Helen was born in Hungary 94 and a half years ago. Her family owned a saloon where all the farmworkers would come to quench their thirst and addle their brains after a long day at the field. Helen's grandma was a tough-as-nails barkeep. Her muddy, alcohol-soaked leather boots were worn at the heels. That tough lady would kick burly, drunken men out the door -- literally.
Helen, to look at her today, she couldn't hurt a fly, but she inherited that spunk in her blood.
During the early years of Helen's womanhood, she had no idea of the future that would bring her, after a much convoluted route, to a little apartment just off Arthur Godfrey Road. Yes, although Helen was born in Hungary, she would spend most of her life on Miami Beach.
And I, Manola, who has quite a bit of bark, but still rides on a relatively soft thirtysomething spine to back up her bite, would be honored to have crossed paths with such a remarkable woman. Manola never had a grandmother. All separated by the divide of exile.
Sometimes, however, exile makes for strange familiarity. I once called Helen bubulah and she pinched my cheek.
"You are adorable! How do you know Jewish? You pronounce it so well! Did you know I had three husbands?"
"Yes, Helen. You told me about your three husbands."
And she did. Oh yes, she loved talking about her three husbands.
As a young woman in Europe, Helen was no stranger to the swagger and palaver of men. She owned a corset shop in town, which forced her to walk about ten miles a day -- first, to work, then back home for the big midday meal -- then back to work and home at the end of the day. Men would lurk on the streets, asking unsuspecting and yet flattered ladies if they could simply escort them for a walk.
Helen confessed that her father, who often found himself commuting by foot or horse-drawn cart on the same road, would pretend not to see that she was holding hands with her boyfriend.
"Boyfriend?" I asked.
And with endearing coyness, Helen replied: "Oh ... of course! He walked with me everyday. He held my hand."
Hand-holding in public. Yes, I'd forgotten about that.
She barely escaped the war, but that didn't break her spirit.
On an average day, I'd see Helen by the mail dispatch and we'd talk about the weather and, inevitably but with much affability, her three husbands.
She only well and truly loved the second man. The first one was a German pilot who, in a grand stroke of irony, died in a plane crash on a detail to Israel. Helen speaks little of husband number three, but number two, well ... he was, without a doubt, THE LOVE OF HER LIFE.
"You only love once, Manola" she explained as her eyes twinkled and she grabbed my shoulder with bony hands. "I told you I had three husbands? Yes, I've had three husbands, but the second one, the father of my children, the one I met at a dance in Chicago, well, we were love birds. He held my hand all the time."
In an instant that spelled eternity, the aging woman shrugged her shoulders.
"He held my hand until he died."
Yes, holding hands.
I'd forgotten about that.
Helen loves that I know a smattering of yiddish.
"Knock, knock. Excuse me, Helen. I need change for the laundry. Look at me, I am such a meshugenah shiksah wearing schmatteh" (which is true, by the way, being nuts, broke and wearing rags) and instantly, I get not only a pinch on the cheek but a kiss to boot.
"How do you know Jewish? You pronounce it so well! Here's the change. Let me teach you how to say 'I love you' in Hungarian ... Hungarians are so romantic ... did you know I had three husbands?"
Yes, Helen, time and time again, I know you had three husbands. And that's the only story you can tell. And you think it matters to me? Of course it does! I haven't even managed to have one. In fact, I've avoided three divorces.
Deep into conversation -- which only took a few minutes, if you navigated imaginatively with the mind of this somehow sharp yet senile lady who survived a brutal past of persecution, a woman who had lost her family to a holocaust and then endured three marriages -- well for Helen, it was all in a day's work.
Concerned about my life, she would ask, quite bluntly, if my ex-boyfriend fulfilled me.
"Does he make you feel good, you know, like a woman?"
Imagine my surprise! A question about a sexual life that she might've heard across drywall and concrete -- oh, no she was too deaf -- but she knew what she was asking, even if she sometimes depended on my courtesy to turn on a lamp Friday evening, when the timer failed to work on Shabbos.
When I re-entered singlehood, she inquired -- out of the blue, bumping into her on the 41st street sidewalk -- about the fact that I, now free to do as I pleased, and a very good-looking girl, did not go to dances to meet boys. She didn't just ask -- she'd perk up and sway her flat, barren chest side to side.
