The activity center at my parents’ Florida condo was a low, T-shaped building with sliding glass doors that opened onto room after well-lit room. Signs on these doors read, Bingo, Pottery, Woodworking. Inside sat white-haired men and red- or blond-haired women (in southeast Florida, women don’t get white or gray — it’s one of God’s miracles), their hands caressing cards, or vases, or pine boards. There were two nearby pools, the smaller one equipped with jets to create rushing water. Some of the altes, as my father would call them (short for alte kaker — Yiddish for “old shit”), swam or walked against the current for exercise.
“It’s great!” one woman yelled as I looked down at her quizzically. “It strengthens the muscles!” She raised an arm and flexed her biceps. She was tan and bright eyed, her hot pink bathing cap glowing fiercely in the sun.
“Looks good!” I yelled back with a smile.
My kids and I haunted the poolside to escape the tidy closeness of my parents’ condo. We listened to music, sunbathed, and complained.
“Grandpa’s mean to me,” my twelve-year-old son said as I sat down on the plastic lounge chair next to his and slathered on the SPF 15.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“He just is.”
After a while, a band arrived at poolside: a singer in his sixties with pale blue pants and a white shirt; an elderly drummer who wore his long white hair in a ponytail; a keyboard player with a paisley scarf, his pants pulled up almost to his chest.
“Uh-oh,” I said.
The altes began to stir, the women pulling out tubes of lipstick and compacts and poufing up their red or blond hair, the men putting on cotton or terry-cloth jackets color coordinated with their swimsuits.
As the band launched into “Begin the Beguine,” couples arose from all around — smiling, high-heeled women (how could they even stand up, much less dance, in such shoes?) and their burnished men. Their steps were lively and vigorous.
“God, are they dumb,” my daughter said. She was fourteen; everything was dumb to her.
“They’re just trying to have fun,” I said. But I was wrong: they weren’t trying to have fun; they were having fun. A couple tangoed their way from one end of the dance floor to the other. The woman was stunning (“dark as a schwartze,” my dad would say) in spike heels and short white skirt. Her partner, his white hair plastered over his bald spot, was elegant, an old Jewish Nureyev, but with skinny legs and a barrel chest.
“She must take lessons,” I said.
“Who?” my son asked.
“The lady in white, that one,” I said, pointing. It wasn’t rude. If she saw me pointing at her, she’d love it — I knew she would.
“She’s a showoff,” my daughter said. “She’s gross.” She re-covered her ears with headphones to listen to Dire Straits.
During a lull in the music, one woman on the dance floor called out in a thick accent, “Anyone else from Poland? Over here!” She waved her arm over her head, and I could see the numbers on her wrist.
She gathered a group of about five couples, and the band began to play something vaguely Slavic. They organized themselves into threes, and began a line dance, a troika.
“Look,” I said to my son and daughter, who were both lying on their backs, headphones on, tapping their fingers. They sat up and started to watch.
“Cool,” my son said.
“Gross,” my daughter said.
“It’s great. They’re really having fun,” I said. Then I whispered, “They’re Holocaust survivors.” My eyes started to mist. I have a thing for old Jews, Holocaust survivors in particular. I began to preach to my kids about the Holocaust once more.
“We know,” my daughter said. “You already told us.”
“About a hundred times,” my son said. But the two of them watched the dancers with a kind of grudging awe.
These Polish senior citizens — alte kakers, survivors, whatever you want to call them — danced and clapped with graceful abandon. The three-person lines moved like clockwork. The musicians rose to the occasion, and everyone, even the gorgeous tan lady in white, watched attentively. The background chatter ceased, nothing moved but the dancers, and the immaculately cared-for pool briefly seemed filled with millions of diamonds.