A Miracle: Part II of David’s Story

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Berl Bakst, David’s father

When Gary and I got together a process of melding two very different Jewish-American families began. My parents were American-born (even my grandmothers had been born in this country); my Mom and Dad had master’s degrees; and, we weren’t religiously observant. Gary’s parents were European-born; formal education was abruptly stopped by the war; and, they went to synagogue every Sabbath, and kept a kosher home. It was this last piece, being observant Jews, that was initially most perplexing to me. Until I attended services with Paula and David, and until I understood the source of David’s faith, I couldn’t relate to keeping all the rules and regulations that Judaism requires. Turns out my father-in-law believes in miracles. It took a while for me to understand that.

I left off last week with the Russian invasion of Iwie. David and his family had been enjoying a peaceful and prosperous life until the Communist takeover. Not only did his father lose ownership of his home and business, but Berl was taken for questioning by the KGB repeatedly. He was subjected to interrogation nightly for weeks, with the family worried that he would be whisked off to Siberia, never to be seen again. People disappeared and rumors about being sent to the gulag pervaded the air in Iwie. Fortunately, after each interrogation Berl returned home.

As a result of being labeled ‘capitalists,’ David was shunned by friends. His fortunes, and that of his family, changed on a dime. Now they were almost destitute. Berl barely managed to provide, it was quite a fall in status. Berl’s business, which was comprised of a leather factory and shoe store, was still operating, but under Russian supervision.

Things went from bad to worse over the next few years. The Germans invaded as part of their plan to take Russia.  Jews from surrounding towns and villages were rounded up and sent to Iwie. A ghetto was created. The Bakst family lived in the ghetto, but were allowed to leave to work at the shoe factory. This gave Berl and David access to information and other townspeople. They heard rumors of ‘actions,’ actions were when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them, or deport them on trains to concentration camps.

Upon hearing rumors of an impending ‘action,’ Berl, Rachel, David, Eli, Batya and Gussie (David’s sisters were born in 1927 and 1932) escaped to the woods. They tried to hook up with partisans (fighting groups that lived in the forests surrounding Iwie – and other forests in Poland). David remembered walking through thigh high snow in the bitter cold. His little sister, Gussie, was carried by Berl until the point of exhaustion when David took over. They weren’t successful in connecting with a partisan brigade. It was winter and they feared freezing to death. The Bakst family made rendezvous plans at a spot in the woods in case they got separated and had to run again in the future. They went back to the ghetto.

That first ‘action’ resulted in the killing of the leadership and intellectuals of the Jewish community in Iwie, others were spared, for the time being.

The adult Baksts continued working at the factory. Berl arranged for his wife and Gussie to be hidden in a farmer’s barn about ten miles outside of Iwie, thinking they would be safer there. They, along with about 10 other Jews, including David’s cousins, were crowded into a space under the barn floor. Food and supplies were brought to them.

At some point, perhaps because a collaborator reported them, or because the Germans saw unusual movements around that barn, they came to investigate. Normally the barn floor had hay strewn about. It was Spring and the floor was bare. A German soldier’s boot heel sunk into a hole in a floor board. A child underneath made a sound. The soldier tossed a grenade into the hole. One of David’s cousins tossed it back. Two cousins climbed out to fight and were shot immediately. The Germans continued to shoot as they set fire to the barn. The remaining people, including David’s mother and sister, were burned alive.

The farmer, who himself was now on the run, got word to Berl about the fate of his family.  No miracles saved Rachel and Gussie, but the remaining Baksts continued on. They still worked in the factory, but as the war dragged on and German fortunes were fading, their lives became more precarious. They wondered how long the leather/shoe factory would be continued. Berl would have David go across the street to the Polish shoe store to visit and try to gather information.

