Sheila remembered in the Wall Street Journal

From Perri, a new piece in the Wall Street Journal about Shakespeare and Sheila:

But the person who should have been there with me to stand and cheer was gone. If my mother had been there, she would have insisted on waiting out the rain.

She would have watched “King Lear,” as I don’t quite watch it yet, as a play about what she most feared, and what she lived with every day. She would have watched the blinding of Gloucester through eyes that saw only blurs and shadows and shapes, listened with her hearing aids, as the cruel daughters disparaged their old father’s mind in language no stronger than the angry words she often applied to her own mind and memory.

And she would have gloried in the wet victory of making it through the whole play, scoring free tickets on a summer night—beautiful or tempestuous—and the collective audience triumph of sitting through the storm for Shakespeare’s sake.

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Remembering Sheila

From Sheila’s granddaughter: I wanted to alert blogginggrandma readers to a piece by my mother, Sheila’s daughter, on the New York Times New Old Age blog today about taking care of Sheila, a reflection of sorts on the piece that Sheila published on that same blog last November and the many commenters who responded to it. No one would have been prouder of my mother’s piece than my grandmother, no one would have been more certain that the right way to be remembered–the only way to be remembered–was in words and writing, no one ever took more joy in her own writing and the writing of her friends and family. Without the slightest pretense of being unbiased, I would urge you to read my mother’s piece, and then perhaps go back and read my grandmother’s, to hear not only how much Sheila’s voice resonates in her daughter’s, but also how different and unique each one is as a writer–and how much they loved each other. So I leave you with excerpts from both of them:


From Perri:

Taking care of my mother wasn’t a new conversation. It was a continuation of all the conversations we’d been having our whole lives through — the good ones and the bad ones. We were performing the caretaker and the caretaken as ourselves, for better and for worse. We stayed in character.

And my mother’s character was fixed; she was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known, and one of the toughest. She was irreducibly and completely herself — indomitable, admirable, and intermittently irrational. And she would probably have said the same about me.


And from Sheila (excerpted from Every Mother Is A Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace, and a Really Clean Kitchen (Recipes and Knitting Patterns Included):

You and your brother and your sister added so much joy and wonder to our lives. A large measure of our pleasure, I suspect, was our recognition in you of the values and skills we esteemed. In so many ways you are your individual selves, yet you are us. To have three children who write beautifully, write with pleasure and wit and intelligence, is an unbelievable legacy. You are right that your accomplishments and your children’s give me inordinate pleasure. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve begun to recognize how proud I am and how wonderful such vicarious success can be. I’ve developed the conviction that my children’s and grandchildren’s achievements are more thrilling than my own. I’m not sure about that, but I believe it’s so. Perhaps it’s because of the wonder of it; I mean, after all, when I first knew any one of you, you were absolutely helpless. And look at you now.

I think you will always know, when you’ve done something grand and good, how much joy it would have afforded me even if I’m not around. You know me well enough to be able to measure an accomplishment and say to yourself, Mama would be so proud! And I would.

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YES, I DARE TO EAT A PEACH

**Note from Josephine (Sheila’s granddaughter): It’s very strange and very sad and, on occasion, even a little bit joyful to go back through my grandmother’s digital archives. Her computer leaves no doubt that Sheila was busy writing and making and editing new documents right up until she went to the hospital. The most recent of these documents have only a paragraph or two written, some she even left off writing mid-sentence, and I am at once glad to see that she was so engaged with her writing up to the end and, of course, heartbroken that I will never get to read the finished versions of the three or four latest pieces. There are some wonderful discoveries–I knew, of course, that she was mugged three years ago in Washington Heights and then, at the venerable age of 83, started running after the man who had stolen her purse screaming for the police–but I did not know that she later wrote an entire short story from the imagined perspective of her mugger, a 15-year-old boy who was required to rob someone that evening as part of a street-gang initiation.

I know that this is how my grandmother would have wanted to go: in the middle of several writing projects, busy planning the next ones. I know also that her whole life long she wanted people to read and relate and respond to her writing, so it is in that spirit and in her memory that I am posting this essay, which she wrote this past summer, here on her blog.

***

These days I am a virtual prisoner.  My treacherous body, after eight and a half decades, staged a bloodless coup and took over.  Yes, my muscles, my nervous system, my glands, indeed whatever parts of me cannot think – suddenly and without warning – seized control and now they determine what I can do.

After 85 years of idiosyncratic independence, of resisting Authority, and its boring handmaiden, Common Sense, indeed, rejecting any “higher” earthly judgment (even doctors’ edicts during medical crises) I have been totally compromised.  Reduced to slavish obedience. How was this shameful defeat accomplished?  I grew old.

