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When Harry met Anna

From left: Harry Brody, Zelda Brody, Lee Brody

From left: Harry Brody, Zelda Brody, Lee Brody (Bob Brody's dad), Anna Brody (Bob Brody's grandmother) and Gayle Brody in 1939. Credit: Bob Brody

In 1923, they met at a wedding: Harry Brody, a 28-year-old from Austria, on hand as an usher, and Anna Helfman, a 17-year-old, there as a bridesmaid. Anna attended with a date, but Harry “pushed himself in,” she recalled.

Two days later, Harry went to the department store in Newark where he knew Anna worked at the counter as an assistant brassiere buyer and gave her a box of candy. Soon he asked her mother to let him take her to a movie.

They appeared an unlikely fit. Harry had dropped out in the eighth grade and could hardly read or write, a greenhorn who tended bar at a tavern he owned. Anna had gone to a private school in Europe for three years.

Anna was my Nana. Back in 1985, then age 79, she recorded an audiocassette to chronicle her family history. My Poppa had only recently died. Without fanfare, she distributed copies of the tapes to her family.

I recently listened to the tape for the first time in more than 30 years. As a result, I learned the following.

Harry treated Anna to caviar, a purse and a string of pearls, spending well beyond his modest means. Within two months, he asked her parents for her hand in marriage, but without telling her first. He borrowed the money to buy her a wedding ring — it took him four years to pay off the debt.

Once married, they rented an apartment in Newark, and he bought her a car. Neither knew how to drive, but he was confident they would learn. Two years later they produced the baby who became my father.

What I hear in my Nana’s voice on that tape, what comes through so loud and clear, is how much she and my Poppa loved each other.

They struggled through Prohibition, the Depression and World War II. Poppa worked 18 hours a day at his saloon, with Nana at home cooking the stew to take to him to feed his factory-worker customers, and he often came home at 3 in the morning.

“We never lived big,” my Nana says. They scraped together enough savings to buy a two-family house. “It felt like heaven on Earth, with a garden in back.”

Decades later, they achieved success in real estate, buying, selling and managing apartment houses and office buildings in New Jersey. She kept the books and handled all administration while he negotiated acquisitions, sales and leases.

They raised three children who went on to live lives that were rewarding personally and professionally, complete with seven grandchildren. They hosted a 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 1973 for all of us in Curacao. There, over dinner one night, my Poppa raised a glass of Champagne to toast his offspring as “his dividends.”

Toward the end, Poppa developed Parkinson’s disease and had trouble walking, becoming close to helpless. Nana devoted herself entirely to caring for him in those final years. “All I could do,” she says on the tape, her voice breaking, “was try to make him comfortable.”

They stayed married for 60 years — only about 6 percent of marriages get past 50, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and by example taught me a lesson in longevity. My wife and I have applied that lesson to our own marriage, next month marking our 38th anniversary.

In the ideal marriage, I’ve come to recognize, each spouse commits to making the other better. Together, husband and wife not only need each other but also complement each other. Together, they amount to more than each would have turned out to be alone. Marriages last only if one plus one somehow equals more than two.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, is author of the upcoming memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”

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