Jacob Schlitt


"It is June, 2007 and I am 79 1/2 years old. I have been writing my memoirs for several years, on and off, and I have touched on many facets of my life [...] But I woke up this morning with 'health' on my mind..."













It is June, 2007 and I am 79 1/2 years old. I have been writing my memoirs for several years, on and off, and I have touched on many facets of my life: my earliest days, school, friends, work, marriage, children, and most recently, an unfinished piece about music. (This IS the memorY that Jacob WROTE but never FINished.) But I woke up this morning with "health" on my mind, and decided to tackle it, and as with almost all the others, I approach it chronologically.

My earliest memory dealing with my health involves a medicine, a white powder that was prescribed by the doctor that came to our house when I was five or six. I must have had a fever or some other sign of illness which troubled my mother enough to have her call the doctor. Undoubtedly, I gagged or was unable to get the medication down. I wanted nothing to do with it. My distinct memory is of my mother chasing me around the apartment to get me to "take my medicine" and I was eluding her: under the table, into the bedroom, under the bed, around the chairs; every which way but out the door. I guess that my mother eventually won. My condition must have been pretty serious in her eyes to incur the expense of getting a doctor and going to Sheinman's drug store on the corner of Fox Street and Longwood Avenue to fill a prescription.

I don't believe I was a sickly child. I was tall and thin and developed "round shoulders" early on. As a teen-ager, I rationalized my poor posture as being caused by my being taller than others my age, and I therefore stooped so as not to tower over them. My mother was extremely concerned about my health. I believe I was forced to take cod liver oil at some point. My mother read all the articles in the Yiddish newspaper "The Day" about maintaining good health. She learned that a young child’s feet needed support, so I had to wear high shoes when all my friends had low shoes. And I never wore sneakers. A terrible argument took place when I was seven or eight and we had come home from the shoe store. I complained to my mother that I didn't want to wear high shoes any more. She logically (and angrily) responded, "Why didn’t you say something when we were in the shoe store?"

My mother knew about eating nutritiously: we ate only Dugan’s whole wheat bread or rye bread (challah on Friday night), lots of fruits and vegetables, and I drank lots of milk. (My mother drank 97% caffeine-free Sanka coffee.) We also ate lots of eggs, not knowing about cholesterol, and our cereal was "mamaliga." Our suppers were as "balanced" as my mother could make them, coming home from work. Fish—either fresh or canned, or meat—lamb chops, liver or hamburger. Sometimes my mother would open a can of Campbell's vegetable soup, serve the liquid, and use the vegetables as accompaniment to the fish or meat. Friday night dinner usually consisted of the aforementioned challah ( a large oval, not braided), chicken soup and boiled chicken with vegetables. Desserts were stewed fruit and occasionally, chocolate pudding, and the big treat for me was scraping the pot. My mother was not a baker, and we didn't have sweets in the house, until the start of World War II when it was hard to get chocolates, so we started buying boxes of Bartons and Barracinis. We seldom ate out. It was a special treat to get a hot dog at the delicatessen (with mustard and sauerkraut), and another special treat was splitting a malted at the corner candy store. Hot dogs and malteds cost five cents then.

I had all the children's illnesses, and the annual colds and sore throats. I have already written about my experience with the Lincoln Hospital. It was there that I had my tonsils out which was supposed to reduce the number of sore throats that I had been having. And I have mentioned my two teen-age physical afflictions: sinusitis and acne. Strangely, I didn’t get chicken pox (or was it mumps?) until my early twenties. I remember being told that if I got out of bed before I was over the chicken pox, there was the possibility of my becoming sterile. That really scared me, and I stayed in bed a few extra days.

As kids, we never thought about our health. We took it for granted. Concern about one's health was the province of old people. The worst thing that happened to kids besides a scraped knee or a bloody nose was a broken bone. If a kid got a broken bone, the cast was practically a badge of honor. Everybody signed it, and people carried things for you. And you didn’t have to go to school when you were in the hospital. I never had a broken bone.

Occasionally, you learned that a kid you knew had a rare sickness. The son of a friend of my mother's named Yussie Silverstein had some complicated problem involving his intestines, which I didn’t understand. I was told that he had been in the hospital for an operation in which they took out a lot of his intestines. He was in the hospital for a long time. His case was written up in medical journals. When I saw him, he looked OK to me; only a little thinner. He didn’t say much about what it was like to be in the hospital, and I didn't ask him. I think he also had a special diet. He couldn't eat things that the rest of us did.