One day German soldiers came to the factory while David was at the store across the way. David saw the soldiers. The Polish storekeeper gave David an overcoat so that his yellow star would be covered. David put the coat on and ran out the back. Two soldiers saw him and gave chase, shooting at him. David remembers zig zagging down the alley, rolling and getting up, darting back and forth to escape. Gunshots sprayed around him, but none hit their target. He got away and went to the rendezvous spot.

Berl and Eli also escaped the factory that day. Eventually they showed up at the rendezvous spot to meet David. Batya didn’t come. Berl wanted to go back to find her. He felt he couldn’t leave his daughter behind. David argued that Berl couldn’t leave them either. In an emotional exchange that still pains David, he convinced his father to stay with them.

This time in the woods, they were able to join partisan brigades. David and Berl joined Iskra, a Russian regiment. Eli joined the Bielskis (a Jewish regiment, whose story was told in the movie Defiance).

David was a fighter in the regiment and Berl supported the group by repairing shoes and working with leather. David recalls various missions including sabotaging a German military caravan where they were able to capture weapons and ammunition.

Iskra also took measures against collaborators. When they became aware of Polish families who were cooperating with the Germans, they wanted to send a message that there would be consequences. The partisan brigade took vengeance on those villagers, and captured any food, weapons or other material that would be useful. At this point, David described himself as living like an animal –  there was no right or wrong, there was only survival and he did what he had to do.

While they were with Iskra, Berl and David got word that Batya was alive. She was in a camp outside Lida, which was about 40 kilometers away. With the assistance of the other members of the brigade, they came up with a rescue plan. Using coded messages, they managed to communicate with Batya.

Batya had a routine which involved crossing the camp to bring food to the German soldiers. This was done at the same time each day. One of the partisans, a Pole, intercepted Batya, ripped the yellow star from her clothing and covered her with his overcoat. Somehow, they walked out of the camp without being detected.

Batya joined David and Berl and became part of the Iskra brigade. To have his sister back was a miracle to David. That the rescue plan worked was unbelievable. David still gives thanks for it.

He would need more miracles to continue to survive.

Part of the Story

I try to imagine how it would feel, but it just isn’t possible. I can’t put myself in his shoes. It is important to try, though. The more I learn, the more astonishing his story is.

We were sitting in a luncheonette in Saugerties, Gary, David, my father-in-law, and Paula, my mother-in-law, as part of an ordinary Thursday afternoon visit. We lingered while Paula painstakingly ate her cream cheese on bagel. The rest of us had long since finished our lunches. But, I felt no impatience. David was telling us about his childhood. David grew up in the vanished world of the shtetl, in a town called Iwie (pronounced Eve-ya), in what was then Poland (today it is Belarus, and the spelling of the town varies).

“It was a beautiful youth,” David explained. Almost like the scene from My Cousin Vinny,I ask, “Beautiful what?” David repeats the word, then asks, “That’s the word, right? Youth?” All these years later, he still questions his English. “You said it perfectly, I just didn’t hear you,” I replied with a smile.

I hadn’t given much thought to what shtetl life meant to them. We have had many conversations over the years, but it mostly covered things like: Did you have running water in the house? (No) Did you have electricity? (yes for David, no for Paula). Those kinds of things are interesting tidbits, but don’t paint a picture of their lives. This conversation offered more insight, perhaps because Gary asked, “Did your father think about leaving for the United States earlier?”

David’s parents, Berl and Rachel, were comfortably established in Iwie. Berl’s brothers left for America in the 1920s. They appealed to Berl to come with them. He declined. His business, making and selling leather shoes, was growing. He was making a name for himself based on the quality of his product; he was becoming more and more successful. He was providing a good life for his growing family. David was born in 1922, another son, Eliahu, was born in 1925 and two daughters followed.

Perhaps as important, Rachel’s family lived in Iwie, too. Every Shabbos, after services, aunts, uncles and cousins, came to the Bakst (spelled Bakszt) home to visit. The adults schmoozed and talked politics, the children ran around outside. There was warmth and affection – there may have been arguments, too, but nothing serious. Berl was to the right politically of some of his family, a supporter of Jabotinsky, while others were more mainstream Zionists. They enjoyed the give and take.

