No Easy Answers

I was in social studies in 12th grade in 1975 and the class was discussing the nursing home scandal that was unfolding in New York City. Terrible details of elder abuse and neglect were emerging in the newspapers.

The discussion moved from the scandal to elder care as a societal value. Our teacher explained that in some cultures, for example, Native American, elders were more revered than in American society at large. In those cultures older folks stayed with the family as they aged and were cared for until they died. One of my classmates, declared, “I would never put my parents in a nursing home! How can you put them away like that?” Others chimed in with their agreement.

I raised my hand to respond, “It isn’t so simple. Sometimes older people,” and my voice unexpectedly broke. I took a deep breath and managed to say, “need more attention than you can give.” I couldn’t say more.

My grandfather, my father’s father, was staying with us at the time. Grandma had recently died. In those years he stayed with us for some extended periods – during the period of mourning, after cataract surgery and while awaiting placement at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, My brothers were away at college. When I made the comment in class I was thinking of the impact that Grandpa living with us had on the life of my parents and myself. Unfamiliar with our house, with compromised hearing and vision, it was difficult for him to manage.

While he was staying with us, when I came home from high school, I would ask him if he wanted to take a walk. He was always delighted to. He would put on his trench coat and fedora and we would set off to the shopping center. Grandpa was always careful to walk on the outside, closer to the curb. I didn’t understand why he did that, so I asked him. He explained that the man should always walk next to the street, the young lady should be closer to the buildings to be safer. Grandpa had very gentlemanly, old world ways.

Grandma and Grandpa in happier times, on our living room couch in Canarsie. With his trademark fedora, trench coat draped over his arm. In those days you could see travelers to the gate. I believe they were off to Florida.

We would go to the stationary store where he would buy the Forward, the Yiddish language newspaper, and a cigar. We would walk back home. Grandpa didn’t feel a need to fill the silence. I’m not sure if his reserve related to his hearing deficit, or if it was just his personality, Grandma certainly ran the show when she was alive – she was smart, funny and opinionated. Maybe she just overshadowed him and he got used to it. I wish I had asked Grandpa more questions. We were surprised at how long and well he did after Grandma died.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. After all he came to this country by himself at the age of 17. He learned five languages, he ran several businesses, married and had a family. He played cards and a mean game of Scrabble. Even though English wasn’t his first language, he beat all comers.

When Grandpa had cataract surgery and was recovering at our house, I gave him his eye drops. Both Grandpa and my father had what’s called benign essential tremor, involuntary shaking of the hands, so they couldn’t do it. My mother had a thing about eyes and wasn’t comfortable giving the drops. I did the best I could.

As part of his recovery from the surgery, Grandpa was told not to smoke his beloved cigars. I think this was to minimize coughing which might impact the healing of his eye. We still took our walks and he still kept a cigar in his shirt pocket. One day at dinner, Grandpa started to cough. My father was enraged, thinking Grandpa was still smoking. Dad reached across the table and ripped the cigar from Grandpa’s shirt pocket. “You know you aren’t supposed to be smoking these,” he roared.

He also ripped the pocket clear off the shirt.

In that moment I thought it was possible that Dad hated his own father. After the explosion, Dad apologized and things calmed down, though it wasn’t that long after that Grandpa went to stay with Aunt Diane.

Dad told us that he remembered little of his own childhood, but he also told us that when his family moved to a new apartment on Prospect Park West there was a bedroom for his sisters and one for his parents, but not for him. He slept on a couch. He made himself scarce, going to school, working various jobs and playing ball.

Aside from feeling neglected, Dad also said that when he had the opportunity to go to Harvard or Yale Law School, his parents wouldn’t lend him the money (he didn’t believe it was simply a matter of finances). They did provide funds for his older sister to go to medical school. There was layer upon layer of resentment that was never addressed, it just smoldered in my father.

For the years that Grandpa was able to be self-sufficient, he lived in Century Village Deerfield Beach in Florida and we made our annual visits. When that was no longer an option, he moved to the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale.

