My cousin Lisa is a survivor. My parents got her out of Vienna on the proverbial last boat in 1938. She was 18 years old. My mother claimed they sent all the Viennese “displaced persons” to Florida to learn massage, while the Hungarians, no matter what their previous training or education, became bakers. Lisa met her first husband, whom she still calls the love of her life, swimming in the ocean, an activity to which all the women in my family are addicted. When they found they couldn’t have children, they adopted. When I first visited my glamorous cousin at the age of 12, they had a boy a few years younger and a little girl, who the next year died of leukemia, another of the tragedies that kept buffeting Lisa but couldn’t sink her spirit. I remember her irrepressible joie de vivre and how she tried to dress me up and glamorize me, a thankless task, I’m afraid. I remember being impressed by what a romantic couple they made and how her husband called her “girl.” (Decades later, I learned via country music that “girl” is a common Southern endearment. I still think it was romantic.)
Lisa’s husband got cancer at the age of 50 while they were going through the adoption process again, and she ended up a young widow with two babies. After ten years on her own, she married an ex-military man who led her quite a dance before he got Alzheimer’s and died. In the interim, she got a doctorate in her 60s, survived cancer, and started pronouncing her name the American way, “Lease-a,” instead of the European “Lee-za” or the Viennese “Liserl.” In recent years, living on a Central Florida lake with her now grownup daughter as caregiver, she’s managed not to let a broken neck or a faulty heart valve stop her from swimming, working out, using the computer, or living up to the description “my cousin the Viennese bombshell.”
When I passed through Florida on my book tour, I made plans to spend a night with her. We were both disappointed when she was admitted to the hospital on the day I arrived. But when her daughter and I came to visit, she had managed to dress up for me—no hospital gown for Lisa!—and greeted me with the same bubbly energy I remembered. In the picture we took together, she looks far younger than 88, and it’s hard to believe she’s in the hospital.
I think the men and women of my generation are beginning to be survivors too. I’ve reached an age when my contemporaries are running out of parents and losing friends to illness rather than suicide or car accidents. The world has changed dramatically since we were kids. Currently, we’re dealing globally with terrorism, war, recession and a restless Mother Nature who seems to me to be trying to get our attention and let us know she’s really pissed off about what we’re doing to the planet. Yet for the moment, we’re still here. I moderated a panel of “late bloomers” at the New York Public Library recently. It came out that most of us had started wanting to be writers at the age of 7. Yet here we were, getting our first novels published in our 50s, 60s, and 70s. We’ve stuck around to realize our dreams. Persistence is a survival skill, and I think we’ve got it.