After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith and bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn in 1964. They were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary. We, my parents and two older brothers, moved into the two-family semi-attached house on East 91st Street, a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the street was awash with mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, would take the apartment upstairs, leaving their home in Crown Heights.
Zada, my grandfather and master bread baker, bought Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in 1941 and the family lived above the store. His challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough. One of my first memories is of standing in front of the display cases in the bakery, eyeing the goodies. I took my time deciding: a brownie? an éclair? a large chocolate chip cookie? Nana waited patiently. She took a break from waiting on other customers to give her grandchildren their chosen treats.
By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s sat was changing. Zada thought that the new people, mostly from the Caribbean, would buy his high quality rye, pumpernickel and challah. But, they didn’t. He didn’t change his product and he didn’t follow his customers to Long Island either. So, for the second time in his life, he lost everything – he went bankrupt. (The first time was in the hurricane of 1938 in New London, Connecticut.) At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery, moved his wife and two teenage sons and rented the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.
Though it was a two family house, with separate apartments, I lived in it as if it was one. The door to Nana and Zada’s apartment was always unlocked. Each day when I came home from school, I dropped my stuff off in my bedroom, climbed the stairs that separated our apartments and let myself in. Nana sat at a small, round marble table. The gold threads in the marble caught and reflected the light from the amber glass fixture suspended above it. The marble table top sat on a black cast iron pedestal. Both were unforgiving on misplaced elbows and knees.
Nana sat with her arthritic hands wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising from it. “Hello, Sunshine,” my daily greeting. She lifted herself from her chair and shuffled across the yellow linoleum floor toward the refrigerator. I settled into a chair next to hers.
“Zada brought home a chocolate crème pie. Do you want a piece?” She was already removing the pie from the refrigerator shelf, getting a plate and fork – she knew my answer.
Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies. It is no wonder that everyone in my family struggles to this day with their weight.
A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came shortly after. I ate my pie. Nana sat back down. We talked about our days, her aches and pains, the performers on the shows. Occasionally I would adjust the rabbit ear antenna so we’d get better reception.
“Lindale, bring me my aspirin,” Zada bellowed from the back bedroom.
Another part of my daily ritual. Zada worked an early morning shift and was resting in bed while I visited with Nana.
“Coming!” I would get a glass of water, go into the bathroom and pour three aspirin from a huge bottle and bring it to him. Zada was propped up in bed, his long legs crossed at the ankles, wearing his sleeveless t-shirt, boxer shorts and horn-rimmed glasses, reading the Daily News. He took all three pills at once and washed them down with a gulp of water.
“Did you have the chocolate crème pie?” Zada asked.
“Yup, it was delicious.”
I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen. The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters of the window. I sat in my golden cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.