So while it would be optimal if as folks aged they could be cared for in the loving arms of their family, I don’t think it always plays out that way. The needs of the older person may be too great, the capacity of the family to provide the support and the relationships may not be healthy enough to make it work. It wouldn’t have in our family.

Letters from Zada: Graduation

For years I wanted to write about my family. When I started writing in a serious way a year and a half ago, I thought I would be focusing on my relationship with my grandmother, Nana. I have written about her, and I will continue to explore those memories and how they shaped me. I have been surprised, though, by how prominent my memories of Zada have been. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Zada was a storyteller. I remember running to the basketball courts in the park across the street from our house to retrieve my brothers, Mark and Steven. Zada was going to tell stories! Extended family was visiting our house in Canarsie and Zada was going to regale us with his tales of growing up on the Lower East Side and of his first car. Hearing that Zada was going to be sharing those tales, Mark and Steven set aside their game and came home immediately. Now that is testimony to how entertaining Zada was!

Fortunately, Zada wrote some of his stories to me in letters. I don’t have all of his stories, not by a longshot, but I have carefully stored the ones that I do have. The one I have shared below gives a number of insights into our family, including: (1) why the Spilkens speak so loudly 🙂 ; (2) why we prize our family so much; (3) where the emphasis on critical thinking began; and (4) how much education was valued. Perhaps you will find other insights.

This is the letter that I have reprinted here. He alluded to stories ‘for another telling’ throughout this letter. Unfortunately I do not have many of them. I’m not sure if he actually wrote those other stories down. If other family members have them, please share!

Here in Zada’s own words:

June 1973

Dear Linda,

In a few days you will be graduating Junior High School. The first step in achieving a world of knowledge. It brings back to me thoughts of my own graduation and the indelible impression it made on my life.

I measure the fortunate circumstances in my life in milestones. The first milestone is becoming aware that you can read the printed word, and being able to imbibe and digest all the beautiful things that have been written. This also gives you the extreme pleasure in being able to formulate your own ideas and opinions.

All the other milestones are experiences that leave a lasting impression. With me it would be from the time I met my beloved, the thrill of seeing my firstborn and the satisfaction I had from the ones that followed. The sublime devotion they have accorded me. Becoming a grandparent and knowing the family will be perpetuated eternally. A boy growing up on the East Side of New York, and seeing Palm Beach for the first time (that is a story for telling later).

So now, dear Linda, I will try to tell you why my graduation affected me so that I carry the memory with me forever. My parents came to this country about 1905. For various reasons my father was forced to leave Poland (also for telling later). He left behind my brother Jack, Irving, and sister Lillian and myself, also most important of all, Mother. My father worked hard, long hours in order to make enough money to pay for our passage to America. Within two years he sent for us. We arrived at Ellis Island and were taken to our new home on Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington. This neighborhood was known as the lower East Side.

My father’s salary was meager, in order to supplement his earnings and allow us to exist, Lily and Irving went to work. My mother took in four boarders. In those days for $5 a week a boarder would get food and lodging. Now picture a four-room railroad flat, toilets in the hall, man and wife, three children (Jack came to America later) all in one flat. The fortunate thing was that my father and two of the boarders worked nights so that they were able to sleep days. In other words, it was quite a quiet household. That is why when I grew older instead of talking moderately, I shouted in order to make sure that everybody heard me.

Eventually things got better. Unions came into existence, more money was expended for salaries, my father’s wages were tripled. We were able to live in better quarters. We said goodbye to our boarders and moved to East New York, Brooklyn.

In the year 1915 East New York was the equivalent to what city people today think of as the mountains (the Catskills, that is). I must not forget to tell you that in the interim Bess, Ruth, Harry and Sidney became additions to the family. (We lost Ruth in our first year in East New York).

So now I am the oldest of the children going to school. In the year of June 1917 I am to be graduated from Public School 109, located at Powell and Dumont Streets. Finally the day arrives I am to be graduated and the only one of the family that will be present is my brother, Irving. Extenuating circumstances made it impossible for any others to attend.

Now let me set the picture of Public School 109. We did not have an auditorium, but an assembly room that at the most would have held about 150 people. There were about 60 students, and the like number of adults (the graduation exercises were held on a weekday morning accounting for such a small attendance).

