2007-10-19 / Columnists

On The Beach

An Appreciation of Barbara Eisenstadt
Commentary By Beverly Baxter

BEVERLY BAXTER BEVERLY BAXTER She has been on my mind and in my heart constantly since the last time I saw her. It was at the Kol Nidre service at West End Temple, a service of prayer that meant so much to her to be able to attend. She said she was "going to try"; which meant, that she was, indeed, going to attend! We spoke about what she could wear, which pair of slacks she could roll over at the top....giggly girl stuff...Then her tone changed and she asked, in her own subtle way, if I would be going, knowing that, while I am Jewish, I have not been a member; and I explained that I would probably break the fast at my sister's home on Long Island. She persisted, "But do you think you might attend the Kol Nidre service at West End?" In other words, in her everso subtle Barbara-speak, she was actually intimating that she would like me to go. And that was the thing about Barbara: you had to get very near and quiet within yourself to where you could listen closely to what she was really saying, to really "get it," to really "get her." And I feel so blessed to have been brought in to her and lucky that I was able to hear what she was saying during our too brief, though quite intimate, friendship.

During the Kol Nidre service, I turned my head to look behind me and there she was with Marvin, seated in the last pew. She blew me four kisses, each one more impassioned than the one before. Again, as if she were trying to say something to me. I regret that I could only return but one. That was another thing: she always gave more than you could ever give to her. Then I turned my head back to find her, and she was....gone.

Those four cherished kisses were her good-bye, and I knew then that I would never see her again.

In these most recent months, Barbara and I spoke very frequently, often several times a day. When a few days went by and I hadn't heard from her, I called and Debra answered and stated that her mother could no longer come to the phone. It was the first time, and I knew that undertow was taking her away. I was consumed with thoughts of her, until finally, last Saturday, I walked the beach toward the house. It was the first cool, crisp, fall day, after that hard, rapturous rain, and everything seemed so clean, brilliant and new. And I stood there, feeling utterly compelled, as if trying to send a message or a vibe to her bedroom window; to hum a song or to just whisper thank you...for being you and for the gift of having you in our world.

Barbara and I had something very much in common. Aside from our relish for the quietude of the night and hoarding all things sentimental, we also shared our different odysseys with cancer. We'd known of each other for years and I was certainly among the throng who admired her from a distance; but on this one occasion, she went out of her way to catch me before I left and she took my hands and held them in hers for what felt like an eternity. Her touch was ever so light and gentle, I felt my entire body soothe into warm alignment. She befriended me and invited me to lunch, and finally we started getting together more frequently. I believe everything has a purpose; and while I've always maintained a reluctance to talk about cancer, she would encourage me to write a book! Although our prognosis was different, she would still refer to me as her heroine, a mighty tall order! After all, what inspiration could I possibly give? Other than to "keep it in the day", as cancer has a way of forcing your body to live in the moment, even though you may be busy making other plans.

Our conversations centered around the giddy to the mundane of our bodily functions and the bizarre odyssey of cancer; yet always, always creative!

Barbara continued about her life and with her plans with the same exuberance; attending to all her activities, her family's needs, her meetings, as if her illness was merely an aside, something she fit in around her day. Atypical conversation would go something like, "We're driving through the Battery Tunnel after just having chemo, but let's get together after; and Oh, can you see this most beautiful pink September sky?" With such fortitude and quiet, steely determination, she was moving right along in the life she loved so dearly.

"Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are." When most would have good enough reason to exploit their illness as an excuse to shutter down and retreat from the world, Barbara embraced it and continued to reach out, be present and fully engaged with friends and projects she cared deeply about. On many occasions when she had to be taken to the hospital, she simply brought her work along with her. There she could be seen propped up in bed, cutting and pasting those beautiful posters she created for the Literary Arts Festival, or editing the program for the newspaper.

Despite the many tactical obstacles surrounding the festival, she refused to allow her body to be just another hindrance in her way.

"Nobody told the bee it couldn't fly." Barbara was a visionary; a leader as well as a team player; yet often times, her talent exceeded her team. Undeterred by "naysayers", and with quiet, steadfast determination, she continued along with her vision to enhance Rockaway's cultural experience. She inspired and shared her passion with all in her midst and it behooved you to come along.

She found value in a myriad of people, believing that everyone had a part to play and had something worthwhile to contribute. With her love of all things beautiful, she could make the ordinary extraordinary and the insignificant seem lovely. One day, in between chemo, she called with such excitement in her voice. "Oh I just came from the Department of Sanitation's Recycling Plant and you wouldn't believe the treasures I found...all these things that could be used for arts and crafts for the kids!" Her enthusiasm for the treasures she found while rummaging through a recycling plant could only be rivaled by a woman coming off a shopping spree at Bergdorf! But Bergdorf was not Barbara. Her appreciation had little to do with remnants of status, but lay more in something wellmade, like a beautifully crafted musical instrument or a hand-carved shepherd's walking stick. She was more interested in what something could become and evolve into. To Barbara, wastefulness was obscene, because almost anything could be reincarnated into a thing of beautiful purpose. As for her humble sense of style, she had a disregard for anything that screams what it is. Her elegance and sense of style emanated from within.

On one dining-out occasion, when of course she couldn't eat, she still found utter fascination with the New Zealand mussels she had ordered, with their iridescent hues. She scooped them up and placed them in a plastic bag. I remember saying, "Well perhaps you'll be able to eat them later," to which she replied, "oh no, I brought them home for my grandchildren. The mussels would make beautiful butterfly wings!"

Among her pet peeves, and there were a few, was the use, or lack of access by the public to the Riis Park Bathhouse. She was proud of its unique architecture and felt its structure so aesthetically stunning that it belonged to the public. She was fervent in her unflinching determination to host many cultural events there. Another peeve was the litter strewn about the circle at Riis Park. When she was unable to prevail in imploring those responsible to clean it up, it was not beneath Barbara to get out there, bent over, picking up the garbage herself!

"Have a wonderful day and make it a better day for someone else." This credo perhaps describes Barbara best. At the end of all their messages on all their home, office and cell phones, was her wish for you to have a great day and to pass it along and make it a better day for someone else. It never ceased to amaze me that as sick as she was, she was always more interested in you, in how you were feeling and if you were having a good day.

She humbly deflected attention away from herself, saying, "enough about me, how are you feeling?" It was very much in her character to try to contact someone, whom she'd never met, but whose performance she admired. Even if the person's number was unlisted, she would persist in going through various channels just to express her appreciation.

She was a strong believer in praising and expressing her gratitude toward the contributions of others.

Those who were lucky enough to be in her midst were taken on extraordinary journeys to places like the Waldorf Astoria kitchens, to museums, and even to Green-Wood cemetery, where she shared with RMAC members the beauty she found in the architecture of a headstone. Most recently, she attended a memorial for a friend who was laid to rest at Salem Fields and I remember how she marveled in the roster of the many affluent Jewish names of those who were buried there, telling me, "you really must visit there sometime, it's a beautiful place to just sit and have a picnic!"

I am merely among the many whose life she profoundly touched. The legacy of her handiwork is present throughout Rockaway and will continue to endure through the endeavors of the RMAC, the Fall Festival, the Summer Picnic Concert Series; and her most recent endeavor, The Rockaway Literary Arts Festival, which Stuart Mirsky and I have named in her memory.

The last time we got together, Barbara remarked how amazed even she was that an only child from Mount Vernon could embark on such an incredible life and end up having four children and ten grandchildren, with yet another one on the way. Perhaps it goes to that creativity thing she possessed, always creating...finding her always within where life and beauty reside. May you rest in peace, my dear graceful friend.

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