Now, my unthinking body is making my decisions and then signaling me unequivocally as to what I may or may not do.  In my mind’s eye, I am still the impoverished little Orthodox Jewish girl in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, who dreamed of growing up to be a Great Writer.

Now, at eighty-five, I still do the normal things I’ve always done, though these days I hear, see, walk, all with far less skill and acuity, but I function.  I often congratulate myself afterwards on a task well done, or for that matter, done at all.

Currently, exercise is never pure pleasure, not at 85; it’s real effort.  Though I walk fairly long distances, it’s not for the joy of the walk.  Once my limbs begin to call attention to their efforts, the esthetic dimension is lost.  I can bend, reach, carry, and I do all my household chores.  A caveat: I am legally blind which means I see at 20 feet what normal sighted people can see at 200 feet.  So I can’t honestly guarantee that the floors I sweep are spotless, but they look clean to me.  I used to remember names and dates and new and attractive words.  And directions.  None of that is altogether true today.  Alas, my single remaining mental constant is negative; I still can’t add or subtract properly.  That seems to be genetic.

My various failings try the patience of my children with their stunning instant-retrieval minds.  It would be easier if they were dullards, but, alas, they are clever, which makes having a noisy, senescent mother a nuisance.  Perhaps an embarrassment?  In addition, all three children are addicted talented cyberites.  Put a one of my offspring near a keyboard and he or she becomes a Paderewski of words.  At 85, I, alas, still hunt and peck.

I think often of my dear late husband, who was the same age as I, and who died twelve years ago.  We’d loved travel; thus it was a pleasure for him to pursue the fieldwork that was part of his anthropological studies and for me to come along and see the world and write novels.  Perri, our first child, was born among the East Indian sugar cane cutters in Trinidad.  Much later, with two children, we spent a year in rural West Bengal, living with rice farmers who had sold their land to the Raleigh  Bicycle  Company and were now factory workers. 

We were willing and eager to go wherever there were interesting possibilities of travel and living.  I remember the excitement and joy, the sense of adventure.

I do not remember the weariness.  When we were young, weariness was irrelevant.  Each new day we woke up ready for life.

Even during my last big trip with my older daughter, eight years ago, I sometimes was very tired – but at 77, I was never so tired that I had to forego the sightseeing or the wondrous experience.  I was back in India, and I could push myself.  That, alas, is no longer true. 

I think of my late husband and his last years often and sadly; now that I, myself, am slower of mind and body, I realize how little I understood his earlier symptoms: the fear and worry about health and sickness, the need to sleep so often during the day, the desire to sit, to rest, the frantic dependence on a host of medications and the preoccupation with the complex schedule for their use; the sole concern with self and symptoms. 

His thinking was cogent; his gentle character prevailed during that lonely time, which proved to be life’s preface to our parting.   

Vivid in my memory is the singular hot day in Delhi eight years ago — during the trip with my daughter — when I’d made the barefooted pilgrimage to the top of the Jamma Masjid, the largest mosque in India.  Exhausted, I was resting on a bench, brushing my dusty feet off, when a smiling, friendly, young Indian man approached me and called out loudly, “Ma, how old are you?”

This surprised me, since in my experience, Indians have tended to be private and polite.  But I’ve never minded telling my age.  “I’m seventy-seven,” I said, whereupon he came closer to congratulate me, putting forth his hand and shaking mine vigorously.  “Wonderful!” he said and then repeated himself.  “Wonderful!”  His three companions, who had been standing nearby, joined us, all of them beaming at me. 

Noting my bewilderment, he explained.   “Ma – we do not see many women like you.” He pointed to my white hair.  “We do not see them standing up. We rarely see them climbing!  They are mostly lying down.”  He stiffened and held his arms at his sides to suggest rigor mortis.  “We are so happy to meet you!”

 He shook my hand vigorously and his friends eagerly followed suit.  It was a celebration!

Old age is life’s last gift to the living.  As a recipient, I am grateful, though I often grumble.  I need to be reminded to take another bite of my juicy peach.

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This is Josephine Wolff, Sheila’s granddaughter and blogmaster, and I’m writing to inform her blog readership that Sheila passed away Wednesday afternoon. In the final years of her life, this blog was a source of immense joy to Sheila and the idea that there were people reading and responding to her writing was always incredibly important to her. As I organize and go through the files on her computer, I hope that I will turn up some unpublished blog pieces and may continue to post a few of them over the next few weeks.

