Thursday, February 27, 2014

Toba's Tale -- Stories Aching to be Told

"Toba" in Budapest, 1946
Legacy. What stories do we leave our children and grandchildren and the generations we will never know? For as much as our genetics may play a role in their future, what about the courage and the spirit they have also inherited? What of battles fought and won by their ancestors? Loves lost or lasting? How do we make sure they know their family’s narrative?  

A book landed in the mail the other day that prodded me, that reminded me, that recording my family’s history, passing on the stories I heard as a child, is on my to-do list. It’s hard. I keep putting it off. Maybe because I don’t want to accept that some day I’ll be too feeble or senile to take on the task. But if not now, when?

The book sent to me last week by a federal judge –the story of her mother – is an emotional reminder of why, some day soon, I must start writing for my children.
Every single person I’ve ever met who survived the Holocaust –including my own parents -- has a miracle story to tell. That’s the only way anyone escaped. It wasn’t like you could just walk out of Europe. You needed luck. And you needed a determination to take action. As my father always said, “Opportunity is everywhere. You just have to grab it.”
The story of Terry Goldstein Herskovits is that kind of story. When opportunity arose, even in the midst of bad luck, she grabbed it.
 Once a flower, Always a Flower will never make the best seller list. It’s a read-in-a-night memoir. A legacy for her family. Importantly, though, it is yet another entry into the indisputable record of this unbelievable period of history. 

In brief: Terry, a 14-year-old Hungarian girl, from an impoverished rural family, makes her way to Budapest in 1939, with no job, no resources. On day two, she overhears a woman – Gizi --  in a market complaining of her need for a seamstress. Terry (then "Toba"), with virtually no sewing experience, convinces Gizi to take her on. By 1944, when the Nazis begin deporting Hungarian Jews, including Terry’s parents and siblings, the two have formed a mother-daughter relationship. They rip off their yellow stars and hide in a tiny farmhouse attic for six months. No bathroom. No activity. Excruciating heat. Food secretly passed up by the Christian farmer.
But then they are discovered and sent to the ghetto that has been built in Budapest, awaiting transport to death camps. And here comes luck: as Terry is herded onto a human cattle car, a Hungarian guard, struck by her beauty, “threw me down from the train, muttering something like ‘it’s a shame.’” Finding her way back to Budapest, she goes to the Swedish Embassy where Raoul Wallenberg is giving Jews the lifeline of papers. The line is long. “I had chutzpah!” Terry writes. “I maneuvered to the front of the line.” She gets papers for herself and Gizi to remain in a safe house.
After the Russians “liberate” Hungary, she miraculously escapes a group of drunken Russian soldiers intent on raping her; marries, has two children and tries, in 1950, to sneak out of Hungary but their transport guide betrays them to the Russians and her husband is shot to death; she is jailed in a cell shared by 28 others while her children are raised by Gizi; after three years, she is finally freed, remarries, and in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 successfully gets across the border with her husband and children. They make a life for themselves in New Jersey.
It’s a movie script. Except it really happened. Telling the story with her mother is Judy Wizmur, the daughter who was only a year old when her mother was jailed and just seven when the family finally escaped Communist rule.
Now a federal bankruptcy judge, Judge Wizmur writes:
By sharing her stories with me from the time I was young, my mother gave me another very special gift. She gave me a unique perspective on life – the gift of understanding that the ups and downs of daily life are relatively inconsequential….I have tried to measure the difficulties I occasionally encounter against the courage, endurance, grit and determination shown by my mother as she experienced the extraordinary events of her life.”
Recently, at a meeting of our Project Renewment group, where women discuss their issues of transition out of careers, Judge Judy talked about her goals when she retires in May. Among them is spending more time with her mother, who turns 90 in December.
I now understand why.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Finding Love When You Least Expect It

Love stories. Yes, a few have appeared on these pages. Especially that of Nancy Lynn and Hal Kessler, whom I interviewed for Valentine’s Day two years ago. Their late love blossomed after a chance encounter at a supermarket – he had been her high school teacher. Fifty years before.

Hal and Nancy's Florida toast, 2013
Of course there was no hanky panky between them way back then. But some latent chemistry eventually brought them together.  Nancy recently wrote me to say that she thinks of me each Valentine’s Day, as I do of them.  They are still together, planning another vacation in Florida.

On Valentine’s Day, it's worthwhile re-reading Sue Carson's story about her relationship with her mother and how, in the end, she learned to love her. "I decided at that moment that I was going to really work at opening up to love,’’ she told me. "I decided I would be a more loving, devoted person, particularly to [my husband] John.  Because I realize he’s my core. He’s who I’m with.  If I can love him more, that’s the place to begin. Some days are easier than others. Some days are hard. But there’s this huge change and shift in my relationship with him." 

Let me end this Valentine’s post with another love story.
In 2012, I reconnected (through my college class reunion) with Becky Burckmyer, who lost the love of her life to death. And then, by trying to heal herself and save her grand old shore home, she opened a Bed and Breakfast that quickly got rave reviews.
And then, doing what she loved, she found love. A longtime friend turned into something more.
“Bobby and I,” she wrote me last week, “are still very much an item: he is living with me in Marblehead now. In March, we rent an apartment in Andover while he coaches crew for three months, then we move to his house in Chatham for the summer and rather than doing B and B, I rent my house, furnished, by the month, for an outrageous price. I just couldn't keep up the work with the B and B--it was doing very well but I was exhausted.
Also a strain on the love affair.”

Thanks to everyone who is reading UnRetiring.  I’ve surpassed 50,000 hits.
 I love having followers who think I have something worthwhile to say.  If you have a love story to  share, please do!!

And to my Larry….I love you!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

To Gray or Not to Gray?

Being a model helps
A fashion trend is emerging, at least in New York City,  and it’s one I’m not comfortable with.
Just as it became de rigeur for New York City men to wear black, black, and more black, a la Steve Jobs, it’s now white, white, and more white for women.
I’m talking hair.
I have two New Yorker friends who have joyfully stopped coloring their hair.  And the initial shock of arriving in town and seeing them au naturel is fading for me. They actually look pretty youthful, despite their hair. Or maybe I am seeing past their coiffes, in the way you do at a high school reunion, when after awhile your mind’s eye sees your old friends the way they once were.
Last night, at a dinner party, a woman whose hair is finally just growing back after chemotherapy, took off the gray manicured wig she was wearing.
I tried it on.
“You look good,” my husband said.  Dashing to a mirror, I didn’t recognize myself.
Was he just being polite? Or – as the guys at dinner said – “Think of the money  you’ll save!”
I hadn’t planned on writing about this major life transition that arguably should be easier to make once you’ve left your career. But an essay in today’s Wall St. Journal reinforced the queasiness of this decision, even for a woman’s spouse.
When his wife (who must live in New York) asked him if she should go gray, Rob Lazebnik writes that he had visions of being “married to the Queen of England.”
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth

He pondered his discomfort, concluding that “society, sadly, deems old as unattractive, and that for some reason gray equals old more in women than in men.”
Congresswomen are not gray.
Women newscasters are not gray.
And no way did he really want his wife to go (old and) gray, though he couldn’t come out and say it.
After thinking about how to respond to her, he eventually “dropped a bomb, one that I knew would strike deep inside the bunker.” He told her: “You know, I remember when I met your mother and thought to myself what a great-looking gray-haired lady she was.”

Yeah. I’m not going to rush out to look like my mother for a little while longer. But then, I don’t live in New York.