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My Talk to the Seniors
Great news! I was asked to talk about my book at the senior group. Practicing my speech in front of the mirror, I see myself through clouds. How will I look? Should I blond my hair? I talked about 80,000 words of this book into this tape recorder and I’m fussing around with a small talk.
What am I going to say to interest the seniors? I have seen their discontent, how some of them walked out when one of the elderly men spoke about Dinah in Biblical times and how the prince had violated her and then wanted to marry her. When he goes to his father to ask for his consent, “My son, kiss me first.” The son obliging and then said, “Father, please go to Jacob and tell him I want to marry his daughter.” “Mazeltov,” the king said. The seniors didn’t care for this love story.
From the episode of Dinah and the wars that followed, the 12 tribes of Israel emerged. I am from the last tribe, and I am still here.
The Director reminded me, “We need you to talk about your book.”
“I would be highly honored,” I said. Now I can’t sleep. I’m up at five in the morning and my head is rehearsing. Again I am wondering, what am I going to say? What should I tell them? “I’ll give them my heavy heart,” as my Chicago friend once said. To attempt such complexities was giving me one big headache. I will take them into the discussion, knowing how they sidetrack. I may hear, “Can you tell us about our civil rights and what’s happening in the world?” I have seen on TV
audiences thrust questions at speakers and marvel at the answers. I’ll be stuck.
I decide to do a little more research. I call the San Diego Services for the Blind and talk to the social worker. She’s so friendly. “Glad you called, Laura,” she said.
I said, “I want to return to the computer class, learn about email, cooking and how to write a check,” giving us both a good chuckle. “Besides I don’t mind competing with a talking computer if you have one. I could attend the support group and hear somebody else’s troubles for a change.”
“I know of a group of blind writers,” she said. “How would you like to join them? Or contact The American Foundation for the Blind? And then there is the career and technology bank
information for the blind.”
“Thank you, I’ll join all of them and tell the seniors all about my research.”
“Where is everybody? I ask of the program coordinator, my heart jumping at the sight of all the empty chairs.
“Oh, in the exercise room.” To where she is pointing, at the same time already up to the podium getting ready to introduce me.
“Here’s your easy chair,” she says, “and your glass of water,” as to a great orator.
They come straggling in, shuffle chairs while she introduces me.
“This is Laura Simon to talk about the book she has written, one of the essays published in today’s edition of the San Diego Jewish Heritage.”
Applause. I stand up.
“And she writes her book by talking into a small tape recorder.” I just about push her aside. That’s what I’m going to say, in all of my body language. “And so I give you Laura Simon without further ado.”
Leaning on the podium. Oh, pain is me, I’m overlooking a sea of old grey-haired people. Is that how I look to them? One foot on the way out? I open my mouth and the words don’t come
out. I practiced for weeks, such an honor, such a thrill, the first time I was asked to talk anywhere, wishing that old woman in front of me would stop fanning herself with that pink and white fan to match her pink hat and pink and white dress, realizing suddenly how improved my eyesight was since that recent eye surgery.
I blurt out, “Shopping, published in the San Diego Jewish Heritage.” I couldn’t say “I’m still here.” I say, “This is fun.” I babble.
“Remember. You count in this world, Just don’t let anybody push you around.”
Up at the podium I can’t push myself to talk as I do to myself up at the kitchen sink. All I can see are all those old people, some dressed up as if back in their youth.
And then I said, “Stay out of care centers, live independently, have pride, show that you count.” A friend back in Chicago went to see her sister in a nursing home; telling the care person
that her sister is too sick to sit in the chair. She wants to lie down. The two of us together can get her back into bed.”
“Oh, no!” came the answer. “Doctor’s orders. She has to sit up.” So she watched her sister die sitting up.
That wasn’t what I planned to say. It just came out. It had been dormant in my heart and mind ever since I heard about it ages ago. So I quickly relate another story, this one about an old
man sick enough to have nurses around the clock. One day one of the nurses came to his bedside and said, “If you call me again, you’ll find yourself on the floor with a broken leg.”
“He’d paved the way by hard work so that the generations to follow him would have it easier,” I said “and this is how he ended up.”
