Life in a Box

Anny Mayor’s greatest fear was losing her memory…

Fanny Weiskopf was dead set on living even though the odds were stacked again her. Born in 1925 in rural Romania, she knew nothing but hardship and sacrifice. Chicken bones were boiled five separate times to make five batches of soup, and if there wasn’t soup, it was weeds for dinner. Her younger sister, sweet Margaret, was the favored child, so Fanny had to adopt the roll of a first-born son in her family. She was a whiz at math, good at sports, climbed trees and was generally unstoppable. At a time when Jewish girls were meant to become Jewish housewives, she was considered more than a little odd.

Fanny lived through pogroms, famine and eventually, the Holocaust. She nourished her childhood sweetheart, Jean Mayor, back to physical health after he was beaten to within an inch of his life. The two left Romania with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and a hope and dream. In Paris, Fanny cooked her famous soup, this time with chicken on the bones, and did her best to wrench Jean out of his depressions. She embodied the expression, “keep calm and carry on,” which was all the more amazing after having seen the worst side of humanity during the Second World War.

The couple learned French and the fur trade in Paris. Fanny soaked up the culture; she had a very open and inquisitive mind. I don’t know why they came to New York City in the 1970s when they were enjoying a modicum of success in France. All I know is that they learned English when they arrived and opened a small shop in the then silk-stocking district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They worked day and night designing and repairing furs for their well-heeled clientele. I don’t know why they never had children.

At some point, Fanny Weiskopf changed her name to Anny Mayor, which she thought sounded more chic. When I was born, the ever-thrifty Anny showed up with a $100 Tiffany vase filled with yellow tulips in celebration. Over the years, she brought me salata de vinete (Romanian eggplant salad) on weekends and never missed a birthday. Anny and Jean never stopped denying themselves even when their business flourished. They loved opera, but but only bought the cheapest tickets in the standing section. If they went out to dinner, half the meal came home for the next night. But, they also wanted to travel the world, and I’m happy that they did so much before Jean became ill.

Anny never let us visit her apartment, which she claimed was too small to host the family. Five years ago, when my father had to step in to help her care for herself, we were shocked by what we saw. She was sleeping on sheets that were crumbling and rotting under her body, despite having a closet full of unopened sets. She drank from a cracked plastic cup claiming it was her favorite; meanwhile, she had cabinets of untouched crystal that she spent years accumulating. The food we had sent her through FreshDirect and Meals on Wheels was divided, uneaten and rotting in the freezer. She weighed less than 100 pounds. She slept with the door bolted and a chair blocking the handle because she was convinced someone was planning on murdering her in her sleep. But when you talked to her on the phone, she sounded perfectly normal.

Anny now lives in the upscale Hearthstone Alzheimer Care unit in the Esplanade at Palisades home in New Jersey. My family and I spent months sorting through, boxing up and disposing of her precious belongings: furs, stilettos, couture gowns, China, tablecloths, linens, jewelry, dish sets. It took so long because we had to check all her pockets and hems for hidden money. We found solid gold Krugerrand coins sewn into the carpeting and $100-bills in the linings of her clothes. Of the 100 boxes we donated, I saved one for myself. The saddest part was finding all of the textbooks, magazine articles and technical journals meticulously highlighted with margin notes in Romanian about how to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe she could feel it coming on.

Anny was born into a miserable world but I never knew her to be anything but optimistic, funny and curious about all types of people. Just as Fanny was the top student in her elementary school, Anny is the top resident in her Alzheimer’s group. All that’s left of her legacy are the memories I’ve pieced together.

Alzheimer’s disease also affects friends and relatives of the patients. We’re all living with Anny’s disease, and I hope she can feel how much we love her.