“It feels like yesterday that I left James Monroe High School in the Bronx. Now, some 65 years later I am here among you celebrating my graduation.” My great aunt, Sylvia Levy, wrote these words in 1994 in what I soon realized was her 1994 high school graduation speech.
She explained, “I left high school with less than a year to finish and always regretted it. This was the time of the great depression and during the intervening years I had to work to support myself and my family. In 1941 I got married and shortly thereafter my husband was drafted into the Army. After the war we raised two sons. However, I didn’t neglect my education – music, literature and art became subjects of great interest to me. The depression, WWII and the tasks of daily life kept me from going back to complete my education. Nonetheless it was in my always in my thoughts that one day I would finish high school.”
I found these words the other day, just before what would have been Sylvia’s 105th birthday. I knew she earned her high school degree deep in her senior years, but had not thought about that ‘til I discovered the folded papers of her speech. Reading the edited cursive, I heard her voice, giving her opinion and history to a group of likely much younger students – the perfect scene for a woman who spoke her mind and loved history!
Aunt Sue as we called Sylvia was my grandmother’s next younger sister – the second of four girls — and my mom’s favorite aunt. She spent lots of time with Mom and her brother, my Uncle Fred, when they were young. A truly interesting person, Aunt Sue once had a store in the West Village, shared her love of jazz with my uncle, loved to sing, followed politics, and told a story well, replete with dramatic flourishes and her own brand of certainty. She was never shy about speaking her mind!
Chop Suey — as my sister and I called her for some reason I no longer remember — loved plants and flowers. For as long as I can remember she made terrariums, pressed flowers and made beautiful cards and pictures with those pressed flowers, cards and pictures which were then sent to family and friends across the country.
When she and Uncle Len retired, they knew what they wanted. Uncle Len wanted to fish. Aunt Sue wanted nature. So they left their Bronx apartment and moved to Fishkill, New York. They moved to a small place surrounded by grass and near a stream. He fished every day. She planted a garden outside their door.
When I was 15 or so, my mom brought my friend Lynn and me on a road trip. We visited Vassar College, went to the Rhinebeck craft fair, and spent the night with Sylvia and Leonard. It’s the garden that I remember most from that visit, specifically, the slugs. Sure, we talked and laughed, and Lynn and I slept in cozy sleeping bags on their floor, But it was the slugs, and the small jar lids filled with beer that intrigued me. Beer? Slugs? Apparently the beer attracted the slugs, and then the slugs slithered in and died – and didn’t eat Aunt Sue’s plants. That was cool!
Over the years, Uncle Len died and Aunt Sue and I talked more and more. We visited and corresponded. We sat up late nights on the phone and discussed books, friends and family history. She always wanted to know more about the immigration of her mother, my great grandmother Ida Schul. I tried to help her research. She told stories and I took furious notes. Finally I even visited Kolboszowa, Poland, where Ida was born and lived until she left for America at 16. Together we wanted to solve the mystery of my Grandma Rose’s birth father whom Grandma never met. We were family detectives energized by the search. At the same time, Aunt Sue did her darnedest to keep the family connected and cheer us all on. She and Leonard – not religiously observant Jews in any way – even came to my first High Holy Day pulpit, dripping with sweat and beaming with pride in an un-air-conditioned community club house on a hot, hot night as I delivered one of my first sermons.
I never heard Chop Suey deliver her graduation speech. But I could hear her the other day as I looked at the picture of her smiling broadly under her mortar board: “If there is a message to be gleaned from this, it is — Don’t give up — Stay in school — Further your education, no matter what the cost. Make the most of your lives!! You are the future of our country and can help make this world a better place!”
At that moment, all I wanted was to time travel back to Aunt Sue’s garden, speech in hand, watch for slugs, and ask her how many questions about how she made the most of her life.