Eugenia

by

06/07/2005

84th St. and Park Ave. ny 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

I used to see her in the elevator. She was finely dressed, her white hair piled high, her dark red lipstick ennobling her mouth. In those early years she’d be with her husband, a kind-looking gentleman in a wheelchair—the result, I later learned, of the beating his knees took as an Olympic runner. He’d won a gold and two silver medals in his day, she told me, and showed me, a proud display in a their frame.

After he died she’d gathered herself up again, a devout Catholic, determined to live on “since that is what God wants for me,” though inside, she wished only that she could die, too, and be with him.

Meantime, she enrolled—at the age of 80-something—at the Fashion Institute. Wednesday afternoons she could be seen running across the marble-floored lobby in her three-inch heels and Chanel suits, crying out in her deep, Mexicani accent, “I’m late! I’m late!” She was on her way to the subway. She did not believe in taxis: too slow, she said.

She was a good six feet tall, and slim, like she perhaps had been a dancer, though I don’t believe she ever was. In the elevator she would look at me and smile broadly, saying over and over and over again:

“Oh, you are so beeeeeeeeauuuutiful.”

I thought she was magnificent.

I musn’t have been more than 12 when I first met her, but I was well into my thirties when she invited me to tea. In the dark, second-floor rear apartment where she had lived since 1943—first with her husband, then by herself (they had no children)—she showed me around the hall and living room: the paintings she had collected, the chairs that had belonged to her grandmother and then her mother, the Olympic medals (and some from her husband’s time in the U.S. military), silver and semi-precious stones that were all her family had been able to rescue from the mines before the Revolution.

She had begun her life almost as a princess, in enormous homes with her own personal maid—something, I imagine, like a lady-in-waiting. After the Revolution ended, the house was burned to cinders and they had lived not much better than some peasants they had known. She came to America and took a job as a translator at the U.N., which was where she met her husband.

Still, there were some things the family had managed somehow to keep, like the silver tea set she—by then 93 years old—carried, her arms shaking from the weight, from the kitchen to the parlor where her trembling hands poured tea for both of us and didn’t spill a drop. This task done, she was on her feet again and back inside the kitchen, from which she emerged with a silver tray of sandwiches: tuna salad, smoked turkey, watercress and tomato—all neatly quartered, crusts trimmed. I helped myself to the tuna, she to a smoked turkey which she lay across her plate and proceeded not to eat.

I said very little.

She had such wondrous tales to tell: of her childhood in Mexico, of the love she’d shared with a husband she still very obviously adored. Now, she said, she was finishing her studies at the Fashion Institute and was preparing to start her own label in the spring. “This,” she said, twirling in the center of the room so I could see from all directions,” is one of my designs.” And indeed it spoke of her, a navy silk-and-cotton suit, in a style almost from the 40s but with a shorter hem. Even heading towards 100, her legs were better than the legs I’d seen on women a third her age, and some, indeed, quite younger.

Only about ten people came to Eugenia’s funeral. She had not yet launched her label, having slipped silently and unexpectedly in her sleep. At 93, people would say, her death was not entirely unexpected. But it was to me—something I had somehow never thought of, never fathomed.

At St. Ignatius of Loyola Church, on 84th and Park, I stared at her blue casket and tried to comprehend: that was Eugenia. There. In that box. I would not go home and see her now, in the corner of the elevator where she had always stood when her husband was alive and in his wheelchair, in order to have the quickest access to the door. It was a post she’d held long after he was gone, and so often the doors would open onto the vision of her black, Spanish-olive eyes and white, white hair, her claret lipstick and the light that crossed her face: Beeeeaauuuuuuutiful!

After the service, a woman about my own age approached me. She had taken Eugenia’s photo once: they’d met on the Lexington IRT, and the woman found Eugenia so remarkable she’d asked if she would model for a book. Eugenia had shown it to me once, a full portrait in black and white, the page carefully marked in a book kept carefully in place.

“I’d love to have a copy,” I told the photographer, whose name I did not know.

“I’ll send it to you,” she said. But she never did.

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