Note: It is only appropriate that today I share another of my Mom’s pieces. I am off to visit her and accompany her to the doctor. Unfortunately, Mom has had a serious health issue come up that is made more difficult to manage because of COVID. Any positive vibes, karma, or prayer is appreciated. Meanwhile, here is another slice of her life. We hope you enjoy!
A stoop is not a porch. A porch has rocking chairs or other seating where folks sip iced tea and relax. A stoop is a wide staircase that leads to a multifamily home, usually in a city. I had a stoop. It was in front of the house where I grew up, on Rochester Avenue in Brooklyn.
The stoop was our playground, like a town center for all the kids on the block. We sat on the steps of the stoop and played jacks or all kinds of card games. The boys would trade baseball cards or play knocks (don’t ask).
We sat on the steps and took turns playing jump rope or double dutch (if you were brave) on the sidewalk. We played hit the penny. We’d put a penny on the crack in the pavement, you and your partner stood on either side, trying to hit the penny with a pink ball called a pensy-pinky. One point if you hit it; two points if it turned over. 11 points to win. The boys also played punch ball and of course stoop ball, which took some imagination. We sat on the steps putting on or taking off our roller skates with a key on a string attached to our neck.
After school or in the evening we would sit on the steps talking about our teachers. Were they fair? Did they have favorites? We talked about who we liked or disliked. We sometimes did our homework and if we were in the same class, we might compare answers.
A group of us would meet on the stoop and then go to the movies. Afterwards we’d come back to the stoop and the boys would act out sword fights (from the movie Robin Hood). The girls would be the damsel in distress – I might be her best friend. They would play cops and robbers; or, they would be the US and its allies fighting the Nazis or the Japanese. We would see news reels at the movies which gave us reports on the progress of World War II.
We would sit on the steps singing war time songs like The White Cliffs of Dover. We would watch the night sky and follow the search lights until the warden came to tell us to go home for dinner or bed. The blackout had to be obeyed and we’d go home to pull down the shades and leave the street in total darkness.
It was the 40’s and some of us had relatives in the armed services so we knew of the Second World War and the stories of concentration camps. But, in general, we did not talk about it. So it was a time of innocence and change. If we knew of the horrors or the turmoil in the world, we did not talk about it then.
Our conversations did become different in the 1950’s. We got older; we got married and moved away; we got jobs and had children. Then different people sat on the stoop, playing the games of their youth.
NOTE: I wanted to include additional (better) photographs to this post, but the platform wasn’t accepting the format of some. It is a mystery to me. I tried editing them in different ways, accessing them in different ways….I gave up. Oh well. Hopefully you will get my intention.
We are six months into the pandemic. It simultaneously feels like it has been a lifetime and hard to believe that it has been that long. I was looking through photos on my phone and thinking about the journey.
The experience has been both isolating and connecting. I have spent long hours alone. I have also spent hours talking to friends and family.
It is filled with contradictions – an opportunity to commune with nature, but also to feel powerless in the face of nature’s mysteries.
For me it began with my last foray out to dinner with friends in Beacon, New York, on March 7th. We went to Dia that day and took in the abstract art and pondered its meaning (which I wrote about here).
The pandemic has continued through today, August 20th, when I took a car ride up the Northway and explored Round Lake, partly driving, partly walking. I was hoping to hike through the nature preserve there but didn’t find a trail. I did find a dock where you could put in a kayak. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. I did find lovely views, brightened by purple loosestrife.
Too bad I didn’t have a kayak
I got back in my car and found a promising bike path. Next time I will have to hook up the carrier to the trunk and bring my bike. I also found a charming shop named Leah’s Cakery. How could I not stop in given that it was apparently named after my daughter? I was rewarded with wonderful iced coffee and a delicious blueberry muffin.
In these six months I have travelled around the Capital Region visiting previously unseen nature preserves and found many lovely spots, but I have also gone only as far as my backyard for respite.
Some examples of enjoying our back yard:
We’ve made a number of fires and made s’mores
Evidence of some of my hikes throughout the region:
I have observed the arc of the seasons: from the gray skies and barren trees of the end of winter to the deep azure and lush green of middle of summer.
I am probably tanner than I have ever been, though that isn’t saying much. The sun and I have a complicated relationship. I love it; it doesn’t love me. When I was young, the summer sun would cause a rash. Now with careful use of sunscreen with an spf over 30, I can handle the northern sun (a tropical sun is another story), mostly I freckle, at least I don’t burn. Each time I head out to walk, hike, jog or bike, I slather it on.
In that time, Gary planted a garden and reaped its harvest. He fought off critters that threatened to eat everything, but he won the war. He had a record-breaking tomato crop that we have been happy to share.
We had a lot of zucchini, too. I made it every which way, from bread to soup. Luckily Gary and I like both (and they go quite well together, too).
