-From Dailykos, a political website-
She was there when I came home with my mother in 1940 to the house where we were all living on North Avenue and Smallwood St. in Baltimore. She and Uncle Sam had no kids of their own, so when her sister Minnie had a second, I'm sure there were some mixed feelings, perhaps a tinge of regret, but also joy in another child to love. She was 37 at the time, born in Poland on March 1 1903. The exact date is uncertain as no birth records survived emigration. She once showed me the letter from her elementary school that the date of birth was reconstructed from existing records.
Now she is probably dying as I start to write this and could well be gone when I post it, or when you read it. Four days ago she didn't stir when the aids in the assisted living facility tried to wake her for breakfast, and has kept on sleeping now into the fourth day. I just spoke to the head nurse, a caring woman named Reba, who had just been in her room. She told me she is peaceful, and does not respond to attempts to wake her.
I'm writing this to capture my own memories, and to share with those who may be interested, some who may know me from when I used to write frequently on this site. No politics here, just sharing my feelings with unseen friends, and some lost real flesh and blood friends. I've only visited Aunt Lena four times from our home in Southern California since she moved from her apartment to the assisted living facility six years ago. She never wanted anyone to know her age so I crossed it out in the label on the walker they all are required to use. Alert when she moved in, time has taken its toll and she no longer recognized me or Sheila in April when we visited, but we all pretended that she did.
If Anyone may disagrees with the decision not to seek emergency care to forestall this course of ending, let me assure you that this was discussed with Aunt Lena a few years ago when she was still able to talk about these things, and I even videoed the conversation. For those with very elderly family members, this can be useful, and it can be in the form of a conversation without being morbid, just reaching an understanding. It also provides certainty at times like this when the loved one can't participate in the decision of preserving their own life.
At the time of this discussion she was in her own apartment, still walking a couple miles round trip for grocery shopping at 103 years old, and fixing blintzes for Sheila and me in the morning after our camping out on the blowup bed in the living room. Those were delightful visits, walks in the neighborhood, sitting all together on the sofa watching TV, even playing a special three handed game of Bridge with the fourth person played by a box that we called Mr. Matzos. At 102, she could do all this. She was somewhat amused at her still being alive then, and had no desire to go for a record. She said, "I never thought I would turn out like this" meaning not being able to take care of the house, or be active in things. She berated herself for not being a "mensh" a Yiddish concept of a responsible capable human being. I challenged her on that, saying that she is every bit the mensh, but she was clear, "When you can't go out, enjoy life, it's over" No regrets, no sadness, no remorse...."its over." She could have added in Yiddish, "Fatig" It's done.
My Mother, Lena's sister Minnie, two years older and gone now for two decades, was quite different from her. Minnie was the difficult child, probably born a half century too early, having the drive and smarts that could in no way, not in that orthodox Jewish working class home, be fulfilled as a female of that era. She had to fight her father to finish high school, and reached the highest level of the very low glass ceiling, being a bookkeeper, which was also what Lena did when she worked. Lena was the younger, sweeter girl who was loved by her parents, while my mother was a thorn in their side, an unfortunate tradition that was continued with her own children.
109 years and 191 days of life as of this writing . I don't think Aunt Lena went to a doctor more than a few dozen times in her entire life, which says something about lucky genes, and maybe of the benefits of staying clear of these guys and the medications that just may have a cumulative effect . Even now, she is not on any medication. But age takes its toll. When we visited her last April she hardly ate any solid food, so the serving staff put extra sugar in her decaf, which sustained her these last months.
Only a few people out of a hundred thousand survive to this age, and I can't help wondering what proportion, like Lena, have avoided long term medication for chronic conditions. She never smoked, hardly drank alcohol and only was sexually intimate with one man, her husband. She never gave any thought to her diet, eating what she wanted to, ice cream, waffles, vegetable soup, whatever was convenient. And her long walks to the grocery store until the last few years provided exercise, without making it a conscious goal. I don't think she felt much stress, or nurtured any anger at anyone, and didn't worry about her own health , or had any time for regrets.
When I was very young she would read to me and my sister in bed from a book of bible stories. She had just read the story of Sampson, and at the end she asked what was the moral of the story. I was excited because I knew the answer, "He shouldn't have pulled down the pillars that held up the roof because when he did he killed himself." It wasn't exactly the answer that Aunt Lena had in mind, even though it seems so obvious to me. But, she didn't laugh at me, and even though I realized I didn't get it, something about his selling out his principles (maybe I still don't get it) there was no ridicule, just affection, and the comfort of the three of us in bed together.
After the war, that's WWII, getting a letter from a relative from "overseas." and looking at the strange script. We waited until Uncle Irving could come over as he was one of the few who could read Yiddish handwriting. I don't remember much, just the intensity of the moment, the first connection with a cousin whom they didn't know had survived as so few who remained in Poland had.