Still hanging on to the podium, I say to my audience, “It used to be that every home had a grandmother or grandfather living with them. They were still part of the family, not just an old
branch to be turned away because it doesn’t bear fruit anymore.”
The pink and white fan in front of me is fanning that wrinkled old face faster now.
“Keep telling yourself that you are strong. Just remember that you count. True, we’ve slowed up but we still count and we should say so!”
What do you know, they want me to speak again to the seniors!
Paper Drives Me Crazy
Each day is spent working out my problems. I have recordings of books on tape all lined up waiting to be “read.” The five books of Moses.
A young woman on TV was expounding upon her book: “Wisdom is to care less for more things.” And she went on to say, “She asked her Chinese friend what he thought about wisdom. He said, ‘Pretty good; some problems. Crying is good for the ground to water’”
I think as I shuffle the pages of this book around, my poor eyesight no help, I suddenly realize I've torn up three pages accidentally of this manuscript -- gone are my deepest feelings, mountains of time, the loves of my life, the great awards I imagined, the world now would never hear of, all turned into trash -- retrieved two pages by appealing to the Master of the Universe, scotch-taped together now, and dug out the third from pieces in memory, washed through by my tears. Later out
come the smiles. I love bending over a magnifier to write this book by long-hand, not a hundred words a minute as I used to do by typewriter, and not by the Palmer method, either.
A talking computer would help, that is if I win the Lottery and a repair man at my side. The San Diego Services for the Blind promised to call when their staff learned how to get their computer to talk, and the Braille Institute has me on their waiting list to learn.
Writer working on book, American-Jewish culture, needs an accurate typist with a laptop and a printer.
Trying to find a typist to help finish this book is taking chunks out of my few remaining years.
Talking to reference desk and then information, nine o’clock in the morning at Central Library, UCSD in La Jolla, doesn’t get me a typist jumping over here in a hurry.
“Just tack the ad up on your bulletin board,” I plead.
“But we don’t have a bulletin board -- the one at the door is for messages to students in the building.”
I don’t let them off the phone -- already nicknamed ‘nudnik,’ I’m sure. To get rid of me they’ll send an email to all the supervisors of the appropriate classes.
Just as Mayo said to my assistant, Charles, talking long distance, “my mother has tactics, she’ll work it out.” This unwavering confidence in me from my loving son came over the wires all the way from New York, “but it’s time to get harsh,” he’s saying into the ears of my assistant, “cut the
manuscript in half.” To give me naches, endless happiness, while editing part of this book.
I hardly had time to turn the can opener when a young man called. His major is political science, works twelve hours a week at that library from Monday through Thursday taking care of the newspapers and magazines -- if anyone has trouble with a computer, they call him. And he’s got a laptop. Perfect! I’m in ecstasy. Our appointment is all set, he wants to try it out, see if he can understand my voice on tape recorder, the way I write.
I asked him, “Will you understand quotes from Talmud? Midrash? Matchmaker brings shiksa?”
Evidently Chinese culture not that far removed from Jewish. He is most anxious and I am all set. He can always straighten things out in the transcribing, and me too should he find out I take sips of wine occasionally, especially if “Men in My Life” sounds tipsy.
I call and thank the library supervisor for the fast service. His reference of this young man is so glowing, I can forget all the phone numbers on hand for typists and messages on voice mail all over San Diego, in churches and high schools and neighborhood libraries, one librarian telling me their bulletin board is so crowded with ads for piano students, cooks and typists that they keep a copybook under the counter.
“Put the copybook up on your bulletin board,” I advised her, “where everyone can see it.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” she said.
In the meantime, my young man with the laptop forgot that his church had a retreat for the weekend, calling by cell phone from Los Angeles. Maybe he’ll call next week.
The Laptop Cometh
I have high hopes after calling job placement at Mesa College. Two hours later an excited young lady called all ready to go. She can handle a laptop with her eyes closed. A printer? You need the page typed? Printed? She’ll have to ask her husband. He’s an engineer. I call the engineer. Nothing to it. He can email the disk to my assistant who prints it and brings it to me. Easy for his wife Susanna to call me later that evening.
Everybody calls except Susanna. I nervously called her the next morning, leaving a message on voice mail. “Still waiting for your call. Is our two-thirty appointment on?” Hours pass, no response.
