May 3 would have been my dad’s 100th birthday.
“We were the same age. Why isn’t he still here with me?” Mom asks. “Why couldn’t I have saved him?”
When I remind her that he lived longer than anyone in his family and that 96 is an accomplishment, she pretends to forgive herself because she knows she spent 76 years trying.
Although my mother, Celia Levitt, just turned 101, she doesn’t look a day over 82. She takes no prescription drugs and no hormones; her memory is razor-sharp. She has been in the hospital only four times: three times to have babies and once to fix a broken hip.
She is always dressed and coiffed perfectly, and she isn’t shy about lecturing anyone about the dangers of eating meat, sugar and fried food and of taking X-rays (even mammograms), and she advises taking what most doctors have to say with a grain of salt.
She lives by herself in the Beverly Hills condo she shared with my dad, Milton, and wouldn’t think of moving to assisted living or having a caregiver. She makes her own meals, and her house is always spotless, even her drawers.
Every day she is picked up by the city’s shuttle service to go to Roxbury Park, where she has lunch, plays bingo, watches old movies and live entertainment, and attends art, acting and sometimes meditation classes.
But her favorite thing to do is to tell everybody how old she is. She thrives on their shock and disbelief.
It makes her day.
When I was growing up, I had no idea how enlightened Celia was. All I knew was that she wasn’t like the other moms. What was I supposed to think when folks uttered insults behind her back? “Health nut!” “Health food freak!” “Food faddist!”
I remember my embarrassed giggles when my grammar school friends poked inside my lunchbox and found nary a chocolate-chip cookie or potato chip — not even a sandwich of packaged cheese or salami on white bread.
If they only knew that at home our milk was raw, and our eggs were fertile. Our bread bulged with brown, grainy nuggets. But I wasn’t talking.
The last thing I got when I left for school wasn’t a chocolate doughnut. It was a shot glass full of vitamins with some freshly squeezed juice.
The worst part of the morning: My breakfast bowl wasn’t filled with snap, crackle and pop. We had to wait a full 20 minutes while Mom cooked our oatmeal, then topped it with blackstrap molasses (never sugar), raw butter (never margarine), unsulphured raisins and organic cheddar cheese.
While Mom was busy telling me that I was what I ate — thanks a lot, Adelle Davis — I spent most of my waking moments wishing I could have onion bagels and lox for breakfast and hoping against hope that maybe on my birthday she’d let me have a chocolate babka. And, just once, a real sandwich in my lunch instead of a pita filled with celery hearts, sunflower seeds and hummus.
Did my mother even care that I was the kid sitting alone on the bench while all the other lunches were traded?
It wasn’t my grandma Fradel’s fault. She was a good kosher housewife who cooked typical Ashkenazi meat and potatoes, much the same as her mother in Vilna had before her.
She and Grandpa Charlie moved to America in 1914, with a stop in Philadelphia, where Mom and her older sister, Dena, were born. Then on to Atlantic City before settling in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Celia and Dena were 5 and 8, respectively.
Celia was still in grammar school when Dena came home from a lecture, her cheeks flushed, raving about the amazing man she’d just heard. She asked her baby sister if she wanted to go with her the following night.
The lecturer was groundbreaking nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, who mentored movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson (gorgeous into their 80s) about diet and lifestyle.
It wasn’t very long before the sisters were meeting holistic doctors Henry Bieler and Linus Pauling, chiropractor Bernard Jensen, and Paul Bragg, who opened the first health food store in America and popularized nutritional products such as his liquid amino acids, which Mom still pours over just about everything.
But their biggest heroine was nutritionist and best-selling author Adelle Davis, who persuaded them to become vegetarians at ages 13 and 16.
Fradel didn’t know what to make of her daughters, but because fruits and vegetables were cheaper than meat, she didn’t complain.
Celia thrived on her vegetarian diet. G-d was in his place. All was right with the world. Until Milton Levitt spotted Celia across the room at a shul social and said to himself, “That’s mine.”
Little did she know her salad days were about to come screeching to a halt.
Because Milton was the only boy who owned a car — a 1930 Ford roadster with a rumble seat — he planned to wine and dine her, even though she almost refused his offer of a ride home because she had spent 10 cents to take the red car to the event, and it was a round-trip ticket.
They dated. He took her to the Chili Bowl; she refused to eat anything. She tried luring him to vegetarian restaurants, her lectures, even hiking. His response: “No way!”
After they married, Celia learned how to make her mother-in-law’s brisket and carrot tzimmes, chopped liver, matzah ball soup, even Lawry’s prime rib with creamed horseradish. But when left to her own devices, she’d slip him some salad — heavy on the avocado.
She maintained her svelte, Size-2 figure; he carried around 20 extra pounds. Life went on.
As their marriage approached its golden anniversary, Dad became mellower with his meat demands and even bragged that he was eating more like Mom. He tolerated her Middle Eastern eggplant, slurped her Boston baked beans and fell in love with her fresh horseradish, which he devoured straight out of the bowl, between meals, when the matzah box was empty.
It wasn’t until they went to visit my first grandchild and their first great-grandchild, Tiara, in Atlanta that they finally found a meatless dish they both loved: Southern grits. They stuffed bags of it — and everything else they couldn’t help but buy on their many trips to Harry’s Farmers Market in Alpharetta — into their suitcases to take home.
Mom was proud that Dad was edging toward a more healthful diet until my youngest daughter, Alyssa, spilled the beans. “Whenever Grandpa came to pick me up, our first stop was McDonald’s.”
And there were those candy wrappers she found stuffed down his bathroom sink.
And so my mom, Celia, glides gracefully past 101. She wasn’t born yesterday, in any sense of the word.