A few years ago, a friend and I joined an Elderhostel tour, The Arts in Russia. It was a wonderful trip. We were treated to numerous lectures, ballets, operas, concerts, a folk culture evening, and three major art museums, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
We were also taken to the Circus in Moscow. For those who like animal acts, the Moscow Circus is unparalleled. Even people like me, with some hesitation about performing animals, could not fail to enjoy the show. For Russians, it is the bears they love the best. Their country is often represented as a bear; bears in captivity are to be seen in parks; they are a favorite character in many fairy tales. We watched the bears ride on bicycles, jump over high bars, and walk tight-ropes. After their performance, they were escorted down the ramp behind the scenes and the glittering mistress of ceremonies began to introduce the next act, but one of the bears hopped out from behind the curtain on one foot and took another bow. Everyone clapped. He did this twice more, reveling in the applause before he was physically removed and the circus could continue.
I told that story at least a dozen times before I realized – I am the bear. I still delight in performing, I don’t want to leave the stage, and I love sharing a good story.
On Friday, November 13, 1905, the women around the midwife were very concerned for my grandmother, Mamie (Mary Ellen Griffin Green). This was her third baby and she was not yet 23 years old. The midwife pronounced the newborn baby girl dead, and she was put to one side as all efforts went to saving the young mother. When they were just about sure Mamie would be all right, some one said, “I don’t think this baby is dead.” That not-dead baby was my mother.
On June 3, 1906, my other grandmother, Anne Marie Shields Smyth, went into labor for her third time. She was delivering early and was very large with her baby. A boy was born, but things kept happening and another was unexpectedly delivered shortly after. The second baby took only a few breaths and died. The twin that lived was my father.
It’s a wonder I’m here at all at all.
During the war years (when you are my age there is only one war) we didn’t have any gasoline to go shopping, and besides, my mother, like most of the women in the neighborhood, didn’t drive. A lot of our necessities came to us. There were two bakery trucks: Dugan's and Krug’s. Mr. Rencken, the milkman, also delivered butter, cream and cottage cheese. George came by on his wagon with fresh produce twice a week and Mr. Franks, the poultry and egg man, stopped by every Friday. But the most-awaited were the ice-cream men: Good Humor and Bungalow Bar! Ding-a-ling!
Clara Segal was my Willie’s mother. She was a crazy cleaner – used to wax her kitchen walls so they would shine. She was the peacemaker in a family riddled with conflict. She was a marvelous cook. And it was to her home that everyone came on holidays. At Hanukkah in 1922, the whole family came to eat her latkes and to play dreydl, even though she was 9 months pregnant. Tired as she was when everyone left, she cleaned up the dishes and the house. The last task was the silver Hanukkah menorah. Maybe she could leave it until morning? No, that wasn’t her way. She scraped off all the wax and polished until it shone. Only then did she go to bed.
“And, what do you know?, she later told me, “ in the middle of the night I had to go to the hospital to have Willie! And was I glad I cleaned the menorah!”
Friends and Intellectuals
Films played an important part in our life. I always say that Willie Segal seduced me with foreign films. There was a small art movie house in New Brunswick called The Europa. The manager was Louis Vassar, a Hungarian expatriate. Before the film began, he would stand at the front of the theater and start out: “Friends and Intellectuals,” and then tell a story. His favorite was about Rudy, the Rutgers freshman, whose friends brought him to the Europa Theater. “And when he went home at Thanksgiving, his own mother didn’t know him!”
The films brought a sense of beauty and a very different reality to audiences accustomed to American movies. I still remember many of them. Of course, the memories are all bound up in my mind with Willie and how much I loved him.
A Good Life, A Good Death
Ah, yes, there’s at least one more death I’ll need to deal with – my own. It can’t be all that far off, although, like Georges Simenon, I’d rather die later than sooner. But I want to live all of my life. For me the quality of my life is more important than life itself. My doctor and my children and my attorney all know this is my wish, and it is written down. And now, all of you know it, too! The image of the patient in bed with tubes and machines prolonging “life” uselessly, is my nightmare. What I am asking for is the motto of the organization Compassion and Choices, That motto is – A Good Life, A Good Death.