Julia Bobkoff and her friend Leon remind us what it means to be a mensch
A white-haired man with a handlebar mustache ran back to open the door for me at the local five and dime: “We are a dying breed,” he said. “I’m glad some of you still exist,” I smiled as I brushed past him. He smelled of Old Spice and cigars, and there was that certain “something” in the twinkle of his blue eyes as he watched me pass that made me hold my head a little higher, as if I were Katharine Hepburn in a ‘40s film, gliding past, commanding his attention, worthy of his respect. I found his gaze refreshingly free of the salacity and careless disregard that so often taints male-female interactions. He was old enough to be my grandfather yet he let me know, in his own way, that he could still admire beauty in a younger woman without being lecherous or denigrating.
This may be considered a politically incorrect statement, but I do believe that women gain a certain confidence from the respect and admiration of men, which is just as valuable to their self-esteem as meeting their own benchmarks and leaving a legacy in the world. Is it wrong, then, for a woman to appreciate and value the courtesy and approval of a respectful man? And is it also wrong for a man to hold open a door for a woman in this day and age, letting her know she is worth honoring in some form?
Later that night, as I left CVS, I noticed the Italian husband and wife team, Anthony and Josephine, who run one of our town’s best pizza places. Every time I come in to buy my son a couple of slices, I am greeted by the same homey atmosphere. Bi-lingual relatives in white undershirts and aprons coated with pizza dust expertly flip and shape the dough as they look up at a tiny TV set perched in the corner that blasts Italian gameshows and soccer matches. There’s the olfactory delight of Josephine’s sauces simmering on the back burner (a secret family recipe), combined with the scents of olive oil, basil, garlic, and fresh formaggio and mozzarella cheeses. Josephine’s homemade soups could rival any top restaurant’s, and when Anthony slices a pizza with his swift, well-practiced strokes, you can hardly wait for him to slip it into your box.
Somehow, no matter how tired he is, Anthony always manages to greet his customers with a smile, comfortable chatting with all ranges and types of people—from children to businessmen and manual laborers—even keeping the rowdy teens in check with a raised bushy eyebrow. He often shares stories from his impoverished yet wonderful childhood in Italy or waxes poetic about classic movies and how they’ve sadly gone out of style. Sometimes, as he re-stacks water bottles in the case, I hear him singing under his breath in his native tongue, usually something humorous and a bit out of tune. Josephine breezes in during the late afternoons, always impeccably dressed, right down to her black stiletto heels. She answers the phone and takes orders, her finely manicured fingernails flashing as she writes. She presents herself so tastefully she might as well be running a five-star restaurant in Boston rather than a charming small town pizza store on the North Shore. Sometimes her handsome twins work for a few months and the whole family seems to move as one unit, the energy of the young and old perfectly combined, each respectful of one another, all hard working.
So what’s the secret to the peace and prosperity of this little pizza shop, no bigger than a walk in closet, yet somehow able to draw a loyal following throughout the town? Why do the people of all ages and walks of life keep coming back? Is it because Anthony seems to know their orders before they even voice them? “You want a large basil, pesto pizza right?” Or is it because the soup is served in square, white bowls with a bag of oyster crackers always on the side? If you sit there for a while, at one of the formica tables, you will soon see that Anthony still lights up when his wife bustles past, and the boys, though talented enough to work in much higher paying jobs, are willing to labor in the family business, loyalty and support clearly more important to them than any financial perks.
So back to that night at CVS, where I believe I saw the source of this family’s success demonstrated in a single act. I noticed that husband and wife were both clearly tired from a long day serving pizza and cleaning up the shop. Anthony was walking with slow steps behind Josephine, his arms loaded with bags. She had her chin tucked down into the collar of her fine coat, and her heels clicked on the asphalt. It was freezing out, but Anthony still ran ahead of her to the other side of the car and, shifting his bags to one hand, graciously opened her door. He waited patiently as she climbed in, tucking in the tails of her coat, then firmly shut the door. Satisfied, he ran around to the other side, his breath puffing in the air, threw his bags into the back seat, and got in.
