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Three Zabar’s dreams, one American nightmare, and other dispatches from more than nine decades on earth

Now that I’ve lived more than 90 years, at times I wonder what it would be like to be 100, or if I would want to live to be 100. I guess it would depend on what quality of life would accompany that age. Olivia De Havilland, the actress, lived to 104 and Kirk Douglas to 103. If they could do it then why not me? Bob Hope and George Burns lived to 100. Sure, I wasn’t as funny as they were; I didn’t tell as many jokes as they did, but I’m sure neither of them sliced as many Novas as I have. There is actually an “Over 100 years old” club I could join. OK! OK! Back to the real world.

A 90th Birthday Party

Plans for my 90th birthday party started around June 2019. The last time I had a birthday party was back when I turned 75. We all gathered at “The Nice Restaurant” in Chinatown, on East Broadway and spent the evening there. There was music, a bar, a DJ. There was dancing, a few speeches and, of course, the Chinese banquet. This time I was planning drinks and hors d’oeuvres at our house, after which a rented bus would take about 35 of us to Central Sea Food Cantonese Restaurant in Hartsdale, New York, where the group would gather for a Chinese banquet that I designed with the assistance of the restaurant’s manager. Then, back to the house, on the bus, for coffee and dessert.

When I celebrate, there is always a Chinese banquet involved.

They were coming from California, Massachusetts, Chicago and various parts of the New York area. 75 was a big deal but it didn’t hold a candle to 90.

A week before my birthday, my wife, Llewellyn, suffered a minor stroke and was hospitalized for a few days. When she returned home, we canceled the party, deciding to shoot instead for my 91st birthday, if I was still around.

What It’s Like To Be 90

I began thinking about how different I am today, in my 90s, what I’ve learned with the passing of time. Many things occurred to me.

I recall certain times during my earlier years, when I came in contact with an older person, maybe someone over 90, and I wondered what it was like to be that old. How did it feel physically? What was the state of the mind after so many years of use? Did it deteriorate, as did the body? Well, now I know some of the answers because I have become that person I had been so curious about and I think, does anyone look at me and wonder?

I entered my 92nd year on Planet Earth, with a family Zoom meeting get together at 5 p.m. on new year’s day, which happens to be my birthday. I had zoomed once before, didn’t love the experience and hoped this one would be better.

Since I became 90, things, in general, took on a different feel. The whole idea of being 90 was strange. It was a place I’d never been before. It sounded very old. If I had to say what it felt like to be 90, strange would be the most accurate would be the one word I would use. 90 was earth-shattering, like breaking the sound barrier.

I thought it might be interesting to ask the Zoomers “What one word do you think would best describe being 91.” They came up with many words; old, weak, tired, worried, forgetful, frightened and some others and even after I started giving hints, like the first letter, then the second letter, no one came up with the word strange

The Trouble With Memory

I can get into my car and drive to Coney Island or Boston without looking at a map (remember road maps?) or engaging my navigation equipment, but I will forget, when I open the refrigerator door, what I wanted to get. I have to go back to whatever I was doing immediately before and then it will come to me. This has happened to me so frequently that I had to find a solution to the problem.

I did some research on the internet dealing with memory loss and I found a possible solution. It was suggested that I’d have a much better shot at remembering something if I “registered” it in my mind. Registering something in your mind means to think of it “actively” rather than passively. Think, or say to yourself, before you go to the refrigerator,” I need some butter now.” Don’t just go to the refrigerator with a passive awareness that you need butter. It actually works. If you register it, you’ll probably remember it.

In the latter part of my 91st year, some new things showed themselves; the disappearance of a thought before it was completed. I would be thinking of something that required more thought and as I continued the thought process, poof, the entire thought was gone. I was left with that I knew I was thinking about something, but that something was lost. I no longer knew what I was thinking about.