I pin a note on my closed door, “Susanna: Refrigerator empty. Went to grocery store. Wait. Back in ten minutes.” I call job placement. “Susanna never got here or returned my calls.”
Maybe this, maybe that. She transfers me to the handicapped department. Old people are like that, a little handicapped in the head. To uplift my ego I brag – “I used to be a student at Mesa
College,” I said. “Took painting and won top award in competition with the young students and through the Clairemont Art Guild.”
“Wow! But we can’t send you any help through Handicapped – you’re not a registered student here now.” Hanging up.
The phone. “Susanna!”
“I’m stuck in traffic, Mrs. Simon. I’ll be there shortly.”
“But the day is practically gone. I’m on my eggplant and cauliflower, the other groceries to put away.”
“But I’m five minutes away.”
She got lost in traffic. I’m outside looking for her. Finally, all perturbed, she’ll take the tape home but since she likes to go water-skiing, she’ll see.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a copy of the tape,” I say. I gave up half a night’s sleep to figure out what to do next. Where’s my head?
“I sure do miss the ICL,” I cheerfully say over the phone to the surprised secretary.
“Laura Simon,” she exclaimed to the voice in another world. “We haven’t heard from you in years.”
“Do you think that we got any older, Ruth?”
“Of course not,” she said. “Some of your old friends are still here.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m writing a book, and I’d like to put something up on your bulletin board:
‘Writer needs typist with laptop and printer.’”
“I know that some of the men have laptops but I don’t think they will want to do that,” Ruth said. As I remembered -- a retired judge, a scientist, a submarine captain -- unless they’ve moved on.
“Congratulations anyway from the Institute of Continued Learning. Good luck.”
How about Hillel? I call the office of Religious Affairs at UCSD, and discover one on Myers Street near the Price Center and police station. “That will keep us in line,” I said to a very interested Maggie who answers the voice mail, quickly explaining I had already talked to Hillel on Montezuma
at San Diego State, my ad for typist going to their bulletin boards, but UCSD was closer to home.
My needs now going on their job placement boards, and by email all over. The students will be coming in soon for the new semester, Maggie determined, hopeful for me -- my laptop cometh.
In the meantime, I work under the lamplight with magnifier, and transcribe from this tape recorder in longhand.
Uppermost now and to go on with this book, I’ve got a new transcriber. Just as an editor that I had met at the synagogue told me – writing the book is just the first phase. I find that the second phase of getting it transcribed is much more difficult. I had called various colleges to try and get students with lap top computers to come in and help me. I was successful, I must say. And now even more so.
This transcriber is a student of court reporting and comes with a whole factory of computers. What do I know just standing at the sink? What’s going on out there in our new technology? She has a shorthand computer. She types in shorthand and the computer converts it into words. I watch her. I listen, still trying to figure out how it’s done, the thought occurring to me that our progress is also causing us great devastation out there.
Court reporting requires 150 words a minute and accuracy and speed has to be built up to that and that’s where my student transcriber is getting some practice in the transcribing of my
manuscript. This morning I learned about court reporting. There are copyists behind the scene in a courtroom with their own computers. They follow the testimony and find errors if there are any in the transcripts. Then all of the computers involved go through the process of corrections. I used to
think I was great typing 100 words per minute.
Suddenly my transcriber is having problems with her machine. “Wait, wait, wait,” she’s saying, waving her hands. I have to hold my excitement. Her machine is telling the computer something she doesn’t understand. She may have pressed the wrong key on the shorthand machine and we are allmixed up. All I can do is go to the kitchen and make myself a poached egg.
At this point I interrupt my important mission at Sadie’s to say that my transcriber had me wait. She has to add the name Sadie to her dictionary, already having a thousand new words since
starting here, which is most gratifying.
I have added two new words to my memory dictionary: real time. R-e-a-l, which is live testimony in a court. I have hesitated so many times in continuing with this book. It makes me relive so many moments that I had put away and thought forgotten and I’m digging them all up again.
When I heard those two words, "Real Time” from my student court reporter bouncing her shorthand machine, I did some thinking. “What else do I have to do or to give in this life but a little bit of my real-time?”