How long had these two been married? At least three decades I’d imagine, judging by the ages of their sons, and yet Anthony still deferred to his wife, running around to help her in the cold, treating her like the best thing that ever happened to him—a woman of worth. He took care of her needs before tending to his own. It didn’t matter if he was tired; it didn’t matter that the days of dating were long over. Clearly, for Anthony and Josephine courtship and courtesy never ended. And here I was, sitting in my cold car unwilling to leave until I’d watched the entire scene play out, amazed at how a man can love a woman old-school style.
Anthony reminds me of my dear friend Leon who is 97. I often visit him in his nursing home, sitting in a seat of honor at his 1930‘s mahogany desk, writing down scenes from his life’s story in screenplay form. We are in the process of turning his life experiences as a naval officer during WWII into a movie. His story is much more than the re-telling of bombed ships, storms at sea, and rescued men. It is also, and perhaps much more importantly, the sharing of his love story with Velma, a Southern belle who ran the censorship bureau in Miami during the war, her two, neat blonde braids pinned on top of her pretty head.
Velma was a good Christian girl, daughter of Florida’s Attorney General Van Swearingen, who despite the prejudices of her day married a Jewish man and moved up north to live the life of a military wife. She was also unusual in her time for divorcing an abusive spouse and raising her daughter on her own. Leon was an unexpected blessing, showing up when she’d been living by herself for a long time, supporting her daughter through her work at the bureau and almost given up on love.
Their first date would forever linger in both their memories: a balmy, Miami night at the dance hall, moving under the flickering lights together to the strains of “Tangerine Dream,” one of Leon’s forever-favorite songs. Velma rarely drank, but that night she had a martini, or was it two, and opened up suddenly to this handsome man, telling him about her childhood on the wide verandahs of her palatial home near Lake Wale, her girlhood adoration of her powerful father, the black maids who raised her with a firm but loving hand, picnics on the wide lawns under the weeping willows, prayer meetings, and Wilbur—the boy who made her laugh but also derailed her life. There was a brief stint as a billboard model, her picture snapped as she stood on top of a ladder picking fruit, her golden head and bright smile surrounded by all the shining oranges. Her wholesome image was plastered all over the Interstate, and Leon had no idea that one day he’d marry the pretty girl, staring down at him, larger than life.
She was 18 when she faced an unplanned pregnancy, forced to marry Wilbur to hide the shame. Then followed the loveless and bitter years at the side of a mean-spirited man. This was the part of the story where she asked for the second drink, and after that she shared the rest, in an almost whisper, barely heard under the music of the big band. Leon was all compassion, but even then he knew how and when to shift her mood, brighten her eyes with stories of his own childhood and Moishe, his immigrant father, who understood life more in terms of the “old country,” Vladmir Russia, than Hartford Connecticut, with its straight streets, electric lights and big American cars. Moishe, who fell asleep snoring into his Yiddish paper every evening while Anya, his mother, kept telling him stories through the kitchen door, oblivious to his heavy breathing, as she folded cheese into her famous knishes. Later that night, Velma handed Leon the keys to her Plymouth coupe, and he happily drove her home, lifted her out in her silk dress and carried her in his arms the door. Her little daughter, Jene, looked out from the upstairs window, listening to her mother’s flustered apologies for being so unsteady from just a few drinks, then hearing Leon say, “Don’t worry, honey, you were wonderful,” watching him set her down gently on the pavement, take off his Navy cap, and lean down for a long kiss her mother would not soon forget. Even that night Leon and Velma knew that time was of the essence; he’d be shipping off to Beloit in the morning and war was always pushing and changing everything. He promised most earnestly to write. Even more than that, he gave his most solemn word to never leave her, nor forsake her.
And he kept this word his whole life, never allowing his parents’ disapproval of their interfaith marriage to prevent him from tying the knot, and then later, through the long separation of wartime, writing her love letters and gathering hers at every port, so eager to read them in his little bunk, sadly unable to be at her side when she gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Then, when the war was over and the letters neatly tied with string and placed in a box, he continued to work at sea, sometimes gone for months at a time.
