Interview with Catrina Boni

about her and her late husband Robert Boni and her memories of Shunryu Suzuki

Interviewed over the phone by DC taking notes 9-16-11

An old friend of Robert Boni got hold of me and wanted to know what has happened with Bob. He said that Bob was from Hell's Kitchen in NYC. I told him Bob had died, didn't know more, and would get hold of his widow, Catrina, if I could. The last time I'd talked to her was in 1998 - about a photo of Boni's used in Crooked Cucumber. Boni took many photos for the SF Zen Center. His photo of Shunryu Suzuki's face was used for the back cover of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and is the best known photo of Suzuki. I'd like to get a photo of Catrina here too and more of Bob's photos, many of which were used by the Zen Center for early brochures and for the Windbell.

Catrina said that Robert had died in 1994 of a pulmonary embolism

From Wikipedia: Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a substance that has travelled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream (embolism). Usually this is due to embolism of a thrombus (blood clot) from the deep veins in the legs, a process termed venous thromboembolism.

That's exactly what she said happened, adding:

He died without warning, the whole event lasting about twenty-five minutes. He retired from UC Berkeley and sat at his computer a lot,  interested in digital photography, got too sedentary. It was a big bummer for me.

I asked her what she remembered of Suzuki Roshi. She said:

I met Suzuki Roshi in 1966. There were a few friends of ours who went to the Zen Center on Bush Street. We lived nearby on Sutter. Bob Brown, Paul Alexander, Katherine Thanas, Richard and Virginia Baker. I went occasionally to sit, not as much as Bob, and to lectures. I was a listener and learner. He was very nice and gave advice one to one. Bob and I went to see him once. Bob was having some personal problems and he told Bob you have to live life in the moment and don't worry so much about it. Suzuki Roshi and his wife were very wonderful people.

We went to Tassajara early on and went into the bathes with Richard Baker and Suzuki Roshi. I felt embarrassed but he made me feel at ease.

DC: That would be very early on. Suzuki Roshi put an end to mixed bathing after we'd been there a few months and before the first guest season started. For the guests I think the men's side was open to women in the evening - like it is now - from the first - and in the early morning too. Suzuki brought it up in a talk in April I think of '67. He said that he admired the way we were so free and open but that for students the bathes were a place for practice, not a place for socializing. Some people were upset about his decision, especially those who were still there from before when we bought it. I think they left because of that - but they would have left soon anyway.

Catrina: I saw him at Page Street some as well. I was happy to see the huge portrait as we walked in. My husband took that.

I was amazed reading Crooked Cucumber that he'd had such a hard time in his life in Japan. He never complained or said much about his life.

I remember him at the Cherry Blossom Parade in Japantown. They gave out fruit. It was a pleasant time. I was also pleased to meet him at the Zenefit for Tassajara - such good vibrations at that time. We weren't all that involved but we saw him once in a while.

I knew Katagiri and his wife and children. We'd go to dinner with them. They'd let their boys do what they wanted. They said that up to the age of ten we'll allow them to do everything. That way love and trust is established before discipline.

DC: So where are you from and how did you meet Bob? (She has a lovely accent)

Catrina: I was born in Italy in Modena near Florence, an area famous for Maseratis, Ferraris, and Balsamic vinegar. My maiden name was Bertolai. I met Bob because his father brought him to Italy in 1953 to see where his father came from and to meet his grandparents and aunts and uncles. I was from there too and knew his family since when I was a little girl. We went out and I thought that would be the end of it but he kept in contact after he'd gone back. Two years later his parents requested that I visit and he'd proposed. I went to the consulate in Florence and showed the invitation, didn't tell them I was going to get married or they wouldn't have let me go. We got married and lived in New York. But then I had to go back to Italy and get another visa and return and go back again and return as his wife. Finally after five years I became a citizen. We were married for almost forty years.  We had three daughters and later a son. I'm still in Alameda in the same house. I go to Italy every year or two.

DC: Catrina told me what the daughters are doing but I didn't get it down. I do remember that her son works on archiving film for Lucasfilm.

Bob gave the Zen Center all the photos and negatives. They have everything.