I first met Valentini in early 1988 at an event of the Hellenic Professional Society of Texas (HPST), one of the first times she participated at events with the Greek community of Houston. Valentini had already lived in Houston for many years and was a Professor of French at the University of Houston. However, only after her divorce from fellow-academic Patrick Brady – and a sabbatical sojourn at the University of Thessaloniki – did she actively seek out the Greek community.
It was immediately clear that this was going to be an important new friendship, not only to me but also for the broader membership of the Hellenic Professional Society of Texas and our friends. She radiated the light of a true scholar, the warmth of a genuine human being, and the resonance of someone who truly values friendship as a virtue. Excitedly I arranged a luncheon with her at “Hungry’s” at the Rice Village so as to introduce her to my two closest Greek buddies at Rice, David Moissis and Andreas Matzakos. It was the wonderful beginning of a beautiful friendship – per the very à propos movie line. Valentini unreservedly opened her home and her heart to us and to the many other friends that followed, nurturing our friendship warmly yet tactfully, allowing us to feel in equal parts respected, pampered and loved.
Our circle of friends, with Valentini’s open arms at the center, quickly grew as more people were included, oftentimes introduced by Valentini herself to the rest of us – always using the most welcoming language to introduce the new members of what became her extended family of friends.
This was not a closely-knit family of course. People would come and go at different periods over the years as the demands of life and work would take some of us away from Houston or to the distant suburbs. Nevertheless, family it was with Valentini as the mother figure ensuring that we would not miss any opportunities to get together at each other’s homes for dinner and dessert (how can one forget chicken à la Valentini?!) – oftentimes at her own evocative place at the Spires. We would also follow or attend together all noteworthy cultural events in Houston, engage on long conversations, and would go out and enjoy nature together. Valentini cherished and valued the day, wisely knowing that life is lived at the present moment, neither in the past nor in the future. How many beautiful Saturday mornings would she call, to ensure that we would not miss a morning walk together by the Rose Garden at Hermann Park? How many wonderful memories of excursions to the beach, to the Hill Country, to the bluebonnets… Nature was always a healing, a balancing, a restorative force for our hectic lives in Houston, in part due to her prodding. Maybe she could not get us all to try her beloved Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis, but she could at least ensure that we were fed our healthy fare, enjoyed the little moments of life in companionship and friendship, opened our minds, and communed with nature.
A key part of Valentini’s philosophy was a healthy dose of inclusiveness. She always sought to include in our family – temporarily or permanently – individuals who stood out as potentially being left out alone, due to circumstances or need. Many wonderful stories relating to her inclusiveness stand out, such as the Turkish professor who was so taken by her that he expressed an interest in joining HPST, the young man from Thessaloniki who found thanks to her a supportive second home in Houston while riding his bicycle around the globe, and the brilliant Greek graduate student whose struggles with mental disorder she decisively and single-handedly supported.
Life with Valentini as a friend somehow became brighter, fuller and more exciting. We all knew that we had a very special someone to talk to at the difficult moments in our lives, someone who would be ready and truly willing to listen with a sympathetic ear and to offer just the right dose of meaningful comfort and thoughtful advice. With her energy and presence, healthy lifestyle and unending radiance it always felt like she would be there for us and with us forever. We always made plans for new trips together, new events, new visits. Her life that, for many years, was balanced among her three home countries – the USA, Australia and Greece – eventually became the blueprint for my life in the USA, Greece and Mexico.
But, nothing lasts forever and I strongly believe Valentini wisely knew that in her soul all along as she made sure not a day was ever left wasted without an opportunity to live life at its fullest and to generate a beautiful moment in the process. When the diagnosis of her disease finally became clear in early 2012 the overwhelming sadness was mixed with the resolution to have one last moment together. Medical advances in the last few years thankfully made that possible for many of us, giving me the opportunity for a beautiful final get-together with her and her devoted companion David Kreid – another remarkable individual and friend – in 2013 in Greece. Nevertheless it is impossible for me to not say that the passing of Valentini on November 9 2016 did not give me, more strongly than ever before in my life, the feeling that the world on that day became a substantively poorer place.
Thanksgiving Day, on which these lines are written, is meant to be a day of celebration and thankfulness for all the wonderful things God has provided in our lives. This year, the feelings are mixed because of my friend’s passing. For that reason I am dedicating this day to her, with the thankfulness that I met her and that she was an instrumental part of my life – and the lives of so many others – all these years.
May her memory persist within all of us who knew her, and may the seeds of goodness that she continued to plant throughout her life flourish in our actions and deeds!