Meet Your Neighbor: Rena Abrams

12438190081?profile=RESIZE_710xRena Abrams, age 102, has lived at the Carlisle in Lantana since her husband died in 2010. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Growing up in New Jersey between World War I and World War II, Rena Abrams did just about everything right. She studied hard, earned two college scholarships and worked five jobs to help out her family during the Great Depression.

Then midway through her senior year at the women’s branch of Rutgers University, two girlfriends introduced her to their brother and everything changed.

“When I opened the door, I saw this handsome lieutenant in his officer’s uniform and I thought I would drop, and I just about did,” said Abrams, a 102-year-old resident of the Carlisle in Lantana. “I saw him for the next five days and then he went back to his base in Louisiana.”

He called her on the pay phone in the hallway of her dorm every night and when the holidays rolled around invited her to take the long train ride to visit him in Louisiana. After a week together, he asked her to marry him, and knowing he would soon head off to the South Pacific, she accepted.

“He was in one of the first groups of navigators going over there and at the time half of them were coming back dead, so I decided I couldn’t miss this chance,” Abrams said. “I decided to drop out of school and wait for him and when he came back, if he ever did, we would marry.”

Arthur Lawrence Abrams would go on 26 missions and survive them all. Rena went back home, took midterm exams and then left school to wait. When Abrams returned, they were married and remained so until he died in 2010.

“We had a wonderful life together, a lifelong love affair that never ended,” she said.

The couple had three children, including Nancy Ellen Abrams, a prominent author, Fulbright fellow and Woodrow Wilson designate whose husband is renowned astrophysicist Joel Primack; Judy Hollier, who is a member of the board of directors of a community garden initiative in Philadelphia; and Peter, who works in computers and lives in Philadelphia.

— Brian Biggane

Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and went to Battin High School, an all-girls school, and then the women’s school at Rutgers University. My father gave me two dollars every week to live on, so I got five jobs to earn extra money and as a result I wrote my papers at midnight every night and never got to sleep before 2 a.m. My father did well before the Depression, but then it hit and he lost everything, so I needed scholarships to go to school and got them.
I dropped out of college midway through my senior year to get married, but when my youngest child was in kindergarten I went back and finished my degree and also got my master’s in social work and psychology. I thought of going on to get a Ph.D., but it was hard because my husband was a very accomplished lawyer and we had dinner parties and such for his clients. And it was a 45-minute drive each way to Rutgers.

Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: After I got my master’s degree I worked in social services for a number of years. I was a very good social worker, but there’s not too much help you can give your clients. It’s a difficult field.

Q: What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A: Good luck. You have to be lucky to find a job you can live on. I look at all the people who work in our building and they can’t afford to live in this area. They have to drive long distances, way inland, pay for the gas, the time involved. Some commute more than an hour each way. It’s pitiful, bad news. I don’t know what they’re going to do about it.

Q: How did you come to live in Palm Beach/Lantana?
A: We bought a small apartment at the corner of Lake Avenue and A1A in 1982, very close to the ocean. There were no big buildings at that time and we had a great view. On the corner was a Howard Johnson’s, and they made great sandwiches and 36 flavors of ice cream. Our apartment was right next door so it was very convenient.
We had a two-bedroom apartment and all our family and friends wanted to come visit, so we decided we needed a bigger place. We looked up and down the coast and nothing stood out, but they were building a new building, the Oasis, at 3120 S. Ocean Blvd.
We walked in and I thought I would drop dead. It was just spectacular. At that time there was nothing else on the beach. We had the most magnificent view. It was 3,000 square feet, three bedrooms and four bathrooms, and a whole private dining room, and the views were north, south, east and west. ... You could sit on the toilet and watch the sailing ships go by. We lived there until 2010, when my husband died.

Q: What is your favorite part about living in Lantana?
A: Six years before my husband died, he developed dementia and I took care of him. But he was over 6 feet tall and it got to a point I couldn’t do it by myself, so I found a place to take care of him, the Vi at Lakeside Village in Lantana. I could visit him frequently because it was a 10-minute drive. My family worried about me being alone in that 3,000-square-foot place. There were only two apartments on my floor and in the summer the owner of the other one went home, so I would be alone. I decided to move here to the Carlisle because I had friends living here.
I’ve had a wonderful life here since 2010. It’s really beautiful, I’ve got lots of good friends. Now a lot are dead, but I sit at the table with people that I care about. They’ve become part of my family, and I’ve become a part of theirs. And I take Bobbi Horwich’s fitness classes five days a week.

Q: What book are you reading now?
A: I read constantly, not with my eyes but my ears. The program Books on Tape is a lifesaver, so I read hundreds of books. My latest was a biography of the actress Hedy Lamarr, who was not only an actress but a brilliant scientist. She was fabulous in the movies, but scientifically she co-created [technology] still used today.

Q: What music do you listen to when you want to relax? When you want to be inspired?
A: I like classical music. I’m not familiar with most modern music.

Q: Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A: I had a professor in college named Weston La Barre with whom I was very close. He was also a very good friend. When I was deciding whether to leave and get married during my senior year, he sat with me and we analyzed the situation. It was nice to have someone who cared about me that much to help me come to a decision.

Q: If your life story were to be made into a movie, who would play you?
A: I think maybe Meryl Streep. She’s a great actress.

Q: Who/what makes you laugh?
A: Good wit. Having a good sense of humor. I believe I have one. My husband, along with high intelligence, he had both great wit and humor. We had many good laughs together.

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