Ella May Damiani

A woman of extraordinary compassion and depth, Ella May was a lifetime Board member of Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies, a not-for-profit center founded by her husband, Anthony Damiani. Welcoming hundreds of Center visitors into her home, Ella May housed and fed all who arrived, at anytime of the day or night. She welcomed everyone, gracefully expressing a spirit of inclusion—one of the highest ideals of the philosophic path. One of the more illustrious visitors Ella May had the good fortune to greet was the Dalai Lama, who visited Wisdom’s Goldenrod in 1979.

Ella May loved to garden and can vegetables, fruits, and jams. Often, while singing along with Puccini arias playing on the old record player in the den, she fed the many birds and stray animals that gathered on her front porch. Ella May’s door was always open to all.

The eldest of eight siblings, Ella May was born June 15th, 1924, in Brooklyn, NY. Ella May was the daughter of Gladys and Gennaro Buono. She married Anthony Damiani in 1943. The family moved to a beautiful farm in Hector in December of 1963, and they donated a portion of their property to establish Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies in 1972. Although most of her time—and life—was spent raising their six sons, Steve, Jerry, Paul, Louis, Anthony and Alex, Ella May maintained her own mystical studies and attended Anthony’s classes whenever she was free.

Four years after their move to Seneca Lake, Anthony found himself compelled to fulfill a youthful vision he’d had of creating a bookstore in Ithaca, New York—a bookstore that would guide the upcoming generation into the higher path of philosophy and away from the chaotic hippie culture that was then in full swing. Neither Ella May nor Anthony anticipated the extent of the success of this endeavor. Within a few months eager young people were crowding into Anthony’s study in their house listening to music with him and plying him with their questions. Ever generous, even though their dollars were stretched past the breaking point with their large brood, Ella May spent these evenings baking massive pans of lasagna, pasta, conjuring salads and breads from the ether so that these ragamuffin students wouldn’t go hungry as they listened to Anthony. Being in her kitchen and watching her cook for first twenty and then two hundred people was a full teaching in its own right, and certainly as valuable as the mystical insights that Anthony shared.

As time progressed, and “the Center,” as Wisdom’s Goldenrod came to be known, came into being, Ella May opened her doors to its first residents and to its many guests, often giving them the advice they thought they’d come to Anthony for. She was a powerful mystic in her own right, and not shy about her views and judgments, though she was (usually) gentle and always loving with everyone who crossed her door. When crossed, she was a sight to behold, with her flaming red hair and flashing Irish eyes; when inspired, she was the preacher and the choir rolled into one.

After her husband’s death in 1984, and the tragic loss of one of her sons a few years later, Ella May did not withdraw into herself; instead, she entered fully into the direction and organization of the Wisdom’s Goldenrod community, as well as that of the Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation—so much so, that she was a lifetime member of both boards, a commitment that benefited both organizations throughout her life. She continued her own studies of the great philosophers, centered on the teachings of PB and enriched by the writings of her own husband. She continued to participate in a little study group in her own home even into the last months of her life, bringing both a reverence and an enthusiasm to these meetings that were accessible to novices and treasured by elders.

Ella May balanced her husband’s passion with her own: where Anthony taught his students the life of the mind, of study, meditation, and the quest, Ella May gave grounded advice and guidance to individuals and families, especially to young mothers, as to how to live with the Quest and how to live with and through the many challenges brought to us over the course of a lifetime.

Ella May Damiani, 83, beloved mother and friend, passed away early on Monday, January 7th, 2008 at home in the care of friends, family, and Hospice.

We honor Ella May for her generosity, her kind heart, and her sumptuous dinners. Holidays were always times of great joy in Ella May’s home, when family and friends gathered at her table to celebrate with the delicious vegetarian meals that she so lovingly prepared. Every year for her birthday, hundreds of friends and family gathered to express our deep gratitude for her many gifts and to honor her remarkable contributions to our lives.

— The Damiani Family

“Ella May, A Mother and Mystic”
an essay by Christi Cox

In a way, Ella May Damiani wasn’t surprised that the Dalai Lama helped save her life. Decades back, when she was still a good Catholic girl, she understood that miracle—an outrageous contravening of the likely and the possible—was part of the job description for saints. Miracle was the outward face of inward power, quietly flamboyant and responsive to human need.

And Ella May was deeply in need. A cancer operation had revealed massive and unexpected mergers throughout her body. The surgeon had been tempted to simply sew her back up and let her die, but then changed his mind and removed most of the elderly lady’s stomach and pancreas and stapled her back together. Why not? One could always hope for the best.

But the best didn’t happen. A few days later, just as her body began to adjust to the major reconstruction of its innards, Ella May had a heart attack. Not just a small cardiac event, but one so massive that her family was roused from their Brooklyn beds and drove hours through the night hoping to reach her in time to say goodbye.

“Barring a miracle, she probably won’t last through the night,” the doctor had said. “So much of her heart is damaged that she doesn’t have enough left to sustain life.”

At 77, Ella May had come a long way from the bread-and-wafer Christianity of her childhood. She’d been the kind of radiant girl who actually loved to attend mass and who felt a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In fact, she’d been the kind of girl who wanted to be a nun. But she was saved from the cloister and the wimple by falling in love with someone wonderfully inappropriate. Tony Damiani. Italian, but still.