Then there’s the thought pause. I’d be in the middle of a thought and a sudden pause would occur, like someone pressed the pause button on the remote. A few seconds later, the thought would continue from where it left off. Small things, maybe even normal for my age, but very uncomfortable; perhaps a sign of things to come. No solution to these problems unless you consider that accepting them is a solution.

Then there’s the problem of dealing with “fast talkers” My hearing is OK, especially when I wear my hearing aids, which is most of the time, but a problem arises when someone speaks too fast for me to process the sentences they speak and at that point I just hear words, but can’t connect them, and I have no understanding of the thought they are trying to convey. Here, the solution is to request that the person speak more slowly.

During the last few years I have fallen twice. One time I missed the step up to the sidewalk; another time I stepped into a hole I hadn’t noticed. Fortunately I was not seriously hurt on either occasion. I recalled that about 25 years ago, when I was involved in psychotherapy, my therapist, who was about 40 at the time, took a fall on West End Avenue, hit his head on the ground and died in the hospital from a brain bleed. That incident has remained with me to this day.

I guess you could say that I was a good faller. My head never hit the ground on either of my two falls. I recognized that my balance was a little off and wanted to do something to better the situation. Remembering, many years ago, on a trip to China, watching groups of people practicing Tai Chi in the park I recalled that Tai Chi was an efficient way to reduce stress, improve energy levels and promote better balance. I did some research to update my knowledge of the art and enrolled in a local class. Over time I felt that I benefited a lot from doing Tai Chi, including improvement of my balancing situation. I continued with Tai Chi until COVID prompted me to discontinue the class

Small Pleasures

Both my wife and I are “getting on” in years; we have engaged a woman to do certain house cleaning chores for us every Saturday. I have noticed something strange happening with this arrangement. Every time she comes to the house on Saturday it seems to me like she was here yesterday, not a week ago. Why do I feel that? I thought a lot about it and concluded the following. Lately, I find that all the days are quite the same. I wonder, is this feeling a function of COVID, my not working, my age or a combination of all three. There are the meals, the cooking, TV, the newspaper, a symphony, a movie, maybe some shopping and sleeping. Every day, pretty much the same as the day before and the day after. The cleaning person comes on Saturday and it seems like the days between the Saturdays are just one long day.

Then there’s that guy in the mirror with the eye bags, wrinkled brow, creased forehead and hairs growing out of his ears. I think we know each other but he does look a little strange. When I look away from the mirror I become me again.

I love my Android phone. Life would be much more difficult without it. Having it close by is like having a security blanket and it provides me with the ability to do things that, without it, I would not be able to do. When I forget what day it is, I ask my phone.

As I have been writing this, a thought popped into my mind. What’s the life expectancy of a 91 year old? I asked my phone. Throughout my life I have rarely thought about death, seriously, but recently, at 91, the thought has popped up in my mind occasionally. The answer my phone provided did not satisfy me so I investigated further on my computer.. After much investigation I concluded, from the facts presented to me that I would probably live between one and 10 more years, which, when I thought about it, I had already concluded before I started investigating.

Then there’s the matter of pressure. Suddenly I have become aware that I feel very little, almost no pressure, in my day-to-day activities. For the better part of my life there had always been abundance of pressure; will I be late for work, does she really like me, will I finish this on time, will I get the job, will I get the account, should I take the risk?. Pressure was part of my life, daily and now, it seems pressure is on a vacation. I’ve discovered that if I can’t do it today, I’ll do it tomorrow. If I miss breakfast I’ll start my day with lunch. No pressure. After a life of much pressure, the current lack of it is oh, so sweet.

Telling Stories To Remember

Over the past year, I’ve found myself thinking about my father and grandfather and realized that I did not know either of them well. What little I did know about each of them only served to ask more questions. What was my father’s educational level? Did he go to college? What were his interests? Why did he become an electrician? Why was he so stern, bossy and authoritative?

