Resilience

If Nana was the heart of our family, I think it is fair to say that Zada was the spirit. The man I knew was in his 60s and had experienced his share of hardship but still had a zest for life. The stories he told and the stories told about him revealed a love of Chinese and Italian food shared with friends and family, a love of baseball and the racetrack, and a capacity to quote Shakespeare from memory despite not graduating from high school. My dad referred to him as a raconteur – an apt characterization. The recurring theme of his stories was that life was an adventure and you should make the best of it.

I grew up hearing the story of a particular time Zada took my mother to a baseball game – he followed both the New York Yankees and Giants. Noticing an ominous cloud on the horizon beyond the Polo Grounds, Mom pointed to it and asked her father if they should be concerned. Zada gestured to the blue portion of the sky and said she should simply look there. This was advice my mother took to heart. Zada was always looking at the bright side, even when that was difficult to do.

Another essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

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A view of the destruction in New London. (New York Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While the actual Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

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Me paying homage in 2011

Another legacy of the hurricane was Nana’s distrust of the Red Cross. She believed that they unfairly didn’t allow her back to retrieve the family’s possessions from their second floor apartment. She saw her neighbors being permitted back in to get what wasn’t damaged, but she wasn’t given the same courtesy. She grieved the loss of mementos and photos of her mother who had died some years earlier. Nana, who gave to charity generously and regularly, would not contribute to the Red Cross. Our family continues to look for other ways to contribute when disaster strikes.

Zada was able to bounce back from the losses and disappointments. After some false starts, he and Nana rebuilt their lives in Brooklyn, buying a bakery that they ran for over 20 years.

Zada always seemed to be impervious to the weather in both the literal and metaphorical sense. I remember a near blizzard in Canarsie that added to the myth that surrounded him.

Zada was normally home from work at 3:00 pm. This particular day a winter storm was pummeling Brooklyn. When it got to be 5:00 pm Nana asked my uncles and brothers to go look for him in the park. They took gloves, a scarf and hat, knowing that he would have driven to work unprepared. The boys found him and offered him the gloves, scarf and hat, which he promptly refused. He was, after all, already wearing a yellow sleeveless wool vest. I saw him coming down our street. His gray wool coat was unbuttoned, flapping in the wind, his bald-head uncovered. Snowflakes caked his bushy brows.

As with the hurricane, he was at work as the storm worsened. Zada, now in his early 60s, decided to walk home from the bakery in Greenpoint. It was a long 7-mile trek across the borough, but he made it, bringing with him bags of surplus bread and other bakery items in case we were snowed in.

When he arrived, much to Nana’s relief, he was perplexed by her ministrations. She hovered over him, suggesting a hot shower and hot drink. He didn’t see it as any big deal – he had been through worse.

The Spilken family motto may be, as my grandfather said many times, ‘make the best of things.’ This was not a philosophy that came naturally to me. I have trouble looking at the bright side. As a freshman I was walking on the campus of SUNY-Binghamton in the fall of 1976 with my very good friend, Merle. She pointed to a particularly vibrant red leaf on the ground and exclaimed, “Look how beautiful!” “It’s dead,” was my pithy response. Merle just looked at me. To this day we laugh about our differing perspectives. Fortunately, I have Merle and Zada’s legacy to remind me that there is another way.

 

The Rise and Fall of a Knick Fan(atic)

I thought I wanted to be a boy. As I understand gender identity today, I realize I didn’t really want to be a boy. I just wanted the rights and privileges of being a boy. I wanted to play like boys played. I wanted to have the same responsibilities around the house as my brothers (read: very little). I wanted to talk about the stuff boys talked about, sports and politics.

Title IX came too late for me. The mindset about girls and sports was just beginning to change. In my time girls who played ball were suspect — that is, of being a lesbian. The only real time I got to play any kind of ball, unless you count punch ball during recess, was in gym class, when we weren’t dancing or doing calisthenics.

Growing up with two brothers and two uncles who were like big brothers, I was obsessed with sports. I loved the big three: baseball, basketball and football. I loved watching them, but I wanted to play them, too. Occasionally I would be allowed to join the boys for touch football. Uncle Terry taught me to watch my defender’s feet and when they crossed, I should make my cut inside to catch the pass. Mostly though I was the official scorer when they played softball.

One weekend in 1972 when I was 12 or 13, I was sleeping over at my cousin’s house in Port Washington. My aunt, who knew of my love for sports, offered me a book to read while I was there. It was The Open Man by Dave DeBusschere (the forward on the Knicks). I read the book in one sitting. I was officially hooked on basketball.

This was a case where my timing was perfect. To root for the Knicks in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was sublime. After reading the book, I became obsessed with Dave DeBusschere. He represented everything good to me. He was a hard-nosed, relentless defensive specialist, a team player, smart about the game, and he was, in my opinion, really good-looking. Some girls my age followed David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman, not me. DeBusschere’s picture hung on my bedroom wall.