Notes and Diary
My transcriber has been coming almost every morning. This morning I had to tell her not to come. I have to go to the podiatrist and get those calluses off the bottom of my feet. A friend called to go shopping. Debating in my mind, shop or transcribe for my editor? Then I had to do some housecleaning. We are determined to get through with this book. I once had a demonstrator here with a large screen and large print and I couldn’t see that. I began to think of myself as a crumbling old lady.
I am listening to the TV headlines. It’s still about the terrorists hijacking the planes and crashing into the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center, an unbelievable saga. We can hardly find
the words to speak of it. We can’t live in fear, they tell us. President Bush made his speech last night.
We’re expecting more terrorists but to go on with our lives as best as we can. Now that the National Guard is watching over the airports, we don’t have to be afraid to fly.
I can hardly eat the fruit and cottage cheese before me, wondering how I can get on with this book. I couldn’t sleep last night. Rehearsing my lines for the tape recorder and having them ready for the transcriber in the morning.
I can’t turn off those thoughts of war. The radio and television. If it’s not war, it’s recession.
I’m thinking of so many people out of work now. The way the interest rates are dropping. After all, what do I know standing at the sink? The Great Depression may yet look like a pussycat. I don't want to think about it.
I turn on the TV before breakfast -- The Tempest. “Such stuff as dreams are made of,” the actor is saying. “My brain is tired,” another actor is saying. I turn to another station
and hear a chemist saying, “We are weighing the salt with water.” Again, “Kindergartens are trying times for children.”
What about us, the aged? I go from television to telephone. “I don’t get up this early and sorry I couldn’t talk to you last night,” my friend said. "My diverticulitis, my cancer.” I call
another friend. She says, “My daughter got me The Forward. It’s a very expensive newspaper. She got me the subscription because I broke my leg in her house. She said, 'Why stay home? Come on.' Because she feels so guilty."
For the past several weeks the stock market has been going down, like in the Great Depression. We seemed to be all wisdom and no judgment. Everything going up sky high at first
and thinking that it would always be that way. Now again we are hearing about the economy and recession and preparing for a war like in the Wilson days: fighting, bloodshed, disease.
When I was young, we didn’t need National Guards at Lindbergh Field. There was no Lindbergh Field because there were no airplanes. It took Lindbergh to open that up for us. Nor did we know of picture IDs or line-ups at airports or border controls on the alert for terrorists. We didn’t hear of migrants or student visas. Drama of immigrant changes, families breaking up all over the world. Many of those tragedies on the Yiddish stage.
Recently at the Seniors an elderly man was talking about family rather sadly, out of loneliness in his voice, his manner, just don't mention wives, alone now all these years.
He said, “One day I remind myself I had a sister, a widow, I never called her to ask how she is and my son he’s a chiropractor. Was I going to go chatting about him? Why not? Why didn’t I do it? And my brother too. I could have called to straighten the damn thing out, I don’t know what I
thought about it. Maybe I felt guilty. Sometimes we feel we just don’t want to think about it. And now I think, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to talk to somebody? But who do I have to talk to?’ I just sit here and listen to an entertainer jokes about Rabbis and Priests.
So why don’t we sit in a circle and tell about our history? There are always doctors to talk about, hospitals, nursing homes, God only knows. This week to the doctor or last week on why not set up a tour for us to a museum in Balboa
Park, the Museum of Man, sculptured heads and skeletons, and learn something. Once we start it can be a circle that just can’t be broken. We would have one another. All together it would give us more strength. We are fighting Alzheimer’s, we are fighting senility. Let’s tell what is happening to us, now thinking about my family. The problem was they were too honest with me. We all go through these experiences. Here I am seventy-nine, all right, eighty-one. Why had I kept away all this time?"
The crowd of seniors gets bigger and more interested in what he had to say -- they're silent, thoughtful. “They went their way, I went mine, once in a while sending a birthday card, Chanukah card, Christmas card, then for forty years we don't hear from each other. So OK, I did try to get in touch with them,” answering a raised hand, “but they are not there anymore, so OK, I’m thinking, we could have exchanged a few letters or talked on the phone finding out what we were doing all these years. But the connections are gone. They’re gone. And even if they were here, the connections of forty-fifty years are gone -- gone with the wind.
