A few days ago, I was thinking about my Tante Esther’s funeral.
It was the early 1990s, and I was waitressing my way through college. On my break, I went to the payphone at Chili’s and called my mother’s cousin, R, at work. Her mother, Tante Esther, had been failing. I wanted to see about arranging a visit.
When I got the Arista Records switchboard, I asked for Rose. “She’s out today,” the woman answered.
“This is her cousin. Can you tell me why?”
When I hear that Tante Esther had died, I tracked R down at home, promised her I’d be there for the funeral. I found someone to cover my shifts, rummaged through my closet for something even remotely appropriate for a funeral, and the next day got on a Septa train. I switched at Trenton, breathing through my mouth while I used the bathroom in the station.
R was Clive Davis’s assistant and had risen to the rank of Vice President at Arista. She was bold, smart, and generous. Whenever I came into New York to see her, a towncar waited for me at Penn Station.
I met R at the funeral home, where she was slipping a few candies into her mother’s coffin. We’re supposed to go to our grave without any accoutrements, but R couldn’t resist. “She loved her sweets,” she told me.
It was a small gathering. Tante Esther was old and had no grandchildren. Even my aunt, cousins, and sister hadn’t made the funeral. As we left the funeral home, a florist walked up bowed down under the weight of an enormous flower arrangement. R took the card, looked at it, and smiled.
“I can’t take the flowers,” she told the florist. Perhaps he was used to Jewish funerals, because he didn’t question her as he turned around and put the gargantuan arrangement back in the truck.
“Whitney sent them,” R told me.
Tonight, I read people’s crass comments on Facebook. Really, she used crack, why is anyone surprised?
Yes, I remember the Whitney Houston of the beautiful face and the crystalline notes. But mostly I remember that she was the only Arista musician who thought of R on the day she buried her mother.