On the last day of 2017, a dear friend and fellow Islander named Ena Shinnery passed away at 97 years of age. My daughter Noa and I had been visiting Ena at her apartment at 2 River Road almost weekly for a little over a year. What started as a community service project for Noa’s Bat Mitzvah had become a warm friendship.
Noa Betel (left) with Ena Shinnery, who passed away December 31.
We taught Ena how to email and Skype with her family in Tortola, and she actually seemed to enjoy seeing her own face morph into Snapchat cats on Noa’s phone. It excited Noa that she could be the person to show Ena things for the first time. Ena perked up when sharing her photos with us and it amazed Noa that all of Ena’s photos from her entire life fit into a slim album, and that there were none of her parents or of her childhood in St. Thomas.
But Ena’s memories were vivid and she told us stories about her godmother’s haunted house and her eccentric brother who wore skirts. Ena’s eyes seemed to brighten when we walked through her door on Sundays. Noa began to notice that she, too, felt better after a visit to Ena. When Noa made her first visit without me by her side, I knew something remarkable was happening.
About eight years prior to our meeting Ena, unbeknownst to Noa and me, Isabel Vincent, a 40-something journalist who lived for a year at the Octagon, and Edward Hussey, a 90-something Islander who lived in Rivercross, began their own unexpected friendship.
While Noa and I were having pizza parties with our friends at 475 Main Street, where we lived in 2009, Isabel and Edward were sipping martinis and enjoying fine dinners that Edward skillfully prepared. He supported her through the tumult of a marital breakdown and she supported him as he mourned the loss of his wife Paula and coped with the limitations of an aging body.
Isabel would eventually write about their friendship in her memoir, Dinner with Edward, which I happened to pick up shortly after Ena’s death – unaware of the parallels between our two stories.
Like our relationship with Ena, Isabel and Edward’s relationship began as an act of service, whereby the younger person offered her companionship to the elder. Like ours, the connection grew swiftly into a reciprocal friendship, with the younger one getting much more than she imagined.
Betel with Isabel Vincent, whose memoir Dinner with Edward also chronicles an Island friendship.
Isabel observed that Edward could turn a run-of-the-mill Gristedes steak into a succulent piece of meat. She learned that fancy, expensive ingredients matter much less than skill, attention, and passion – in the kitchen and in life. Isabel wrote that Edward taught her “the art of patience, the luxury of slowing down, and taking the time to think through everything I did.”
Similarly, Noa once observed that Ena didn’t have a lot of possessions and didn’t seem to desire more than she had. This was just one of many life lessons Ena unknowingly gifted to us.
Isabel and Edward’s story speaks to the power of food and how its preparation and enjoyment can foster deep connections. She recalls that Edward executed every dish with careful thought and diligence. His creations were offerings of affection to his guests. In our case, Noa and I would bring home-cooked care packages to Ena and then stay for a visit. Although we were rarely with Ena when she ate our offerings, it was deeply comforting to know that we were helping to nourish our frail friend.
As I read Isabel’s memoir, I was struck by how many points of intersection there were between our two stories. In addition to the food and the unusual, age-transcending nature of both friendships, Isabel, like Noa and I, is a native Torontonian. And, less than a year ago, our family moved into an apartment in Rivercross that is seven floors below Edward’s. But the true common denominator is Roosevelt Island. Without a doubt, neither friendship would have happened without it.