Barbara Masry and Phoebe Lazarus (Photo from Barbara Masry)

Another Life

When the pandemic entered our world, my life changed drastically from an active theater and film producer who commuted from a suburb in Long Island to the excitement of Manhattan, to a stay-at-home empty-nester. In Manhattan, I had participated in groups such as the Dramatists Guild, N.Y. Women in Film and Television, and others where I engaged in business affairs and financing. Now tales of railroad and subway crime discouraged me from going into the city for the professional meetings I used to engage in. It became necessary to find new ways of entertaining myself. Because financing an independent film was not a top priority after COVID, I lost the verve I had to raise the money needed for my independent film.

Now, new acquaintances, an occasional writers circle, on-line exercises, and nature became my world in addition to my domestic duties. I read in the newspaper about the word “languishing” as a description of creative artists who somehow lost the will or inspiration to continue creating new works. I hoped it wouldn’t be too long before I became re-inspired. What gave me pleasure was discovering the fun of a new game of tiles, Rummikub, which was easier than Bridge, and lighter than Canasta, both of which seem to be the rage among retirees. Finding friends to play Rummikub was not always easy and the online version of it wasn’t as satisfying. My husband was unable to play because of a visual disability, so I felt sort of deprived of fun until the day I learned of a Rummikub session at a local Social Center for retirees. I actually had gone to this Center to find a group for my husband to socialize with, though he had no interest in enrichment classes or socializing. So I marched into Room #2 at the center where I found an adorable cherub with a cluster of white hair on her forehead, slapping the Rummikub tiles on a table with a woman I learned was her aide.

“Can I join you?” I asked. “Sure,” she answered and continued moving around the tiles furiously.

Within a short while, I learned that her name was Phoebe and she was 102 years old. And while playing the game, she had a habit of breaking into song as I love to do, with her huge repertoire of oldies, jazz standards and arias in French and Spanish, as well as obscure Noel Coward beauties. She even sang my mother’s favorite song, “God Bless America.” Oh, my, how quickly I fell in love with Phoebe. I learned she had been a professor of college teachers studying to teach Special Ed, she wrote exquisitely, and had traveled for ten years with her husband to Africa when he worked as a photographer. In one of her essays she shared with me, I learned that she thought the most important things in life were music, writing, and collegiality.

Aha, so this was her secret formula to a full, long life! I can do that, I thought. I began to attend the center once or twice a week and joined Phoebe at a Wednesday morning singing group which became the highlight of my week. In my younger days I had been in musicals and imagined taking a singing class to find a repertoire of cabaret songs I could one day perform. And here was something wonderful that brought me together weekly, not only with Phoebe’s stirring, vigorous singing, but with a dozen more singers of diverse backgrounds who performed solos as well as chorus songs under the tutelage of a talented pianist, Mindy, who schlepped around a suitcase full of songbooks for us to choose songs from. I couldn’t believe how emotional I would become from watching so many different people performing solos in their native language as well as in accent-tinged English. Imagine a gentle, sweet Chinese woman performing “Danny Boy”? A swarthy Persian throwing his soul into what he translated to be a passionate broken-hearted love song. And to end each session smiling at Phoebe as we sang, “God Bless America.”

How lucky I was to find such a thrilling life in the quiet suburbs. Thank you, Phoebe and Mindy and all the singers who bring their experiences and sentiments into the Great Neck Social Center. It’s a wonderful world.

—Submitted by Barbara Sutton Masry

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