Before I can tell you about Eva Hindus, a Jewish woman of deep wisdom and personal achievement, I need to tell you how we came to be dear friends.
In 1960, I came from the University of Florida to Brandeis University as a graduate student in English literature ... I took courses with some famous and illustrious professors, but the professor I loved best was Milton Hindus who taught courses on Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Listening to him in class, I was entranced ... His teaching made me want to go home and study every word of Emily Dickinson's poems, and extract the meaning from them.
... A deep respect grew between my professor and me—we both appreciated many of the same things in literature. We sometimes met on campus as I walked with Joe, the man I was to marry at the end of that school year. When Professor Hindus and his wife Eva invited us to dinner at their home in Newton Centre, we had a convivial evening, with an instant sense of connection and warmth among us that continued to grow.
Eva and I, talking alone in the kitchen, immediately felt the kind of kinship that only occurs (if one is lucky) a few times in life ... I confessed that though I was in graduate school, I really wanted to be a writer more than a scholar!
Eva, in turn, told me that she had been born in Warsaw, Poland. Her name, before she changed it to Eva, had been Hala, which had been her paternal grandmother's name. As a child she loved to play the piano. When she was ten years old, her teacher, who thought she was a prodigy, urged her parents to let her audition for the music academy. Though the other students were fourteen or fifteen and Eva only ten, she did perform (as she remembered it) on a huge stage that held two grand pianos while the judges sat at "a large oval table with a green tablecloth on it." She was shortly told the news that she had been only one of four students admitted to the academy. For the next five years, she took piano lessons but "found it extremely hard to concentrate and progress because she felt frightened in a gentile environment." She experienced life in Poland as dangerous to Jews. She saw soldiers on street corners with vicious looking dogs; she experienced churches as places where people expressed hatred for Jews. The year before she turned fifteen, her father went to America in hopes of carving out a place for the family to immigrate. When she learned the family would follow him, she remembered leaving her last piano lesson and "skipping all the way home," glad that she was free of her studies and that the family would be reunited in America ... There was much more to the story — and I learned about it over the many years that Eva and I corresponded, talked on the phone, and visited.
... In June of 1960, I went home with Joe to Miami Beach where we were married on June 23rd. When we returned to the Boston area, Joe continued with his graduate studies at Brandeis, and I got a job as an editorial assistant at Houghton Mifflin publishing company in Boston. During that year, the Hindus family stayed in touch with us, and we visited their home a number of times. In 1961, while I worked at the publishing house, I applied for a Wallace Stegner fiction fellowship at Stanford University — and then, once I was pregnant, I essentially put it out of my mind. I did, however, sell my first story to Mademoiselle that year.
It was with great shock that, at the end of April, 1962, I read a letter that arrived from Wallace Stegner at Stanford University telling me I had been awarded a fiction fellowship. My baby was due the first week in May; my husband Joe had just been offered a job as a teacher at Boston University. I was in a state of great agitation and elation, both. A baby coming! A great university inviting me to study writing with Wallace Stegner. I conferred with Eva and Milton Hindus, I conferred with Joe, I studied my own heart and in the end, we decided to move to California as soon as we could travel with the baby who was born on May 3rd.
... This parting was very painful for me. I loved Eva and Milton—by then they were like a special set of parents. My own parents were special, too, but Eva and Milton Hindus were literary souls, they understood the artistic yearning in me to be a writer.
Once I got to Stanford, Eva and I began writing letters regularly. She was a natural-born writer, she wrote long hand-written letters ... I can't begin to summarize the contents of the hundreds of letters that passed between Eva and me over more than 45 years of friendship ... Eva's letters were graceful, evocative retelling of events, powerful confessions of emotion and desires, and commentaries on my own struggles with writing.
Miraculously, the first two stories I wrote in the Stegner workshop were accepted for publication, one by The New Yorker, one by Redbook. I wrote Eva and Milton in a blaze of triumph! How easy the writing life would be, it seemed. I would type ten or fifteen pages…and instantly sell them!
Eva and Milton knew of the dangers of the writing life and counseled me about the energy needed to overcome rejection which was bound to come. Eva was a model of determination and patience herself. When her family came to America, they lived for a time with relatives in Coney Island. When Eva and her sister entered school, they were the only immigrants in their classes and knew little English. When they graduated, they were both awarded "medals of honor" for their academic excellence. Eva went on to take accelerated classes in high school and later went to Brooklyn College. Shortly after college, Eva became very ill and was diagnosed with TB. She was hospitalized in a sanatorium in Long Island for more than a year. She said "no one thought I would survive, but I did, and here I am."
Eva worked from 1960–1970 at the Newton Children's Library, but she was mainly Milton's life-long helper, admirer, reader and nurturer. She told me many times that their marriage was "bashert"—destined by fate, as the Jewish saying goes.
As the ills of old age began to beset Eva, we talked, at least weekly, about her situation. When Milton died, suddenly, in 1998, as he was driving home from his office at Brandeis, Eva's light seemed to go out—she was utterly broken and bereft. She was amazed her body continued to live when she told me she felt her spirit had died. But during these later years, her connection with her daughter, Myra Hindus, strengthened and enlarged. Myra came to visit often; they shared long talks and confidences. Eva regained strength and lived on for ten years more. At a certain point, she had to move from her house to a retirement home where, despite her sadness, she found friends and many who admired her wit, intelligence and wisdom. Her knowledge of literary matters impressed many of those whom she met and with whom she talked. With Milton she had moved within the highest circles of literary luminaries, poets and writers, and till the last day of her life she had a perfectly sharp mind and recollection of each one of them.
I met their daughter, Myra Hindus, for the first time in California in August 2008. I saw an image of Eva's face in Myra's as we embraced. I knew much about Myra through the many letters her mother had written to me, but when we met I felt that finally a circle had been completed. Myra and I were in some mysterious sense sisters, both deeply affected and nourished by the love of an extraordinary woman, Eva Hindus.