Whether we knew her in person or only from her long-running “Kids’ Almanac” or more recent “Erica’s Cancer Journey” writings as a regular columnist for Ulster Publishing, there’s a big hole left in our lives from the passing on February 7 of Erica Chase-Salerno. Hundreds of kinfolk, colleagues, friends and admirers joined this past Sunday in “A Celebration of Life” at the Lecture Center at SUNY New Paltz to share Erica stories and try to fill that hole with the kind of joy and relish that she had embodied in her lifetime. Many of the attendees later regrouped at the High Meadow School in Stone Ridge for a musical tribute that had originally been planned to take place at New Paltz’s Hasbrouck Park, but moved to an indoor venue due to inclement weather.
As many participants noted, Chase-Salerno had been actively involved in the planning of the two-part event in the months leading up to her death from Stage IV breast cancer. “Erica really laid this out for us: her burial, the funeral; she even wrote her own obituary. This is all going to her plan — except for the rain,” her widower, Mike Salerno, explained after the first phase of the celebration wrapped up. Then, reflecting on his late wife’s extraordinary ability to put a positive spin on life’s challenges, he added regarding the unfavorable weather, “She would find the joy in it.”
It’s always tempting to use tears as a metaphor for rain at a funeral or memorial service, but aside from an occasional nostalgic sniffle, the tenor of both halves of this event was the opposite of weeping. Humor was a dominant note as speaker after speaker at the podium — which was covered with a cloth decorated with bright sunflowers — related anecdotes of how they’d first met and been instantly blown away by Chase-Salerno’s signature unbridled enthusiasm, her willingness to embrace the outrageous. A close friend, Nora Snyder, recalled how she had simply shown up unannounced on her doorstep one morning after Snyder had posted an ad with her address on Hudson Valley Parents, the website that Mike and Erica founded. “I just love what you write; I just had to meet you!” she quoted Erica gushing as Snyder stood, still in her pajamas and flabbergasted by this “tall and effusive, loud and gestury” stranger. “I soon realized that I was glimpsing a whole new paradigm for being a parent, a wife, a mother, a friend,” Snyder said, noting that as soon as Erica left, “I immediately wanted her back — and I still feel that way.”
Linda-Brook Guenther, another close friend who had designed the backyard labyrinth that Erica used for meditation in her final years, set a lighthearted tone before commencing her remarks by walking up and down the aisle of Lecture Center 100 with a bubble machine blowing soap bubbles into the audience. She produced item after item out of a “goodie bag” typical of the sort that she said Erica would carry with her everywhere: “She had the right thing at the right time, whatever it was.” In her friend’s honor, Guenther even did a public taste-test of a dubious snack that had been one of Erica’s more mysterious culinary enthusiasms: chocolate hummus. “That is not delicious,” Guenther declared after sampling the substance. It was later made available for attendees to try, on a table in the lobby at the High Meadow School, along with a bowl of origami stars containing inspirational messages that Erica had folded over many an hour during the last year of her life, to be left for friends.
Always being ready to “do something you’ve never done before” was one of Erica’s guiding principles for living, according to several participants. Son Declan Chase-Salerno shyly related how glad he was that his mother had encouraged him to conquer his fear of rollercoasters on a family trip to Disneyland. Even when Erica was very ill, daughter Quinn Chase-Salerno said, “Her journey was like an exploration for her.” She recalled how her mother had laughed at a spontaneous puppet show that Quinn put on to distract her from the pain that sometimes woke her in the middle of the night, and how the family’s pet gecko had climbed up Erica’s oxygen tube when she was in her final days of home hospice care.
Carrie Wykoff, who served as emcee for the entire event, spoke of how she had met Erica through Hudson Valley Parents. “I was so grateful as a new parent, as someone new to the area, to have her as a resource,” she said. “When we started homeschooling and were terrified, Erica’s calm guidance helped us deeply.” Soon both families were sharing outdoor adventures through the Wild Earth program, “camping together in rainstorms. But Erica would make even everyday things like running into each other at the gas station into an event, with squeals of laughter and ‘You’re here!’”
One by one, the musical artists being introduced by Wykoff as they took their turns to perform “Joyful Sounds for Erica” also shared tales of how Erica’s uninhibited appreciation for their work had spurred them on to create more. Whether by writing about it, dancing to it or simply saying how great it was, she became one of our region’s most vocal and knowledgeable advocates for “kindie rock.” “She was so ‘Yes!’ to everybody,” said Grammy-winner Dean Jones, fronting one of the deceased’s favorite family-friendly bands, Dog on Fleas. “We have, like, what, nine albums? We’d probably only have three if it weren’t for Erica.”
“Erica is a force, like magnetism or gravity. For a time she was also a person,” Mike Chase-Salerno told the rapt crowd at the Lecture Center. Recalling how much she had loved the punchline of an anecdote told by Maurice Sendak about an overeager toddler fan, he said, “She saw it, she ate it, she loved it. Now Erica the Force has the entire universe to snack on.”