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Notes From a Polite New Yorker: One Year On
It has been a year since the world lost Russell Lewis and Elizabeth Quilliam. Neither one was a blood relation, but I lost two members of a larger extended family.
April is the cruelest month.
— T.S. Elliot, “The Waste Land”
Spring is a time when one feels like celebrating life. Things are in bloom, and the weather is getting warmer; it’s the traditional season of rebirth and renewal. There is some point every year around this time when a warmer breeze of air carries the hint of encroaching pollen, and you can say to yourself with confidence that spring is here and feel happy.
But a year ago this month, two people I knew passed away, and it casts a gloom over this normally cheerful season. It has been a year since the world lost Russell Lewis and Elizabeth Quilliam. Neither one was a blood relation, but I lost two members of a larger extended family.
Russell Lewis passed away first. He was the father of Melissa Lewis, a good friend and ex-girlfriend. I visited him regularly for the several years I dated his daughter Melissa and even a few times since. He was born in the small town of Dalton, Pennsylvania, outside of Scranton, and lived in the area most of his life, except for a few years when he served in the U.S. Navy.
What I remember about him most, besides his being very quiet, was his enormous generosity. He was always there to help his children and grandchildren. He even gave a car he had to his ex-wife when hers broke down. I know no one else in the world who has given a car to an ex-wife without a court order. He shared a small home in a trailer park with his brother, Harry. He grew tomatoes in a garden outside his home, and his daughter took great pleasure in eating the cherry tomatoes straight off of the vine.
I would often go with Melissa to meet him at a nearby bar: either the East Bay Tavern in Lake Winola or Sidelines in Factoryville. Almost inevitably, he and Melissa would begin to play pool. Not being any good at playing pool, I would instead call their pool games the way a sportscaster would, using my bottle of beer as a microphone. While I think Mr. Lewis won the plurality of their games, they were pretty evenly matched, but no matter. I would call the game in Mr. Lewis’ favor no matter who was winning. He liked that and got a chuckle out of it, which only encouraged my one continuously bad running joke for at least two more years.
Often, when Melissa and I would part ways with him, he would tell me, “Take care of her.”
Mr. Lewis’s death was sudden and unexpected. He was diabetic and had a sudden drop in blood sugar that resulted in a stroke. I’ve been back to the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area a few times since his death, and I still have a nice time, but my trips there will always be incomplete without visiting Mr. Lewis and watching him play pool with Melissa.
Melissa will never eat a tomato, play pool or look at a bottle of Coors Light the same way again. For the first time in 11 years, Melissa didn’t return to Pennsylvania last year for her camping trip to the World’s End State Park in Pennsylvania for the Eastern Delaware Nations Pow-wow. It was Father’s Day weekend, and she didn’t want to be in Pennsylvania for that. She always made sure to visit her father that weekend.
There are some things I won’t ever look at or think about the same way again: pool games, cigarette smoke, baseball caps with ‘NAVY’ written on them. He was the only person whose second-hand smoke I enjoyed. He smoked cherry-flavored Swisher Sweet cigarettes. That sweet smell will always make me think of Mr. Lewis.
Three weeks after Mr. Lewis passed, Mrs. Q died. Elizabeth Quilliam, better known as Betsy, was my friend Steve Quilliam’s mother. The Quilliam house in Madison, Connecticut, was the central headquarters and meeting place of my group of friends in high school. It’s where we gathered for New Year’s Eve, July 4 and any other holiday. There was never a question about where we would meet up or hold a party; we would always meet at Mrs. Q’s.
Like Russell Lewis, Mrs. Q was selfless and spent her time helping others. She was a second mother to a lot of us, a great friend and parental figure who gave great comfort to anyone and everyone she spoke to. I count myself among her many secondary children, who got a lot of encouragement, help and sound advice from her. When friends were having a tough time at home or in some cases had lost their homes, Mrs. Q took them in. I have lost track of the friends of mine who were able to move into her basement when things got tough for them, just as I have lost track of the times I found comfort in talking to her when it was difficult speaking with my own parents.
At her funeral, one of my high school friends got up and spoke. “I count myself among the many second children of Mrs. Q’s and found life at her home better than at my own,” he said. “Though I’d ask those of you who know my parents not to tell them that.” He was speaking for a lot of us. “Of all the times I was over at Mrs. Q’s, I can’t ever remember a time she was doing something for herself.”
Once, around Christmas time, Mrs. Q decided to treat her friends to some Christmas caroling. She gathered those of us that were available at her house, put us in her van and brought us around to people’s homes to sing Christmas carols. Everyone was glad to see us, and it is one of my fondest Christmas memories. Mrs. Q’s van had a headlight that was out, and while we were driving home, she was pulled over by a police officer. “Oh, hey Betsy,” said the cop as he approached her window, “I didn’t know that was you.” Mrs. Q at that time worked for the town and was in charge of finances, so her signature was on every police officer’s paycheck. They chatted for a while, and she had us sing a Christmas carol for the officer before he let us go, without a ticket of course.
Every time I met or saw Mrs. Q, even when she was suffering from the rapid advancement of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) that would eventually take her life, her focus was never on herself. She was always asking about others. The last time I saw her, she was no longer able to walk or talk, but she used a keyboard to ask me about how I was doing, whether I was still living near the The Cloisters, and how I had met my new girlfriend at the time.
After Mrs. Q’s funeral, friends and family gathered again at her house. We ate and drank a lot and had as good a time as possible, but Mrs. Q’s house just isn’t the same without Mrs. Q.
Neither Mr. Lewis nor Mrs. Q got to enjoy a retirement that was well overdue. Each sacrificed for their children and grandchildren. Mrs. Q retired to help take care of her granddaughter shortly before she was diagnosed with ALS. Mr. Lewis was planning to retire within a year of his death. They were each robbed of a retirement they richly deserved.
Both Russell Lewis and Elizabeth Quilliam lived modestly, and their public monuments may not reach beyond their grave markers. But by the measures of the lives they lived and the love and loss they left behind, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Q are two of the most successful people I have ever known. I miss them very much.