By the time Pearl was 13, she had to leave school to help support the family. Before she learned shorthand and worked as a stenographer, she sewed labels into coats for $5 a week. When she needed a winter coat, a family friend suggested she could get one wholesale from Morris Feldman, who worked on Second Avenue and specialized in tucking and tailoring coats for heavyset women.
"When I first met him and he invited me up to his shop, he took my measurements--and he never tried anything," she remembers, dreamily. "He was a total gentleman! I always respected him so much for that!" She fell in love instantly; he was so handsome--blue eyes and thick, wavy hair--and he taught her how to tango. Her mother disapproved, since he was Russian-born, not American. Pearlie couldn't help herself; they had three children, a son and two daughters--a stockbroker, a schoolteacher and an artist.
Not that everything was idyllic. She endured her husband's love for schnapps, cigars and horse races and the shock of her son's death, at age 53, from a heart attack on a subway. At the funeral, Moe had no idea their son had died, since he had suffered a series of strokes. Three years later, after nursing him through a terminal illness, Pearlie moved West to be closer to her older daughter, my mother.
Just how Pearlie managed to live this long is a question she's often asked, since she's outlived everyone at the Silvercrest. "You got to listen to your body," she says simply, "like even if you get a corn, you soak your feet." There are some dietary concessions, including the no-cholesterol cupcakes. But truth be told, she's a big proponent of butter, of an occasional glass of wine and of gargling with Cepacol at the first sign of a sore throat. And exercise is important: She walks to the Third Street Promenade daily, jogs in place in her apartment and takes an exercise class for her arthritis twice a week.
"I really think as long as you can move, you should keep on moving," she says. "Because when you sit, everything sits with you. When you hit 92, especially, the body sort of lets you know, 'Ah, you're getting old, take it easy. We're tired of taking care of you, the bones.' " Most recently, she realized her taste buds had stopped working.
But back to the longevity question. "Oh, I think it's the family that makes me live this long," she says of her nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. "There's so much enjoyment in this. I couldn't ask for anything more. No money. No jewelry. No anything could compete with the wonderful family I have." I assure her she doesn't have to say this for my benefit.
"I say thank you to God for letting me live this long. And anything He gives me over that, I thank him again twice. But I want to tell you something," she adds. "If you're a good person when you're young, you're a good person when you're old. And if you're a nasty person when you're young, you're a nasty person when you're old. Character doesn't change. Age don't change character."
What does Tessie think of Pearlie and Pearlie of Tessie?
Tessie: I like her very much. I admire her very much. She is a different type than I am. I grew up in Europe. She grew up in America. I don't know which way is better or worse.
Pearlie: Tessie? She is a good person, a very interesting woman. She has a different attitude about life. She is looking toward death. She thinks it would be a relief. I don't figure that. I want to last as long as I can. I want to be on this Earth. She says it would be great if she died in her sleep. But life is so interesting, you know? So much change. You find it interesting enough to want to stay.
The status of women in Judaism has always been problematic to me. Things are changing, of course, but not by much. It takes a lot to undo 5,000 years of put-downs. Just take a look at the Book of Leviticus and the childbirth purification ritual: A woman who bears a son is unclean for 40 days thereafter, whereas a woman who bears a daughter is unclean for 80 days. Exactly how this hideous little 40-day difference can possibly be accounted for is unclear to me. Can anyone in his right mind really believe that girl babies are somehow dirtier than boy babies?
Here's my grandmothers' feeling about it: Gender shmender.
Still, to explain the exalted-cum-pampered status of males in my own family, Tessie offers a story. "My grandmother Toby, the one that I'm named after, she had a daughter. Then she had a boy. The boy died young. She had another baby, a girl. Another baby, a boy, passed away. The boys couldn't live and the girls lived. She already had three daughters and not even one son. And it bothered her.