Our principal was Oswald D. Shalakow. A real administrator and fine gentleman. There was no valedictorian, so our principal gave the graduating address. This is the problem he posed for us, and he expected answers:

A teacher leaves her classroom and forgets her wallet, it is open and money is in the purse. Two students enter the room individually. The first one sees the money and is tempted to take it, but he fights with himself, and finally he overcomes, leaves the room but does not take anything. The second boy enters the room, sees the money, leaves without giving a thought about taking the money.

The consensus of the graduating class was that the first boy deserves all the credit, because he had to battle his conscience and he had won.

But our principal explains to us that the second boy should get all the credit, because, his reasoning was that the first boy may someday succumb to temptation, and would not be able to resist taking the money. But the second boy is inherently honest. It never enters his mind to take anything that does not belong to him. It may be different today, morals being what they are. So form your own opinion as to who was right.

Now the diplomas are to be handed out, so the principal makes this request. Please refrain from applauding the individual, but when the last graduate is called, he would welcome a large round of applause for all of the graduates. Names would be called alphabetically and if people would applaud at the start they would get tired when it would come to the “Jays,” and it would not be fair to the boys that would follow.

The assembly room is quiet, the names are called, each boy as his name is called approaches the principal, receives his diploma, and returns to his seat. Now he comes to the “Esses.” He calls Charles Spilken. I rise, on my way to the principal. I hear a deafening clamor, take two pieces of marble and clap them together, that was what my brother Irving was doing with his hands. Understand that Irving had two very strong hands (more in a later telling). If the floor had opened up, and I fell thru, I would have welcomed that kind of calamity, I was so embarrassed. But years later when I looked back at that incident, I realized that all the emotion, all that happiness seeing his first graduation, especially that of his little brother, who was now on his way to becoming a somebody, because in those days to be educated was to reach the pinnacle of success. That he could not suppress the feelings within his heart, that he forgot everything, but to give vent to that pride.

That is really how my love of family originated. To love one another. To revel in each other’s successes, to be steadfast in each other’s adversity(ies). To have a ‘swelling pride,’ that cannot be subjugated by petty annoyances.

Then will I consider myself blessed, especially Dearest Linda if you can realize how proud you make your Zada, for being able to be present at the maturing of Linda Brody.

I’ll leave for West Palm Beach knowing that I am endowed with the best family a man can ever possess. May that feeling within me age, but never grow less.


Road Trips: Illinois

It was dark out when we piled into the car. The early morning air was still cold even though it was mid-June. I was shivering in my shorts, which I wore because I knew it would get warm and stuffy as the day wore on. I had to coordinate my legwear with my brothers so that our skin didn’t touch while we sat next to each other because that would be too icky for words.

We were in for a long day ahead. We were driving from our house in Canarsie to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. This was the third and final time that we would spend the summer there while my father got his Masters degree in Economics.

It was a tight squeeze in the car. But at least that year we had a roof rack so we weren’t carrying stuff on our laps. The first year we went, I had a laundry basket with pots and pans sitting with me.

My dad was so intent on getting on the road before the morning rush (even though it was Saturday) that we were ready to pull away from the house at 4:30 am, just as Uncle Terry was arriving back home from his Friday night (or Saturday morning) out. We said our goodbyes, amused that our paths crossed at that hour.

As was our tradition, as Dad drove down our street, Mom began singing, ”We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!” We joined in. One of the things that we were excited to be off to was McDonald’s. Brooklyn didn’t have one yet, but Champaign-Urbana did!

Our beloved McDonald’s

We got on the Belt Parkway and headed toward the Verrazano Bridge. My parents had a plan for the trip and it was the same each of the three years. We would get on the road before dawn, make it to Pennsylvania for breakfast at a Howard Johnsons. Breakfast out was a treat – in 1970 eating breakfast out was rare for our family. Actually eating out at all was rare. After pancakes we got back in the car and drove the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Pennsylvania is a very wide state to drive across, it felt like it lasted forever!

