Julius Pliner or, A Very Old Man

Great-grandfather to two. Grandfather to three. Father to two. Husband to five.

This is no accusation of lechery, or at least, lechery unbefitting a man of his years. It is simply the result of his happening to outlive his wives, a circumstance he no more wished for than they did. But in many respects, he never really lived past the first.

To the generations that followed him, little of his early life was known. Julius, his daughter Selma would inform you, was a stoic, bred so by necessity: born in 1902, he saw his Jewish family persecuted in Poland, then chased to New York and Chicago. He read news of the Titanic in 1912, and knew in 1915 that German U-Boats had torpedoed the Lusitania. At the end of the First World War, he was sixteen; by thirty the Great Depression had started. He worked from the age of eleven, and never spoke much on the subject of his life.

When Julius died in November 2001, at the age of 99, weeks shy of a century and nearly in reach of a congratulatory letter from the President of the United States, which during his dwindling moments of clarity he adamantly insisted on receiving, it fell to his daughter and her husband to settle his affairs. She, seventy years old herself, had been paying his taxes for years, hiring his nurses, taking care of his insurance, sending him money, and taking his phone calls, which daily grew more laced with paranoid suggestions of theft and intrusion. When the phone calls finally stopped, and there was no more paperwork to be signed, all that remained was the packing up of the condominium in Florida, where Julius had lived for the last years of his life. It was there she came upon the journal.

Small, leather-bound, with a rubber-band around it, the journal Julius kept from 1926 to 1927 was really a converted accounting ledger, the words, most often in pencil, scratched over the entry columns, dates, and tabulations. The entries spoke of friends, new fedoras, business propositions: a butcher shop that failed, a hardware store that failed, another idea that won't. Details of his young unmarried life, logical, practical, ordered.

Then he met Ida. She was the sister of a girl he'd already been on one date with, but prettier; beautiful, in fact, with long, black hair, fair skin, and expensive tastes. Her father hated him. But as Julius would do in all things, he persevered. According to the words on those pages, suddenly everything he did became for her. 'I don't make enough for Ida,' he would write. 'How will I get Ida,' 'when will I see Ida,'and 'I'm going to marry Ida.' One page, toward the end of the book, past fifty others that had been left blank, was covered entirely by her name, repeated in the same lettering one hundred times over.

Summers went by, other suitors came to Ida and left, Julius exhausted himself working so that he could deem himself fit to propose. Finally--as one particularly memorable passage tells us--he 'bought Ida an engagment ring--wholesale.' He proposed by way of just asking her plainly if she'd marry him, and to the consternation of her father, she told him that she would.

The journal stops just days after this entry, as if loving Ida were the only story he had to tell, marrying her the only thing he had to do. Reading the journal for the first time, with its poor grammar and misspellings, its functional abruptness and mechanical construction, I was overwhelmed by the simple and total sincerity of his love for her. She became the only thing, the reason to do well, to work hard, to persist. On paper it was a perfect romance; I should not have believed it had I encountered it anywhere but the primary source.

When Ida died thirty years later, Selma tells us, Julius could not have expected nor greatly desired to live for thirty more years again. But he did, and as he had always done before, left much about himself to the speculation of his children and subsequent wives. He did no more writing.

The journal of Ida is the only one he kept.

Goodbye, Grandpa. I hope you found her again.

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