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By Dinah Manoff

Several years later, Fremo was diagnosed with cancer. It was slow and terrible. It took two years for it to claim her, and her neediness was both moving and repulsive to me. If she had been difficult to be around before, now she was almost impossible. She was so angry at her illness and the inept way in which my mother and the rest of the family tried to care for her needs. The food they brought was too salty. Her apartment too lonely. (She had fled with her cats back to New York City and her beloved Art Students League after just a year in Saugus). During stays at my parents' apartment she complained that it was too cold, or too hot. She drove them crazy. Only Trini, their longtime housekeeper, and Rachel, my paternal grandmother, could tolerate her irritability. Rachel is central casting for an Italian grandmother and was always in my parents' kitchen sweating and cursing, the bottoms of her arms covered in flour and jiggling while she stood at the counter making dough for pasta. Trini was from San Salvador and spoke no English. She and Rachel had cross-pollinated a language between Italian and Spanish that only they could understand. As for me, I was living uptown. I was in and out. Working, dating, partying. I was a kiss on the cheek and out the door. I was no help at all.

As the end neared, Fremo went into the hospital. Rachel and Trini set up camp, making sure she was cared for and clean, that her hair was washed and that she had her make-up.

She was happy in the hospital. All those gorgeous doctors and interns and orderlies! Fremo flirted outrageously. I think it was the one time in her life when she knew that no matter what she did or said, she wasn't going to be left alone.

I popped by to see her one day. Rachel and Trini must've been out getting lunch, because Fremo was alone in the room. She raised her head toward me and I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. She had painted her eyebrows red with her lipstick liner and her lips were lined black with her eyebrow pencil. She greeted me with a big smile and I sat down on the edge of the bed and held her hand. It was the only visit I had ever paid her where I didn't keep checking the time. I sat with her that day until Rachel and Trini returned.

A week later the call came.

I had been up all night drinking and doing cocaine, lying in bed, promising God I would never get high again if He/She would only let me fall asleep. Next to me in the bed passed out and snoring loudly was Shirley, an angry black dancer who I idolized and, for a long while, she wanted nothing to do with me. We were in a show together and I had been determined to make her like me. This I finally accomplished after discovering our mutual love of cocaine. Shirley was now my best friend. We were inseparable. I had been trying to make my breathing the same rhythm as Shirley's snores, hoping to fall asleep by imitation, when the phone rang. An hour later I arrived at the hospital. If both my parents had not been working and out of town, I doubt I would have gone at all. I was so loaded I barely found the nurse's station.

Rachel and Trini came running down the hall and grabbed me.

"This is it!" they said in all languages. "It's happening."

They pulled me along towards Fremo's room.

She was sitting straight up in bed, her eyes alert and wide open as if she were seeing something very close up. She was moving her hands up and down and around. I thought at first she was gesturing at something but then I realized that she was painting. She was painting and she was dying.

If I could re-do what happened next it would go like this: I would have crossed into the room and sat with her on the bed and followed her fingers and the imaginary brushes that fluttered from them. I would have stayed until she had filled her last canvas and I would have told her that it was her best work ever. But I didn't. I turned away and told Rachel and Trini that I wasn't feeling well and I was going back to my apartment to try to get some sleep. Then I ran down the hall toward the elevator.

"Let me know if anything changes," I called back over my shoulder.

My apartment is covered in Fremo's artwork. It's one of my great regrets that my eye was too dim to appreciate what a really talented painter she was while she was still alive. After she died I inherited all her artwork and furniture, so I hung some of her paintings to cover the bare walls. I have fallen in love with her work and with the models she used, with the reflection of Fremo's loneliness in their eyes. Her best painting is of a model named Susie -- a full-bodied, big-breasted nude in a chair. She is wearing nothing but a hat with feathers, and high heels. She smokes a cigarette and regards her audience directly and without shame.

I found nude photos of Fremo as I was sorting through her things. There were three. In two of them, she was with a man. He was wearing a suit and they looked very happy together; she, demurely posed on his lap. In the third photo she is alone, seated on a chair, her legs wide open exposing herself to the camera. I do not have the feeling that there is anyone in the room with her. I imagine her setting up the camera and then running to the chair and spreading her legs in time for the shot. A private moment that she forgot to throw away.

Trini and Rachel sat in the front row of the funeral parlor. Trini was praying in Spanish and Rachel was praying in Italian. The Rabbi was winding up his remarks. Since my parents were still away on business, I was left to assist with the arrangements. There were a couple of distant relatives, a neighbor from Fremo's building, an acquaintance from art school. Really we should have invited her cats. They were closest to her. They knew her best. But the one cat that she'd managed to keep during her illness had barricaded himself in Fremo's closet the day she died, and for three days attacked anyone who tried to get him out. Rachel and Trini wore Band-aids on their hands. Under the sleeves of my dress were scratches that ran the length of my arm.

I rose to deliver the eulogy. As I walked up to the podium I looked down at Fremo lying in the open casket. That morning we had dressed her in her silk leopard skin pajamas and hired a professional to do her hair and face. When we finished, we stood back admiring our efforts.

"Lovey, you look like a million bucks," I said as Rachel and Trini murmured their approval. Then we folded her arms over her chest and tucked her vinyl make-up bag under her hands.

"My Great Aunt Fremo taught me the twist when I was six years old," I began as I stood at the podium and looked around at the other five mourners who had spread themselves out in the funeral parlor in an attempt to look like a crowd.

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