Getting Old is a Bitch!
By Michal John
Charles Magyar lived through the history I only studied about in public school or heard about first hand from his monotonous repertoire of stories. He came to America in the early 1900’s when he was six years old. He lived an immigrant’s life in a Hungarian community in New Jersey. He worked in his father’s bar until he couldn’t stand being home any longer, and then, at the age of fifteen, joined the Navy. When Charles entered the United States his father failed to put his correct birth year on the documents which made him a year older on paper. Charles’ name appears on the Memorial at Ellis Island along with thousands of others.
Charles served in World War I on a troop ship taking young soldiers to and from France. After the war he joined the Merchant Marines and became a First Mate traveling to the Caribbean, South America and through the Panama Canal. He worked the oil fields in California, and later he would use his naval talents to avoid the Coast Guard while running European alcohol during prohibition from Nova Scotia to his employers waiting for him in the New York Harbor. This latter profession made Charles his fortune; which he buried in his Mother’s back yard in a tin box.
Charles returned to California some ten years later and married my mother, bringing her back to Little Hungary in New Jersey where he used his fortune to buy a fishing boat for tourists, and ultimately lived off his hidden treasure. After a year, the little family decided to return to California. It was during The Depression, but Charles still had some of his fortune left. My parents bought a home in Panorama City, California and set up a small chicken and rabbit farm on their acre of ground. Charles worked jobs provided by FDR’s work programs. He helped build Hansom Dam, learned how to pour concrete forms and developed carpentry skills, which he developed into a career that lasted the remainder of his life.
When Charles married my mother he joined the Mormon Church and became an advocate of his new religion. He bore testimony at every opportunity concerning the Church’s belief in its Word of Wisdom, a health code decrying the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee or tea and advocating a healthy eating style. He was proud of his local missionary work. His life settled into a routine of work, through the local Carpenter’s Union, Church work, and family. He no longer feared a war or bullets shooting across the bow of his smuggler’s boat. Now it was the usual to catch him in the kitchen after dinner, asleep, with the Bible lying open in his lap.
In telling Charles’ brief history I have left out things like his family’s mode of transportation in New Jersey being a horse, his hearing one of the first live radio transmissions while on a Naval ship off the Virginia Coast, and passing through years of political and world history, including the two World Wars, Prohibition, the Stock Market Crash, the Great Depression, the Korean War, the assassination of President Kennedy, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights issues, the first man on the moon, smog in California, changes in technology, earth quakes, and just time. A great deal of historical time passed through Charles Magyar’s lifespan.
I’m not sure of the why, but I will guess the reason Charles had his last child when he was fifty. My mother was nine years younger than he was and she believed in spacing her children with at least a five year span. I was a surprise with only a two-year span between my older sister and me. Such a miscalculation on my mother’s part created a rather unfortunate circumstance for Charles. He had not one, but two teenage girls during his sixties. This is a hardship no geriatric parent should have to deal with, but deal with it he did. Fortunately, he was losing his hearing so he probably missed a great many of the disrespectful comments we made. His belated fathering gave him belated grandchildren and when it came time for him to start living with his children, the horrible truth was it was pretty much left to my six children and me to comfort him in his lonely years after my mother passed away.
Charles’ first visit to our home lasted about two months. It was a long time for all of us. He was 87, couldn’t hear very well, and he had Parkinson’s disease, which kept him from sturdy mobility. He played with the children occasionally, he watched television, he taught my oldest son how to draw an “iron ship,” and he told me the same stories he’d been telling me since I was an avid listener at the age six. I found myself spending a great deal of time in my bedroom during his visit and he spent a great deal of time in the kitchen acting the part of a sentinel. He observed the comings and goings of my children and half the neighborhood as they moved from the backdoor to the refrigerator. He grew up with the old European belief that no one should be in the kitchen but the immediate family. At our house the refrigerator was a free-for-all for whoever walked in the door, and Charles was alarmed.
