Sunday, July 25, 2010


Claudia Persi Haines, one of my closest friends, passed away this week in Milan. I was at her bedside with other friends and relatives during her wrenching final struggle with terminal leukemia.

Claudia was a teacher, an artist, a superb cook, a mother and grandmother...but she was far more than the sum of her roles and considerable talents. She loved life, and she lived it well. I first met her in 1968; I was a student of hers, trying to learn intermediate Italian, and I took a literature course from her the following year that featured, as I recall, a close reading of I Promessi Sposi.

In that period of time she married Charles Haines, had Charles Jr., and made herself immensely popular among her students. She was, literally, the Carleton University Italian Department for some time.

And we became friends.

The bond grew deeper over the years. We shared many meals and much talk and laughter. She returned to Udine after Charles passed away, but we spoke often on the telephone and always got together when she made trips over to Ottawa to visit young Charles, his spouse Seema, and their children.

It's impossible to put into words what substance a friendship is made of. We were just supremely happy in each other's company, and both of us looked at the world in similar ways--in other words, we were depressed by it. (We have Harper and she had Berlusconi, who frankly alarmed her.) We enjoyed fine food, wine and literature, and we argued sometimes, but never harshly.

When she became ill some time ago, she moved in with her sister Maura. She was enjoying some time with her grandchildren last week at a quiet place near Lake Como, drawing and painting with them, when she collapsed. She was quickly admitted to hospital and by the time I was able to get there (Tuesday) she had all but lost the ability to speak. But she recognized me and seized my hand.

She was the kind of person who inspired her former students to head in from all over the world, by air, sea and land, once we got the news. Maxe made her way from New Zealand, arriving, unfortunately, a matter of hours after Claudia passed. Nada took a ferry from a small island off the coast of New England, took a bus to Boston and flew from there.

I am still too numb to feel the full extent of this loss. Knowing she was in this world, even when much time elapsed between visits or conversations, was always a kind of mental haven. I loved her deeply, and I still do.

To her family and to her many friends, my deepest sympathy. Dear Claudia, I shall miss you terribly.

[Note (and correction): the picture above was painted was part of a handout prepared by Claudia's grandchildren for Friday's memorial service. The caption was added. Her daughter-in-law Seema writes:

"The painting was actually done by Claudia. It was an illustration that she did for a book that she wrote called E. Flower Grounder, about a plant that gets sick with leukemia. She wrote it for the kids to help them understand her illness. This painting illustrated the part of the book in which some of the plants died, became humus, which fed this beautiful garden. All of my kids were fascinated by this notion and this painting and each of them asked to hold the painting in their hands... I just thought that it should be attributed to Claudia."]