By: Anita W. Harris
This past week, the Friends of the Signal Hill Library (FOSHL) celebrated Mildred Wallerstein as she approaches her 100th birthday on Saturday. Wallerstein was recognized as Signal Hill Community Volunteer of the Year in 2016 and as Signal Hill’s Distinguished Older American in 2017 for her volunteer work.
At the FOSHL party, hosted at the home of Larry Blunden overlooking Signal Hill and attended by about 20 other members, Wallerstein was presented with a notebook in which to document her next 100 years.
Wallerstein will also be honored at a luncheon later this month hosted by the Alpert Jewish Community Center.
Amid these celebrations, and with her typical dry humor, Wallerstein wonders what all the fuss is about.
“My son was here […] for Thanksgiving, and I said to him, ‘Everybody’s beginning to make this big deal because I’m going to be a centenarian. But I didn’t do anything,’” she recalled in an interview. “I didn’t invent Penicillin.”
Her son, psychologist Dr. Bruce Wallerstein, told his mother she deserves the recognition.
“‘You’re not conceited. You think you haven’t accomplished anything,’” she recalls him telling her. “But he said that I was one of the most independent women he’d ever met.”
That independent spirit had led Wallerstein to obtain a degree from Boston Clerical School– now merged with Roxbury Community College– before getting married.
“It’s a good thing I had that to fall back on because as soon as I got divorced [at 30], I went right to work,” she said.
Wallerstein worked for 37 years, primarily for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), before retiring in 1979.
She remembers that the person who interviewed her was concerned about her situation.
“He said, ‘We have never had a married woman work in the office, let alone a woman with a child,’” she recalls.
Daycare was not available at the time, but moving back near her parents allowed her son to be taken care of after school. She otherwise remained independent, never remarrying, though she dated a man for 20 years.
“I never needed anyone because I had a job,” she said. “It was a union company […] and I ended up making $500 a week and this was in 1979 and I had six months vacation. And, of course, I left with all the benefits anybody could get.”
Within the past year, however, Medicare and insurance premium costs have eroded her pension somewhat since her new insurance company changed and the new one covers less for those who have been retired for more than 25 years.
“It’s the first time I’m a little tight, so I don’t go out much,” she said. “Once a month for lunch, it doesn’t matter. And I buy very little clothes.”
Wallerstein moved to Signal Hill in 1989, though she loved Boston and friends she had known since kindergarten were rooted there. Her son had already been established in his career in Long Beach for many years and invited her to move nearby to pursue her passion of playing golf.
“‘You can come out here and you can play golf, and you can go up and see snow in the mountains,’” she recalls her son telling her. “And I thought, that’s not a bad idea because in the winter there is nothing to do [in Boston].”
Wallerstein played golf regularly until she was 95, when she suddenly developed vertigo. She finally donated her clubs and other golfing apparatus to Heartwell Golf Course in Long Beach to be used by young students who don’t have their own equipment.
“After 95, that seemed to be the cutoff line for me,” Wallerstein said. “I started to feel frail. Before, I used to run down a flight of stairs without holding on. Now I hold on, even if it’s two steps, because I don’t want to fall.”
It was also around that time that she says her age became apparent to others, though many might say she still looks much younger than her years.
“Nobody seemed to know how old I was until I got close to 95 or 96, and then they get close,” she said.
Wallerstein only takes three medications– for her heart, blood pressure and cholesterol– plus aspirin, a vitamin and fish oil, though she dislikes taking pills.
“I hate to take them,” she said. “It’s a reminder of getting old.”
As energetic and alert as Wallerstein is, she laments getting older.
“I don’t think that getting old is nice. In the first place, you change,” she said. “People don’t recognize you. You look older. And then things start hurting.”
But she also faces aging with humor.
“Not only do you begin to ache all over, you’re doing things that everybody sees you with makeup on and they say, ‘I want to be just like you,’ and I think that if they ever saw me when I get out of bed in the morning…” she said, smiling. “I tell people that I don’t open the door to take in my paper because they’ll call the paramedics when they see me in the morning.”
She also remains conscious of her health, avoiding stepladders to get down dishes from shelves or to change smoke alarm batteries.
“If people over 75 to 100 fall, that’s the beginning of the end,” she said.
Of her own longevity, Wallerstein has no explanation.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I was [once] asked [and said] I was a hooker for 10 years and then I bought the business, that’s what kept me young,” she said. “Any people will believe anything.”
