September 19, 2018

100 Years of Fading Memories

Sitting with Ray Walker, a woman just shy of her 100th birthday, in a dreary senior citizens’ home, I realize that trying to catch her in a sufficiently lucid state to conduct an interview with her, this might be as good as it gets. And it isn’t very good. She has trouble remembering where she is right now, let alone recalling the places she has been in her life.

She looks at me, her expression both wistful and crestfallen. “So many things are not so important anymore,” she says. 

Luckily, I know her intimately. The story goes that Walker fell off the bus and into my arms. It happened on Purim, after she made aliyah from the United States 11 years ago. A bus on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street screeched to a halt and the driver opened the door, flinging Ray onto the curb where I was standing.

Walker’s glasses were smashed, her face was scratched, and the rest is history. We became fast friends. Until recently, I’d never felt the yawning abyss of the decades that separate us. She is, for all intents and purposes, my peer. We are kindred spirits in many ways. We email each other haikus and relay our thoughts in rhyme because ordinary speech is so, well, ordinary. 

Walker was born with a shock of red hair on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe on March 19, 1919. Her father worked in a factory making coats. Her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship, was a homemaker. Of her two sisters and two brothers, Ray is the only one still alive. 

In her 70s, Walker moved to New York’s Orthodox enclave, Borough Park, in Brooklyn. Coming to the Holy Land seemed an obvious next step. Ask her now, though, and she cannot remember the exact reason she came to Israel.

She was a teacher, a job she called “great fun.” She was a hippie before the word even existed, traveling around the world, adhering to a strict vegetarian diet, eating superfoods decades before doing so became a thing, and never throwing out anything. She married in her 20s and a decade later she divorced. She never had children and never remarried. She once told me that her poems were her children. 

Walker makes everyone smile with her poems. On any particular day, no matter how forgetful she’s feeling, you can bet your bottom dollar she’ll remember every word of her poems. And the lyrics to songs by the Rat Pack. When times are tough, Walker  will smile brightly and sing, “Now nothing’s impossible, I’ve found for when my chin is on the ground/ I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.”  

She became religiously observant fairly late in life. In her 70s, she moved to New York’s Orthodox enclave, Borough Park, in Brooklyn. Coming to the Holy Land seemed an obvious next step. Ask her now, though, and she cannot remember the exact reason she came to Israel. She recalls a poem she wrote, five, 10, or was it 20 years ago? 

I had a thought…
Where did it go?
What was I saying?
Oh yes… “and so…”
Again I forgot it!
What’s with my mind!
Lately it’s been…
So absent, I find.