There are some people who are pillars of the community not because they hold a prominent position or have enjoyed some special honor but because they feel like they are somehow holding us up, simply by their presence. Elaine Natoli – known for her egoless kindness, her infectious laugh, her visible devotion to those she loved, her love of music, her great cooking, and her solid elegance – was one such person.
Elaine died at home on Baldwin Court, in the Oakwood Neighborhood of East Lansing, on Saturday, Dec. 5, with her beloved husband Joe by her side. Second-generation Italian-Americans from Brooklyn who found themselves relocated to the Midwest after years of criss-crossing the country, Elaine and Joe celebrated their 50th anniversary this June.
The cause of her death was cancer – metastatic breast cancer and multiple myeloma.
“She didn’t die easy,” Joe told me on Monday evening, saying she had fought a “valiant battle.” Her first diagnosis came in 1996 and Elaine was, Joe said, “shadowed by cancer” since then.
Joe and Elaine have two daughters. Amelia is now 47 and lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Brenda is 43 and lives in New York’s East Village. Both arrived on Monday to be with Joe so they could all comfort each other. By all accounts, Amelia and Brenda were the joy at the center of Elaine’s life.
“Elaine was very, very proud of them,” Joe said. “They were her life.” He said he is sure they “will remember their mother’s strength” forever. “They inherited a lot of Elaine’s meticulous detail – the way she brought an artfulness to everything she did.”
At first pass, Elaine might come off as a quiet person, reserved. But that was because she was always sizing people up, quickly figuring out what their deal was.
“The way Elaine judged people,” Joe explains, “she didn’t look for people who had degrees or big reputations, people who were witty or noted or had a lot of money. She only looked for a good heart. And she could sense it right away – a goodhearted person. After the mastectomy, she had very little patience for people who were negative. She said she didn’t have time for that.”
Anyone who knew Elaine and Joe – I have had that privilege since 1998, because our backyards meet – knows they were incredibly devoted to each other. But everyone also at some point wondered how Elaine put up with Joe, a man who is, well, more rough around the edges than his wife. He wondered that himself.
“I came from people who interrupt and eat with our mouths open,” he said, “but she was a real lady. She had a refinement about her – I would describe her as full of self-confidence from beginning to end. . . . She magnetized me for fifty years. I don’t want the cancer to destroy me in sadness, but it’s a mind-challenge. There is no preparation for this.”
Elaine was born Elaine Tuminelli on Elderidge Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in 1948. Her parents, Charles and Lillian, had one other child, a son named Lawrence who went on to a successful career in the stock market before dying of cancer a few years ago.
Joe and Elaine met in 1970 in Brooklyn, and they were married at the Basilica of Regina Pacis. From there they moved to Albany, where Joe was finishing his doctorate in English. They then moved to New Hampshire because that was where Joe got his first faculty position. Amelia was born there in 1973.
Joe recalls that the faculty wives in New Hampshire mistreated Elaine, because they were seen as this Italian couple from Brooklyn (with the tell-tale accents) and not WASPs. “They put her aside as some kind of peasant,” he remembers.
Elaine had graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, and had interest, in New Hampshire, in learning to play the piano. But she had no interest in putting up with being treated badly. Everyone who knew her in later life can imagine this, as Elaine always had an extraordinary sense of self that allowed her to reject anyone treating her with anything less than the full respect she deserved.
“She always had that strong confidence,” Joe says. “She didn’t have to prove her ego.”
Joe was involved in organizing a faculty union at that job, and in 1974 was fired for unspecified reasons. He and Elaine regrouped, went back to Brooklyn, and then headed to West Virginia where they set up a subsistence farm in Oxley Hollow. The homestead they took up there had no electricity, no running water, and only wood-fired heat. Things got a little better when a friend who had been a sharecropper in Georgia showed Joe how to build a spring box to get some water to flow to the house. Brenda was born in this period of their lives.
“She was like a pioneer woman,” Joe said of Elaine’s experience at this time. “She had it rough.”
Joe says that people often wondered why Elaine didn’t divorce him given this tough farm life, but that they both came from a tradition that believed you make a marriage work.
From West Virginia, Joe got a job at Wake Forest in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Elaine loved it there, but then they pulled roots again when Joe got a job at University of California Irvine. It was an important move for his writing career, but it landed them in a heavily-Republican area when they were hardcore lefties.
The climate – political, especially – did not suit them, and Joe looked at heading back east as he was worried about getting in trouble for his politics. Then, he got a job at Michigan State University, in 1983. After two years with MSU, he told her East Lansing wasn’t the right place for him.
But Elaine told him the girls had made friends, and she and they weren’t leaving. “You can go,” he recalls her saying, “But the girls have been taken out of schools too many times. They have friends here, and I am going to stay with them.”
There was no way he was going to leave her and the girls. In 1987, they bought the house on Baldwin Court, and the girls graduated from East Lansing High School. Both went on to the University of Michigan.
Elaine made a full life for herself in East Lansing, with so many friends who became family. Although she never did take up an instrument herself, Elaine was big in the local music scene, famous among her friends for her blues luncheons where she would feed a motley collection of local musicians at her home, while, in return, they played the music she loved. Her musical ear, Joe recalls, was extraordinary. He remembers a time she won a free dinner by naming a song based on two bars played backwards.
She was also a “magnificent quilter,” a basket weaver, and a carpenter. She made the bookshelves in their home as well as the headboard for their king size bed. (Joe still isn’t sure how she got it up the stairs on her own while he was in Europe.)
Elaine was also a terrific cook, especially of traditional Italian dishes. Her baking was coveted. Her homemade cannoli even inspired a song, “One More Cannoli,” as sung by friend and neighbor Kent Wilcox.
“She made the best fruit pies,” Joe says. Elaine and Kevin Nicholoff, one of Joe and Elaine’s closest friends, used to make each other birthday cakes.
Kevin told me, “Elaine had the greatest laugh, and she was always interested – truly interested – in what was going on in your life. She was just a jewel. She gathered this group of friends around her – all these people.”
Kevin said that, in the decades he has known the Natolis, he has literally never heard Joe say one bad word about Elaine.
“He lived for that woman. But she was ready to stop being beaten up” by the cancers, Kevin said. “The cancer really brought them together even more.”
The plan is to have a memorial for Elaine after the pandemic, when it is safe to gather. Joe said that, at that event, he expects to speak for two or three hours about Elaine, “until somebody shoots me, or until Elaine’s spirit plunges down and wrings my neck and tells me to let somebody else get in a word.”
“There will be a lot of music, I can tell you that,” said Joe.
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