As a child your family is your world. At least it was for me. I didn’t question how we did things or how our family functioned. While I knew we weren’t perfect, I thought we were pretty darn close.
As the years went by, I came to understand that the people around me were in fact flawed. Even my beloved Nana. Nana was a mythic figure in our family. Her legendary status only grew after her death.
I have wanted to write about Nana for as long as I could remember. I started this blog as a way of exploring my memories of her, though I have strayed from that at times. I think I wanted to understand her better, to have a better sense of her life, from an adult perspective. I was 11 when she died, but she played such a central role in my life – from the time I was four until she died, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother. With that in mind, I wrote to her youngest brother, my Great-Uncle Jackie (Jacob, but we called him Jackie or Jack), in December of 2001, asking him to share stories about her. This was the first letter I received in response.
Life on Rochester Ave was a most unique experience. Unlike anything else, it was a lesson in humanities, and your Nana was the ultimate professor.
The one block on Rochester Ave was a community in itself, it was a shtetl, an almost self contained mini state, which thrived for many, many years.
Nana was the leader of the pack. She could have been mayor of the block.
Her warmth and friendship was infectious.
It was not a put on. It was real. She exuded this very unusual human quality automatically – without effort, without exertion.
The block could have had a fence around it. The business establishments and owners were like a family in every sense of the word. It was a “mutual admiration society,” knowing each other, respecting each other, liking and supporting each other.
Quoting, with humility, Tevya proclaims that Anatevka (Rochester Ave) has its variety of ‘colorful characters.’
There was Max, the fruit and produce man next door to the bakery – there was Al the barber – there was Sam the butcher across the street – there was Julius the appetizing maven, Datz the pharmacist, Singer the hardware man – and two names that elude me, the luncheonette guy and the pastrami (king) on the corner.
Your Nana loved this kaleidoscope of rainbow hued people – and they loved her. This was most important!!!
It was a violation of every concept of law not to support each other, purchase from each other, or maintain a warm relationship with each other.
Bakery business is a complex business. A wholesale/retail operation is a 24 hour business.
Zada Chas., of course, was responsible for the production end.
Nana Ray was totally involved in the retail aspect of this very difficult business. Coming in contact with the immediate neighborhood customers required the patience of a saint – the wisdom of a scholar – the compassion of a person of the cloth – the wit of a comic.
Well, Linda, your Nana was all of those things and more.
She constantly transmitted a warmth and friendship to all.
Please be assured Nana was no saint – she was just a very special human being.
It was very obvious through the years that your Nana loved the business and loved the intimacy of her station behind the counter.
She was on call every minute the store was open, at a moment’s call, always in her uniform, ready to report for duty.
But – she seemed to love the thought of the sweets on display. If memory serves, she was ‘almost’ obsessed with eclairs, whip cream cake, brownies, Napoleons, etc., etc. That was bad – very bad. Your Nana was a diabetic – an out of control diabetic. She was in and out of the hospital more times than I can remember. I could almost swear that she liked the occasional stay in Unity Hospital, where she developed friendships with the medical personnel.
She was a star, a favorite Unity visitor.
Nana did not accept the fact that she could be a diabetic. She did not care for herself and, at the end, it may have contributed somewhat to her demise at such a young age.
Nana Ray was a joy to love, live with and is constantly missed.
Fifteen years ago, when I received that letter, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping for more detail, more specific information about her life. The letter reinforced the mythology of Nana. In our family Nana was the matriarch, the center from which love flowed, even 30 years after her death. Uncle Jack noted that Nana wasn’t a saint, but he chose not to illuminate her flaws. He did address her self-destructive eating habits, and unwillingness to take care of herself. Even about that he was as gentle as possible in his wording. At the time I was hoping Uncle Jack could offer some stories that would provide more dimension, or a fuller perspective on Nana.
Today I read the letter and I see the insight in it. I appreciate the description of the community around the bakery, the community that encompassed Nana’s life. I better understand how difficult the bakery bankruptcy must have been and the defeat inherent in moving to the apartment above ours in Canarsie. It explains a lot about the sometimes testy relationship that I observed between Nana and Zada.
My mother used to tell me that she thought Nana used her hospitalizations as a kind of vacation, to take a break from her responsibilities. Uncle Jack’s letter seems to support that, though clearly it was a self-destructive way to go about it.
In some ways, the letter says more about Uncle Jack’s relationship with his older sister than it does about Nana’s life. He so loved and admired her. He was 11 years her junior. Jack had a very painful growing up. Their mother died when he was very young and his father was unable to care for him. Jack was shuttled to different relatives to live. When Nana (Ray) was married and settled, she took him in. The 1940 census, when Nana and Zada lived in Jersey City, lists their household on Essex Street as including the following: Charles – age 35, Ray – age 26, Feige – age 7, Simma – age 3 and Jack Woltz – age 15. My mother grew up with Uncle Jack as an older brother, much the way I grew up with Uncle Mike and Uncle Terry. It is strange how that pattern repeated itself.