More seriously, she surmises her vitality may be due in part to a lifelong healthy diet.
“I eat very well. See, we’re Jewish, but my mother never cooked Jewish, so we never ate greasy food or gefilte fish or white bread,” she said. “We always ate dark bread, a lot of rice. We ate chicken. We never ate […] pot roast. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not.”
She notes that her mother’s half-sisters died in their 90s. Her grandfather was 86 when he died, and her father was 88.
Her family is very important to her, but her Spanish-Jewish heritage is also a key component of her identity.
“Not only am I tied to the old generation, I’m tied to the Spanish part of it,” she said. “I’m more Spanish-American than I am American-American. I think very differently than a lot of Americans.”
Wallerstein’s father’s family had come from Tangier in Morocco when he was 4, and her mother’s family was also originally from Tangier, though she, Esther, was born in New York. They met and married in Boston.
“Somebody said (to her father), [you’ve] got to meet Esther because she’s [of] Spanish extraction. She’s born in New York, she’s a citizen of this country and all that,” Wallerstein recalled. “They had a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful marriage. Forty-five years they were married. My father never married again after my mother died.”
Her father continued working for five years after being widowed, and Wallerstein and her two siblings kept him company.
“That generation didn’t hop into a second marriage like they do today,” she said. “You were widowed and you stayed widowed; you moved to an apartment. All of life was different. I think the war (World War II) changed everything.”
Her brothers, Maurice and Herbert, had both served in the military during that war. She had grown up with Maurice, but her baby brother Herbert was several years younger.
“I was 9 […] and we get this toy to play with,” she said. “When he died, it was like the end of the world for me because it was like I brought him up, I sent him to the Army, he came home from the war.”
Herbert was a pharmacist and served as a medic in the Coast Guard. Wallerstein recalls that he thought he would guard the coast of Massachusetts, but he was sent on five invasions in Okinawa.
“They never told him the other places had coastlines,” she said.
She was devastated when both brothers died about 10 years ago within a short period of time. Maurice was 88 and had heart problems, developing diabetes in the hospital, and Herbert died suddenly in a bank.
“To lose the two of them in five months…,” she recalls. “That’s why I lost the 13 pounds. Nothing tasted any good. I didn’t care to eat. But you don’t die, you eat junk food and you live. You never die of a broken heart, unfortunately.”
Her love for her brothers remains fierce, however.
“We are the only three people in the whole world of brothers and sisters that never, ever, ever had a fight,” she recalls. “Never.”
Though Wallerstein is also still moved discussing her father’s death in 1986, she views it practically.
“People can’t live forever,” she said. “My father was a very proud, good-looking man of Spanish extraction. He would never be able to tolerate having a woman come in and bathe him and dress him. It would have killed him […] I was very happy when he died in ’86. I was tickled he didn’t have to go to a nursing home.”
Wallerstein also recalls her mother’s story with fascination.
“My mother had an interesting life,” she said.
Her mother was only 5 when her own mother– Wallerstein’s grandmother– died in childbirth along with the baby. Her grandfather was alone and didn’t know what to do.
“So, he took my mother, who was only 5 years old, who didn’t speak English, only spoke Spanish in the house, to Gibraltar (a British territory between Spain and North Africa) to live with his mother, and his mother was old. So my mother lived there from 5 to 12 and went to the British school in Gibraltar, so she spoke English.”
When Wallerstein’s great-grandmother was getting too old to care for her mother, she was brought back to the States and put in boarding school in Clifton, Iowa.
She describes what happened next, suggesting that a sense of humor seems to run in the family.
“When my grandfather was 42, he was very young-looking. He married a girl [of] 21 and had said to her, ‘I have a daughter in boarding school and just before we get married she’s coming out.’ He neglected to say, ‘My daughter’s 18.’”
Fortunately, Wallerstein’s mother and her step-grandmother got along remarkably well.
Because of her family, Wallerstein sees the value in preserving one’s culture, though she believes everyone should learn and speak English.
“Years ago, when you came to this country, everybody went to school at night. The grandparents, they all went; they had to learn English,” she said. “The way I feel is, if you come to this country, bring your culture with you […], don’t lose your heritage, but don’t change this country, because we’ve got enough trouble.”
Wallerstein’s family roots are deeply ingrained in her.
“If anybody asks me what I am, I always say Sephardic,” she said. “But you shouldn’t. You should say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ It’s very embedded in you.”
