Volume 4, Number 007
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, January 17-18, 2010

Book Serialization

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

--Home Health Care
-- Help
--Try and Find a Maid
--Other Worlds
--How a Legally Blind Woman Sees
--Blindness for Sure
--The Wooden Queen
--My High School Walker

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

Home Health Care

My thoughts are everywhere from my younger days to Home Health Care when the girl came to tell me that Scripps Hospital merged with Mercy. And now that she is here, she can’t help, not even to take me grocery shopping. She has already gotten a call on her pager. She has to go back to Chula Vista. That’s why she was having problems. Everyone wants to be boss, she says. Nobody has any sense. Why didn’t they tell her before? Now it’s an emergency. She can’t finish taking my blood pressure -- it’s already 158. Too high, she thought. She’s got one foot out the door. She doesn’t know what to do. It’s in her wisdom, first you have to love yourself, then you can love others, she
says. “Yes! She’ll give the social worker the message. She knows. She will call you. She will get you help. Good-bye.”


It’s another day. A cleaning girl, recommended by my neighbor, came to see my house. She will do the job for $40.00. No. On second thought, it’s $50. Now $60. I hurried her away. The next day, the Home Health Care girl was coming to give me my warm bath. The metal implant in my hip
just won’t bend. She was efficient, caring, and understood the stresses of the elderly. Here was a possibility, already making my plans on how to approach the subject, her time schedule and the cost.

“I could use two or three hours, several times a week and fit my time to yours,” I said. “We seniors need help every which way. How would you like to work for me in your spare time? Would this be possible?” Looking up from her report, still writing.“I would like to very much. But I am working for two hospitals on a rotating basis. And I don’t think I will be able to see you again. There will be somebody else.”

I desperately love this lady.

“I have a mortgage to pay off,” she said. “Sometimes I am not home until 9:00 o’clock.”

“I have a philosophy,” she said. “I want to treat others as I will want to be treated myself one day when I am in their position, when I will need help.”

Beware of the voice on the phone that is too sweet. “Sweetie, I’ll be there, sweetie. It’s 8:30 now, sweetie, I’ll be there by 9:30, sweetie maybe. I’ll call you one day next week.” It is unlikely that I will be sick that long.

Stop the world, as I once heard in a song on stage, I want to get off.

At last I find a day worker. “How would you like to work every day for me?” I asked her.

“I can’t. I’ve got two teenagers and a husband.”

“Then maybe in your spare time?”

“Mrs. Simon, your house is clean, anyway. Not so long ago, I walked into a mobile home; it was just packed with junk. You couldn’t walk through. I heard of a woman who fell asleep with a lit cigarette; suddenly she was enveloped in flames. The junk that surrounded her killed her.”

Then the nurse from Home Health Care called, she’d like to come right over.

“No, thank you. Some kind soul offered to take me grocery shopping.”

“Well, then, how about 4 o’clock?” she asked.

“Oh, great.” I come home to a message on my answering machine. “Naturally you weren’t home yet, I came early.”

While waiting for help I no longer lay dying. As I get older my thinking is changing. Within myself, in my inner thoughts, I take pride in thinking that if there is a solution, I will find it. I still want to see what happens in this world and I am not going to a nursing home yet. I like those two blue sofas against the wall and everything else. The rim around my dining room table should be fixed. It tore off when men came in to wash my carpet. The office called, “Don’t tear up our walls
with Mrs. Simon’s dining room table.” That threat from the office saved part of it.

Another helper. “I am your healthcare worker, but I don’t have much time to stay. I have to make out a final report for you. I am your original nurse, remember?” Sitting at my table and
opening her notebook in a hurry, “Now what are you going to do, Mrs. Simon? Are you going to live with your children? I have to write it down. Or call an agency for help,” pointing her pen at me.

“Sure, ” I said, “and they promised me a therapist to come help exercise my legs. I still can’t walk right. Home Health Care sure changed from the last time, not that I want to complain. They’ve cut down so much.”

