While ruthlessly cleaning off my desk one morning, determined to make a clearing amidst the clutter before a 10:30 appointment, I came across some saved newspaper clippings in a folder labeled, "Happiness, etc." Crumpling them up with nary a glance, one by one, I was just about to toss out something from The International Herald Tribune when a dazzling smile caught my eye.
"Fade to Black: Women's Roles in the Movies," read the headline from 2001. The paper was wrinkled and a little torn, but the movie star in the picture was just as she'd been three years before: coy, glittering, electric; a woman exulting -- you could see this -- at being the center of attention. Here in this article, however, she wasn't the only billing; her name appeared, as I skimmed, just once, amidst a long list of others, and the thesis they all served to illustrate was "the incredible shrinking careers of so many Hollywood actresses."
"The number of actresses who attain fame only to fall off the cultural radar is astonishing." (I detected a tinge of pleasure here on the journalist's part, but that might have been my own.) "It seems only a moment ago they were ubiquitous emblems of our celebrity culture, but the unforgiving nature of the close-up and the industry's obsession with youth and beauty ensure that the professional lifespan of actresses tends to be shorter than those of most other creatures."
I glanced at my watch and was flipping through the file when another smile caught my eye. This one, too, was dazzling, but that's as far as the similarity went. The photograph was of a hefty black woman - the word "coy" didn't come to mind-- who was looking out jovially from her obituary in The New York Times. She appeared to be chuckling in response to somebody or something outside our view, and you could almost hear the deep and easy laughter, full-throated and hearty.
"Celestine Harrington, a quadriplegic street musician whose buoyant personality and unremitting chutzpah brought astounded smiles to everyone who watched her play the keyboard with her lips and tongue on Atlantic City's Boardwalk, died on February 25th of complications resulting from a traffic accident. She was 42.
"At 4-feet, 10 inches and 190-pounds, and performing daily on an electric synthesizer," the Times told us, she "cut a remarkable figure as she lay on her stomach, head up, moving swiftly through the city streets on a motorized gurney that she guided through a steering device worked by her chin. Born with a congenital joint condition that eroded the connective tissue in her arms and legs, leaving them immobile stubs, Mrs. Harrington never seemed to consider herself disabled. In 1974, she was courted and wed by a nursing home aide at the rehabilitation clinic where she lived at the time. They had one child, a daughter. Her husband's death a year later led the courts to seek custody, but she won the right to raise their child by demonstrating to a dumbstruck judge what she could manage: she changed the baby's diaper with her teeth."
She won the right to raise their child by demonstrating to a dumbstruck judge what she could manage: she changed the baby's diaper with her teeth.
Mrs. Harrington, the obituary continues, was "a beloved presence to people on the Boardwalk. One of the many friends with whom she formed close relationships was Camille LeClair, owner of the McDonald's restaurant for which Mrs. Harrington made deliveries. After getting word of the death, Mrs. LeClair recalled last week that on one occasion when Mrs. Harrington was in her house, "I said to Celestine, 'Why does God allow me to [walk all around] but you have to struggle so much?' Celestine said, 'That's why I'm here. To remind you to count your blessings every day.'"
The next clipping to give me pause was from The Times' Science section, about a 50-year-old former city planner who "while being treated for depression…was persuaded by her therapist to enter a psychiatric hospital for anorexia, a condition she had been unable to talk about or address. At 5-foot-4, [she says she] weighs 'in the 80's.' She struggled to stay thin throughout her teens and 20's, but when her husband was told he had a chronic illness a few years ago, her problems grew worse.
"'I never wanted to have children,'" the woman tells the reporter, "because I didn't want to be tied down. Suddenly I had someone who needed a lot of care.' The youthful lifestyle she and her husband had enjoyed -- dinners out, trips to Europe and Palm Beach -- was curtailed. Her eating became dangerously ascetic. Often, she eats only one meal a day, a salad. 'I wake up in the morning and think, how long can I go without eating anything today? The longer you go -- it's like a high.' She exercises habitually, in a regime that includes walking on a treadmill for an hour every day, seven days a week; lifting weights with a personal trainer three times a week; and taking Pilates instruction twice a week. Her goal in psychotherapy is to become 'happier with myself and more confident, she said. 'I'd like it if this eating problem could recede to the back burner,' she said. But, she admitted, 'I don't ever think, Oh, wouldn't it be nice to go up to 100 pounds? I like the way I look. I look young, and I have a lot of energy. I feel that I'm fine the way I am…'"
My zealous momentum for organizing the desk had faltered.
In the kitchen for a cup of coffee a few moments later, a plate of my daughter's homemade chocolate chip cookies beckoned. Leaning back against the counter as the kettle came to a boil, and browsing through another clipping, and another, and then another cookie -- Don't do it! commanded my inner policeman -- something from The Jerusalem Post caught my attention. Here, too, it was a smile that drew me, but on second glance, the expression was elusive.
"New life survives triple deaths in July terror attack," the headline informed us. In the photograph, a young religious woman is looking down at the infant in her arms. A white bandage covers the woman's left eye.
Was she smiling? Or was it her whole way of being that gave that impression?