My grandfather came to this country from Hungary probably in the 1920s. What did he do in Hungary? Why did he come here? Where did he get the money to buy a three-family house in Brooklyn? How did he acquire a 50 percent interest in a Treadeasy Ladies Shoe store at 24 West 39th Street? I would so love to know the answers to these questions but there is no one around to ask. They are all gone.

The thought occurred to me that my seven grandchildren, some of whom I see occasionally, because they live locally, and the others scattered throughout different parts of the country might someday have questions about who I was, what my life was like. How and why did I enter the world of food? Why did I become a CPA? But If I’m not around to answer their questions, then what?

I had always been somewhat of a storyteller and I thought maybe I could put some of my stories, most of which were about me and my relationships, in written form, and these stories just might have the answers to some of their questions. So I started to tell these stories to my computer. I started to write. I had never written much before, perhaps some letters, a diary, maybe. Over the past year I have written more than 20 articles and stories. I seem to have found a new outlet for things I’m thinking about, stories I want to tell, articles or commentaries I’d like to write. Were it not for COVID, I think that the writer in me would never have blossomed.

A Dream Trilogy

My voice has become very raspy and I can’t sing anymore! Sure, I can still sound the right notes but they emerge very muddy. Gone are the days I would harmonize with Perry Como singing on the radio.

I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. I had three dreams recently that seemed connected in some way. As days passed I came to think of them as a dream trilogy.

I couldn’t help but notice how different they were from the kind of dreams that I remember having in my 30s and 40s Then, I would dream of flying over land and sea, sometimes approaching large hills or even mountains. I had wings, like a bird and would flap them vigorously to get over large hills or high mountains. Sometimes it took great effort, to fly over them but I was always successful.

I haven’t been doing a lot of flying recently.

In the first dream of the trilogy I find myself in Zabar’s. Everything seems in its proper place; counters where they should be, shelves properly filled, normal activity, yet something is different. It’s not as bright as usual. A kind of gloom seems pervasive throughout the store. The usual magic is mysteriously gone.

In the second dream I’m back in Zabar’s, but in its bowels, back rooms, corridors, stairwells, unfamiliar areas. I don’t recall having been in this part of the store before. Something is not right; I feel like I’m plodding my way through a maze, looking for a way out, getting nowhere fast I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll be able to find my way out. Finally, a hallway that leads to a door that leads to outside. I’m relieved.

In the third dream I’m walking somewhere in a large warehouse that is totally unfamiliar to me. I don’t know why I’m there. I don’t know which way to go. Finally I decide that I just want to leave the building but I’m not sure how to get out. Getting out; that seems to be a recurrent theme. There’s no one in the building for me to ask so I just kept walking from room to room, via unfamiliar corridors. After a while of being unable to find a way out I continue walking and looking, walking and looking. Then I wake up.

When I think about the three dreams, I am convinced that they were interrelated and that there was a message — perhaps that I find certain things difficult to accomplish because I’m not as mentally and physically competent to handle certain matters as I was at an earlier time.

My Philosophy

The doctrine of “Use it or lose it” now plays a significant part of my life. I have come to believe that one must keep active, both physically and mentally or much of life’s pleasures will be lost. For that reason, each day I attempt to walk for, at least, a half-hour and try solving some of the puzzles in The New York Times. Puzzles are not new to me. I’ve been doing them for years. “Words With Friends” is a word game that I played with one of my co-workers at Zabar’s until I found myself using mechanical devices to find words which made the game less interesting and I gave it up. I still solve Ken Ken puzzles daily and I have come across a new puzzle that I find very interesting and challenging called “Two Not Touch.” The point of all this is to use your brain, tax it, make it work rather than remain idle.

A Sweet Moment

A few days before my birthday I sent an email to all the guys I’ve worked with behind the lox counter, wishing them a happy new year and, in turn, on my birthday. They sent me a video email showing all of them at work, slicing away and each one of them, in turn, approached the camera and wished me a happy new year and happy birthday. It warmed the cockles of my heart. I looked at the video many times that day.

