Sudden death is one of the hardest things that any of us living ever endures, and yet it can teach us the most about life and how we want to live. I do not wake up every morning with messages from God. But on the morning of July 4th, 2020 still reeling from the news that our planned visit to my godmother Jane’s bedside, wasn’t happening; I woke up to the words: “Honor Her” echoing firmly in my heart…. Still groggy, I put the words that had been swimming in my head since we found out it might be the end, into an email and sent it (in case I’d never get to say them to her beautiful, always makeup-free face). I didn’t want to think of her dying so I kept every word in the present tense.
There has never been a time when Jane wasn’t in my life. If my life were a garden, Jane was an evergreen tree planted there long before I was born. She and my mom were art directors at Estée Lauder together more than 40 years ago, before she had a carousel or became a philanthropist billionaire. Their bond was strong and my mom was very protective of Jane. I still can’t imagine my or my mom’s life without her. She died on July 6th two days after I sent the letter.
She wasn’t vocal about advice, but there was so much Jane taught me without a word. Her character spoke the most. She radiated joy, a sense of service and artistry, and despite not having to be, she was the most disciplined, hard working person. She was my mom’s healthiest friend, working out four days a week, a believer in moderation, and tremendous self-control. She got me my first job as St. Ann’s Warehouse’s worst intern, and didn’t judge when I was rightfully fired 6 months later. What can I say? I was terrible with a fax machine! She introduced me to my very favorite cookie, and hers too, Tate’s.
I remember visiting the carousel in process several times over at least a decade as hooves, snouts, and horseshoes were chipped of paint with an X-Acto knife, oblivious to the carousel’s ultimate destiny. This was Jane’s Carousel, so as a child, I couldn’t imagine it outside of the large artist’s loft it was housed in, or being for anyone but Jane. Still, Jane’s vision for it was grander and more generous. She had always planned to give her carousel to her beloved DUMBO landscape.
Jane was persistent and meticulous in the behemoth restoration process. Her tenacious patience was evident in her painstakingly scraping paint for hours by hand, color matching each horse’s hue to its exact original vibrancy and a mere 27 years refurbishing this old Isadora Park carousel. As with her 50 plus years with David, and 48 year friendship with my mom, Jane taught me by example, the value of long-term investment over instant gratification…. Not everything we do has an immediate reward, and love is about patience and commitment whether for a carousel, a business, or the love of your life.
Don’t wait til the book comes out.
In January of 2019, I was scheduled to do my first podcast as host in front of a live audience at a big NYC venue. Jane eagerly agreed to be my first guest. I put together a meaty series of questions I was dying to ask her. We were both ready, willing, excited to do this…and then after a series of unexpected events, including a blizzard, the venue dropped out at the last minute. Jane handled the news like a champ and asked when we could reschedule. She wanted to do it sooner, but with bad weather looming, my mom suggested waiting to do the podcast after Jane’s book about her beloved carousel was ready for release. Jane died just months after submitting that book to the publisher. So, that planned podcast will have to wait….
I choose not to think about those questions I never asked her. I choose to think I’ll get to ask her one day, or that when we are both spirit instead of body, we’ll be so in sync I won’t have to. But the one lesson I’ve had to learn the hardest way, is be patient, but don’t wait too long. Don’t wait til someone’s gone to tell them you love them or ask the questions only they can answer. And forgive yourself if you did wait and it’s “too late”; all we can try to do is love better those who are still here.
Money or status doesn’t have to change you.
One of the things I admired most about Jane was no matter her and her husband’s success, they still took the trash out themselves. When they ate out, they split their entree at dinner; not because they were cheap, but because they truly didn’t want to waste what they knew they couldn’t finish. Despite having to often attend social events in the city, they loved nothing more than being home in each other’s company and a quiet game night in together, or quality time with their son, Jed. Most thanksgivings at the house, Jane would cook the turkey and her signature homemade wild rice stuffing herself. Yes, they loved, fostered and cultivated art and artists together and certainly collected some nice things, but they are and were materially modest. David Walentas, her loving husband and real estate magnate, wears the same white T-shirt and jeans virtually everyday just because that’s what he likes. My mom used to urge Jane to pamper herself, splurge, or spend more because she rarely did. “If you don’t spend your money,” my mom said to her time and time again, “someone else will!”. Jane just didn’t seem to want or need to. At the same time, Jane helped my stylish, homebody mom to be a bit more social, she got her out of the house by inviting mom places she’d otherwise never go (mostly artsy venues and events around Brooklyn), and encouraged my mom to let loose more often. They had a blast together.
As soon as my mom’s best friend and my Godmother, Jane passed, mom stopped cutting corners. Mom, I think, realized even a billion dollars could not stop cancer. When I noted the change, mom said “I learned from Jane, I used to live and put things off for tomorrow, but now I know I have to live in the present.”
If you can, leave people and the world better than when you found them.
Jane radiated joy and compassion for others. She lived a life of service in her humble, quiet way, she cared about the lives of others very deeply. Donating the carousel brought her so much joy specifically in witnessing the happiness it brought to others. Jane is the personification of Mother Teresa’s quote of leaving someone better and happier than you found them. Jane undoubtedly lived this in her kindness, exuberance, even her laughter.
No obituary can do the real Jane justice in terms of reflecting her beauty as a person, her heart and artistry. Even my more personal look into her life seems to fall short too, but since that July 4th whisper in my heart, I vowed that I will spend my life honoring her and trying to live with her example in mind; putting her unspoken lessons into practice. I learned through my humble godmother that it’s not just how you treat people in this short life, however important that may be, but Jane and her Carousel inspired me to ask myself, “What legacy can I leave behind to bless the future generations? What can I build that will last beyond my lifetime?” I do not have the answer to this question yet, but I pray that I will know when the time is right.
As I was contemplating whether I was ready to write this piece, I was scrolling Facebook, and saw an engagement photo of a good friend of mine and his fiancée, nose-to-nose glowing with love. I recognized immediately where they were. The only carousel on the Brooklyn Waterfront. Jane’s. As I looked at this beautiful picture I thought, Jane lives on in this joyous moment. Those of us who miss her exuberant smile take comfort in knowing that she lives and smiles on in any joyful moment that happens on or around the waterfront carousel that carries her name. Jane Walentas. She might have been known as the Queen of DUMBO, but she was at heart, a Loyal Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Godmother, Friend, Artist, and of course, a Tate’s Cookie aficionado. Forever loving and loved. I know many have and are losing loved ones right now, please, if you can, in these difficult times, join me in honoring her and those lost by living and loving well in their honor too.