‘It was a great day if you saw Elke’

Family and friends remember young woman who touched many lives on Island.

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Shaman Martha Abbot speaks to the community gathered at State Beach at sunset on July 27, many dressed in fairy wings, to celebrate the life of Elke Klein. To the right is Elke's mother, Robin Tuck. — Photo by Matt Cosby

She lost her father in May, her daughter died tragically two months later, and she can no longer afford to live on Martha’s Vineyard.

“It’s been horrendous,” Robin Tuck told The Times. “It was a strange and sad summer.”

Her daughter, Elke Klein, died July 19 when she had a seizure while swimming at Lagoon Pond. 

Elke’s death came as Tuck was already mourning the loss of her father, James Tuck, a renowned archaeologist who had retired to the Vineyard with his wife, Lucy, but died suddenly two months earlier.

“I miss my father and my daughter,” Tuck said, noting that Elke had epilepsy and vision impairment. “Since she was born, she was next to me. To me it’s really lonely and really difficult. We’re just kind of lost.”

The reasons that Robin and her mother, Lucy, had to move out of the family’s longtime Vineyard Haven home are personal, Tuck said. But while her mother is getting money from the sale of the house, it’s not enough for them to live on the Island with what it costs to buy here, she said.

“We have nowhere to go,” she said, noting that they’ve been staying with friends. “We don’t know what to do.”

The Vineyard would be the perfect place for them to stay because of the services that are available for seniors like her mom, Tuck said. And she has so many memories here of the life she built with Elke as a single mother.

Tuck has been comforted by the community’s outreach, particularly at a “volcanic sunset” tribute to her daughter, held July 27 on State Beach. At sunset, friends of Elke gathered on the beach wearing fairy wings as Tuck paddled out into the water to spread her daughter’s ashes.

“There were grown men wearing fairy wings for Elke,” her mother said, fighting back tears that come too easily since her daughter’s death. “It was a magical night.”

Camp Jabberwocky, which was like family to Elke, helped to gather her friends for the “volcanic sunset,” a phrase coined by Elke watching the Vineyard’s breathtaking sunsets.

“It was so powerful,” said Mike Leon, a counselor at the camp. “It didn’t feel like she was gone. There was an energy on the beach from everyone who was there. Kind of a nice, rare moment. It felt like a homecoming for her.”

Elke had been a presence at the camp. “I had the pleasure of knowing Elke for 12 years,” Leon said. “Her imagination, creativity, and energy was one thing that stuck out for me.”

Leon, who is a writer, recalled following Elke around the camp at one point when he was 20. He was trying to capture her spirit in words. “Watching where her mind was going — the fantasy and magic was like a whirlwind. Even at a place like camp, where there are so many unique personalities, she was someone who stood out.”

Kelsey Cosby, one of Elke’s first counselors at Camp Jabberwocky, recalled her high energy and creativity. She would often find her in the camp’s costume cabin, dressing up to tell her stories.

The beach celebration was a fitting tribute to Elke. “We got fairy wings — her favorite things — flower crowns, and bubbles. All the things to make it a day that Elke would have loved on the beach,” Cosby said. “If you ever went to the beach with Elke, she was the first person in the water and the last person out.”

When she was in high school, Elke was a member of the MVRHS Special Olympics team. 

Lisa Knight, a retired physical education teacher who started the adaptive education program at MVRHS, said that while she is incredibly sad, she continues to celebrate Elke.

“Elke always loved an adventure. She was up for everything,” Knight said. “Her middle name was Sunshine, and she was my sunshine.”

Knight described Elke as loving and always happy. “She didn’t call them kisses. She called them smooches, and always had a smooch,” Knight said. “She was so warm and loving.”

Music and dancing were a big part of her life. Anyone who knew Elke knew Britney Spears and the snake dance. “It always made me smile,” she said.

Elke loved participating in the Special Olympics, and particularly enjoyed the ribbon dancing. She would lead the MVRHS banner with her ribbons in hand.

“She taught me to be a better person and teacher. You couldn’t help but be a better person when Elke was around,” she said. “Just to see her come into school, and her smile. It was a great day if you saw Elke that day.”

Rilla Hammett, a onetime teaching assistant at MVRHS, told Knight about the impression Elke made on her during her time on the Island. Hammett is now a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind. “She told me Elke is the reason she went into special education,” Knight said. “That says a lot about Elke.”

It was Elke’s zest for life that is so missed, but not forgotten.

“I know she’s gone. She’s not. She’s everywhere,” Knight said. “She was my friend, and I was blessed she was part of my life.”