A few years ago Sylvia and I decided to stop dyeing our hair. Our hearts might still be young and gay, but the rest of us was old and gray. We thought her auburn and my dark brown locks looked silly next to all those wrinkles.
I never expected to live this long. While still in junior high school, I envisioned a grand celebration at the turn of the millennium, but then I calculated: In 2000 I’ll be fifty-seven! An old stick. I couldn’t conceive of being able to enjoy a party, or anything else for that matter, at such an advanced age. During the uproar of the early 70s, while working with the Gay Liberation Front and Rat newspaper and living in self-imposed poverty in a slum apartment, I figured I’d likely be killed in some revolutionary struggle before turning 40.
The young can’t imagine what it’s like to be old, and that’s probably a good thing. It would put a damper on their spirits. But we elders remember being young.
I knew only a few elders during my elementary school years. We lived on Sterling Place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, and most people on our block were parents with small children—I don’t remember any old people in those apartments. Our grandmothers lived a couple of blocks away. They never dyed their hair—I don’t think it would have occurred to them. They were slow-moving and not much fun. Mom’s mother had come to the United States in her early 40s. Her few words of English and my few words of Yiddish limited our communication. Dad’s mother had arrived at age 21. Her English was good enough, and she was an excellent cook, but alas, an obsessive clean freak. Once when she had to look after me, she filled a bowl with soapy water and made me help her wash the walls.
Around the corner on Park Place was one of the last single family homes in the neighborhood, dwarfed by all the apartment buildings that had been erected for the growing population. A boy I was playing with told me that a witch lived there, and on another day I saw a white-haired old woman come out the door and walk back into what might have been her garden. She looked small and innocuous. A few centuries back someone like her might have been burned or hanged on the basis of that boy’s opinion, or the opinion of whoever taught him to say such a thing.
I was four and a half when I entered kindergarten. The teachers seemed to be mostly my mother’s age, or perhaps a few years older. The principal, on the other hand, must have been in her 60s. Mary Dalrymple was quite a bit taller than the “witch” on Park Place, but also had white hair. She was from a time when married women weren’t allowed to teach, and had made a career in education. Did she have a love life outside of marriage? I will never know.
Every morning she would turn on the public address system and broadcast the day’s announcements into each classroom, plus an inspirational Bible reading, and some classical music. Nowadays the public schools prohibit Bible readings, but hers were relatively inoffensive: the Creation story, the Ten Commandments, the 23rd and 24th Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, and I Corinthians 13. No war stories, no rape or incest. These readings were my first introduction to real poetry.
At two o’clock we had milk and cookies. Once I stole another kindergartner’s nickel so I could buy an extra cookie, and got caught and sent to the principal’s office. Miss Dalrymple chewed me out, reminding me that Thou shalt not steal. I was a good kid after that. I wasn’t even mad at her, but regarded her with a mixture of awe and affection.
One day we had a visitor, a white haired woman even taller than Miss Dalrymple. This was unusual. Outsiders never came into the school. I can’t remember a word she said, only that she radiated kindness, and I was truly in awe of her, possibly because I’d heard something about this particular lady from my parents. Imagine being a small child in Catholic school and the Virgin Mary walks in. That kind of awe. This was Eleanor Roosevelt.
A few years later, when my reading skills were adequate, I learned that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote a column, “My Day,” which was reprinted in our local liberal newspaper. Every day, when Dad brought the paper home, I checked out her column first. Many decades later, long after she died, I discovered that she and I had something in common besides left-of-center politics. While her husband was having an affair with his secretary, Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed a long and passionate relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok.