Early on the morning of April 5, we received the news from my shaken father-in-law Rutledge that Peter's mother, Vivian Barry, had died in her sleep during the night. She was ninety. Death cannot be unexpected at such an age, yet it was; she had been bright and lively even the day before, when I last spoke to her, though it's true, thinking in retrospect, that there had been a certain finality to her conversation. I was telling her about an ailment of Peter's, that the doctor couldn't quite pin down, but none of the possibilities were very serious. "So either he'll cut back on his medication, or go back on that sleep apnea machine, if it's not an infection, but whatever it is, it's something we can deal with, and we will."
"I know you will," she said feelingly; and I can't quite convey the tone, but it was as if the phrase "and you always will," was unspoken. And at the end of the conversation she said slowly and deliberately, in a very final sort of way, "Now please remember, won't you, definitely, to give all my love to Peter - and to Paul - and to you." So I think she knew it was soon.
Me and my mother-in-law, on one of countless visits home
By 4 PM that afternoon Peter and I were in the air, and we were with Rutledge not much after midnight. It was a difficult few days, no question; I accompanied him to arrange the cremation, and to the bank to attend to some financial details. We sat around and talked, and Vivian's two carers, sweet ladies, Mel and Serita, were there, shocked by the suddenness, and grieving. What I most remember was how so many people in the building were really grieving, too. Vivian was among the first tenants in her building in Peter Cooper Village, in 1948; Peter grew up there. And she was a tremendous, gracious presence in the complex and in the neighborhood. Nearly every day up to her death she was taken out in her wheelchair to the Greek diner across First Avenue. When Peter and I went in there and said who we were, not only the owner, but waiters, waitresses, busboys, came up to us with tears in their eyes - it was almost startling. They all loved her.
Vivian and her carer, Mel
Then there was the moment her younger carer Serita, a lovely Hindu woman, walking with me past the mailboxes, stopped to say to the mailman, "So, Diva is no more." Vivian jokingly called herself "Diva," for the way everyone took care of her, and Serita always gracefully used the words "is no more" instead of "died." "No," said the mailman sadly, and I could see the grief on his face and tears actually ran down his cheeks. "There is no more Diva."
Vivian as a young, stunning beauty - and she knew it!
I couldn't give a biographical perspective of Vivian's life - only the mere facts. She was born Vivian Kobak on May 8, 1922, in Brooklyn, to Feibus and Minnie Kobak, and had an older brother, Bob, and younger sister, Louise, both now deceased. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was an actress for awhile in her early twenties, until she married her first husband, Charles Birchall, and gave birth to Peter in 1944. Her husband died when Peter was ten, and she married Rutledge soon after. Their son Rutledge Birmingham Barry III was born in 1962, and died in 1997. In recent years Vivian was in a lot of pain from spinal stenosis, and she seemed increasingly ready to give it up. But she remained lively, alert, and interested in books and people, and her family, up to her very last day.
Peter and his mother at The Burren, Ireland
Elegance: Staying at the Royal Crescent Hotel, Bath
During our New York trip there was a lovely moment when two of Peter's first cousins, Yoav and Don, visited. I don't think Peter had seen them since his grandmother's death, which was probably twenty-five years ago, and they'd never been very close. But on this visit, there was a warm feeling, and new appreciation of the miracle of having family.
A reunion of cousins. Don, Yoav, Peter.
There was no funeral, in accordance with Vivian's wishes, but her ashes will be scattered in Sequoia, as her son's were, and where there will be wildflowers.
I was fortunate to have a very sweet mother-in-law. Farewell, Diva.
We loved to have pastries at Veniero's, and frequently did - though now I'm thinking more would have been better.
...And always, bagels and lox
Vivian at my play
In her living room, always beautiful
Peter walking with his mother in the Village, after dinner at Sevilla
Vivian always had a vase of bittersweet in her living room. Always.
But she will be where the pink gilia grows.