Tribute to Caroline Seebohm, 1940–2023 — my friend from another era
I met Caroline Seebohm in a van in rural India. We were squished together in the front seat — she, for her age and dignity, and me for my less dignified propensity toward car sickness. I had just arrived to teach at a school called Shanti Bhavan, and the foreign volunteers had invited me on their weekend shopping trip to Hosur, an urban city compared to the village in which we were teaching — but “still very thrilling,” as Caroline would describe it.
Our van was progressing at a toad-like speed behind a massive, wobbly conglomeration of differently sized balloons somehow levitating and moving at a man’s walking pace. “You could not happen upon this view in London,” she said in her upper-class but somehow unpretentious British accent as we continued to stop-and-start, stop-and-start. I liked her immediately.
Caroline was dressed stylishly with a loose, vibrantly colored cotton kurta over simple Western pants. As for me, I was wearing the same outfit I’d worn for a week since my airline had lost my luggage: tight red pants and a baggy sweater that fell unsubtly off my shoulder no matter how many times I adjusted it. (I had selected it for the plane, okay. Not for rural, traditional Hosur.)
For Caroline, the slow and bumpy ride of bizarre sites, sounds, and smells was like a roller coaster that she somehow fit into perfectly — even at the impressive age of 73. I was trying not to throw up — having recently turned 21.
“The smells!” she went on. “You’ll experience the best and the worst smells in India, from one moment to the next.”
We debated whether the balloon compilation covered a man and his donkey or only a man. “I can identify with the amoeba. He’s utterly hidden, something I can only dream of here,” she expressed to me. “In the bustling streets of Bangalore especially, I would love to wear a full hijab so I could just blend in and observe.” Caroline said observe as if the word had an ethereal quality to it.
Caroline, as World Traveler
Caroline observed the world with grace, wit, and much reflection. I soon would learn she traveled primarily with her ex-husband, Walter Lippincott, visiting countless countries and every continent.
“I feel like Antarctica is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip,” I expressed after her first trip to Antarctica. “Oh no, I would absolutely go again.” And then she did.
Our final excursion together in India was to Bangalore’s botanical garden, which she thought was both beautiful and absurd, with its English glasshouse towering over us at the entry and small monkeys throwing banana peels at us on the way out. I am sure she had a metaphor in there that made us both laugh out loud.
In addition to natural beauty, she loved architecture, art, operas, and literature, which she observed all over the world, from Chicago’s riverside architecture tour to New York’s Madama Butterfly to St. Petersburg’s museums to her students’ essays and poems in India.
Caroline, as Author
Caroline did not merely observe, however, for she was no dilettante. She authored more than 20 books. I have not yet read them all, thankfully, but know from the book she gifted me recently, Boca Rococa, that her writing captures her spirit of speculation, wit, and intrigue on the one hand, and her dedication to preserving historical knowledge we would not otherwise have, on the other.
Her books tell people’s stories with keen attention to place and personal family dynamics. She researched the lives she resurrected in her books by following their paths — both in their travels and in their personal diaries. For instance, in March, I met her for lunch and told her of my upcoming trip to Bordeaux. I wasn’t surprised to learn she had architectural recommendations there for me — having visited Bordeaux with Walter for her historical novel, The Innocents, about two American sisters from well-to-do families who worked as nurses in Europe during the Second World War before attempting and failing to return. She thought it was important to write a WWI novel from the female perspective. No one knows precisely how they died, so Caroline’s novel gives them a tragic but heroic death scene in the Atlantic Ocean.
I imagine most of her books exude this connection between European grandeur with American fearlessness. Like a more approachable Alexis de Tocqueville, Caroline pursued this theme all her life.
The most comprehensive review of her work I have found is on Encyclopedia.com. (I find it fitting that the wide-ranging description of her books and expertise are sandwiched between NFL ads. As a lifelong American football fan, she surely would have delighted in that.)