Just to give you a few examples of what I was thinking of when I walked in this morning, besides what we’re having for lunch today and I hope it’s not catch of the day. So maybe if we sit around together,” as our friend said, “we can share some of these things and feel better about ourselves."
“You are right,” another old man spoke up. “I feel I have to make choices and decisions about my life I’ve never had to make before when I was younger, my daughter saying, ‘Dad, whydon’t you get a cane – you’re always falling. You’ll be able to keep your balance.’ She is the light of my life -- she is looking for another place for me."
Today is October 11, 2001. Memorial services are being held for the thousands of people who are still buried underneath the World Trade Center, a devastating tragedy. As President Bush is conducting the services at the Pentagon, the FBI is warning us that there may be another terrorist strike within a few days, San Diego being one of the targets. This is Memorial Day for all of us. We are all mourning. I feel the loss of those people, while I survive. I see that pain in others. Their lack of spirit,
their loss of family and friends and how vulnerable we all are. How forbidding and how fragile we are and what this all means now to others. Or ask myself, How did I get this far? What is the fight in me? I don’t know. Or that determination, as my Aunt Bessie said, “To ride on a street-car. To go on
and on forever to someplace.”
I find great friends in literature. There is so much to read. Many a time I think of Thoreau,
“All my life I have been searching for the dove and have never been able to find it.”
Today the news on TV is more than anyone can stand. What must the people be thinking about that have to cross the Coronado bridge or the Golden Gate bridge? I heard one very young man on TV saying, “I admit. I am afraid.” Terrorist threat that those bridges will be blown up at evening rush hour. Time comes and goes, the bridges are still there for which we are thankful.
I remember a lecture I went to one evening with a friend to hear a Rabbi expound upon the need to teach yourself kindness, regardless of how you would like to strike back. It was right after that fall and my tailbone still hurt. Along went my pillow, debating whether I walk with a walker or
stand up straight with a cane. The cane won.
Even on the Scripps Mobile the other day, there is laughter. “They’re not going to let you into dialysis the way you’re dressed in red slacks.” Trying to laugh off their predicament. “Everyone wants a big house, three bedrooms. Share -- that’s the name of the game.” Some of us get our entertainment on that bus. I have been plodding along in the writing of this book. I stay up until midnight sometimes, thinking of all this, the laughter of others. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving 2001. I can’t help thinking about that wonderful, terrific, young housecleaner, always laughing, wishing I had her now,
that young, joyous spirit.
“How was your week, Mrs. Simon?”
“I’d rather hear about your week,” I said, giving her a big Sunkist orange and a knife to peel it with.
“I love bananas,” she said. “Not that I would eat one in the movies. We went last night. My date is a college graduate.” I was all ears. She was bringing me back into my youthful world. “He is already teaching two nights a week at the university, wishing that he could have more. They keep changing his schedule. He doesn’t know where he’s at.” Laughing. “But that movie Pearl Harbor was really cool. He saw it being made. All those celebrities.” While she’s eating and talking, I
remembered way back when I saw celebrities in movies about World War I, myself.
“Is it all right if I peel these eggs and the shells go down the garbage disposal?”
“Oh, no. Not in our plumbing.” If I wanted her again to do my housework, I had to let her take her time and eat her breakfast. Talk about movies. A dream I have for this book -- a movie and me in the lead to make it more authentic. I’m more naïve than Mannie ever suggested, laughing.
I am still trying to figure out about Adam and Eve and the serpent and that tree of knowledge.
Mannie once saying to me, “I tried to teach you something for over 50 years, Laura. You still don’t have your degree even with all that college stuff.” I worked on it. I can’t help it if I’m not smart.
We’re all human beings, the women say when they get together praising their husbands, the ones who are dead.
My young housecleaner’s saying, “Grandmothers are wonderful. They’re so kind and generous to everyone. They laugh. My grandmother was always watching over me and then she had to go to a nursing home. ‘All hodge podge,’ she’d complained and her son had to take her out. And then
when she didn’t know what was going on, he took her back. Then he felt guilty, so sorry. Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe he shouldn’t have done that.”