There were happy, golden days when he was on leave … they had a son … Christmas was celebrated in style on board the Taconic all strung with lights, and then those times apart again, followed by a sudden release from active duty in 1954 and the difficult transition to civilian life. Who was he without his Navy cap? What was he to do with all that nautical knowledge? Velma helped him find his footing, just as he once helped her out of the dance hall and into her car. She carried him just as he once carried her. She nursed his sick mother, moving them all into the home in Hartford. And the barriers between religion and culture were washed away as a beautiful Southern belle gave a tired, old Jewish mother a sponge bath and helped her into bed, fed her spoonfuls of soup, and encouraged her daily. How could Anya reject the shiksa now? Leon’s choice was suddenly understood and cherished.
The years passed, a son followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the Navy to fight in Vietnam. There was a private prayer of gratitude offered a few years later, at the foot of Leon and Velma’s bed, when he safely returned home. Somehow, slowly, step by step, Leon and Velma’s faiths merged. They were truly one now, serving as much in the church as any temple. Marriages and grandchildren followed. Every morning at dawn, husband and wife arose and prayed for their family, calling out for each by name. Then there came the season when a cloudiness filled Velma’s mind. The young girl’s braids that eventually gave way to the elegant woman’s pompadour, were now soft tendrils of white hair falling about her face, but her eyes still had moments of clarity, when the blue sharpened like an April sky and she could recall that Leon was actually her dear, sweet husband and not some strange man sitting in the corner watching her. Once, when he tried to help her get dressed for church in the morning, slipping her frail limbs into one of her fine, tailored dresses, she threw her fists against his chest, and called out angrily, “Leave me alone Wilbur. Don’t hurt me anymore.” She had never spoken much since that night in the dance hall about her first husband and Leon never pressed, but for a moment he glimpsed the struggle of the girl he’d rescued so long ago.
I started writing Leon’s story not long after Velma passed away. When I first put words to paper the memory of Leon buttoning up her coat at the end of a church service was still fresh in my mind, along with the protective manner in which he took her arm in his and shepherded her, step by shaky step, down the aisle and out the door. There were also the subtle and clever ways in which he covered her odd statements in conversations and those tender looks he bestowed even when she seemed so lost in the confusion of her memories and far, far away. I will always recall how, near the end, before she went into the nursing home, she kept longing to go to her father’s grave, railing at Leon to drive at a moment’s notice miles and miles to Florida so she could put flowers on his headstone and speak to him again. The last time Leon ever laid eyes upon Velma he thought he would have more time, at least a few more days. He leaned down to stroke her head sunk into the nursing home pillow and kiss her goodbye. The staff stepped respectfully back into the shadows and I don’t believe they heard him say what he always said, what he had said from the very first night they met: “I shall never leave you, nor forsake you.” I know these last words because he shared them with me and I wrote them down. These were his parting gift to Velma before he received that unexpected call in the night from an on-duty nurse, the blunt and dreaded news he’d been bracing himself for, but could never really prepare to hear, that his dear sweet Velma Van Swearingen, his golden-headed billboard girl, had passed on to a better place, where the orchards are always loaded with fruit and “Tangerine Dream” plays day and night.
