Monthly Archives: April 2014

Lingering Spirit—Evan

There are some past residents of The Hallmark who are still memorable even though they have either died or moved on. We remember them not only for who they were, but for how they handled themselves in this new and strange environment. Their spirit lives on.

Evan was one of the most memorable. She had been a furniture buyer for Macy’s for thirty years, and then a resident at The Hallmark for eight years—into her nineties. Designers still sent her samples of new lines of furniture (old classics too). In her apartment she had a Noguchi coffee table—the famous glass one on its elegant wooden triangular base—and one of the canvas
sling chairs that one sinks into so comfortably at airports and outdoor restaurants. Evan was one of the first to insist on buying the sling chair for Macy’s because, as she would say, “I have an eye.”

She certainly had an eye for clothes. She wore pale suits in soft green, pink or gray and a thin ribbon in her snow-white hair that matched the suit color exactly. She had a quiet, well-bred demeanor. She generally arrived early for lectures and movies, sat in the first row and listened carefully. She was a serious person and kept a sense of her adult business self all the time I knew her. She was dutiful and correct.

She was also a know-it-all, but a wonderful one: someone alive to people and ideas, which is rare enough in the somnolent precincts of an assisted-living facility.

She used her keen eye at The Hallmark, pronouncing the sofas and settees in the living room “shapeless, dumpy, and clunky”. She was dumbfounded when the management changed the chairs around the pool without her knowledge. “The old ones were fine. They fit the fanny and didn’t call attention to themselves.” She thought the new chairs were a waste of money and called the director to say so. “Next time, use your noggin”, she scolded.

When she invited me to her Hallmark apartment, it was crammed with the furniture designers still sent her, although she was 91 years old and had been retired for years. She introduced me to the famous ‘Diamond’ chair that Harry Bertoia, the artist, sculptor and furniture designer, had designed for Knoll, and told me his story.  He came to New York from Italy when he was fifteen to visit his older brother, decided to stay, and enrolled in a high school where he studied art and design and learned the art of jewelry making. “This was a young man who knew what he wanted—a great virtue.” “A natural and many-sided artist,” she added with satisfaction.

Besides her fine esthetic sense, Evan had a social sense as well. She had a table for dinner every night with her regulars, unusual for The Hallmark where residents  have occasional dinner dates with one or two others a few nights a week but  eat in their apartments otherwise. When they take meals in the dining room, they regularly change the arrangements.

This was not the case with Evan. Dinner with her regulars was as strict a duty as complines in a nunnery. She made the rules, she did the inviting, she passed the necessary judgments. Her acolytes were pleased to be chosen and a little terrified too. She invited me once as a temporary fill-in (“Don’t be tardy”), and I remember her saying  to one of her group.”Marjorie, that jacket is a little warm for this weather,” and Marjorie bowing her head. She must have known that she was in the wrong because Evan had so decreed.

One wintry evening in the dining room, Evan rushed to the window when she saw a mother go by pushing a toddler. The mother was wearing a wool hat, the toddler had none. Evan knocked on the window to reprove the mother who didn’t hear her, and Evan said, ”If I had my coat I’d go after her. Oh, well.” She was defeated, but only for the moment. She was vital and alert until the day she died and would do battle again.

Evan could be a little outrageous in asserting her opinions, but she was usually right. She said that the step-up to the van was too high for old people, and the management installed a wide rubber step- up so everyone could reach the first step with ease. “How could we have been so lax?” the assistant director asked her.

“Well, you know, I have a fierce eye.”

All of us should be so opinionated.

One Woman’s Opinion

“I’m not crazy about it. I wouldn’t even say I like it. My daughter found this place and talked me into it. You could say that she put me in storage because she didn’t want to be bothered. Yes. You could say that and you’d be right.

“Do I look like I’d want to play bridge with those yentas? They’re a little too stuck-up for me. And Melanie’s a little afraid of what they think too. She’s always saying, ‘Ma, lower your voice’, or even  ‘Say it a little louder and we’ll dance to it’ when she really wants to shut me up. So maybe I’m better off being here than getting into catfights with her.

