“Very Horace,” his granddaughter Natalie Greenberg said.
This was in India during World War II, when Saunders (true fact) was a British soldier fighting the Japanese in Burma, now known as Myanmar.
“Horace was on a bus in Bombay [now Mumbai] on a brief break from the army, and a man approached him and asked if he was Jewish,” Greenberg said in a Zoom eulogy for Saunders, 96, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus and died March 29 in a Maryland nursing home. “Horace said, ‘Yes,’ and the man invited him to Shabbat dinner that upcoming Friday night.”
Sitting at a computer in her New York apartment, Greenberg, 33, hosted a 90-minute, broadband memorial service last week, with dozens of mourners joining in, from California to Washington, D.C., from Britain to Israel, in this stay-at-home season of worldwide contagion.
“Horace politely declined” the dinner, she went on. “But after the man departed the bus, he noticed the man left his nice handkerchief behind. He decided to attend the Shabbat to return it. When he arrived, he saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen: Violet.”
Through the years, listening to her husband’s yarns, Vi would often smile and gently chide him when he over-gilded the facts. While Horace was the mayor of every room he walked into — a gregarious chap for whom all life was a performance — Violet, in her quiet, gracious style, “kept him in his place, kept him grounded,” Greenberg recalled. If he was holding forth and got carried away, Vi, pleasantly exasperated, might roll her eyes.
“Oh, Horace,” she used to say.
Violet, also 96, caught the coronavirus, too, and died April 3, five days after her husband. She was in her room down a hall from his in Pleasant View Nursing Home, in Mount Airy, Md., about 40 miles north of Washington.
“In true Horace fashion,” Greenberg said, continuing the Shabbat story, “he decided to charm her, but she wasn’t having it.” Never one to quit, he soon “won her over, and they ended up dating during the brief time he was in Bombay. They fell in love, and Horace said if he survives the war, he is going to come back and marry her.”
Survive he did, as a foot soldier in the bloody Burma campaign, in mountainous, triple-canopy jungles, in soggy, smothering heat and monsoon rains. Sickened with dysentery, he returned to India in 1945 and made good on his promise to a pretty girl. True fact.
Born a week apart, they were 22 on their wedding day; they immigrated to Silver Spring, Md., after the war, lived in a tidy brick rancher on East Light Drive for 65 years, and died a few months shy of their 75th anniversary.
Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are hot spots in the global crisis. Although precise stats are impossible to come by, vulnerable residents and their caregivers are believed to account for roughly 20 percent of the 60,000-plus coronavirus deaths in the United States so far. At Pleasant View Nursing Home, a 177-bed, for-profit facility, the toll as of Tuesday was 29 fatalities, Maryland health officials said. Scores of Pleasant View patients and staff members are infected with the virus.
Vanishing with the elderly are their tales of long ago. Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, steals not just bodies but the distant past. It murders living memory.
At home in Manhattan’s East Village, Greenberg, a hospital social worker handling cases remotely, devoted much of her scarce free time this month to her maternal grandparents, mining online databases and family records, querying relatives and plumbing her own recollections, then typing up a century-long narrative of Horace and Violet for the Zoom memorial, lest their story disappear in a graveyard.
“They were here; they were alive,” she said by phone. “They shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Horace, son of a Jewish tailor, was born May 15, 1923, and grew up in Buckinghamshire, near London. When his country went to war with Germany in 1939, he was a teenager learning the suitmaker’s trade. In 1942, months after Japan attacked the British territories of Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma, 19-year-old Horace was in uniform, shipping out for Asia with an Enfield rifle.
“A sensitive, loving soul not fit for war” is how Greenberg remembers him, and the misery of Burma left psychic scars that “took him years to overcome.”
Violet’s ancestors were Jews from Baghdad who settled in colonial Bombay when it was still a fairly new British mercantile hub. She was born May 8, 1923, into an Anglicized family, with parents named Simon and Georgette. She attended an English school, spoke with a crisp English accent and sipped English tea. “She was sweet, even-tempered, polite, proper, and didn’t care for excess or opulence,” Greenberg said.
Horace — jovial, blustery, animated.
Vi, who would sit and gaze at hummingbirds.
“They were the perfect yin and yang,” Greenberg said.
In Silver Spring, they adopted a son and daughter, who eventually gave them a grandson and two granddaughters. Horace owned a tailor shop in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, and Vi worked beside him.
“He was always the best-dressed man wherever he went,” Greenberg said. In her narrative, she wrote, “He told us he made suits and riding clothes for presidents, governors, members of Congress, including John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and more.” On the phone, Greenberg said she thinks this is true. Some part of it, at least. Maybe.
She laughed. “Here's what they were like,” she said, recalling a childhood car trip she took with the couple, Horace at the wheel. “Suddenly he's like: ‘Let's go shopping! I want to go shopping! I'm going to buy Grandma a diamond bracelet!’ And she just rolls her eyes. She's like: ‘No, Horace. We're not.’ ”
Horace, who talked loudly in restaurants.
Vi, who covered the sofa in plastic.
The aftereffects of his wartime dysentery plagued him. In the late 1960s, suffering from ulcerative colitis, he underwent ostomy surgery. A small hole was opened in his abdomen through which he would expel bodily waste into a pouch for the rest of his years.
“He felt unprepared for how to handle this life change,” his granddaughter said.
When he realized that countless others with ostomy bags were struggling as he was, he decided to do something about it. He founded the Metro Maryland Ostomy Association in 1974. In three decades as president, “Horace visited over 150 hospitals to form patient support groups, and then lobbied for nurses to receive specialized training, in some cases providing scholarship money from his own funds,” Greenberg wrote.
She said, “Vi was with him every step.”
And they aged together.
Greenberg has a photo of the two when they were 88, dancing at a black-tie gala in 2011, both smiling. It wasn't long afterward that Vi's mind began to slip. She'd leave the teakettle whistling, lose track of days, forget where she was. For a while, Horace made excuses for her with their adult grandkids, who worried. Then his own senior moments started to worsen, his tall tales growing ever more outlandish.
In the comfy old house on East Light Drive, they fell one day and couldn't get up.
So it was time.
Pleasant View Nursing Home has only a handful of private rooms. The rest of the suites — the semis, triples and quads — are same-sex. Horace and Vi moved in three years ago, Horace in a suite with two men, Vi with a couple of women.
“They ate their meals together,” said granddaughter Kara Saunders, 37, who was the last in the family to visit them, shortly before the pandemic.
“You know, we sat and just talked,” she said. “He was going on about something. I don't know what it was. He had a lot of fantasies, and she was still rolling her eyes.”
Near the end, he fell and broke a hip. He was laid up in bed when the virus swept through and took him on a Sunday. Down a hall, Vi held on until Friday.
“When Horace died,” Greenberg said, “I called the nursing home to ask about Vi, and I asked, ‘Is she aware that he's gone?’ And they said, you know, not overtly. Like, you couldn't tell by looking at her or talking to her whether she knew.
“But who's to say if she could sense it? I mean, they were side-by-side for so long, how could she not?”