- Haisten Willis For the AJC
Olive Ellner brags that she’s done something different every 10 years in her life, ranging from costume design to involvement in political movements. But after moving from Long Island to Atlanta in her late 80s and settling into a senior living complex, she suddenly found herself with not much to do.
“As seniors, people here are more used to having things done for them,” said Ellner, still fiery and full of life at 90. “It was a very different life for me. I just had to do something.”
One night, the “something” sprung to mind: create quilts for patients at the local Veterans Affairs hospital.
Ellner has been involved in politics off and on throughout her life, even dabbling in lobbying efforts and getting herself arrested a trio of times (though never booked) in the early 1970s while protesting for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union. Though she hadn’t knitted in 50 years, Ellner said it’s like riding a bike, and picking it back up was simple.
Ellner, who resides at Sandy Springs’ Huntcliff Summit senior living community, was able to get in touch with the veterans hospital through a resident at Huntcliff whose daughter-in-law works there. Last year, Ellner made a single American flag quilt, and said it got a tremendous reaction when it was presented at the hospital. It was then time to do something on a larger scale.
Though forming a larger group proved difficult, through aggressive recruiting Ellner was able to get a group of women from her Huntcliff Summit community to create more than a half-dozen quilts this time around. Huntcliff provided all the necessary supplies, which was a tremendous help, meaning the women in the group needed only to volunteer their time and effort.
Now complete, the quilts will be given to wounded patients in wheelchairs at the Atlanta VA Medical Center ahead of Veterans Day.
“It’s the least we can do as Americans not to forget these people,” said Ellner, whose New York accent is unmistakable even in transplant-laden Atlanta. “This has given us a purpose of doing something for somebody else.”
Flags, luckily enough, are relatively easy to knit. The rectangular design couldn’t be more simple, with the red and white stripes evenly spaced and the famous square patch of blue at the top left. The stars are glued on later.
All of the women in the knitting group have veterans near and dear to their heart, and many members have their own family war stories that inspire their work.
Esther Scheinberg Solomon’s father served in the home guard, then was suddenly called into World War II military service when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The very next day, her mother gave birth to her brother, Samuel Scheinberg, who himself later spent three years working as a military surgeon in Vietnam.
“It seems each generation has to go into battle,” said Solomon, who now has two grandsons of military age whom she worries about.
She still vividly remembers a childhood colored by war rations. Children had virtually no toys, and basic commodities like sugar and butter were hard to come by because they were being used for the war. Solomon cut paper doll toys out of a Sears catalog. She didn’t mind, though, since at her age she didn’t know any different, but she marvels at how today’s kids grow up with so much more than she did.
It was also during her childhood that Solomon’s aunt helped her learn to knit. One of the first things she created was a bright purple sweater, which she still owns many decades later.
Knitting flags for veterans at the hospital is one way she can show appreciation to the members of her family who served their country.
Organizing groups is something Ellner has long enjoyed. She played a big role in her daughter Lisa Saltzman’s decision to leave the workaholic lifestyle and skyrocketing rent of Manhattan for the slower pace of Atlanta in the early 1990s. Twenty years later, Ellner made the move south herself, making the decision to sell her house on Long Island and settle in at Huntcliff. While her daughter stays in close touch, she also notes that her mother is in great physical shape.
Ellner brought other women around to the flag knitting idea in part by telling them about the group on elevator rides where, she jokes, they couldn’t run away.
With the work now complete, the group is excited to present its quilts to the wounded veterans. Ellner said it’s extremely rewarding to do something meaningful for another person, especially for veterans who served in the U.S. military.
Of course, the work is good for the Huntcliff group as well.
“When you do something for somebody else, it’s food for your brain,” said Ellner, who hopes to make the effort even larger next year. “New ideas and action keep your brain alive.”