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Miami Change PoliceIn Miami once on vacation handing a twenty dollar bill to the cashier and checking out a tray in the cafeteria, he gave me change for ten.
“I gave you twenty,” I said.
“No,” he insisted, “it was a ten.”
“Give me my right change or I’m calling the police.”
It worked but left me shaken. What if he said, “Lady, go ahead.”
But as I learned from my French teacher, “When you are in trouble, call the police.
How my mind wanders – suddenly I think of Paris. “Take me straight to the airport,” I said to my taxi driver there, “or you’ll have to call the police, this is all the money I’ve got,” showing him a handful, and it worked.
Shopping – Care Centers
I ran into someone at the supermarket the other day. I mean, I bumped into her good with my shopping cart. The truth is, my eyes are deserting me fast. I haven’t been able to see to read for years. Now I can barely make out the stove. Stairs? A concrete curb? Forget it. One more fall and it’s curtains for me.
What to do?
When I was eighty – seventeen years ago – I started thinking about moving to an old people’s home. But that means you’re finished, I said to myself, just waiting for the end. Better to stay on my own. That was my thought yesterday. Today, slowed up as I am, I decided I needed a second plan.
So I’m going shopping.
I’m not looking for Japanese gardens around my own private patio. The cost of such a view would leave me flat broke. Kosher food would be great. Just don’t treat me like a stupid ox.
“You’re lucky,” said the marketing director of ‘Sunset By The Ocean,’ where I had called. “We just reduced one apartment from thirty-two to twenty-eight. People wish they had moved in here a long time ago. We have game rooms, a computer room. We’re a big corporation. We have thirteen health centers around the country. Do you have glaucoma? Macular degeneration?” she asked. “We drive you to doctors. Podiatrists come in. I want to get a full picture of you.”
She could have a picture of my heavy heart. “...a race track nearby, and a pavilion,” taking out a stack of forms. “With your hearing problem, I don’t recommend independent living. Nobody will talk to you in the dining room. And it’s too far to the elevator.”
I’m thinking, You’re talking to me, aren’t you? Maybe you don’t hear.
“...and then you have low vision,” sparing me the “legally blind.” She looks up and smiles.
“Who writes your checks?”
“I do,” I say, thinking, but I won’t be writing one to you.
More shopping. I go with a volunteer from the Jewish Family Service to see a home called ‘That Good Place.’ It had a lounge filled with people waiting for their next meal and listening to a
piano recital by a young man. Familiar Jewish melodies for weepy eyes. Since I was a new face from the outer world, the residents seemed content with whatever sight and hearing I had.
“Being here with all these old people is very depressing,” said a man. The old woman next to him began to cry. “That’s where my mother’s necklace went, out that window. It wasn’t much, only some ivory pieces put together. I had it with me in the drawer, and when the cleaning girl went out, it was gone. I reported it. They wouldn’t do anything. They didn’t want to believe I even had it.”
“I believe you,” I said.
“You do? You believe me?” Bitterly weeping.
As I walk along with my hostess, I’m thinking I will have to harden myself to the anguish of these strangers.
“This is the apartment,” opening the door. A room as big as a dressing closet.
“How big is it?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I never measured it. And this is where you press the bell if you ever fall,” showing me how to work it. “Then someone will come and pick you up.”
“And where’s the kitchen?”
“Behind that door near the window. You do your own cooking?”
“Yes, of course. How else would I eat?”
“Do you do your own bookkeeping?”
“I do, and I never pay a bill without calling first to compare what it says on the statement with -- “
“And you walk by yourself?”
I guess my white cane is a giveaway. I speak up strongly. “I’m a graduate of the San Diego Center for the Blind and I know how to get along.”
“…..and the Independent Living Building is no option for you.”
She says as she gives me a peek into the smaller dining room for the Assisted Living, the lower class, like steerage. Her attitude cold-shoulder. I had to ask for the application, she telling me, “We don’t take Alzheimer’s.”
Later my volunteer says, “I’m taking you to another place – ‘Orit.’ It means a small light, like a candlelight on a hill.”
I hoped that the small candlelight on the hill would truly be there for me when we stepped into the lobby of the Orit Health Center. Not a smile of welcome in the lounge. The same elderly
residents sitting around, staring up at the television.
Tears in my eyes seeing all those old women in wheelchairs, placed around the room like sculptures chiseled out of the clay of life. Monuments on their own graves.
The young assistant director came toward us in a beautiful welcoming style, shaking my hand,
“Laura, she has told us all about you. You’re writing a book. Some of it must go into this program.”
Reading from a green card, “Prayers every morning and on Shabbos.”
“For just women?” I asked.
“You know how men are. After breakfast they stay in their own rooms. You won’t see them until food time again. Oh, and this is our café, and over here our dining room,” covering all of it
with a wave of her hand. “Two patios, one sunny, one shady, and you can sit out as long as you like.” Or longer, I thought.
“Entertainment, piano, a singer, and pre-kindergarten children for you to play with just like home. Over here is a gift shop, candy, ice-cream, and they can get you anything you want, but they’re closed now. Over there is the nurses station – if you fall on the floor, ring and they’ll come to pick you up. And look, a beauty shop,” opening the door, “all perfumey.” A touch of
cologne from a bottle to our hands. “Open every Thursday.”
Then leading us down the corridor in small dancing steps, opening the door to a two-bed room, dark as a cave, enough medicine bottles on shelves above the toilet to open a pharmacy. The combination of smells is overpowering – toilet,
liniment, clothes, open hampers, shoes, boxes, tiny stuffed closet, old bedspreads, drapes. How do they breathe? I wonder.
“We’ve just sprayed in here,” she says.
I look around. “No windows?”
“And this is the shower for the two of you,” in a how-nice-for-the-two-of-you voice, “and also for the other two on the other side.”
“Well, it’s a nice place to meet people, I’d say,” my volunteer laughing for us.
“And puppies running around to make you feel at home.”
Just like at home. Except that in my home I have chapters of my book on the dining room table and a big emerald green Venetian bird as a paperweight, a long tail up in the air, and its jeweled head bowing down to me.
We walk to the dining hall. The assistant director has a small ice-cream parlor table set up for us in the crowded room.
“Where are the men?” I ask.
“They’re over there,” pointing toward two men with expressionless faces. As if they have lost their lust for life, their home now nothing more than a closed-in, smelly room, one old body with another.
“Will you have coffee, Mrs. Simon?” Turning up my cup, signaling the waitress. Just then an old woman wheels herself up to our table, extends a hand and asks, “Are you Jewish? Well, you’re lucky. This is a good place. We have kosher food here. They don’t mix dairy with meat. How do you like the roast beef? On a rotisserie they make it. The smoked salmon comes from New York. In the other place before I came here, every night they put an apron on me with a closed bottom – ‘OK, now you can pish in it all night.’ That’s when I broke my ankle.’ You can’t have cream with the coffee,” she informs a middle-aged woman just stopping at our table, who replies, “I’m Italian. I’m just learning about kosher. I told my daughter, ‘This place is really for me. It’s kosher.’ ‘What’s kosher? What is that?’” She laughs. “I had to explain it to her. Now she understands. I’m diabetic,” she continues, patting her leg. “No cream with meat, that’s perfect for me.”
“They fight for kosher food in jail.” An old man has joined us, pulls up a chair for himself while I’m asking the woman, “How do you get along with your roommate?”
“Great! Wonderful! She sleeps all day, that’s when I’m in the lobby, and I sleep all night, that’s when she’s in the lobby, so we snore independently.” Laughing hysterically. “I don’t know if I could live that way,” I say to our assistant director, who is still picking away at her peas and carrots, while the volunteer spoons her orange ice.
“Why? How old are you,” she asks. “If you’re eighty-two” – being kind – “you’ve got another ten years to live it up.”
With a drink of water I swallow my ninety-seven, avoiding the usual What’s your secret? How do you stay so young?
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you entertained. We bring in those little children for you to play with, remember? And the puppies.” A man rushes by with a dripping wet dog to throw out on the patio to dry. “So there is no loneliness here.”
“In jail neither,” says the old man, getting a word in edgewise. “They tap on the walls, one to another, giving the message: ‘Say you’re Jewish. You’ll get kosher food.’ Prisoners eating at tables nudge each other: ‘Say you’re Jewish. We’ll get kosher food.’”
Now we’re getting a crowd. Another man pipes up: “But they’re smart in there. They can’t afford kosher food for everyone, so they call in the Rabbi to find out who is Jewish and who is not.
The Rabbi asks: ‘How many days do you fast on Yom Kippur?’ The prisoner thinks long and hard.
‘Two days.’ The report goes in – not Jewish. ‘And what is the Shema?’ to another prisoner. ‘Shema?
Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.’ ‘Baruch Hashem – Jewish.’
The first old man speaks up again. “We can’t see G-d with our eyes but He is here. If we are sincere and do good even for one day, He will know and He will help us.”
“It’s twenty-two hundred a month, Mrs. Simon,” the assistant director is saying to me, “but we will work with you – whatever you can afford.”
“But I would want a single room.”
“I have to tell you,” she says. “We’re full. It’s all assisted living, two in a room, and a waiting list for the two single rooms with single bath. One man has been waiting for a whole year and there are others too. It could take years.”
“And anyway, how can I adjust to a stranger in the room – in such a small space?”
“You just bite the bullet and get used to it. We have ladies who will help you pack, and they know exactly what to throw out. Our caretakers are like shepherds. They take care of our sheep.”
I’m afraid this one sheep would most likely go astray.
I will keep on shopping.
Still Looking for a Home
“Hello? Oh, Sandy Beach Apartments? Does that mean you’re on the ocean with waves jumping over a wall? We had that in Chicago when Lake Michigan got on its high horse, the roar of
water heard at our windows, the 14th floor, actually the 13th but the corporation was afraid of bad luck. Oh, yes, of course, I’m interested in renting with an ocean view, like being on a perpetual vacation but that big piece of steel in my hip to replace the bone doesn’t let me enjoy myself near
too much water. Oh, you’re connecting me to marketing? Oh, hello? Marketing? I need an apartment. The sooner, the better. I have to get out. You know, remodeling and all that – new sinks and toilets and tearing down the termite walls – a brochure? My eyes not so good for reading – use a
cane sometimes. I don’t like a cane. I hate it and that walker, too.”
“We have studios,” the velvety voice said, “one and two bedrooms. They start at ninety thousand and go up to a hundred and ninety thousand.”
Swallowing hard. “So I’ll go to my closet and to that little sock.”
“Would you like to make an appointment?”
“If it’s not too damp for my arthritis – and then I don’t drive anymore – left my Ford convertible – it looked just like a Lincoln – in Chicago twenty years ago. Just trying out San Diego to see how I’d like it. Could your driver come and pick me up?”
