Joan Larsen: The Gift of Nina

Posted on July 3, 2013


By Joan Larsen


My most special friend died yesterday afternoon.  She was walking down the stairs in her home, but suddenly said she would have to sit down on the stair where she was.  She did. . . and, in an instant, she was gone.

She left us bereft beyond reason.  She also left us so blessed that she had passed through our lives.  All who knew her have their own stories to tell about Nina.  I would like to honor her by writing what wants to pour from my heart.   Even if it is through tears.

If you and I are the very fortunate ones, we may be blessed with a friend found early in adulthood who only becomes closer as the years pass.  Yes, what would we be without friends?  But we often find there is one – usually only one – that, over time, becomes the person we turn to.  This friend becomes confidante — the person we look to when we need to discuss personal news that has warmed our hearts — or broken them.  There is trust here.  She takes our secrets – after we discuss and discuss them – and places them in the treasury that is in her heart.  At times, the key to the treasury is turned.  We once again bring out those times that we will never forget, add yet another chapter to our child’s story perhaps, mull it all, and place it back in that place for special keeping.  She was the one person who kept all the pieces of my heart.  At the same time, I kept hers.

There was comfort there.  Above all, there was love that only became stronger with time.

Her name was Nina.  In a lifetime of experiences, in a lifetime of travelling the world, Nina was the most extraordinary person I have ever met.  Married with children – as they say – she became a public health nurse exemplary, taking on problems of the indigent, seeing them to their conclusion on a very personal basis.  I have never seen her like.  She gave her all to her clients . . . and then so much more, seeing them through in more than her talents in nursing.

Perhaps, now I should call what I am to tell you “the second chapter of her life”, the life-changing incredible chapter that would be difficult for any of us to match.  Her good husband, content to be husband and father, passed away suddenly in his 50s. 

Soon after, I saw a remarkable transformation in Nina.  How shall I describe it?  Well, Nina “came into her own” in a way not to be believed.  While nursing, her natural inquisitiveness and intelligence compelled her to get advanced degrees in anthropology and archaeology.  She never wanted to stop learning.  She had not spoken to me about her dreams of this sort, but though she was not a rich woman, she was determined to travel to the archaeological sites of the world where digs were still going on.  (I found that even with good friends, we keep a few secrets!)  She would find a way, she said. 

We had now known each other for 20 years – though she was almost a generation older.  Perhaps, she finally felt I would be receptive to her next words:from the times of childhood in the rural eastern United States, she felt she had lived in an earlier time in Persia in another life.  She wanted to go “back”.  She could describe streets, everything, as if they had come from her own childhood.  But they were not the same.  Not at all.  A look in her eyes, deep in thought, told me that we do not know everything in life.  Or what could have come before this life . . . or will come after.

Long-term research was being done at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute on the Middle East.  Acclaim for her at the museum had come early with her ability as a docent there, mesmerizing children on tours through the rooms.  This beautiful woman had a way about her – and words and belief to match.

Now close to age 70, and, to be honest, looking all those years – and not a hiker, she could be found on digs with the Oriental in Egypt, in rural hidden Mexico, and all across Asia.  Close to age 80, in an area of Tibet where altitude was significant and oxygen had to be used to climb in these mountains, she was the only participant who did not become ill. 


NewGuineaAt an age when most people have slowed down considerably, she was off to New Guinea with the head of one of Chicago’s prime museums and his specialists, looking for lost tribes – walking in deep mud to do so in places we would not dream of going.  (I remember the water being so rough that tying up at a primitive dock was not doable.  There were those rubber tires often used as bumpers for boats.  So – when the captain said to “jump” from the small boat and grab for the tire and climb from one tire to the other to the dock, she did not turn back.  This now much tinier white-haired woman, seemingly frail, JUMPED.  She made little of it… and proceeded to struggle through terrible mud without complaint).  She loved that expedition and the privilege to be part of the team.


While Iran was fairly off limits to tourists in the very late 1990s, archeological expeditions to more remote parts of the country were allowed for special small groups.  She was accepted.  Often she was walking in the dirt streets through small faraway villages in “her Persia”, finally soaking it all in as she had wanted to for years.  But in her group of 10, she alone was singled out.  Men, she related, would run over to her, presenting her with a single rose… not once but on many occasions and in many places.Village women would come to her side, address her only, inviting her in for tea in their homes.  The archaeologists could not believe what they were seeing.  She accepted it, and often felt she “knew” she was also going to be familiar with the next turn of the road.


And she was.  What occurred was acknowledged by her fellow scientists, probably in awe.  She would never boast.  She, who has no Persian heritage or anything close, felt at home.  Her photo at one of the sites is in the National Geographic magazine at the end of that decade. 


Often each of us has our own private dreams.  Some accomplished, others not.  Today, through tears, I honor this woman whose dreams from childhood were far beyond most of ours.  She made them come true in her lifetime, this small woman… otherwise, a woman just like we are.

Well, perhaps she might be a bit different than most of us.  Her eyes alone told their tale.  They were deep and warm and caring – always.  She listened intently more than she talked, and when she deemed to speak, all attention was on her for her responses always hit a deep place within us.  Even in her later years, she did not deign to discuss her health problems.  But she encouraged others to talk, singing our praises or giving us the encouraging words to get a through a bad time. 

There were always hugs, and on leaving each of us felt cocooned by love. 

To say that she will be missed could only be said to be an understatement.  She will have no replacement, not even close.  But for those of us close to her as I was for half a lifetime, my own life has been sprinkled with starlight. 

I have been given the gift of Nina.

“I always felt that the great high privilege, relief and comfort of friendship was that one had to explain nothing.”

                          ~Katherine Mansfield


JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”