A trip down memoirs lane: Excerpts from 90-year-olds stories reveal glimpses of days gone by

Byron Citron celebrated his 90th birthday less than two weeks ago, surrounded by family and friends in his Concord home.

Even at his age, he still hikes two miles a day with his dog and keeps his mind sharp by participating in activities such as a memoir writing class.

Citron has “been coming to my class a long time,” says Elaine Starkman, who teaches “Writing Your Wisdom” in Walnut Creek. “He is very smart.”

The writing class has given Citron the opportunity to write stories about growing up in Los Angeles, his family and his experiences during World War II and the battle of Iwo Jima, among other things.

“When you’ve lived as long as I have, you have a lot of memories,” Citron says in an interview, “and the best thing to do is recall some of them and see how simple it is to write a story.”

In one of his stories, a six-page piece titled “Our Russian Story,” he writes about his grandfather, Isadore Citron, arriving in Los Angeles in 1880.

“His first view of Los Angeles was the town center Olivera and Main Streets,” he writes. “The business district was not very impressive to see in 1880. Main Street, the city’s principal but unpaved thoroughfare, consisted of little more than a series of rickety wooden storefronts. Temple Block, at Spring and Temple Streets, was a prestigious business location because of its brick construction.”

Later in the story, he writes about how his family rarely talked about life in Russia or the difficult passage to America: “The only one to comment, within my hearing, about her home in Russia and the hardships of ‘leaving behind’ her family and Jewish community was Auntie Marie.

“She was a tall and well-proportioned woman. She had an imposing manner directed at all the family with regard to proper diet. ‘Auntie Me’ (in my later years, I have often wondered why a nice Jewish maiden lady had Marie as a first name!) was appreciated by all as a great cook. She attributed her skill, she frequently repeated, to instructions from ‘famous’ French chefs.

“[Her] portions were ominous and the necessary seconds were heaped on our plates with the emphatic order ‘Nah.’ One particular dish, kasha, served as a side dish with meat, in lieu of potatoes, was not so well received. Auntie Me was convinced ‘it is guute for you.'”

Citron, who has three daughters (in Los Angeles, Concord and Austria) and four grandchildren, has also written a five-page story called “Ghost of Holiday Past.”

“The supernatural is especially real to a child, to a child looking for answers to family secrets or unexplained attitudes of his parents,” he writes, noting that his father’s parents and several aunts and uncles “came from a place called Odessa, Russia, and didn’t want to talk about it.”

Later, he writes: “When my grandfather Citron was alive, he conducted the major Jewish holiday celebrations. I remember vividly the 1925 Passover service. I was about 7.”

When it comes time to welcome the Prophet Elijah, “The glasses are raised and, then, unexpectedly, the doorbell rings. I was startled. My grandfather had already given me the honor of opening the door when the toast begins. But the ringing doorbell was not part of the scenario. Only the ghost of Elijah was to be invited in. How could a ghost ring the doorbell?

“I stood still, frozen hand upon the doorknob. A long moment of silence and then a loud father’s voice, ‘Open the door!’ And then again, ‘Open the DOOR! Byron,’ my father ordered. ‘Allow the spirit of Elijah to enter.’

“I reluctantly I opened the door, revealing a tall, strange man and several children. It was Marcus Lafee, my mother’s only living brother, and his family. My mother had not seen her brother since her wedding. My mother, years later, suggested that Marcus was opposed to her marriage and especially leaving San Francisco for a home in Los Angeles. Such are the slights and hurts that seem to plague the family circle.

“I remember this ghost story each spring and when I frequently visit Sarah Atkinson Lafee, the eldest of Marcus’ five children. Sarah is now 95 years old, and we two are the last of that memorable seder.”