Twenty years ago, I realized that some of the social moments I recalled with the greatest clarity were the meals I shared with friends or family at our last (unexpectedly last) meeting before they died.
My friend George died last Saturday. He recently turned 80, had Parkinson’s, and lived in Stockholm. A member of the loosely knit, Anglo ex-pat community of Stockholm, avid dancer, and music lover. A beloved fixture of his neighborhood. Born in Connecticut, he lived in the same spacious apartment in a now-trendy neighborhood for more than forty years.
We met at Izzy Young’s Folklore Centrum, located in a corner storefront near Mariatorget, the ‘town square’ of Stockholm’s South Island (Södermalm), which George and I both frequented, he (who lived a few blocks away) more often than I, who turned up at irregular intervals and never staying more than a few months. During times when I’m out-of-town, George and I called one another sporadically. These were joyous conversations filled with laughter, historical and philosophical reflections, and most wonderfully, readings of his mother’s witty, incisive poetry and prose. Although never published, this woman could easily have been a respected member of the Algonquin Circle.
Our last supper occurred in mid-August. A take-out pizza eaten at a café table we dragged out to the sidewalk from Larry’s Place, an important, intimate indie music and cultural center in Stockholm. It’s run by Larry, who’s from Detroit, to which he returns regularly on shopping trips to acquire stock for the adjacent shop, located, like Izzy’s place, on a street corner in a residential, Södermalm neighborhood.
We were attending a concert at Larry’s Place and I investigated restaurants nearby, the closest of which was a pizzeria that offered gluten free crusts that—according to customer reviews—didn’t taste like cardboard. I installed George at the café table and crossed the street and ordered a pizza marguerita with onions and fresh garlic, a favorite also of my daughter. We’re probably the only people in Sweden who order raw garlic as a topping. We bought sodas from Larry and dined on that perfectly acceptable pizza while chatting in a sarcastic New York way that neither of us had the opportunity to do much anymore. We laughed and joked, and then went inside to listen to the concert from the comfortable sofa in the room beside the performance. That way, we could continue our banter.
Afterwards, we congratulated the musicians, and George spoke to folks he knew and I spoke to folks who knew Hanna, who’s performed there several times. We walked back to George’s apartment, a 15-minute stroll with his walker and climbed the stairs to the third floor of his nineteenth-century building. I peeled off his support stockings (much easier to take off than put on – an aide came daily to do that) and we each had a piece of chocolate from the box someone had brought by. I stayed for a few minutes after the aide who helps him to bed arrived, then hugged him and left. I certainly never imagined this would be our last time together. Thank you, George, for those moments of New Yorkness, for your readings of your mother’s Dorothy-Parker like essays, for guiding me around the dance floor, and for being one of the kindest, most patient people I’ve known. The world was a better place with you in it.