“So it’s a place to hang your hat and there are a lot of nice people here, at least they seem nice, and one man, Meyer, is a second cousin once removed from some people from Tottenville my daughter went to school with. Anyhow nobody asked me my opinion.

“He’s a little upset, this Meyer. He had a home on the water, a rent-out on Staten Island, that got swept away in the hurricane. So all he can talk about is if the rescue team or the fire brigade got there ten minutes earlier he wouldn’t have a worry in the world. Now he talks insurance anytime you look at him. The insurance is iffy, he says, with so many cases and a lot of those cases are a bare-face lie, he says, and they won’t pay a dime.

“I heard it myself. This woman says, ‘If they got here when they said they would get here, my house, also a second home, a money-maker, could have been saved.’ As it is, according to her, it washed right off the island into the sea and nobody raised a finger.

“This woman, Sophie, and this Meyer have the same sad story and they don’t even know each other.

“So I saw him, Meyer, in the library here, reading up on the floods, and I saw her, Sophie, in the living room telling Rita, ‘Thank God no one was in the house, but still…’ They had put in a new kitchen and the tile man was coming that very day of the hurricane to put in mosaics for the downstairs bathroom.

“Well , nada, nothing, goodby to the whole geschefft. The house just fell over right into the drink. A big loss. You gotta feel sorry for her, but tell me, is she right in the head to build so close to the water?

“Everyday your hear more stories like that and they want us, the innocent public, to pay. They say its global warming but I don’t believe it. That’s just an excuse the people on those islands made up so the rest of us will cough up. They’re water-crazy, we pay.

“My place was inland. That’s safe. I’m still renting it, but after I had my surgery I moved in with my daughter. But I couldn’t stand my son-in-law Never could. He’s on my back. “Don’t put your coat in the front closet:” “Did you do a double spin cycle on the washing machine? Do you wanna ruin it?” And Melanie, she’s a nervous wreck, always making excuses fo him.

“So that’s how I got to this place when I thought all my life I’d spend my old age with my daughter. They have a spare room, but no offer. That was the old-fashioned way—the right way. My own grandmother lived with us till she started walking into traffic and we had to put her in a home. But that was for her own good.

“Not this.

“This, they stick you away so they can forget about you. I hope you don’t think I’m waiting around for visitors! Who’s gonna visit? Well, look at the time. I gotta run now. I think I’ll learn a little bridge so I can kill the afternoons here. Goodbye.”

Could Be Worse

“I was down in Florida, taking the sun, and doing fine for an 86-year-old person. I’m a good swimmer and keep myself in trim for an old man even if I do say so myself. And you got a bunch of these old widows watching you, their beach chairs pushed up close giving me the once-over. What they say is true, especially around Boca: it’s three women to every man down there, maybe more. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, it’s these old girls giving you the gimlet eye.

“I’m not complaining but it’s hard to scare up a man to talk to or play pinochle with with them around. I would swim at the pool every day ten lengths at least. It kept me in shape, and the best thing—I could eat whatever I wanted and never put on a pound. Spaghetti and meatballs. Linguini with clams. Even Mexican, you name it. I love chicken enchiladas, don’t want to leave them out.

“Only one other man, Artie, would swim a little, and he kept to his lane. He was a little half-hearted about it to tell the truth. He’d stand on the ledge a good five minutes. He can’t make up his mind to jump in, but then he remembers what the doctor told him (with the old ones down there it’s always “my doctor told me”, “my doctor warned me”, “my doctor said a little exercise wouldn’t kill me.”).

“Anyway, that was Artie. But me, my heart was in it. I really enjoyed it and I am a person who had mostly good health—knock wood—until this happened.

“And so what is this this?

“I wake up one morning and find that half of my face is paralyzed. So I run to the doctor.  ‘What is it ?’ He tells me that it’s Bell’s palsy, an infection that affects one side of the face. It comes from a virus and this, right there, is not good news. It seems to me like a big germ that swims in the air, and who needs that? The doctor promised it  would go away but I didn’t want to show my face all that time.