This was the picture that hung on my wall.

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I took my passion for him and sports and put all my energy into rooting for the Knicks. I religiously read the sports section of the four New York newspapers (the Post, the Daily News, the Times and the Long Island Press). I listened to every Knick game on the radio, living and dying by Marv Albert’s call. It was a ritual for me. I sat on my bed, in my closet-sized room, only the light of the fish tank on and I listened. Marv Albert would describe the game so that I could visualize Walt Frazier bringing the ball upcourt. I dreamed of being a sportswriter. I wrote my own article about each game and kept stats – some that I invented.

I didn’t share my obsession with many people for fear of being judged a nutcase. My immediate family knew and one friend, Deborah. Lucky for me, Deborah, one of my two friends on the block, shared my love for the Knicks. I don’t think she was quite as nutty as I was, but we would talk about the most recent game as we took one of our frequent walks to Lofts, the stationary store in the shopping center that sold candy and magazines. We would peruse the magazines until Bea, the owner, invited us to buy something or leave. Sometimes, if we had the money, we’d buy Tiger Beat, even though we loved our Knicks more than any Hollywood heartthrob.

There were so many instances where my love for the Knicks and DeBusschere, in particular, bordered on insanity. Aunt Clair took me to a charity tennis tournament at Forest Hills. Rather than watch Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith play right in front of me, I had my binoculars trained on the stands where Dave DeBusschere was sitting watching the match! Once when I was invited to a party in junior high school, I took my transistor radio so I could listen to the Knick game. It was the only way I would go to the party. Clearly, I had issues.

I couldn’t wait to actually play the game myself. When I got to high school I tried out for the girls basketball team. I made it and I actually started, which tells you more about the quality of the team than the quality of my play. I was pretty terrible. Unless you are extraordinary you can’t start learning to dribble a basketball at 14 and be good at it. There was one girl on our team who was motivated and fearless enough to force her way onto the playground courts with the guys; she grew up playing. She had skills. Most of us were just awkward. I don’t remember if we ever won a game.

I started formally writing about sports in high school. First, I wrote for the school newspaper, then for the local papers (The Canarsie Digest, Kings Courier, Bay News and Flatbush Life). When I got to college I was given the women’s tennis team to cover for the school paper.

Somewhere along the way in college I lost my passion for sports. It just didn’t seem important any more. Not when compared with Three Mile Island, the Iran hostage crisis and my social life. I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for the Knicks, Yankees, or Giants. I still watched the Yankees in the World Series in the dorm lounge, but I wasn’t invested in it. It was time to move on. I didn’t have space for the obsession any more, plus Dave DeBusschere retired and the Knicks were never as good (at least not yet).

A Godfather Seder

Jewish holidays were associated with certain traditions when I was growing up. Horrific traffic was often part of it.

Rosh Hashana was celebrated by going to Aunt Simma’s house in Port Washington for a family dinner. We battled the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. My father never learned to cope with it despite being a life-long resident of Brooklyn – he may have invented road rage. All of us in the car tried to become invisible, silently shrinking into our seats so as not to increase his wrath. We tried to ignore his steady stream of invective. My mother would make excuses for the poor choices of the other drivers. After someone cut us off, she might suggest, ”Maybe his child has a stomach ache and he’s just trying to get home faster.” Somehow this didn’t help.

Traveling ever so slowly to Long Island, I would look out as the houses changed to single family, larger homes with lovely landscaping. Arriving in Port Washington it seemed a different world from my own with its dirty sidewalks, postage stamp-sized lawns and multifamily, attached homes.

Although Rosh Hashana is a high holiday on the Jewish calendar that for many meant hours in synagogue, our celebration was an excuse to gather as a family and have traditional foods like chicken soup, brisket and noodle kugel.

Passover meant dealing with the traffic on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Aunt Diane’s apartment was on West 104th street between Broadway and West End Avenue. In those days, when New York City was the murder capital of the world, each block was a different neighborhood. 104th west of Broadway was safe, 103rd east of Broadway wasn’t. Gentrification wasn’t even a concept yet. One thing remains the same – looking for parking was, and is, a nightmare.

Their apartment, on the 16th floor, was overheated so the windows were open. I would stand in front of the window in the bathroom and look out at the city – listening to the traffic and sirens, feeling the cool air, looking at the lights, imagining the lives in the apartment buildings across the way – I relished the feeling of being both removed from and in the midst of the energy of the city.

One Passover seder in particular was memorable – not really for the seder itself, but for what my family did afterwards.

The seder was a long, involved affair, filled with ritual and song. Uncle Paul came from a long line of rabbis and his family knew many traditional melodies. It was their custom to discuss the story of the Exodus and its various interpretations. It took a very long time to get to the matzoh ball soup.

