ME AND MY DESCARTES

Story by Lydia LaFleur

It’s now a little over a year since I broke my right hip and elbow, nearly died from pneumonia and congestive heart failure, and contracted a stage 4 open bed sore on my coccyx for which a nurse came every day for seven months to change the bandages.  During these months I took pain medication at night and sometimes during the day when the pain got to be severe.  On arriving home after spending four months in a nursing home, I found it difficult to care for myself.  But rather than coddle me, my daughter Ingrid pushed me to try to do things for myself.  I wondered about going to a assisted living facility, but I’m now so happy that I didn’t; if I had, my brain would have turned to mush from having so much done for me.  But for months every task took physical and mental effort which I didn’t have: weak and oh, so slow!  Even my speech, and I became winded talking to people who spoke fast (I had always mimicked the speech pattern of others).   When I complained to my cardiologist, he said I should talk only to those who speak slowly or to Southerners.  Then came an evening when I was able to wash the day’s dishes (thank goodness for paper plates and frozen Fresh Direct meals).  A few nights later I was strong enough not only to take the garbage out, but to hoist it up to the incinerator in the hallway.  And then I could walk to the incinerator without using my cane.  I could carry my food unspilled to the table without using the cane.  I felt elated with each accomplishment!  Working out twice a week with my physical therapist, I had graduated from a walker to a cane when in my apartment (even without the cane in my apartment but not recommended) and when walking around my coop’s grounds.   But as for giving myself a bath, forget it; no way I could aim the shower hose on my body instead of the bathroom floor.  That problem was resolved by Becilla, a wonderful woman quite a bit younger than I, who comes twice a week, gives me a bath and keeps my household running smoothly.   So physically I was recovering, but during all this time, my brain was in a fog.  Read a book?  It was an effort just to read the headlines in The New York Times.  The Arts section that I had enjoyed for years held no interest for me.  Even my favorite, the Obituary section, got hardly a glance.  Thank God, for my pocket radio and NPR.  Just as in the nursing home it was the only activity that didn’t take effort.   It was somewhat reassuring to know that I was still interested in what was going on in the world.   My wonderful granddaughter Sarah and her husband Chris took me out every Sunday evening, pushing me in my wheelchair to our favorite neighborhood restaurant Pisticci’s.  Always in the past I had a great time going with them. Especially because by now we knew all the staff, a collection of opera singers, poets, artists, photographers, and because on Sunday evenings there was live music with an ensemble and superb jazz and pop singer Pamela.  However for months, although it was pleasant to get out, I got no joy from it.  I felt as if I were only partially there looking in on the activity around me.  And this was how my life had shaped up till now; it was depressing.

For years I had done most of my shopping from catalogs.  I always loved looking through them which keep on coming, no doubt even when you’re dead.  They held a vague interest now, but during these months my cloudy brain wouldn’t cooperate when it came to the actual ordering.  I needed some summer nightgowns and it was now the month of June. I had leafed through the Vermont Country Store’s catalog several different times looking at the Eileen West nightgowns, and saw two that I liked very much, one especially which was white with a lavender (my favorite color) flower print.  Came one evening when perusing them once again while eating dinner, my brain magically cleared and I could focus.   Finally I knew I could do it; I immediately called up the company and put in my order for the nightgowns, but also for a set of bed sheets that had the same print of lavender flowers to match the nightgown.  There was no stopping me now.  I got out the Land’s End and Talbot catalogs, both of which announced sales and free shipping, and ordered four pairs of pants, towels and several blouses.  I was reminded when they came, that there are risks when buying mail order; the towels which must be of the best quality ever made are so heavy and big that Becilla refuses to use them, and two of the blouses, though beautiful, were of a cotton that need ironing, and I no  longer have the strength to open up an ironing board.  I was afraid I’d have to get rid of them until Becilla, bless her, offered to iron them for me.