Then there was a small strip of West Virginia to pass through before getting to Ohio. Many years later, not long after I met Gary, I told him about the trips to Illinois and mentioned driving through West Virginia. He was incredulous. “No way! West Virginia isn’t there!” he claimed, he prided himself on his knowledge of geography. “Really! You are arguing with me when I drove through it!” I was even more incredulous. We pulled out one of those Rand McNally atlases and settled it. I didn’t imagine it, we did drive through a small piece of West Virginia.

Actually it would be hard for me to forget that because one year we got stuck in horrible traffic just outside Wheeling, of all places. We were practically at a standstill and we didn’t know why. Cars were overheating. This was before the interstate highway had been completed so we were on a small two-lane road that went through the town. I think we eventually came to some construction that narrowed the road to one lane, so traffic had to stop and each way took turns. When you are taking an 800-mile road trip that kind of delay is particularly irritating. Fortunately we didn’t overheat because my father, who wasn’t the most patient man or knowledgeable about cars, would’ve totally blown a gasket.

We continued on into Ohio where we stopped at a Holiday Inn in the late afternoon. We went swimming in the motel pool, then had dinner and went to sleep. We’d get up early the next morning, but not as crazy early, and drive to a truck stop just over the border in Indiana for breakfast.

Each year the trip posed a unique challenge. One time, when I went to get my book out of the car after we checked into the motel, I locked the keys in the car. That led to some frantic time trying to break back in. Eventually, after some choice words and advice from some fellow travelers, my father was able to successfully manipulate a coat hanger to pop the lock. Crisis averted.

One year (before getting the roof rack that included a cover) we had duffel bags strapped to the roof of the car and it poured. It was a miserable time unpacking all the damp clothes when we finally arrived.

Another year we had a much more serious problem. My mom, who had arthritis, had a flare up and was in terrible back pain. I remember her begging my father to leave her in Indiana. “Just leave me here,” she cried. My father wouldn’t, of course. “Okay, take me to a motel and leave me there! Then you can come back and get me.” That wasn’t an option either, so we just kept going; my mom in agony, and the rest of us not knowing what to do.

We spent three summers in Champaign-Urbana. Two summers we lived on campus in graduate student housing and one summer in a sublet house. We spent most of the time at the huge outdoor pool, swimming and playing in the water with a whole lot of other kids whose dads were also attending summer school. Sweet Caroline and In the Year 2525 played again and again over the PA system – the soundtrack for that time of my life.

You know what’s funny? I don’t remember much about any of the trips back home – not where we ate, not where we stayed overnight. The only thing that stands out is recognizing we were getting close when we smelled the sulfur and chemicals – quite a difference from the smell of manure that greeted our arrival in the Midwest. We knew we were coming to our exit of the New Jersey Turnpike when the pungent, unpleasant smell of the refineries welcomed us back home.

Uncle Mike

We were laughing in the snow. Tossing snowballs at each other in front of our house in Canarsie. Sliding around on the snow-covered walkway and driveway, enjoying the horseplay. The way I remember it, my brothers, Uncle Mike and maybe my cousins, Laurie and Ira were there. But, I may be remembering a photograph of us in the snow from a different time. This is clear: I felt a cold snowball smushed into my nose and mouth. Uncle Mike suddenly had me in a headlock and had a mound of snow that he was pushing into my face. I twisted and squirmed to get away. Just as suddenly he let me go. I was shocked. I didn’t know where that came from. It would be some years later, but I would come to understand.

It seems to me that a significant part of life is luck. The family you are born into, the time and place, the particular constellation of genes that you inherit are all out of your control. That isn’t to say a person can’t overcome a bad hand or those disadvantages mean a life won’t have joy and accomplishment. But some people seem to be blessed with a life of mostly sunny skies, and others not so much. Uncle Mike, my mother’s younger brother, fell into the latter category.

From the get go Uncle Mike couldn’t catch a break. He was born with a digestive problem that required that he go to the pediatrician’s office regularly for an injection. According to the story my mom told me, she would take Mike in his carriage to the doctor’s office. When he realized where they were going he would start to cry. Mom, not knowing what to do, would mislead him into thinking they were going somewhere else. She felt guilty about this and carries the weight of that to this day.