“Well, our limousines are just for our residents. You could come next Friday. We’re having a clam bake for prospective members of our big happy family.”
“Oh, no! I’m kosher. We don’t eat clams.”
And then I sometimes think of a mobile home. But then the ceilings are too low, and then maybe it would be wise for me to live near my family in Chicago. They want me. They love me to
“Or you might try bed and board,” she answered.
One day at the Seniors after the director gave a talk about nursing homes, a woman piped up, “I gave away all my silver, my dishes.” Somebody else chimed in, “I gave everything away. I am giving everything away.” And I said, “Not me. I am still here. I am still alive. I still want to enjoy my surroundings, my things.”
Later, when a young Mexican woman drove me home, she said, “My son is two years old. He’s half Mexican, half American. This is so sad. How is he going to treat me? A Mexican? With all the family being together. One person of the family taking care of the other person of the family? We are all family. Or will he treat me American? I’m afraid of that,” she said.
I woke up this morning thinking, “Is this downhill for me now?” My hopes for getting assisted living right here in my home were folding up. I had called Point Loma Nazarene College nursing and did get someone, a student nurse to do housework a few hours once a week. But that wasn’t enough. The idea of sharing a housekeeper with a neighbor had exhausted itself and so had my enthusiasm for telling other seniors to keep out of nursing homes when I am on the way there myself. In these last few years of my life, I found myself battling harder than ever to keep my independence. Writing this book is Custer’s last stand.
The Scripps Mobile is on time, as usual. The assistant to the driver is on-the-job. He helps me up, straps me in, and as we roll along, he tries to keep the riders entertained by talking about his vegetarian beans of every kind -- cooked, broiled, steamed, frozen and canned. Until one by one with our own state of mind we push him off center stage. Invariably, the subject of nursing homes comes up, one woman saying, “My mother loves it there. Everyone invited to her studio room. The food is so good she turns down my dinners. She doesn’t care to eat any other place.” I was interested in the cost. $3,000? No. $2,000? An old man suddenly interrupted the price scheduling.
“First it’s chilly in here and then it’s steamy. I have to bring my own blanket to wrap myself up.”
“You can be a bitch or an angel,” a woman was saying. “It doesn’t make any difference. I raised my great-grandchild and now when I need help and I am sick, there is nobody around.”
“It’s my daughter’s birthday tomorrow. Now I know that I am old.”
“My daughter bought an old big house, remodeled it and now she’s got so many things she doesn’t know where to put them.”
“What is everybody doing on the Fourth of July?”
“Which Fourth of July are you talking about? Last year? The one coming up? In six months from now?”
“I was supposed to go in for my flu shot next week. I get a telephone call. I missed my appointment yesterday. I wish they would get things straight.”
“But she’s going to barbecue. . .”
“I am going to spend that day drinking water,” the voice in back of us said. “In the morning I am going to have X-rays. They found that I have blood in my urine. It took them from February to June to tell me that I should see a urologist. Now I am on my way to Scripps Hospital to see what I can do about that HMO.”
“My heritage stems from Kentucky, horse racing,” said a cheerful woman.
“And I am from El Paso. That’s why I speak Spanish so well.”
The first stop is always the dialysis building. Jay and the driver carefully help the patients one by one, walk them into the doorway and place them into the hands of nurses.
I am at the audiologist. “The hearing aid that was fixed,” I said, “is terrible. I can’t hear anything on the telephone. Everything is distorted. Last night I couldn’t listen to television. I can’t
make out what anybody is saying. Louder does not help.” Remembering the colonel in a restaurant once to a waitress, he said, “Do you really speak English? I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” as if it were her fault that he couldn't hear. The audiologist is saying, “Well, after all your hearing has
changed, Mrs. Simon. You’re close to 90 years old.” She turned the clock back for me. A half a dozen hearing aids -- I get them all lined up on her desk. “Each one gives me more
trouble than I can stand. The new one doesn’t fit my ear, it’s much too heavy. And I don’t want to ruin my half-way decent ear or I won’t have anything.”
“You’re between the high and low tones and the high tones are very penetrating for you. What I will do is, I will lower that high tone. We’ll see then how it works.” Testing, testing the
sharpness of the tone by tapping a spoon against a China dish, to see how the sharpness of tone affects me, and talking at the same time to test my hearing, She promised to find a more suitable hearing aid for me. One of several families: low, medium and high tones.
Arch Supports for the Fashion Show
It will take time to find shoes with arch supports, to take the pressure off that callus.
“Nordstrom’s? Do you have a walking shoe with arch support? I’m going to model in a fashion show – “
“Hold on. I’m only the operator.”
Listening to a complete symphony while my feet are killing me. Disconnected, I dial again.
“Operator. My whole morning’s gone. I did hold. O.K. Oh. You’re a salesman. Dank Gott.
Only athletic walking shoes. The Salon?”
Now listening to a soprano with beating drums.
“No lace-up with arch and leather sole?”
“Macy’s? Can you help me – ”
“Thank you for shopping at Macy’s. Our store will be open from Monday to Monday, ninethirty
An automatic voice again. “Name your department – Electronic. Housewares.”
“Shoes!” I yell. After battling the technology, a human voice.
“Do you have a walking oxford with arch supports? I’m going to be in a fashion show.
Something nice – I’m almost a hundred years old. Easy Spirit? O.K.”
“What color do you want?”
“I don’t know. What colors have you got?”
“White. That’s it.”
“This is Robinson’s-May. Please hold.”
When the music gives out I hang up.
“Nordstrom’s? Sorry to bother you again. Can you connect me to your Old Orchard store in Skokie, Illinois?”
“Hello – Nordstrom’s.”
“I’m calling from San Diego, California, so connect me right away. I know the manager Miss Love – years ago – now I want Shoes, something soft with metal arch supports – hello? Operator? Oh – I’m lucky. A salesman. You sound helpful already. I need a comfortable shoe with arch support and lace-up to hold my feet together –“
Music. A young lady’s voice.
“Yes, we have a Monroe shoe, two-tone black on black. It has four eyelets, arch support and rubber sole, but not in leather.”
“Would that be the same kind of arch support do you suppose as my podiatrist made for me – that I can’t wear because the glue smells to the high heavens and I’m going to be in a fashion show and don’t want to keel over – besides –“
“No,” she interrupted. “The one he made for you I’m sure is orthopedic – made to fit your foot…”
“With such strong glue you can die from the terrible smell.”
“Then try Skokie. We’re Oakbrook.”
The Shoes Are Fixed -- The Bride Is Too Beautiful
“We blew out that smell from your shoes with a hot pipe blower,” the podiatrist’s assistant informed me. The problem – my nose. It’s too sharp.
They should see me when a package of red beans broke to cover my kitchen floor, picking up handfuls at a time hardly able to grab the phone when it rang without breaking my neck. To laugh or cry.
“Rafael – “
“Happy birthday, Grandmother. I’m calling you from my car.”
“Talking to me while driving to save fifteen minutes? All the way from Toronto? And…”
“We working people have to save time. If someone comes late to a meeting -- well, we have a chairman -- we have an agenda to keep up with, to follow. Now let’s get to the topics. And so what you up to these days, Grandmother?”
“Oh, I was just sweeping up red beans.”
“Well, your body is keeping up with your mind, I’d say. You know how to keep your immune system strong…”
“Actually we need strength and lots of time, too, just to make a telephone call -- voice mail and ‘hold a second’ the worst time stealers.”
“I have a speaker on my phone and you can buy one -- press a button and you can go read a book. When the voice comes on again you’ll hear it any place in the house. Got to go now – I’m
turning the corner. I’m home. Keep up the good work, Grandmother.”
In the fitting room of this dress shop, a saleslady old enough to be in our fashion show comes in with pad and pencil. “How tall are you?”
“Five and a half.”
“Weight?” Licking the tip of her pencil ready for the information, the pad close to her eyes.
“There’s not much of me, I realize. When I was younger I had more meat on my bones.”
Moving closer to her. “We shrivel with age,” trying a laugh as she measures me around my middle.
“I like emerald green and gold best,” I said. “Clothes make the woman,” picturing myself as an elegant lady for a change, star of the fashion show, instead of an old scribe with a magnifier. I
The curtain separates. A long arm hangs my first elegance up on a hook and disappears. A royal blue jacket over white shirt and pants, and I’m sitting there in nylon panty hose, saved by a
“I’m from the Independent Health Care,” she said, “for seniors. I work for her,” sticking her hand out the curtain. “She had a stroke. So I can help you too.”
Getting me into my fashion stuff, a perfect fit if they cloned me and there were two of us. My saleslady is in to admire the finished product. “You look stunning – twenty-five years younger.”
Reading my face. “You’re not taking off the jacket anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” sticking her hands in to fill it out, and giving each shoulder a push, most of the shirt in back now. And I’ll walk like Charlie Chaplin to keep the pants up, I thought.
“We’ll baste up the bottoms later when we get there.” Rushing out. My Health girl helps me get into a gold brocade blouse and jacket. Placing a slinky black silk skirt against me.
“It’s miles too long,” I said as my saleslady rushed in to grab it away, same speed as coming back in with black slacks for my helper to help while she works with the blouse, bunching it up in back and shoulder. All muscle and too stunning to be a dock worker.
“You got beautiful hair,” she said rushing out. Over-qualified for tossing crates around, not that I was giving a damn any more.
“Here’s the phone number of Independent Care,” my helper putting me together in my own clothes. “I’ve got a couple extra days,” stopped short by the saleslady again, “And you’ll be wearing our jewelry that we sell, not those beads.”
I saw myself laden down with jewels walking the aisle like Gypsy Rose Lee. Jewels and money respected more than people.
Money does not pay for everything.
Finally it’s the day of the fashion show and I hadn’t slept all night, still thinking, the jacket doesn’t fit! – “You’re not taking off the jacket anyhow, I told you” -- nicer things in my closet I
haven’t worn in twenty years – half asleep, my hair still in rollers. For sure the Frivolous Fawn never did cover the grey; bleary-eyed I’m a real beauty.
The Driver picked me up right on time. “Hi everybody.” Happiest of all the fashion girls in the bus, getting off with driver’s help with our overtired, sick feet.
The prayer room transformed for fashion time, no Orthodox men around. They don’t stay to look at women. The Torah says no, I surmise. Tables set beautifully, white cloths, flowers. We six ushered behind screens. In moments a cosmetician studies my face -- and so what else is new? Make it over just by some Coppertone dusting and painting my eyebrows? Painting pink over dark red on my lips that nobody will see anyway or care one way or another -- that part of me -- or notice my
special hair-do, done great all by myself, now worried. Is my old white cane going to be my escort? I peek out and see a couple of men out there already seated at a lunch table ahead of the game, eating before us women. Our dress shop lady all dressed in black lines us up. I’m fifth, next to last, the
best. “Where’s Isabel?” And she looked stunning, too tall for that floor length gown, shrunk to midcalf.
