Bach, Oatmeal and a Near-Centenarian’s Birthday

Lee Alvarez can’t stop her hands from trembling, nor can she prevent her sight from continuing to deteriorate. Yet this sprightly, luminous woman—who will be 94 years old on January 6—doesn’t let her physical limitations get in the way of her appreciation for art, music, film and life as a whole. We’ve met nearly every week now for the past three-plus years as part of a senior-oriented program at New York’s Carter Burden Center for the Aging, and I look forward to my visits each time. She does, too … despite my predilection for facetiously insulting composers she appreciates (such as Gustav Mahler) and worrying about her sleeping habits (which vex an early-to-bed, early-to-rise advocate such as me).

Needless to say, I wouldn’t dream of directing Lee on how to behave or think, what to listen to or enjoy. And that’s how it should be, of course. She realizes that.

Sometimes I wonder if she also realizes the impact she has made on the people in her life. Trained as a psychologist with a specialty in sexuality, Lee worked into her mid-80s and knew the likes of Virginia E. Johnson, among other personalities. A proudly “devout atheist” who grew up in New York, Lee—as a woman with Jewish heritage—still takes offense at the anti-Semitism that has intermittently intruded on her life … including an encounter long ago in Charlotte, N.C., with an intoxicated individual who was railing against Jews. “When that happens, you have to say something,” she told me recently. “You can’t let it slide.”

No, you can’t. Thankfully, Lee has always adhered to that maxim, and it has provided her with a strength and conviction that informs all her conversations. She’s no stranger to using the “f-bomb” in our discussions, yet she’s thoroughly against its misuse—in contemporary cinema, most of all. I agree with her on this issue, as I often do when it comes to the movies, music and the visual arts; that her favorite film is Carol Reed’s The Third Man and her favorite composer is Bach points to her fine, elevated taste. OK, perhaps we don’t always see eye-to-eye on politics (she’s quite liberal, whereas I sway center-left), but we rarely talk about the world of Democrats versus Republicans. Instead, we most often focus on the things that are of immediate import: her health, her family, her loves—including her husband of almost seven decades, Bob, who passed away a few years ago. I’ve spoken to her sons and grandsons, too, and their support has been extraordinary. She has a lot to be proud of.

When you look at Lee, you may not see everything all at once. There’s a complex, unique individual here; you can’t place her into one proverbial basket. What you can do, however, is marvel at this elegant, white-haired, stalwart woman who still presses on despite the obstacles in her way. The secret to her longevity? Oatmeal, she claims—and she eats it every day. Maybe I need to do that, too. Anyone who can engage in that kind of culinary experience so frequently has exceptional, unbelievable fortitude.

But that’s not what I admire about Lee the most. Just calling her “brave” or a “survivor” trivializes her true value. She habitually makes me laugh. She often leads me to reconsider stances I’ve taken. And she relishes life like a gourmet—still watching movies, going to plays, listening to tangos, talking to people. This is an individual who doesn’t take “yes” for an answer. She takes “absolutely” instead. And that’s why I admire her. That’s why I think she’s something.

I hope you’ll grab the opportunity, as I do, to celebrate this terrific woman. Her sons are treating her to an afternoon tea this week, and I wish I could be there. I’d like to see her debate the quality of the scones, inspect the little sandwiches—as well as savor her surroundings, her family, her time with them in a sophisticated, special room that truly befits her. I know, however, that she won’t be disappointed. I don’t think anything, from now on, will.

Happy birthday, Lee. I’ll listen to some Bach in your honor.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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