About this time I noticed my interest in reading the daily paper had returned; I could now manage a whole article.  And I no longer was winded when conversing with neighbors; in fact you couldn’t stop me from talking once I got started. I found people fascinating.  And going to Pisticci’s with Sarah and Chris was once again lots of fun.  The Joy in my life had come back – seeing a new flower sprung up on our grounds, toddlers walking on their tottering little legs just like me on my tottering old legs, getting a video of my granddaughter Emma on a TV show in Japan belting out a terrific jazz rendition of ‘Mack the Knife.’  Joy even in seemingly inconsequential things.   One Sunday Sarah took me to a trendy nail salon where I had my nails painted lavender; it gave me so much pleasure when going bed to see them against the lavender nightgown and the lavender flowered sheets.  I like that with my walker I can make it across Broadway with all its traffic to the deli that sells the best bran muffins made with yogurt and talk with the young Middle Eastern man who greets me now as ‘friend.’ Recently my mind was sharp enough to finally get together all the necessary information needed for my accountant to file my 2015 and 2016 tax returns.

I think my body and mind began to come out of their once comatose state as I cut down gradually on the opioids I’d been taking for pain; after almost a year my bedsore had finally healed.  I feel like I’ve been given one more stage of life to experience, and a very happy one.  It’s interesting to observe my gradual decline, and I‘m comforted by the thought my family will come to accept this gradual decline rather than if I were to die suddenly like I almost did a year ago.  I don’t want to die, but I’m focusing on living, believing that when the time comes, my body and mind will take care of the dying.  Even though my life has limitations (I could not go to Japan for my granddaughter’s formal wedding this summer), there is so much for me to enjoy.  Of course, the times I share with my family bring me the most joy.

When did I know I had finally recovered?   Why, when I was able to order that lavender nightgown and lavender sheets.   Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”  As for me, it’s “I shop, therefore I am!”

 

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It’s Not Easy to be a Kosher Jew

 

I grew up in Berlin in a strictly kosher home.  I was often reminded by my mother that we don’t eat pork, bacon or ham.  However, my father while he was fully supportive of my mother’s kosher home, owning a non-kosher Hungarian restaurant located on one of Berlin’s main streets, did not observe the dietary laws.  Very frequently after school and on my way home, I would stop at the restaurant and do my homework in the corner of my father’s restaurant. There I was engulfed by the tantalizing aroma of Hungarian pork goulash, chicken paprikacz, paprika schnitzel and so many other mouthwatering Hungarian specialties that my father’s restaurant was famous for. Regardless of the temptations, I always obeyed my mother’s advice that we were not allowed to eat pork, ham or bacon. In fact many years later when I met someone who had eaten in the Eszterhazy Keller, he expressed great pity for me that I had missed the experience of tasting the many wonderful Hungarian specialties that were served to the guests there.

Ironically, many years later after having escaped from Europe during the war, history repeated itself in my life.  A few years after I had successfully opened my own advertising agency in New York, I was fortunate to have landed what was eventually to become my largest account in the agency. I was awarded the Polish ham industry’s advertising account, entrusting me with the promotion of their ham products in the U.S. Although no longer observing the dietary laws such as meats that have been through the “koshered” process or mixing dairy with meat, I still would not eat any kind of pork product, even while serving in the Army. My mother’s often repeated words were always running through my mind… “we don’t eat ‘ chaser’ (pork)”.  My Polish clients quickly realized that I, a nice Jewish boy, had never tasted ham and obviously never even tasted their products. Often asking me how it is possible to create campaigns for a product that I have never even tasted. However respecting my kosher upbringing, they were amused and marveled that I was able to create highly effective and prize-winning advertising. In fact, when they were entertaining me in Warsaw, they made sure that the dishes I ordered did not contain pork. My agency’s efforts in the many years of our association helped them triple their volume in sales and earned me a medal from the Polish government.

Now, after so many years, I realize what I always was aware of: it’s not easy to be a Jew and certainly more difficult if you have been brought up to observe kosher dietary laws. Just look how I missed out on the many fabulous free meals which I could have enjoyed in my father’s restaurant. And imagine that for over 35 years that I handled the advertising of Polish ham, I missed out on all the free hams available to me.  But I also realize what a special gift my mother gave me by letting me know of my kosher heritage.