During World War II Uncle Jack enlisted in the Marines before he was even 17, or he tried to. I believe Nana had to give permission for him to serve. In later years he spoke with great respect and pride about his time in the service, despite the fact that he was shot down in the Pacific, a harrowing experience. He had a tattoo to commemorate his time in the Marines on his bicep, quite an unusual thing for a Jewish man at the time.
While at war he wrote letters to his nieces (my mom and her sister) that included cartoons. He was a talented artist. Those letters were shared at Mom’s elementary school and posted on a bulletin board for all to see. Uncle Jack came home, after recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed, a decorated hero, a bit shell shocked, but happy to return home.
I think it is fair to say that Nana functioned as a mother to him. Something he confirmed in a subsequent letter. As he wrote, referring to his place in Nana and Zada’s home, “As for me personally, it meant for the first time in my life I felt that I had a family, that I was a valued member of a family, a stability with shared love and responsibility. This responsibility came to pass only by the goodness of Nana Ray and Zada Chas, who were more than sister or brother-in-law – more like an interim Mother and Father, with the children more like brothers and sisters.”
I continued my correspondence with Uncle Jackie and in subsequent letters, at my prodding, he offered a fuller picture of Nana. Here is most of the next letter:
…..Nana Ray had this thing for hosting parties. She invented the term for Webster, and they called it——obsession.
The family was always the center, the core of any party that was planned to her agenda. I’m emphatically stating that at times, it did annoy the Spilken/Woltz clans – but our rebellion was unacceptable and hopeless. Any previous plans made by the helpless had to be cancelled and rescheduled.
There were small parties, large parties, grand elaborate parties, significant and memorable parties never to be forgotten……
Listing Nana’s obsession with parties, and listing occasions would require one volume of an encyclopedia.
But briefly: birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, B’nai Mitzvot, weddings, uf rufs, going into service, coming home from service (a reunion that made Aunt Elsie your aunt), Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, and the list goes on and on and on and on….
This was your Nana. She was a class act, her most important cast members were her family. There didn’t exist an occasion too minor or too important for it to escape the opportunity for Ray to honor.
Before going further, I must inject a couple of relationship points.
Ray’s relationship to her (our) sister Sadie was, at times, confrontational and argumentative. But, make no mistake, the love was strong, unbreakable and absolutely devoted. That was Nana Ray, 100% pure love. They spoke almost daily by phone. If Sadie could not come to the party, we took the party to Jersey. Restrictions on time of day or day of week never existed. Zada’s car was loaded and we did travel.
The fun was wonderful……
Aunt Say always disagreed with Ray’s way of life. Aunt Say always felt that Ray enjoyed going out too much (and as such), neglected her business. She argued that Ray’s spending on her antiques was excessive and wasteful. Say felt that vacationing was excessive, and most of all, Ray did not take care of herself (reckless food eating). Sadie was even more angry at Ray for too frequent hospital excursions.
They were both business women. Ray always felt that Sadie was more like the country bumpkin, catalogue ordering farm girl. Sadie was more home oriented, financially frugal, never concerned with fancy clothing, jewelry or home furnishings.
In spite of the silly differences, they were both hard working in their businesses, while caring for their children.
But again, our journeys to Jersey were precious and priceless. We were a family, happy to be together, enjoying the time.
Another relationship worthy of mention is the closeness shared by Nana and Aunt Elsie. This was very unusual, far beyond a sister-in-law relationship, they shared a love, respect and closeness that was out of the ordinary. They shared ideas, thoughts, and were closer than sisters.
Zada Chas and Elsie’s parents shared that same feeling of warmth, love and affection.
My love to you ——-Uncle Jack
The differences between the sisters that the letter describes and what those differences revealed about each of them, was news to me. I was not aware of any issues between the siblings. While it may be true that a child may not be privy to those particulars, my experience with my family was a bit different. I was often the proverbial fly on the wall. I liked the company of adults and I liked listening. In any event, while it is certainly possible, I don’t think the tensions were spoken about.
Therein lies a problem. In our effort to preserve a reputation, especially that of a beloved person, we may sweep a lot under the rug. I don’t think it serves us well. While I don’t think it is helpful to tear down heroes, or speak ill of the dead, I think if we ignore or whitewash their failings, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity to better understand the person, to learn about ourselves, to acknowledge human frailty and, perhaps, to be more forgiving of each other and ourselves.
These letters, more than anything, though, remind me of the lessons I took from Nana’s life: To celebrate when you can. The priority and value of family relationships, even when the people are flawed. To live in the world with kindness, generosity and love. Whatever flaws Nana had, and they may well have shortened her life, they pale in comparison to her legacy.
Note: Members of the Woltz family, please feel free to comment, correct or add to this post. If any of you would like to write a longer piece, I’d be happy to post it. That offer extends to all family members who may have something that they would like to share.