My Parents- A Long Life!
Richard J. Garfunkel
My parents lived a long and basically happy and rewarding life together for almost 70 years. On this day it would have been my parent’s 71st anniversary. It is not often that a couple can live to age 100 and 98 and that marriage can be blessed by relatively decent health through the vast majority of those years. From the perspective of personality, if there were truth to the adage that opposites attract, my parents would be the poster children. My mother was fair-skinned; non-athletic, strong-willed, demanding, strongly opinionated, loved horseback riding when she was a gal, enjoyed museums, and loved to paint. She was awarded the Saint Gauden’s Art Prize while at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan. She enjoyed cooking and had a very seasoned and varied palate. She was not very tolerant of social misbehavior and was highly critical of people who had bad manners. She believed wholeheartedly in high fashion and dressed with the highest level of sophistication whenever she was in the public. Even at home she didn’t “slum” around. She was extremely critical of young and older women who did not wear the proper underwear or foundation garments. She watched her weight, but at times it was a struggle exacerbated by an under-active metabolism. But, all in all, with all of her social criticism she was politically tolerant, liberal about people’s private habits and was certainly not a prude. She never had real political favorites except for Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One wouldn’t think of her as a religious person, but more of a spiritual one. Like many people of her background she prided herself in speaking the English language properly and hated slang and would correct others and me about the misuse of grammar and syntax. She loved reading and enjoyed any type of mystery. She believed in a varied cuisine and we were constantly served new and exotic vegetables and dishes every day. Unfortunately I never really liked vegetables and I leaned to hate Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, lima beans and the like. But she believed dogmatically in a daily dose of vegetables and fruit. Besides that she was an early believer in taking vitamins and often bombarded herself with vitamin C. Maybe that’s why my parents lived so long. She learned cooking from her father and not her mother.
My grandfather loved to cook all of his long lifetime and eating was a primary pleasure and activity for him. He had favorite jaunts to eat in New York and I remember going often to Keen’s Chop House, Luchows, Al and Dicks, and the seafood joints on 3rd Avenue. He had charge accounts in all the fine restaurants in New York before the popularity of credit cards emerged. One time he came up to Boston, when I was in college, and made a corned beef for my roommate and me. My mother’s culinary efforts cut across the cuisine of the world. One night it could be an Indian dish with curry, the next it could be a lobster, or her own lasagna. She always reminded me to eat my food because “children were starving in China.” When it came to fruit, my father was the expert and his knowledge of melons was legendary. He constantly ate honeydews, cantaloupes, watermelons and the more exotic cassavas or even hand melons when we were in Albany. (A hand melon, considered the most delicious of all, had a small hand bred into the outside skin and was only available in the Albany and Saratoga region.) He also loved peaches, apples, plums and nectarines and was quite critical regarding their quality. When it came to their favorite food, I could say with confidence that my father loved a good Isaac Gellis salami sandwich and my mother loved shrimps, great blended cheeses; like Stilton, and exotic Greek olives.
My father was quite different than my mother. He was dark, muscular, athletic and had a great sense of humor. He was an outstanding swimmer almost all of his life, wherein my mother rarely got her feet wet. He was a championship handball player in Manhattan Beach in the late 1920’s and 30’s and while at Stuyvesant High School played against Lou Gehrig in a baseball game, when the “Iron Horse” attended Commerce High. He played golf up into his mid 90’s when his knees started to ache. He was an excellent golfer and once had two holes-in-one within a few days of each other. He spent many years on the public “links” of Westchester while he was a member of the beach clubs on Davenport Neck in New Rochelle, and when his kids (Kaaren and I) were more grown up, joined and played golf at Ryewood, Leewood, and Lake Isle. He never cooked, except eggs in the morning, and had a less adventurous diet than my mother. She loved olives and anchovies and he despised them. He loved sports on television, but had very little interest in going out of his way to go a ballpark or stadium. One had to beg him to go to a game. My mother would never watch any type of sporting event, but could sit for hours in front of the cooking network. My mother made me a Yankee fan for some strange reason, and my father was a confirmed Giant fan until they moved to San Francisco. Then he had a slight passing interest in the Mets. He was the outdoors type, who could sit for hours in the sun baking to a deep tan. My mother with her fair skin would sit under a shade tree, with a broad brimmed hat, and read, or crochet or paint. My father was gregarious and made friends almost instantly at the card tables or on the golf course. He loved the company of the “boys.” He loved to play gin and pinochle. My mother was much less outgoing, a bit more controlled and picked her relationships with care. She was an excellent card player, but was quickly fed up with canasta, couldn’t find enough mahjong players, and became an expert bridge and duplicate bridge player. Her last active years were spent playing and winning at duplicate at the clubs and the bridge events all over Westchester.
