Volume 3, Number 217
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

December 13, 2009

Book Serialization

I'm still here ... Memoirs of Laura Simon, 104

They Lost Each Other
The Fireman
The Paratrooper

Editor's Note: Today San Diego Jewish World continues the-weekly serialization of I'm Still Here by Laura Simon, a San Diego resident who is still going strong at 103. She wrote this book to mark her 100th birthday.

We will maintain a list of links to the installments of her story on Laura Simon's archive page, which can be accessed any day of the week through the "authors" pulldown tab below our masthead. Laura, who once painted canvases in vivid colors, today is legally blind, so she is unable to read e-mail. However, she says anyone who wishes to contact her may do so through the e-mail of her son, New York playwright Mayo Simon at mayosimon@aol.com The book may be purchased via its publisher's website, www.montezumapublishing.com or via Amazon or Barnes & Noble's websites.

Link to previous chapters

By Laura Simon


Like an old movie that has to be rerun before time elapses. Deedee came to me in my later years when I needed to replenish those friends I had made and lost in Chicago. We met at the ICL (Institute of Continued Learning), she not yet fifty-five which was the age requirement for ICL membership and I over seventy-five, most likely. We seemed to fit together, sharing our past history and going on picnics, to concerts and lectures on campus becoming a threesome when another
friend joined us.

Juliet, Deedee and I were inseparable, new friends, new nourishment for me to replace Esther, Rose and Sophie in the far distance.

In spite of their own personal problems, Juliet’s and Deedee’s younger viewpoints about life stimulated me. “You can still meet a nice man, Laura,” Deedee would say. “Age has nothing to do with it. You can love somebody at any age. There are no buttons in you that shut off and say ‘Stop!’”

Juliet helped by introducing me to the paratrooper who was sixteen years younger than I. The new life that Deedee tried to make for herself in San Diego so that her 23-year old daughter would be free of her -- hating the sight of her – was not meant to be, one day getting the news that her daughter had committed suicide. That night Juliet lit a mourning candle and they said the kaddish together.

Our threesome outings, our pot luck picnics were over. After the funeral, Deedee moved back to her old home in upper New York.

I still receive holiday and Mother’s Day cards from her. “Optimism is what keeps me going,” she writes, “Miss you.”

They Lost Each Other

At the senior center,
the old man sitting next to the old woman
knows that she exists.
She looks at him as a man with nothing.
He looks at her now blaming her for his disabilities.
All her fault.
His fault, her fault, the way they look at each other.
A laugh at him,
A laugh at her
Their worship of each other long gone.
One resenting the other for their raggedy old age.

The Fireman

My ninety-five years of living have been one great education. And I’m still trying to make some sense of my life as a whole. The struggle after Mannie’s death has given me strength. I was
about 75 then.

The first man to come along to court me was a fireman. He wore a black suit and black vest.

It was a perfect funeral suit to be taken out when needed and obviously saved all through these years. He was at least 75 or 80. But the occasion was not a funeral. The black clothes quite a contrast to the white love seat he was sitting on. I had dragged that love seat all the way from the home that
Mannie and I had built and to Washington Street in Skokie, Illinois. I sat opposite him on the other white love seat.

As if he were a used furniture man, he eyed the pair of blue sofas, the dining room set, the cane-backed chairs, my teakwood screen made by many hands in India, the silver service and eachpainting that I had done myself.

“I spent 25 years saving lives,” he said. “Your husband wasn’t a fireman like me. I climbed up six stories on that ladder to a big plate glass window. I smashed it, got the glass out and jumped intoa room full of smoke where a big, fat woman was crying, choking. I would hang from the rafters to save a person's life. I carried 300 pounds of her all the way down those stairs. My eyes were burning. The tears were running down my face. Thick smoke all over. I wasn’t supposed to be without a
buddy, but he was busy swinging a hose this way and that way just to get the fire out to make sure it’s out so we can get down. I had to slide her down most of the stairs. She gave me a white silk rosefor saving her life.