“This is how you’re going to walk, to the step of the piano playing.” A prancing horse from the Rose Parade trying to do a two-step, each getting a turn to hold on to her arm and prance up the aisle. Rehearsal over, we now know how to imagine waving scarves like a ballet dancer implying sexy as our culture requires to make us home-bodies famous, yet to be on Channel 8 if the TV people come as arranged.
Now the crowd coming in, lining up like at a ball game, and we the players have to hurry and get in there behind the screen. We seniors will soon have to show what we're made of, loose muscles and no aches or pains.
Suddenly the volunteer who drove us all to the dress shop, taking us out to lunch then, now at our table, has important news. The TV cameras are at the Wild Animal Park, “So don’t hurry. Enjoy your salmon and ice cream over baked apple. The lions and tigers are having their own fashion show.” Showing nicer figures than ours in the dressing room, no doubt, having a good laugh visualizing us six hiding behind trees in pantyhose while tourists riding park trolleys strain to see us beauties.
“Nobody is going to grab anything from you,” said fashion model number three, evidently jealous of what I was hiding by holding my blue suede close to me. “And I’m almost a hundred
years old,” I brag, using my fighting line, “so I’m next in there.”
Her hand up, all five fingers, so I stood back, she angrier now at the angel who came in to help me.
“Nobody will see you here,” she said, getting me into those white pants, rolled up at the waist to shorten, and swimming me into the shirt, the sleeves a mile too long soon fashioned into great style as cuffs over cuffs of blue suede. A bag hung over my shoulder, I’m pushed into my place in line, counting up to five.
“Look how smart you look.” The dress lady is proud of her mannequins. I turn to see a total stranger in the standing mirror. Clothes did not make the woman I used to be.
“Don’t I get an escort?”
“They’re waiting right out there. Don’t you worry.”
Each model steps out in a two-step, keeping time with the piano, arm in arm with her escort, dressed in white shirts, black pants, prancing up the aisle, the announcer describing their outfits over the loud speaker, getting applause. As each model before me steps out to her escort to two-step with
an occasional cha-cha-cha -- as much as possible I refuse to picture them with their usual canes, one drives a scooter – “My feet are burning,” she’ll say --.
“Go. Go.” The dress lady walking me out to my escort. Her husband? She trusts me with him? He’s jumping rope in time to the piano. I watch it. I’m not an entertainer. “Laura is ninetyseven,” over the microphone, “and she’s writing a book.”
Applause. Cameras flash. My escort still bouncing while I walk with the dignity of a dressed-up tingling with bells horse. A scramble back there, now dressed for the finale, they in sparkling, black sequins, and I’m in gold brocade, to show
the world what a senior looks like when she covers her old body -- for me? A gold choker -- magnetic – “Too tight.” Choking me -- magnetic to fit. Long hanging earrings and shoulder bag glistening at my side, to flip my escort, a real Yul Bryner, the King and I. “I Had A Love Like Yours,” bouncing along, his hands dancing over his head, about to twirl me around. “No,” I said. He has himself to twirl. Cameras flash again. He’s all smiles -- happier than the walk called for -- I
catch a glimpse of sadness in his face all of a sudden – “my pursuit for love still persists as I approach the garden's roses, my hair a graying mist” (as a great poet once wrote) -- as his hand smoothes his shiny scalp.
“There’s Barbara Lee Edwards,” somebody is saying -- I see her sitting at a table with others.
“I saw you for the first time,” I say to her, “just last Tuesday.” She’s all charm. “Did you ever take singing lessons?” I ask.
“No,” came her soft answer, the delighted rose in Milton’s garden --
“Your voice, your laughter, your face, your hair to match…” In this garden, I thought where the petals are already falling from their stems – “You come across so beautifully over TV.” Someone snapping our picture together when she stood up close to me.
The Fashion Show over, I am back to my old self, in the kitchen with my tape recorder on the counter.
This is a very nostalgic day for me. Syd and Norman’s 50th wedding anniversary bringing back memories of our 50th.
We, too, were once young only in memory as they danced to Hebraic and Yiddish music, accordion and violin, to a choir ‘where is that beautiful maiden I once knew in the shtettle? Where is she now?’ Jan Pierce used to sing it. ‘Left behind in the village so long ago.’
“You have been my partner all these years, Laura. I always thought I was taking care of you -- but what would I have done without you?” Mannie had said to me after all the guests left.
Dear Mannie: I remember my 50th and that was twenty-five years ago. I saw the faces of my peers sitting at the banquet tables. What had gone on between the first bridal photographs and now at the fiftieth? Remembering what you said, “I don’t need to celebrate. I don’t need parties,” as I had heard back in my memory. “You and I, Laura, can go to the movies and have dinner. Why do we have to have a whole bunch of people? But if you insist, we can go through this celebration. You and I put up a great front, for the kids. They’ll be coming from all over the country. It’s what they want – a golden wedding party for their parents. I’ll go through this.”
I turn to our 50th wedding anniversary photograph on the pine table, right under my portrait of War Mother and my lady sculpture in black and white, Florence Simon’s candlesticks from Poland. A conglomeration of antiques that may be meaningless to others.
Mannie, at our 50th anniversary, looked so glum. He forgot to say cheese. He wanted the two of us to celebrate alone without a golden cloth. We had our intimate lives and that was golden
enough. Later we understood it, not then. Sondra and Mayo and Syd and Norman were the caterers.
The photograph showing the platters of shrimp and chicken and the big anniversary cake with candles for the celebration to the matching golden napkins and etching of gold on the paper plates.
Our family surrounding us. Light up and smile and laugh for posterity. All laughing. And there’s Mannie. There’s Robert and Bill and Rafael. When he was a baby, all he wanted to do was open the cupboard and drag out all the pots and pans. A big jump to being the photographer at our fiftieth.
I’m going to Toronto for Rafael and Lana’s wedding, and the callus on the bottom of my foot is killing me. At least I want to look as happy as I am. I’m tormented by that callus. They begged me to come. Six months ago I managed to fly up there to the engagement party. Now I was determined to go back there to Toronto for the wedding. I could send them a telegram: “Regret cannot attend. Calluses on bottom of feet.”
Anxiously I had made all my plans, clothes ready and called United Airlines. All I had to do was contact Air Canada, partners with United Airlines. I fought to get an aisle seat so I could stand up and stretch my hip implant.
I was almost a celebrity too. Lana’s father at the head table got up to welcome all his guests and said, “We have with us the only person here from the last generation.” I had to stand up for the applause.
Such a welcome! Lana’s mother asked me to get up to the microphone and give a little talk. I made it short, understanding the shorter the better. In closing, I talked about the art of happiness that I had just read written by a Dr. Cutler in conversation with the Dalai Lama.
“I’ve had many golden days in my golden years, Lana and Rafael, this day being the height of all of them. Wishing you a long life of good health and happiness -- and may you have many golden days in your golden years together with God's help.”
Mayo, father of the groom, also made his speech. “Life is like a story,” in essence he was saying. “There’s a beginning, middle and end.” And he hoped that Rafael and Lana will have a
beautiful ending to their story. Joel got up and spoke about the importance of family. And the old grandmother who was the last of her generation, the only one there, one of a kind. They grabbed me, sat me on a chair and four men lifted it up, bouncing me to the rhythm of the music, dancing me right up to the ceiling and down and up again while I’m laughing and screaming.
The next morning my great-grand-children, the three of them, came running up to me, giving me hugs. “Were you scared, grandmother, when they threw you up in the air like that?”
“You better believe it,” I said. “They kept bumping my head up to the ceiling down went my feet and up to the ceiling again, bump.” At each bump they screamed with laughter.
Back home from Toronto, that panorama of museum gardens still with me, that exhilarating view of trees and gardens in the valley below, gradually fading, the Hungarian music, the guests
dancing, swirling to the music, adding to the beauty of that wedding slipping into the background.
I was impressed by that family. They all have their own homes within reasonable reach of each other. Most of them were from Hungary. They had seen the Nazi days and understood very well the importance of being together and having family. Now we have terrorist days and anthrax worries. I am in the midst of history, seeing at close hand right in it how the world has changed. Just like our personal lives, in one minute, life is different.
Suddenly without a doubt the anxiety of these times has taken over as I sit in my bedroom writing. The focus of my thoughts is slipping. I worry about Anthrax like everyone else. Where does it come from? Nobody seems to know. I heard Norman Mailer last night speaking on TV, “Terrorists can put talcum powder into envelopes and cause great disruption.” Now times have changed. Now we are burdened with deeper and more serious problems. Are we faced with a Holy war? This world is so precarious.
When I started this book several years ago, I never expected to be talking about such things and thinking in all of my hundred years what progress has there been in human kind? We have great technology, which in ways is working against us. Thinking how can I say this? What do I know? I’m at the kitchen sink and trying to find out how I got this far in the first place, writing to show others how to get to be almost a hundred years old and still have yourself together, independently. All it
takes is desire.
In writing about this, I am thinking about how I always tried to run away from that narrow life of mine on Potomac Avenue. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the world and at the end it looks like all I was trying to do was to find myself. I think back to our high-rise days in Chicago, Mannie coping with his retirement and depression. In between helping him when he was sick, I tried to keep myself together by taking art lessons, by going to Loyola $5.00 a semester. I began to write,
preparing for deafness.
Today this is what’s happening again, they’re tearing down this grey-haired village. Again I call the office, “Mrs. Simon, they don’t have the permit yet. Maybe November or maybe six months or a year after November. We’ll let you know.”
I wonder how they’re going to tear up the streets. How the skunks and other such animals will be running away from their homes in the canyons to escape the builders and all the connecting sewer pipes, and come to my open door for food. I always have ice cream.
Soon we’ll have an apartment on top of an apartment and the palm trees that now hardly stand will be gone, and so will we. But where? There’s talk of U-Hauls. Pack up and hitch your car onto the back, that is if you have a car, and go, wherever.
“Oh, you’re moving way up there to the Mojave Desert, a few miles from Reno? Faster to divorce you, my dear, that is if you have a spouse in the first place.”
“At my age,” came an answer, “who wants me? I had it all anyway.”
“I’d give anything to live in a small town like I was raised in, one bank, two grocery stores,” said another neighbor.
My neighbor, Ernie, surprised me by calling. “Is it too late?”