She’s taking my blood pressure, “Great. And it’s not too low.”

“What’s low?”

“When it gets down to 100, then you can question it,” she said.
Filling out her report, putting it in her briefcase, she’s back at the door. “Talk to your doctor if you need help,” she advised.

Try and Find a Maid

I get home just as a social worker from Home Health Care was ringing my bell. “There you are, there you are. I think I got the right assisted living help for you Mrs. Simon. Two women will
call and make appointments with you. $10.00, $11.00 an hour, two, three days a week. I had them in my home. And you can trust them. We are interested in having the seniors stay at home to live independently. Let me know what happens.”

They didn’t call. I began to call them. And waited for an answer from their voice mail.

Finally I made arrangements over the phone with one of them. She would love to work for me. I was delighted. She never showed up. She never called.

I called the social worker. She didn’t return my call.
I put my hopes on the second woman. Our talk over the phone sounded perfect. She was going to start to work. A few hours later calling to say that she had to visit her grandson in the
hospital and would call me again. That was the last of it.

Other Worlds

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I find myself already writing my book. I get to the kitchen quickly to my orange juice, banana and my tape recorder up on the counter, dreamlike, I write. I don’t know what time it is. It is still dark and I am in the world of my book, I Am Still Here.

Then I turn on the news to see if the world is really still here. This morning the weatherman is right. We’re having a lot of rain. In between drops, I go out to see if the world still exists, and which stranger might brighten up my day, and there she is hobbling toward me she with the cane, I with the walker.

“By the way,” I said. “Would you like to share a maid with me?”
She laughed. “I am the maid,” she said, “I do my own housework.”

I hadn’t expected to hear two voices coming from the laundry room. Soon, plain enough, that it was mother and daughter, both sobbing.

“Mother,” she’s saying. “I am almost as old as you are. It’s a different world now. 50 is old and I did put another ad in the newspaper for a job. I just don’t want you crying like this. Please don’t cry.”

The daughter comes rushing by me, heaving sobs that sound like the ocean.

The mother still crying, “Look at her, she doesn’t want to get married! You understand. You’re no dummy.”

I’m in a world of my own.

It’s a new day now as I write this. The sun glistening in between the trees as I look out the window. Seems like such a peaceful world here, except for the jets that are flying overhead. Why so low? The terrorists, the fanatics? There are two worlds now, according to what I read in the papers.

Islam and our world.

Yesterday in the synagogue at a lecture, a Rabbi, who is also a psychologist, told a story of the Nazi days. “One of the guards in a concentration camp had a prisoner down on the ground choking him with his own boot. As the man lay there facing death, he looked up at his executioner and said, 'I am glad I am not you. God was good to me. I am me.'”

After some lunch of sliced turkey, cheddar cheese on rye bread toasted, and a cup of coffee, I went walking with my walker, determined to find that specific neighbor who would share a worker with me.

“Hi there. How you doing, neighbor?” I said, remembering that she still misses her nursing job in World War II.

“It was good to be useful” she said, patting her dog. “Once when there was a big explosion. They brought a half a dozen men in burnt so badly. And it was my job to slice frozen blood and apply it all over their bodies.” She picked up her puppy dog, patting him gently, she said, “You are just getting old

The Czarina

I was out taking a walk. I was still looking for a partner to share a housekeeper. A neighbor was walking toward me. “My name is Sonya,” she said. “I am aristocracy. My grandfather was Czar
of Prussia, and that’s above Germany. In 1915 just before I was born, he married a first cousin and she was a bleeder so I am a bleeder too,” showing me her wrist. “And I gave a talk in the clubhouse and told all about it: how the whole family came to America, everyone except the Czar. He went to Germany. And, I used to ride to school horseback. I was a little girl and I saddled the horse. It was the only way I was able to get there.”

