Monday, July 11, 2011

Harriet

A dear old friend died yesterday. Harriet Begala was ninety and had been in poor health for most of last year. She had moved into an assisted living center, a very nice one, but it was not her home. She had to leave her beautiful apartment in the Silk Mill, where she had been the first and only tenant for many months. It is an enormous old mill building alongside the Cuyahoga River in downtown Kent. Some early Kent entrepreneurs had tried to start a silk business there, importing worms from Japan and planting mulberry trees. Everything died and it went through a variety of businesses for over a hundred years before being left empty, until being bought by Jim Arthur, who set about restoring it and turning it into luxury apartments.
When she had to leave the house that she and Joe had built some 47 years ago, she was determined to live the way she wanted to. She called Jim, whose building was still in the midst of restoration, and told him she wanted an apartment as soon as one was available. She moved in as soon as the apartment was finished. When I would enter the almost empty building and ride the elevator up to her 4th floor aerie, I marveled at her courage on living in this vast structure pretty much by herself. She loved it. She made it beautiful, as she did with anything she touched, with her paintings, antiques and two silky cats, Tula and Bingo. She loved to entertain, to get a group of friends singing around the piano. I remember her once singing "Solvig's Song" from Peer Gynt in her old, sweet voice. Among the art on the walls were woodcuts she made many years ago of Norwegian folk figures from her Scandinavian heritage.
She was a woman of many sides: born in Norway, coming to adulthood in California and maturity in Kent, Ohio, her final home and the place which owes so much to her community activism. (Pictures of her as a young woman show the ultimate California blond, the girl in the in the white swim suit on the beach.) She used to say that she'd always be an outsider here, but I think that sense ended many years ago as the community caught up with what she was trying to change for the good. One of the founders of the Kent Environmental Council, which she and other began by picking up trash along the river, organizing a viable and vital group which has made Kent a leader in the movement. During the Viet Nam War, she was involved in the peace movement, which culminated in her enthusiastic support of George McGovern running his campaign here and in Akron. She was tireless, she was demanding, she was an idealist who didn't just dream, but acted and worked her and everyone else' butts off with great hope. It was a pleasure to work with her because of her enthusiasm and there were always plenty of laughs.
It's hard to describe her sense of humor. Quirky? She loved to tease and play little jokes. She had a record of the inimitable Florence Foster Jenkins, which she would have Joe play, and would tell the listeners that is was she, and just knew they would like it. Watching their stunned faces gave her great amusement. A few years ago, she startled a rather stuffy doctor by serenading him with "Darktown Strutters' Ball" as she lay on the examining table. Told me I should have seen his face. She decided one day that she and I should speak German at one of the KEC's breakfast meetings. Both of our German speaking abilities were minimal, so I declined and she said I was a spoilsport.
She could be blunt. She and the late Pam Quinn and I used to go out to dinner once a month, choosing a different place each time, not always successfully food wise. One spring evening, when she picked me up, she commented that I was all wrinkly, and said the same to Pam when she joined us. It turns out hat the weather had turned warm and both of us had pulled out summer clothes without bothering to iron them. So we were wrinkly and she let us know that she didn't approve. She was always turned out perfectly, favoring the blues and yellows that went with her coloring. Never a wrinkle.
The accompanying pictures were her pride and joy. She met Barack Obama at a conference in Cleveland back  in 2006. In the first picture she is telling him that he will be president some day. When she came back from that meeting, she called the local paper to tell them what she had said to him. Two years later, she was not able to do her usual work on her campaign, but she was there, doing what she could and was thrilled with his election.
When Harriet had to leave her beloved apartment and move into assisted living, she was able to take some paintings and antiques, but had to give up Tula and Bingo, her furry companions and comfort. I know she grieved for them, but she became a presence at the center and made the best of things. I was amazed and impressed by her ability to adapt. This past year her health declined and her son moved her up to the Cleveland area. I never had a chance to say goodbye, which I regret, but she will always be in my thoughts and in the thoughts of many, many people whom she influenced so positively and in the quality of life in this community which she and her colleagues have spent their time improving.
Her body may no longer live, but her spirit certainly buzzes around this city.

8 comments:

Helen said...

Guenveur, what a lovely tribute you have written to honor your friend.

I'm sorry for your loss, but am so glad you have so many wonderful memories.

Expat Hausfrau said...

Indeed, a vividly written account of a legendary woman. She would approve, methinks! No wrinkles in this writing.

Nancy, Near Philadelphia said...

A lovely tribute to an apparently lovely lady.

stephen begala said...

Very nice, kind words. Thank you.

~Mariesa said...

That was lovely. So wonderfully written and so loving. My Gramma Harriet was certainly blessed to have a friend like you. What an amazing woman she was, and you really captured that spirit in this tribute. Thank you for sharing it.

carole tate begala said...

Really nice , Guenveur . Harriet treasured your friendship and talked often of your drives through Amish country in the fall. Thank you for giving her those memories during a period that was increasingly difficult for her.

Carole Tate Begala

Signe Jacobson said...

Guenveur, thank you so much for your post. You captured my beloved grandmother's spirit so very well. We will miss her, won't we? Hugs to you!

Kriss Begala said...

Guenveur, I truely thank you for your great words in remembrance of my grandmother. My only sadness is that other people will never get to know her as we did.