I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,/ Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,/ Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;/ But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,/ Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:/ I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. – Ernest Dowson, “Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae”
My oldest youngest hundred and two year old friend, my teacher, my mentor, my favorite role model, is Bel Kaufman, grandaughter of the beloved Yiddish story teller Sholom Aleichem, author herself of the bestseller Up the Down Staircase, and Love etc, and stories and essays that make people laugh and cry. Bel can still wear her high heels and tango, making everyone jealous with a continuity of the sensuality that made me realize there was something to learn from sexy elder women before she was even an elder. I had seen it in the halls of the High School of Performing Arts in New York City where I first heard her deep purring growl, reciting “In the room, the women come and go…” when I was fourteen. She recites “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. …” and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Prufrock,” and “Who’s that tapping, tapping at my chamber door…” all from memory. She shines the poet in me. And loves that me who has watched her since I was that once very eager and lyrical fourteen.
Not slowing down a bit at her young centenarian age, she has just published a book this year—of her collected short stories—intriguingly titled La Tigresse: and Other Short Stories.
Born in Berlin, raised in Odessa, Bel came to New York to follow in the footsteps of her famed grandfather. Now, she’s all in turquoise, and a thumbnail-size aquamarine decks her right bright rose-colored manicured hand. She’s all love-gaze, and silk scarved, and she holds the coquette stance of a hundred-and-two-year-old damsel named Bel, who tells only truths. She has no time for anything else. “You look more beautiful than when you were a hundred,” I say. “If I don’t look beautiful now, when will I?” she spars. “Promise me to laugh and be happy.” I promise. This could be the last time…or almost. “I’m tired of being a hundred and two. A hundred was good.” Laughter teases at the frayed threads of the heart I’ve tightly sewn for my lunch with Belochka, at high noon on the 12th of June, 2013.
She orders a waffle and a black and white milkshake, careful not to disturb her bright lipstick as she delights in the sweetness. I’ve brought her a street sign from Saint Germain, 6eme arrondisement, in Paris. Every time she was meant to visit me, there was a crisis. So today we make the journey over a New York City lunch. She reaches for my hands. She has something else to feed me. Empathy. “When I was a small child, very small, I saw a little boy bleeding profusely, his knees were gashed and the blood pooled around him and he was crying. I understood that he was crying because he was hurt badly, and then suddenly, I knew that if I was gashed and bleeding—I would hurt and I would cry just the same as he was. Empathy. Not sympathy. I felt what he felt.”
Bel doesn’t ask if I understand. Love merely pools like healthy blood between us. None of it—wasted. It makes the day dance and dip like her tango, two years ago, on her hundredth birthday. She is my oldest, youngest friend, and I am blessed to love her.