"Ayelet Shilon is counting miracles instead of tragedies. Last July, the 29-year-old lost her mother, daughter, and husband when terrorists killed nine people in a bus attack. A bullet entered the back of Shilon's head behind her ear and came out between her eyes, blinding the left one.
"'But the right one works,' said Shilon on Thursday, lying in a hospital bed in Bnei Brak. She can't keep that one off her new daughter. Born Monday, the baby looks like her husband and her other children combined, said Shilon. 'I know it sounds strange, but I feel like my husband is here with me, watching us. I feel him with me all the time. This girl is another testament to him. I am so happy to bring a healthy child into the world. It is the best that a mother can ask for. She is a present from God.
"'I like to think that the glass is half full instead of half empty.'
"The attack, she says, didn't make her lose faith in God but instead strengthened it, because her survival after such a head wound was a miracle.
"She didn't lose consciousness. She knew right away that her mother, Zilpa, 65, and daughter, Sara Tiferet, 18 months, were dead. What she didn't know at the time was that her husband had raced to the bus from their home upon hearing of the attack and was shot trying to save her and the children.
"Shilon hasn't returned to Emmanuel since the attack. She fears she will feel the loss more acutely there. '[But] there is so much to live for….In that absurd moment on the bus when I saw that my mother and daughter were dead, I had a sudden thought that everything belongs to God, not to me. If God wants to give you something God will, and if God wants to take it, God will. Everything is in God's hands"
The kettle was whistling. I got myself coffee and sat down with another article, also from The Post, about a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas who'd won the world's largest lottery. Here, too, we saw a smiling face, but if this fragile-looking countenance had any light at all to offer, it was eclipsed by an overwhelming air of sadness.
"Cynthia Jay-Brennan, 38," read the caption, "paralyzed five weeks after she was married, sits next to her $35 million Megabucks jackpot slot machine."
It was time to go. I folded the article and stuck it in my purse.
I got off the #27 bus and began hurrying through the old religious neighborhood of Geula on my way to the dentist. The going was slow. Malchei Yisrael Street was full of shoppers, and in every other doorway there seemed to be another beggar with hand outstretched. I might have felt justified in passing them by -- it was already quarter after ten -- were it not for two comments that had lodged in my mind years ago. Once I heard in a class given by Rebbetzin Dinah Weinberg. "When a beggar comes to your door erev Shabbos and you're annoyed at the interruption, know that he's doing more for you than your money will ever do for him." The other was something my friend Bayla Potash once said, on the day that a man walking through Geula glanced into a parked van and saw something that aroused his suspicions. He summoned the police, and the van turned out to be packed full of a terrorist's explosives, which were then defused. "It's because of all the tzedaka given on that street," said Bayla, "You're not supposed to pass by a beggar without giving something."
A block before I got to the clinic, another beggar beckoned. I was about to give her a shekel when something about her face made me look again, and my hand hesitated, embarrassed. What made me think she was begging? There was no Styrofoam cup or outstretched hand. She was about forty. She did look poor, quite poor, but whatever it is you expect from a beggar's face…it wasn't there.
Before knowing what I was doing, I was giving her the shekel, and she was taking it. So she was begging, after all. Without thinking I said, "You're happy, aren't you." It was a statement, not a question.
She looked at me with interested eyes. "Yes. I am. I say to God, please, help me understand that whatever You give me is for my own good. Sometimes I tell him, 'Thank you so much that I have to ask You for money like this, because this way, I have to always lift my eyes to You.'"
On the bus-ride home, I took out the lottery article.
"He was a bartender in a Los Vegas casino. She was one of the waitresses. They got married and looked forward to a life together.
"When the buzz of the growing Megabucks jackpot went around town, Jay-Brennan…sat down at a slot machine and played $3. The Megabucks symbols lined up on the machine.
"They left their jobs, established a trust, and took care of their families financially…. There were the odd letters from people asking for money, and the sneers of the jealous.
"They hadn't even begun spending on themselves when the accident happened. They had been married five weeks. Two blocks from her home, a drunken driver rear-ended her car. Her sister, Lela Ann Jay, 45. died at the scene. The fifth vertebra in Jay-Brennan's spine was shattered, paralyzing her from her upper chest to her toes. No amount of money could buy a cure.
"'I was talking to Lela Ann about how happy I was, newly married and just the whole thing,' Jay-Brennan says. 'That's the last thing I remember.'
There are days when Brennan doesn't want to brush and floss his wife's teeth. But he does.
"A caretaker visits morning and night. Jay-Brennan depends on her husband for the little details - moving a hair away from her face, smoothing on lipstick, brushing away a fallen eyelash. 'I'm like a rag doll,' she says.
"At night, sometimes it's the cold that bothers her; other times it's the heat. She wakes her husband softly and asks for his help.
"There are days when Brennan doesn't want to brush and floss his wife's teeth. But he does. He says, 'I'd trade all the money tomorrow for our lives to be the way they were before.'"
We'd arrived at my stop. The doors opened with a thump and down I stepped.
This article is featured in Sarah Shapiro's new book Wish I Were Here.