I met both of them just one time, and all of me wishes I could go back in time to share a few more special moments with each one of them.
Last Christmas, when I held hands in a greeting for the first time with Irmgard Gilbert and, a few days later, with Mary B. McClain, their hands were soft, warm and welcoming. They both passed away recently, Irmgard on April 21 at the age of 89 and Mary on May 19 at the age of 91.
On the afternoon we spent together, Irmgard’s daughter, Colette, my mother-in-law, looked at her the way I looked at the TV rock star Jem when I was a kid. They sat together and chatted. Irmgard’s smile was infectious. She told me I looked beautiful. I was wearing miniature Christmas ornaments in my hair.
I am glad I got to taste Mary’s famous ravioli, grabbing the few that were left at a Christmas luncheon where all the holiday leftovers were meant to be consumed. The ravioli was beyond delicious, unlike any homemade pasta dish I’d ever had before. It tasted like a luscious portion of hot cheese and sauce mixed with a generous helping of love, wisdom and dedication.
As a newcomer to both sides of the family — I recently married Jason, a grandson of Irmgard and Mary’s step-grandson — I have observed firsthand how a matriarch can set the tone for a whole family.
The Christmas Eve I spent with Irmgard’s family was one of the most joyful holidays I can recall in recent memory. Irmgard was an artist and graphic designer early on in her life. Having lived through the Great Depression, she had her own brand of humor. I saw how clearly her children and grandchildren were so dedicated to her. We laughed, we ate, we told stories. When we left, it was only because the trip home from Connecticut was going to take a while, and we promised to see each other again soon.
Father Michael A. Vetrano at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church in Southampton, where Mary was active in the activities of the parish for many years, said during a beautiful Mass of Christian burial on Saturday that Mary passed on to her family a particular recipe for how to live life.
Through Mary’s children, including Jason’s stepfather, Andrew, and his siblings, along with her nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, I saw how all the ingredients of that recipe come together to comprise a meaningful meal. A meal that should be shared with as many loved ones as possible. A meal that nourishes and sustains, even through unexpected difficulties.
I spent a great deal of time over the last week with the family, gleaning every possible gem and detail I could about Mary through her loved ones. She did her crossword puzzles in pen and considered potholders for “amateurs.” She never wavered in her faith and lived it in everything she did. Mary was the daughter of the Balzarini family, who opened the restaurant Balzarini’s in Southampton in 1931 and sold it in 1975. An entire generation of her family put in its share of hours there, growing up with an appreciation for hard work, good people skills and great food.
Losing a loved one is never easy. Having only joined the family so recently, I sort of drifted aimlessly at first while wondering how to cope with the loss. Then I realized my role as a brand-new arrival is to support everyone else as much as possible through their losses. To Irmgard and Mary, I want to let you know even though we did not know each other well, I loved you and I will be there for your loved ones as much as possible to honor your memory.