Fortunately, I had stopped coloring my hair long before the pandemic, but I didn’t get it cut until yesterday. It had gotten out of control – frizzy and wild. Over the six months, it has also gotten a good deal grayer, with silver sprinkled in, and white around my face. I don’t mind. I kind of like it, but each time I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror I’m startled by what I see. Hmmm, is that me? After taking a beat, I nod and decide again that I’m good with it. It is a badge of honor – I’ve lived 60 years and it’s okay that people know that.
On some of my hikes I have been accompanied by Gary or a friend, but at least as often I am alone. I am not comfortable going too far afield by myself, but I will walk a well-traveled path. Mostly I go to the U of Albany campus and walk around the pond there. I watched a family of Canadian geese grow from furry goslings to almost full-size. I learned from my daughter-in-law that the black bird I photographed perched on a branch hovering over that pond is a cormorant. I have also learned that I like being able to put a name to a bird, tree or flower that I see.
For a number of months part of the ring road of the SUNY campus was closed off because they had set up COVID drive-thru testing. Just recently, they reorganized the test site and the full loop is open again. Now that it is late August, I look for signs of students. I have noticed more cars and more people using the tennis courts, but not much evidence of students. The gate to the basketball court is still chained shut. Tennis has been deemed safe to play, basketball is not. The judgments about what is safe and what isn’t keep evolving. Early on the tennis courts were off limits, too.
I am trying to make the best of the situation, trying to internalize that I am blessed. My husband and children are gainfully employed. My mother and in-laws have had health issues made more difficult to address because of COVID, but they have been managing; they have survived thus far. I even got to visit Mom once.
Despite the cooperation of the weather which has allowed us to get outside (though sometimes it has been beastly hot and humid), I feel sad. Hard to shake it, the melancholy that comes from knowing how many have died, how many have and continue to suffer and, while I have faith that a vaccine and treatment will be found, we don’t know how long this will go on.
I work at being positive, each day, finding humor, breathing deeply, looking at pictures of my kids and granddaughter, making my plan to vote and donating funds to candidates I support. But, truth be told, the sadness remains.
Moral clarity. Those were the words that came to mind when I learned that Rep. John Lewis had died. He had a moral compass and followed it. I asked my husband, “Is that a rare quality?” Gary thought about it for a bit and said, “I don’t know.” “It sure seems like it is,” I responded.
I can’t help but compare our current president, who clearly doesn’t have a moral molecule in his heartless body, to John Lewis. There is no comparison. In fact, I can’t bring myself to type Trump’s name in the same sentence.
After thinking for a bit, Gary looked at me, “You have moral clarity.”
Wow, that’s a major compliment. I thanked him but know that I am not in the same category – it is embarrassing to even write this. My family gives me more credit than I deserve for doing the right thing. I fall short often.
Thinking about John Lewis’s life I can’t help but be awed by his courage, consistency and vision. If I have moral clarity, I have not come close to living it in the way that he did. Some people live big lives. John Lewis did. Why? What is the difference between those that lead on a national or international stage and those that don’t. I’m thinking it is a combination of having a compelling vision, a willingness to step up, a calling to shoulder responsibility, and seizing the opportunity to act.
Maybe the truth is that we all have opportunities to act, and either we don’t step up or we try and fail. Perhaps we don’t have the courage required to put ourselves on the line – there is so much to fear, from losing a job to physical harm. Or maybe we try but don’t have the leadership qualities that inspire others, or maybe we don’t offer a message that resonates. It is amazing to think that John Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. So young and to already have ascended to that height! His willingness to put his body – his very life – on the line by participating in the Freedom Rides and the protests in Selma, among other activities, is awe inspiring.
I’m trying to think of times I have been in the presence of someone who had that kind of vision, determination and integrity. I can’t think of any. I can think of times I saw a speech on television that moved me. Mario Cuomo’s and Barack Obama’s convention speeches come to mind. But, again, that is different than a Black man sitting at a ‘Whites Only’ lunch counter and waiting for the painful consequences. Taking action is a different animal than soaring oratory. We need both to stir change. John Lewis did both – he used words and actions.
I think about my father who had a very strong sense of right and wrong and he communicated that in no uncertain terms to his children. The three of us benefitted from the clarity of his vision. He was a chapter chair in the teachers’ union and walked the picket line in New York City as a teacher in the 1960s, but he didn’t march on Washington or go to other protests. I wish I could talk to him about his choices. I’m not judging him – he lived an admirable life. I do wonder what he would say about leadership and courage, especially in this moment when both seem to be in such short supply.
We are living at a time where there is a paucity of leadership on the national level, certainly a lack of leadership that embraces an ethical code. We have a leader – we have a president. But he is so devoid of values, he has failed us miserably during this pandemic (and in addressing the systemic inequalities that the pandemic has made glaringly obvious).
I miss John Lewis already. Knowing his voice was out there gave me comfort. I know there are people doing good work, courageous work, trying to steer this country in a healthier direction. I hope leaders emerge who can bring us together. I am keeping an eye out for them.
Note: My mother has continued to write stories of her youth. This one was shared previously on my brother’s Facebook page. I wanted to share it, too, since it is such an important part of our family story. In fact, I had written about it before here. After my Mom’s essay, there is a postscript with some facts and figures about the storm and then a portion of my previous post. My Mom’s description adds details to my understanding of how that momentous, traumatic experience, the New England Hurricane of 1938, felt to her and the lesson she took from it.