“It’s OK. I’m only watching television.”
I hold the receiver close to my ear. Too late to turn on the lights? It will soon be morning. Too late for him to remarry? A wife is always hungry. Over the phone, Ernie saying, “Like you, I can’t see either and my son wants to drive around at night to look for an apartment for me. I have my pride. I don’t want his help. Anyway, what will be for everybody will be for me. That’s what I had to say in Austria when I had to leave suddenly. All I took with me was my mother’s apron. Memories are memories so I don’t worry about a roof. A roof is only temporary.”
The Village Office Girl
I wore my hat as I usually do when I went into the office of these Grey Haired Village Apartments. The office girl, the important one, was sitting at her desk. I said, “just when are they going to remodel these apartments? There are rumors all over the place.”
“I have so much to do,” I’m saying to Sadie. “I have to find a place. I have to throw things out, give things away. I’d like to know where I’m at. I really need new carpeting. When new people move in, that’s what you give them and in three, four months they’re moving. I’m here over 20 years. So what about me?” I see I have to fight to get something done in my apartment. Sadie didn’t care. For her part I can throw out all my furniture and just move out into the street. While she is
looking for my files, Sadie is interrupting my thoughts. “Mrs. Simon, you’re having a nice conversation with yourself.”
“As time goes on, things get tougher for us elderly,” I answer. “ It would be easier if you would tell us what’s going on. The world is complicated enough. What is the secret?” she has to
figure it out.
Sadie is saying, “To make you feel better, Mrs. Simon, the builders aren't going ahead with it now anyway. Maybe I should have told you this before. They can’t get the water pipes around the canyon because they can’t disturb the animals at the bottom. They will run all over San Diego.” I say
wisely, “Maybe they can throw safety nets across the canyon to catch the wolves and foxes. And we don’t want snakes and skunks at our front door and God knows what other kinds of creatures are down there. We have plenty of creatures in the world now.”
“You won’t see gorillas, Mrs. Simon”, laughing heartily. “It will only be the watchman, so don’t get hysterical and besides, they’ll be tearing down your place last and move you out
somewhere else in the meantime.”
“I can’t live with dirt,” I say, “when they dig up the streets.”
“Other builders around here had the same problem getting across the canyon. They had to stop and lost millions of dollars. So our builders are afraid to start." Oh, what sad news. Wherever you turn there is sad news. How sad. They lost millions of dollars.
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.
Fighting the Vacuum Cleaner
By this time I did not care anymore whether I was going to have my carpets washed or cleaned or changed. It took three years for them to say we will do it. A worker comes in with a
broom. “Where is the vacuum cleaner?” I asked. “Boss say . . .”
“I am the boss here,” I said. “You’re not sweeping and raising the dust. I haven’t got the powerful vacuum cleaner that is needed here.” I had to move the chairs into the kitchen myself.
“Boss say no move furniture.”
Now I go from washing carpets to the nurse is here. She is taking my blood pressure. “It is a little high,” she said. And so was the powerful vacuum cleaner.
Men Entertain Me in the Clubhouse
I wasn’t going to bend to assisted living. I began to freeze tomatoes that I could use one at a time, and chicken cutlets, made cranberry and frozen orange juice preserves. I took to exercising again. Remembering some Tai Chi and did that every morning. And took longer walks on sunny days. Taking my walker, I went over to the clubhouse. Over in a corner, a foursome of women were playing bridge that I did not dare disturb. I joined a hot conversation with the men, one saying,
“When we were in the pharmaceutical, we never skinned the have-nots. A woman comes in to fill a prescription, ‘$2.00,’ I tell her, handing her the package. ‘$2.00? I don’t want that. It can’t be any good, it’s supposed to be 8.’” ‘We’re not that kind of pharmacy,’ I tell her, ‘but if you insist, I’ll charge you 4.’ ‘No,’ she said. 'It’s supposed to be 8.' I go from example to example of how I treat other customers, always the same way. She is so perturbed, she can’t speak. “I tell you what,” I said.
“Each time you come in for a refill, I will charge you a dollar more until it’s 8. Our motto: don’t ever lose a customer.”
“I want to talk to the manager,” she said.
“I’m the manager.”
“Then let me talk to your assistant.”
“I am the assistant, too. That’s how we keep our costs down and can treat you right.”
“I don’t see how it can be any good,” she said. “It’s so cheap.” She turned and walked out.
“That’s what they used to say about the moonshine we made on the shanty boat,” saidanother. “Whoever heard of a shanty boat?”
“Me,” he said. “We would go up and down the Mississippi making this stuff by the gallon and threw the mash overboard as we went along. There was corn growing along the coast. On the return trip all the cows were laid out asleep dead drunk.”
“How can your lightning water be any good?” the customer would say. “The cattle all died.”
“Okay. We are not regular bootleggers and we are not out to make a killing. ‘If you want us to charge you more, we’ll charge you more.’ We were looking for Mark Twain. He traveled on the Mississippi.”
“He was in the Confederate Army, not in prohibition days,” said another guy. “He was a deserter. Now he lives up north in a big home. He’s dead. What are you talking about?”
“Never give a sucker an even break,” said the third guy. “I am having coffee and a Congressman walks in. I say, ‘Hey, Congressman, how would you like to have a cup of coffee with
me?’ He gets up and he’s walking out and I am saying to him. ‘What do you guys want? Women, women, women and booze?’ You can’t even give a guy a cup of coffee. It’s too cheap.
“This is supposed to be Current Events,” I said, “Let’s have some real news. The world is falling apart.”
“She wants her money's worth.” The guys are laughing. “You see what we’re talking about? If she had to pay a big price for this meeting, she’d be happier”
Doesn’t make much difference now at the seniors that they had an insurance man trying to prop us up by talking long-term insurance. “Where are we going?” One senior asked. “84 is the top age?” We should have alerted him that he was talking to the wrong group. With Rosh Hashanah coming up a man at the lunch table cheering us up, “Let’s have honey and apple. Let’s celebrate. Let’s have a Happy New Year and not talk about insurance.”
Several months ago we had a special session in the clubhouse about stem cells. Our instructor pretended a needle in his arm. “People with diabetes,” he was saying, “will yet be regaining their eyesight. If we could only keep religion out of these decisions.”
We elderly who come there, sometimes for current events have our stubborn opinions and we speak out. They’ll be money makers in this and companies will be grabbing up the patents, while the scientists will be figuring out how to clone us, someone said. As they double us up we’ll have more
men for ward. It’s all so complicated.
I called the UCSD library: “Is there anything for the layman on stem cells that you can help me with?” I’m asking the librarian.
“Are you writing an article or are you a medical student or that sort of thing? I’d like to know along what lines. I’d like to help you.”
“I would like to know if I could -- how the experiments are coming along on stem cells?”
“I’ll help as much as I can. I’ll see what I can find.” Coming back to the phone. “The Encyclopedia of Human Biology. Volume 4, page 196. Published 1997. Embryonic Stem Cells.
Simple Cell Cloning.” Reading it to me over the phone and saying I should come in and see for myself. Instead, I want him to read more. I can’t tell him that I can’t read. He’s a college man. I refused to hang up. “Please, a little bit more.”
I then called Rabbi Leider of Chahad, the Orthodox synagogue in University City. Hesitant at first, “ I called to ask you a strange question, it’s about the stem cell.”
“And you want to know, Mrs. Simon, the Jewish view point. Like others.”
I said, “Exactly, yes.”
“It’s something that I want to know too,” he said. “I am waiting for the Rabbinical Medical Authorities to issue a statement and as soon as I find out, I will let you know.”
Today is Yom Kippur. The One Above has allowed me to attend the synagogue services. I go upstairs where a student Rabbi is translating the text. He starts out with a story. Once an elderly man came before the Duke. “It is so hard for me in this village. I can hardly gather up enough food for myself and my
family. Will you help me?”
The Duke said, “Yes. If you will walk as far as you can, over my farms, over my acreage, you can have as much as you can gather in that walk. That is, if you come back to me and tell me.”
On his way to riches, a poor man stops him. “My crops have failed. Do something to help me.”
“I want to help you, but not now. Tomorrow I will be rich.
Then I will help you.”
He keeps on walking. His wife and children are lost behind him. He keeps going. Passing the synagogue, they come out and beg, “Come in. We need you as a tenth man in a minyan for a
mourner. We need you.”
“Oh, no. I can’t stop. I have to gather in more farm land for myself.” He walked far and wide. The sun is coming down. And he’s on his way back. He runs. He has to get back to the Duke. He’s there. He sees him. And he wants to bow down to kiss his hand. He’ll now have everything that he ever wanted. He falls dead.
Awed in the synagogue by what I had just heard. Now, almost a hundred years old, I realize all that I had passed up in my lifetime.
Last night I dreamed that I was back on Sheridan Road in Chicago and the office girl is saying to me, “A neighbor called and said that a sudden windstorm blew your chair into her window and is
very mad at you; and one day her chair will fly into your window, then you will know how it feels.”
I escaped the windstorm, opened my eyes to a new day and blew myself back into memory, into the working of this book, into the real dreams of the past. “Will I ever get off of Potomac Avenue? And see what is far away? Not knowing how close in mind far away is, as close as the thought now of my mother. “At my wedding I had a hair dresser,” she once said, proud of her royal shining black pompadour.
At the senior group there is Gerdie in a wheelchair. She sits and waits at a wall trying to listen to a lecture. Soon her head droops. She falls asleep. She’s in another world.
We hear the jogging music from another room. After being wheeled up to the lunch table, she doesn’t make an attempt to pick up her spoon to her soup. The old man Samuel, always looking for a mitzvah, feeds her. Puts a napkin around her chin. “Okay, Gerdie, open your mouth. There, you
He takes a napkin, wipes her up. A good deed for his mitzvah. Gerdie waits for her next spoonful.
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My Sister Berdie
My sister, Berdie, called, “I don’t have to be talking to people all the time,” she said. “I’m not lonely. I just lock the door and shut myself in.”
“I’m not lonely, either,” I say. But I know that’s not how we really feel down deep. She lets
slip, “I’m worried. What if something happens to me? Who will help me?” I would, I thought. There would be no such thing as too old or too far to help you, I wanted to say. And I’m sure there was more that she wanted to say, too.
“It’s good to be able to stay in your own home as long as possible,” she said. Another time she said, “My face was swollen. I was in pain. Sometimes I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up again.”
“Aunt Bessie went to sleep,” I said, “and never woke up again. She was such an angel.”
“Oh sure,” she said. “All the men in heaven wanted her. That’s why she went there. I hope she’s having a good time with them. So foxy she would leave her third husband home and go
downtown to collect alimony from her first and second. The second didn’t know about the first and third, and the third didn’t know about the first and second. They had money but they were sure dumb. As for me, I’m working on hearing aids now, Laura. Maybe you can do the same thing.”
