Elena Bramanti


Remembering Elena

With boleros playing softly and the scent of Coco perfume in the air, Elena Bramanti Puelma passed away peacefully at her daughter Laurie’s home in Chicago on March 5, 2020.  

She was an unforgettable woman who led an extraordinary life, as anyone who knew her would attest. A master chef, gardener, artist and seamstress, Elena was also a proud mother and grandmother, a devoted wife, and friend to many. Her loved ones will forever remember basking in the warmth of her affection and joie de vivre. 

Born on July 13, 1942, in Trelew, a city in the Patagonia region of Argentina, Elena was a creative soul from the start. She moved to Buenos Aires as a little girl and grew up in Villa Devoto, a barrio known as ‘the garden in the city.’ She studied dance and art and dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina, until her practical father nixed the idea. 

Elena adored her older brother Henry, a charismatic personality for whom she would do most anything. That devotion sometimes got her in trouble. She once hid her report card in an effort to delay the inevitable blowup that would result when her father Rodolfo learned of Henry’s less-than-stellar grades, in contrast to her straight A’s.

Elena was 14 when her family left the political unrest of Argentina for the United States. Rodolfo was a psychiatrist and found work at mental hospitals in remote upstate New York and then South Dakota. The small American towns they landed in couldn’t have been more different than the cosmopolitan city she’d come from. The culture shock led her to pluck out all her eyebrows, which never grew back.

With her exotic Latin beauty, Elena stood out in a crowd, especially in South Dakota, where she became a beauty queen. She graduated high school a year early and was a sophomore in college when an unexpected pregnancy led her down a different path. She left school to marry Lee Engberg in 1960 and they had two children, Elizabeth and Brian. 

Unlucky in love, she ended up marrying two more times and having three more babies. Sadly, she wasn’t able to stay in touch with her two eldest children, a regret she carried until the end of her life. 

Dean, Laurie, and David were her children with second husband Charles Duncan, a captain in the U.S. Air Force. His career kept them on the move, with stints in Spain, Virginia, North Carolina, Germany, and England. They returned to North Carolina for good in 1974, and Elena worked hard to help support the family. She held two jobs and also enrolled in school to finish her degree. All this time, she emphasized to her children the importance of a good education. 

She was a forgiving soul who resisted complaining and didn’t hold grudges. When she and Charles divorced, they remained good friends who enjoyed one another’s company when visiting their adult children. 

Elena was in her early 40s and working as a makeup artist when she met her third husband Raul at a Bramanti family wedding in Texas. He was instantly smitten and convinced her to give love one more try. She left Charlotte for Fort Worth, where she helped manage Raul’s medical practice for several years. 

She was able to retire in her 50s and build her dream house on a steep hill with terraced gardens and picturesque views of Viña Del Mar, “the Vineyard by the Sea,” overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Chile. Elena spent many happy years of retirement there, developing deep friendships with her housekeeper Marta and her neighbor Veronica. She enjoyed Raul’s relatives and particularly loved having Henry visit her, as well as her dear childhood friend from Argentina, Haydee. 

A true epicurean, Elena was a world traveler who spoke English, Spanish, French, Italian and German—and was equally fluent in their culinary styles. 

In Viña, she was known for hosting magnificent parties with multiple courses that she and Marta prepared by hand. She could grill a whole goat or lamb Argentinian style and serve it with handcrafted pisco sours, sangria, or her favorite Malbec. Her homemade pizzas also were a much-anticipated treat.

The Parisian author François de la Rochefoucauld wrote, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” Elena relished thinking about food as much as she did preparing and enjoying it with loved ones. She elevated cooking to an art form, using her instinct and taste to create meals that captivated the senses. Her kitchen bookshelves in Viña held dozens of notebooks filled with a lifetime of handwritten recipes. 

Creating beautiful things came naturally to Elena. She loved to draw, paint, sculpt, dance, cook, sew, and garden. Her creations were, like her, one of a kind, and she generously shared the fruits of her labors with everyone. Her drawings and paintings are framed in many people’s houses. 

