Sunday, April 14, 2013

Peace Be upon You, Irene Allemano

This is likely to be repetitive, even dull, for those of you who stop by here for a read now and then, so I apologize in advance. Some things, especially when they rest upon the floor joists of our lives, are worth saying over and over again. With a bit of writers' luck, the less dull ones will make their way here.

Often and often - and indeed, quite recently - have I written of the power and grace of girls and women in my life. It is no surprise, as Miss Katie says. The need was in me, a deep chasm opened by my mother's death when I was eleven. The need was common, of course; many of us search for guidance, insight, approval, affirmation. Some of us find these at the hands and hearts of women we love. I might be no different than anyone else. Or I might been brushed by some psychic magnet, the echo of which continues to draw me into the orbit of astonishing women and girls who gift me with glimpses of their unique magic and then go or stay. Who knows the right of it?

No matter what, The Booksmith was surely a vector: a point of intersection science cannot explain, where the power of women to change our little lives and our tiny world was visible and undeniable. Through this brass-clad door came Mrs. Detmold, whose ordering of the Oxford English Dictionary, Unabridged, surely changed St. Augustine and left no Booksmith denizen unmoved. Here, too, dwelt Diana (ah! what I owe to Diana for my present self!) and Su, Maggie and Katie: diverse readers untethered by syllabi, whose minds left no word, no phrase, unturned or unconsidered. Here was Eileen Ronan, whose gift and dedication of Southern Sideboards changed my cooking - and writing - life permanently. Here: Marilyn Bailey. Books and reading bled over into personal lives, which you can't have missed if you've looked at a single dish photographed for this blog on a Desert Rose Franciscanware plate. Writers crossed into this dimension: those who were gone, like Zora Neale Hurston, those whose contemporary connections kept them alive and present to us, like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and the irrepressibly live Tasha Tudor, and those whose vibrant voices and insistent heartbeats could simply not be ignored, like Connie May Fowler.

They are too many to describe; they are legion. Some of them have found themselves painted into the pages of this blog. And of course there's a natural tendency to seek the wisdom of those walking life's path just a few steps ahead; one imagines this to be not much different for men. For women, it seems the simplest path to insight to ask someone whose baby is a year old what you, pregnant, might expect during childbirth. We pass through windows within a few years of which our sisters are pairing off, becoming couples, marrying, considering or having babies, finding methods and managing tradeoffs of raising children while maintaining work, creativity, education. These years sometimes create a tendency to telescope down, to focus on those of our sisters whose progress on the path mirrors our own.

But there are our younger sisters, awaiting the wisdom we're acquiring. And there, ahead of us, are our older sisters, our mothers and grandmothers, awaiting the moments when we will ask for the wisdom they themselves have amassed like so much treasure. (Is that *your* mother? Is she standing on the path so she can annoy you with opinions about the age at which you ought to have a baby (if YOU EVER ARE going to) or the relative merits of nursing, or....dammit, is that your mother? Look down, look down; don't make eye contact....) Children aside, your own mother's place along your path notwithstanding, our older sisters stand ahead of us, waiting with patience and ineffeable kindness to make small offerings from their hearts to ease our ways.

Mrs. Allemano was enough older than I was. In my ignorance, this prevented me from immediately recognizing her as one of my older sisters, as one of the many sisters or mothers whose generosity would help light my way. She seemed  far too elegant and her view far too loftily focused to take any notice of me, or even to remember my name.

Irene Allemano was tall and gracefully built, along lines that might have suited her for haute couture modeling, perhaps 30 years ago, perhaps the day before yesterday.

She walked into The Booksmith one day with her head held as high as though she were accustomed to carry on it every day a library from Plato to Pliny the Elder to Petrarch and beyond. Her dress was a brightly colored, beautifully draped thing that seemed at once distinctly modern and vaguely African. I would not have been shocked to find it required the attention necessary to properly drape a Roman senator's toga. At her wrists and around her neck, she wore a necklace of unambigous avante garde design, in chunky semiprecious stones exactly matched to her beautiful dress. She was introduced to me as "Mrs. Allemano". I believe we discussed the Times bestseller list and some other reviews of things we wanted to be sure not to miss, but I do not remember one single word of that conversation. I only remember the certainty that I'd been in the presence of some sort of royalty. Despite her easy conversation and complete lack of self-consciousness, her understated erudition and the pleasure she clearly took in books and the realm of the mind, she was someone apart. It would be years before I would understand her as an older sister, an emotional signpost pointing me toward my future. Today, it's hard to imagine that Mrs. Allemano would not have invested her considerable powers of philosophical consideration and influence on her younger sisters. I just didn't know it at the time. Ah, the wisdom from which we are screened by youth.

Years went by, with their inevitable changes.Holiday voices were reconfigured into the MadriGalz and on one unforgettable occasion, The Cafe Alzacar and the MadriGalz were graced by Mrs. Allemano, her two breathtaking sons, their wives, and best of all, the children of that fascinating family. We sang to them, we were awed by them, they were gracious to us, and from that day to this, carols echo faintly in my mind's ear when I think of Mrs. Allemano. I would not see her again in this life, and yet for so many reasons I'm grateful to say that I hope to hear her voice, guiding me through the voices of those we both loved, and in the still small voice I sometimes forget to heed.

Peace be unto you, Mrs. Allemano. I believe your children and your children's children will rise up and call you blessed. And upon reflection: So say we all.

Photo (c) 2012 Christina diEno


  1. I remember her, but I don't know where I met her. I do remember that she was a lovely woman, with a good sense of humor, if memory serves. It was a little surprising, she seemed so proper - and was, but she did enjoy a good laugh.

  2. ~ beautiful Angie: you said it all about Irene and with such grace...she was a treasure:
    I remember her laugh the most :)
    And what memories of ye olde Booksmith you've brought up: Clarinda Jennison,Frankie Walker,
    ,Jean Waterbury,,Jo Bozard, Margie Thurman (remember her?), the Gwen Reichert gang -
    And some menfolk that we somehow can also learn from: Mr.Montagnaro (my favorite), Ernie Mickler, Mr.O'Sullivan (omyomy)
    ~ the list goes on but it's late...
    Hope to see you in person one of these days, perhaps at Irene's memorial?
    Love to you from me, Diana

  3. well articulated...and a lovely memorial to our dear Sister, Irene. she stands among the top of the most influential women in my life...I first met her and her husband in the early 70's and thus started a friendship and spiritual kinship that lasted until now and surely, beyond....she was a true mentor to me and i am a much better person for having her in my life. thank you, Angie, for sharing your love and appreciation of Irene with us. love you, Tina

  4. Jackie, Diana, Tina:
    It is done and it was a beautiful memorial. Diana was with us, as were many friends from the Booksmith and from Mrs. Allemano's life after 1975 in St. Augustine. Her son Eric told one memorable take in particular about her volunteering in Mexico in delivery rooms, somehow having gleaned enough training to be present as an erstwhile's more than I can recap in this small space, but I'll write a post to do it justice. I can tell you that Lis and Judy and I sang Simple Gifts and How Can I Keep from Singing at the middle of the service. We ended with For the Beauty of the Earth (which was perfect for Irene) and finally Amazing Grace (which was perfect for everyone else). More later. Much love.


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