“But anyway, my arms, and as soon as I got out, my boots got full of water. And you could make those boots bigger. You could make them longer over your knee if you needed it. And I wore heavy clothes. Of course my helmet. I could hardly stand in all that water. One of my feet turned out, look.” Showing his foot. “Later they wanted to take a couple of bones out of my shoulder to fix my foot. But I wasn’t going to go through that. On top of that, my buddy stood there first chance he got and started to laugh at me. My under shorts -- the elastic broke and they were falling over my boots.”

“If my wife were alive, it would be easier for me. Sometimes you can find someone you like and then maybe she isn’t interested. She wants her freedom. That is, until she finds out she is all alone. So you can see, Laura Simon, how I would take care of you. You can believe me and you can be sure of that. . . . Nature does something to older men,” he said after a pause. “But not to me. I’m still strong. I have endurance. I’ll always have the fireman in me. And they didn’t want me at first.
Not a Jewish fireman.”

“Well,” I said, “you have to realize that my husband is only gone a year.”

“He must have a long hand. He still has a hold on you,” he said. “Some men are looking for beauty. Some are looking for knowledge. Some are looking for beauty and knowledge. And
sometimes you like somebody right away. Just because you have a good eye, you know you can love her.” Hesitating, “And you can just feel that you found a home.”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “After all, I’m getting older now. And I’m not sure of what I should do at this stage of the game. How my life should be now that my husband is gone.”

“I think,” he said, “that it’s always the right time. Especially if I’m here. We’ll take the time. I’ll move in and we’ll soon know how we get along.”

Am I hearing right? Is my hearing aid working?

“As long as it takes, it takes. What’s the difference? As long as I’m here close to you.”

I’m saying, “Maybe an old woman’s idea of love won’t match yours. And that will be very disappointing to you. Am I making sense?”

He said, “Of course. You think 75 is old and I think it’s young. Look at your home -- how nice. I already feel near you and don’t think, Laura, that I don’t know that men think they know it all. But I’m not that kind of a person. Most of what they say is all in their heads. They know it and I know it that we need a woman. We need a woman to guide us. If I didn’t have that beautiful, wonderful wife, my life would be all misery.”

I didn’t know what to say to this man -- that this moment is the greatest ever in my life? Since I wasn’t responding, for a moment or two, he looked extremely gone. His entire face changed, looked anguished. Then he smiled, laughed, saying, “Maybe I sound to you overly anxious. I know I should give you a little time to think about this. I wish I could have brought along some of my old pictures. You should see how I looked when I was young. I came driving all the way from the east.
It took me two weeks in that old car. I thought my daughter would be happy to see me. Not when she saw the dog I brought along. Was I going to leave that Boxer there with other people? An intelligent dog and so easy to train. I wasn’t going to get rid of him. She would turn him out. And with me together. That dog was my friend. And I want you to know, Laura, that I don’t have a weakness for women. Not even sometimes. I put that fire out a long time ago.”

That gave us a good laugh. And serious again.

“You don’t know much about me. We can go to the synagogue together. I pray very well. I even prayed for my poor dog. That’s the kind of person I am. He was sick. His tail was hanging down between his legs. I had to put him to sleep. And when my daughter told me with the dog or without the dog, you have to stay in the laundry room, I thought that would finish me off. I like to protect people. You got a nice apartment here.”

He kept rambling on like on old fire engine, rushing through a dark tunnel. When he finally came out into the light, he leaned back wearily.

Afterwards, I found the rose on my tea cart. I later put it into a collage that I called “Cultivating My Own Garden.” I understood his loneliness and having no place to go. That is the
beginning of the end for many of us.

I was going on to a new life, Mayo having told me, “Mother, it is written that man is made for woman. And you should remarry.” Way back when, I never wanted to get married in the first place.How was I going to remarry now? But the years ahead had methinking.

The Paratrooper

A few months later at the J.C.C., a limping man came walking through the crowd toward me.

“Didn’t you want to hear the Midrash?” he asked.

“Me? Are you talking to me?” I asked.

He looked around, “Who else?”

“It’s a big room,” I said. “And hard for me to hear. And hearing is the story of my life” I said.

“Especially with so much jabbering around.”

