23: A Little Lipstick

23: A Little Lipstick

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

A Little Lipstick

Beauty, to me, is about being comfortable in your own skin. That, or kick-ass red lipstick.

~Gwyneth Paltrow

“Now if you could just put on a little lipstick that would make me so happy.” That was the second thing Mr. Stolarz said after opening the door. The first thing he said was, “Oy, my girls are here,” while beaming the brightest, somewhat impish smile. My friend and I volunteered for “Meals on Wheels,” an organization providing food to the elderly and shut-ins.

Two things stood out about most of our clients: they were lonely and grateful. The institutional-type food was mediocre but it was clear not many cared about that. They were thrilled to have companionship, even for only a few moments. They made the most of the time we were able to spend with them, given our task of having to make many stops between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. They’d tell us about their children who lived far away, and those who lived close but didn’t come around to visit often. Even the people who saw their children frequently would admit “frequent” was not enough when the rest of their days were so empty.

Sometimes I’d pick up a framed and dusty photo from a break-front shelf and say, “Is this you? You look beautiful.” They loved talking about their long ago wedding or about the grandchild who had performed in a dance recital then but was now in law school.

Mr. Stolarz was different. He had no framed photos and no stories about his wedding long ago or about any grandchildren. His prized possession, the only decoration in his small, sparse apartment, was in a beautiful, ornate, gilded wooden frame hanging on an otherwise bare wall.

“You know Spielberg? Schindler’s List?” he had asked while pointing at the frame. “You know he’s Jewish?”

In the frame was a signed letter from Steven Spielberg thanking Mr. Stolarz for participating in his Holocaust documentary, Shoah. Mr. Stolarz had survived the Nazis and their death camps. When Spielberg’s organization reached out to him he shared his painful personal story. He told me he rarely spoke about it but was willing to have it recorded for the documentary toward the mission of “Never Again.”

He recounted his ordeal as a teenager ripped from his family and imprisoned in a concentration camp, never to be reunited with any of them. That’s the story he told to the documentary producer and it was an honest account of his life. What he didn’t share was that as much as losing his family in that horrific way broke his heart, what was almost as painful was being torn from his passion. He had wanted to be a rabbi. He wanted to study the Torah and serve others. He had begun his studies just before the war and was a few years into it when he was sent to the camp. By the time he was liberated, he was quite ill and near death. He somehow made it to America, where he knew no one and had to start his life anew.

He worked in a factory and made just enough to pay for food and shelter. He was alive and okay, but before he knew it, he was no longer young and didn’t have money for school. He was never going to be a rabbi. He was heartbroken, happy to have survived but sad to have lost everything that mattered — his family and his calling. He didn’t want to be bitter, but some days he couldn’t help it. That’s why being part of the Shoah documentary meant so much to him. If he couldn’t devote his life to service and teaching, at least he’d leave a legacy larger than his single experience. With Shoah, his story would be woven into the stories of other survivors and as such he would be a small part of changing the world in a meaningful way. “Never again,” he’d explain, “never again.”

I looked forward to seeing him each week. He’d often share some personal philosophy and ask me what I thought, similar to what I imagined a conversation with a rabbi might entail. Sometimes he’d try to teach me something using a story about his family, but usually without too much detail. I wondered if he had trouble remembering the little things about his adolescence because the big ones were so insurmountable. Regardless of what we talked about, one thing was always the same. He’d take my hand, look directly into my eyes, smile, and thank me for visiting him. I know volunteering is something we do to help others, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t selfishly motivated, at least in my case. Seeing how happy he and the others were about these visits made me feel great. Was I helping them or myself?

After about a year of visiting him, he said, “Debby, why don’t you wear any make-up? You’re a pretty girl but even a pretty girl could use a little help.”

“Mr. Stolarz,” I replied somewhat sarcastically but smiling, “you’re lucky I brush my teeth and show up at all at this hour. I have to get up really early to pick up the food and get it to everyone. Don’t push your luck!” I didn’t tell him it made me laugh to hear him use the word “girl” in reference to fifty-five-year-old me. But he was well into his eighties, so to him I was, in fact, a girl. My husband thought his lipstick request was a bit perverse but I understood why it mattered. He was old but he wanted to feel like a man for whom a woman would put on lipstick.

The week after he told me a “little lipstick” would make him “so happy,” just before knocking on his door I applied a lovely shade of rose-colored lipstick. I must’ve been quite a sight wearing my lipstick along with my gray sweatshirt, baggy black sweatpants and sneakers.

“Debby,” he smiled expansively after opening the door, “you look beautiful. A little mascara wouldn’t hurt either.”

I didn’t get a chance to find out whether he’d have another request after the mascara. When I arrived a few weeks later, having applied mascara and lipstick, he didn’t answer when I knocked on his door. I returned to the lobby to inquire, worried he might have been hospitalized or worse.

“No,” they explained, “he’s okay but he doesn’t live here anymore. He fell a few days ago and had to move to an assisted living facility.” They didn’t know which one.

I knew I’d miss him and hoped he had the presence of mind after his fall to take his Shoah letter with him.

I volunteered for a while longer but never met anyone quite as compelling as Mr. Stolarz. Sometimes when I apply make-up, I think, “Here’s to you, Rabbi Stolarz.” I hope that’s not blasphemous.

~Deborah Drezon Carroll

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