- Written by Arn Shein
Nothing about Ida really set her apart from most people-except for the harmless white lies she told about her age, and her quiet little chats with her friend, God.
Like most Russian Jews around the turn of the century, as depicted in the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof, Ida's family fled the country and immigrated to the United States. They settled in Brooklyn, where Ida grew up with her five sisters and brothers.
An outgoing woman with an abundance of energy, Ida also had an imaginative sense of humor. She was, for example, the first to make jokes about her nose, much too long for her diminutive five-foot, 100-pound frame. Its looks must have bothered her, though, for later in life she was to have successful corrective surgery. The moment she did, however, she boasted openly about her plastic surgeon and his wonderful nose job."
Since she was born on the final day of February, Ida went through life telling friends and strangers alike that God had singled her out by giving her one very special birthday every four years. It was a convincing and believable story—until people learned she was born in 1905, not 1904. Leap year, of course, falls in an even year and corresponds with all presidential elections. When confronted with this discrepancy, she shrugged it off.
"So sue me! I missed by a year!"
When she met Lou, fell in love, and married him in 1923, Ida was not a child bride of four, as she told everyone, but a somewhat more mature eighteen. Regardless of her age, her marriage to Lou ended a dream she had always cherished, the dream of becoming a professional dancer. She was good, they tell me. But when a girl got married in 1923 and began having children sixteen months later, dreams of a career vanished forever.
In the summer of 1936, Ida's seven-year-old son was stricken with a multi-syllabled infection and ran an improbable fever of 108 degrees. Three doctors told Ida and Lou not to expect their boy to make it through the night. She never left his bedside, nor did she accept the doctor's grim words of finality. "He'll live," Ida insisted. "I talked to God; he will not take my son away!"
Arn, his wife Mary Lou, Ida and Lou at a testimonial dinner for Arn in September 1959.
With Ida praying at his bedside, her son had a dream that night: he was trying to roll a snowball up a long, steep hill.
With each attempt, the snowball grew, and it became more and more difficult for him to reach the top. Time after time he came within inches of pushing the ever-growing snowball over the edge of that hill, only to have the weight push him back to the bottom. In his dream, Ida's son kept trying. As the snowball inched closer to the top once more, he heard his mother's words: "Please, God, don't take my son from me."
With a renewed burst of strength, he gave the huge snowball one final push. It went over the edge. He was soaked with perspiration from head to toe…but the crisis was over. The fever had broken.
It was to be two decades before Ida brought another urgent request to her friend, God. Her son and daughter-in-law, whom Ida adored, had been married five years when doctors told them they probably would never have children of their own.
"Don't worry about it," she told the young couple. "Go home and relax. I'm going to have a talk with God tonight. You're not only going to have a baby, you're going to give me a granddaughter."
Nine months later, Linda Lee was born. Within the next few years, two more girls would join the family. But the unusually warm, loving relationship that existed between Ida and Lindy was something very special and beautiful, like a gift from God.
When Lindy was six, she began suffering from high fevers, strange rashes, and extreme pain, all of which appeared and disappeared for no apparent reason. She spent much of her time in doctors' offices undergoing a variety of tests. After these proved inconclusive, her parents were advised to admit her to New York Hospital for more extensive testing.
Ida, of course, made that dreadful trip to the hospital with her granddaughter and Lindy's parents, who feared the worst. "Don't worry," she assured them. "I talked to God this morning. Lindy will not leave us."
Sure enough, Lindy's illness was diagnosed as chronic but not fatal. She had a severe case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The news was not good, but it also wasn't devastating. If anything, her sickness solidified the bond between the little gift and her grandmother.
Huge dosages of cortisone proved necessary for Lindy. The medication made her bloat up so that she looked extremely well-fed. Whenever Ida heard people innocently commenting on Lindy's appearance, the protective grandma lashed out at them. It was as though they were struck down by a five-foot, 100-pound cyclone. Unlike most cyclones, though, this one had a beautiful nose job!
Not long after Lindy's arthritis was diagnosed, Ida was feeling poorly herself. Reluctantly she underwent a complete physical. A few days later the doctor called Lou into his office to give him the bad news: Ida had an incurable cancer. She would survive six months at the most.
Lou decided not to tell her. He wasn't sure how his wife would react to the news. "And besides," he reasoned, "why should she suffer mentally as well as physically?"
Suffer she did, but she suffered in silence. She was playing the game. Since no one ever mentioned her cancer, neither did Ida. But she knew. She knew it from the very beginning.
The doctor's prognosis of six months proved optimistic, and that was a blessing. Ida, down to skin and bones, died just a few months later, in June 1964.
Lindy saw her grandmother one last time the night before Ida died. In a hoarse voice—so faint it was almost impossible to hear—Ida whispered into Lindy's ear:
"I love you very much. Don't worry about your pain. I talked to God today and it has been decided. I'm going to take your pain with me."
They were her final words.
No one took Ida's death any harder than her granddaughter. But the day after the funeral, Lindy's pain disappeared. She was to remain pain-free for nearly seven months—until New Year's Day—when the hurt and the swelling gradually returned.
Lindy has had numerous stages of remission during her lifetime, but none that lasted as long as the one she enjoyed in that leap year of 1964!
Arn, Mary Lou, Stacey (being held), and Lindy at the beach in 1964.
Many years have passed since I pushed that huge snowball over the edge of the hill…and since my daughter Lindy was born…and since my mother had her final earthly chat with God. Together, Lindy and I are looking forward to February 29, 1996, when we can wish her grandmother—my mother—a happy 23rd birthday!
Oh, sure! We know she was really born on February 28, 1905. But somehow we think her Friend will overlook the little white lie.