Ursula Carlson: Dear friend has vivid memories of Pearl Harbor
Last week I visited one of my dearest book club friends. We have known each other about 10 years — from the time that I joined the club, in fact. Frada is 95 now and has enrolled herself in hospice care, though when I visited she was as mentally acute and vibrant as ever, and I couldn’t help wonder why she had made her choice.
Some people strike a deep chord in our hearts. It might have been that Frada’s petite size reminded me of my mother, or that I liked her straightforward, lucid and informed opinions. Or maybe it was the echo of Old World gentility.
She took my hand in hers last week when I sat down beside her bed, and I found myself not wanting to let go. Who, I wondered, is the one in need here, Frada or me?
I had wanted to bring something to Frada, to give her something, but I didn’t know what. A friend suggested I be guided by our friendship built on books and words. Perhaps there was something I could read? How perfect. I knew just the poem.
The poem spurred us on, beyond its glowing fields and fey horses, back to Minsk, Russia, in fact, to Frada’s father. As a young man subject to pogroms and conscripted to fight wars not of his choosing, he fled to America. In New York a friend of his introduced him to his future wife — leading to a most compatible and happy union — and in time they had children and a prosperous drugstore. When Frada’s brother became ill and the doctor recommended a change in climate, the family moved to Southern California.
Until then, Frada’s parents had spoken Russian freely at home, but because her brother was ridiculed by his playmates, they determined to speak English in the home from then on. So Frada grew up hearing snatches of Russian, a word here and there, but there was no chance for that effortless immersion that would have automatically made her bilingual from birth. This is her one great regret.
Frada married and became Frada Naroll. When her scholarly husband joined the Air Force in World War II and was stationed in Hawaii, she soon joined him there in summer 1941. On Dec. 7, Frada had gone out to tend their small garden when she heard an airplane. She glanced up and thought, “Strange.” Calling out to her husband, she said, “I don’t think that plane looks like one of ours; do you?” He agreed. Then Frada pointed out, “What is that big red circle?” Before he could respond, Frada added, “And what is that weird long thing hanging down from it?” Frada said their house was close to Pearl Harbor, so close she could see a battleship from her backyard. Just as her husband opened his mouth in horror, yelling “That’s a bomb!” the bomb fell and in a second the battleship burst into flames. My heart was racing by then. Frada’s recollection was as vivid as a movie clip.
We covered a lot of ground and time. I don’t know how many times Frada told me she had had the most wonderful life, and she voiced it the way I imagined a lark would sing it: pitch-perfect, clear and true. And then she added, as if divining my earlier puzzlement, “You know, I decided it was time to go, that’s all.” My face must have fallen, for she laughed and said, “But the body is not so quick to let go!”
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.