Despite the health issues, Uncle Mike grew to be a big man, around 6’3”. He struggled mightily with his weight. Obesity runs in our family and at various points Uncle Mike was morbidly obese. Some big men have a toughness about them, or are a presence in a room. That was not Uncle Mike. He was good-natured and he had a softness that wasn’t just physical. He had many friends, but was also the target of bullies. He carried the scars of low self-esteem.

Uncle Mike was 13 years younger than my mother, 13 years older than me. He lived upstairs with my grandparents while I was growing up. He graduated from high school but didn’t get a college degree. He was smart, but he didn’t pursue higher education. In contrast, each of his three siblings earned graduate degrees. For a number of years he drove a truck delivering bakery goods in the city (for the same commercial bakery where my grandfather worked). He frequently worked nights and slept during the day. I was careful not to wake him.

Uncle Mike was fastidious and had no tolerance for anyone who was ill-mannered. Chewing with your mouth open was a favorite target of a zinger. If he heard me chewing gum, he let me know about it. “What are you, Elsie?” his voice dripping with sarcasm, referring of course to the cow, followed immediately by the reminder, “Chew with your mouth closed!” Actually, it was a good lesson – perhaps it could have been delivered more kindly.

An important part of our family life was sports and Uncle Mike was no exception. He was a fan and he participated, playing football and softball with his friends. Uncle Mike was a Jets and Mets fan. My mother and her two brothers had season tickets to the Jet games at Shea Stadium. One more piece of evidence that my family was a little unusual – my father didn’t go to the games, my mother did!

My brothers and I relished watching Met games with him in his bedroom. He would have the air conditioner cranked to meat locker temperature – it felt great since the rest of the house was usually stifling. He provided funny commentary about the lovable losers. He always identified with the underdog. He hated the Yankees, which was the team I favored, though I did it quietly. He loved the movie “Rocky.”

He had a loyal group of friends who visited the house often. I grew up knowing his buddies: Alfred, Philly, Walter and Barry. I was the official scorer at their softball games. I went with Uncle Mike to Staten Island where they played and kept the scorebook for them. While I would have preferred to play, it was fun being there and I learned some colorful language, too.

During my later teen years, Uncle Mike made a concerted, successful effort to lose weight. He moved into his own apartment. I remember going with him to shop for new jeans. He was looking forward to going out on a date and we picked out some sharp clothes.

Uncle Mike was trying to turn his life around. Though in that day and age, it wasn’t spoken of, I believe he sought help through therapy. I remember my dad saying that if emotional issues got in the way of your day-to-day life, and you weren’t able to be happy, it was time to seek help. I think he said that in the context of Uncle Mike, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. Either way, I took that message to heart.

It was around that time that Uncle Mike apologized to me. The way I remember it, we were riding in his car to Aunt Simma’s for dinner. He said he was sorry for teasing me so much when I was younger and for giving me such a hard time. I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. He went on to explain that he resented my relationship with Nana, his mom, and took it out on me. I accepted his apology and told him it was okay.

I didn’t fully appreciate his gesture until I became an adult. The courage it took to be that honest with me. In so many ways life wasn’t kind to him. His marriage didn’t work out and as a result he was separated from his son, various business ventures fell apart, his health deteriorated, diabetes ravaged him.

Uncle Mike was living in Zada’s apartment in Century Village West Palm Beach when Gary, my husband, and I went to visit him somewhere around 2002 or 2003. At this point his eyesight had deteriorated so that he couldn’t drive and he had parts of his toes amputated because of diabetes. We chatted in his apartment before going to lunch. Uncle Mike wanted to give us a gift. He looked around the apartment, knowing Gary was a huge Met fan. He picked up his mousepad with a giant Met logo in the middle. He insisted Gary take it. Gary was reluctant, but understanding that Mike wanted to make the gesture, he took it.

Through it all he remained good-natured, he enjoyed a good meal, loved movies and telling stories, rooting for the Mets, seeing family and friends. Uncle Mike died of complications of diabetes when he was 58 years old in 2005.