Thursday, April 11, 2013

Aunt Hilda Turns 101

Elizabeth Zelvin

My Aunt Hilda, my mother’s youngest sister, turns 101 today. Born in New York the day before the Titanic sank, she worked in publishing, fought for social justice, had a happy marriage, raised two sons, earned a master’s degree that led to a new career in vocational counseling, lost her husband, took up tennis, moved to Seattle to a retirement community, and still has plenty of mental acuity. I’m glad she was willing to answer my questions on the phone, even though, as she pointed out, she hadn’t yet had her morning coffee.

What was it like being the child of immigrant parents in New York a hundred years ago?
I don’t think it was anything that pulled me down. I didn’t think of it that way. I was a happy child. We were poor, but I never thought about it. I was always very good at school, and I had a lot of friends. The only bad thing I experienced was anti-Semitism. It was always there.

What bad experiences did you have?
When I graduated from elementary school, I had been at the top of my class the whole way. I was supposed to get the scholarship medal. But we had a new principal who had a reputation for being anti-Semitic, and I didn’t get the medal. When they announced it, they said, “The medal goes to—” There was a hesitation, and the whole audience said my name. But I didn’t get it. That’s stayed with me my whole life.

When did your concern with social justice start?
That didn’t begin till I was a teenager. My father died when I was twelve, my mother was always away giving piano lessons, and I had a hard time separating from my older sister (Note: Liz’s mother), who took on all the responsibility for the family. She was very aware of being Jewish and believed that you didn’t stick your neck out. It was just plain luck that I met friends with different values who helped me break away.

What are you most proud of having done in your life?
My stellar years were the period of being a community organizer, an activist. We worked for Social Security and Medicare. I was full of all kinds of ideals. I thought you could change the world. I thought that’s what my grandchildren would remember me for.

What do you think of the world now?
It’s not the kind of world I thought we would have. It’s a lousy world today. It’s a capitalist world, so what can you expect?

If you could change one thing about the world, what would you change?
More equality. Less poverty. I’m disappointed in how the world has become.

Is there anything you regret doing or not doing?
I know I have several regrets, but I can’t think of what they are.

What is your life like today?
My life is good. I have a good support system. My residence has an unusual bunch of people. Many of them were academics who have achieved a lot. Even the food is good: we have a wonderful chef. Nobody ever says, “You look like hell.” The man in my life is a wonderful friend. I’m crazy about him. We’re lucky to have found each other. And my son, who lives close by and picked this place for me, is not just a wonderful son, he’s also a great friend.

Do you still play tennis?
We play outdoors, so I haven’t played since September. I have a very strong right arm. I can still hit! I fell into tennis when my husband died and my job ended at age 70. I was looking for something to do where I wouldn’t have to think, but I really came to love it. Nowadays I’m afraid of falling, so I’ve probably said goodbye to it. It ain’t easy, getting older!

You said a couple of years ago that resilience is the quality people need the most as they get older. What other qualities do you value in yourself?
My sense of humor keeps me going. I’ve been lucky!


Gail Farrelly said...

Lovely post, Liz. I enjoyed it. Your aunt is a remarkable woman. Please give her my best wishes for many more happy birthdays.

Gloria Alden said...

Liz, how lucky you are to have such a woman like your aunt in your life. Her influence on you must have had much to do with the person you are - a strong woman in every way. I admire her outlook on life and agree with her thoughts on how far our country has gone away from the ideals she and people like my parents had.

Like Gail, I wish her many more and happy birthdays.