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Olivia

 

According to the New York Times, Olivia Cole died a week ago Friday, on January 19th, which was only a few days after the last time my Mom had spoken to her on the phone. At first, we weren’t sure the news was real; maybe someone had confused her with her mother, who died this fall. But her mother had a different last name, and lived in NY, while Olivia lived in Mexico, and the news stories had that detail right. And then we saw a quote from her agent, and too many more details that made it all sound true.

Olivia was dead.

Olivia is dead.

Oivia & Mom stacked

Olivia and her Mom

It still seemed so unlikely, though. She was just in New York in December, traipsing across the city by foot, despite her rheumatoid arthritis, because she didn’t like spending money on taxis. She even refused to take a cab when she had to be at the airport at five o’clock in the morning, and instead chose to wear most of the clothes, so she wouldn’t have to carry them, and take the subway at three o’clock AM, in the middle of winter.

Mom was worried about that trip back to Mexico, with twenty four hours in transit, and called Olivia a number of times to check if she’d made it home safely. Olivia had a landline, but no cell phone, or email, or even a computer, so when Mom didn’t hear back, so she emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel and finally heard that Olivia had made it home safely. It still took a few weeks for Olivia herself to call, though. She didn’t like to use her phone for international calls, so she would borrow her friend’s computer-based phone system, on Mondays, to make her calls. She called on MLK day, and the two old friends talked about the need to take care of oneself, and about the foundation Olivia wanted to build, to help finance early education for children of color.

Olivia was one of my mom’s lifelong friends, from their years in the drama club at Hunter High School, and she would pop in and out of our lives every few years, sending tickets to plays she was in, and visiting when she came to New York to see her Mom. The first time I met her in person was when I was eleven, when she played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun at the Roundabout theatre in Manhattan. Seeing Olivia on stage was just like seeing her in real life: she was a character. She was larger than life. She was stubborn and opinionated and fiercely intellectual, delving into the Shakespearean canon for life lessons in even the most obscure of areas. She loved acting, and reading, and opining, but she didn’t like fame, or compromise.

Then Mom received the email, this Thursday, from a high school friend, with the attached announcement of Olivia’s death in the New York Times. The article said that she’d died of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she’d lived for the past thirty years. Mom called to me from the living room, sounding odd, and the only word I understood was “Olivia” and I thought, that’s weird, Olivia wouldn’t call on a Thursday. When I reached her and she repeated “Olivia’s dead?” as a question, I was sure it was a mistake. Yes, Olivia was 75, and had rheumatoid arthritis, and no sense of her own limits, but she took good care of her health and went to all of her doctors on her most recent visit to New York. She hadn’t mentioned any heart issues to my Mom, but then again, she wouldn’t. She was full of plans for the future, and still full of piss and vinegar, never changing, and never really aging.

 

Norah Olivia and me

Three old friends on a recent visit

Since we were still not quite believing the news. Mom emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel for confirmation. The email came back, yes, Olivia was found on her porch, sitting upright in a chair, reading an old article about Barack Obama. Friends hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days and decided to check on her, and they found her there on the porch. The comfort for the people who knew her is that this is exactly how Olivia would have wanted to go: reading and thinking and full of hope for the future.

I had to go to my internship soon after the death was confirmed, but Mom’s high school classmates stepped in, sending messages on their class listserv, offering memories and kindness and compassion. These New York girls grew up knowing that all that mattered was how smart you were, not the color of your skin, or which neighborhood you lived in; and a woman could become anything she wanted to be: a lawyer, a doctor, a mother, a teacher, a writer, or an actress.

There’s a sweet coda to this story. We had a visit from a bird last weekend, two days after Olivia’s death, though we didn’t know that at the time. The bird stayed in the apartment for a while, resting in the quilting closet, and on the vitamin bottles on the entertainment center, and then in the light fixture in the dining room. The bird seemed to want to stay with us, fluttering from place to place indoors, even though the window in mom’s room was wide open. Looking back at that visit, after the news of Olivia’s death, Mom is convinced it was Olivia, saying goodbye. Because that would be a very Olivia thing to do.

 

bird in the fabric closet 2

Olivia and Dina

 

Olivia Cole was one of my mom’s good friends in high school. They were both in the theatre group, at their girls’ only school in the city. There were girls of every shade and religion there and none of that mattered. I got the sense that they were in a safe haven in that school, where the limitations placed on other girls in the fifties just didn’t apply to them.