Sheila was a truly phenomenal woman, an incredibly loving and wonderful grandmother, and first and foremost, always a writer. She believed writing was one of the most important things in the whole world, she wrote fiction and nonfiction her whole life long, and even (at my insistence) agreed to conquer the blogosphere despite her distrust of all things technological. My thanks to all of you for reading, commenting on, and enjoying some of her final pieces of writing. She will be dearly remembered and sorely missed.

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A LOVELY REVIEW OF MY DAUGHTER’S LATEST NOVEL!

litpick_award

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MY PERSONAL, SERIOUS, AND TOTALLY SCREWBALL VIEW OF IMPRINTING

I remember. This is exactly what I heard.  “She is pale, so very pale, Madam. She look to me just like a cute little white mouse!”

These were not the words of admiration I was expecting to hear then in 1958 when, at the ripe age of 30, I gave birth to my first child.  We were living in a small East Indian village, Felicity, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.  My husband, a Columbia University anthropology graduate student, was doing field work among sugar cane laborers, East Indians in the West Indies.

I remember the exultation and delight and excitement and agony once my labor pains had truly begun.  Quickly, I was bundled into our beat-up old ratty car and bumped along plantation roads through the sugar fields to a tiny East Indian Nursing Home, a series of small, rural buildings.  I wanted to have my baby where our villagers had theirs.

But before we got indoors, we were delayed by a wild tropical deluge; I made it only as far as the first, small, “reception cottage,” the office.  The fierce electrical storm unloaded heavy rains and the sky blazed with lightning.  Nonetheless, my baby, Perri, showing remarkable determination, WOULD be born THERE IMMEDIATELY.  She would not wait for more luxurious bed linens and appropriate surgical instruments further down the line. Not this baby!

 And so, literally, on a pile of discarded old newspapers (TRINIDAD GUARDIAN, NEW YORK TIMES, NEW STATESMAN) Perri was born in that tiny rural reception cottage on the sugar estate during the storm.  

Imprinting? Who knows? Perhaps her character, scholarship, predilections for reading and writing – and her destiny of practicing medicine – were thus reinforced at her marvelously eccentric birth. 

Afterwards, HIP, our medical insurer paid the entire small fee including the costs of the libation with which we, our doctor and our village neighbors, toasted this joyous event.  The villagers truly welcomed and loved this baby despite their concern about her dramatic pallor.  They worried she was not well.

She was really fine; she was simply Felicity’s first Caucasian baby.

A half century later when she and I returned for a visit to  Felicity, our old friends, who in 1958 had lived in shacks roofed with palm fronds, were now dwelling in comfortable modern homes.  Of course, they welcomed us once more, and we talked about the old days, and I was sure they were remembering how pallid she had looked, back then.  And I remember too: “She is pale, so very pale, Madam. She look to me just like a cute little white mouse!”  But now they could see her all grown up, and think back on her lucky start.

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Age Shall Not Wither Her Nor Custom Stale Her Infinite Variety… but that has little to do with anything here…

Of course, Shakespeare was writing of Cleopatra, and Cleopatra was who, in the 1940’s in my youthful fantasies, I wanted to grow up to be. Alas, I was overweight, Orthodox Jewish, myopic, a teacher with thick eyeglasses, so I never did quite meet the bard’s criteria, but I would have given it my best shot.  

Destiny intervened.  I was living in a one-room-share-the-bath-walk-up in Greenwich Village and teaching school in a chaotic Harlem junior high school when an old friend unexpectedly dropped in – with her own, male old friend, Mort.  He was a pleasant guy, a pulp magazine editor and science fiction writer, still an undergraduate – going to college at night and supporting a widowed mother and a sister.

He presumed to know something about Kafka, and I, who had a fresh new MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and ALREADY KNEW EVERYTHING ABOUT KAFKA, listened and I found Mort interesting but presumptuous.  He just laughed merrily at my pretensions.  That was when we had our first fierce argument about why Kafka had chosen the roach as his symbol.

Mort just laughed, BUT he memorized my phone number and called me next day! That was serious stuff.   He could have looked the number up in the phone book – but actually memorizing it was so much more gallant.  I don’t know about Cleopatra, who after all had no phone, but I accepted all gallantry from whomever it came. 

Anyway, to cut a long courtship short, we married; anthropology was his passion (COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA  by Margaret Mead  had bewitched him).  Mort graduated  from Brooklyn College then hastened through the  doctoral program in anthropology at Columbia  University doing brilliantly.  I supported us, teaching, and I published my first novel about a lousy Harlem Junior High School, COME BACK ON MONDAY, published by Abelard Schuman in 1960.

