Many people have a Hildegard Bachert in their life. Many people have a friend or relative who, late in life, is active and healthy, whose days are filled with meaning and purpose. Many people have someone they have known all their life who, in their 80s or 90s, looks forward to tomorrow and next week.
Even so, Hildegard Bachert is a rarity among rarities.
I never called her Hildegard. My sister and I called her Aunt Gina though she wasn’t our blood relation. She was our mother’s best friend. They met in 1938 at George Washington High School in New York. My mother was almost a year younger and admired Hildegard, a girl who wore lipstick and had a boyfriend. They were both Jewish refugees, their families driven from Germany by the Nazis.
In 1940, at the age of 19, Hildegard got a job as a secretary at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City, working for the well-known art expert in German-Austrian impressionism, Otto Kallir. Meanwhile, my mother went to college, met my father, and moved to Los Angeles in 1947. She raised two children and worked as a social worker for much of the rest of her life. She and Hildegard remained trans-continental best friends until my mother’s death from cancer in 2003.
Aunt Gina is still at the Galerie St. Etienne, and last November celebrated her 75th anniversary there. She is now 94 and still works full-time. In November, The New York Times wrote a character study about her, 75 Years With a Manhattan Gallery and No sign of Stopping
We congratulate someone when they have worked at the same place for 20 years. But 75? Hildegard showed her intelligence, energy, love of art, and discerning eye early. Long ago she ceased being a secretary, eventually rising to become a full partner at the Galerie St. Etienne. Hildegard is a much sought after art expert, not only in such famous European painters as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele but also the legendary American artist Grandma Moses, with whom Hildegard worked closely for more than 20 years.
To put this in perspective, in 2014, the median job tenure in the United States for women 65 and older was 10.5 years. For all workers employed in 2014, it was 4.6 years. How extraordinary to have found a calling and have the ability and opportunity to stay with it for a lifetime.
For sure, she was blessed with good genes, as both her father and mother lived well into old age. She also eats modestly and healthily, and has always been intellectually, socially, and physically active. But just as important is the blessing of being engaged in something particularly meaningful to her.
Thank you, Aunt Gina, for inviting me to your 75th-anniversary party in New York last month. Although you dislike people making a big fuss over you, I appreciate you letting your colleagues, good friends and relatives make just a little fuss.