Caroline, as Teacher
I was assigned to observe Caroline’s classes as part of my teacher training. As a teacher, Caroline was prepared, not performative — as she very well could have been. She certainly had the flair to enter a room, give a speech, and exit with grace and awe. But she took her teaching role seriously, as an outsider to Indian heritage and culture given the task to teach English language literature — which she thought was absurd but paradoxically, worth doing.
This is not to say her classes were not entertaining. She could expertly cover any topic in class with humor and the necessary context — from gun culture in America to the “two main themes of all Keats’ poems” to the importance of setting the scene in one’s own writing.
When she departed, I learned she took extensive notes in preparing lectures for the students. The most striking feature of these notes was how carefully she considered her students’ frame of reference before teaching them English literature. For instance, when assigned by the Indian national curriculum to teach Larkin’s “Church Going,” she started with a picture of an English church and cemetery as well as an exercise in which she had the students describe the poem like scenes from a movie. “None of them have seen the inside of an English church. They have all seen a movie.”
As one of few women in her generation to graduate from Oxford University, she took education seriously—throughout her life.
Caroline, as a Mother
As Caroline became a lifelong mentor of mine, there is one thing she impressed on me time and time again. The life decision she was initially on the fence about, took a leap on, and ended up having zero regrets about was having children.
Her life was already well-rounded with experiences, meaning, and friendships made all over the world, and yet, its central meaning for her was her people — Hugh and Sophie. She knew that some of her books would outlive her, and she was pleased about this. But looking back, she conveyed to me that having children was the most important decision she made for herself. On the basis of decision rather than tradition, she highly recommended it.
There are few women her age who can provide this kind of perspective. In her generation, having children was seldom a choice. But Caroline was a ferociously unique woman. She pondered whether motherhood was worth its great cost and decided the journey was an experience she couldn’t live without. She found the stereotypical stay-at-home motherhood role delightful. I always admired that she both romanticized motherhood, and still so ostensibly respected her children for the remarkable adults they are — overcoming the motherhood complex but never losing her commitment and care.
Caroline was the type of parent that women are only now dreaming of becoming — the kind who tells their kids all their stories and keeps living them. She was also a loving grandparent, already attuned to the uniqueness of each of their personalities. Instead of the perfectly poised photos most would show of their grandkids, she would show me pictures of them in their most hilarious poses she thought would best fit a record cover.
She was a mother who filled the house with books, some of which she wrote herself. These books were not trophies, however. For Caroline, storytelling was an active pursuit, something we do with the ones we love, and books were tools toward that end. Thus, as a mother, grandparent, and mentor, in my case, Caroline shared her story candidly, and she passionately supported us in writing ours.
Caroline, as a Partner, Lover, and Friend
As a peer, Caroline was a fierce challenger. She challenged us in a spirit of love and even friendly competition.
The metaphorical boxing gloves she wore were what perhaps made her most herself. She was ever-ready for a playful punch — sometimes at someone she just met. She had brutal honesty for those she loved when needed. And how swiftly she could exit from a social scene when she’d grown bored. Those she loved did not know precisely why she loved us, only that it was so.
For Caroline was a woman who had everything and needed not. She desired the ones she chose. She was discerning too. About the volunteers she encountered the first time she taught in India, she wrote the following in the print version of the British monthly magazine the Oldie:
Apart from a few professionals, the other volunteers were mostly under the age of thirty, drifting in from yoga classes in New York or California on a mission to find spiritual Nirvana (i.e., an Indian lover), clutching copies of Eat, Pray, Love. These girls spoke in Valley-girl-speak, ‘like’ being the operative word. Frankly, I understood them, like, no better than I understood the Indian staff speaking Telugu. — Caroline (Jan 2011)
Walter was her #1, her lifelong love, her best friend, her Person. Ever-willing to embody irony, Caroline somehow affectionately referred to Walter as “her ex.”
The rest of us were close #2s, though.
Caroline was a mentor to me, my life’s luckiest companion, perhaps. But the way she spoke to me made me feel like a friend and like she viewed me as a peer. She listened and although she had much perspective, she waited for my own thoughts to develop about something. I was a character in her story she got to experience, not one she had to develop. Rather than doling out advice, she was curious about me. She was interested in my story and especially the life I would live. She confided in me during long walks around Shanti Bhavan’s campus and thereafter, in our decade-long email correspondence. Even in her emails, she was prosaic and hilarious.
