I remember when I first met her as if it were yesterday. A newbie in Paris, I decided to see whether the American Cathedral was for me. There are two American churches in Paris, and the Cathedral is Episcopal, as am I, so it seemed a good fit.
After the service, I went to coffee hour, where volunteers staffed a welcome table. I asked how I could get involved, and in response to a query said I’d like to work on the website. You need to speak to Elizabeth Hecht, came the reply. Where can I find her? Over there …
So I turned in that direction and saw a knot of people chatting. “Where can I find Elizabeth Hecht?”
Suddenly, about six feet away among another group of people, an imposing woman wheeled around and bellowed, “I’M ELIZABETH HECHT!”
Sudden flashback to “The Wizard of Oz,” where the wizard first appears as a disembodied head surrounded by towers of flame. I fully expected the next line to be “WHO ARE YOU?” And I could reply, “I am John, the small and meek.” But it was not to be.
Instead, she grilled me on my qualifications and allowed as how I might be of some use. Afterward, a man who’d been watching this exchange from a distance sauntered up to me and said, “She’s a bit intimidating, no? We’re not all like that. Welcome.” And so I met Neil Janin, who introduced me to his wife, Nancy. All three — Elizabeth, Neil and Nancy — were leaders in the parish.
It was the start of what proved to be a long and close friendship with Elizabeth, whom I discovered to be a force of Nature. I helped the Cathedral website get out from a mishmash of technical problems, and we then launched into a project to revamp the site, from top to bottom. Long hours at her apartment in front of the Mac (for a while in front of two Macs), long discussions about design and usefulness, and the dinners. At least once a month, usually more, at the Villa Thai restaurant with her husband, Bob, whose story I leave for another day. (Suffice it to say that he’s the only person in my circle of friends to get a Page One obituary in The New York Times.)
I remember one November morning when Elizabeth, who had a history of health issues, phoned from the hospital to advise me that she was checking herself out, against the advice of the doctors, so she could be home by Thursday, which was Thanksgiving Day. Could I organize a turkey dinner at her place? For eight, maybe ten? No problem, I said. She arrived by ambulance in good time, and Thanksgiving Day became an annual tradition as well.
Elizabeth was never one to shy from a challenge. When the iPhone came along, and apps became popular, she cajoled me into working with her to create a Christmas-themed app. And another. And another. She roped Ned Tipton, the Cathedral organist, into providing the music. Never argue with a force of Nature.
As a good Christian, she followed the path of Jesus, defending the powerless and comforting the poor. In political terms, therefore, a good Democrat. Like me, she was mystified how anyone could call himself a Christian and vote Republican. We celebrated the amazing victory of Barack Obama in 2008, and again in 2012.
Eventually, Bob died, and Elizabeth moved to the States to be closer to family. Her email address, “BL in Paris,” was suddenly out of place. (BL, as she once informed me, was short for Betty Lou, as she was known in childhood.) Because she’d been living in Europe for six decades, I told her I expected her to be back in Paris soon. But she loved being in New York, and her beloved long-haired dachshund, Valentina, adapted as well, so it was up to me to pay a visit each time I was on the East Coast. Again, no problem. She’d pick me up at the train station.
Separated by an ocean, but still neighbors at heart, we continued check-ins by phone every Wednesday. I missed calling her a week ago, overburdened with moving to a new apartment. But no problem, I’d call again soon.
It was Nancy Janin who sent me an email, in the middle of the night, a few hours before that next call, that she had heard Elizabeth had died. Soon enough I had confirmed the news.
The normal Episcopal blessing is, May she rest in peace and rise in glory. She is now at peace, but she is surely not resting. I imagine her arranging the angels and archangels into a proper chorus.
God bless you, Elizabeth Chase Hecht.