I met Miss Adele during my geriatric clinical at a local nursing home. She was alert and oriented with occasional periods of forgetfulness.
Miss Adele was born in Manhattan, the second of 6 children, and grew up on E. 81st St. near a bakery. She described it as a tough neighborhood menaced by street gangs who extorted and held up local shopkeepers. She seemed surprised when I told her that gangs still prowl the streets of New York. She started working at age 14 and eventually became a milliner, designing and making women’s hats. “I started out making hats in the bathroom and getting $1.00 a hat,” she said. “Eventually I opened my own shop and was getting $25.00 a hat.” She and her second husband owned a large hotel in Lakewood, NJ.
Lakewood is located about 60 miles south of New York City. From the early 1900’s to perhaps after World War II, it was a popular resort for New Yorkers looking for fresh, pine-scented air and what was then peaceful, rural scenery. Several large hotels sprang up to cater to these tourists, many of whom were Jewish families. Today, the few remaining hotels are mostly rest homes, but Lakewood is home to a large, bustling ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.
“Ours was the second largest hotel in Lakewood. We used to have 3, maybe 400 guests at a time,” Miss Adele said. “And every year, when they came back, I would remember what was going on with them. We’d have people staying over the holidays, and I would send them home with a roast turkey so they wouldn’t have to cook when they got home. I paid my chef $900 a week and I’d go to New York to get stuff I couldn’t find around here.” She said that the hotel was a popular spot for day trips, with guests coming for meals and a show before returning home. Later on, she explained, she installed an indoor swimming pool, steamrooms, and bowling lanes in the basement.
“I decorated that hotel with old furniture which I fixed up and reupholstered. We had a dining room that seated 800 people. I made it into a million dollar hotel, and then my sons bankrupted me,” she said.
Miss Adele was articulate, tough, and cynical, with the impression that sometimes she felt she had experienced too many of life’s ironies and absurdities. Maybe you don’t live to be 94 with most of your mind intact without being tough and flinty. She was stooped and shuffled when she walked, but her brown eyes were lively and bright. Her chart showed that she had been married 5 times and had 3 sons, one of whom died some years ago. She would spend a great deal of time in her room, often in bed, although she appeared to be able to walk short distances and use the bathroom. When I asked Miss Adele if she ever participated in any of the nursing home’s activities, she replied, “Not very often, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get to the bathroom in time and I’ll have an accident. I think I’d just lose it if that happened in public.”
“I don’t recognize myself in the mirror,” Miss Adele told me. “I used to be a good-looking woman. Now I see an old hag.” As I istened to her, I sometimes wondered how much of her reminiscing was reality, and how much was the confabulation of a frail, elderly lady emembering a far different time. “I wish I could write a book,” she said. She showed me a picture she took out of a National Geographic showing women at a church service wearing fancy hats, like the kind she used to make. “I want to glue it on cardboard and frame it,” She shot me a look and said, “You probably think I’m meshugge but I want to enjoy the time I have left,” she said.
So one day I drove past the old hotel, still standing where Miss Adele described it. It was now a dormitory for Hasidic students attending the local rabbinical seminary. A large white building which occupied most of the block, it was just a shadow of what must have been a glamorous past, yet the wedge-shaped aluminum awning over the front steps still remained, a remnant of its past Art Deco grandeur. Hasidic kids played on steps where maybe 50 or 60 years ago, men in dinner jackets and women in evening gowns stepped out from the dance floor for a bit of fresh air. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the original fixtures, like the pool and the bowling lanes (if they ever existed) remained in the interior. In its heyday, the hotel most have looked like the old hotels in Miami Beach which since been restored. Miss Adele and her hotel were faded reminders of a Lakewood which was once a thriving resort.
I never told Miss Adele about my trip past the old hotel. It would have served no useful purpose. Sometimes it’s best to let some hings stay in memories.