I had the pleasure of meeting Bea on May 3, 2016, just 25 days before she died. She was gracious to agree to participate in my blog. I was particularly struck by her warmth, her clarity, and her ability to approach aging with good humor. It was evident that she enveloped everyone in her world with love. She will be sincerely missed.
I knew from the first conversation that I was going to enjoy meeting Bea Maslow.
“How would Monday morning be,” I asked Bea when I called to set up a date for our conversation.
“I’d rather get exercise,” she replied without hesitation.
“I don’t blame you,” I told her. “I wouldn’t give up exercise for me either!”
I later reflected on that exchange. Was she truly an exercise enthusiast or was she letting me know that her enthusiasm for getting together was on par with undergoing a root canal. It was a great relief when I discovered that Bea rarely puts anything above exercise.
I had felt some angst before I arrived at her apartment. How was I was going to learn about the life of a 105-year-old in 90 minutes? Would we have time to talk about all the highlights of her over ten decades on this planet? Where would we start?
My pre-interview jitters were unnecessary, of course. Clearly, as with each of these interviews, we would begin where Bea wanted to start and travel where she wanted to go. I reset my expectations. I was not going to learn everything about Bea: there wasn’t the time or the inclination. I would accept with gratitude whatever brief glimpse into her world that I was offered.
We began our conversation with what always matters most – family. Bea and her accomplished husband Will Maslow were married for 73 years. The couple met at Cornell in 1929 when 18-year-old Bea was a freshman and Will, at 21, was in his senior year. They enjoyed their life together until his death in 2007, just months away from his 100th birthday.
The story of how they met has a fairy tale quality. On Bea’s first day at college, a male friend of the family invited her for an evening tour of the campus. Not realizing that co-eds were required to sign out when leaving their residence after dinner, Bea was called before a University committee the next morning and reprimanded. The penalty was stiff, particularly considering that she had just arrived on campus. She was forbidden to date for the next three months. She was allowed to attend evening lectures and other academic-oriented events. Unfortunately, she had to pass on the dances and parties that are the essence of college life.
After staying indoors one night too many, Bea and a friend attended a lecture presented by a Russian general. Bea recalls that she lacked any interest in the topic or the speaker. She just craved an evening out.
When the general concluded his remarks, a handsome upperclassman gallantly asked if he could walk her home. Slightly flustered, Bea said that she was with a friend. That was not a deterrent. Will was delighted to escort both women for the chance to meet the attractive freshman who had caught his eye. That evening sparked a relationship that extended over seven decades.
In addition to enjoying the social aspects of college (once she was no longer barred from participating), Bea immersed herself in academics. She chose a challenging major – economics – and took her studies seriously. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
After college, rather than move to Washington D.C. where most of the econ majors headed, Bea went to Manhattan. Will, her husband-to-be, was working as a staff writer for The New York Times. This was the start of a most illustrious career. He worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, New York City’s Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Committee on Fair Employment Practices under President Franklin Roosevelt. From 1960-1972, Will was the Executive Director for the American Jewish Congress, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating inequality for Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Among this advocacy group’s exceptional accomplishments was their involvement in the passage of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education that ended de jure segregation in the nation’s public schools, and their participation in the Civil Rights Movement.
Will was not the only one in his family to be engaged in notable work. His first cousin was Abe Maslow, the path-breaking humanist psychologist who identified the hierarchy of human needs. The boys spent much of their childhoods together. Sadly, only Will experienced longevity: Abe died in his 60s.
Before the birth of their two daughters, Bea explored the world of photography. Alfredo Valentine, a noted photographer and a close friend, generously offered the use of his studio so that Bea could delve into this emerging interest. Within a few years, Bea opened a studio in Manhattan and established herself as a well-regarded children’s photographer.
The family lived in various locations – Maryland, Brooklyn, and Long Island – but none compared to her favorite home: an apartment on 86th Street on Manhattan’s East Side. Bea and Will lived there for over 40 years. She lights up as she describes memories of long walks at a time when the city was bustling but not yet overcrowded.
Bea’s living room is filled with family photos. She points out members of her clan, many of whom live distances away in France and California. She smiles as she names her four grandchildren and her seven great-grandchildren. When I admire her extensive family, she responds:
“When you’re old, you get a lot of family.”
And yes, if you live a long life, it’s likely that you will also experience great sorrow. In 2015, Bea lost the younger of their two daughters to cancer. In a few words, Bea says everything:
“It was a heartbreak.”
Up into her 90’s, Bea was still very much on the go. At age 85, she was still working as a substitute teacher in East Harlem. She was particularly fond of subbing in math classes in the high school.
“I told the kids to put away their calculators. In my class, their heads would be their calculators.”
The baffled students complied.
Recalling these cherished memories, she compares the past to the present.
“Then, life was exciting. Now, it’s scary.”
Before Bea and I conclude our conversation, I have one last question: What is life like at 105?
“You begin to wonder what’s left to look forward to … besides turning 106!”