My sister Berdie flew in from Chicago to see what was happening. “Old woman needs help.”
“Why do you say you’re a hundred years old when you’re only ninety-eight? I’m ninety-three, and I say I’m ninety-three,” she said.
“Let’s have a drink together, Berdie. This may be our last visit. So what’s your hurry? Maybe we’ll never see each other again.”
But the cab was waiting
“Wait! Berdie! I’ll get the flashlight.” Rushing in, rushing out. “Berdie? Where are you?”
She’s gone. No talk of our childhood – our growing up? How it happened that we ever got so old? I see her, a real flapper with long blonde hair, a great dancer. Me, a brunette, in a bronze
dress, a fox around my neck, sitting on the stone stairs on Troy Street, most likely Mannie taking my picture. Once she said over the phone, “You know, Laura? I don’t even remember our father ever being in the house.” I had this strange thought. Berdie and I are already in our nineties, and we have never mentioned that playground accident, and come to think of it, we never talked about our childhood -- "Do you remember when?" -- as if we were just picked off a branch of a tree.
“I’m getting a new hearing aid, too,” my sister Berdie said, “The other two were fixed, but they’re no good.” And that’s how it was when we talked. I couldn’t hear her, she couldn’t hear me. It was what? What did you say? Our hard of hearing problems have become more intense and we are unable to visit each other often.
The pendulum of a mobile society now seems to be swinging the other way, at least for us. We’re closer by telephone more often than ever. ‘How is your weather there?’ ‘Cold, pouring.’ ‘It’s hot here.’ ‘Glad you're well. Glad everything is going okay.’ ‘How is your friend in the nursing home?’ I ask her. Is she still saying, ‘I wish all my good friends were here. The food is great.’ ‘And so is the $3,500 a month when it’s in your pocket,” I said.
I used to hate Chicago. I thought it was one big slum. Now I long to be back there. Never left me in my heart and mind.
Visiting the cemetery in Waldheim used to be a cleansing ritual if only for a little while. To show our dear ones, their souls in paradise, that we still care.
Volumes of history must have been written since I was born. Four generations behind me now. Each generation separated by new hopes, new dreams. The great life that we all sought must have been hidden. Each generation sure of finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What could have saved our generation? More wars, less wars? The war that we are facing now is right at our doorstep. God only knows how many millions of people have been killed in all those wars, in all
those years of the last century, to give us a better life, peace..
How many times do I say, “What time is it?” Time slips right through my fingers. I wasted so much time trying to make the appointment to get a bus from MTS to take me to the podiatrist to fix my callus and the glue in my arch support. Always the automated lecture first. “Cooperate with us.
Don’t be a no-show. You may be required to pay for the trip anyway.”
Sometimes they’ll call a half hour before pick-up: “We don’t have a driver – somebody will call you between three and five.” Or they’ll send a big wheel-chair bus, just for me, when twenty to thirty people are waiting for their ride someplace. The Red Cross informing me that soon I will have it better – another company will take over.
All day long there are battles to fight. The Scripp’s Mobile is supposed to pick me up. I’m going to audiology. I’m not in their computer, they say. I’m already starting to fight. I call auxiliary, the volunteer service of the hospital. Voice mail, “Leave a message.” No way. I call administration asking for the head of the hospital. “I made that appointment two weeks ago. And I want it. It’s the service that the hospital provides for us. Now the mobile doesn’t want to take me. How am I going to get there?”
“I’ll call you back,” she said politely. Five minutes later,
“You’ve got your appointment, Mrs. Simon. You just have to know the right people to talk to.”
“You’re an angel,” I said.
“Sure, with wings. I had them clipped this morning. Maybe now I will be in better standing with my boss.”
The MTS Bus Takes Me the Wrong Way
In a nursing home they don’t get trash mail or Anthrax to worry about or the problem of taking the M.T.S. bus to go shopping. Only five blocks from my home. “Driver, where are you turning? You’re going the wrong way.” While I think I am being kidnapped, I’m desperate to know where the driver is taking me and he won’t talk.
“Stop at any corner,” I beg of him. “And you will be rid of me. It doesn’t matter where. I will just call the police and they will take me home.”
He is calling his dispatcher, “She is calling the police. She’s got a piece of metal in her hip and it hurts her.” The voice overhead said, “Me too,” laughing.
“You can even stop if you see a hospital,” I call out. “I want to get off.” Maybe I am being held hostage, I’m thinking. Maybe he’s mad at his boss. Through the peripheral of one eye, houses are flying by as fast as my 20s and 30s and my energy then. A man from the back of the bus suddenly appears, getting off.
“Where are we?” I said.
“The Stadium. National University. Took forever to get here,” he said.
I should jump off here but I can’t move. I’m in agony. I can’t talk. The door shuts. The driver is on a freeway.
“I’m taking you home,” he said. Too sick to say what was this ride all about? When I see my driveway, I say, “Help me to get out. Help me up.” He didn’t want to. I can’t move. “This was a
long trip for a five block grocery stop,” I said. “Look where you took me. Look what you’ve done to me. And I still don’t have the food.”
He doesn’t help me get off this bus that is connected to the Red Cross. I manage it myself. I call the M.T.S., ask for the supervisor. It’s Saturday. He’s not in. He never returns my call.
I crawl into bed and I crawl out. There’s nothing to eat in the house. Hunger drives me to call a cab. After some wait I finally get to the supermarket. Hanging onto my wheeling cart, I walk the aisles and gather up food with great effort, amazed by my own energy, by my determination to make my body do what my mind wants of it. I finally get a cab home.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He restoreth my soul.”
That evening, something is happening to me. I seem to be falling apart. I cry and scream and press my medic alert button for help. A woman’s voice, “Please wait." While a man’s voice is saying, “We are sending out the paramedics right away.”
I am still screaming. I am crying. All I can do is scream. They are in my house. Tall men, a nurse. Paramedics? A nurse is taking my blood pressure. “It’s very high,” she says. They are writing out the report and getting the whole story about my unfortunate bus ride. The nurse saying, “That happened to me once on a college campus. A man assigned to walk me to my car because of incidents on campus drove me around. He was taking a short cut, he said. Causing me a few uneasy moments. I know they spoiled your day. Try not to spoil tomorrow. Get some rest. We still want to take you to the hospital.”
I say, “No. I don’t want to go.” All I could think about was that the M.T.S. Red Cross bus had driven me around against my will, causing me such anguish. I try to think of pleasant things, of the little children singing to us at the senior group. Why do trees have birthdays? Why do the trees grow? Because they give us seeds. They give us fruit and they give us miracles. Like humans, not all trees can survive the storms.
Monday morning, I’m calling the Red Cross and I am connected to the supervisor of transportation, telling him what had happened. “I want to thank you for calling us,” he said. “We want to know about these things.”
“I hold the Red Cross,” I said, “in very high esteem. And so does everyone else. I hope this call,” I said, “will be beneficial to you. And beneficial to all the old sick people who have to ride your bus.”
“We will find out why the driver took you around the city for over an hour unnecessarily, causing you this problem,” he said, giving me a three-dollar credit for the ride. This little old lady, I thought, had done something worthwhile for many a senior who cannot fight for herself or himself as I do when I am in the supermarket. They can’t speak up and I speak
up for them. To my last breath, this is what I am going to do. I must say that in my early years I didn’t know what it was to be old. I thought I did when I saw an old person but I really didn’t. I had to be there. I had to be old myself to know what it is like.
My Bus Helper
When I had left the internist office, waiting outside for my Scripps Mobile for my return trip home, the driver’s assistant was an elderly lady. She came to get me, “You’re with the walker. How about let’s walk over to the bus.”
“Where did you get that delightful accent? Are you from Sweden?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m from England. I am here 42 years. I came with my husband and three little boys. I left my mother all alone. She was 78 years old. She insisted that we go to America. My husband was an aircraft designer. The company wanted him and they paid our passage. My mother said, ‘Go, it’s an opportunity you can’t miss. You must go.’ I didn’t know what it was like to say good-by until my son left for Vietnam. When I said good-by to him then I knew how my mother
felt. It was years later and I had never felt it before. My son was in Vietnam, right on the border, north and south. And everyday there was bombing and everyday he had to rush for cover. It was a long year. In between my husband’s heart attacks, my little granddaughter would ask him, “Now, can
you tell me about your secret meetings about the aircraft?”
“Never, ever my dear.” And he never did. He died,” she said, “never telling about aircraft.”
My elderly assistant still talking. How her son the soldier represented a whole army. Is this what we are facing again? Remembering what she said, “It’s TV now for me or volunteer work. I help the driver on the Scripps Mobile. I work three days a week in the hospital. I go around to the patients, of course not when they are sleeping. But if they are awake, I ask them if they would like to have something to read. They like to have someone to talk to. The mornings are all right for me,"
she said, "but in the afternoon I must work some place.”
“How old are you?” A question I hardly ever ask. She said proudly, “81.” “I found a niche for myself in this hospital. But I can’t forget I never saw my mother again. In England, you have free medical care but it’s not always that good. A friend of mine needs a knee operation. He’s been waiting almost a year just for the appointment and then when he gets the
appointment, who knows how far in the distance the operation will be. If he pays cash he can have the operation the next day. Here you have Medicare. You don’t have that problem.”
A Helpful Cab Driver
I am through poking around at sink and stove. “Chop, chop,” I say to myself. Soon headed to the supermarket by cab.
Upon arriving, I ask of the driver, “Do you mind if I take your arm?”
“What else should I do for you?” Angrily.
“Just please get my walker from the trunk,” I said.
My Golden Day
My long ago friend Esther used to say, if these are the golden years, they can have it. Certainly living this day was one anybody who would want it, could have it. On another day, another heat treatment. Just as I got a terrible cramp in my leg once again. And I said, “That’s how I feel about you. You do such wonderful things for so many people.” The spasm in my leg is worse. I feel as I felt many times before that somebody was taking a piece of iron and winding it around my leg, only
this time it was around my hip, my body, my head. I was screaming in agony and I was all alone. My feet, my legs were all cramped up, my body. I ran to the phone to call Dr. Applestein. I say to the girl, “Don’t connect me to a recording. I am terribly sick.”
“Mrs. Simon, what’s wrong? This is Susan.” I couldn’t talk. I am screaming.
“I need help. Help. Send me help. I am in terrible agony.” I am screaming and crying. “I will get Dr. Applestein.” He comes to the phone.
“What seems to be the problem?” He is calm. His voice already is soothing. I can’t talk. I am screaming. I am crying.
