"You gotta enjoy your life," she tells me, worried that I'm overextended. "Don't rush, rush, rush. Learn to enjoy while you have your health." Though she's slowed down recently, having stopped her volunteer work at the local hospital and cut out her weekly dancing with "the Dolls" for fear of another fall, Pearlie's great enthusiasm for life is undeterred by age. "I think if you keep yourself involved in lots of things and don't concentrate on yourself, it helps a lot," she says. "It's good to have outside interests, to keep the mind busy. It's like a sore in your heart to not be involved.
"Life is great, if we could only have it without pain," she says. "What's bad with life? There can be lots of fun in this world, lots of enjoyment--air to breathe, food to eat, places to go. What do we know what we have in the other world? Nothing."
Her mind is razor sharp, especially when I ask about her past. She conjures up vivid memories of having her tonsils extracted ("just yanked out with, like, pliers, but then I got to get ice cream with my father on the trolley"), of asking advice from the local health department on how to take care of her first baby because she wasn't sure if feeding him spinach at three months was advisable, of going through menopause ("The doctor said to me, 'Just lie down, put a cold compress to your head and chest, and relax.' And I didn't have any problems: It didn't last too long, about two years"). I survey her tiny apartment, decorated with recycled furniture from my parents' house, including the vanity table from my bedroom when I was a girl. Over the peephole to her door, she's hung a macrame object and little purple pompoms.
"That's a shmtchek , shmtchkie --a thing," she says, explaining this all-purpose Yiddishism (pronounced shmitch-eck and shmitch-key ) as a whatchamacallit. "If you want a hand, you say, 'Give me that shmtchkie .' " She smiles mischievously. "Grandpa used to call this a shmtchkala ," she says, pointing to her crotch.
I ask her to please not turn this into an X-rated interview. " Shmtchek can be any part of your body," she says.
Clearly, she was mad about Moe, my lusty grandfather who'd give me rides on his feet and make his biceps dance to the strains of Russian folk songs. She invokes his memory, his joie de vivre , whenever possible. When my younger sister recently reported how wonderful, kind and supportive her new husband is, Pearlie asked only one question, a la Moe: "Is he a good lovah?"
A BUBBE QUESTIONNAIRE
Do you have any famous relatives or ancestors?
Tessie: None of them were in jail. To be famous? I can't recall.
Pearlie: No, except on Grandpa's side. His sister's daughter was married to a gentleman who was a senator. I forget his name. That's the only outstanding one.
What is your favorite health, beauty or fitness tip?
Tessie: Beautiful I was never. I'd rather go for health than beauty. But I can't control my health anymore. I like to be clean, neat. Fancy? No. Of course, I have my hair done and nails done every Saturday at Danny's. I'd rather look decent. So people wouldn't say, "That old lady, she looks such a shlump !" As for health, I just ate some potatoes.
Pearlie: When I look in the mirror, I'm not happy to see the wrinkles. The skin changes so much in your 90s. The whole face changes. I don't know how to stop it. I just don't want to get to look any worse than I am now. (Laughing.) Because I don't want to look scary to my great-grandchildren--and it's bound to happen. Your face becomes crepey. Your eyes become smaller. Your nose becomes longer. I put on sunscreen when I go out. Just a little powder and lipstick. I can't pluck my eyebrows because the skin gets red and sore. I do the best I can. I brush my hair and wash it. Otherwise, no secrets. I never was one to stay in the beauty parlor. As long as I take a shower twice a day, keep myself clean. Not be a shtunk , smelly.
The word that best describes you is:
Tessie: Not a blabbermouth. My children say critical. It's easier to criticize than be correct.
Tell me the most unusual things about yourself or unusual things you have done.
Tessie: I got married again. Maybe I shouldn't have. I don't know.
Pearlie: I like to tell dirty jokes, a simple joke. It's nice to make people laugh.
How do you like to celebrate your birthday?
Tessie: No wishes, no shmishes. That's all. I don't tell anybody it's my birthday. What's the difference? Those years that come, I don't appreciate it. I can't do what I want. I don't enjoy with the old age. To me, I'm not that thrilled about it. I'm living the longest of anybody in my family. So? Pish posh.
Pearlie: To be with the family. Oh yeah.
Can you love your children too much?
Tessie: There is no such thing to love children too much. No. It's not possible. Or is it?