This particular year the movie The Godfather had just come out, it had opened a few days earlier and was playing to sold out theaters in the city. My Dad was dying to see the movie. He was not a religious man, dubious about the existence of God and not one to enthusiastically partake of Jewish rituals. Attending the seder at his sister’s house evoked many conflicting emotions for him: his relationship with his sisters and parents was strained at best, he hated the traffic, he didn’t exactly get along with his brother-in-law and though the lesson of Passover, remembering our oppression and valuing freedom, was a core value, he probably could have done without the lengthy service.

Finally, the seder concluded at about 11:00 p.m. When we got to the car, Dad asked my mom, “Feige, what do you think? Can we get in to see ‘The Godfather’ now?”

The movie was playing around the clock in certain Manhattan theaters.

My mother, always ready for a movie, said, “Why not? Let’s try.”

“You kids okay with that,” Dad asked. Mark and I shrugged, okay. (Steven was away working at a hotel in the Poconos.)

We drove to the east side (getting crosstown through Central Park without traffic!) and were relieved to find that there were seats available. We got tickets for the midnight showing. I was 12 years old. My father, who had grown up in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, was fascinated by the mob. I teased him about reading “The Don is Dead” multiple times. He read every book that came out about the Mafia. His parents, who owned a small grocery, had personal experience with mobsters who provided protection in the neighborhood.

I vividly recall certain scenes from the movie – one involving a horse’s head and another Sonny Corleone’s demise. I’m thinking it probably wasn’t a great choice for me at that age and at that hour of the night. But it was memorable.

The movie ended at about 3 in the morning. As he drove us back to Canarsie, Dad expounded on why he thought it was such a great movie. We hit no traffic. A perfect ending to our seder night.

Loss

Zada was sitting at the huge mahogany dining room table in his suit and tie. I crossed the room and went to sit with him to wait for everyone else to be ready to leave.

I was wearing the same dress, brown with white polka dots, cinched at the waist, that I wore a month earlier to my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary party. That party, with its frivolity and craziness (there had been a belly dancer of all things) seemed ages ago.

Zada looked at me and said, “Nana would be so happy to see you looking so pretty,” and his voice broke; he made a strangled sound. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed. I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen a grown man cry. I stood up and ran back down the stairs to my bedroom with the sounds of his grief following me. I was eleven years old and I didn’t know how to comfort him or myself.

Two days before I awoke to the sound of Uncle Mike calling to my mom. “Feige, it’s mommy. She’s sick.” I heard his panicked voice in the hall outside my bedroom. Then I heard rustling sounds as my mom got out of bed, “I’m coming!” the slap of her slippers on the linoleum as she followed him upstairs. I pulled the covers over my head, trying to block out any more sounds.

I couldn’t help but hear the voices calling back and forth, the frantic phone calls being made; they were trying to decide if she needed to go to the hospital.

Despite my growing fear, I got out of bed and slowly climbed the stairs to see what was going on. I stepped into Nana’s kitchen and my Dad stopped me.

“Nana would not want you to see her like this,” he said.

“Can I make her some tea?”

“Okay, why don’t you do that.”

I did and when it was ready I wanted to bring it to her, but an ambulance was just arriving. I put the cup down on the marble kitchen table and retreated to our apartment. When I heard movement on the steps, I went back out into the hallway to try and see Nana. I couldn’t see her face, just her wavy white hair as they carried her to the ambulance.

All the adults piled into cars and followed the ambulance, siren wailing. It got very quiet in the house. Mark, my 14 year old brother, an unbelievably heavy sleeper, had finally awoken in the tumult. I explained to him what was going on. Steven, my oldest brother, was away working at a hotel in the Poconos.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, though it was still only early afternoon, we heard people at the door. My Dad came in.

“Come, sit with me,” Dad said. He ushered Mark and me to the couch in the living room.

He took a deep breath. “Nana died,” he said quietly.

She was 56.

“What happened?” I asked, “how??……”

“We don’t really know – maybe a burst blood vessel or blood clot.”

Mark immediately burst into tears. How did he do that? How did he understand it so quickly. I was numb. Dad patted Mark’s shoulder and put his hand on mine. “It’s okay to cry.”

I don’t know if he said that for Mark’s benefit or mine. I’m sure he offered words of comfort but I don’t remember what they were.

I learned a lot over the course of the next week. I learned about sitting shiva – the Jewish ritual surrounding death. I watched the mirrors in the house get covered with sheets; Mom, her siblings and Zada each wore a black pin and ribbon to signify their loss; mourners used small hard stools instead of regular chairs. Each morning my uncles walked across the park to the nearest synagogue to say kadish. The house was filled with people, day and night; sometimes it felt like a party. Nana loved a party.

I learned that grown men do cry. Uncle Jack, Nana’s youngest brother, was sitting quietly one moment and then was overcome the next. I didn’t shed a tear, not then, not since. Nana was my comfort and heart, I felt a deep sadness, but tears would not come. It was my first experience with profound loss, but not my last. I learned that I don’t shed tears of grief and I still don’t understand why not.

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Nana and me on the porch on East 91st Street in 1969 or 1970