Tribute to a great lady

Things haven’t been the same on Third Street since B., a beloved neighbor, got sick in February. Sure, life goes on. The children play, the neighbors talk, the cars speed east toward Seventh Avenue.

But there’s a new sense of the fragility of things; the way that the thread of life can break unexpectedly and bring pain and suffering to a family.

Some neighbors knew more than others, but it was obvious to just about everyone on the north side of Third Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues that a beautiful and devoted mother of two, a woman who was often out in the spacious cement beach of her Third Street apartment building, was missing in action.

No one wanted to intrude by asking too many invasive questions. The code of privacy was main­tained as a way to show love and respect to the husband and children of this brilliant woman who was struck down in the prime of her life.

Smartmom remembers meeting B., a statuesque woman with penetrating eyes, when she and her husband and two children first moved to Third Street from Washington Heights in 2003. Ever the Third Street ambassador, Smartmom wanted them to know that they’d moved to a great block; that they would not regret crossing the river.

She could tell that B. was smart; a licensed Gestalt psychoanalyst, B. received her doctorate in philosophy from the CUNY Graduate Center, where she specialized in contemporary philosophy of language, logic and philosophy of mind.

Over time, B.’s family ad­apted to Third Street’s sidewalk rhythms and became active participants in the raucous playtimes, the BBQs, and the stoop sales.

An attentive neighbor and friend, B. never passed without a warm hello and a smile. One Third Street neighbor, whose child was in a class with B.’s son, remembers B. as a kind, empathic friend “who was above all a mother. One of the best.”

B. didn’t allow her children to stay out quite as late as some of the other Third Street parents; Smartmom noticed that. There was a gentle order to her household that Smartmom envied. She never served an impromptu supper on the stoop or let her kids run wild after 9 pm.

But in the warmer months, B. was often outside with her husband and their flock joining in on the Third Street banter, the harmless gossip, the endless discussions about children and school.

But as she talked, B.’s eyes rarely strayed from her son or daughter as they played in the yard. Fiercely protective and vigilant, B. never neglected her role as mother/protector of those beautiful children, especially her son who has diabetes.

Learning that B. was ill was an unforgettable blow for the mothers on Third Street. It seemed deeply unfair to hurt someone so young and talented and to deprive two children of the years they deserved with their mom.

For the mothers on Third Street, the identification with B. was profound: if this could happen to B., it could happen to any one of them. There was anger and regret for the things left unsaid and the feelings not shared; for the sense that life is fragile and suddenly so changeable.

As the reality sunk in, they struggled to come up with appropriate ways to express their love and concern. Some sent notes, some visited, one brought bread on Fridays. Others exercised discretion as a way to honor the family. Smartmom noticed plants and flowers on the inside of B.’s front window. Window boxes were planted with red geraniums and Black-Eyed-Susan’s in late May.

It was obvious that B. was well cared for in her last months by a tremendously devoted group of relatives and friends, as well as hospice workers whom Smartmom watched as they changed shifts.

In recent weeks, Smartmom noticed that B. was often sitting in her front window. Smartmom couldn’t help but look for her there as she walked by many times a day. Some days she waved at B., some days she just smiled.

A few weeks ago, B. waved back and Smartmom was ecstatic. A few days later, B. spent short periods of time out in the yard, sitting in a wheelchair and meeting with friends.

Magical thinking and denial are powerful. Smartmom hoped that B.’s illness was in remission, that the experts were wrong, that she would overcome the predicted outcome.

But it wasn’t to be.

Over the months of B’s illness, Smartmom thought about B. dozens of times a day. Though they were warm neighbors rather than intimate friends, Smartmom felt a real sense of love and protection toward her. She never once pitied this woman who died as she’d lived with a gentle strength, a deep intelligence, and unyielding connection with the husband and children she loved.

So how has Third Street changed? Someone’s missing and it hurts. But Smartmom believes that B. is looking out for her kids, her husband, her friends and neighbors on the street she called home.

Dedicated to Beth Hassrick, 1961–2007.