Last week my houseguests, Gloria Durka and Paul Bumbar, and I brought a breakfast of coffee, scones and muffins to the ninety-seven-year-old energizer bunny known as Ilona Royce Smithkin.
We squeezed ourselves into her crammed, top-flour rooms overlooking Provincetown’s narrow Cape Cod Bay beach. We were there to help her brainstorm how she can dispose of her life’s work—hundreds of Impressionistic paintings and drawings.
Just as with every other encounter with Ilona, I came away spiritually richer for it.
At ninety-seven, this acclaimed Impressionist artist, cabaret singer, advanced style model, pre-eminent fashionista, and inimitable raconteur has decided it might be time to get her affairs in order.
All she desires is that her remaining art be enjoyed. She would like to see the proceeds of sales, or the pieces themselves, go to charities.
Ilona’s reputation is international, with her works displayed in galleries, museums, and private collections in this country and abroad. One of her nudes, for example, is on sale at Provincetown’s Angela Russo Fine Art gallery for $14,000.
She’s asking for help from anyone who can lend a hand in cataloging and/or placing the balance of her wonderful artistry.
At ninety-seven, she is little concerned with material things. Even as her body weakens, Ilona feels her spirit being freed.
It’s like being squeezed through a sieve, she says. The incidentals of her life get caught in the mesh—and only her essence passes through. In my mind I pictured an orange pressed down through a strainer, the pure juice passing through while the rough pulp and pits are left behind.
“There are two of me walking around now,” she jokes about the widening gap between her spirit and her body. “My mind is doing just fine; but the rest is lagging behind.”
When I first met ultra-petite Ilona a few years ago, I wrote a piece I titled “Queen of the Fairies.”
“Now you are becoming an angel,” I told her. Because a woman who was never kissed by her father now teaches what love is.
“All the love affairs I’ve had, they weren’t love,” she says with a dismissive wave. “That was a matter of being attracted to someone or they attracted to you. And when they leave, the hurt you feel is only your pride,” she explains.
“When you care about someone, that’s love.”
This puts her squarely in line with the findings of a study that will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, scientists found that leading a happy life is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."
Perhaps their most important finding, say the researchers, is that the pursuit of meaning is unique to humans.
In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote in 1946 about his experiences in Nazi death camps. He said the difference between those who lived and those who died came down to having a sense of life’s meaning.
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing," he wrote, "the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."
If there’s a single thing Ilona has in spades it’s her attitude toward life—finding sheer joy in almost every person, every incident, every outcome.
Even death leaves her unafraid, because she is satisfied that’s she’s had an eminently fulfilling life, and is quite ready to “go bye-bye.”
In her classic work, The Way of Perfection, sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Ávila, urged us to live as if we were already in heaven:
The greatest joy in the kingdom of heaven seems to be that we will no longer be tied up with earthly concerns but will have rest and glory within us—rejoicing that gives joy to everyone . . . satisfaction in ourselves.
Ilona is the inspiring embodiment of living each day as if she were already in heaven.
(Photo of Peter, Ilona, and Gloria by Paul Bumbar)