“So I go to another doctor to see if he can make it go away faster and he says, ‘No magic. Just time’, and I’m not crazy about that answer either. Next thing my boys are in on the act. Larry, my oldest, runs to another doctor with me and comes away looking scared, so I figure I should make my will.

“Buddy, my younger son, comes down and he says, ‘Pop, this is a wake-up call.’ ‘Buddy’, I said,  ‘it’s gone’. ‘Never mind’, he says. ‘You gotta move closer to us in case something else happens’, and  blah-blah-blah, and I didn’t like hearing it from him. It was like he was talking fresh to his own father.

“But this thing, this Bell’s Palsy, scared me because it makes you look like a freak and the ladies weren’t so interested in me anymore in Boca. Can you blame them? Some of them took care of  their husbands five, six years from big diseases like Alzheimer’s, and they’re not looking for any repeats.

“So, my boys are hassling me to come back and live closer to them, and I’m saying yeah, yeah,  yeah, but really I’m a little pleased that they want their old man. Also, let’s face it, I didn’t want to get Bell’s Palsy again around those ladies at the edge of the pool.

“This is not such a bad place. Or let me put it a better way—it could be worse. It’s a little nyeh-pyeh, mezzo-mezzo,  but there are a couple live ones. Including one lady.

And you can get a pinochle game going.

Manny and Benny and Climate Change

The young woman who spoke to the residents on climate change had just left and Manny was looking very glum.

“We’re going for coffee or we’re not going for coffee? Today, tomorrow or Tishabov?” Benny asked.

“Weren’t you listening? Didn’t you look at this handout she gave us?”

“So, what’s new? The polar bears sitting in a puddle? No other place to plant their tushies.? Big deal!”

“Sit down and shut up. This woman means business. She’s talking about your grandchildren. Now do you hear me?”

“I guess.”

“She told us that climate change is everywhere in the world. Every continent, every ocean.”

He reads from the handout.

“‘Water sources are shrinking. All the fish in the sea have to change their way of life just to live. A lot of species are dying out. Farmers can’t grow as much because the earth is heating up. People are dying from the heat…”

“Boo Hoo!”

“Especially among the elderly and especially among old men with no brains, no hair, and big mouths who think every disaster is a great big yuk.”

“Well, it’s not in my backyard.”

“Yes it is, Bubbele! Heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires that you see every night on the TV news are coming now, to your backyard. Hurricane Katrina put New Orleans under water, remember? Here, we got the Hudson at our back door.”

“Geez, I could be up to my pipik in water!’

“We’ll all be up to our pipiks!”

“Maybe you, but not me, buddy.”

“You, you, you, Miss Piggy. Nobody else gets out but you?”

“Well, maybe me and that new old girl from West Orange. I hear she sold her house for a bundle.’

“Well, well, listen to him. It’s a catastrophe for just the right person to be saved from.”

“Your fault. You got me drowned, you got me dead. If I save myself I’ll want a little good female company to make me glad I escaped. After all, it was a catastrophe.”

“What about me, your pal Manny?”

“Don’t worry, after awhile  I’ll come looking to see if you made it.”

“You’re all heart.”

“That’s me. Now for our coffee and danish. You’re buying.”

“I am?”

“Yes you are. You and your climate change have got me all fartootzed. I was thinking about getting a new pair of dancing shoes till you came along, Now you’re telling me I got no longevity.”

“Longevity  isn’t your long suit, climate change or no climate change.”

“I’m gonna forget that you said that to a young fella like me when I see that Cinnamon Twist. Let’s go, boychik.”

Standing By

I was sitting on a bench in the swimming pool area  yesterday when Bernard came out of the water, sat down next to me and said, more to himself t than to me: “I have to figure out how to try and help my daughter, even though she doesn’t think she needs help. She’s going to mess up and doesn’t know it. And since she’s 35 years old, she doesn’t  want any advice from me.

“But I‘ve lived fifty years longer and I have had  a lot of time to learn how to live a life. All right, so I haven’t always done so hot. But maybe I’ve learned from my mistakes. Still, when it comes to learning a lesson, I can put a little something in the pot.

