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April 2014
Visiting Rose
Old and poor, she's got one hope left: the movie of her life.

Goya, "Two Old People Eating"
Rose is 75 years old and widowed. Small and birdlike - Jewish women, says a friend, end up either like grand boats or tiny birds - she is a feisty and energetic woman who lives at a residence center (what used to be called an "old age home") not far from me.

Soon after I met Rose, she told me her dream: that the story of her late husband Sid's life and all her treasured memories of him would turn out to have value not only as lives lived, but as a "property," too. That is, she hopes for a producer or publisher - and to make some money on the deal.

This is one of the great human fantasies, that somehow we will find a way to save our lives for posterity while we get paid for them in the here-and-now. Most people, however, never pursue a movie or book based on their lives. But Rose is a go-getter.

Last year, she taped her story, had it typed - 17 single-spaced pages - and sent it out to a local Jewish weekly. It came back with a kind letter explaining why they couldn't use it: much too long, not quite interesting or original enough, not really organized or pointed.

The problem is that Rose, like most of us, doesn't understand her own story. She concentrates on telling Sid's story, as if she can't place herself fully in her own life. And her story has no theme, only a chronology, as Sid immigrates from Russia, spends his boyhood in an orphanage, has a brief career as a boxer, works in neighborhood politics.

I sit with Rose in her room while she recounts her story. The room is decorated in shades of orange, an odd institutional attempt to be cheerful, perhaps. The whole building smells slightly sweet, the way hospitals sometimes do - like oatmeal. Everyone here is old. They take day trips or socialize, watch TV or wait for visitors or meals, play cards, write letters, participate in planned activities. Segregated by age, they are mostly invisible in the larger world.

I am only just beginning to be able to imagine myself physically shrunken, my life contracted, worried about falls, monitored regularly by doctors, full of general achings and tiredness and perhaps more serious illness, knowing one is soon to depart while the world goes on.

Maybe I'll get wise by then. Somehow I doubt it.

And yet the ego, that triumphant muscle, doesn't weaken with age. Rose is still working at her plans like a person half her age - she still wants and is trying to get.

She knows her story needs work. But she believes it is a good story. (And she needs money.)

I am moved by Rose as a writer partly because I share her plight. What to tell, what to leave out, what the point of the story is - these are questions that I, facing a novel-in-progress, am dealing with every day, for as many hours as I can find.

It is easier to help Rose than myself. Her story, as I see it (but she doesn't), is about the degeneration of a Jewish family and of Jewish community in general. It's about how Rose, who has two grown daughters and who used to have a husband, a home of her own and some money in the bank, is now in a "residence," dependent on handouts from her sister. The story is our's, not Rose's husband's.

And it could be a colorful and compelling story - the young boxer, the teeming neighborhood, the city politics. Sid is a tremendously likable and popular guy. But there are weaknesses in his character and great stresses in the family's life, culminating in a car accident on a rainy night in which he hits and kills a neighborhood woman. The politics of the neighborhood turn against him. Afterward, he suffers a nervous breakdown - refuses to come out of his room or sits frozen on the curb outside.

The two daughters are 12 years apart in age, hardly able to be friends, the elder already out of the house while the younger is still growing up. After the accident, the younger daughter must be pressed into helping her parents earn a living. She grows up amid the guilt, the grief, the fearful dislocations of a shattered family life, feeling trapped and taken advantage of as the father develops the chronic diseases that will end his life 14 years later.

And all the themes of dissension and insufficiency despite tremendous effort flower into this: a birdlike old woman in a "home," her elder daughter distant, her younger - so the mother claims - having wrested away her life savings and the deed to her house from her, leaving her dependent on handouts and the high ambitions of the ego, with Jewish institutions performing the duties that families once shouldered.

A final scene: After she tells me her story, Rose says she loves to sing. Would I like to hear her? Yes, of course. She is very pleased. Laughing and crying at the same time, she sings "Oh, How We Danced on the Night We Were Wed," the entire song, chorus and verses. Her voice is scratchy and gropes in and out of the tune, but there is evidence of the warmth and range it had in the earlier, happier time. Perhaps she sang this song for her husband, when he was alive. I sit near her in the orange room and listen.

Yes, there could be a novel here. Not too sentimental a novel, though. Rose can weep for herself, but she doesn't feel sorry for herself. She is 75 years old and still calculating how to make some money out of the story of her life.

First published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.