54: House of Sunshine and Tears

54: House of Sunshine and Tears

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

House of Sunshine and Tears

Youth is a crown of roses, old age a crown of willows.

~Jewish Proverb

I pulled my 1959 Plymouth into the driveway, fairly sure that I had the correct address. The “for rent” sign was still hanging in the downstairs window along with the monthly rent listing of $125 a month. To a college sophomore who’d already spent a fortune on tuition and books, this was pretty steep, especially back in the mid-1960s. Additionally, it was in a rundown section of San Jose, California. Row upon row of aging, dilapidated Victorian homes lined the streets that paralleled my college. As I got out of the car I gazed at this once-elegant home, which I guessed had to have been built before the turn of the twentieth century.

As I was about to knock, the door opened, and there stood a tiny, gray-haired woman of about seventy. She wore a pair of jeans and rain boots as well as a large apron that covered her entire torso. She smiled and asked, “Are you here about the rent?”

Her accent was clearly Germanic but pleasant. “Yes, ma’am,” I responded. She must have noticed that I was gawking at her outfit because she tittered, saying, “Oh, I was about to do some gardening in the front. After last night’s rain, it can get pretty messy.”

“I understand. My mother does pretty much the same thing.” She smiled, her eyes squinting at the early morning sun.

“My name is Ester Levinsky, and whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

“Oh… I’m sorry, I’m Jody Chaney. Uh… I go to school here at San Jose State.”

“That’s wonderful. Without an education, the world can be pretty harsh.” There was a momentary pause until she added, “Well, why don’t we take a look at the room, yah?” I nodded, and together we went inside and up the polished staircase. My eyes darted everywhere, from the faded photos on the wall to the two facing china cabinets on either side of the hallway, filled with glass crystals and vases of various sizes. Despite the bright morning, the house was dark, even with the flowered curtains that had been pulled back and tightened with bows. Everything seemed to be extremely tidy.

As we walked down the narrow hall, I couldn’t help but notice a large portrait of a young man and woman in what appeared to be a wedding picture. “That was taken on my wedding day in the spring of 1917.” She pointed to the man in the photo. “This was my husband, Isaac. He was a chemistry teacher.” She spoke no further of him but continued to walk down the hall until we came upon the room at the far end of the house. As we entered I noticed it was a bit more modern than the rest. The paint on the walls appeared brighter, and light from the window shone down on a comfortable looking bed. Opposite the bed at the far end was an old writing desk and chair. Two rows of bookshelves hung over the desk.

“Be careful opening the door too wide. The radiator is right behind you. Now, let’s see… oh, the bathroom is right across the hall and it has a full shower and bath. As far as meals are concerned, you’re welcome to join me for dinner… that’s included in the rent and you can keep your breakfast foods in the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator. I do require though that you wash your own dishes. Also, you can use the washer and dryer whenever you need it.”

This is a great deal, I thought, especially with dinners thrown in. “I’ll take the room,” I said a bit too enthusiastically. “Would you like some references?”

Ester shook her head, her hair neatly pressed into a bun. “No, you seem like a good boy. My husband always told me sometimes instincts are more accurate than cold facts.”

“Are there other rooms rented out here?” I queried.

“No, this is the first time I’ve ever rented out a room. I hope I’m doing the right thing you know, with all the crime going on. I think I’d feel safer knowing someone else was in the house, other than just myself.”

The following week I moved in, bringing with me my little record player, clothes, lamp, 49ers poster, and my baseball glove and bat. Looking about the room, with its oddly shaped trapezoidal window, I wondered who had lived here in the past, what they were like, and whether they were as content in this room as I seemed to be. Within an hour I’d set everything in place and was off to my afternoon class.

Returning to my newly rented room, I smelled the delicious aroma of chicken and rice being prepared. “Supper’s on in thirty minutes,” shouted Ester. I smiled to myself, and my stomach rumbled.

“Thank you ma’am. I’ll be down shortly.”

It was during our first evening together that she told me about herself and her husband. They’d both been raised in Frankfurt, Germany where they met at the university. She was beginning her studies in English literature while Isaac was doing graduate work in chemistry. Soon after graduating he got a job working as a chemist for an agricultural company, but was later forced to leave once Hitler came to power. She remained at home, raising their only daughter, Sarah, who died of polio at seven. Once it appeared that they would eventually be sent to a concentration camp, they arranged to leave, smuggling themselves out through Switzerland and eventually landing in New York in 1938. Isaac found work, not as a chemist but as an assistant researcher for a beverage company. In 1942 his company moved him to San Jose where they purchased the Victorian. They lived there together until 1962 when he died of cancer.

Day after day we’d sit together, discussing history, politics, religion, literature — anything that we fancied. Through the wisdom of Mrs. Levinsky, I gained insight into life that no teacher could ever have imparted on me. I no longer looked at her as my landlady but as a grandmother.

As a history major, I was fascinated with her understanding of Germany in the 1930s, and we ended up talking for hours on the subject late into the night. When we were done, I’d climb the stairs to my little corner room and study until overcome with exhaustion.

For three years I remained in that house, helping her with her chores while she regaled me with stories from her childhood. When I finally graduated, I was offered a job in Nevada. Although excited, I felt a certain sadness at having to leave. When the time came to say goodbye, we hugged tearfully, promising to keep in touch. For over a dozen years we did just that — until I received word from a neighbor that she had suffered a stroke and died a few months later.

I will always remember that house and the enchanting times spent with this most remarkable woman.

~J.D. Chaney

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