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Everyone Should Meet a Wini!

Wandering around Rome- 1999

“You have the lifestyle of a playboy- you just don’t have the body of one!”, she said. I quipped back “That’s not true! I have one in my trunk!” This was an actual exchange, one of many over the years, that I would have with Wini Atkinson. This one happened at a restaurant somewhere uptown in NYC, and had the tables on either side of us roaring. By the time desert came, the tables around us were brought into her world with laughter and meaningful conversation. This is how it worked with Wini.

In anyone’s lifetime, there are a handful of people we’re lucky enough to know that in some way shape who we are or how we see the world. For me it’s a few key teachers- and Wini. She passed away recently at the far-too-young age of 80, and I’m typing this hours after her funeral, which sadly, I was unable to attend. The loss of anyone is painful, and the only thing making this one a little less-so is just how well she lived her life. I owe a great deal of who I am, and how I interact with the world around me, to her. Her generosity to me in my 20s and the life lessons I keep with me are debts I can never repay. If you read no further than this, I would humbly ask that you consider a donation to The Gamm Theater via a link setup by her son Mark: Facebook “In Wini Atkinson’s memory, my family and I are asking that donations be made to The Gamm Theatre in lieu of flowers. I have spoken with the theatre about making their venue -and possibly even occasional performances - dementia friendly. Mom loved all kinds of fine and performing arts. It would be a wonderful legacy to make even a small difference in these art forms becoming more accessible for all to enjoy.”

A year and a half after my daughter was born, I had invited Wini to our new house, about 40 minutes away from her in NJ. I never got a response. I knew she was a busy person, and was gearing up for retirement. I wasn’t sure if she just wasn’t into it, or had some other reason for not getting back to me. What was more confusing is when I checked her Facebook page, she listed her employer as Nutmeg, the recording studio I was working for- which by coincidence was across the street from where she was a practicing psychotherapist. It wasn’t until her husband Dave suffered a stroke, which would later lead to his own death before her, that I learned she had been suffering with Alzheimer’s and dementia for some time. I was crushed. I had been so tied up with work, homeownership, and my own new family that I was out of loop.

"I've enjoyed watching your mind work!"

In 1991, I was booked to engineer a reggae album at the referral of Bankie Banx, whom I’d had the pleasure of working with at the now-defunct Home Base Studios. The producer was a woman named Wini, whom I had never met. The project was slated to last two months, but I had the whole album tracked and mixed in about two weeks. She was a whirlwind of energy from the moment she entered the studio. Back when I would mix records, one by one, members of the band would enter the control room with a request engineers simply call “gimme more me”. Sitting at a large console, I always had a channel strip that wasn’t assigned to anything. I would pretend to tweak what they asked for. Every single time, they would say “ahh. That’s perfect right there. Thanks!” One day, Wini leaned over and said “you didn’t change a damn thing, did you?”, and I turned around and said “nope!” We were instant friends. When the project ended, she sent me a card featuring an illustration of a brain with gears inside that simply said “I’ve enjoyed watching your mind work”. I still have it tucked away in a crate somewhere.

Wini and Bankie backstage at BB Kings

We worked together on other projects with Bankie after that, which would often involve dinners out after sessions. She pulled me aside during one of those and said “I’m confused. In the studio you’re full of life and jokes- and once we leave the control room, you’re quiet. How do we bring control room Frank to the outside world?” And that’s when life began to change. Bankie wasn’t able to return to the apartment she had been renting him in NYC (details here, so she suggested that I use it as a place to crash instead of commuting to the suburbs every night. It was ten blocks away from where I worked. As time went on, I found myself staying more and more in Manhattan, and eventually rented another unit of hers in the same building- leaving the burbs behind entirely.

She was a web-spinning, master-connector of people, and it didn’t matter if they were total strangers or people she had known all her life. She didn’t just travel the world- she made meaningful connections with people all around it. I’m so grateful that she invited me along for a trip to Italy along with her brother Brian and his wife. I could fill pages with stories and laughter from that outing alone! It was a trip where a simple dinner at a restaurant near Campo Di Fiore turned into a long night of chat and “dancing” at a club that happened to also be where Caesar was stabbed. I put dancing in quotes, because despite her best efforts to get me to dance, it’s the one thing she was never able to get me to budge much on.

I was her guest a number of times at a place she had on South Beach, Miami. On one of those trips, she arrived to find her unit was being used by a neighbor who had suffered some water damage. The building housed us in a temporary apartment on a different floor while they worked it out. She was frustrated, but never lost her cool. The way I was brought up, there would have been a lot of fighting with the building and fist-pounding demands to make it right. She had her own approach. She ordered a bottle of champagne and had it sent to the family in her apartment, with a note explaining that she’s here with friends and would like to be in her home. They of course invited her up. They were Spanish, and she’s American- but they all spoke fluent Italian, so that’s how they communicated. She got the story of what had happened, and within a couple of hours they were packing up and moving back into their place. And Wini of course had made new friends, who’s son was an accomplished artist and was having a gallery event. Of course she was invited. That sort of interaction isn’t a skill- it’s a gift, and I have to remind myself to work that way more often than I do!

There are too many stories to share, like outdoor dining during a downpour in South Beach with friends while we laughed at the irony of our waitress (who was happy to play along) filling our water glasses... to accidentally detouring on our way to Amalfi and having to drive over a mountain through a herd of goats to get there. Exploring an endless list of restaurants in NYC, and the spontaneous laughter of strangers pulled into her universe for even just a moment. I have no doubt that everyone she knows has similar stories.

She had lots to say about my dating habits over the years- but this was the first time she approved. Seen here at our wedding.
At our wedding in 2002

I’m grateful that I was able to visit her prior to her husbands death a couple of years ago. It was a cold night, and she was huddled around a space heater in her home looking not at all like I would have expected. A lot had happened in ten years, but within minutes we were laughing. As she struggled to express things, or remember, I could see the frustration in her eyes. I asked “is it that you know what you want to say but your just not able to?” She shouted “YES!!” To see someone that brilliant being trapped inside herself was painful. I said “I think I know where this all began!” She said “you do??”, genuinely interested in my insight. I said “yes. It’s all those years of wondering where your glasses were, only to realize they wear around your neck!” She laughed like I would have expected her to, and it made me happy. I’m grateful that I was able to see her both at her husband’s memorial, and then visit again with my wife and daughter- who she finally got to meet and seemed to genuinely enjoy (she’s an awesome kid!). She was always either opinionated or silent about my dating habits over the years. When she met Julia for the first time, she pulled me aside and said "I like her". That spoke volumes to me.

I later said to my daughter: “You’ll meet people that will really be important to you and even change your life. She was one of the them!”, adding “everyone should meet a Wini”.

RIP. I've enjoyed watching YOUR mind work.


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