 

Luckily my agency also promoted Polish vodka. Gratefully there is no restriction on vodka. No little voice from the past prevented me from enjoying a drink now and then.

 

 

Mother’s Day

 

“Mom, I can’t talk now,” said David, “ I’m at the airport.  I’ll call later, O.K.?”

Much later, David called.

“Mom, I’m in St Louis.  Had a great interview at Washington University.  I think the job is mine.   You should see the place – reminds me of Harvard.  But I can’t talk now; I’m at the airport catching a plane.  I’ll call later when I’m home, O.K.?”

“I’m so happy for you,” I said.  “I know you’ve been looking for a position like this for a long time.”

I hung up the phone and burst into tears.

SUNY Albany, where David was professor of physical anthropology had been a disappointment for him for some time.  He took the position there as assistant professor twelve years ago only because he and his wife Paige had had an informal pre-nuptial agreement that they would always live on a farm where she could keep horses – she could not imagine life without them.  The area around Albany had been ideal for horse farms, so when SUNY Albany offered a tenure track position to David shortly after he received his doctorate, he felt obliged to take it and hoped that somehow he could find fulfillment in a department and university that he felt was lacking in certain basic essential elements such as funding and interest of colleagues.

For everyone else, David’s tenure at SUNY Albany had been ideal.  Paige had the horse farm of her dream.  As for me, an eighty two year-old widow, what more could I have asked for?  Their house was less than an hour from our Hudson River country house  – the location of frequent family gatherings  – and only a little more than three hours to New York City where I live.  For twelve years, I had taken for granted that I would always be a physical presence and actively involved in the lives of my children and grandchildren.  The sudden news that this would end was devastating.

Then I thought, “It was just a matter of time for this to happen.  I will adjust. “

I immediately turned to my computer, searched Google for the flight time from New York City to St. Louis, and read, 2 hours 11 minutes.

“It’s do-able,” I said to myself, “not much longer than the drive from New York City to our Hudson River house”.

In my head, I was already planning trips for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Vacation and birthdays.

A few weeks later, Paige was in New York City for a visit. She immediately told me that David had been offered the job, that David would accept if she consented, that they were in the process of selling their house and farm in Albany, that they were looking for a similar piece of property near St. Louis, and that she was very, very distressed about having to move.  We hugged, held each other tight, and burst into tears.

“But, Mommy,” she continued, “ we will not buy a house that doesn’t have a room where you can always come to and stay, a place that is yours alone.”

I was deeply moved.   For days afterwards, the most prominent thought in my head was, “I am a fortunate woman. I will not end life in a nursing home.  David and Paige will take care of me.”

Yet, even as I was comforted, a dark thought was lurking in my mind. What would I do in that room of my own in rural Missouri?  Was that my destiny?  Could I continue to be me if everything that defined me were ripped from my life  – the quiet moments I spend alone in Central Park, my participation in the intellectual and cultural life of New York City, and perhaps most importantly, my many New York friends cultivated through fifty-eight years of living in that city?  These troubling thoughts became a menacing presence.  Were they irrational?  Like unwelcome strangers, they disrupted even my most private moments.

A few weeks later, on Mother’s Day, my son Paul, who is an emergency room doctor currently, practicing in Wisconsin, was in New York City.  He and I would drive to our Hudson River house to spend the day with David, Paige and the grandchildren.

As usual, Paul and I chatted about family matters as he drove.  On this occasion, we talked about David’s new appointment at Washington University; how exciting it was for David; how upsetting it was for Paige; how wonderful it was for me that they would find a place with a room where I can always go and stay; how grateful I was that I would not end life in a nursing home; and how much I would miss New York City.

I was continuing on in this way when quite unexpectedly Paul turned to me and said, matter of factly, “Mom!  You don’t have to go anywhere!  We’ll come home.  I can always work in New York City.”

These words rang like church bells in my head.

Suddenly, like boulders crashing down a cliff and out to sea, all my anxieties of old age were swept away.

We arrived at our country house.  From the edge of the river where he and the grandchildren were skipping stones, David saw us coming and called up in his big cheerful voice, “Mom, Happy Mother’s Day!”