For my family and me, Christmas 2011 was a somber season marked by the sudden and unexpected passing of my dear cousin, Maris Lee DiGiovanni.
Maris became a member of our family when she married Al (our oldest cousin on my dad’s side) in a ceremony that featured my then 6 year-old brother Paul as ring-bearer. And while the word “cousin” is an accurate descriptor of her relationship to my siblings and me, it is wholly inadequate. Because for us, Maris was a second mom, a big sister and a best friend — all rolled into one beautiful, amazing and radiant package.
The old expression about lighting up a room could have been coined with Maris in mind because the moment she entered a doorway, she electrified the atmosphere with her unbridled exuberance, infectious laughter, remarkable love of life and genuine interest in everyone in attendance. She exuded a special kind of energy, rooted in her deep devotion to her Christian faith, unshakeable belief in the Lord and her dedication to His commands and His people.
As such, Maris never failed to reach out to those in need — whether they were family members, co-workers, friends, church congregants or even strangers. If you needed to talk, Maris would patiently and actively listen; if you ended up the hospital she’d show up with colorful balloons; if you asked for advice, she would offer her best.
And yes, she also was breathtakingly beautiful, as evidenced by her crowning as “Miss West Oak Lane” in 1965 and her subsequent work as a model for New York City hair shows and as a teacher at a Philadelphia modeling school. Yet in spite of her stunning outward appearance, Maris never behaved liked a spoiled “diva” or a self-absorbed princess. In fact, she eventually gave up the superficial world of modeling in favor of marriage, family and a mainstream job as a production control manager for the Budd Company.
Possibly because she and Al never had children of their own, they showered my brothers, sister and me with all the love and devotion a good parent demonstrates toward their offspring. No matter the occasion, Maris consistently found new and innovative ways to make it memorable, whether they were babysitting us for a weekend or celebrating a milestone like a First Holy Communion.
From the time I was a little girl, Christmas Eve had always been synonymous with Maris and Al, beginning with the years her Uncle Reuben would dress up as Santa Claus and hand out presents to all of us kids and our neighborhood friends. As we grew older, our Christmas Eve festivities transitioned into sharing a seven-fish dinner, attending mass together and exchanging presents just among Maris, Al, my parents and siblings (somehow we managed the discipline to wait until Christmas morning to tear open the rest).
No one put more thought into gift-giving than Maris. Like everything else she did in life, she’d pour her heart and soul into finding the perfect, unique purchase for every person on her list — a task no doubt made significantly easier due to her sincere interest in others and their interests and hobbies. Although she gave me many beautiful things over the years like jewelry, clothing, accessories and all the other “girly” items befitting a former model, the present I remember most is a blank, hard-bound, embossed journal in which I penned my “first” novel at the age of 9. On the first page, she’d written a lovely note about how she believed in my dream of becoming a successful writer and hoped that her gift would inspire me to pursue it.
Speaking of writing, Maris literally had the most magnificent penmanship of anybody I have ever known. Even as a grown adult, I’d get excited whenever I’d retrieve the mail to find a brightly colored envelope bearing her distinctive handwriting — because it was a sure bet that there would be an inspiring personalized message inscribed below the standard Hallmark greeting. Maris never just signed her name to a card; she always wrote something meaningful inside. And she never missed a birthday or holiday.
Possibly because she was an avid lover of life and all of its most celebrated traditions. She was also passionately patriotic, a trait we have in common. But no matter the holiday, you could always count on Maris to be dressed to the nines in the appropriate attire.
Memorial Day? Independence Day?
She’d be decked out in red, white and blue, from her earrings to her outfit to her sandals to her perfectly manicured toes.
Well, she wasn’t above dressing as “Baby New Year” and surprising us all at a family party when she showed up with my cousin Al as “Father Time”.
On Independence Day 1980, I was barely a teenager and very excited about spending a weekend away from home with Maris, Al and her mother Marie at their condo in Wildwood, New Jersey. It never mattered what we did or didn’t do; just being in Maris and Al’s company was more than enough because they were like two big kids who made every activity fun and memorable. Whether we were riding the waves in the ocean, playing miniature golf on the mezzanine level of their building or indulging in an ice-cream sundae from Duffer’s, every moment was special because they cared so much about making me happy.
Even though I was a pretty low-maintenance kid.
Thus, in spite of the exceptionally thick fog on that unforgettable 4th of July Maris insisted we travel to Cape May to see fireworks against Al’s protestations that it would be a complete waste of time. But as was typical, Maris won the argument, so off we went. We never actually “saw” fireworks that night — only vaguely colorful auras in the sky — but we certainly did hear them!
Fast-forward to August 1996, the first of many memorable visits Maris and Al made to South Florida. On this particular trip, they bookended two full weekends, the better to travel to places unexplored when I was off from work. In spite of the hot temps and high humidity (did I mention it was summer in South Florida?), Maris insisted we partake of every tour offered in Key West to fully take in its history and ambiance. She was, after all, a person of insatiable curiosity who wanted to completely absorb and experience the uniqueness of every place she traveled. Poor Al just wanted to get to a beach.
After the wonderful Key West Duck Tour, I remember wandering around the Hemingway House, struggling to take in the words of our educated tour guide while I fought the urge to pass out. At one point, Al and I both had to lean against a wall in one of the rooms to maintain our equilibrium; Maris meanwhile, managed to remain perky and put-together as she listened with rapt attention. But luck was on our side despite our lack of foresight in making any sort of lodging reservations and against pretty formidable odds, we ended up at a gorgeous, fully renovated B & B notwithstanding the fact that it was Lobsterfest weekend.
But flying by the seat of your pants was an integral part of the adventures of Maris and Al. The following weekend in Marco Island, not only did we manage to find a room at the Marriott, but thanks to my good gene pool, also a great deal. As we stood behind the counter, attired in casual shorts and flip-flops (having just come from the beach), the clerk inquired if I was in fact, Maris’ daughter and mentioned that “kids under 15″ stay free. Bear in mind, I was 29 at the time and almost incredulous that anyone would mistake me for a teenager. As if reading my mind, Maris elbowed me discreetly, lest I blow our cover and increase our room rate. In the end, I went along with the charade that I was their “kid”….which really wasn’t quite a stretch since they always treated me that way.
Over the years, Maris, Al and I experienced many Florida attractions together from theKennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach to CityPlace in West Palm Beach and Mizner Park in Boca Raton. A few years ago, they surprised me for a very special birthday by flying down with my sister Carolyn and my brother Mark in an arrangement orchestrated by one of my very best friends Theresa. I’ll never forget how she basically coerced me into coming over to her house one Friday night even though I was insisting I didn’t feel well and wanted to stay home. Turned out, she was calling me on her cell on the way back from the airport where she’d just picked up Maris, Al, Carolyn and Mark. The best gift I received that year was walking into Theresa’s home and seeing them all there waiting for me.
I could write an entire novel filled exclusively with memories of Maris (who I immortalized as “Daphne” in Water Signs), and perhaps one day in the not too distant future, I will find the discipline and courage to do it. It took every ounce of determination I had to muster the strength to eulogize her alongside my siblings at her funeral service last month but she deserved the very best send-off we could offer. I pray that we all made her proud.
I am deeply grateful to God for the privilege of having Maris in my life and although I will miss her for the rest of my days on earth, I know she’s in a much better place. Rest in peace, Maris Lee. You will always be remembered and loved.