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”You cannot negotiate with God.” Those are the words Noi Chudnoff, beloved local philanthropist and owner of Go Mama Go!, a gift shop at 1809 14th Street NW, used over two years ago during an interview with Metro Weekly, explaining why she, a native of Bangkok, had become estranged from her parents by rebelling against her father’s desire that she study medicine.
”If this man is to die, he will die,” she said. ”That’s fate.”
The 59-year-old Chudnoff, a Buddhist, used that same ideology when dealing with her own ailments acquired over the past year, which would eventually lead to her unexpected death on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, Md.
”She had really been getting ill for nearly a year,” says her husband, 55-year-old Jonathan Chudnoff. ”But [she] just would never go to the doctor, no matter how much I asked her.
”Finally other people started noticing that she didn’t look well,” he continues. ”When she finally called her for her medical checkup the week before last week, she couldn’t even carry her purse down the street. She just lost all of her physical strength, but she still maintained that tough attitude.”
Chudnoff was diagnosed with colon cancer, and partnered that tough attitude with positivity, and a catchphrase that was inspired by her blood type.
”When she went into the hospital,” says Jonathan Chudnoff, ”she needed blood transfusions and they told her that her blood type was B positive, so for the last 10 days or so of her life, that became her motto. And she cheerfully told everybody, ‘Be positive, be positive.”’
The woman who did not believe in negotiating with God convinced herself to be positive, as she talked to visitors, family and friends, during her final days about overcoming her distaste for Jell-O and chicken broth, while awaiting a surgical procedure that was meant to fix things on Monday, Nov. 5.
That moment never arrived.
As nurses prepared Noi for surgery, she fell and hit her head causing a brain hemorrhage that would ultimately claim her life.
”I got there just in time for her to open her eyes and squeeze my hand,” says Jonathan Chudnoff. ”Then she just lost consciousness.”
Chudnoff was kept on life support until the following morning, when her son, Nissim, flew from New Mexico to bid farewell. According to Jonathan Chudnoff, things had been shaky between mother and son, after a feature article profiling the owner of Go Mama Go! ran in Metro Weekly in 2005. It was in that interview that she spoke candidly about her son’s high income and lack of philanthropy.
”She said some things about him that she later regretted,” Jonathan says. ”For a time, he was quite angry with her. But in the last year, they were completely reconciled…. Things were good.”
Since Noi Chudnoff’s death, Go Mama Go! has been filled with friends, customers and supporters, according to friend and employee Jeffrey Johnson, who also serves as the artistic director for Ganymede Arts, formerly the Actors’ Theatre of Washington.
”Sometimes people just wander though the store to be in the store,” says Johnson. ”Sometimes people buy things and you know they don’t really want it — they just want something of her to take. Other people have been coming in and literally breaking down, grieving.”
Noi Chudnoff’s impact on others was evident during her memorial, on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Source Theatre. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, among other artists, performed at the event, following the reading of a resolution by Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) declaring November 10, 2007 ”Noi Chudnoff Day” in Washington D.C.
Johnson first met Noi Chudnoff in the summer of 2005, while performing with the Source Theatre. She had attended an event there and later donated money to the theater.
”I walked in [Go Mama Go!] and thanked her for the donation, and she started talking to me about the theater and what I wanted to do with it,” Johnson recalls.
”When she found out that we were all volunteers and not employed by the theater, she asked me…’Why don’t you work here? I need help.’ I started the next day.”
Annie Shaw, director of Whitman-Walker Clinic’s Lesbian Services Program, frequented Go Mama Go!, and had come to know Noi Chudnoff as a close friend through the store as well as her involvement with the clinic.
”Anyone who went in was welcomed,” Shaw says. ”There was such a sense of how pleased she was to see you. And she just took this interest in everyone. It wasn’t that she would engage you in long conversations, but I always had the sensation that I was seen.”
Ward Morrison, Metro Weekly‘s senior Scene photographer would often capture Noi Chudnoff during the various events he covered.
”We will never know what we truly lost because her potential was unlimited,” he says. ”Her energy is still within us, but we lost a person that wasn’t afraid to do anything. Her love is why she had no fear. She could walk into any space and walk up to anyone and make things happen…. She had a unique way of touching people and making community.”
It was perhaps those qualities that caught Jonathan Chudnoff’s attention when he first met Noi nearly 35 years ago through family friends upon moving with his parents to Madison, Wisconsin.
”It was Hanukkah time, and she just charmed us all,” says Jonathan, who is Jewish. ”What was surprising is that this young woman from Thailand knew what Hanukkah was, knew to sing Hanukkah songs, knew how to play a game with the Dreidel. I was just floored that somebody from so far away, and from such a different culture, knew all this stuff about our culture and could participate in it.
”We just became friends,” he continues. ”We’d go out sailing on the lake together, go swimming together and go to movies together. Pretty soon we were together.”
Nissim was born in 1981, four years before the Chudnoffs relocated to metropolitan Washington, so that Jonathan could attend law school at the American University. After years of working odd jobs, including floor scrubber, Japanese chef, and children’s clothing manager, in addition to sending her son to school, Noi Chudnoff rented an apartment in Northwest and opened Go Mama Go!
”We’d see each other everyday,” Jonathan says. ”Because I’d usually come in the evening to help close the store, and we’d have dinner together everyday. We were not an estranged couple. It’s just that I had my work up in the Baltimore suburbs…and she had what meant the most to her here in Washington.”
Why did she call it ”Go Mama Go!”?
”Our son was going off to college and finally after deferring to me, her child and all these other people’s needs, it was time to ‘go mama go,’ to strike out and see what she could do by herself for herself. What you see here on 14th street is the result of that.”