“Is this Dr. Applestein?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “I can’t recognize your voice. Do you think I need an ambulance? I am in terrible agony, terrible pain.” I explain what it is.
“No,” he said calmly. “You will be here in a couple of hours. Then we will see what’s wrong.”
I tried to calm down. I let him go. I didn’t know how I was going to take the Scripps Mobile.
Maybe I will have those terrible pains; cramps on the bus. The driver won’t know what to do with me.
I am in the doctor’s office explaining. By then the pain had subsided. But I felt as if I were dead. My head! There must be something wrong with it. No, he takes my blood pressure. It’s fine. 150 over 50. My pulse fine. He said, “We just don’t know what to do about these spasms in the legs. So many people have them.” He prescribed Quinine. He will have the girl call the pharmacist.
When I get home, feeling better, I call the pharmacy. “What does co-payment mean?” I ask the pharmacist. “First time I ever heard of this.”
“It’s charged to your Medicare,” she said. “Along with your doctor’s bill.”
“How much is it,” I asked. “$7.35? Otherwise it’s $10.50. I have been shopping in your pharmacy for 20 years. Nobody ever told me about co-payment. Is this something new?”
“I don’t know,” the pharmacist said.
This was my golden day.
A Mother’s Worry
One morning I met my neighbor on the street. She pops up and says, “Hi there, Laura. I’ve got to go to the special store to get hamburger for my daughter’s boyfriend. He loves her hamburger ‘cause she puts a lot of mashed potatoes in it and everything: milk and butter. She is a wonderful cook, and so was I once upon a time. But did my husbands appreciate it, running off with other women and I thought my last one was in 7th heaven when I gave him mashed potatoes. Now I
don’t cock around, I just put it in the oven and eat it. TV dinner’s good enough. I’m crazy. I’m my daughter’s maid. Look at my hands. I tell her ‘let’s move back to Pittsburgh. There you’ll find a husband.’ But she’d rather cook mashed potatoes for that guy. He brings her presents. Bought her a
beautiful housecoat $60.00 and a new mattress cover. I don’t care about me. And another husband I’ll never marry again, it’s nurse or purse, I’ve got grandchildren from my husbands and their other wives.”
“Be careful,” I said. “Don’t run in front of a car to get that bus. I always say I’ll call you and never do.”
“Don’t call me,” she said. “I’m not a telephone person. I just like to talk to you like this.”
I never expected Dr. Marion to be such a nudge. Just because she helped my tearing eye. Surgery-minded, she wouldn't let go of me. Kind, gentle and sweet, she sent me letters, I should
believe her, and my cataract surgery will be successful on my left eye. I held off. I felt pushed into a corner and went to Dr. Park for a second opinion. It wasn't my fault he recommended Dr. Murray, in the same clinic as Dr. Marion.
“Your retina is very bad,” he said, “the cataract is tightly attached” -- medical talk – “you could have problems with the cornea – it’s too high-risk, Mrs. Simon, and then you have very bad macular degeneration,” reporting back to Dr. Park for him to consider, who called me by phone –
“We can get a third opinion –“
“How long can I live? I'm ninety-seven already -- maybe I can march through this…”
Dr. Park is sympathetic and understanding as we decided to let the matter rest for a while.
I was just enjoying my Chinese supper made with kosher chicken when I get a telephone call from Dr. Marion’s secretary. “Dr. Marion asked me to call you, Mrs. Simon, because she is embarrassed.” A new style of nudging. God forbid she should be embarrassed. To save her
embarrassment, I’ll come down right in the morning and she can operate.
“What you did, Mrs. Simon,” in a very tender voice, “you went to Dr. Park.”
“I have the right to go to any doctor that I want without asking her permission, and he made arrangements with Dr. Murray for a second opinion who…”
The secretary repeating, “But Dr. Marion is embarrassed.”
“I don’t understand what you are talking about,” I’m shouting. “What does she want me to do? What’s the question?”
“I’m very sorry to have troubled you,” in a passive, let-me-off-the-hook voice.
“All right! Good-bye!”
Luckily, I met a neighbor who took me home with all my groceries. Now with all those fresh fruits and vegetables, I made myself a great salad. Herbs, lemon juice and yogurt. I enjoy that. Planning to finish this supper off with an eggplant pancake. I already had the steamed eggplant ready, couple of beaten eggs, spoonful of yogurt and I’d have a good time with my blind-man’s recipe.
It’s about 8:00 o’clock now and I’ve got this tape recorder on my kitchen counter. I feel comfortable standing here and writing. I’ve got to get more writing in today, pushing myself to be ready for my transcriber in the morning. I love to keep a few steps ahead of her.
Times Have Changed
A neighbor greets me on the way to the dumpster, “It’s a crazy world. What are you going to do? I am watching TV, naked girls. Would you believe it? and naked fellows, not that you could see anything. Look how the world is changing. When Mae West once came on the radio saying, ‘Come up and see me sometime,’ they threw her off the air. Now she had more time to do her laundry.”
There was an announcement in the synagogue one Saturday morning: The Rabbi saying he’s going to marry an elderly couple. The man’s children were furious. The woman is only 65 and he 92.
Now, busy making arrangements with the Rabbi’s wife to join the group at La Jolla Shores.
“But will you be able to do all that walking?” the Rabbi asked.
I said, “Of course. I will take my walker." Besides, I would have liked to tell him, had he not hurried away so fast, “I’ll be studying Hebraic writings with his wife and the others,” to let him know that I learned something in his study group. Remembering how he once said, "When you have
very strong desires in the wrong directions, you just leave the negative, the bad images behind you. Many people have evil images.”
“The emotions try to tell the brain what to do but the brain doesn’t always listen to the heart. Sometimes young people will say anything. But when one is older, one is more careful of what is said and more interested in Torah study and move more toward the right side of the heart in order not to see yourself as a terrible person, which would make you feel sad.”
At the seniors we hear that diamonds are a tough market these days, we seniors surely have to know that. And what about synthetic stones, those maybe we can afford. Most of our pearls come from Japan, the Diamond-man is saying and polluted water changes their colors, changes their value.
“Why are not red diamonds called rubies?” I asked. Never too late to learn that diamonds are diamonds and rubies are rubies and some synthetic stones change color because of the heat of your body.
I tried to enjoy the jeweler’s talk about the glitter of diamonds, the different colors for the different moods. You can wear purple, blue, yellow. I don’t need a red diamond. When I am
jumping for joy, I can wear one of my rubies. This pleasure talk was to divert our attention, perhaps, from the reality of what awaits us seniors in the shadows. For many of us, the biggest struggle is to keep our memories. Society seems to be very complacent about the needs of seniors for long-term
care. Some call it final care. You don’t last very long once you get there. Ach, in the meantime, we don’t want to hear about that.
Diamond lectures are more enjoyable than yoga classes. Socializing and get-togethers are everywhere.
We had our lunch outdoors under the awnings. Breaded cod, decaffeinated coffee and somebody’s birthday creamed cake with layers of pineapple. Since Rosa, the social worker, was
leaving, this was a good-bye party. She got presents.
“Remember we love you Rosa.” “And I love you guys too,” she said. Instead of joining bingo or Spanish lessons, I chatted with an elderly man who is going into a retirement place until a nursing home becomes necessary. God help us. “I had a
live-in lady,” he said.
“You mean a companion?”
“Yes. I guess she was. 30 years. But I didn’t want to get married. At our age everybody has something. I know it and you know it. When she left, I didn’t have anyone to hand me a glass of water. It was terrible. And I was sick. Now I’ll have a studio apartment in a retirement home, $1,500.00 and up. $750.00 registration fee and deposit. A closet, bathroom, a table in one corner. But they drive us and take us to entertainment."
I am again alerted to the advice I received: "-- don’t go there Laura. Just don’t go there. Stay at home as long as you can and keep your independence. That gives me greater motivation to keep on writing this book."
One day at the seniors, a chiropractor came with a skeleton to show us what we really look like, trying to teach us how to hold our heads up on top of that knob so that we’ll look younger. Or come get some treatments from him, shaking the skeleton. Not too many of us are interested.
Medicare does not recognize skeletons or chiropractors – or education for the seniors.
Several days ago I had an accident that put me into the hospital for x-rays all over my body. The driveway that leads from my sidewalk to the street was evidently put there some fifty years ago when they built these houses for the military. Walking through there, a parked car suddenly backed
out and knocked me down. I thought that all my fingers were broken, with a sudden rush of thought, more hurt than the hurt itself, that I would have to stop writing this book, as if the world could not get along without it.
A woman reluctantly getting out of that car explained to the one who was on the ground, with the sky on top of her, “You were over there talking to somebody, weren’t you?”
“I can’t move,” I said. “Can you help me stand up?”
Under one arm and with a good grasp, she can’t budge me. I say to her, “Please, could you get somebody to help you? To lift me up? I’d appreciate that.”
She leaves flat in the middle of the driveway, my hand soaking in a pool of blood.
Finally I see her coming toward me with a man. In moments, each at an armpit, one-twothree- up-you-go, they stand me up at my walker. Like a rolling bolt of thunder, his hand clenched to my face, his face as blood red as my hand, he’s yelling at me.
“You crazy blind old woman you! You crazy old blind woman!”
“Don’t poke me,” I plead. “Don’t push me, please. Don’t hurt me.”
“Aren’t you grateful I picked you up?”
“But you don’t have to – don’t poke me. Don’t push me.”
“You blind old crazy thing.”
“She’s crazy,” he’s saying to the woman who was standing mute, while his bright idea finger touched his forehead. “I’m calling the police,” he said to her. “So you stay right here. Remember, you didn’t hit her; she just fell down. And you’ve got a five-hundred dollar deductible. Remember
Bloody-handed, I straighten up my walker, shakily I walk back into my house, blood dripping all over, quickly wrapping my hand in a towel. I call the police, the woman officer saying to me, “From what you say, I think you need the ambulance. To take you to the hospital.”
“I don’t want an ambulance. I’ll call a cab. And I’ll get there.”
“Mrs. Simon, I don’t advise it. I’ll connect you with the ambulance people and you can talk to them.”
They are coming out, they say.
“But I don’t want to go in an ambulance. I’m going to try and get a cab -- if I feel that I need an ambulance, I’ll call back. I just want to say,” I said, “I am overwhelmed by your kindness and the kindness of the officer. So comforting.”
In moments I am calling for the ambulance, in moments the paramedics are here and so are the police. I had already heard them out there. That man yelling to the heavens as if from up there they have never seen a crazy woman.
“Come in,” I said to the officer at my screen door. He’s looking at me carefully. Crazy? Blind?
