METROPOLIS THIS IS YOUR LIFE, PHYLLIS KAHN

or 32 years, Phyllis Kahn was Phyllis Kahn. She was a wife and a mother; she ran a house; she ferried children to music and piano and dance lessons. She cooked matzo ball soup and com fritters and meatloaf. Oh, she had diversions. Hobbies and friends. Even a small singing career-blessed with a beautiful, fluid voice, she sang in her synagogue choir every fall during the High Holy Days, and for 14 years, she was with the Dallas Civic Opera.

Mostly, though, she was Phyllis Kahn: Dallas homemaker; wife of Bernard, a traveling clothes salesman; mother of nine. Yes, nine. Like most people in this world, she had carved out a niche for herself in this life. And in this niche, she figured, she would stay.

But a funny thing happened to Phyllis Kahn, one of those things you can never envision when you’re locked into music lessons and matzo ball soup; one of those things that other people shake their heads over and say “How did she do that? She must lead a charmed life.” She never imagined it would ever be this way, but at the age of 65, Phyllis Kahn isn’t Phyllis Kahn anymore.



WE ALL TEND TO TYPECAST OURSELVES AT some point along the way. We get married and buy a house and have kids. We fall into a career by accident and never leave. We drive every morning to the same job that we didn’t like 10 years ago. We live in the same house for 45 years. We wake up beside someone we no longer think we want to wake up beside. And then we daydream-about directing movies or moving to the seashore or finding our old college boyfriend or starting up our own business, something to call our own.

Phyllis Kahn had a dream. She wanted to start her own bakery. “I make a marvelous cheesecake,” she says. “Best you’ve ever tasted.” She would talk to her husband about it every so often, but, like most of our dreams, the bakery never materialized. “He was afraid to gamble,” she says. “He had bought a record distributorship for 78s back in 1950, just when the LPs were coming out. He lost a fortune.”

Still she dreamed.

“I always said to him, ’When you die, I’m going to take your insurance policy money and open a bakery-Bernie’s Bakery,’” she says, smiling. “Of course, I never thought he would die.”

When Bernie Kahn died, much earlier than anyone had thought he would, Phyllis didn’t open that bakery. That would have been too predictable. And there is nothing predictable about what happened to Phyllis Kahn when she lost her husband.

“She turned into a total recluse,” her 37-year-old daughter Susie says. “She just sat around in this house and cried all the time.”

“Not quite,” Phyllis gently retorts.

“Well, it felt that way,” says her daughter.

“My husband and I both loved music- that’s how we met,” recalls Phyllis. “He had a bass voice. He’d come sing parts of ’Figaro’ under my balcony… He’d bring me flowers and steaks.” Now she is crying. “I could not sing for the last six years. I’d sit down and see the music and start to cry.”

Despite her grief, though, Phyllis knew there was something she had to do: earn a living. Bernard Kahn had not died a wealthy man. He had spent three decades selling clothes, but the New York company he worked for underwent a management change and unexpectedly forced him to retire in 1982 at age 66. He also had crippling arthritis and hip trouble that required surgery. With his youngest son still in high school and his wife in nursing school, hoping to help make ends meet, he took a job running the night shift at a self-service gas station in Richardson. He mopped floors. Worked the cash register. Cleaned up. For $5 an hour.

When Bernard Kahn died of massive heart failure in 1984, his family discovered he’d been borrowing on life insurance to support them. Even as they wheeled him into ICU, he wondered aloud what would happen to Phyllis if he didn’t make it.

“He was trying to die, and I felt like he needed someone to tell him it was okay,” daughter Susie says. “He was so sick, and 1 leaned over and said, It’s okay. I’m going to take care of her.’ That was just before he went into a coma.”

Susie did not exactly know how she would take care of her mother. But one day, shortly after Bernard’s death, the phone rang at the Kahn home. It was the manager of the Holiday Inn gift shop at Central Expressway and Meadow Road. It seemed that Bernard had once gone there to inquire about a job. Now the shop owner wanted to sell his business, which wasn’t doing so well. Would Mr. Kahn be interested?

Susie and Phyllis thought it over. They had never owned a business. They knew nothing about merchandising or accounting or display. They had no connections. “We got into that shop for $1,000.” Phyllis says. “For that. we got the man’s cash register and glass shelving. We set up a line of credit with vendors. And we agreed to pay the hotel $200 a month, plus 10 percent of sales over $10,000 a month. We were terrified.”

They called it Bernard’s Gifts. Over the cash register, they hung a framed, 8-by-10 picture of Bernard. On the shelves, they put whatever they thought a hotel guest might need in a pinch.

“You knew that people in a hotel needed toothpaste and shampoo. . .” Phyllis explains.

“And then, any customer who asked for something we didn’t have, Mother had to buy it,” Susie says. “The ultimate Jewish mother…”

“You want corn pads?” Phyllis says, recalling that time. “I’ll gel you corn pads.”

And so she did.

And today, Bernard’s Gifts has grown to seven shops in seven hotels in the Dallas area. The stores do $1.3 million worth of business a year. About 30 people work for the company, which is headquartered in far North Dallas. And in each store, over each cash register, is an 8-by-10 picture of Bernard.

The Kahns make more money than they ever thought they would, though much of it goes right back into the business. Phyllis splurged on wall-to-wall carpet last year, and Suzie bought an $80,000 house not far from her mother’s.

“People say to me, ’How could you do METROPOLIS this?’” Susie says. “I mean, I knew nothing about it. All I come back to is the promise I made my father. That has always kept me going.”

But that’s not all there is to this story. If it were, it wouldn’t be such a terrific story. No, there is something even more incredible than a woman, armed with a résumé of cooking and singing, becoming a successful businesswoman at age 65.

Phyllis Kahn is getting married.

To a man she hadn’t even met when she said yes.

“She hasn’t had one date, not one, since Dad died six years ago, and now she’s getting married,” Susie says, shrugging.

“We love each other so much that we can’t sleep at night,” Phyllis says dreamily. “I’ll call him at three in the morning sometimes because I just know that he’s up, and he is.”

“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” says Melissa, Susie’s 18-year-old daughter.

Phyllis “met” Seymour, who’s 70, in June through the Classic Music Lovers’ Exchange, a high-brow matchmaking operation out of New York. For a $52 membership fee, music lovers can request biographies of other members nationwide and strike up a correspondence, which could lead to something else. “I wrote to somebody once before,” Phyllis says. “But I reminded him of his mother, and he had dogs. We stopped.”

For Phyllis and Sy, it was love at first write. After four or five letters, Sy, a retired high school drama and speech teacher from Long Island, called Phyllis on the phone. That only deepened their letter-writing affair. They sent pictures, but Sy’s was “very bad,” says Phyllis, who won’t even show it to her kids, and Phyllis’s was “15 years old,” her daughter says, rolling her eyes. Sometime in August, Sy proposed on the phone. Phyllis said yes.

They decided to meet. In mid-October, they flew to Cincinnati-a neutral midway point, they reasoned, between their two homes. In anticipation of the big event, Phyllis enrolled in a hypnotism class and shed 40 pounds. Sy, we don’t know about- he’s not big on publicity.

Phyllis’s children, all nine of them, marvel at the love story.

“She was always this way with us,” Susie says. “I dated one guy after my divorce for about nine months, and from the first date, I could call her and tell her anything, and she would say, ’Go for it.’ Total positive mental attitude.”

“This is your life,” Phyllis shrugs. “You only have one.”

“I know,” Susie says, “this is your life, Phyllis Kahn.”

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