As a child, she could sketch a dress for her mother, Magdalena, who would then make it come to life in fabric. Elena had a similar talent, and made countless dresses for young Laurie. She was a loving stepmother to Raul’s grown daughters and sewed for them, too. She made curtains for their children’s bedrooms and knitted satin sweaters for Christmas gifts. She also made wearable works of art for her granddaughters, delighting them with beautiful dresses, beach cover ups, nightgowns, pajama pants, and even matching outfits for their dolls. 

She was passionate about art and could spend an hour in front of a painting, studying it and then pulling out her sketchbook to copy some part of it. Her granddaughter and namesake Elena has fond memories of their outings to the Art Institute of Chicago to admire and copy their favorite artworks, spending extra time with the Impressionists. A special lunch was always part of the fun. 

Sophia Loren famously said, “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.” Elena was much the same. She had the demeanor of a queen, the grace of a ballerina, and the sensuality of a tango dancer. It was evident in the way she walked, a sashay with hips swaying an invitation, “uno para mi, uno para ti.” She was undeniably sexy and an unapologetic flirt with men and women alike. Her charm was irresistible.

When her granddaughters displayed a talent for ballet, Abbi (short for Abuelita) insisted on attending their performances. She planned her summer trips from Chile to coincide with their recitals.  

Americans will recall Elena’s unique ways with the English language, which clearly marked her a foreigner, yet were so charming one couldn’t help but smile. Her car was a “buggy” and its tailpipe was a “fire escape.” In the evenings after dinner, she liked to sip on a “drink-i-poo” of scotch and smoke a “ciggie”—just one.  

We’ll also remember her discriminating tastes, particularly as they applied to food, wine, or fashion. If she didn’t like something, you could be sure that someone would hear about it, usually in the form of a gentle suggestion for improvement. Laurie was the recipient of endless kitchen gifts from her mother, in an attempt to make the space better equipped for Elena’s culinary endeavors. 

She loved to spend her days in the garden or the kitchen, but she also loved to shop. During her annual visits to Laurie in Chicago and David in Myrtle Beach, she accumulated shopping bags filled with gifts to take back home. Her own shopping weaknesses were limited to shoes, makeup, and (obviamente) good food. 

A believer in carpe diem, Elena was determined to make the best of any situation. It was a blessing and a curse. She put the needs of others before her own. In her later years, she spoke often of wanting to have the freedom to truly enjoy every day, particularly with her children and grandchildren. 

Because she drew joy from making others happy, she hated it when they weren’t. She was a pleaser who wrapped her love around others like a warm blanket, with countless caresses and acts of kindness. 

Claude Monét said, “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.” Like Monét, it wasn’t her cooking or artwork or even her lovely home that Elena was most proud of. It was her children and her grandchildren that she considered her life’s masterpiece. She loved them passionately and generously.

More than anything, she loved, and sought to be a connoisseur of life. We have much to learn from her example.

Elena was diagnosed with advanced ampullary cancer, a rare disease of the digestive system, in August 2019. She fought quietly and bravely, and was 78 years old when she died. Her husband Raul followed her nearly two years later, passing away on February 26, 2022.  Elena is survived by her children Elizabeth, Brian, Dean, Laurie, and David; her grandchildren Carmon, Tiffany, Brittany, Jessica, Duncan, Elena, Devon, and Alexander; her nieces Joanne, Lisa, Alane, and Shelby; her nephews Tom, Steve, and Joshua; and many great-grandchildren.

On July 16, 2021, more than a year after Elena’s death and in the midst of a global pandemic, some of her children celebrated her life in a brief ceremony at the shore of Lake Michigan. Laurie and David gathered with their families to spread Elena’s ashes in a place that she loved. They celebrated her with poems reflecting her spirit; her favorite foods, wine, and music; memories of what a unique and wonderful person she was; and the scent of her Coco perfume. View the celebration below or on YouTube here.