But opposites do often attract. In 1934 my father became my mother’s steady Friday night date. When he wanted to become her Saturday night steady, she wanted to become engaged. Not long after that arrangement, the famous Rabbi Steven Wise, of the Free Synagogue of New York, married them. They lived in someone’s mansion in Sheepshead Bay for a year, and I was told more than once that they ate out every night at Lundy’s because they did not have a kitchen. Eventually they moved to 707 Beverly Road in Brooklyn, where they lived until the end of the war. During those war years they summered, with my sister Kaaren, in a house in Long Beach. When the peace came they chose Mount Vernon over Scarsdale on the advise of a friend Sam Miller, who was my grandfather’s lawyer. I am not sure whether my mother was ever happy about that decision. But that was long ago.
My parent’s did have a few things in common though. They did love to dance, dress up, go to the theater and enjoy great show music. I can recall vividly when they had their 16th wedding anniversary and went to see South Pacific. The other show that I recall they loved was My Fair Lady, who wouldn’t? My mother danced into her early 90’s with her traditional high-heeled shoes, and they won many prizes on the dance floor. Their friends, like many of that generation played cards, and when it came to bridge my father was an adequate partner for my mother. She was a demanding player and they were a contentious couple and bridge games could flare up with incendiary consequences. But, all in all, with 70 years of battling they stayed lovingly together.
My father was practically never sick a day in his life. He smoked cigars up to around age 80, developed a sore throat and then gave them up forever. I don’t recall him ever pining for the taste of a cigar again. He remained quite healthy except for his knees. Eventually the cartilage wore away, it became difficult for him to swing a club and at 95 he had to give golf. He was hitting the ball quite well at that age and my son Jon and I have great memories of golfing with him in those last few years of his playing. He drove up and through his hundredth birthday and was driving right to his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. He still had a good long-term memory and could always relate the old stories. His immediate memory wasn’t the greatest and one had to repeat things now and again, but he was able to get the message.
My mother, who smoked cigarettes into her fifties, always had some sort of a health problem or concern, but outlived the countless doctors she had on retainer. She survived a car accident that resulted in a broken ankle. She slipped on a newly waxed floor that caused another break and she broke shoulder and wrist another time. She overcame breast cancer, lung cancer, angina, arthritis and a plethora of other niggling ailments. She even broke her hip at age 96 and was able to finally recover and walk on her own with a cane. Finally after hospice care at home for over one hundred days and a heroic struggle for life, she succumbed to old age probably a reoccurrence of cancer. She always liked a good fight and her last one could not be won, but she certainly proved her mettle. As I have said many times, it’s the good news/ bad new story. The good news is one lives a long time, the bad news is that one lives a long time. Thankfully her loyal and dedicated caregivers, Miriam and Doxie, stayed with her right to the end, and made her passage from this world as comfortable as possible. One would also be remiss not to thank the wonderful care that Hospice of Westchester delivers. All of them are dedicated “Angels of Mercy and Kindness.”
As I was going in and out their building, in my effort to clean up and take care of their possessions, I met a number of people who had known my parents over some of the 40 years that they had lived there. The comments of respect and awe were universal. One fellow who was visiting his parents told me on how his mother was amazed at my mother’s “jitterbugging” skills at Lake Isle CC. My mother was still dancing up a storm until age 92, or so, in her trademark spike high heals. It was gratifying to be stopped and have people extend their condolences and their memories of my parents.
Of course the trauma of loss and separation affects all of us, at one time, or another. But the reality of closing the “door” for the last time is almost upon me. As I clean out their apartment and review memories that cover decades, I recall the line from Thomas Wolfe, “You can’t go home again.” But for me it was a regular habit for forty years of going back to Palmer Road. My Mount Vernon home I had left at 21, but this home I saw, enjoyed and visited almost every week of my adult life. I’ll remember the great roast beef dinners, the Gershwin music, the baseball games on television, the family reunions with my sister, her husband Charles and all of our children, my mother’s paintings that covered all of her walls, and the long, long conversation on just about anything. My mother would always ask, ”What’s new on the Rialto?” My parents outlived their generation and almost all of their friends and certainly their early acquaintances. One thing that could be said with certainty, they didn’t bemoan their age, their limitations and their circumstance. They were always realists about what life offered and self-reliant. They never wanted to be a burden on anyone. Though they had high standards, excellent taste and strong values, they understood that others had different “frames of reference.” Being self-critical and having high standards is an excellent regimen for anyone. If I have learned anything from them it is to do the right things and set a strong, good and proper example for others. Hopefully both my sister and myself have fulfilled that lesson.