04/16/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

RIP Betty Piccoli (1925-2014): An Epitaph for the Woman Who Changed My Life

In her apartment in Milan...

I was a very neurotic teenager.


I spent years in "therapy" with a string of psychiatrists.

I was also an "A" student at Williams College.

So when I graduated from Williams, I won a Thomas Watson Foundation Fellowship (IBM).

This allowed me to travel around the world, all expenses paid, for three years, photographing.

Or at least that was the idea.

I got the check from the foundation, and a plane ticket. At the age of 21, the only thing that was holding me back was my anxiety.

Which was considerable.

So I flew to Milan, Italy, to start my "adventure," and there was greeted by my mother's sister, my "Aunt Betty."

She was a strange person in many ways.

I didn"t know her very well then.

Growing up on Long Island, she had gone to nursing school and married a doctor, Bob Huffner.

Together they moved to San Diego, where he set up a successful practice, and had two children, Kim and Glen.

Not too many years into the marriage, Betty announced that she was unhappy in her suburban existence.

She took he two kids and flew back to N.Y., got an apartment in Greenwhich Village (this was the late '50s) and moved in with a black musician named Blackie Talbot.


You might say so.

A few years later, she met an Italian doctor named Venicio Piccoli. She moved to Italy with him, married him, and then left him six months later.

She had no desire to become an Italian suburban housewife, either.

Instead, she got her own apartment in Milan, got a job as a translator in a law firm and got a motorcycle.

She was a real free spirit.

When she picked me up at the airport in 1977, she had already lived in Italy for many years.

I came with my suitcases filled with clothes, cameras, film and my dependable supply of Valium and other drugs.

"What are these?" she asked, holding up my pill bottles.

"I need those!" I said.

"No you don't" she replied, and flushed them down the toilet. "Not anymore."

I sat in her apartment for three days, paralyzed with anxiety.

On the fourth morning, she took me to the train station and put me on the train for Venice.

I arrived in Venice alone and, not knowing what to do, took the vaparetto from the train station to Piazza S. Marco.

I found a hotel room there, ate alone and went to bed.

The next morning I got up and started walking.

Everywhere I went, I saw signs that said "A la ferrovia."

I didn"t know what this Alla Ferrovia was, but it must have been important because there were signs for it everywhere, so I followed them.

The Ferrovia, as it turned out, was the train station.

What good luck! I got on the next train back to Milan.

When I returned to her apartment she was surprised.

"What are you doing back here?" she asked, and the next morning took me to the train station and put me on the train to Rome.

"Don"t come back for a week," she said.

I didn't.

When I did come back, as week later, she took me to the train station and put me on the train for London.

I didn"t come back for a year.

Instead, I left London and headed for Kathmandu overland, which would take me nearly a year.

But I got there.

I would spend another two years traveling around the world with my camera -- from crossing the Sahara to living in Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza to adventures in the Central African Empire and more. I had found my courage and my freedom and my career.

I also had freed myself of the fear, the anxiety, the shrinks and the Valium.

I spent three years living in and out of her home in Milan. It became my base. She become one of my best friends and closest confidants.

Years later, when I left my wife, I went back to move in with her in Milan.

It was like coming home.

Two days ago, my cousin Kim called to tell me that Betty had died.

It was not a surprise.

She had been ill for some time.

But it was, never the less, a sad day for me.

I was lucky that she came along.

She changed and indeed in many ways made me the person I am today.

And I will be eternally grateful.