After arriving back in her New Jersey home, she assuaged my failed romantic endeavors by sharing her own.
In my experience these encounters are for the moment, of the moment, perfect for the situation but without any lasting meaning. The environment creates the attraction really. (Shipboard romances are like this — passion on board, major disillusion once meeting back on land!)
My first real boyfriend was a hunky Australian, I was besotted over him, we were together all the time (in London). It was the year before I went to Oxford. I then went to Oxford and forgot about him. Many years later, I re-met him and stared at him in amazement. What could I have seen in him? — Caroline, 2014
I am glad our mutual affection didn’t fade — for she went on to invite me to her family Thanksgiving in New Jersey, Hugh and Brooke’s wedding in Chicago, her birthday party in London, and several meaningful lunches in both New York and London.
We soon overlapped in returning for a summer graduation at Shanti Bhavan. Since the campus was full, we were assigned to share a room.
“There is nothing in this world like a good, hard bed,” Caroline remarked to me. She slept just as well in a temperature-controlled room sailing the world on a luxurious cruise line as she did in a twin bed in a shared room in piping-hot Balliganipalli, India. As for the “bucket showers,” these were fodder for her tales upon returning home. “After all, I am here in part for the children and in part because [her acquaintance] said I couldn’t handle India at my age.”
She loved the students though. She reflected with gratitude in the Oldie:
How often does such an opportunity arise? I came home exhilarated, in love with about 100 Indian girls and boys, some of whom had grown to love me. (We still communicate via email.) I also came back exhausted and several pounds lighter. But I can’t wait to do it again. — Caroline (2011).
Similarly, her actual obituary described well how she could traverse settings — uncompromisingly herself at both private members clubs in New York and London and airport bars in America’s smallest airports.
Caroline also invited me on several occasions to join her family vacations in Maine, her brother’s upcoming tea party, and even volunteered herself to be the celebrant of my and my partner’s wedding — none of which were manifested in time.
From the parties I did attend, however, I can imagine them. In Maine, I imagine long walks and talks with beautiful scenery, life reflections, and questions — for Caroline was an excellent interviewer and listener. She consistently asked questions.
For my engagement dinner party, Caroline would have carefully planned seating assignments as well as an unduly timed “seat assignment change,” which required everyone to swap conversation partners mid-meal. Genders and sexual preferences would be considered — for everyone must be flirted with at least once.
For my wedding, she would celebrate my love with intention, curiosity, and care, but most of all, she would celebrate with laughter. The reception would be a riot.
Although the end was near, Caroline kept dreaming, living, and observing. She told me she had “just one more book” she wanted to write, she took a trip to Costa Rica with her kids and grandkids, and she envisioned her brother’s 90th birthday tea party with her vivid descriptive abilities in its fullest form. Never losing her subtly competitive spirit, she decided in an email to famed poet, David Lehman, in January that she had “about two more years” left. “How about you?” she wagered.
Caroline told me candidly in March if she died tomorrow, she would not mind— her cancer had returned, and it was terminal this time. She said the word terminal with this cute look on her face, starting as a grimace and ending in a smirk. It was the exact same face she’d make if she was “accidentally” sharing gossip about someone else… whoops!
Only someone like Caroline could be subtly excited for the end of her story. She anticipated it. She was curious about it. She even bragged about it a bit. Most of all, she prepared for it by continuing on living. She surely would have loved to celebrate it with us — precisely at the Century Association. She’d somehow manage to flatter each and every one of us. She knew she was unreplicable and somehow she’d make us feel the same.
That’s all for now, for the best tribute I can give to Caroline is to keep living my life. She was one of my life’s greatest cheerleaders for my writing, and as my close friend Cat put it well, for living. Caroline Seebohm is one of few who will truly live on.
A celebration of Caroline’s life will be held at the Century Club of New York City on September 22 (please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Here is a link to Caroline’s family’s online “tribute wall.”