Elinor Nauen on Roberta Oliver
I promised Roberta that I wouldn’t say she was brave. I promised Roberta I wouldn’t say she “fought the good fight.”
Well, RO, I lied. I am going to say that to the end she stayed considerate, gallant and gorgeously courageous. Part of that was her usual modesty: She never said “why me?” She believed she’d had a good run, and she was at peace.
But Roberta was, of course, far more than her cancer or her death.
Our friendship began about 10 years ago, when I was just starting to get involved at Town and Village. We’d both been invited to a dinner, where I didn’t really know anyone. (To appreciate this anecdote, you have to know that I’m originally from the Midwest.) So, we were at this dinner, and she was telling a story, rattling along a mile a minute: TWO miles a minute.
And I said, Hey slow down, I can’t understand what you’re saying, you’re talking so fast.
And without missing a step, in that 1940s wisecracking-dame voice she had when she was still a smoker, she said, What, they can’t listen so fast out there where you come from?
A couple of years later, I happened to drive her and her son to Binghamton when he started college. What I remember most about that trip is the way she talked about Torah. Her infatuation (as someone called it), her joy in and mastery of the technical details, her passion and commitment inspired me to want what she had. If I am a halfway decent Torah reader, it’s in large part because Roberta “tortured” me—by which she meant that she refused to let me or anyone else do a sloppy job, not if she could do anything about it. She was endlessly patient in listening to me and many others practice our reads—and she never missed a mistake.
Roberta would be the first to say she didn’t have a beautiful voice, but when she leyned, her voice was radiant. Radiant and beautiful, out of love.
She loved being Jewish. She loved kirbys and The Gilmore Girls and salami. She loved shopping—and returning everything she bought the next day. And she loved her kids. How many times we would be on the phone and she would say, gotta go, it’s Paul. Or, It’s Katie! She lit up each and every time she said their names. How tender Paul and Kate have been under the recent stressful circumstances. How much I admire them—and their mother for raising two such wonderful young people. As well as Roberta’s magnificent mom Sarah, who started it all.
Roberta gave the best gifts, not only because she was generous, but even more, because she paid attention to her friends and knew what would please us. She was organized—I don’t know how the morning minyan will manage gala ads and the summer beach outing and daily Torah reads without her. She was fun and a good dancer.
But like any friendship worth its salt, ours was mostly a day-in day-out accumulation of listening, talking, hanging out. It’s not anecdotes or witticisms I will miss about Roberta, but the everydayness of our friendship. The privilege of her love and friendship.