There was no way for me to cover up “old” without a fast face lift. Otherwise I was very calm and looked at him as if I could see clearly all of his fine features. But calm -- surprisingly so. I am sure he expected to see a wild woman. Calm as though already dead, and I might as well be quiet and play
the part, already picturing my family sitting shivah for me and deciding what food to get for the people when they arrive after the funeral, what trays to order, and probably discussing what their mother would like to have on the trays, as if they ever listened.
Mimicking me, “Don't get halibut salad, too much mayonnaise, and who knows how fresh and don’t get lox and bagels. Lox is too salty. What’s wrong with plain hard-boiled eggs sitting
shivah?” Still mimicking me.
“On Syd’s blue willow dishes? Imported?” That brings out some laughter. “You have to go on with your life. Enjoy yourselves and don’t worry about me.”
They aren’t worrying about me. I’m dead. What’s to worry?
In my mind’s eye I see Syd, Norman, my devoted son-in-law, and Mayo dashing from kitchen to dining room setting the table just right -- first, second and third cousins will soon arrive and other people carrying boxes of cookies, cakes that they baked themselves if they had time -- or bakery.
“Enough chairs? Where do we put all their galoshes, coats and sweaters?” Giving them lots of trouble. And after trudging through Chicago’s weather just to see the last of me, making it all worth while with the Rabbi’s good references so that I get into heaven.
Back to earth to the pain of my accident, the officer is asking me again, “What side did you fall on?” The other officers, paramedics crowding my living-room-dining- kitchen, waiting for my answer. “The right side,” I say. While one paramedic takes my blood pressure, a nurse works on my still bleeding hand.
“A hundred-ninety over ninety? I never had high blood pressure. Oh my God! Then I am dead.”
She cleaned up my cut fingers, best she could, bandages. “We’re taking you to the hospital.”
“No! I don’t want to go in an ambulance. I’ll call a cab.”
“Call a friend, a neighbor to take you -- not alone in a cab.”
“I don’t want to impose myself on anybody. A cab is fine.”
“What’s the number of somebody? I’ll call.”
A neighbor. “Laura, I’d love to take you, but I can’t drive in the dark and it’s raining now.”
“I love you just the same. I understand.”
To the paramedic I say, “I’m calling a cab.”
“No,” he insists, then whispering to the others, “we’re taking you to the hospital,” already leading me to the stretcher outside my door, the nurse locking up. As they lay me down on the stretcher, I scream in pain, “My leg! My implant, my hip!” That officer appears at my side, saying, “I thought you said you fell on your right side.”
“I did,” repeating, “that car came backing out, suddenly hitting me on this left side, I screamed, I flew up and over and landed on my right side. It is correct.” He walked away.
In the ambulance the paramedic is putting a collar around my neck. “What day is it?” he asked.
“Tuesday,” I laugh.
“And the city? Where are you?”
“San Diego,” adding, “and he was yelling at me something terrible.”
“He was yelling like that at us too,” he said. “They had to take him aside. Nobody yells at us like that.”
Driving along I’m thinking that man must be getting even with an old lady, maybe his mother, who said, “Do you have to go around looking like a schlump, a failure in life?” throwing his poison and fury at me, rolling that hatred on to the police, the momentum of his anger not being able to stop, besmudging himself without any shame.
Later at the hospital the doctor bedside saying, “You’re lucky nothing is broken. I had the radiologists studying the x-rays -- your whole body.”
“Ah . . .”
“Badly hurt. Now see your doctor. Some cuts on your fingers that we’ve already taken care of.”
“Ah. . .”
“And now we’re going to get you home.”
Thursday December 5, 2002
I needed an ounce or two of Crown Royal to get some sleep last night, my dream unbelievable – me? Not able to see a car coming when trying to cross the street? “I would have thought you stronger than this, Laura,” I say to myself, a whipped-up thought to bolster my nerves.
“I would have thought you stronger than this, Theodore,” Freud said to his former student, as he lay on the couch, as I recall out of the pages in “A Portrait of a Psychoanalyst,” by Theodor Reich, who lay there hanging by ropes, an experience that gave him the real meaning of psychoanalysts.
“I’m crawling around here,” I say to my ophthalmologist, “I can’t see the sink, do my dishes – I think my right eye has dropped, too—“
“Then something else is going on. I want you to go to the hospital now, to the emergency for a blood test, pressure, heart – don’t wait until tomorrow—“
“Maybe I exaggerated,” I try to convince him, “maybe I can hang on a few days to skip over until Monday.” Finally, he agreed.
“It will be hard surgery,” the attending surgeon was saying, as I sat back to listen carefully, “but to go ahead with it, that is for you to decide, Mrs. Simon. There are no guarantees.”
With it all I went grocery shopping, of course, with the volunteer. I tried to be calm when Mayo called to ask me one question – how am I managing by myself? “Call a nursing service,” he suggested, “someone to come every day. And remember my play, “Twilight Romance” opening
night at the Falcon theater in the San Fernando Valley. I want you to be there.” Of course, if all my ophthalmologists help me. I could say more – he’s such a good listener. And so smart because I did go to see the play.
I wind myself up like an old-fashioned coffee grinder and call the Point Loma Nazarene Nursing College for a student nurse. I call University City High School to the Key Club I heard
about for a mother’s helper. Getting no response. I call the Independent Home Care for Seniors.
“Fourteen dollars an hour? That’s over five hundred a week!”
“You’re very good in math,” she said when I called.
Syd’s Telephone Call
Writers don’t like to be interrupted by telephone calls, especially those writing about their own history, like me. But I didn’t mind this one.
“You’re late,” I said. “You usually call early in the morning.”
“I know I’m late because I’m in Ocala, Florida.”
“What are you doing there? You’re buying a horse?”
“No, we’re just traveling around in Florida to get away from the snow storms. It’s our vacation.”
How uplifting her call was, to hear her voice the day after the accident, when I walked into the reality of aloneness. I spent a whole lifetime in learning, or so I thought, and was going to pour some of it into this book, shocked by the thought yesterday how one unexpected moment can stop
“What’s going on?” It’s Syd.
“A real soap opera,” I said. “There must be stacks of operas, symphonies, concerts, lectures, scientific and what’s new in San Diego in warehouses, and look what they give us on TV.”
“OK, we talked.” What a good would talk do for me anyway, sometimes keeping me awake all night. As usual, she’s a good listener.
A Wonderful Visit
I remember the day when my grandson Robert and his wife May came to San Diego to visit me. They came for early brunch. I wondered if they really knew what a treat this was for me.
Later we went to Sea World. To see the penguins in tuxedos in their Arctic settings, marching around like little people behind glass and the sharks swimming in circles in tanks captured from their beautiful ocean home. You want to get drenched by a porpoise flying into the air and splashing down into the water? And a trained Shamu showing his great form up in the air too and giving half of the people a big bath. We’re not sitting up close. We sit on top row. What a whale!
Sea World was where Robert and May first met. I hadn’t been there for years. This was a celebration for them too. After Shamu, we went to a deli where I stayed put and they ran around to their familiar sites.
What a long day it was and we were still ready to go for dinner at that restaurant on Prospect.
We were seated at a window where we could see a wide span of ocean. On the buffet for appetizers, lobster salad, shrimp all you can eat. I don’t know where we put it all. We all ordered fish. Finally, after so much to talk about let’s get going, we were saying.
Back home again, I was already beginning to feel the letdown knowing that a lot of time will elapse for another day like this. They living in the upper U.S. and I in the lower. Now I’m saying to Robert, “How would you like those photographs up on the wall that your brother, Bill, had sent to me?” Reminding myself that I never expected to ever part with them. Always sharing those special memories of art with Bill when I looked at those pictures that he had done. In my mind’s eye I
could see how Bill stepped out of himself quietly, how he had captured the beauty of butterflies in their natural habitat by camera as if the butterflies had posed for him, knowing that they would be safe in his presence.
“I’d love to have them,” Robert said. Taking them down, a touching moment for us as our eyes lingered on his name in the corner of the photograph, William Dichterman. The thread of our family.
It’s Chanukah. I celebrated my 98th birthday with friends and their family at a Thanksgiving dinner, and now I think about Chanukah, how the shimmering lights of the candles from all those windows will go across the world in the spirit of Chanukah. I think of the seniors, we elderly, how shriveled with age some of us are. Whatever our bodies are willing to give us, let’s work with it. Let’s be curious about the world around us, and try to keep away from care centers and retirement homes, away from those corporate structures. When you talk, talk from strength, not from weakness so that nobody steps on you. And if you have the ability, help the ones who can’t help themselves.
At 98 I am still trying to organize housework. How to make my bed, the fracture in the back of my neck still troubling me.
The San Diego sunshine is simply brilliant today. What a wonderful day to be alive! Worked to get breakfast, squeezed grapefruit for juice, then ate some oat bran with banana and milk -- thinking the acid and milk may kill me, but I eat it anyway because I'm in a hurry to write at this tape
Forgetting that my vision is impaired, I live each day now obsessed with the idea that I can’t waste a moment. I go from housework that I rush through as fast as possible, to work in my bedroom at this book that I’ve come to love, hard work that it is, wondering how and what I’m going to do when I am finished. I called Point Loma Nazarene College again, still looking for a student to come and help me.
I’ve already done my exercises for the day, bicycling up in the air in bed, and massaging my legs and thighs with a lotion to soften the muscle spasms that grip me. I long for a walk. Maybe later—now I must work, write all from memory, finishing up my history as I have lived it through the last century. My eyes are not that good anymore. All my life I've looked for that special poem, a world-beater, but I was never able to find it, like wanting to do the greatest of all paintings. Maybe what I'm writing now is that poem and I've had it all the time but didn't know it.
I could sit under the palm tree at my kitchen door and drivel away the time; what am I going to do through my 99th? Instead, this is what I'm doing -- working up until one A.M., writing.
To relax I turn on a cassette recording. Music this time, from the Jewish Braille Library in New York. Otherwise it’s books by Agnon, Peretz, sometimes Tanya or the Bible, essays by the
great Argentinian writer, Jorge Borges, blind as a child, his mother helping him with his writings. Songs and guitar, and I follow the melody line of lovers, just like today, then under ancient trees – ‘let’s not wait. Let’s love each other now.’
Why can't families be together like they used to, especially on holidays. The world is smaller and their families and work take them away.
I got my birthday presents, long-stemmed roses from my son Mayo, that made me feel like a great actress, and a check from daughter Sydelle to buy a white sweater, or something like that, first chance I get.
La Jolla Shores
At La Jolla Shores, the sea gulls swoop screeching overhead like a bunch of hotheads cutting through the complexities of sky, water and people.
