Four Improbable Goddesses
by Jean Harris
The four of us met for lunch recently at the Claremont Hotel in San Francisco's East Bay area and as I looked around the table, I was aware of what an odd quartet we were — an improbable grouping of women with ostensibly nothing in common; yet we had everything in common.
We are one another. Our friendship is so deep, it transcends, time, place, age, and just is. That's what's wonderful about us. And about all human beings if they give themselves the chance.
Ora de Bose is 88 years old (although she doesn't look it) and has been a resident of the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland for the past 45 years. Her husband Jake died 29 years ago but she lives on, in the charming house they bought those many years ago, with a rental apartment to provide some income and a garden which Ora lovingly tends the year round and which all the neighborhood enjoys.
She is unofficial godmother to the children on her block and watches out for everyone. And they watch out for Ora. Childless herself, she mothers all, and is much loved in return. Over the years, her apartment has been rented to many fine tenants, and among her favorites is a German family that came one year while the father worked for a graduate degree at Cal. To this day she is Gramma Ora to all branches of that family and has visited them and their children in Germany on many occasions, as they continue to visit her.
I forgot to mention that Ora is Negro. She doesn't like the term African-American, says she's never been to Africa, is centuries removed from those roots; nor does she feel that black is an appropriate word. She is an American-Negro and proud of it, always has been, keenly aware of her heritage and returns to Louisiana every year for a family reunion on land owned by her great grandparents. She sees the march of history and knows we are in God's hands. Everything happens in time, she tells me. But it's God's time ... not our time. She is a Republican which I find difficult to understand, but which Ora reminds me was the party of Abraham Lincoln.
On her 88th birthday, her friends and neighbors gathered at a Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland to pay her tribute. A local minister gave the invocation. He said: "A piano has 88 keys. Black and white. Together they produce perfect harmony. So we, Ora's friends and neighbors, are a composite of America, and represent all that's right and good about our nation. Ora inspires us all and brings out the best in every one of us."
Ora came into my life about 40 years ago. My parents were then alive, in their 70's, and in Berkeley. One day my mother wasn't feeling well and made an appointment to see her doctor. My father accompanied my mother and since they didn't drive, they crossed the street to wait for the bus. They waited a long time. A car stopped alongside the curb in front of them, window rolled down. "Are you waiting for a bus?," a voice inquired.
"Yes," my father answered.
"Well, I'm afraid there won't be any busses today," the woman said. "They're on strike. Come on, I'll give you a lift, " and opened the door for them.
And that was how my parents met Ora. She drove them to their doctor's office and when they came out, an hour later, she was waiting to
drive them home. Of course they invited her in for coffee and Poppa served
some of his baked delights and gave her a package to take home to her
They learned that Ora was a private nurse, had a patient nearby and drove down their street every day on her way to work.
And so she started dropping in regularly and Momma and Poppa came to look upon her as an older daughter. They entertained her with stories of their past and while they fed her mandel bread and challah they related tales of how they met on the New York subway during the First World War, and how they moved from Iowa to Brooklyn to Berkeley. Ora's keen mind was always interested in learning new things, she's a vociferous reader, and her sensitivity to the Jewish experience provided a link not only with my parents, but with her own Christian practice.
One day, Momma put her arms around Ora and said: "Ora, we adopt you! You are a true daughter! " And so it happened that Ora became my sister and has since enriched my life in ways too numerous to recount. She is Aunt Ora to my sons and their children remembering all birthdays with cakes or brownies.
She was there for us when Poppa died, leaving a troubled and ailing Momma behind, and she was there for me when Momma died a year later. And every year she calls, on the anniversary of their deaths, to remind me to light the yahrtzeit *lamps.
I met Stephanie (Steve to her friends) some twenty five years ago when I was owner of three womens' apparel shops and she was sales representative for a New York designer.
Stephanie lived in New York City but made the trip four times a year to show her collection at the Los Angeles airport Hyatt Hotel and I would fly down for the day to see the line. And although the collection was exciting to view, Stephanie in her presentation, was even more so. She was the best sales person I ever met in the course of my long career, and I 've met many. She knew how to edit a line so I did not have to waste time looking at everything and then she put the pieces together with such flair and style, it became irresistible. Steve was so good at what she did, I frequently brought members of my staff along to see her in action.
A fiery redhead, small in stature, always perfectly groomed and assembled herself, she manifested enormous enthusiasm for what she was doing, and enthusiasm is the key to her personality. Enthusiasm and intelligence.
Born in London, she came to the States as young girl, went to USC, studied drama, worked in theatre and then film and has committed to memory hundreds of poems and parts, lines of which she brings forth at appropriate moments.
And so we came to know one another in our limited time together, I sensing something special about this redheaded sprite and she sensing something in me. One day, out of the blue, Steve said: "Do you know anything about the sport of boxing?" That was the last question I expected to hear from her.
Well, what little I knew came about from being wed to an avid boxing enthusiast and ex-amateur lightweight. Stephanie then told me she was married to Ray Arcel, a trainer, who trained most of the great boxers of our time.
My husband Eddie was very impressed when I told him I knew the wife of Ray Arcel, whom he had always admired for the devotion and care he showed his boxers. Eddie said when he was a young guy, he used to hang around the gyms just to watch Ray at work.
Before long, Stephanie and Ray came to visit us in California, and we would see them on our visits to New York. It was a thrill for me to listen to Ray and Eddie talk boxing, and although Eddie was then handicapped by Parkinson's disease, his memory was still strong, and the two of them dredged up long forgotten names of the past. Ray would spar with Eddie, telling him to keep up his dukes and although Ray was then 90 and Eddie 75, Ray was definitely in charge.