My housekeeper still saying, “Oh, the best news. I got a wonderful telephone call to take care of a very sick woman who’s in her fourth stage and I’m going to start nursing school. She wants me four or five times a week, and that will be good experience for me. Her daughter’s insisting that she go to Hospice but that’s not what she wants.
‘All they do,’ she said, ‘is cushion you down. My bones will stop hurting. When the weather changes, it’s my arthritis. I ought to know. My daughter-in-law insisting that I’m in denial. I don’t hear half of it. I don’t listen to them.’
As I closed off our conversation, she put the dishes in the sink for me to do later. Stripping the sheets off the bed while I, the solitary old lady, am sitting in a corner to keep out of the way. The sounds of running water, mop, then vacuum. The smells of Pine Sol and soap, familiar from when I did more cleaning. Not only housework, there was a family to keep together. That scene was very real as it went through my sleepy mind.
“Later, on your way, would you mind dropping me off at Henry’s?” I ask her. “You can leave me there. I’ll get home on my own.”
“No, no,” she said. “Taking you back home is on my way.”
Back at home I compare her one small bag to my four that filled the shopping cart that she helped wheel in. “I didn’t need much,” she said, laughing. “Only a pineapple. Hope it’s ripe. And a red leaf lettuce. It is wonderful to shop there. They’re so cheap.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. I just didn’t want to let her go. “I forgot, I have a challah that we Jewish people eat on Friday nights. I don’t know why I bought a pound and a half twist with poppy seeds when I have all this rye bread. I don’t know what I’m doing. Do you think the girls with you would each like a chunk of this? Slice it up, put it all in a pan in the oven and toast it? But maybe what will they think? It’s not strictly fresh this minute out of the bakery. It’s from yesterday and I
hesitate to give it to you.”
“Oh, they won’t know the difference,” she said, already putting it into a brown bag, laughing.
“Wait,” I said, “If you have another moment.” I’m looking through my bags. “I got some of these tomatoes on the vine.”
“On the vine?” she said. “I love tomatoes on the vine.” I gave her a cluster and then added another one. Reminding myself of my mother-in-law in the deli slicing 5 cents for the bread full bag handing it to a little boy. “A lot of people there,” she said, “that have to eat.” That was ages ago.
“See you next Saturday morning and that will be great when I go back to school too. Perfect.”
I took my time unpacking the groceries. More and more canned goods this time, mushroom soups, stewed tomatoes, Garbanzo beans, sardines for my second or third week supply, maybe just in case I can’t get out shopping. Almost a pound of ground lean sirloin for the freezer where I plan to put a
copy of this manuscript in case there’s an earthquake or buried down deep under this nuclear age where some day archeologists will find it when they’re digging up San Diego.
In the meantime, I am at the sink where I belong washing the Swiss chard, cutting up the red stalks into little pieces, coming in handy for soups or as a vegetable, thinking I must be one of a kind, never forgetting Depression days. High school kids throw pennies away over their shoulder. There’s always more where that came from. They know the subject of money better than I do. Or do they?
Lazy but Strong and Spicy
On and off, I’m busy listening to TV, to award winners reading sections of their books at the National Book Festival in Washington, in the east side of the Capitol, in the gardens.
To make up some time, I am staying up late tonight to work on this book. I like to visualize myself getting my doctorate at a university, like saying I want to go to the moon, or I don’t mind a Tony award. Frankly, I do my best writing in the middle of the night. I, too, want my book read at a festival, but I’m too lazy to get out of bed.
Living my day Thanksgiving, 2001. Today is my birthday, again. I am 96. Busy opening birthday cards, gifts enclosed and birthday congratulations by telephone from relatives all over the United States and from Betty who was born and raised in Texas. She had target practice. But her father would never take her, only her brothers. She was raised to be a lady. Never talk about sex until you get older. So she’s waiting. She’s now 85.
A few years ago in our clubhouse in current events, an old man started to talk about President Clinton and his escapades -- a bit too spicy. The instructor jumped up, his face got fiery red. All hell broke loose. “We don’t talk about sex like that in this class,” he shouted. That satisfied the Victorians, but the old man had to walk out. What would the teacher think about Abraham and Sarah? He was a hundred and she 85 when they had a baby. An angel came to Abraham and said,
“In a year, you will have a baby.”
“A year?” It took them three months before they could even get started.