“Who would have thought I’d end up marrying a crazy bohemian?” Ella May said to me, raising a white eyebrow. Ahh, Tony of the thick, dark hair and the substantial passion for music, for philosophy, and for a good Catholic girl. Tony who would go to church only so that he could walk Ella May home. Tony who came from a family that routinely and methodically cursed all the saints every morning before coffee. And while he didn’t quite go that far, his views on organized religion were less than kind. It was upsetting for Ella May, but God knows, she loved him. “I taught him character; he taught me philosophy,” she recalls. Later he was to become a highly respected spiritual teacher for a wide range of students. Deeply mystical and philosophically astute, he was obsessed with an intuition that the metaphysical core of every religion must surely be pointing at the same truth—and damn it, he was going to figure it out. He introduced her to the ideas of Plato and Plotinus, to alchemy, to the many abstruse schools of Hinduism and Buddhism, and eventually, to the Dalai Lama.

It must have been an extraordinary meeting. Years afterward, the Dalai Lama still referred to Tony, the self-taught philosopher with the unrepentant Brooklyn accent, as his spiritual brother. And, when illness struck Ella May, like good family, the Tibetan leader did his best to help.

That night, as Ella May fell slowly into the cavity of death, a friend sent a message to the office of the Dalai Lama in the Himalayan foothills. And almost immediately the reply came. “The Dalai Lama will personally pray for Ella May’s complete recovery,” it said on the crumpled sheet edging out slowly from an uncooperative fax machine.

When the dawn came the elderly lady was still alive, but barely. Three days later she was stronger. “She won’t live more than a few days,” the staff predicted. A week passed, and then two.

How could this woman still be alive? her cardiologist wondered. Intrigued he sent her off to have an echocardiogram and then a stress test so that he could get a clear view of the functioning of her heart. “It can’t be,” he said, looking back and forth from the new printouts to the ones taken shortly after the heart attack. “This must be a mix-up.” What he was looking at, though he didn’t know it, was a certifiable case of divine intervention. The heart he was examining was virtually one hundred percent normal: no plaques, no clots, no damage.

The staff began calling Ella May the “Miracle Lady.” The nurses changed her bedpans and wiped her broad forehead with the tenderness that people feel at the edge of new life.

A few days later her surgeon stopped by to see his patient. He looked sweetly at her out of his exceptionally dark eyes. (“He’s so good-looking,” she marveled later.)

“We’ve come to the conclusion,” he said, pointing at the large photo of the Dalai Lama near her bed, “that you’ve had help from outside sources.” Ella May nodded. She knew. Even through the heart attack she’d felt held by a white light that entered through the crown of her head. She could feel it falling into her, healing every organ and cell of her body.

A month later the results of her blood work showed minimal cancer activity, and the doctors sent Ella May home. On the kitchen table, among the potted plants and the stacks of bills, lay a letter, typed on a fine creamy paper with a crimson seal on the top. “Dear Ella May,” it read, “My prayers are with you for a speedy and complete recovery.” At the bottom of the page, in black ink was the complex and elegant signature of the Dalai Lama.

“So what do you think, Ella May?” I asked her a few days later. We were sitting together in her overstuffed living room. Piles of books were balanced precariously at her feet, and an old World War II movie was reaching its dramatic climax on the television.

“You mean, why did this healing happen to a dumb bitty thing like me?” she asked. “Well, I’d emptied myself and the Lord came in and healed me.” She stopped and considered for a moment, the erratic halo of her white hair stirring around her face. “So many people were praying for me; the prayers were like a chorus coming up from the earth. And of course the Dalai Lama, being who he is, his prayers are so powerful.” And suddenly she smiled with an outrageous radiance. If I’d been the Dalai Lama I would have saved her too; she was so beautiful. On the screen across the room a tank exploded percussively.

“One time,” she murmured, ignoring it utterly and leaning back in her chair, “when the Dalai Lama was giving an initiation, I had an amazing experience.” I turned my back on the tank that now lay in technicolor array within the confines of the ancient TV, and pulled my chair a little closer. Adjusting her nightgown, which had slipped off one shoulder, Ella May began her story. She said that at the time she respected the Tibetan leader but didn’t know much about him. Seated uncomfortably in a cavernous hall with several thousand people, she listened as the Dalai Lama spoke from an ornate dais. She wasn’t a Buddhist but still, she thought, it was good to be in the presence of a spiritual person. He had just told the crowd that it didn’t matter whether one was a Buddhist or not in order to benefit from the spiritual initiation he was about to give. As she looked at him across the rows of heads, she noticed with surprise that a golden line of light seemed to be etched around the silhouette of the Tibetan—an aura, a halo, what? But before she had time to figure that out, the maroon-robed figure of the Dalai Lama transformed spectacularly into a green female deity.

“It happened so fast–it was whirling like crazy,” she told me. “Fantastic energy was flowing from it.” Then the green figure transmuted into a white female deity; the energy quieted. “From great power to great stillness,” said Ella May, “I held my breath. It was so overwhelming.” It was only later that a Buddhist friend told her that the Dalai Lama was very specifically aligned with two female deities: the green and white forms of Tara, a goddess of compassion.

“I usually don’t have visionary experiences,” Ella May divulged, “but the Dalai Lama really socked it to me. The sense of that presence was with me a long time.”

I was impressed, but Ella May was matter-of-fact. “These experiences are there to help us realize that there’s more to this world than we see with our eyes,” she declared. She tugged at the other sleeve of her nightgown. “It’s a wonderful affirmation of the divine life. We get a touch of it here, a touch of it there. We can reach out for it or we can say, oh, that was just another crazy thing. But if we reach out for the divine it means that the soul truly wants to be home.”

This is how the world is, she seemed to be telling me. Replete enough with saints, healing, compassion, and the most ordinary and wonderful gestures of grace.