"But you, you should go to dances to meet boys! You know, Hungarians are very romantic and we love to dance. When I clean my house I listen to czardas. Here, let me show you! Did I tell you I had three husbands?"
This tiny creature, made of bird bones, sheer courage and grit, grabbed my waist and twirled me around.
I smiled knowingly. Yes Helen, I know you had three husbands. But I kept quiet because I'd never want to spoil Helen's memories with the sordid truth.
Men and women no longer meet at dances. I thought of Crowbar on South Beach. Nineteen year-olds on exstacy humping in the VIP section. Is that really love? What of holding hands? What of until death do us part? And does death really part souls who share love?
Yes, Helen. You dance. You live. You survive.
And now you're moving to Detroit to be closer to your progeny. Years are catching up to you like the yarns of your knitting. You've defied death long enough, but you've done so swimmingly, marrying three men, keeping house, bearing children, wearing your color-coordinate polyester outfits just to walk to Kosher World at 3 PM everyday to buy supper, even though you have nothing much to live for, at least as far as my own eyes can see.
And I could very well be blind.
No one could imagine that this wrinkled waif, strutting happily in Miami Beach, still bothered to give herself a french manicure and coordinate her jewelry with her ensemble.
Helen, fashion is trivial. But in you, Helen, fashion is defiance. You believed in yourself, Helen. Dead family, lovers and love-of-your-life aside, you believed in life and lived it, even when your body shrank and shriveled and you survived on the Friday wine of memories.
Last week, speaking about life in assisted-living, Helen worried about making new friends.
"Helen" I winked, "maybe you'll meet a nice fella in Detroit."
"Oh, I don't like old Jewish men. They are not worth the trouble. I'm not going to change anyone's diapers. I'm too old for that. For me it has to be a man under 70. Did I tell you, I had three husbands?"
The woman in me would like to believe that Helen, spry flirt she is even with one well-shod foot in the grave, enjoyed more than just holding hands. I'd like to believe she reveled in tender kisses and exquisite love on the shores of the beach.
But that dream is stored in a dusty collection of black and white photos only her great-grandchildren might find some cold day in Detroit while exploring an attic. Memories come alive in the grainy voice of a singer sulking in the melody of a Hungarian czardas.
Maybe her idea of love had to do with holding hands, which, at the end of a long life, is a far better keepsake than some random encounter on the sand.
Never second-guess love. Never assume passion is a thing of the past. I saw it in this old, weathered face and those cloudy yet bright eyes.
"Manola, if you don't take care of yourself, who will?"
Yes, Helen. And if I do make it to that ripe old age of 94, living alone and still able to bend over and pick up a fallen kleenex, slice an apple with a knife, sweep the floor and do calisthenics in the pool, dance to old tunes from my grouchy cassette player, dress up every day, cut my own hair and give myself a mani-pedi, remember ... well, yes, remember ANYTHING for that matter, well yes, I'll remember you, your three husbands, definitely, as well as my three near-miss husbands ... all long, long after you're gone.
"After you die, nothing matters. I like to enjoy each day. I thank HASHEM for each day. Do you know how to say God in Jewish? Everyday, I ask him, if he is going to keep me alive, keep me well."
And he will.
This little voice that embraces life, this vivid little flame that illuminates an aging body is quickly darkening.
The day she dies the sun won't rise as brightly on the beach. Or maybe, knowing Helen, it will. Matching shoes and hat, no doubt.
During a thunderstorm last summer, Helen, wearing a satin robe and panther-print sandals, knocked on my door. So short! Standing well below my own petite frame, I could only see a few whisps of gray hair through the peep hole.
"Look, the clouds are getting black! Are you afraid, Manola?"
"No, Helen." And in my mind, I thought of grandmothers I never met.
Silently, I answered: "Of course not. What's a little storm when you've weathered the most horrid fate so elegantly with grace and gratitude?"
And speaking loudly so her feeble ear could hear, I replied: "No Helen, of course not. But call me if you need anything, ok? I'll always be here for you."
Damn, I'll miss my neighbor.
I'll always be there for her because she was always there for me ... and, most importantly, always there for herself.
UPDATE: March 2007 -- I heard from another neighbor that Helen slipped, broke a hip and passed away while in Detroit. Can you believe it? After all those years of living alone she moves to assisted living and dies? Had she stayed here, I reckon she'd still be kicking. But you know what? She's at peace now and making heaven a better place. I will always honor you, dear Helen.