A Nightmare Turns Real

It was the afternoon of the sixth day of my 92nd year. I turned on the TV to look for a movie and relax a bit. The screen opened to what I thought was the middle of a movie that seemed to be about the overthrow of the U.S. government. I’ve seen this movie before, I thought, The insurgents climbing the walls of the capital reminded me of King Kong standing on top of the Empire State Building flailing his huge furry arms fighting off the oncoming airplanes. Enough of that I thought, I’ll switch the channel. So I did and I was quite surprised when it seemed like this new channel was showing the same movie.

Very unusual, I thought and I moved on.

When the next channel had the same movie, I thought something was not quite right. As it turned out, things were very far from not quite right. What I was looking at was real — an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States of America, and I was watching it happen on TV, in the comfort of my own home. It was a staggering experience and what made it even more disturbing, was that it seemed the president of the United States may have been complicit in its planning. I had seen a lot in my 91 years, but never anything like this. It was time to begin thinking about dinner but I remained glued to the TV screen for hours, to see events further unfold before my eyes.

Old Friends

As the years passed, I began to lose some of my friends and about two years ago, when I took inventory, I could only count a handful that were left. My best, best friend, who is also my love, and has been both to me since 1971, remains. We are both very lucky to still have each other in these later years. Each year brings some new and interesting things into our lives. She is a few years younger than me. Both her parents and my father lived into their early 90s so that bodes well for the two of us. On occasion we find ourselves talking about who will die first and the nature of the challenges that the surviving spouse will face. Not an easy discussion.

My two lifelong best friends, Ray and Ralph, were among those who remained for a long time. Ray, whose wife had been long gone, had moved to Boston to be near his only daughter. He had serious health issues, some related to being a lifelong smoker. Ralph lived in Manhattan with his wife. The three of us did not see much of each other over the last five years but we were always in touch by phone. A few years ago Ralph and I drove to Boston to visit Ray. It was special; the three of us being together. Ray was not in good shape. In the evening of our visit, after leaving Ray, Ralph and I went to a seafood restaurant for dinner. Toward the end of the meal Ralph looked at me across the table and said, “Who are you and how did I get here?”

Ray died a few months later and Ralph has been in a nursing home for the past few years. The last time I visited him, he didn’t know who I was. I stopped the visits.

That leaves me with only two remaining friends. One is currently in the hospital with many health issues, difficulty breathing being the current and most serious one. The prognosis is not good. The other friend suffers from diabetes-related problems. So who is next to die? Hearing, from time to time of another friend’s passing sometimes just makes me numb and I try to look away. I tell myself that everybody dies but somehow that doesn’t help make my experience any easier. When I think about death, from time to time, I think about life too. What it all seems to boil down to is, you’re here and then you’re not, and what happens in between is somewhat up to you.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

Some Things That Stay

It has been said that “everything changes, nothing stays the same.” I believe that to be true, however, I have noticed that at least in my case, some things stay the same longer than others. Beethoven’s nine symphonies, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, have remained the same to me over all the years of listening.

My recipe for Shrimp in Lobster Sauce has not changed for the last 10 years at which time I introduced some small chunks of water chestnuts as an additional ingredient to compliment the succulence of the shrimp with its crunchiness. I feel this addition is a plus for the dish.

And my love for food, good food and cooking remains alive. Although I haven’t made a Chinese banquet for eight recently I still make a banquet for two daily .The main could be steamed sea bass with ginger and scallions, linguine in clam sauce, or salt-baked squid. And when I serve the main dish to Llewellyn as she sits at our little kitchen café-like table, sipping some wine, she looks at the dish, and almost always says “how beautiful.“

But for now that silver clock on the wall, the one that Jacques Brel wrote about so mysteriously in his song “The Old Folks,” continues to tick, as he says, “waiting for us all.”

Len Berk worked behind the lox counter at Zabar’s for 26 years, and can be found there on Thursdays. He is the Forward’s lox columnist.


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