“And didn’t I say that to her as nice as anyone could want? ‘Sweetheart, please, I can tell you a little something from all the tsuris I brought on myself in a lifetime. I just want to say that I learned a lesson or two from it.’

“But did she want to listen? The answer is n-o. N double 0.Yet since she’s gone through this long and messy divorce, she can’t seem to think straight, poor kid, so I can’t really blame her if she doesn’t show respect. It’s a different generation, anyhow.  They don’t really show respect, at least in the old way. But then they come through in their own way.

“She’ll come though. Look, she dropped out of college twice, but then finally she finished. It took  six years, and the money it cost, don’t ask! They mean well but any little thing, they can’t think straight.

“She’s got this beautiful house in  Montclair. Its on a little slope with a good view of the town below, the soccer fields.  Someday it will bring  in a good dollar. I could sit out back there with the paper all day and never get tired of looking around.

“And what does she want to do? She just wants to leave it, just walk away, abandon the whole geschefft like it’s nothing! Walk out the door, period. She’s going to pull the kids out of school with no plan, and Dee-Dee’s supposed to be in a play, so how would that be for her?

“Yet I see Gloria’s upset and just wants to get away. That husband, his girlfriend, the money. Those scenes in court, they’d tear your heart out, and the judge just sits there like it’s everyday to hear such drek. She lost fifteen pounds from pure aggravation, Gloria did. And the money! Don’t ask.

“But walking away into nothing, what will she get but more aggravation? No, I’m old and tired as hell, but I gotta stick with her and the kids so she doesn’t—what’s that they say?—so she doesn’t make matters worse. Yes, that’s it. I gotta stick with her until little by little she works out a new plan. And since she doesn’t  want me in on it, I just gotta stand by to see she doesn’t do anything foolish and keep my mouth shut until she does.”

Does Older Mean Wiser?

What does it mean to be wise?

We move closer to wisdom if we can promote well-being in ourselves and others  by carefully estimating the risks and balances of any situation and, having done so, we use that estimation to act for the greatest good.

It is a wise person who behaves this way. A wise person is able to make use of knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. He or she possesses knowledge that he can then  apply it to any given circumstance. To achieve this balance, it is important to be able to control one’s emotions. Those who have these qualities or can develop them are considered wise.

Ronald tells Dan, his father, that he’s decided to quit his job in order to go into business with Eric, a good friend of his. The idea: bringing lobsters from Maine to Iowa, where they will open a string of roadside lobster huts of the type seen along the coast of Maine. “It’s a sure-fire idea, and the beauty part is that Eric’s putting up all of the money. All I have to invest is sweat-equity.” Dan points out: “If the business fails, you’ll have to start all over at another job. If it succeeds, Eric might decide that, since you didn’t invest money, you’re not really a partner, and you could wind up losing not only your “sweat equity”, but your good friend.”

There is a time-honored belief that wisdom comes with age and an acceptance of death. But there are  many foolish old people around, and their lack of development  dispels the notion that age always leads to wisdom. Happily there are also many judicious and thoughtful people in public and private life whom we can gladly call wise. They are perceptive and effective. They show good judgment and act after carefully reviewing the consequences of various courses of action. Wisdom is a large word. A solemn concept, but it is often shown in small, everyday ways.

If we are able to maintain a sense of well-being in the face of physical decline and death, we are on the path to successful aging and wisdom.

Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neurophysiologist, developed a definition of the components of wisdom in the 1970s, and these three seem to be paramount to achieving it:

Cognition (access to one’s acquired knowledge)

Bill and Donna want to build a house at the top of a mountain in Estes Park, Colorado because of the fabulous view. Eddie, a pensioner who has lived there all his life, points out that his father told  him about a catastrophic mudslide  that occurred there when he was a young man. Bill: “But that was ages ago.” Eddie: “Not to the mountain.”

Unfortunately, cognition slows as people age, but speed in cognition may not be essential to the elderly anyway. Older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, so retrieving it inevitably takes longer. On the other hand, the quality of the information in the older brain is more varied and nuanced, owing to the length and variety of experience in a long life.

