Saturday, April 20, 2013

Irene Alice Prentice Allemano: Good-bye, and Hello

Mrs. Allemano died, and was bid farewell by friends and family this week in a memorial service. She touched the lives of each of The MadriGals over the course of several decades of her extraordinary life, and I find I cannot put this week away without catching some few of the bits of magic here, for remembrance.

Death separates us in the most profound and absolute way. The person who has died may be continuing life of another kind, in another plane, may be experiencing an existence so unlike what we know as to defy description. Indeed, many of us are so confident in an afterlife of some kind that it is an article of faith, holy to us and unquestionable. And yet, truly, the person whose death we are mourning is gone from us in this life, not to return. What we truly mourn is cloth woven of many threads, but  some of those are undeniably selfish, because we dread the lack of the presence of the person who has died. Certainly Irene believed in continued existence, a belief Reverend Elizabeth Clare likened to the caterpillar whose cocoon or chrysalis seems to be the end, and whose continued existence we celebrate as the birth of a butterfly. This was a particularly apt illustration, as Irene was graceful, elegant, and stunningly beautiful, and seemed to move from flower to fascinating flower, somehow making each one seem more beautiful by her very presence, throughout the course of her life. Still, we are separated forever, and this grieves us sorely.

But when we choose to join each other in celebration of a life, two things happen that seem positively magical when viewed in hindsight: our picture of the person who has died becomes more textured, more whole, in our minds; and we are brought, across miles and years and the strongest of feelings, together.
Diverse images of the person, each seen from one individual perspective, begin to overlay one another. As Irene's son Eric spoke of his parents, a picture of their marriage emerged. He and his brothers, he said, never heard a cross word pass between their parents, both of them only children accustomed to quiet and perhaps unprepared for the chaos that usually attends the growing of siblings. One evening, he recalled, he and his brother Ralph heard, alarmed, their parents shouting at one another. Alarmed, the boys ran into their parents' room, crying, "Stop it! Stop yelling at each other!" Their parents, their mission accomplished, replied, "See? This is what it's like for us when the two of you shout," and the lesson was learned. Eric shared much more about his mother, talking of her exploration of the spiritual, her resumption of the pursuit of art after her children were nearly grown, of her life traveling with his father, living in many Latin American countries, absorbing and reflecting back the cultures of each. He mentioned her volunteer work, including time spent in maternity wards helping deliver babies, welcoming each to this new world. Another piece fell into place for me, another friendship illuminated. When Irene's contributions to the cultural life of St. Augustine (she was a founder, with Frieda Bringmann and others, of E.M.M.A, a group responsible for bringing classical and other performers to our small city and enriching us enormously), I saw her as the practical philanthropist she was: donations Irene made weren't just monetary. They were made precious by her own investment of time and talent, and lasting by her determination and commitment. When her granddaughters spoke, I saw the bright shimmer of Irene all around them. Quite strongly individual, they are nearly identical in their intelligence, their abilit to articulate, their powerful presence and self-awareness and the promise of their future. When their own mother spoke, I could see Irene as a mother and mother-in-law, making welcome to her family this lovely Englishwoman his son had married. In the early days, she said, her mother-in-law had three signatures to each note or letter: one for Ralph and one for the children, and finally, for her, "Irene". Over time, the signature become one for the whole family, "Mama" as it is pronounced in Spanish-speaking families, with the accent on the second syllable. There was Irene to life, making a beautiful whole of precious but separate parts. Some things were not told aloud; had we all told our stories we'd have stayed the night and into the day. Later, Judy emailed me that she had known Irene in the mid-70s, when Irene's husband and Mrs. Bringmann's were both patients of the doctor for whom Judy worked. They were both kind and generous enough to a young nurse that she recalled them both clearly and with fondness. The beloved Booksmiths, Bob and Diana, sat just in front of us, and their stories didn't have to be told to me, for I knew some of them myself: Irene was an eclectic and inveterate reader and lover of literature. Her son Ralph's family came to St. Augustine every summer, and the Booksmith may have been a highlight for them, but it was no less a bright spot for us as she gracefully ushered the British branch of her family among us and we were charmed by the delightful little girls who have clearly grown into women their grandmother helped shape into spirits of intelligence and grace.
And there were so many other voices, quiet in that room, but audible in my ears. Friends present, and friends not able to join us: you can see some of them in this picture, but there are so many, each with a story of Irene or a hundred stories of her. Her son Ralph gave us a memorable glimpse of her impish humor, so vividly present in him, even to the creases of laughter around his eyes. And so, in a brief hour or so, Irene emerged, far more detailed and finely drawn than I've told in these few words for I have left out much. But she was so visible, so, as Reverend Elizabeth said, so positively present with us in that room. And she had brought us all together. The MadriGals sang Simple Gifts, a Shaker hymn dear to me for the memory of JoAnn Kirby Nance giving it beautiful voice at my own wedding. We sang, "...if love is lord of Heaven and Earth, how can I keep from singing?", a hymn beloved of Judy and me, and a true expression of the occasion. As Irene was a devoted and loving gardener, we sang "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies..." And less to honor Irene than to give voice to those she loved, we finished with Amazing Grace. Lis played guitar until we came round to finish, repeating the familiar first verse sotto voce, when she stopped playing and we finihsed a capella. The voices of Irene's family and friends called back to me, so that tears came into my eyes and voice. It was simply beautiful, like Irene herself. Good-bye, dear Mrs. Allemano, and hello, dear Irene. You will be with us always.


  1. Editor's Note: I was kindly corrected by Peter Allemano, and have noted that it was Ralph's family who visited St. Augustine each year, not Peter's. My apologies for the error.

    Also, this post still seems insufficient unto the day to me; there seems so much more to say. For instance, I didn't touch upon Irene's breathtaking artwork. Anyone wishing to share other stories is most welcome to send them. I'm happy to post them and credit them to their authors or post anonymously if preferred.

  2. thank you, Angie, for sharing these impressions and helped me, as I have been 'with' you all from afar. love to all, T

  3. Tina, dear,
    There is still so much to say that I'm thinking of another post focusing on her fascinating life. Your perspective would be invaluable for that. But during the moment of remembrance, I felt your presence strongly: you were reflected in the faces of Diana and Lorie and Diane, and even in the stunning piece of Irene's artwork displayed at the front of the room. As her son mentioned, it included the moon and the sun, and so many other allegorical references I knew you'd have understood. I love and miss you, dear friend.

  4. Astonishingly beautiful, these words you have spoken for Irene, such an amazing spirit. Thank you, Angie, and love to you.

  5. She sounds like a lovely person. I'm sorry for your loss. The photos are whimsical and touching...

  6. She was quite an amazing person. Her son Ralph has created a blog in her memory, and very generously included a link to my own blog.
    His is Highly recommended.


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