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“Well,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out did Abraham really talk to God? Learn of his destiny? ‘Go forth to what you see in the stars.’ I’m waiting” he said, “for God to guide me. I’m

He’s looking me up and down, measuring me to see if I’m up to standard of Midrash. That seems to be taking him very far. Well, I didn’t know anything about it. If I don’t talk, I won’t be
saying the wrong thing.

“Ellie told me about you a couple of times,” he said. “You do paintings. I do ceramics. Therapy in the Veterans Hospital,” he said. “I was a paratrooper. And when I fell right into a
pineapple grove, it took me two years before I got into that art class. Otherwise, with a parachute, you could fly around just like a bird. I’ll take you home,” he said. “And I’ll tell you all about it. It’s my way of doing a Mitzvah.”

I needed the ride home and didn’t care what he could see beyond the stars.

“Anyway,” he said, when he noticed I wasn’t quite interested in the stars, “I want to show you what’s in my trunk. All my ceramics. It keeps me going straight,” he said. “I used to be in Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s a hell of a long time ago.”

Trying to catch up on himself, he hadn’t meant for me to know. Nor to say that he was much younger than I was. I could see it anyway. He was always needing Mitzvahs and from that first time when he took me home. He was taking me out for dinner.
Buying me gifts. I was rather enjoying all that and my new friend Lydia having parties at her home, inviting me. He made a very handy escort. Or did he come along for the cheese and crackers and tabuli with chopped parsley and tomatoes?

He was never afraid of a dark parking lot as I was, always scared of what was behind me. He had confidence and strength. We attended some free concerts, parking his car at the ocean, watching the seals. He showed off his mobile home that had stacks of paper on the stove and refrigerator. He
invited me to his clubhouse parties. I was having a good time.
One evening when taking me home, he said, “Laura, I am going to say something very strange to you. I can’t bend down to pick anything up and one foot is much shorter than the other.
But will you marry me?”

I don’t know what to say. I said, “I’m taking this as quite a compliment. I thank you.” I hadn’t thought about marriage at my age.

He said, “I promise you a smooth parachute ride.”

“I don’t think I want to marry anyone,” I said. “I don’t know. I just don’t. I like your friendship.” I said, “You’ve been a fine, a very fine friend.”

“That’s not enough for me,” he said. “I want a wife to come home to.”

“Besides,” I said, “you’re 16 years younger than I am. You’ll still be young and I’ll be an old woman.” What am I doing with this guy?

“We’re going on a trip,” he said, taking hold of the situation. “And we’re going to be married up in Canada. I have a paratrooper friend and he’s going to be best man.”

“You’ll be driving all that way?” I asked. “I can’t help you drive. I don’t have a license. I haven't driven in a long time.”

He wasn’t taking no for an answer. I’m going on that trip with him. I could just hear my old lady friends. “How lucky can she be?”

On the way, we stop at his son’s home, where I got a cold reception. They left us to go buy a new car. My paratrooper had to scrounge around to find some crackers. At last we’re on our way. He’s saying to me, “You know what my son said? He said you were senile.”

“Well, you just take me to the nearest Greyhound. I want to go home,” I said.

“I’m just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” Boyish in his laughter and then tough for the battles of hardship. Then soft aging in his face.I was so disgusted with myself I wished then he had taken me seriously. Hotels with him overnight, on tour five thousand miles of adventure, from California to Oregon, Washington to Canada where a paratrooper best man awaits us, if we survive the trip to be married -- get married in
air by parachute? God said since the Temple was destroyed, people prayed three times a day, a prayerful man once telling me, and that a worm can fell the strongest tree. He read it in Psalms, Psalm 20. Now he tells me.

Senile? What a thing to say about a future step-mother, a very close relation-to-be, family.

Driving along with him, he intent on surrounding traffic, I was miserable, disgusted with myself. Why did I not have strength to speak up? “I like to go flying with you but not that far.”

Mannie always talked garages, then went to the office alone. I’ll be in constant parachutes -- when do we land? Damned if he knows what he is doing. Marrying a woman who hennas her hair over the grey, seventy-five and loves to eat chopped liver and pheasant under glass, and he’s on beans and
soy milk.

“I knew there was something I liked about you,” he kidded. “You go for the good stuff” --lovingly – “me too when nobody is looking.”