I knew Charles was getting tired of our diet of hot dogs with green beans for dinner, cold cereal for breakfast and white bread sandwiches for lunch. He was eating the same food that my kids were eating and none of it resembled what I had been taught to eat, but I rationalized that no one in my family had six kids - each two years apart.
My sister, Nancy, called from New York to visit with him one day and I thought I would leave him alone so he could complain if he needed to. I also left my eighteen month-old toddling around the kitchen with him. After a while I noticed a commotion outside my bedroom window. I looked out and noticed there was an old man lying face down in the street. It seems so odd that it would take me so many seconds to identify that old man as my father. It was a process. The clothes looked familiar, the gray head, and the slippers, despite the obvious meaning of the clues my mind refused to recognize them an as my father because he was downstairs talking on the telephone. Then I saw my little Kimberly toddling toward him, laughing, but he was not moving. Recognition came flooding in at about the same time one of my neighbors began pounding on the front door. I called the paramedics and they arrived just after the neighbors sat him on a chair in the kitchen. He was all right, but needed to go to the doctor for a check up. He could possibly have a broken shoulder and collarbone. He did.
I spent several weeks helping Charles take sponge baths. I helped him get dressed. And I felt guilty. As soon as he could take care of himself he felt it was time to go home. My husband and I drove him to the airport and got him on the plane. Charles and I both felt relief at our separation.
Charles’ stories have always been filled with how he knew something, did something, or had something that would ultimately save whomever it was that needed saving. He saved people on his gun crew from a hang fire, he saved a naval buddy who fell overboard, he saved his foreman by showing him the best way to build the stairs at the subdivision, he knew the Petty Officer on the troop ship was just trying to get him into trouble, but he had to stand up for himself in spite of the demotion, he knew when to dump the illegal cargo into the ocean when the Coast Guard had the upper hand, he knew my mother would be his wife when she was only 16 years old. He was a man participating in history and who made his presence felt. Such feelings about oneself do not ebb with age. You are who you are no matter what your age. While Charles was speaking to my sister in New York City that fateful day, my 18 month-old discovered the back door was not quite closed and with a push she escaped into the carport. Charles was there to observe, evaluate, and then, of course, save the day. He laid the phone down with Nancy hanging on the line and went after the baby. It was Charles to the rescue, again. Kimberly decided her Grandpa was playing a game with her, so she kept just out of his reach. She left the carport, reached the corner, and was in the street. Our street was not a dangerous place. It was a cul-de-sac with nearly 100 children living within its confines. Everyone drove with children in mind. I am not saying there was no danger to my daughter, and I certainly would never have allowed her to be outside without supervision, but the presence of Charles created a much higher sense of danger. The danger was created by the man who led his own children to believe that everything in life was dangerous.
Imagine an 87-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease giving chase to an 18 month-old. Kimberly’s game had her running just out of his reach and then she would turn and laugh. She repeated her game until Charles, unable to coordinate his legs properly, finally fell forward, much like in the old Lipton Tea commercials where the actors, wanting to be refreshed, fell into a pool without moving their arms or legs - splat like a pancake on a plate. This is a good description of how a Parkinson diseased person would fall. They are unable to move their arms fast enough, if at all, in spite of their brain’s urgent messages to do so. Kimberly came right to her Grandpa when he fell and stood over him. Game over. But Charles, by falling, all though not on purpose, saved Kimberly from being killed in the street, at least in his mind.
So, is this what living a full and vibrant life filled with adventure hands to you in your old age? Is it a comedy of errors with missteps, broken shoulders, broken collarbones, bruises, trips to the doctor, and sponge baths? Is it a hot dogs and green beans kind of life? Or did life give him one last adventure where he was, once again, the hero, rising from the ashes of his old age to save one more fellow traveler on life’s path? I vote for the latter. He was my hero when I was six and I think I am, at last, sufficiently old enough to recognize that hero once again.