Younger people are indeed faster in tests of cognitive performance,  but older people demonstrate a “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,” as shown by a study in Topics in Cognitive Science.

According to Dr. Clayton, to be wise, one must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge (the reflective dimension). Then one can use those insights to understand and help others (the compassionate dimension).

Tamara’s children are not doing well at a public school in the city. She blames it on the school. The other students are unruly and a bad influence. She tells Rose, her mother, that she and her husband have decided to move to an affluent suburb that has a top-rated school. Rose, who has had a lot of experience with how children influence one another, points out that the new classmates might be so advanced that they may discourage rather than encourage her children. Better to find a middle ground.        

Working from Dr. Clayton’s framework, Monika Ardelt, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida, expanded on studies of old age because research shows that satisfaction in old age that Dr. Clayton emphasizes of major qualities like retaining mental and physical health, volunteering and socializing with others.

But mental and physical health in the aged is often not optimum because the body may break down. Social roles for the elderly are diminished owing to death, loss, and deterioration in oneself, family and friends. These people are handicapped by their losses, Professor Ardelt noted, but questioned whether that meant that they have to give up all hope of successful aging.

Not if they are wise. Wisdom, she noted, is”the ace in the hole” that can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance  in later life.

J. Harrison Dinnerstein

Though Mr. Dinnerstein  hasn’t been a resident of The Hallmark for a long time, he’s been here long enough to inspire gossip, which  is always in short supply in an assisted living facility, where nothing much happens that’s thrilling for the residents.

“No hot-eyed villains chasing a former gang pal who made off with the loot down these moribund corridors,” says my friend Marion, starved for a little excitement. “Ain’t gonna happen, dahlin’, says  Clorinda, her aide.

Marion was seated at the same table as Mr. Dinnerstein the night he arrived. This was Management’s idea, because she’s a good conversationalist.  But  Marion hardly got a word in edgewise, he was such a talker. Nevertheless, she was eager to report on Mr. D. and his over-the-top bragging.

He had been an alderman in a small town upstate.  He managed to parlay that into a bigger job on the water commission. “There he just ladled in the gravy,” Marion said. He got the town a water filtering plant through some kind of hanky-panky, and apparently his profile and his fortunes rose. The local constabulary (as he called them) became interested in him and he took off for a town near Hudson where, he told her, “I did a mitzvah”  by bringing in a ladies boot factory just when fur-lined boots were all the rage. The  company prospered  and he took a cut of the profits. It was then bought out by another company. Double profits.

Dinnerstein’s home life was not the best, as business always came first. Women who were not his wife came second. He spoke to Marion about his wife with pride, although they had been divorced for several years, She got tired of raising the kids alone  as  he was always going off on a new venture. His windfalls and catastrophes didn’t interest her because she realized (and told him) that she was humiliated by the fact that he  preferred being anywhere but home.

It was a friendly divorce, and they kept in touch with each other until she died (four years ago). Mr. Dinnerstein helped her set herself up with a ladies boot store, so there was good feeling about that. Mrs. Dinnerstein opened one in Hudson and two in nearby suburban areas.

“And then, my good luck,” Mr Dinnerstein told Marion, “something told me, ’Dinnerstein, Dinnerstein—go upstate next week and take May out to dinner, for old times’ sake.’ I just couldn’t get it out of my head, although I had a hundred other things to do, and so I went. Lucky I always trust myself. And there was May. She was looking a little pale.”

But he didn’t think anything of it.  She said to him,  “I don’t feel like eating too much, Junior” (That’s the J in J. Harrison). But he didn’t think too much of it because she was always a fussy eater. Anyhow, he was somehow pleased out of his mind that he had gone out of his way to see her since she was unexpectedly dead four days later.

“What do you make of that?”, asked Marion.

“That old feelings never die?”

“This guy? Money comes first.”

“Umm. That’s true but he may have had one soft spot and she was it. Now she’s gone he has to go back to his first love, money. That’s a sad ending to the Dinnerstein story.”

“We don’t really know that’s the end of the story yet, do we?”

“No, darn it. It’s a cliffhanger.”