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Charles and Esther

These are my neighbors, Charles and Esther. I adore them, and have adopted them as grandparents. And I think they’ve adopted me as a grandson, or at least their caretaker said as much.

Over the last 10 years or so that I’ve been living across the hall from them, every time I’ve baked bread, I brought Charles the first loaf out of the oven. He would hold it up to his nose and smell it with great delight, and once told me the smell transported him to being a child in Europe. I’ve baked many times just for that moment of Charles’ smile when I bring him a baguette right out of the oven.

When World War II broke out, Charles’ family was living in France. Most of his family was able to get out of the country and into the United States, but at the last minute they could not get a visa for him. He was left behind in Paris, and that was pretty traumatic. It got worse. That year, Charles developed a horrible arthritic condition in his hands and elsewhere and was hospitalized for a while. When he got out, he got a job at a local garage, which was helpful in him learning how to drive. As the war came to Paris, he drove a few ladies out to their country home at their request, and then started walking south to get as far away from Paris as he could. He got a job on a farm. At some point, while working there, someone asked him why he didn’t go to church. He said that was because he was agnostic and Jewish. The person said to him, “tell no one of this, you’ll be killed.” They protected him from the Nazis.

Eventually, his family was able to get his visa straightened out and sent him a ticket for a boat ride to the United States and he was reunited with his family in the Pacific Northwest. As soon as Charles was old enough he volunteered for the Air Force to help fight the Nazis. He became a gunner, and his plane was shot down over Nazi Germany. He was then captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Nazis for about three years until he finally was able to escape during a long forced march on which many of his fellow POW’s died. I learned many of these details a few years ago when I made dinner for Charles and Esther and a friend of Charles from the Air Force on Charles’ 95th birthday. He’s 98 now and She’s 94. His friend at the dinner told his story about being shot out of the sky over Germany, but that he had the opportunity to eject and Charles didn’t. Talk about war stories.

This week Charles told me that when he enlisted and got his dog tags, he was given the option to have an “H” on his tag, which was short for Hebrew, and he accepted the option. I asked him why on earth he would have done that he said, “I figured that if I got shot down I wanted the Nazi’s to know it was a Jewish kid blowing up their factories…and by George, they found out…”

On those rare occasions when I get close to feeling sorry for myself about anything, I think about Charles’ struggles, take a humility pill, and adjust my perspective.

Charles and Esther met in college in Washington DC after he returned from the war. He wanted to go to DC so he could attend public sessions of congress and agencies that interested him. At college, Charles ended up studying psychology, as did Esther. It turned out later they were actually fascinated by the same psychological theorist, Alfred Adler, so they had a lot in common. Esther was already married when they met, and he was engaged. They stayed very good friends throughout their marriages. Many years later, after Esther’s husband had died and he divorced they got married and have been together for about 50 years.

Though they were just across the hall for the last year of lockdown, when I was on the west coast, I only saw them on my regular masked bread deliveries, occasionally in the hall when they were going to doctor appointments and because of a couple of emergencies on which I helped out.

Before Covid I’d regularly see them doing their walking laps in the hall and we would get together on the occasional evening for a whisky or a bite. Neither of them have been doing their laps in the hall for quite some time and both are using walkers now. They both seem to have aged a lot over the last year of isolation.

This week, Charles moved to a managed care facility a few minutes away, and that process was pretty difficult for all concerned. When I learned this was on the radar, I asked them if I could take their portrait, which I've been wanting to do for a long time. They were enthusiastic about doing some photos so we finally got together last week for the first time in a year and I took pictures as we caught up. At some point, Charles asked me if I wanted to have a drink. I said it’d be rude not to after all this time, so I poured us each a sip of whiskey a little white wine for Esther and we toasted to many things for which we are grateful.

They’ve each got prints of them toasting one another now.


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