‘Mommy, where do old people come from?’
When I was a child, I thought old people had to be a different species; they looked SO different from me, my friends and my parents.
As a kid, nothing beat Sundays when my parents took my brother and me to Brooklyn to visit my grandmother. There I got to play with my cousins, see my many aunts and uncles, and give my grandmother a kiss. I couldn’t do more than that, unfortunately, as my Bubby didn’t speak English – only Yiddish…and Russian and Polish! She always smiled when she saw me and seemed very sweet and so very, very OLD.
Sarah Meyerson, however, was much more than a rosy-cheeked, sweet old lady. She survived World War I as a refugee, while protecting her five young children – Molly, Alex, Etta, Lillian and Ellen (their Americanized names) — in the forests of Poland. The sweet little old lady, who kissed me and looked at me so lovingly every week, single-handedly saved her children from starvation and death. (My grandfather, Abraham Meyerson, had immigrated to the United States with their two oldest children, Harry and Rose, only months before the outbreak of the war.) My Aunt Molly, the eldest, described Bubby’s bravery and ingenuity. She told us how terrified she would be on those nights that Bubby would leave them (supposedly) sleeping to search for food. She also recounted how, one day, upon seeing soldiers approach the shack they had for shelter, Bubby swiftly put my uncle Alex in bed, put all of the little food they had between his legs, covered him with a blanket, and lay a cold wet cloth on his forehead. When the soldiers entered, Bubby told them that her son was deathly ill with a very contagious illness. The soldiers ran off, not wanting to be infected by whatever “lethal” disease my young uncle had!
My mother was Lillian, and the other young children my aunts and uncles. I only learned about their frightening past when I was in my 30s. As a child, however, it never crossed my mind that all of them had been children once too and had endured such a difficult childhood! So Sundays found me ritually greeting and kissing my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, but running off as quickly as possible to play with my many cousins. What fun! I loved my grandmother and aunts and uncles, but I can’t say that I ever felt really close to them. They were just SO different!
Which brings me to the 1980s when I worked in Washington, DC, near DuPont Circle. On the days that I went out for lunch, I often saw a “cute little old man” walking his dog. The man was very bent over so that our eyes never met. But he seemed so “sweet.” Then a long time passed when I didn’t see him. One day, upon entering the Brookings Institution, where my office was located, I saw an obituary posted. Reading it, I discovered that the ”cute” little old man I had been seeing walking his dog had died and had been none other than Benjamin Victor Cohen, a member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt”s “Brain Trust!” I also learned that Mr. Cohen had acted as counsel to the American Zionist Movement (1919-1921), during which he was counsel to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. In September 1938, he even appeared on the cover of Time!
I remember being shocked and ashamed by my condescending attitude towards this great man. But isn’t that what most young people do regarding the elderly? I know – as I recently experienced it.
I’m 77-years-old now and my hair is white. Not long ago, I honked my horn at a car that was blocking my entrance to a parking lot and causing me to remain in the oncoming traffic. After the car finally moved on and I parked my car, I was accosted by the angry young driver of the car at which I had honked. She screamed at me, “What did you think you were doing, you geriatric bitch!” and threatened to hit me. I dared her to and she backed off. I think I was more upset at being called geriatric than having been threatened with physical injury!
That was the first sign that I had begun to become invisible, like all older people. Like Mr. Cohen and my grandmother, my past accomplishments and honors were no longer apparent in my elderly countenance. In the parking episode, I wasn’t a “cute little old lady,” I was a “geriatric bitch!”
The truth is that even my own grandchildren have little or no idea of what I’ve done and accomplished in my life. I can only assume that for them, as it was for me, their grandmother is a nice old lady, who cooks great meatloaf!
And so, now that I’m retired and no longer working as a pediatric psychologist, I am taking the time to ponder my life and its meaning. I know I’ve accomplished much, although I’m frequently astounded at how much of what I’ve done I’ve actually forgotten! So, in order to help myself remember, I’ve gathered together articles I’ve written, various records of activities I’ve participated in and things I’ve done, in order to try and make sense of the life I’ve lived. Perhaps, after I’m gone, my grandchildren will finally get to know me and take some inspiration from my life and work.