Romancing the Years

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

In a tidy Oceanside retirement community, down a sunny lane, in an art-filled room, at a table strewn with tchotchkes, papers and books, there sat a most unusual man.

Sure, at 91, Andrew J. Salat has done a lot of the things one might expect of an immigrant to the United States. Coming from Slovakia in 1931 as a child, he learned the language, went to school and worked hard. He served in the military during World War II, came home, married his sweetheart and moved across the country to California. Then he worked some more, made a family, lived a good life. Although he lost his first wife, he got lucky and fell in love again, remarried, and ultimately retired in Southern California.

What makes him unusual?

Well, in 1991, or maybe it was 1980 — at 91, you can't be expected to remember such things — Salat started writing. His first book was an autobiography, Stirring in the Attic: A Life Illustrated.

“My son talked me into doing my memories from Slovakia,” Salat said in a recent interview. “I wrote some pages. Then in 1991, I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a story to tell. I lived through the war.’ Doing it, I relived some of my youthful days. It was so good. It was so beautiful.”

Now, writing one’s memoirs is not all that unusual. But Salat didn’t stop there. Next, he wrote a novel, and not just your run-of-the-mill mystery or mainstream fiction. No — and this is where you learn just how unusual Salat is — he wrote a romance novel, When September Comes.

Why romance, typically the domain of female authors?

“I was always a romantic guy,” Salat explained, “defining love in my way. We all need to be loved. That makes us legitimate. If no one loves you, why do you live?”

And Salat is obviously living for love. If you had the opportunity to look around the room where he writes, you would see tangible proof of his romantic nature in every direction. Classical sculptures fill every nook. Paintings of romantic scenes adorn every wall. He even has some paintings of his own — of his loved ones, particularly his second wife, Ruth.

“See that painting?” He gestured to a large replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. “It’s a copy. The Chinese do it cheap. I had a dream one time. I saw the James Bond movie, and the villain has a beautiful den, all sorts of flowers, and in the background was this Botticelli painting. Oh well, I’m a little crazy, I guess.”

Crazy like a writer, because Salat has gone on to write four more romance novels, the last one, Encounters: A Love Story.

“This one is my favorite, because it’s my story.” Salat held the book gently. “The cover, it’s my first wife’s eyes. I met her when she was 16. I came back from the war four years later, and I married her.”

Now he’s on to his sixth novel, A Prelude to Desire. But this one is proving a bit more of a challenge than he expected. His wife, Ruth, is in the hospital, recuperating from a procedure, and he is distracted — even as he speaks, and his bright eyes moisten.

“Sometimes it flows so easy for me. I can sit down and write a whole chapter.” Salat shook his head, clasped and unclasped his hands. “But now I’m stymied, with my wife in the hospital, I wrote myself into a corner. So I’m rewriting.”

Although he might struggle with his rewrite, Salat still takes pleasure in reminiscing about his past.

“I’m happy because I’ve survived so much in my lifetime. World War II for one, the Depression. I don’t know how Dad did it. First, a country doesn’t want immigrants, but he succeeded in bringing us over. He worked for the dairy. … My mom lived to be 98. She worked her whole life. So it’s true, work never killed anyone.”

Having been retired for so many years, it won’t be work that kills Salat: He is ill, and his doctor has been frank about his prognosis.

“My doctor told me I had a kidney problem, but don’t worry about it. Most people with kidney problems die quietly in their sleep. But I have time to finish my book.”

And then what?

“Sweetheart!” he chuckled. “I have kidney disease. I have another year maybe. This is it.”

How satisfying it might be to spend your last days writing about love in a tidy Oceanside retirement community, down a sunny lane, in an art-filled room, at a table strewn with tchotchkes, papers and books, a most unusual man.

Love, K-B

Crossposted at the North County Times.