In Thanksgiving For The Life of Nina Griscom

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St James' Church on Madison Avenue and 71st Street.

Thursday, January 30, 2020.  Yesterday in New York was a bright sunny day with the temperature steady around 40. A beautiful day to be out and walking on the sunny side of the street. On the shady side it felt quite a bit colder, dropping to the mid-20s by late evening. 

It was the day of the funeral of our friend and NYSD contributor Nina Griscom who died last Saturday after an intense two-year endurance of ALS which, as we’ve learned, is brutal. (If you didn’t see Nina’s “speech” about the disease in this past Tuesday’s NYSD, click here.) The bright and sunny and beautiful Nina endured its brutal ramifications, entirely aware of its morbid finality, with her enormous personal and unflagging (until the bitter end) strength. JH and I attended the service at St James’ Episcopal Church on 71 Street. 

The church which was built in the 1880s is massive and cathedral-like in its interior. I’ve passed its relatively unimposing façade probably thousands of times but had never been inside. I was moved practically to tears by its serious grandeur — as if it had been built to honor the life (and presence) of our late friend. Its rector, The Rev. Brenda Husson who has held her post since All Saints Day, November 1, 1996, is the first woman to lead a congregation of such prominence in the Diocese of New York. This fact, no doubt, was not lost on Nina. 

The program was classic beginning with a musical Prelude of works by: Alfredo Catalani, Samuel Barber, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giancomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” one of the most popular hymns in the Christian religion,  written — words and music — by Martin Luther in the early 16th century.

This was followed by Reflections of Nina by three of her friends — Andre Vagliano, Alan Richman, Susanna Moore — and Nina’s daughter Lily Baker. Her friends’ characterization were affectionate, admiring her gift of friendship, her professionalism as a writer, her curiosity and her singular individualism. 

Nina’s daughter Lily read her memories of her mother, which was straightforward and honest, which demonstrated Nina’s centeredness about life, with natural wisdom throughout, such as — “We were always testing each other,” like “two terriers fighting for a bone.

“She taught me how to be brave about my choices and that acting in spite of my fears will make me stronger. She taught me compassion and love for animals of all shapes and sizes. She taught me that being emotional is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

“And she told me before she left this earth, that this great pain that I am feeling now will soon be but a bruise. And while it was far too soon for her to leave this earth, it brings me peace knowing that she lived the fullest life one can live.

“She fought relentlessly until the end, a Maasai Warrior always and forever.” (Nina, who traveled several times to Africa loved the continent and its peoples.)

There were “Lessons,” readings from the Bible – the first delivered by her friend Louise Grunwald: Wisdom 3:1-5, 7-9But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them….” 

The Second Lesson, I John 3:1-2 delivered by the daughter of Nina’s second husband Lloyd Griscom, Nonie Griscom Madden: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,[a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

And the Third Lesson, John 6: 37-40 read by Carolyne Roehm, John 6:37-40 “all those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away…”

Each “Lesson” was followed by a reading of a Psalm, and then the “Homily” delivered by The Rev. Zachary Thompson, and then a stunning solo of “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert.  And then the Lord’s Prayer, with the service completed by a performance of Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.”

Following the service, Nina’s husband Leonel Piraino and daughter Lily hosted a reception for those attending the service at the Knickerbocker Club. The sadness that pervaded was relieved some by the beauty of the service, and the relief that Nina’s friends all shared that she was no longer living on that path of deep suffering. Leo added to that relief, reporting to a friend that Nina passed when she was napping.

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