Then it was time to do field work.  Of course!  Just like that, it became imperative that we immediately go and live for a year in the sugar cane swamps in Trinidad.  There was vital information to be gathered there by Mort.  It was suddenly urgent, indeed crucial, that he discover whether or not the  descendants of the 19th Century cane-cutters – all of whom had been indentured laborers brought from INDIA – were still Indian or had they merged into the Trinidad population?  Were they westernized?

My closest previous adventures with “nature” had been summers in a rooming house in the Catskill Mountains.  Any creature that flew or crept surreptitiously still frightened me.  But I’d signed on with Mort and visible cowardice was unseemly in an anthropologist’s wife.  Fortunately, myopia made me brave; I saw little.

So off we went to live in a swamp village called Felicity.  Our house, built high on concrete pilings cost $10.50 per month, the highest rent in the village. It had no running water or toilet or screens.

 Our first child, Perri Elizabeth Klass (Tulsi Devi is her Hindi name) was born while we lived there and the whole village celebrated. “We knew when you came you would make baby!” our neighbors told us jubilantly.  “Everyone who lives in that house makes babies!  The last schoolmaster made four there!” 

It was the most exciting year of our lives.

That Cleopatra!  She had nothing on me.

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Today I Had An Epiphany!

Since I’d already passed my 86th birthday and no supernatural marvel had ever occurred to me personally, I did not, of course, anticipate or expect one. In fact, I absolutely and resolutely could not believe what happened and I was so shaken up, I accidentally swallowed my fresh piece of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. 

A glass of cold seltzer, a chunk of salami, and a few minutes respite on a hard kitchen chair restored me (salami is a miraculous East European medical restorative), though I still find the whole miracle quite difficult to believe.

Frankly, I had dismissed miraculous possibilities decades earlier when I longed fiercely to be a platinum blonde and nothing happened to my muddy-colored, gray hair. PLATINUM BLONDE ME would have been a noteworthy miracle.  But apparently it is not commonly bestowed on elderly Jewish women.  The beauty parlors, however, do a commendable job if one is willing to spend the time and money – which, of course, I am not.

 I solemnly swear the following happened.  And the supernatural or extra terrestrial – or whatever – is out there and had a hand or two hands or even a foot in it.

Let me tell it exactly as it  happened.

 I was about to check my email.  Alas, Firefox was not to be found on my screen.  This has happened to me often before, and I immediately panic and phone a grandchild for help.  But it was 6:00 AM on Sunday morning!  One has no phonable relatives at that hour.  

Tentatively, I tapped several keys on the computer lightly, pretending I wasn’t touching them.  I prayed.  I shut the machine down and started it up fresh.  No Firefox.

I was close to weeping.  Here was this mechanical behemoth on my desk and out of reach.  I know how bad I am with machines.  (I once tried to learn to drive, but after three lessons the teacher refused to go on.  I was a menace, he said, and should be barred from the roads.)  So I am NOT a machine-friendly person. 

I paced.   I willed the phone to ring.  It didn’t.  My beautiful Sunday morning with its immortal prose possibilities was disappearing.  I made myself sit at the computer and prayerfully tapped some innocuous keys. 

Happily, I came upon a key with the legend RECENTLY USED.  We had not been formally introduced, but I boldly took liberties. I tapped it respectfully and – I GOT FIREFOX!  I immediately rose, bowed my head, and spent minutes in reverent silence.

So here I am now, sitting on my kitchen chair once again, celebrating with another glass of seltzer, which I sinfully diluted with a spoonful of Hershey chocolate syrup. After all, proper ceremonial attention must be devoted to sacred libations.

 “L’chaim!”

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THE STINGY MISER

Sometimes I walk blocks to save pennies and nickels. Walking is healthful, so why is my frugality eccentric? What makes a  scheduled marathon better than a brisk walk that saves a quarter – or even a dime?  Money? One grade school-girl habit I do try to resist is storing chewed gum behind my ear for a second chew later.  It grosses people out. But the tricks of youth stay with me, and they still give me rare pleasure. There is no disputing the fact that I am close, tight-fisted, frugal, exceedingly prudent, indeed, PARSIMONIOUS!.

I am simply, as I have always been; to put it succinctly, a stingy miser, one of the few acknowledged such.  Stingy miser is not a grammatical redundancy, but was the actuaI descriptive epithet in common use when I was a child.

It will be helpful for the reader to know right here that at the beginning of my life nothing I wore ever matched anything else and as a result I have never cared one iota about clothes.

