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Desmond Tutu on Shelter Island: A memory of friendship and joy

This is a story about blessings that accrue from friendship and from place. And, now, it’s also a story of loss and memory.

It begins in the mid-1980s, when Lynn Franklin and I washed up on Shelter Island within a year of one another. I met Lynn when she came to my house for dinner early in 1985, the guest of a friend of a friend. There began the tale that we told for the next 36 years — how Lynn, bold, adventurous, an international literary book scout and agent and world-traveler, crashed my party. There began the friendship that now has outlasted Lynn, who died this past summer.

And it foreshadowed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s appearance on Shelter Island by about a decade. That friend of a friend who brought Lynn along to my house in 1985 was Karen Bertrand, an artist then living on Baldwin Road with her writer husband, Willy Wilson, two houses from Lynn’s.

Karen and Willy have since returned permanently to St. Thomas, where Willy grew up. Karen’s brother had learned somehow that South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was seeking a literary agent. 

Flash forward a few years and there I am sitting on Lynn’s deck with the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Arch, as we called him. I’d been invited to join him and his wife, Leah, for prayers. I couldn’t sleep the night before.

What would it be like to be in the presence of such a great man, a personal hero for his anti-apartheid work, which earned him the Nobel, and his heroic leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the terrible wounds of the apartheid era, and to transition to the free democracy of South Africa?

What would it be like for me, a Jew, who grew up in a religious family, to participate in a Christian celebration? Oy vey.

Well, this great man popped up in shorts and a Shelter Island T-shirt to welcome me with a big smile and infectious giggle. He assigned readings for the family service. Mine was from the New Testament. But then, Leah, a warm and beautiful woman in a colorful African dress, leaned over and quietly suggested I do the Old Testament reading. I loved her for that and shared with her that my name, too, was Leah, the traditional Hebrew name I received at birth. 

That was the first of the Arch’s many visits to Lynn’s house over the years. And I participated in more family meals when his children visited, too, and eventually his grandchildren, and in more prayer and lots of humanity.

I’ve begun to appreciate more and more in recent years the slow and steady opening of my spirit that came to me through Lynn’s great as well as unsung friends of many faiths. A longtime pal of hers, Ramu Damodoran, an Indian Hindu who worked at the United Nations, had told me that he recites the prayers and sings the hymns of other faiths to share a common spirit and humanity.

So when I joined Lynn and the Tutus for a family Eucharist, I marveled at its remarkable similarity to the Jewish Kiddush — the wine and the bread!

And when another time the Arch asked me to read from the New Testament (Leah was not present that time), I did my own dramatic interpretation. Archbishop Tutu embraced the African Ubuntu philosophy, preaching its ideas of human dignity and interdependence. The idea is summed up in the title of his book, “God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations.” (While we’re on the subject of books, read “Everyday Ubuntu,” by his granddaughter Mungi Ngomane.)  

In the late 1990s, the Arch was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which he was treated in the U.S. several times over the years. He often recovered at Lynn’s house or at Eleanor Oakley’s if Lynn was away. He was a giver of nicknames, and Eleanor says that he called her “That Crazy Girl.”

A worker for human rights around the world, Eleanor formed a special bond with the Arch. Separately and together, Eleanor and Lynn and Lynn’s family visited him several times in South Africa, in Johannesburg and Soweto.  

Kathy Lynch met the Arch on Eleanor’s deck on Gardiner’s Creek and joined others in prayer. “I’ll never forget that beautiful day,” Kathy told me. “He shook my hand, and he put his other hand on my forearm — such a connection. His peaceful energy overcame me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man.”    

Truly holy people don’t have to act the part. Once, when the Arch was at Lynn’s recovering from a medical procedure, I delivered a mix tape of classical music at Lynn’s request. I’d spent hours copying CDs onto audiotape.

When next I visited him, he came bounding downstairs in his usual shorts and Shelter Island T-shirt, returning all of the tapes to me except the ones that featured Beethoven’s piano music, laughing conspiratorially that he could survive forever with the spirit of Beethoven.

Lynn and Desmond Tutu were close throughout their remaining years. I’d often be at Lynn’s when she’d answer her ever-ringing cellphone, and would mouth at me, “It’s the Arch.” They were in frequent touch throughout her final illness. 

They both cared deeply about truth and justice, Lynn’s sister, Laurie Callahan said. But they could also laugh and be silly. His giggle was such a delight. 

And they could be honest with each other. Lynn could say anything to him, and he to her. Witness this exchange, reported by British journalist Gary Younge in the Guardian in 2009: “They call him Father, but as he sits at the breakfast table eating Cheerios with fruit and yogurt, giggling as he teases and is in turn teased, Archbishop Desmond Tutu looks more like a mischievous little boy. ‘Are you going to wear that shirt?’ asks Lynn Franklin, his literary agent and friend, with whom he is staying on Shelter Island … Tutu widens his eyes and opens his mouth in mock indignation. ‘What is wrong with this shirt?’ he says, looking down at his dark blue T-shirt. ‘How about the one I ironed for you?’ Franklin says. ‘But this one has the logo for the World Cup,’ says Tutu, pointing to the small emblem on his chest.” 

Announcing his death on Dec. 26, Reuters ran a recent photograph of Desmond Tutu in South Africa wearing his Shelter Island T-shirt. The great man, the holy man, was one of us, locally and universally. A Ubuntu message states that we’re all in this together. If only we could heed that wisdom at this moment in time.

Rest in peace, Lynn Franklin and Desmond Tutu.   

Archbishop Tutu Shelter Island on with his friend and literary agent Lynn Franklin. (Courtesy photo)