be just another thing to give away.

We visited on the day that would have been my Grandmother’s 100th birthday.

The last time I saw Elaine was in the Delhi airport lounge at 1:00 a.m. We were waiting for our respective flights home. When I stood up to leave she extended her hand. To kiss it would have been affected. To shake it, pedestrian. So I held it for a few seconds.

In her low, smokey voice she said grandly, “Come to Coral Gables,”