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Four Score and Two Happy Birthdays
By Florence Holub
On Jan. 25, 2001, I celebrated my 82nd birthday! I am happy and relieved to be alive and kicking, and to announce that this birthday was a very enjoyable event...in spite of the lingering bitterness I felt over the results of the November presidential election.
To vent my frustration, on Jan. 20 I joined with thousands of San Franciscans who rallied at City Hall to protest the illegal (in my view) inauguration of George W. Bush. We chanted the slogans "Hail to the Thief" and "Jail to the Thief." And I wore a sign on my head with my succinct opinion on the matter.
I am proud to say that in my entire life I have never voted for a Republican. I was born on a potato farm in northern Idaho in 1919, and also lived through the difficult Hoover era. Our farm had none of the conveniences of city life, like indoor plumbing and electricity. We got our shoes from the Montgomery Ward catalog, whose pages we later used in the outhouse! My parents and grandparents labored endlessly to keep food on the table for my two brothers and me.
We were taught to kneel and say our prayers every night: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
This prayer was like a nursery rhyme until I was about 4 years old. But one morning I wandered sleepily into my grandparents' room and saw my mother and grandmother tearfully hovering around my grandfather's bed. They told me he had suffered a fatal heart attack. As I looked at the man who had been so generous and loving to me, his first granddaughter, and saw a lifeless body clad in a long flannel nightgown, I welled up with sadness. My grandfather's death was my first, never to be forgotten, encounter with death.
After that, the nightly prayer took on a much more worrisome aspect--that is, until my big brother taught me the lighthearted version every child prefers: "Now I lay me down to sleep, a bag of peanuts at my feet. If I should die before I wake, you know I died with a bellyache!"
When World War I ended, the Idaho potatoes my father had planted were no longer in demand overseas, because the Europeans could now grow their own. So in 1925 we packed up our Model T Ford and motored to San Francisco, where our Uncle Ed lived on 23rd Street in Noe Valley. There we were introduced to the pleasures and advantages of city life. One was public education. Another was the library. At Sunnyside School, my teacher, Miss Engler, instilled a sense of American history that is still with me today. The Noe Valley and Glen Park libraries created an enduring love of books.
Later, my brothers and I were sent to be confirmed at the Swedish Ebenezer Lutheran Church, which at the time was located on the corner of 15th and Dolores streets. (It burned to the ground some years ago.) I recall how each Saturday, I used to sit and listen to Pastor Lindquist, who was very old and boring, drone on about the events recorded in the Good Book.
Only a few of his sermons have stayed with me, but I can still recite the Lord's Prayer (as can most people raised in the Christian church), and I do remember the Ten Commandments. They were written on a plaque that hung on my wall, and they have always seemed like good advice to follow. (Unfortunately, recently there has been a flagrant disregard for the eighth, "Thou shalt not steal," especially in Florida and Texas.)
As teenagers, my brothers and I were fortunate, for our parents remembered their own restrictive childhoods and allowed us to sow our wild oats. However, our carefree existence was shattered by our mother's death in 1937. She was only 43 at the time, and suddenly we were forced to carry on without her gentle support and affection. Because she and I shared the same physical malady--a certain "digestive weakness"--I feared that I would inherit her short life span.
Almost unconsciously, I began to look for ways to prolong my life. When I got married and started raising a family of my own, I often turned to magazines for guidance. The magazines offered tips on diet and skin care, of course. But they also published "words to live by." A short poem in the Ladies' Home Journal has stuck with me and is a good recipe for lasting friendship: "I'm careful of the words I say, I keep them soft and sweet. I never know from day to day which ones I'll have to eat!"
In the '40s, I tended my father's paint store near Mission and 30th streets. One day, a nice old man came in, not to buy turpentine, but to sell sweepstakes tickets. He looked so much like my deceased grandfather that I bought one from him. It was not a winning ticket, but there was another reward. He proceeded to tell me how he had suffered an almost fatal heart attack, and after a miraculous recovery, he began to say a daily prayer. He handed me a slip of paper containing the words, "'I believe in the power of the living God.' Repeat three times," it said, "then ask for three things: life, health, and wisdom." It seemed like a positive practice, and I adopted it, feeling as if my grandfather had come back to visit me and given me the formula for a long, full life.
Fifty years later, I'm still here! One factor that can't be overlooked is my good-natured, compatible companion. Yes, my man Leo is still beside me to share these precious, waning golden years. Our sons have grown up, and we've been living in our own house in Noe Valley for 55 years. I have had the opportunity to keep abreast of the art world as a docent at the de Young Museum, and to contribute to a fine neighborhood newspaper (since 1982).
I keep my joints flexible with daily exercise and by climbing up and down our steep hill. Not long ago, when I reached the top of 21st and Sanchez, a delivery man had stopped in the middle of the intersection. He stared at this gray-haired woman and asked if I had actually walked up that hill. When I answered affirmatively, he exclaimed, "You must have the heart of a Mack truck!" Well, I have been doing it for almost 50 years! (Nowadays, I admit, I might have to take a short rest midway.)
I received another compliment last month, at a party Leo and I attended in Berkeley. There were fine wines, a delicious dinner, and stimulating conversation in the company of a delightful group of people and one pretty, pattering parrot (I didn't understand a word she said--my ears must be going!).
The subject of age came up, and when I admitted mine, everyone acted surprised to find me this old. As we were departing, one of the young women said she would like to grow old in the way I have.
"Just keep on living" was my advice. And never vote Republican!