When my mother-in-law turned 100 on July 26, there was no reason to be surprised, considering her personality. Clara Tilleman Eisenstein lives in her own apartment in Bethesda, with visits from caregivers at each end of the day. But staying overnight? Never; that would be disaster. “Why should I pay someone to watch me sleep?,” she says.
Not one to live in the past, Clara spends her days clucking at Republicans on CNN. She picks out recipes from the cooking shows, then tries them for dinner. Clara loves designer clothing — and has more of it than most people. “Is my coat okay?” she called to the EMTs a few years back, lying on our front porch after one of her countless falls. “It’s a Burberry; you know Burberry? The children brought it from London.”
Everyone knows that people are living longer. In the first store where I looked, I found a “Happy 100th Birthday” card.
Still, I was surprised when the day came. Oh, the places she’s been. Just think about it.
In 1913, Clara was born at home in Boryslav, then part of Austria-Hungary. Czar Nicholas ruled Russia, distracted by his son’s hemophilia. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm sat on the throne.
Clara was a year old when her country’s heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering World War I. She was 5 when the Great War ended and her town became part of Poland. She was a young wife and mother when the Soviets invaded in 1939, annexing her home town to the Ukraine. And she went on the run, like many other Jews, when the Germans came.
“You call these forests?” Clara asks incredulously as we drive past wooded areas of Maryland, Virginia and the District. “Disaster forests; that’s what.” She points to the branches, starting high in the trees; to the undergrowth on the ground. “All that sunlight at the bottom,” she scoffs. “No place to hide.”
She and her daughter survived, along with her husband. But they were the only ones. Both sets of parents, brothers, sisters, everyone. Gone.
It was almost against her will, Clara recalls, that she began to live again. As a refugee in Poland, she had a second daughter. They were relocated to Atlanta by an American Jewish organization; there, twin boys came along.
Clara learned to speak English, cook grits and raise American children. The decades piled up, bringing the loss of her husband and first daughter and the births of new generations.
“Gott forbid!” she announced with a twinkle, when we sang happy birthday and wished her many more. “No more — it’s enough, already.”
But one afternoon, anticipating the approaching milestone, Clara surprised me by asking: “Did you ever stop to think how I’m living like this, longer than anyone and able to do so much? When my family died so young? And I’m so old?”
For most people, such questions have no answers. But Clara, who is not most people, had one. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” she said. “And to me, it’s clear. I was the baby. Everyone else — their lives were stolen. So they’re giving me their years.”
That’s as good an answer as there can ever be for why one person has lived so many different lives. Happy 100th birthday, Mom. And — I just can’t help it — many happy returns.