You can tell something of a person's life from an obituary, but one hundred words
could not possibly do justice to Rose Chodrow. It's been about twenty-five years since I began
to visit 85-years-old Rose weekly in her apartment in South Orange. I was an experienced teacher
and administrator at the time, and I devoted many hours to my three young children in addition
to my thriving tutoring practice, which was the equivalent of a second job. I had just finished
earning a second Master's Degree at NYU Tisch. Still, I wanted to add a new element to my
life--something by way of community service.
I contacted a County Office to see if I could help those who are blind or at least
vision-impaired. Why this particular avenue? I don't know--except that I knew
how much I valued my own vision (I'm absurdly phobic when it comes to anything
that might depict or cause eye damage as my family can attest to). I thought, then,
that I might assist someone who also valued vision but was not as fortunate as
I have been.
I was set up first with someone locally, but after one or two visits the person I read
to no longer needed my services. I then got connected to Rose, so I drove up to
South Orange to see if we were a match. Rose lived in a modest apartment complex.
I'd take the elevator and walk down the hall. She'd leave the door unlocked for me
and when I arrived I would find her sitting in a chair. There would be kitchen smells.
The air was redolent of foods that I was not accustomed to eating. She might be
listening to Books-on-Tape or have the television on, but when I would arrive we
would sit facing each other at a small table with a lamp. Sometimes, she would
want me to read a book, but usually she wanted me to read The New Yorker magazine.
I was a little nervous at first. Rose seemed like an exceedingly bright woman, and she
was very, very opinionated. She'd ask me about my school and what I was teaching, and
she'd fill me in on her doctor's visits. I'd often have to go through her bills and other
important mail, and she'd put everything in neat piles for when her children would
arrive to take care of her needs. But mostly we'd read. I'd read a short story or two. I'd
read "The Talk of the Town" section or that week's Profile. The magazine always publishes
two or three poems, and she'd have me read those as well. I think she liked poetry the best.
I have a good deal of experience studying and teaching poetry, but I don't profess to
know all poets well. There are a few great poets I still haven't gotten to and I'm a
geezer now. Once Rose asked me about A.R. Ammons, an American poet and
National Book Award winner. I professed to being unfamiliar with his work, and you'd
think I had said, "Shakespeare? No, I don't believe I've ever heard of him."! She told
me to get on the ball and start reading "Archie's" work (She called him Archie. I always
just call him A.R.). I did immediately. But, I confess that I introduced her to a few good
poets as well.
She would sometimes regale me with memories of being a principal in tough New York
City schools. As you can see in the obituary, she was principal for a decade at P.S. 66 in
the Bronx. Today it seems strange that you could rise to that position with only a B.A.
degree, but people would enter the workforce right out of college and then stay in a
place for their entire careers--working their way up the ladder if they were tough enough
and effective enough. Rose was more than tough enough and was whip smart.
One day I rang the buzzer at her place and got no musical "Come on in!" I waited and then
opened the door a crack and called in again. I didn't see Rose anywhere, and then I heard
a soft moan. I rushed in and found that she had slipped and fallen on her bathroom
floor. She was in her bedroom gown and had been incapacitated for two or three hours,
unable to get up. I quickly got her out to the couch where she collected herself. I got a call
from her son thanking me for assisting her.
One day, Rose said she wanted to take me and my wife out to dinner! We got a babysitter
and picked her up and headed to a local restaurant, where we all had a wonderful conversation.
Her eyes gleamed as she shared stories of her younger days. She was delighted to be out and about.
At the end of the meal, she slipped me an envelope and told me to do something special with
the family. I was taken aback by her generosity, but I accepted the gift and used it to take
the whole family to see The King and I on Broadway. After a couple of years of seeing Rose weekly,
I got a call from her son one night saying not to come the next day because Rose had been
taken ill and moved to a nursing home for care. I fretted about her health and was crushed not long afterwards when I received another call saying she had passed.
It's been twenty-five years since I read to Rose, but she touched me in many ways, and I often think
of her. I didn't feel up to starting reading to someone else. It would have been too painful a reminder
of the feisty back-and-forth I had with Rose. But I do recommend that everyone should try to have
an experience being of service to someone--especially an older someone. The rewards for such
actions are deep and timeless.