Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Losing Old Friends

San Miguel Street corner, near
Zacateros and the Instituto, reminds me
of Zuzu's art
My old friend Zuzu Heven, now 90 years old,  has developed some form of dementia and needs 24/7 care.  Her daughter Sophie, a masseuse who was living in California, is there, “there” being Zuzu’s Casa de Azul in San Miguel de Allende.  It's the place where my friend Estelle, from NYC, stays, and that's how I met ZuZu.  

Zuzu was among the pioneers who moved to San Miguel in 1967 and never left. She played a big role in reconstructing and renovating the old 17th-century structures housing the Instituto de Allende, the once-famed art school and cultural center on Ancha San Antonio near Zacateros and Orizaba.  She became a vital part of San Miguel’s ex-pat social fabric, and remained so into her 80s: brown eyes flashing, a wide smile, lots of art talk, irreverent and energetic, a beautiful woman once adored by many men.  

It’s a special generation, and they are leaving us quickly, all too fast.   The demographics of San Miguel are changing as a result, along with this generation of ex-pats.  It’s an interesting phenomenon.  I’ve never seen so many women in their seventies, eighties and nineties gingerly negotiating the treacherous cobble-stoned streets of the town, up and down its hills, around the Mercado. They still sit in the Jardin, get their weekly Atencion, enjoy the Biblioteca and its activities, volunteer in social service work that they helped create.   

I had been away from San Miguel for 3 years with my Peace Corps service in Ukraine, so I was happy to return there this winter.  I was sad, however, to learn about Zuzu. I looked forward to seeing her, but it was clear she had no idea who I was.  She did, however, comment on the jewelry I was wearing, just like always.  “Oh, what a pretty necklace and earrings,”  she exclaimed.  These are the things she always noticed, and still does.  That piece of Zuzu is still vibrant.  My heart went out to her.  I could see her confusion and her daughter’s frustration.  I felt bad.  

I remember admiring her artwork at her home, where she explained every piece in detail, infused with goddess icons and symbols, and seeing exhibits of her work at the Aldea Gallery.  I remember her fantastic Asian objects and elaborate jewelry, from a metaphysical series she called “Out of Sight.”  I remember her scarab necklaces, goddess masks, and breast plates designed to protect women’s hearts.  “Not that you can ever protect women’s hearts,” Zuzu added.

Zuzu was from New York City, graduated from Hunter College, and went to the NY School of Interior Design.  She was ahead of her time, ever the iconoclastic artist.  In the 1960s she had an exhibit of paintings at Sak’s Fifth Avenue in White Plaines, NY  (Atencion San Miguel, 30 July 2001). 

Then she left New York for good. I'm  not sure when she took the name Zuzu Heven, but it worked: heaven on earth.  Zuzu and San Miguel: a perfect match.
She still lives in San Miguel, but she could be anywhere.  She is now in her own world, a world few of us can get to. It saddens me.   She once told me, with a serious smile:  "Venus shines down on me."  Maybe Zuzu's on Venus now,  surrounded by her beloved artwork, embraced by the goddess. 
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