Life’s a Mixed Bag

Life’s a Mixed Bag

Who shall live? Who shall die? And what do weleave each other? Here are three whose lives touched mine, gone thisyear. Their names are part of my Yizkor prayers.

Elizabeth Hobson was lying in her bed at NewYork’s Lenox Hill Hospital when I saw her a few months ago. She had abroken hip and an upset stomach; she had lost more than 50 pounds.Her proud, athletic body had shrunk since Passover; her bright silverhair was dull. In a few weeks, she would be lying in a different bedin California, fantasizing madly through her pneumonia about escapingher captors by “jumping into the Danube.” But at this moment, the90-year-old woman everyone called Bozsi Neni, Aunt Elizabeth inHungarian, still had insouciance and verve to spare. Her pale handgripped mine, and she looked directly at me.

“Get yourself a sex life,” she said. “It’s notgood to be alone.”

She would know.

Life was a mixed bag for Bozsi Neni, a mix of luckand querulous misfortune, and it was getting hard to know which waswhich. Even her safe passage to America in 1947, after the war andbefore the Hungarian Revolution, came back to haunt her.

“I’ve had a sad life, but I’m not entitled to beunhappy,” she said. A few years ago, she began to write her stories.In one, she tells of a Nazi roundup, when she was herded onto theroof of a cattle car, forced to keep her balance by linking arms withnuns and prostitutes. In another, she tells of being among atransport of starving Jews all keeping their eyes on a basket offresh eggs hoisted precariously on a woman’s head. The train lurchesforward. The basket tilts. The eggs fall. Heartbreak.

Bozsi Neni was born poor, the only girl amongthree brothers (two would become international soccer stars) in asmall farming town outside Budapest; she was the prize pupil of theone-room schoolhouse. She was widowed, and married at least twice.She always had big dreams.

In America, Bozsi began as a seamstress to NewYork’s hoi polloi, and eventually ran her own sportswear line,designing clothes for lines like Lane Bryant and Catalina. Soon, shehad season tickets to the opera and belonged to the art museum. Shetook classes at the New School, vacationed at the Spa. She designedher own gowns, copies of the great European fashions; she collectedhats, and shoes.

For all this, she kept to herself. Then came thereal lucky break, if you ask me. One day, she called my girlfriendMarika right before her son, Jason, was born. “You have no parents,”Bozsi said. “I’m coming to help.”

Who could have detected the well of love beneathwhat appeared to be a frozen heart? Bozsi Neni, though never aparent, was a natural at grandparenting. She designed costumes andvelvet dresses for Marika’s daughter, Ariel. She diapered and changedJason and climbed into bed with him to read stories. On her visits,she made herself at home, sewing curtains and drapes for kitchen andbedrooms and saving fabric scraps for pillows.

She made demands in return. She sat at the holidaytable, snarling about the brisket, just like one of us. The house wasalways too cold; they were wasting money by leaving the lights on. Ifshe didn’t receive a phone call on her birthday, she wept.

When Bozsi Neni died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, sheleft word: cremation, with no religious ceremony. Well, she can orderus not to bury her, but she can’t restrict what I do with her memory.I’m dedicating my sex life to her.

Alfred Sheinwold, whose name is synonymous withprofessional bridge, died in March, at 85. Obituaries told of hislong life creating new “hands,” but less of the man himself, for whomthe word debonair was created. Born in London to a religious family,he was an amateur Shakespearean actor, a cryptographer during thewar, a Phi Beta Kappa in economics. He sang lieder . He was an extraordinaryjoke teller and an even better audience. For all the evenings myhusband and I spent with him and his glamorous wife, Paula, he neveronce made me feel that I, at 40 years younger, had no business beingwith the adults. He tolerated the fact that I didn’t know cards atall.

He was a newspaper legend, but that’s not all.Some men’s lives are markers. They know how to play the cards they’redealt. They walk the planet with ease. Alfred Sheinwold wasone.

I missed the tribute at the Improv to stand-upcomic Lotus Weinstock, who died of a brain tumor last month at age54. I hear David Zasloff played “My Funny Valentine” on the shofar,which was just right. She was indeed of two worlds, as she saidoften. When I met Lotus, she was reclaiming an interest in Judaism.Her given name was Marlene, which may be why we connected. She toldme she was going to have a reverse nose job, to put the bump back in.That’s how much Judaism meant to her, she said.

Lotus, who came from a wealthy Philadelphiafamily, believed in living by her passion. She was a pianist, asinger, an actor, a playwright, a pro. She turned my Passover sederinto a musical drama, playing and singing and directing all theparts.

She wrote a play about separation anxiety when herdaughter, Lily Haydn, now a 27-year-old gifted violinist, left forcollege. But in real life, it was Lily who protected her mother.”She’s going to watch you like a mother hen,” Lotus warned me aboutmy daughter. “She won’t want you out of her sight.”

About this and much more, Lotus had itright.

May their memories be for a blessing.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. All rights reserved by author.

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