My Uncle Irving, a few years younger than Lena was drafted late, but I had no memory of him as the war came to a close. He served his time in England and never saw combat, but to Arlene and me it was always as we raised our glass of milk, "Drink to Uncle Irving, the man who won the war" And then there was that day, when my mother who had spent my short life telling me not to make noise, handed me a pot and a big spoon and told me to march around the block with all the neighbors and make all the noise I could. It was VJ day, and the war was over.
Uncle Sam died when Lena was in her seventies, and she was on her own, maintaining the little house in Colonial Village, even painting the kitchen a bright blue by herself while in her nineties, and doing a really good job. She learned how to drive made the trip to see my mother in Washington frequently They would join with one of their buddies, Irene, to watch my Sister's three girls when they took a vacation enjoying their venture like an extended sleepover. Once, when Lena bumped a car in front of her, Oh, when she was in her early 80s, she knew driving was no longer a good idea, and sold the car.
Aunt Lena was born in a shtetl where the only people she saw were Jews, and those outside, where Goyem. My Mother described her memories, including not being allowed to walk in the park in the nearby city, as signs said Jews and Dogs were specifically excluded. Lena, being a a year and a half younger, leaving at around five, may not have had these memories. Her earliest one was getting lost at the Baltimore port of entrance, and her big sister finding her.
Jews, especially those of that era, had a fragile sense of security in this country. My own childhood did not include discussions of politics beyond a brief comment on the daily headlines. The earliest explanation of political parties was when my father said, "Republicans are for the rich and Democrats are for the poor, so we are Democrats." Made sense in in 1948, and still seems to apply pretty much to this day.
And finally there is this story. She was packing up to move from her house to an apartment and giving away many of her belongings that wouldn't fit. As we were ending a visit to return to our Manhattan apartment on a Sunday evening, I asked about one item, a depression era colored glass vase. She said that this she wanted to keep as it belonged to her mother and had a special meaning. But then, she thought again and said, "No, No, you an Sheila should have it, take it with you" I protested, but now she insisted that she wanted us to have it. It was a long drive home, and I was exhausted when we got to our garage. We got our dog on the leash, opened the trunk and got the luggage and I noticed a blanket in the corner. Thinking what could that be doing there, I pulled on it, and.....out came the vase crashing to the pavement.
Heart sick, I thought I would not have to tell Lena, as I usually called once a month in those days and she probably wouldn't bring it up. The time came, and we chatted a bit on the phone, and then she asked, "how are you enjoying the vase?" I told her exactly what happened, and then her response that will always be the essence of who she was to me, "Oh, don't worry about it, If I had kept it I probably would have broken it myself."
It helps me to write this, to document memories that will soon no longer be accessible to me, as at this moment I can't be in the room with Aunt Lena making sure she is comfortable. Ironically there was a type of reversal just recently that sustains the irrational hope that she will wake up, and soldier on for a few more months, or even years. She had suddenly lost her hearing about two years ago, and the consensus that I never fully bought into, was that it was nerve deafness and to try to even investigate whether it was something as simple as impacted wax, would not be wise given her fragile condition. So, just as I had given up on ever hearing her voice on the phone, one day when my sister was visiting she called and said, "Lena can hear." and we had a few words together. So, maybe it will happen again. Maybe I'll get a call from Reba telling me that Lena woke up, and asked for a drink of water and some food, and they gave it to her, and she felt better, and went down for dinner. So, as I type these words there is no finality, there is still hope, something that does not even come from this adult at all.
Even Reba won't preclude this possibility, as she told me that anyone else would have died within a day or two of not taking any liquids. Reba has seen hundreds, thousands perhaps of these transitions and without sounding callous, it become a routine. But Lena is different she told me, so she can't say anything for sure, about when, or even if, the end will come.
Aunt Lena was born into a a village in Poland surrounded by unfettered hatred against her people. Pogroms that killed thousands of Jews, with no punishment to the perpetrators, occurred close by in The Pale of the Settlement in the year of her birth. Her father made the decision to come to America in 1908, while those of the family who stayed, including many of my generation, were mostly killed in wars or the holocaust.
When Aunt Lena first moved to the assisted living facility in 2006 she loved to look at the old pictures of her family, and her little book she had kept for decades with the dates of births and deaths. We would go over them and she would get pleasure thinking about them, and looking at the pictures. And then remarking on my own biographical details, and my also being a relative she said something that has great meaning to the effect. "Yes, but you are more than that, you are also my friend."
When I once asked her about her father, my grandfather whom I never knew, she hesitated, and then said simply, "All I remember is that he loved me." And I think that she also knew at the same deep level that her nieces, nephews, and certainly this nephew, this friend, also loved her dearly.
Saturday Sept 8, noon, six days since Lena has taken any nourishment. I wait to get the call that she is gone.