My great-uncle George, my maternal grandfather’s brother, turned 100 on April 13th. The three cakes I made for his party were far from the prettiest or most technically challenging I’ve made, but they were very special because he is so very special. (He requested cheesecake and strawberry shortcake–his two favorites. I’ve never made a strawberry shortcake, but how could I say no? Luckily Callan had an old recipe. Cousin Steve requested a chocolate cake as well, so I made that too.)
In addition to having had an amazing life, Uncle George is the most spunky, energetic, full of life “fella” I’ll ever know. Nothing about him says “elderly”. He’s all wit and humor, speedy and quick, and still gets his drink on. (My grandfather, Milton, his brother, also lived until 100 and appreciated a good glass of gin on the rocks–daily–until he died last year.) As funny as George is, he is equally warm and loving and generous. He’s just one of those guys that everyone loves.
George has always been a great story teller (some of my favorite stories involve a neighborhood kid a few years older who bore no relation but was known affectionately as “Uncle Izzy”), but I was actually there for one of my most cherished George memories. It was about 10 years ago when George was 90 and I was teaching U.S. history at a high school in Queens. I asked Uncle George to come give a talk to my classes about his life. I hoped my students would enjoy it.
He started by telling them how he and his two brothers grew up in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With no indoor plumbing, they had to go to public bath houses to bathe. They lived above a storefront, and the shop got a telephone long before they did. Friends would call the store and ask for George, and the shop owner would walk outside and shout up to his apartment, “George! Phone call for you!” George would come down and take the call. When George was about ten, they moved to the Bronx. One day George and a few buddies ditched school to go to Yankee Stadium and see Babe Ruth play. In World War II, he was in the Army stationed in Italy. And during the cold war, he and his wife Nettie traveled to Soviet Russia to visit her family.
The students–my inner-city students with their hard-as-nails New York exteriors–were riveted. They listened intently the entire time. I was so proud. At the end of his talk, I asked if there were any questions, and all their hands went up. Now I was bursting with pride. I probably should have seen it coming, but every single question shared a common theme:
“Were you naked in the bath houses?”
“Were women allowed?”
“Did you all bathe together?”
I was horrified, but George didn’t miss a beat, patiently answering all their questions with a respectfully straight face. If you knew him, you would expect nothing less.
George’s 100th birthday party was wonderful. Family and friends flew in from as far as Los Angeles and Israel to be there. Over 50 people were there.
First, the invitation:
George and two of my second cousins. Yup. He’s 100. Note the cocktail in his hand.
George founded a spiral binding company many years ago. The strawberry shortcake below features an edible version of the Spiral Man logo (left) that George designed.
The three cakes. Cheesecake in the middle.
George, you are more than an inspiration to everyone that has ever had the pleasure of knowing you. You are the patriarch of our family, someone we all respect, admire, and love. Happy 100th Birthday to you.