10.27.2007

My Nonagenarian Neighbor Downstairs or Marbles with Mussolini

It struck me, as we sat one morning, coffee in hand, the sun washing in through the picture window, blanketing the conversation.

She's 92 years old. That's amazing.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to sit down with my spitfire of a downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Inge Elsas. I've mentioned her earlier on the blog, but I thought she was in her early eighties. And I didn't know the full extent of her fascinating life story.

Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1915 to a Jewish family, Inge could not get her equivalent of a high school diploma in 1933 due to her religion as the Nazis rose to power. She left Germany and her family for Switzerland and subsequently ended up working as a governess for Italian counts. At one point she recalled playing with some of her charges at a palace in Italy, only to have Mussolini, who knew the count, crouch down and to play marbles with her and the children.

As the Nazis moved into Italy and foreigners were told to leave, Inge got a job as a governess with an American ambassador's family traveling around Europe. At one point she spent Christmas in Norway with the Ambassador Joseph Harriman's family. After later stints with an ambassadorial family in Brazil and in Washington, D.C., Inge moved to New Orleans where she headed a school for girls, given her background in childcare and special needs education and care.

She met her future husband there. Like her, he was a Jewish immigrant who was not a U.S. citizen. Somehow, he was drafted for World War II despite his non-citizen status for his language skills. While serving in Europe, he was captured and imprisoned in a German concentration camp. Unlike Inge's family, he survived and returned to the U.S. after the war when he married the girl he had left behind.

For fifty years, Inge has lived downstairs in the small flat here on Liberty Street. Her husband deceased for some years now, she lives alone and still rents. She can't bear to leave all the good memories in the place she raised her children. She loves the sun and has one little den room in the back full to the brim with items decked out in sunflowers. It's a mirror on her personality, which, despite her severe osteoporosis, is always cheerful and lively.

Her walls are hung with awards from various civic organizations and photos of the people she loves. One certificate denotes her status as a distinguished alumna of Tulane (Social Work degree). She still volunteers five days a week at various nursing homes, her temple, and other institutions, getting picked up by her "guardian angels," a group of friends who transport her since she never got her driver's license. She even teaches Bible classes to senior citizens - most of whom are Christian. "We look for the themes," she explains with a bit of a smile regarding the New Testament.

As she recounted the story of Katrina (luckily, the floodwaters never got up to the floorboards here), I sit in awe. She paints a vivid picture of the heap of junk and detritus outside in front of the house, the awful smells emanating from a destroyed fridge. Two of my own great grandfathers, who lived to be 95 and 97, welled up from my childhood. I could see Grandpa Isaac, age 90, carrying chunks of tornado-downed logs ever so slowly to the wagon along with my uncles on my grandparents' farm.

This is a person who has conquered age, scoffs at it, wobbles a bit without her cane as she gets up to wish me off to my studies but doesn't think twice about it.

"You are so quiet upstairs. And you are sure you can't hear my television when I have to turn it up sometimes? Then this is working out very well."

Yes, people with hearing aids make good neighbors. Not because parties go unnoticed, but because their lives are so very interesting, so hidden, so wrapped in the commonplace.