My newly acquired friend, who drove me, was pointing out a group of people to me on the grass.
She said, “Look, they’re meditating. Their hands crossed, legs crossed, eyes closed like a garden of lotus flowers.”
Amid all the commotion, people looking for parking spaces behind them, children running around. I push my eyes hard to see the burnt umber figures in the shade and those of orange in the sun. Leaning toward a heavily-trunked tree, I with my walker and she with a cane, was more seeing eye than I had anticipated. She allowed me all the time I needed to take in this landscape of art.
I love going to La Jolla Shores with a small group of women and the Rabbi’s wife reading chapters of the Torah to us. In my old age, I am beginning to study Torah. Where was I ages ago? A friend picks me up Sunday morning for the usual trip to La Jolla Shores to listen to the the Rabbi’s wife reading a parsha from the Torah. “What’s a parsha?” I asked of her. She said, “A chapter in Hebrew.” Odd, that I had waited so long to learn something.
Sunday mornings have become my best moments. I must remember to bring bread for the sea gulls. I wonder if they would eat rice cakes that are a week old? Wild rice, instead of plain, hoping that the sea gulls wouldn’t think that I put it over on them, giving me a big scare, swooping wildly around me, screeching like hawks to have my head.
Watching those sea gull games, enjoying the people, the ocean, and the Torah readings in the gazebo with my friends and the waves splashing close by.
There was so much going on around me, the voices. And we could go in any direction and entertain ourselves. The best were the sounds of the ocean.
“The air smells of salt,” she said. “I can taste it.”
I was more interested in the steady beating of waves against rock that made this day seem colder than it really was and more windy. The waves consistent in their rhythm. We walked along the broken sidewalk and there were people taking in the view along the fence. It was as if La Jolla Shores was a continuation of the years of memories that I had to draw upon those ocean sounds. I thrive upon those memories of Mannie and I vacationing in Miami Beach, holding hands as we
strolled along the boardwalk amid the crowds. I remember the swimmers, the ocean, children and their games, the teenagers, the old people that brought along their own chairs. The cars all parked over at the curb. We’d go down to Lincoln Road and First Street and there the old people would be perched on benches singing their old-time songs. Even dancing in the pathways facing ocean and park.
I am reminded of my mother at that upright piano playing “Over the Waves.” She played it over and over and over again. I see her waltzing with her brother Harry at a cousin’s wedding. “Come on, Harry,” pulling him toward her. “Come on, let’s dance.” He was not too anxious, but he danced anyway. She loved waltzing around to the song, “Oh, how we danced the night we were wed.”
When I went with the group last Sunday morning to La Jolla Shores, a woman that I was with brought up the subject of destiny. She said that God plans our every move. Another woman said, “I learn that I am not always right. I learn it. I forget it. But now I am becoming reacquainted with the
thought of God.”
Thinking back while in Florida, Mannie and I were sitting out on our balcony, oceanfront. There was a sudden rainstorm. The drumming of rain on the roof. That’s how the ocean waves
sounded at La Jolla Shores, like a pouring rain. The waves up at shore over and over. That’s how I heard them.
One day, I was at the Cove with Mayo watching the seals at their rendezvous, on a big rock with the waves splashing up around them. They with their pranks entertained us. At La Jolla Shores, when my friend and I were standing at the fence, she asked “Can you see that big rock out there in the water? It’s just covered with pelicans. One is flying away and one is
coming back. And another flies away and there is another pelican coming back. Look, look. Don’t you see it?”
I say, “Yes. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Are those pelicans? And is that a house back there on a rock? It’s all white and square.”
“No,” she said. “It’s a cave.”
“A cave? How can you see from here? A cave in a rock?”
“And a little boy is just coming out,” she said.
I kept staring way out there at the water, trying to see it, blue and the foam coming up all white in waves. The ocean divided way back there. I looked and saw the architecture blending into the landscape.
Once at La Jolla Shores I heard some people talking about how the waves thrash further up against the hills, the cliffs. In my younger days, I would have loved to jump around in that foam with enough energy to climb to the top. Up against those rocky hills. These days I hear of young people going to foam parties dancing with foam coming out of a foam machine getting so wet they have to strip down and dance in bikinis. That’s a lot of fun. And so were my adventures in ghost towns
looking for gold, once upon a time, climbing up and down hills, looking for frontier days. Now it isfrontier days into old age.
Facing the ocean, I had lost sight of my friend with the cane who had gone looking for the right gazebo where our Torah study group would surely be reading a parsha. Sea gulls were flying all over the place and pelicans, one on a post nearby. One sea gull high above me, racing as if to catch up to the others like Rafty, the horse, racing in Arlington, near
Chicago. Children are playing catch below me on the sand with much laughter.
Without that big garbage can near us that divided this broken sidewalk that side is real wide. This side is narrow, our group disappearing and we didn’t know which way to go. While people were walking down the stairs to sand and ocean, a woman next to me says “Look over there. A sea lion.”
“What’s a sea lion? Can’t be. It must be a seal. Could it be a male seal?”
I am all wonder. I sounded again as if I were on Potomac Avenue with the immigrants on the stairs or further up when I went with my father to the doctor and saw the trolley car for the first time. My childish mind already stirring toward adventure to far away distances so that eventually I
would know something.
“And do you see any ships out there?” I’m asking her. How could she understand why I’m asking? How could she know about the Titanic? Of my ignorance of those days, thinking the Titanic was a canoe in Humboldt Park.
“No,” she said. “Just a buoy.”
“A buoy? Spell it,” I said.
“B-u-o-y?” questioning herself.
“Look,” she said to my half-blind eyes. “That half-naked man. He’s going snorkeling. The mask is on his face and he’s got fins on his feet. And that must be oxygen on his back. Look, do you
see him?” determined to make me see. “He’s walking into the ocean backwards.”
“Maybe it’s because his fins are flapping in front of him and it’s easier for him to go backwards in the water or maybe the oxygen on his back is too heavy. I don’t know.”
“I smell frying sausages,” I said. As we move along the fence, the hilarious playing on sand beneath us.
“You must be hungry,” she said. “Or it’s that garbage can again. And I smell cigars,” she said.
I never want cigar smells again. To see cigar makers at our kitchen table and my father. Or would it be better for my whole being if I did see them again and finally come to terms with myself?
All of this buried in my thoughts, until my new-found friend found the smell of cigars.
The waves over to the side kept chopping into my memories, my early history in medicine when my father used to take me to the doctor. Cheap John’s Remnants on Potomac Avenue. That eyelet dress my mother made for me out of 10 cents worth and managing a big bow in my hair and that was when my little brother was still alive and Berdie was about two years old. I look into my mind and see that picture, that photograph. The three of us – my little brother in the center with his
golden blond hair and I see his belt loose and dropping to his short pants, to his white shoes. My eyes to the white on white flowers that cover my eyelet dress. My smiling face proud with happiness.
A memory of almost 90 years ago preserved in a photograph that I still have. At this continuous rolling of waves in front of me, the foam jumped up like white fire, insisting that I remember so many things I thought I had long ago forgotten.
In the white foam, I see the succah that my grandfather built with twigs in the back yard, my grandmother handing out bowls of hot chicken from the window. It was a great harvest celebration for us around the table, his broken family. In his prayers thanking God that he’s here in America. Now the sounds of the waves change. It is splashing up very hard. A wind is coming up. I am glad that I wore a sweater and jacket. People hanging over the fence didn’t seem to stay very long.
They kept on going. Perhaps the group could be talking about Chanukah in the gazebo, how the Chanukah menorah faces out to the outside world with its candlelight to bring out the light. A mezuzah with its Ten Commandments slants on the doorpost, points to the inside of a house.
The rabbi’s wife is saying that we have five angels surrounding us – one on top, one on the bottom, on both sides and an extra one to protect us. Learning that some people actually see these
angels. Is that possible?
The weather changing, more and more people are leaving while I long for a familiar face, looking hard to find one. The group long ago in the distance, even my walker has deserted me.
Depending upon my mood, I call my walker my Cadillac or my companion and now that’s gone too somewhere along this fence.
“Don’t panic, Laura. Whatever you do, never panic,” Mannie used to say, kissing the palm of my hand. “I love you, but I don’t know why. You are so naïve. But don’t ever lose that quality. That’s what I love about you.” But he didn’t know of this broken sidewalk beneath me and how I would have to manage to walk it. Or how afraid I am of falling. The waves have their moods too.
Now they are like rolling hills, disappearing into the sky, rolling back, to bring more memories, more echoes. Walking along, I am still looking for the fluttering of angels.
The Centennial Celebration
The celebration for my hundredth birthday party began early that Saturday morning at the Chabad Synagogue, November 26, 2005. As orthodoxy requires, the men were separated from the woman by a partitioned curtain. The aura of the rising up of the Hebraic prayers penetrated the
room and touched me deeply. As a child longing for its mother, I longed for those who are no longer with me. I could hardly perceive the chanting of the rabbi and the men who surround him up at the torah, consumed with the prayers that were within me for my family and friends, for their well being, for peace in the world. They came from all over, Illinois, New York, Michigan, Canada, England, New Jersey, Maryland and California. Also, a scattering of strangers, who came for the Sabbath services, took part in the celebration. All of them part of my tree of life, like the tapestry on the side wall, its colorful branches interwoven with gold. The whole congregation broke out in song—congratulations, Laura Simon, on your one hundred years. I am bound to go on living forever. I am overwhelmed by the large crowd around me in the courtyard. The buffet table already set with platters of turkey, fruits and salads, challah and cakes. A hush comes over the crowd as the rabbi announces “and now, Laura Simon will say a few words.”
For a moment I can’t find them. Where are the hundred aspects of my life that I’ve written about? Who am I, anyway? I grab on to what people ask me. “A hundred? Wow, what’s your secret?” My secret? My secret is my determination, that I must get there. “It was like climbing Mount Everest,” I say. “With all the burdens that we have to carry, there are always the terrifying sounds of the outside world. There was always war or talk of war. Follow the signposts—peace is this way. No, it’s that way. There are no straight paths—detours all the
way. If we get lost, it takes years to find ourselves, to fix what has been broken. Afraid of falling over a precipice? We hang on the best we can. All of humanity is on the treadmill of time.
No one can understand or know what it feels like to have reached the end of this great journey. Not until you get there. So many times my reasoning had been wrong. It took all those
years of experience to understand this. All the while we are still aging, like good wine or champagne. Life begins to taste better. As we look upwards, the bad things begin to fall away, the smoldering debris of life. All you remember
then is the good, like the values of childhood, the values of past generations that have been given to us, that we hand over to the generations that follow. Now, as I stand here at this great height, and look out to the world around me, all I see is beauty. “