Being healthy includes taking care of your teeth, and we were told from first grade on, to brush our teeth twice a day and see our dentist twice a year. Turns out I had poor teeth, lots of cavities, but a good dentist. I plan to write about Dr. Maggin, but I should mention that when I was about 14 or 15, I had braces. I hated them. I suspect it was still another aspect of my mother’s concern for my well-being. Dr. Maggin must have told my mother that I should see an orthodontist and I ended up at the NYU School of Dentistry on 23rd Street. Cheaper than a regular orthodontist, but I am sure it cost something. Two things I vividly remember were the plaster casts that were taken of my teeth which always caused me to gag, and the hooks on the braces to which I had to attach little rubber bands. I assume the braces pushed back my protruding upper teeth, but may have crowded my lower teeth which are now giving me trouble. I found the whole business unpleasant, embarrassing, and I was happy when it was over.

I apparently have been going along year after year, decade after decade, with remarkable good luck where health is concerned. I have never had a broken anything or had an extended stay in a hospital, other than having my tonsils out. (Should I now say "kinahorah"?) I was always amused when I was young by the concern older people expressed about health. "As long as you have your health" was a comment I tired of hearing.

I wasn’t an athlete, but I played ball with the other kids on the street: catch, box ball, hand ball, stick ball. We all got lots of fresh air. I found gym challenging in high school, especially climbing the ropes, but I managed to keep up. When I was drafted in 1954 at the age of 26 1/2, I kept up with the 18 and 19 year olds in basic training. As an adult, I did some bike riding and played a little tennis. I managed to meet most physical challenges. Some time in the early '60s I picked up an allergy to cats, so when doctors asked if I had an allergy I could answer yes. And in 1970, I stopped smoking after the evidence became overwhelming and my kids kept pestering me.

I was fortunate too that I didn't need eyeglasses until my forties, and then, only a minor correction for magnification. I vaguely remember having difficulty reading a name in a telephone book and realizing that I am finally going to be joining the legions of eyeglass wearers. I never understood what astigmatism was, and what was nearsighted versus farsighted, and why it was that I had to hold the paper further away to read it. Both Sylvia and Fran and three out of four of my children (not Carol) wore glasses from childhood.

To continue: It is December, 2007. Rereading what I have already written: a catalogue of my good fortune, health-wise is basically accurate, describing my "health" over my first 60 years. However, things have started going downhill. Osteoarthritis in my knees which had been treated (unsuccessfully) initially by cortisone shots, then by orthoscopic surgery. (I took glucosemine and condroitin for a while but began to feel it was a waste of time.) Knee replacement surgery has been a consideration for many years. Also, concern about my heart requiring metaprolol succinate to deal with heart rhythm; hearing loss which caused me to break down and get hearing aids; dental problems which will require major dental surgery; problems with my feet requiring orthotics and the strengthening of the quads and triceps; related problems with balance and a growing fear of falling on uneven or slippery surfaces; inability to walk up and down stairs without holding on; a recurrence of vertigo; and psoriasis. As Pete Seeger remarked, "My get up and go has got up and went." I don’t have much energy. I started going to the Brook House exercise room a couple months ago, but when the vertigo hit, I stopped.

As I look around me, I become increasingly concerned. Not only for me, but for those closest to me. The past nine months have been consumed by Fran's lung cancer. Over the 27 years that we have been together, Fran has been basically healthy. She had the usual visits to various doctors and dentists and psychiatrists and accupucturists, but nothing like what we are going through now. We want to believe that after the chemo and radiation and surgery, Fran has beaten the cancer. But Sid and Mel did not. And John Stachel and Martie Schneider are still fighting. And we keep learning about lots of other people who have had breast cancer and colon cancer and lymphoma. When are they going to figure it out? We are supposed to be "lucky" having a wonderful team of doctors at Beth Israel, and being so close, and having it discovered so early. We would have been lucky if Fran didn't have lung cancer.

Original Format



Jacob Schlitt, “Health,” Autobiographical stories & other writing by Jacob Schlitt, accessed July 14, 2024,