Thirty-four years, ago, Barbara Neiman and her husband Harvey packed their bags, left Chicago (her home since age 2), hopped on a plane to the new master-planned community of Rancho Bernardo and never looked back. Well, maybe a little. The retired couple left behind a grown son and daughter and five grandchildren.
But, the now 93-year-old Barbara recalls, with a chuckle and a twinkle in her blue eyes, the ad in their local Chicago newspaper was just too tempting to the couple, whose friends had all retired in California: “It’s 60 degrees here, the sun is shining, there’s golfing every day. What are you doing in Chicago?” The PR campaign didn’t end there: “We are now flying over Rancho Bernardo,” Barbara remembers the pilot saying over the intercom when they flew into the area for the first time. “It’s a new community in San Diego that’s the place to be!”
So the couple settled into the same condo complex that still serves as the Neiman home today. Conveniently (and quite intentionally), it’s located near plenty of golf courses.
“[Harvey] had played before, but he became a real golfer when we moved here,” Barbara remembers. “Every day, 18 holes before lunch, 18 holes after lunch and nine holes after dinner. I had to take up golf, otherwise I would have been a golf widow!” Her eyes brighten and she laughs, a light, buoyant, cheerful laughter that seems to linger even after she’s stopped. Her mind is still as sharp as it was when she and Harvey retired from the family shoe business in the 70s, or perhaps still as sharp as it was even in her youth…
Barbara, who was born in 1916, had an unusual childhood, to say the least. Her father, she says, “was a preacher who wanted to combine all the religions, Jewish and gentile. He was a rebel who broke away from organized religion; he made his own religion and had his own congregation. They didn’t stay with him very long because he was way before his time.
“He combined Passover and Easter. He had the matzah and the wine on Easter Sunday. That’s what he believed.”
Her mother, a dressmaker, was another story completely.
“My mother [believed in] nothing other than…what can I say?…the occult, in the afterlife, and that souls came back.
“She used to say [to my father], ‘Go and get a job and make some money! We need money.’ And he used to say, ‘God will provide for us,’ and my mother replied, ‘God won’t provide for you. God helps those who help themselves!’ They were so different, the two of them, and I was in the middle. I didn’t know who to believe or what to belong to.”
But at age 12, she found something she knew was right for her — art. Though she’d been dabbling in children’s art for years, it was her teacher who recommended her for a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute. So in 1928, Barbara enrolled and learned everything from sculpture, modeling, painting, portraits and even some abstract art. It was the realism where she saw her promise, and she continued her art classes, attending off and on for seven years into her 30s. At her day school, she excelled as well, insisting on starting preschool at age 3, remaining there for three years, then skipping one grade to eventually graduate with her sister, who was 17 months her senior.
In the midst of art school and her regular classes, Barbara’s life changed when she was 14. That was the year she met 18-year-old Harvey. Barbara and her family lived on the first floor of a three-floor building that had a boys’ club in its basement. The 18-, 19- and 20-year-old young men used to borrow Barbara’s cleaning supplies to clean the basement before social functions, and one chance meeting introduced her to Harvey, one of the boys.
“I was only 14, and what was he going to do with a 14-year-old kid?” Barbara says. “I knew all of them, and they used to tell me to stay away from them because I was a punk. But I told him to wait for me, and he did.”
They married when Barbara was 21. Though neither was necessarily religious, both came from Jewish backgrounds, and they knew they wanted their children raised in the Jewish faith.
“Now, my daughter is very religious,” Barbara says, laughing. “I’m afraid to go to her house because I don’t know which is the fleishik and which is the milchik!”
Barbara and Harvey supported their growing family with money Harvey made in the family shoe business, comprised of three shoe stores the entire extended family helped run. Barbara also worked for seven years after she married, first as an office manager for a radio manufacturer, then as a cashier at the family shoe stores.
When her children entered school, she went back to art school, continuing her classes at the Chicago Art Institute and selling some of her pieces at the weekend art fairs while Harvey golfed. And when their children were grown and she and Harvey moved to California, she didn’t leave her art behind.
“I did a lot of paintings, and we did a lot of traveling,” Barbara recalls. “That was our hobby. [Harvey] took pictures, and I would paint scenery and different things.”
She points to a large oil painting hanging on a wall in her living room that shows crumbling Roman ruins in ethereal blues and creams. “That was what I saw in Italy.”
Barbara even used to take her art on her cruises. While Harvey entertained on the piano — “He was just a natural, and he was a fabulous musician. He played across the Atlantic and across the Pacific.” — Barbara fashioned hula skirts out of plastic newspaper-delivery bags, menus and other cruise ship items and won multiple prizes at masquerade parties.
To commemorate her travels, she often wears a shirt she decorated herself with hand-painted flags from every country she’s visited.
When Harvey died in 2005 at age 92, Barbara knew of no better way to remember him than through her art.
“When my husband passed away,” she says, “I got the idea of making miniature shoes, so I’m still in the shoe business. I started by making them for all of the family members as a memorial to Harvey, and they loved them. I’ve made at least 100 shoes by now, and I still do it.”
Two unfinished shoes sit on her kitchen counter drying. Each one takes weeks to make, she says, and each is its own unique creation. Although her shoes, for which she is known across her wide circle of friends at the Jewish Family Service North County Inland Older Adult Center, look delicate and quite elaborate, they start simply with toilet paper and paper towel rolls, cut to size, moistened and shaped. She then uses Harvey’s old golf tees as the heels, further adding his touch to her creations. She covers the shoes with layers of papier mache, sands them smooth and adds paint, beads, glitter, fringe, sequins or any other number of adornments.
Barbara’s creations festoon every wall, table and piece of furniture in her home — her “museum,” as she calls it. Much of what she’s made isn’t even represented, as she gives most of her creations — papier mache piggy banks, apple head carvings, cats, dogs, a camel and cheetah, ornate greeting cards — to friends and family as gifts. And each piece is a painstaking effort, a testament to her talent, to her husband and to her love of learning.
“Any time I need to make something unfamiliar, I research it, and I do all my research by looking things up in books at the library. I’m a perpetual student, and it keeps me going. I think that’s why I’ve lived so long. I never thought I’d live to see 94, but I’ll be 94 in June.”