Mom went off to film school in California after that, and Olivia went to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Then Mom went on to work as a film editor, and got married, and had kids, and found that film work was not on the right schedule for parenting two little kids, and one big one. And Olivia moved out to Los Angeles, married, divorced and won an Emmy.

roots_actors_emmy

Olivia wins an Emmy!

I’d seen Olivia’s picture in the yearbook and heard her name, but I’d never met her myself. And then North and South, the miniseries, came on TV, and I was busily watching Patrick Swayze and listening to southern accents when I saw Olivia. I started screaming and calling for my Mom – Is that her?! And it was. I knew (of) someone who was on TV!

When I was in seventh grade, I got to see her on stage in A Raisin in the Sun, and then I saw her in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and a miniseries with Oprah Winfrey. But all of this time I still didn’t know her. I saw her in another play a few years later and she came out to meet us, and I was shy, and she smiled and called me “A tall drink of water” or was it “long” drink of water. Not sure. But she was still a stranger, a mirage even. When she was on stage or on my TV, she wasn’t really Olivia, and I wasn’t sure who she might be in real life. She wasn’t the kind of actress who played herself over and over, she played characters who were nothing like her, except that they used her eyes and her voice. They even changed her body, making her walk, her body language, the shape of her, unrecognizable.

olivia cole - the women of brewster place

Olivia in the Women of Brewster Place.

And then, when I was in my twenties, she came to stay with us. She had to sell her father’s house on the island and Mom offered our apartment as base of operations. Normally Olivia would have stayed in the city with her mother, but this was more convenient, and, more importantly, a chance to catch up with an old friend.

We had Dina then. She was probably ten years old, a black lab mix from the shelter, still in good health, and calmer than she’d been for the most of her life. I was still at my shyest back then (and only a few steps removed from that even now). I think Olivia was the only adult who ever slept over at the apartment (nephews, no matter what they might think, do not count as adults). Olivia was this mix of grand theatrical wisdom and down to earth, plain spoken quiet. And she loved my dog. And Dina loved Olivia.

dina smiles

Dina

Dina did not have many friends. Little children were as frightened of her as she was of them. They would see her black hair and sharp teeth and hide behind their mothers. Dina would see their quick movements, and short stature, and sit down by my leg with her back hair raised up. When people asked if she would bite, I had to say yes, she might do that. She’d tried to bite me, for picking her up when she didn’t want to be moved, for leaving her home when she wanted to come with me.

I took her to therapy with me for a few months, when she was suffering from unbearable separation anxiety, and maybe just knowing where I went without her, knowing what the place smelled like and sounded like, calmed her down. By the time Olivia visited, Dina was doing better, but she was still Dina. So Olivia’s matter of fact and immediate friendship was disarming and surprising to her. She wasn’t used to being liked by strangers. The two of them went for long walks together, down to the beach, keeping stride, breathing together.

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Dina loved to listen to Olivia’s voice.

With people, Olivia was a talker. She had that dramatic raconteur voice, with a touch of her southern Mom and her time in London coming through, and a lot of her time on stage filling out her voice so that even her whispers filled the whole room with a low smoky sound.

I don’t know if Olivia talked to Dina out on their walks, telling her stories of her own dog, Oro, or her trips around the world, or the characters she’d played. Maybe they were just quiet together, breathing in rhythm, walking towards the water and feeling the slight breeze in the air. Whatever it was, they came back content.

Dina had a friend. She didn’t know anything about Emmy awards and Hollywood and pilot season and table readings, all she knew was that this presence had entered her life and offered love of a gentle, fresh, relieving kind.

dina dances

Dina, the dancer.

I have to believe that’s part of what changed things for my Dina. She never became a social butterfly, but something in her anxiety seemed to slow down. As if she’d decided that it was all okay. She didn’t have to get better to be loved, she just had to be.

 

Olivia Cole is currently in a two-woman play about the Delany sisters, called Having Our Say, in Hartford, Connecticut. If you’re in the area, or plan to be there before April 24th, stop in and see her. She’s magical.

Olivia in Having our say

Olivia in Having Our Say.

This is a review of the play when it was at the Long Wharf theater:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/nyregion/review-2-sisters-navigate-100-years-of-black-history-in-having-our-say.html?_r=0

Link to Hartford Stage:https://www.hartfordstage.org/?gclid=CLiIobSOh8wCFUokhgodKvYGXA