“You must have had a lot of servants around you,” I said. “Something you're used to.” Was I
supposed to bow or something?

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She continued, “Look at me now, I am 80 years old.” Not the way she twirled and danced around on the sidewalk as if at any minute she would be back on the stage.

“I have a housecleaning girl in mind,” I said. “And she wants to work for a neighbor so that she has full-time work. Would you like to share her with me?”

“I got a box full of pictures. I am going to write a book. And I was sick last night. I bought a little chicken and didn’t know what to do with it.” She must have eaten it raw, I thought.

“Would you like to have a part-time housekeeper,” I asked her again. “She could help with the house work and cook that chicken that you’re talking about. You wouldn’t have to put your hands in warm water, you are a Czarina, right?”

“If you think I look like a housekeeper, that’s not me!” she responded.

Strangers enhance my day.


A wheelchair patient is lifted up into the Scripps Shuttle-bus. Her nurse, watching carefully, sits across from me.

I gather up my nerve and say to her, “My doctor was telling me that it was time that I go for assisted living or a nursing home. But, my idea is to get a live-in.”

“You have to be careful of who you call,” she advised, “Call these agencies that I am giving you,” writing it down. ”They're good. They will help you or they will refer you to someone who can and then there are the Senior Services. They screen the help, too. Try them.”

A voice saying, “It’s surely a strange world, you don’t have to commit suicide, a nursing home will do it for you.”

“If I could get someone 3 to 4 days a week to come in and do some housework, give some companionship, walk with me -- that would surely solve the problem. Don’t you think?” I

A woman in the back seat called out to the nurse, “Why don’t you work for her?”

“I can’t,” the nurse replied. “I have this full-time job.” And then thoughtfully saying, “or you can call a university for student nurses.”

Another voice back there, interrupting, “Thanks for the advice, we can all use it.”

How a Legally Blind Woman Sees

Sometimes I find myself having to explain my 20/400 vision. When on an airplane that is lowering to land, in and out of clouds, a grove of trees over there, a town, in fog, I see a rooftop, I think, houses in abstract, but without windows, doors or gardens, children playing, a car in the driveway, but I see a speck of color, a slanted line, the rest seen with my brain, fill in things that the eyes fail to do.

Once at a blind conference at the Hilton Hotel in Burbank, I learned more from the blind themselves than from the lectures. I was not completely in that blind state yet. A young man, totally blind, standing in the lunch line in front of me was short-changed by the sighted woman at the table.“

You didn't give me the right change,” he said, putting it down before her.

“Oh,” she fumbled, “I’m so sorry. Oh so sorry so sorry so,” giving him some extra bills. He walked away burning with anger.

That evening I met him in the elevator going up to the hospitality room, together finally finding it. He knocked. A woman opened the door saying, “We’re making a great documentary (though I could hardly believe it), ‘Laura’s theme. A hundred years.’”

“You’re five minutes early,” slamming the door at us.

He was consumed with anger. “That son-of-a-bitch! Some people are so ignorant -- they used me, cut my head open and made me blind! Look,” bending down to show me his head and then straightening up, he took a string of beads out of his pocket, fingering each bead, each one a god.

“I used to be a Jew but no more. Now I’m a Roman Catholic. That son-of-a-bitch.”

As my father used to say, “God of the Universe.”

I accepted an invitation from a blind man for refreshments in the coffee shop. I was glad to get away from the crowd. He was acting as if he could see, from finding the elevator to proper
seating at a table, to selecting the fruit salad and chocolate cakes and coffee.

“Look behind you,” I said, “through those windows, trees covered with Christmas lights just like Michigan Avenue in Chicago as far as you can see all lit up, a sight to behold.”

“No. It’s all dark to me anyway,” he said.

Light enough when he put money down on a small plate without looking at the check, now fingering the change, calling the waitress.

“You gave me the wrong change,” he said.

“Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry, please excuse me, you'll have it right away,” bringing back more change.