So when I come to visit Leon on winter afternoons, when he gifts me with talismans from the past, like his 1943 dog tags, which were still hanging in his closet (what an honor) or entrusts a box to me of his still perfectly preserved love letters, tied with the same brittle twine, so I can sort through them and gather paragraphs for posterity, yes, when he leans back in his armchair and slowly opens up about his life, I don’t take any of it, not one, single word, for granted, because it is rare, very rare, to sit in the presence of a man like this. For Leon is the type of mensch who models love and respect for women by actions as much as words. When I am cold he rises to offer me his coat. It is still in good condition; for all I know he bought it back in 1963. When I am hungry he insists I take home his tin of Christmas cookies, the very one his daughter gifted him with and the only snack he seems to have in his tiny kitchen. And when I have a problem in my life, something that’s hard to discuss with a man, I somehow find it easy to confide in him, to seek his gentle yet firm heart, and to allow him to weigh the matter and guide me, the way he once used his sextant to chart the stars, or navigated the USS Farquhar DE-139 through stormy, North Atlantic waters, in a time of war. And when his old clock chimes the hour, and it’s time for me to head back home, after I’ve shut the laptop and put away his documents and newspaper clippings, when the snow falls hard past the windows and he feels that desire to break from the past and play a game of cards with his friends down below, or do some singing in the communal room, that’s when I know I must allow Leon to stand up first and lead me to the door. He must be first because once, when I visited him some time ago, I put my laptop in the bag, grabbed my coat, and headed for the door ahead of him, hoping to save him the effort of opening it for me. Somehow I thought this gesture would show him courtesy, especially with his arthritic legs, but my intentions were clearly misunderstood. He brushed ahead of me on wobbly legs. “Allow me, please!” he said, reaching almost angrily with his age-bruised hand for the knob. For a moment we stood there, staring at each other, and I saw that his eyes were wide awake and blazing.
To a member of the greatest generation I had made a serious faux pas. This was not just anyone about to open the door for me. This was Commander Gilman, a man who rescued burned and bloodied men from the waters after a German torpedo strike, and wrote to his wife afterwards in looping, boyish script: “all I can say is that Sherman was really right when he said that war is hell … it all seems so senseless … yet we must keep on fighting and no matter what we will have to see this war through until the very end.” I took my hand off the knob and let him open it for me. Seeing my coat still in hand, he took it and held it out so that I could slip my arms through. I put my laptop down and felt his stiff fingers work determinedly to get each of my arms into the sleeves. This was not about efficiency; this was about love. After some time I felt my coat finally settle on my shoulders and I buttoned it up. I slung my bag over my shoulder and turned to thank him. I could clearly see, though, that this was not necessary. Besides, today he was going to follow me to the lower floors. As he turned the key in the lock, I admired his latest painting propped on the shelf beside his door: a jaunty ship done in child-like watercolors—brilliant, Pacific sky, exploding sun. He’d taken up painting with many of the women in the home and it was now one of his favorite hobbies, a way to express the inner thoughts he’d often kept to himself. He wanted to press the elevator button. I let him. He held the door for his neighbor, Betty, who wanted to get in at the last minute. He introduced us: “This is my good friend and biographer, Julia. She’s writing my life story.” Betty smiled and nodded but I wondered just how much she really understood. We traveled down quietly. Just as the doors shut behind us Betty turned to me and said, “Leon is such a wonderful man.”
Out in the lobby we were greeted by the sound of old ‘40s tunes, a chorus of young, yet old voices, singing with great enthusiasm: “There isn’t any end to my devotion/It’s deeper dear by far than any ocean.” I glimpsed through an open doorway rows and rows of snowy heads bent over their song sheets, a few standing, most sitting or slumped over in their wheelchairs. I could sense the music pulling Leon but he wanted to walk me, in his usual fashion, all the way to the front door and see me out. This time I let him be in charge and press the button on the automatic door. From that point forth I always deferred to him, and this made him very happy. His shoulders seemed a little straighter. As he pressed that button and the glass doors slid open it was as if his whole body became young again and his smile beamed: “Thank you for letting a man be a man. Thank you for letting me cover you. Thank you for allowing me to know that I still count in this world and can contribute. It may take me a while to get to the door but I’ll be damned if I don’t get there and usher you out in style.” When I turned to wave goodbye he gave me the old Navy salute and said in his customary fashion: “Carry on.”
I watched him turn then and walk slowly back towards the music. I am sure he would take his place in the front row (for I often saw him there) singing with the best of them, the greatest generation indeed: “Day by day I’m falling more in love with you/And day by day my love seems to grow.” So when I really think about the simple act of any one of us holding open a door for another, especially someone much older holding it for the next generation, it reminds me of that line in scripture: “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God …” for doorkeepers leave a legacy and make a difference in this world much more powerful than they may ever, really know.
Top and bottom photos courtesy of author; Middle photo courtesy of Leon Gilman.