Archive for March, 2016

The Old Man in Place des Vosges

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As a young girl, I had extreme prejudice towards old people.  I would do anything to escape interaction.  The elderly seriously creeped me out. I couldn’t imagine who they once were and didn’t care to. I was missing the obvious connection, that one day, if I lived long enough I would become one of them. I suppose I could blame it on my grandmothers who were both different degrees of horrible. In the movies, kids love their grandparents. In real life, my friends loved their grandparents. Unfortunately, I got the rejects! Rumor has it, my mother’s father was wonderful but he died before I was born. My father’s dad was nice but I rarely saw him and he died when I was 10. But those grandmothers….Pearl was dedicated to misery. They said she lived a hard life but no details were provided. She was always praying, rocking back and forth while she whispered words in Yiddish. It seemed like Pearl wanted everyone to feel sorry for her. I didn’t. Mean to my mother and indifferent towards me, she had no love or joy to give and didn’t seem interested in anything beyond her own suffering. Now Grandma Rose, she should have, could have auditioned for the Witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’d grab my arm with her claw like hand just a little to hard, trying to squeeze information out of me that my parents would not disclose. Ugh! Into the oven!

I moved through my 20’s keeping a safe distance from the seniors. In May 1990, I decided to take a trip to Paris by myself, for my birthday. It was our fourth date and I was completely infatuated. I never mind being alone with Paris. There’s too much beauty to discover to give the lonely factor a second thought.  One perfect day, I started walking from my hotel on the left bank, across the Seine to Le Marais. I wore a long flowery dress that always made me feel pretty. Paris winked and blew a kiss. I wandered to the park  in Place des Vosges, and found myself a bench to sit and write in my journal. There were lots of people in the park and not many vacant seats. There was an American traveler sitting backwards on the bench with his backpack taking up a potential seat between us.

Along comes a very, very old man. His posture is stooped with serious spinal curvature and he walks with a cane. His trousers are belted extremely high….it’s like he doesn’t have a waist. He stops in front of our bench, gazing at the backpack and asks the young man in French, if he would kindly move the pack. The kid doesn’t hear or understand so I get his attention and tell him this man wants to sit down. He snaps out of his daydream and apologetically moves it.

The old man sits down between us. Our bench is directly in front of a children’s sandbox.  I think this guy must love to sit here everyday and watch the children play. Then I can feel him looking at me. My old folks phobia kicks in: Oh shit, don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me! And then of course he talks to me, in French. I tell him I do not speak French. Then to my surprise, he begins speaking in perfect English, with hardly any accent.

He explains that he used to own a store and had lots of opportunity to speak English to all the tourists, but he has been retired for many years and now his skills are rusty. He tells me that he used to have a wife and son but they were long gone. Then I start to think this is Le Marias, a historically Jewish quarter. This man looks Jewish. He could have been my fathers age now, somewhere in his 90’s. When Germany invaded France he would have been around 40. I try to delicately ask him what happened. Did he lose his family in the war but he drifts away, doesn’t answer and changes the subject. We talk for a long time of many things that are less memorable, but the whole time I am feeling the tragedy of his unspoken history. Meanwhile, from across the park I can hear the saddest most mournful classical music, as if it were the soundtrack to his story. It is Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio.

I thanked him for talking to me, wished him good day and started crying as soon as I turned away. Not gushing, nor sobbing,  just involuntary tears flowing steady and sober as I walked towards that music. They were a string ensemble gang of violins, violas, cellos and bass, by the name of Classique Metropolitain.  It felt like a gift to hear such skilled musicians playing for free on the street instead of inside an opera house. They were an interesting combination of young and older musicians. I stayed till the end of their set and bought a CD. When I want to bring back that experience, all I have to do is listen to their music and I’m there!

It was at most, a 20 minute conversation with a stranger in a park, yet it had a profound effect on me. Did I start volunteering at a nursing home? No. However, there was a shift in my perception, expanded awareness and more compassion. It was a moment in my life for which I will always be grateful.

PS. I have a small list of my elderly super heroes:

Alice Herz-Sommer, 110, from the documentary: The Lady in number 6

Iris Apfel, 94, Documentary: Iris

Patricia Teeter, 86, who does a head stand on her birthday each year and is fabulous!

Francine Christophe, 82, Holocaust survivor