Finally our next relation stopover, Francesca’s wedding at home in Pacific Palisades. Just in time to join a garden full of relatives, friends, and friends of friends already dancing to accordion, to the familiar singing of Jewish wedding songs bringing Jewish tears for joy, and sentimental I-will-love-
you-forevers. For chair dancing and mazeltovs, they grab me, the grandmother, while my young lover looks on glowingly – “Look at her dancing in high trees, and on her way to paratrooping. Youmen are so hard to please.”

I have to get ready to go for my own wedding -- by parachute jump ten seconds and we’re there, by car another week, but then we have to stop to eat at a restaurant high on a cliff and take time to look over a vast valley.

“What are you afraid of, Laura? Look at me,” my intended, arms outstretched to and over aworld I always wanted to see, now stepping far back until a stranger with a camera helps pull mecloser to the edge and snaps our picture, to have and to hold forever, surrounded by sky and outer space, filling me with apprehensions. It must be true. My reasoning must have been chopped off. I must be senile.

I was just sailing along in a parachute with him. He was good company. We seemed to suit one another. And I loved the companionship. He would tell me how when he jumped, he would watch for the trees, not for the houses. The colors of the houses sometimes change, but the trees are always in the same place. And that’s how he knew where Lydia lived, by the trees. On our drive, lakes, trees which would just spring up from nowhere. And we would have our picnic lunch or dinner or stop at a lodge, where they would have a fireplace and drinks.

And I saw him guzzle down a glass of wine like it was one drop of water. Giving him the courage to talk about his own
advertising company. No more ads on Turkish towels around the backs of shirts. Not for him. He had bigger ideas.
In the meantime I am thinking, while we are sipping wine, I was so far away from what I thought I was, far above those old people I used to hear about, how they met for their sex on
benches in the park. I felt misplaced with this paratrooper, in the wrong adventure in my anxiousness to take in the world before I became an old has-been.

I was all ears for his army tales. “Once we’re in a town,” he was saying. “Went in for cigarettes and the man wouldn’t charge us for anything. We were soldiers. ‘Here, take all the cigarettes you want. Free. It’s for the war,’ he said. We smoked ourselves crazy. And all the women after that -- war is hell.”

I didn’t know if those stories were true or not, but we were laughing, driving along. Onward.

We’re in Oregon, roads sometimes dusty, he too tired to stop, wash and wipe the windows, or rainy, or too much sunshine, drying the soot. The radio is playing “Amazing Grace.”

Suddenly, he’s on the wrong side of the road. Avoiding crashing head-on into a big truck, we’re screaming, swerving way out, crashing right into a guardrail. The sounds of smash up to a big sky and thundering over a vast forest, a mass of trees far down below and into a far space of emptiness. The guardrail held. We couldn’t believe it. We were hanging in air. He quickly got out of the car and stood at the edge of
that huge valley loving that space, arms gathering. Turning to me, “Are you hurt, Laura?” It was as if he just landed with his parachute. He had sailed across a great divide. And when he got down, there was no battle. He was safe.

“What happened?” He had been taking pills from a big, round plastic container. One after another, of all colors.

“You must have fallen asleep from all that,” I said.“Maybe I ought to take you over to the hospital and see how you are.”

“It’s only my arm. And how are you?”

We checked into a hotel. In our room he said, “You sure you’re all right?”

“No,” I said. “I want to go home.”

“I can take you to the plane now. But do you really want to leave?”

“No,” I said. “I can wait til morning.”

“Laura, I love you.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to know better,” I said.

“We’re still in shock,” he said. “Laura, I am so sorry for what happened. To cause you this trauma. In the morning I’m going to ask you to marry me again like I said. I want a wife to come
home to. Maybe you think because of my handicap, you will have to take care of me. Please don’t think that way. I love you.”

I wasn’t going to marry anybody and I knew it. Simply, I was holding up a lifetime of mirror in front of me. And still couldn’t figure out what I was doing here.

“We’re lucky to have a second chance at life,” I said. “Lucky that the guardrail held and that you are all right too.”

“And I’m only glad that you are all right,” he said.

“Let’s make the most of it,” I said. “I am not for you.”

“We’re married,” he said. “That piece of paper is nothing.”

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