Pressure to marry within the Spanish-Jewish community was also strong, though the only exception Wallerstein would have made was for Frank Sinatra.
“I used to say, ‘If Frank Sinatra asked me to marry him, I’m not going to say anything. I’m just going to convert,’” she recalls. “I wouldn’t say no because he might not marry me.’”
A friend from Boston even sent her a sympathy card when Sinatra died. She once drove from Boston to New York to see him at Carnegie Hall, after getting tickets from a cousin, and experienced his charm first-hand.
“He was a rotten guy– he wasn’t a good husband and he wasn’t a good father– but he had a way of singing,” she said.
But Wallerstein doesn’t listen to music as much anymore.
“I can’t seem to get into people dancing […] crazy,” she explained. “Years and years ago, music was the preamble to sex. You danced together, you felt the body next to you, the music was quiet, and that was the lead-in to sex.”
Wallerstein has clearly passed on her energetic approach to life to her only child Bruce, with whom she is very close, seeing him at least three times a year. She raised him as both father and mother, and on weekends when she wasn’t working, taught him how to bicycle, swim, and dance.
“We were going to go to somebody’s bar mitzvah, and he says, ’I want to take a girl,’” she recalls. “He was going to be 13. I said, ‘You want to learn how to dance?’ So we rolled up the carpet and in three hours. I taught him how to dance.”
Through her recollection of his interview in California after college, it’s clear Bruce has his mother’s wit.
“They took Bruce to lunch, and he says the only reason he got the job was that he had good table manners,” she recalls him telling her. “He only went for his doctoral degree because when you go to a restaurant you can say, ‘I’m Dr. Wallerstein, and I need a table.’ It took seven years [of schooling] to get a table.”
While practicing in California, her son sailed in the Transpacific Yacht Race from San Pedro to Honolulu for 12 years.
“He is 74,” she says of her son. “He thinks he’s 44-and-a-half.”
Wallerstein is similarly proud of her 6-year-old granddaughter, Mia, who has grown up with Bruce in the Dominican Republic and can speak both English and Spanish. They Skype regularly, and all three will celebrate Wallerstein’s upcoming birthday by going on a cruise, traveling first class.
She has traveled extensively in her life, though she regrets not having joined the Army when she was younger because she would have seen the world.
“[When] I was 60 years old […] I found another world– I found traveling. I’ve been to Europe 11 times,” she said. “I’ve been to Tahiti and Honolulu. I went to Las Vegas so many times until I realized you cannot beat the slot machines.”
Much of her time and energy now are devoted to volunteering, which she enjoys.
“I volunteer because I don’t want to work anymore. Even if they paid me, I couldn’t take the obligation,” she said. “And I meet a lot of very, very nice people.”
Her willingness to help extends beyond the Signal Hill Library.
“They sent around a notice [that] they needed people to wrap Christmas presents at the police department down here,” she recalls. “Four or five women were there, they have two boxes of donuts and all the coffee you could drink. We must have wrapped […] up to about 1,000 presents, and they were all donated and all brand-new, and when we got home, they gave everybody a wristwatch.”
She is wry about the large face of that watch, which she wears.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, you can see the time!’ I really don’t need this. I can still see,” she said. “A few things are still working.”
Besides volunteering, Wallerstein still drives, including on the freeway, meeting a cousin in Los Angeles once a week and picking up a nephew from the Orange County Airport recently.
She also belongs to a book club that meets the first Friday of every month.
“Every once in a while, you find a book that you can’t put down, and I’ll read it Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “I don’t go out of the house, and if the phone rings I don’t bother with it. You can do anything you want when you get old, I tell you.”
She says she thinks about life now more than she used to.
“One time, a long time ago, I said to somebody, ‘There was nobody in the whole world any better than I am,’” she recalls. “’They may be smarter, and they may be richer, but they’re no better than I am.’ I don’t steal anything, I don’t hurt anybody, I don’t insult anyone. I’ve lived a very decent life.”
Two weeks ago, while Skyping with her granddaughter, Wallerstein displayed the spirit that has carried her this far.
“[Mia] says, ‘How old are you going to be, Grandma?’ And I said, ‘I think I’m going to be either 38 or 39. I don’t know,’” Wallerstein recalls. “And she goes, “No, no, no! You’re going to be 100, don’t you remember?’ I said to her, ‘That’s right, Mia. I’m glad you told me. I forgot I was going to be 100.’ And then she was so glad!”