Remembering Anna: A Volunteer Reflects on Her Weekly Visits

By Ilana Kurshan

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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Some things never changed about Anna Kainen: The pink kerchief perched atop her forest of gray hair; the large dark glasses; the tan pants that looked as if she had sewn them herself. When I arrived each Sunday morning at her 14th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she would always greet me with the same elongated “He-lo-Ee-La-Na.”

Asked how she was feeling, she would say, “Oh, not so good,” followed by a familiar litany: “My eyes, my ears… everything.”

“But Anna, you look well,” I’d insist — and she did, for a 90-year-old.

Anna always had an agenda for our visits, each week a step up the rungs in her plan to organize her writing. There were hundreds of poems, scores of plays, three full-length novels, plus journals and a lifetime of letters — some typed and bound, others handwritten in spiral notebooks. And although her writing had never been published, she held firm to the hope that I would someday edit her poetry for Random House, where I work in the poetry department.

I met Anna two years ago as a volunteer with DOROT, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of elderly individuals living in New York City. Over time, I saw the many ways DOROT changed Anna’s life. Anna took courses over the telephone through DOROT’s “University Without Walls” program; she received packages on each of the major Jewish holidays, and, most important, she felt connected to the larger Jewish community.

Anna and I spent the first few months of our relationship alphabetizing her poems and weeding out duplicates. She would sit beside me with her magnifying glass, squinting at her titles: “Love: What is It?,” “Old Age,” “Time.” Every so often she’d ask me to read aloud from a poem she thought she had forgotten, but usually by the third or fourth stanza she would join in from memory.

Her poetry was often nostalgic, yet it also teemed with life — her own. She was born in Romania in 1913, and her life spanned several worlds: from the Eastern European shtetl to, at age 15, the harsh regimen of Manhattan’s garment district, from typewriters to word processors and on to the feminist revolution.

On my most memorable visit with Anna, I arrived later than usual to find her sitting in darkness listening to WNYC. I realized just how long and empty Anna’s days could be. When I asked if I might turn on the light, she responded, “Go ahead, I can’t see the difference anyway.” She started to complain about her cataracts, and so I read to her John Milton’s poem about his blindness:

When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide And that one talent which is death to hide Lodged with me useless…

Like Milton, Anna felt as if a part of her had died. And so I suggested that we bring our talents together to write a poem. Anna was beaming by the time we finished our sonnet.

Our poem ends with a couplet that describes her general attitude toward life: “Yet after all I know it all is worth/ this happy-ever-after dream of mirth.”

Anna ultimately felt that her life was worth it. It took her many years to listen to her voice and find her calling as a writer; it wasn’t until the age of 62 that she enrolled at City College and completed a graduate degree in English literature. Since divorcing her husband decades ago, a man she married in her late 20s, Anna has had three lovers and traveled around the world. When she spoke about her men and showed me their letters, her face took on a schoolgirl blush as she tried to convince me that it really was this woman before me who was so crazy in love. But after reading her short stories, some of which border on the pornographic, I was not surprised by anything she told me. I had come to trust her with my confidences and, eventually, with my love.

Even so, I often felt that I had disappointed her. I never published her poems, nor did I type up her hundreds of pages of handwritten memoirs — because I cannot. I did not tell her that her fiction was the best I’ve read — because it is not. But I would adjust her hearing aids and prepare her lunch when her aide called in sick. I distracted her on rainy mornings when her pain was acute, and I would put my arm around her when she was lonely. When she told me on one day this cold, cold winter that she felt life wasn’t worth living anymore, I sat with her in silence, holding her hand. There was nothing to say and nothing to be done, and this time I, too, found comfort and strength in Milton’s “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In much the same way, I now find strength and comfort in one of Anna’s own poems, one we often read together:

Time is but A Pasture Where years have Grazed, The winds whose Laughter we have shared…

* * *

Anna Kainen died February 16, one day before her 91st birthday. This article is dedicated to her memory.

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