NOTE: This sketch of Anny Kast was written many years ago and rewritten from time to time. For many who knew her, it captures something of her spirit. Anny passed away on March 1, 2010. Now this is a reminder of her, a tribute to someone we loved.
When Anny called from the airport, Ruth could barely make out the plea – or command – filtered through her aunt’s excited, thick Belgian accent.
“Anny, slow down, what is it?” Ruth asked.
“The hat, you have to bring my hat. I left it at the apartment.” Her voice quavered with hysteria.
Some weeks before the date of departure, Ruth had helped Anny shop for a hat to go with the stylish dress she had bought for a wedding in Tel Aviv. She had to have a hat for this affair, which would be conducted in a synagogue. And not just any hat, but a hat that would seem to belong with the dress. Anny was thrilled when Ruth discovered the hat at the umpteenth store. It was perfect, a silvery cloche with pleated folds. Sophisticated but not showy, or perhaps quietly showy. But in all the excitement of packing for a return from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Israel, the country that had once again become her home, she had left the hat on a closet shelf.
The return had been planned for some time, hinged largely to the return of Molly, Ruth’s mother and Anny’s sister-in-law by marriage to Molly’s brother, Isaac, who had passed away a half-year earlier. Anny, at seventy Molly’s junior by almost fourteen years, had been designated as the caretaker for Molly’s last years. Indeed, Molly had done the designating. She loved Anny and wanted to live with her in a new Tel Aviv apartment they planned to buy. This time, Molly was coming to Israel, where she had already resided for several years, as a new immigrant. Failing both in body and mind, she was coming to what she knew would be her final home. And Anny loved Molly; she looked on her truly as an older sister, or as a replacement for the mother she had lost during the holocaust. They felt lost without each other.
Ruth and her two brothers had anguished over their mother’s desire to go back to Israel with Aunt Anny as her companion and helpmate. No one felt comfortable about having her so far away, yet none felt any compelling reason to choose one of the more traditional arrangements for a parent’s last years. And Molly would not hear of “assisted living” or any other rubrics for the horror of “old age home” that her generation held. What the older women wanted was each other, though clearly the effort of making a home was all on Anny’s shoulders.
So when Anny called about the hat, the one thing missing in the overload of baggage they had schlepped to the airport in the hired van, assisted by Ruth’s younger brother, Ruth was tempted to make the trip, even though it was pouring rain and her husband’s brother was visiting. But when she hung up, the hat issue hadn’t been resolved.
Anny, Melody & Ruth 2006
“What would Madonna do?” offered Warren, Ruth’s brother-in-law who had flown in from L.A. to conduct an old friend’s wedding with his mail order ordination. “She’d send her chauffeur or bodyguard out on the errand.”
But Ruth still first had to drive over to her mother’s apartment, soon to be sold, and find the hat. She might as well continue to the airport. Besides, if she paid some taxi driver to make the trip, he might just pocket the money – or he might never find them.
“You’re crazy to go out in this,” said her husband. “Just put that hat in some kind of air express tomorrow.”
But Ruth was getting ready to say her goodbyes to her mother and aunt all over again. Anny had already blamed her for the hat problem: “you made me forget it; you asked me a question just when I was going to go take it down from the closet. I need the hat. The wedding is in four days, and there are no deliveries on Shabbat.” This inarguable logic and guilt-fillip sent Ruth to find her rain slicker. There are things that you do for Anny. Even make a three-hour round trip in the pouring rain to deliver her hat. Even if you are sick and have company.
“She’ll drive Mom crazy about that hat,” said Ruth. “I’d better go.”
Anny’s needs didn’t always accommodate a tidy logic. She was in many ways still the young teenage girl nearly buried alive by the Christian family who had saved her from the Nazis. Hidden in closets, under flooring, and beneath garden soil, Anny’s life was a miracle. If she chain-smoked long after everyone else quit, if she talked a mile a minute even on tranquilizers, if she became shaky in elevators and other closed places, if she traveled with a cup of water always in her hand, if she got her several languages mixed up, if her mind leapt from one topic to another on the wires of her own unique circuits . . . if, in short, she was a little strange, it was an understandable and ultimately a loveable strangeness.
When Anny had become attached to Ruth’s family, she was already in early middle age. Chic, fun-loving, and outgoing, she pulled against the insular and somewhat dowdy life of her new relations. She had had enough of despair. Anny clowned with all of her young nieces and nephews; she ran them ragged in ways their other aunts and uncles could never do. Lovable and eccentric, perhaps her nervous energy was all that compressed, hushed, hidden childhood let out.
Anny had learned to fend for herself; she had become – for all her childlike exuberance – a type of the independent woman unusual in her generation. Too nervous to drive, she could give a driver directions to anywhere. She developed networks of doting friends who could help her solve any difficulty. For Anny, getting medical appointments on short notice – even for others – was never a problem. She had long ago befriended just the right people in any office with which she had dealings. On the telephone, her accent was familiar to them all; she never identified herself. Anny just had to say “Hello” and make her request and she’d hear – I’m sure we can fit your sister in, Mrs. Kast. How about tomorrow morning?”
And she was quick to take charge, for all her anxious mannerisms, in any emergency.
For example, there was the time when she and Molly and Molly’s older sister Rose were on their way back from the hairdresser to Molly’s car. This was down near Dupont Circle in D.C. It was one of those warm early autumn days when the yellow jackets know their time is short and go nuts. When Rose got stung, Anny wasted no time rushing into the nearest drug store and pushing to the front of the line at the pharmacist’s counter.
“Aim,” she shouted, “I must have some Aim. It’s an emergency.”
Well, of course she sounded crazy to everyone around her, especially given her Belgian accent and sky-blue, wide-eyed stare. When is toothpaste an emergency? Someone directed her to the proper aisle. And do you know? Anny was right on target. She had remembered hearing that something with fluoride was an effective remedy for insect stings. Anny got some Aim onto Rose’s neck in a timely fashion, and she saved the day. We love that story, the off-kilter life force of Anny prevailing.
For a person like this, you can make a special trip, search for a hat she forgot, drive it out to the airport, and try to get past El Al security. “My aunt forgot her hat.” Sure. Can you explain how she danced with your children? How she cared for your uncle? Can you explain to them about the Aim? About Belgian winters without parents and being wedged into crevices while Nazi soldiers shout threats and rattle walls, the falling dust and dirt making you frantic for breath? Making her frantic for breath?
Anny is our survivor. She is the other side of tragedy, though not its opposite.
So Ruth got that hat into Anny’s hands, and Anny’s outfit was a big hit at the wedding. She told us so over the phone a few days later.
Soon after, she called about an apartment she and Molly had found. It was just right; maybe one or two things needed to be changed. For instance, Anny hoped that the seller would agree to put in a divider between the kitchen and the dining area: “I want harmonica doors,” she vamped like a chanteuse.
Harmonica doors? We didn’t get it at first, but we soon understood what she meant. We knew her so well, we even followed the Anny logic by which she had made her mistake.
“You mean ‘accordion doors,’ ” Ruth offered.
“You know,” said Anny, “the kind that fold. They call them ‘harmonica doors’ here.”
Well, who could argue? What was there to win? Here is this woman whose dark memories are stored on videotape in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum but whose life is a blessing and a bright flame of love. A woman who had nursed her frail husband through several horrendous years and who in her own old age cared for her dead husband’s sister. Anny, have any doors you want. Accordion, harmonica, call them what you will. You will probably keep them open. Anny, your good heart takes the sting away. Send us a picture, Anny, a smiling picture from the Holy Land, a picture of you wearing your silvery hat.