Thanksgiving is a perfect time to count our blessings. Doing that is easy for me this week, as yesterday marked the 93rd birthday of my remarkable mother Elsie. Thankfully, Elsie is going strong at 93 and a role model for how to age with dignity. I’ll draw from the example of my mom in reflecting on the gifts that old age can bring.
In The Book of Charlie, David Von Drehle draws wisdom from his neighbor Charlie Smith who lived to 109. One aspect of aging successfully is to transition gracefully from stage one of life to stage two. Per Drehle, “a life well-led consists of two parts. In the first, we are complexifiers. We take the simple world of childhood and discover its complications. . . . Then, if we live long enough, we might soften into the second stage and become simplifiers.” Charlie Smith found contentment by simplifying his playbook to these four words from his mother: “Do the right thing.”
Charlie indeed lived by that simple motto, but he elaborated. When he died, Charlie left behind a single sheet of paper on which he boiled down 109 years into an “operating code of life,” as summarized in an opinion piece in The Washington Post on May 28, 2023.
- As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl taught, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Charlie chose to be positive. He “didn’t have time to be sad.”
- “Smile often. Forgive and seek forgiveness. Feel deeply. Tell loved ones how you feel.”
- “Be soft sometimes. Cry when you need to. Observe miracles.”
Elsie’s approach to old age comes straight out of Charlie Smith’s playbook. Here’s how Elsie exemplifies the above three points in Charlie’s operating code:
- As a first-generation American, Elsie was raised by survivors like Viktor Frankl who trained her to approach life with a positive attitude. Rather than wallowing in self-pity that Hitler deprived them of their youth and murdered many of their loved ones, Elsie and her family counted their blessings for their life in America. Her Uncle Joe lived an enormously difficult life but always had a smile on his face, a song on his lips, and repeatedly said: “I never had a bad day in America.” Elsie lost a son, Irwin, to cancer when he was only 65, endured many other hardships, but she chooses to have a positive attitude every day. It’s a choice.
- Like Charlie, Elsie indeed smiles often, feels deeply, and tells us daily how much she loves us. Spoken in her deep southern accent, one of her favorite lines to me is “You are loved.” She told me she got that line from Lady Bird Johnson, and Elsie sounds just like Lady Bird when she says it.
- Observe miracles. Well, indeed the very fact that Elsie is alive is a miracle. The same Uncle Joe mentioned above is the patriarch of our family and the one who saved us from the Nazis. As a young boy, Joe (“Yossi”) Weinstock, made the courageous journey alone to America. He pushed a fruit cart from house-to-house in Montgomery, Alabama, saving enough to get a visa to bring over his parents and younger siblings, including Elsie’s mother Pauline. He couldn’t get his two older siblings on the family visa because they were married, so Hitler got them instead. But rescuing Pauline brought into the world the miracle of Elsie, now age 93! Elsie’s family tree now includes a spirited group of descendants who are giving our all to fight (once again) for the survival of the Jewish people.
So as generations of our family sit around the Thanksgiving table this year, it will be easy for us to be thankful for the miracle of our 93-years-young matriarch Elsie.
Marvin E. Blum
(1) Marvin Blum’s mother Elsie, celebrating her 93rd birthday this week, is a beautiful Thanksgiving blessing to the Blum family. (2) At the head of the table is Eliezer Weinstock, Marvin Blum’s “Zaidy.” To the right is Uncle Joe Weinstock (and his wife Rose), the patriarch who rescued his family from the Holocaust. Far right is Elsie Blum (now 93), her baby son Irwin, and her little brother Leonard (now Rabbi Oberstein). To the left is Elsie’s mother Pauline, Elsie’s father Meyer, and two more of Elsie’s brothers. This picture tells a miraculous story of survival.