A good friend of my husband’s and mine, Theda Shapiro, who was Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages at UCR, passed away in March, to our shock and dismay, after a somewhat precipitous decline due to cancer. We have been to two memorials for Theda, an informal one at the house of her close friend, Stephanie Hammer, in LA, and, just a week ago, one hosted by Thomas Scanlon, the Chair of her department, at the Alumni House on the UCR campus, and have thought about her a great deal from the onset of her illness; all of this has made me realize just what it is for a person to have a profound effect on other people, to create a lasting legacy of kindness and exemplary friendship.
For Theda, joy was so definitely not a zero-sum game—that is, if you have some good luck or some joy, there’s less to go around for me. Certainly, the extended family of my youth sometimes involved a certain zero-sum competition and even schadenfreude , especially among cousins’ parents. And I’ve had certain friends (should I call them that?) like the one who shot back an email, after I sent her a link to pictures of my kids and grandkids, saying “save these for someone who’s interested”—an expression completely inimical to someone like Theda. In her capacious mind, it was as if she had files and subfiles for all her many friends’ children and extended families. She kept up with those children and their accomplishments; she always asked to be remembered to them. Even after her awful cancer diagnosis, when I talked to her regularly on the phone, she made a point of asking about ours, and—hoping, perhaps, for more time than she had—looked forward to seeing some recent pictures of our grandkids. For Theda, if you had some good luck, or your kids gave you naches, it was her joy, too. She made herself into the best kind of family member for so many people—colleagues, students and younger faculty she mentored and mothered, and all her other friends. She was incredibly smart and knowledgeable, and also unassuming, kind, supportive, loyal, and utterly positive. There’s plenty of schadenfreude in academia; for Theda, with her amazing generosity, it was a place to share the wealth, to be supportive to students and faculty. Their testimonies at her memorials and the way in which her friends stepped up to help during her decline and afterwards made so clear how universal her generosity was, and gave me a heartwarming sense that the kindness she taught by her example is a living tradition, and will be passed on.