Change by Feige Brody
There is always change, whether it is the change of seasons, change of jobs or change of homes. The first momentous change in my life, which I can recall, was in September 1938 when I was not yet 5 years old. We lived on the second floor of a two- story building in New London, CT. I was playing outside when a black cloud covered the sun and changed my day to night.
When the winds and rain began no one knew that it would be unlike any other storm, but would be the most powerful and destructive hurricane in New England’s recorded history. As my mother called me up the stairs, I recall her attempting to remove things from the clothesline when it snapped, and all the white sheets went flapping into the black sky.
Mother and I hurried inside where my two -year old baby sister, Simma, was crying in her crib. Mother closed all the windows and I played with Simma singing “Rain Rain go away.” Suddenly a burst of wind shattered our windows. Glass and rain poured into our apartment. Mother plopped us onto the center of my parents’ bed. She had to keep us off the floor while she attempted to clean the debris.
To our immense relief our soaking father soon arrived and the first thing he said was “Christopher Columbus saved my life.”
Dad then proceeded to tell us that he had been delivering breads and cakes when the storm intensified. His car was stuck in a flooded street and the car started to fill with water so he scrambled out. Holding onto the walls of the buildings he started making his way home. A gust of wind however sent him air borne and blew him into the statute of Christopher Columbus which was right in the middle of the road. Dad held on for dear life; eventually, he and Christopher Columbus parted, and Dad resumed his precarious journey back to us.
Our apartment was illuminated only by the outside flames of a burning New London. We could hear fire engines and sirens. The water in our apartment began to rise; Mother knew we were going to have to abandon our home and she started packing diapers and a few other items.
Fortunately, a coast guard boat soon arrived, in what used to be our back yard, and we climbed through the broken window in the kitchen and into the boat. I remember putting my hand in the swirling water and splashing. It was fun and exciting for an almost five- year old girl. But the fun subsided soon. When we were deposited on relatively dry land there was utter darkness. Electric wires were whipping in the wind and we were drenched and walking on wet ground. I had to jump to avoid the live wires which were sparkling and sizzling all around us. I was frightened for the first time. No one was able to hold my hand because Mom was carrying Simma and Dad was carrying our few belongings.
I learned that life could turn around in a second. We lost everything in that hurricane. Our life was changed in every way.
My father, a voracious reader, quoted Voltaire, and told me “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 80 plus years later, I do not believe “all is for the best,” but, I do believe that this is the best and only world we have, so we should make the best of it. And this has been my philosophy of life through changes in jobs, changes in homes, and changes in the seasons of our lives.
Post Script: Some facts pertaining to the hurricane on the 21st of September 1938:
1. There was no warning system- in 1938 forecasting in US lagged behind Europe
2. No insurance
3. This was prior to the naming of hurricanes
4. 682 people died
5. In 1938 dollars: 306 million in losses (which is 4.7 billion dollars in 2017)
6. It was a Category 5 Hurricane with wind 160 mph
7. 2 billion trees destroyed
8. 20,000 electrical poles toppled
9. 26,000 automobiles destroyed
10. Damaged or destroyed 570 homes including mine
Here is a link to footage from the National Weather Service that shows the fury and aftermath of that epic storm: link
This is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote, which is a profile of mom’s Dad, who I called Zada. He was the essence of resilience.
An 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, 34 years old at the time, 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.
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 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.
I missed my self-imposed Monday morning deadline by several days, but hopefully you will forgive me. After five months of pandemic limitations, we arranged a visit with our son’s family. We got to spend time with our beloved granddaughter! To add to the joy, our daughter and son-in-law-to-be came too! We were all extra-careful in the weeks leading up to the visit, no one had any symptoms (though every day I imagined every symptom in the book!) and we decided to take the risk. They came for six days (Leah and Ben were here for four)! We picked blueberries (granddaughter ate every single one she picked, none made it to the bucket), we swam in our pool for hours, we watched 101 Dalmations and Onward many times over, we ate great meals and generally reveled in their company. I put aside my writing. I took many photographs to help remember the wonders of a two year old. On Monday Leah and Ben returned to their work life and yesterday, in the midst of the downpour that was the remnants of Isaias, Dan and his family packed up and drove home. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but we were left with a treasure trove of memories.
Today I have root canal to look forward to – I’m not joking. I probably could have timed that better. The good news is that we already have another visit planned so it will not be so long until we see each other – just a few weeks, not an endless five months (assuming no spike in Covid or other disaster).
One other exciting thing since I last posted, the essay I wrote that was accepted to an online journal has gone live! (I wrote bout that in Victory! ) I am honored and excited to be included in this edition of Trolley, the literary journal of the New York State Writers Institute. The theme for the magazine was our experience during the pandemic – poets, essayists and visual artists contributed. I hope you’ll explore it. Here is the link to my story. Happy reading!