Age cannot wither nor custom stale the collected infinite variety of my wardrobe or its sources.  Biology created me without a GOESS TOGETHER gene.  Style, therefore, has not afflicted me for I do not recognize it.  I wear what is easily accessible and comfortable.  And mostly, if possible, what is washable.  Recently, I made a critical decision.

 I am too old to wring out a waterlogged Loden coat.  Since I abhor dry cleaners, I shall simply throw out the soiled Loden veteran coat and say, “Goodbye, old friend!”

Born in 1927, a child of the Depression, I never got over it.   My family was desperately poor, on Home Relief for years.  I grew up thinking poor and never learned to aspire stylistically – and people have always found this strange, particularly once I began to earn a decent living!  It was as though my unconcern was some rare lingering malady. All my other relatives passed as normal.  Indeed, many became BIG spenders.  SPORTS! How it pleases them to shower money about!

 In early childhood, I had my own small shopping pleasures.  I was joyous when I got my grubby fingers on a penny! Pennies may be the keys to this whole enigma.  Before adolescence when I left home, I dealt almost solely in pennies.  I remember multi-colored gumballs in the candy store machine and penny sheets of orange peel shoe leather, as well as foot- long sticks of licorice, also one penny each!  Pennies bought joy!

Actually, I’m thrifty.  That’s the polite word, but frankly, I’m downright stingy.  Cheap!  I still actively mourn the five cent subway fare every time I swipe my fare card.  I walk miles  to get bargains.  Closefisted, I am always reluctant to shell out cash, and I am exceedingly prudent.

Parsimonious, c’est moi.  I watch my wallet diligently.  I do not enjoy spending large sums of money.  Never did.  I hate to part with hundreds much less thousands and would like to leave my legacy for my heirs, who of course protest that they don’t need my money.  There may be nicer ways to say this. Anyway, parsimonious certainly beats stingy any day.  It has a rather lavish ring to it!

Relatives and brave well-wishers who try shopping with me, invariably end up wondering, “How can she be so cheap?”  They’re full of euphemisms: frugal is what they actually say.  Economical.  Practical.  Whatever.  I learned early to settle for any evasive synonym that came my way.

“But you have plenty of money now to buy good things,” I’m constantly reminded.

“True,” I agree,  “and when there is something I really want or someplace I really want to visit, I’ll spend and I’ll go.”

But I have to really really want it.  The problem is that there is not so much I really really want. 

Still –   I went to the Metropolitan Opera and saw and heard  a glorious “Falstaff”  a couple of weeks ago.  And before that there was  “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” 

I pilgrimaged to China in my shabby Loden coat and walked on The Great Wall!

In India I ate delicious hot curries and roti!   And I saw Sai Baba, who many people believe was the living god.

I prayed at the Wall in Israel and left a message for God.

I visited Stratford on Avon and saw much glorious Shakespeare.

No one ever noticed me or my mismatched clothing in Paris. 

Who knows where I might turn up next?

Shabby little old ladies don’t ever need disguises!  Life has already carefully concealed them.

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“DO YOU LIKE KIPLING?” “I DON’T KNOW. I’VE NEVER KIPLED!”

One of the delights of teaching undergraduate literature in the community college English Department is that the course combines British authors and Americans.  It’s an absolute natural, right?  Same language?  Same origins?  Well, similar – of course,  all that was long ago and the wench is dead! 

Many of my students are, themselves, immigrants, so English is already a second language.  But we persevere.  We read various Brits and some Americans. 

With interesting results.  A young woman recently did a paper on David Copperfield, and she became so contemptuous of Uriah Heep (an unctuous Dickens’ character) that midway through the novel she lost control and actually began to call him Pariah Heep.  I noted the error, but couldn’t bring myself to deduct from her grade.  I figured she lost control and couldn’t help herself. Uriah is a bit much.

The anthologies are excellent; there’s Mark Twain and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of course, and Jane Austen and James Joyce.  And much more!

Sometimes it doesn’t work as expected.  The students particularly love dramatizing plays aloud.  New York theaters are too costly for their pockets, but they are enthusiasts.  And we have had great successes – and failures. We had an absolute “dream” cast of volunteers several years ago for a reading of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”.  We were almost ready to go when we lost our female lead.  Stanley Kowalski, the brutal brother-in-law, was too brutal for her.  He really made her cry.  But the play – and the day – were saved in a memorable performance: another female student, whose day job was in the jails at Riker’s Island,  volunteered and did the part beautifully.  Once Stanley Kowalski began his vicious mischief, he had to cope with a pro.  THAT performance would have made it on Broadway!

 I have not forgotten it, and I’ll bet Stanley Kowalski remembers it, too.  I think the entire class had a walloping good time!

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