Calamities such as these pushed me to learn how to keep up with the sighted.

Blindness for Sure

After surgery, I get an infection in my eye. I stay in the hospital another two weeks. After some time, I still don’t recover my eyesight. Upon seeing my regular ophthalmologist, he gives me a letter: “To whom it may concern, Laura Simon is permanently, legally blind.”

Later, at the Jules Stein Eye Clinic at U.C.L.A., Mayo meets me each time at the plane and takes me there. I get a special formula from Japan. The doctor says that he’s brought back the eye sight of many of his patients. I take the formula home. Get refills by special delivery. My regular ophthalmologist tells me to stop using it. That gives me something to do in my old age. I have to learn how to use a bad eye to the left and a little peripheral vision to the right.

I start to go to the blind conferences. Some very good lessons there on what it’s like to be blind.

The Wooden Queen

I get myself a Russian cleaning woman. She immediately tells me her troubles.

“My husband’s father, he died and he was so good-looking.”

“So sorry to hear that,” I say. “I know how you feel,” touching her arm in sympathy. I turn back to scrubbing the kitchen sink. No ants? A miracle.

“Not a penny more we send him I say to my husband. Come to America costs money. Lots of money.”

I follow her and the mop to the bathroom.

“I can’t believe you; I am cleaning girl,” she says, circling the mop around the floor, then in disgust throwing it to a corner.
“In Odessa people have conversations with people. In Odessa I’m manager of restaurant, I’m cook. I make you mandel brot, not sweep floor. My daughter-in-law she plays with baby cat, and my son is pilot for big company -- bumpy rides in his seat.”

Throwing a towel over her shoulder, “So I listen to music and sing: ‘I hope no storms for Nikolai.’” Turning up like an opera star reaching the roof, only to drop like Faust down into hell.

Too stressful for me, I open the door for her to leave.
Instead she prances into the living room and plops herself down into a chair, a wooden queen from Odessa. She faces the open drapes and patio. I surrender to the sofa. If this keeps up, I’ll have to go to a bed and board place, perish the thought.

Her voice still having an echo to it; to judge her not, I plead, “Valentina, how about tomorrow?”


“Your restaurant – that was once upon a time. You’re in a different world now.”

Tonight I try to entertain myself by going from a quick concert on radio, turning it on and off, to old Sephardic songs on tape recordings, originating in Turkey and Greece – instead of sorting my laundry for Valentina, my Russian helper. Instead I should be pushing over those boxes of art supplies and junk and painting again before my paints all dry up and me, too, as a matter of fact.

Wooden, at one with the chair, like that wooden woman sculptured in class at the Art Institute. The young sculptor hacking away at an old piece of wood and changing it into a wooden queen at one with her chair, destined to rise to top level at the Art Institute. With each chop, carving
her hair to a side, a bejeweled ear showing at her wooden face, you could feel his thoughts – “I turned you into splendor, but you are nothing but old wood.”

“Valentina,” I plead with some patience in my voice. She was far away in the wonders of Odessa.

My High School Walker

“You are what you are,” a high school senior said to me as he walked me around the block. A member of the Key Club, he does community work – help the elderly. I take his arm. With him I don’t need my walker or cane.

“Did you ever read Tommy Got His Gun?” he asked. “He lies in his hospital bed. No arms, no legs. He can’t hear, he can’t see. All he has are his thoughts. He will never hold his girl in his arms again. All he can do is bang his head at the back of the bed to call his nurse.”

“I learned how to put on a gas mask,” I said, “watching a class on TV for Pentagon workers. It has to be sealed tight at the back of your neck and over your chin – and if the clothespin comes off your nose, you put it back on again – and if it comes off again you get your hand in there, tighten your nose, and breathe through your mouth -- good for one hour, enough time to make your escape.”

“Did you ever read The Things We Carry,” my high school friend asked. “We carry disease. We carry ammunition. We by ourselves create our own society. That is what we carry.”

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