David observed, “The family was close. Not like what I see in America. It is different here.” I said what he described sounded a lot like the family I grew up in (minus the observance of Shabbos) – with aunts, uncles and cousins coming in and out of my grandmother’s upstairs apartment. But, I had to agree, it probably wasn’t typical of American families.

Without saying it explicitly, the picture David painted made it clear why Berl didn’t leave in the 1920s. And, it would have been up to Berl, as the head of the household. David was in awe of his father. “I thought my father was the smartest man in the world,” he said, with pride all these years later.

David’s idyllic youth ended September 3, 1939 (he remembers the date), he hadn’t celebrated his 17thbirthday yet. After the Soviet Union and Germany signed the infamous Non-Agression Pact in August of that year, Germany invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded from the east. The Russians took over Iwie.

A lieutenant and a captain in the Soviet army commandeered rooms in the Bakst house. Their shoe factory was confiscated by the state. Their passports were stamped ‘capitalist.’ Berl was permitted to work at the factory, but he could no longer claim ownership. They were persona non grata in the communist system.

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David, in the family shoe store, around 1939.

As bad as things were under the Russians, it got worse when Germany violated the Non-Aggression treaty and made their move to invade the Soviet Union. The German army invaded Iwie in June of 1941.

It was far too late to decide to emigrate to America, it became a question of survival for Berl and his family.

Note: I will continue the story in future blog posts. If family members have more information to add, please do. If I have gotten anything wrong, please correct me!

A Memorable Father’s Day

Note: This post was written by Gary, my husband.

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Three generations of fathers

As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go.  Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short).  Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice.  The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey.  Those visits had gone quite well.

This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over.  The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease.  She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade.  The disease has done what it does.  It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her.  The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.

And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her.  Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it.  In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her.  This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.

But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly.  You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated.  She cannot retain what is said to her.  I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her.  Never.

Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players.  I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care.  But that is, frankly the easiest part.  My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall.  My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.

Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car.  While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.

Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city.  They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly.  In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available.  While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services.  In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.

As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed.  We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride.  The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.

Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem.  Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets.  They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom.  And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.

In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well.  This was the reason for all of the effort.  For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.

The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment.  He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland.  The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died.  There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans.  The statistics are startling.  80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war.  98% of Jewish children were killed.  The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.

David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother.  His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America.  All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat.  Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.

Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties.  I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim.  Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well.  Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.

So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation.  Those who came with an army to kill him are gone.  He remains.  And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.

He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.

This was a very different moment.  This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that.  Linda understood that.  Dan and Beth understood that.  And all wanted him to have that moment.  It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.

After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells.  We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate.  We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan.  The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.

We did not have as easy a time driving up.  My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat.  She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire.  Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.

We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family.  They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.

We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria.  After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide.  With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.

We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.

It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift.  Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that.  They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.

It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day.  The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere.  I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.

It was a very good Father’s Day weekend.

Sturm und Drang

Are you afraid I’m going to steal your lunch?” he asked.

I was hunched over the table in the cafeteria of my junior high school when some guy, who I didn’t know, asked me that question. My left arm encircled a Tupperware containing a small chef’s salad, while I shoveled a forkful of lettuce in my mouth with my right hand.

“No,” I mumbled.

I could see how it would look like I was afraid of that, given my posture. But, actually, I was trying to hide what I was eating. I was trying to keep to the Weight Watcher program I had begun six months earlier. Most kids didn’t bring salad to school. I wished I was eating one of those moon pies – a chocolate marshmallow confection of gooey goodness that they sold at school – but none of that for me.

I was humiliated by his question, though I didn’t think he meant to be cruel. He sounded more curious and bemused as he asked it. Still I was relieved that he moved on and left me alone. I continued eating, but tried to look less protective of my salad.

Junior high school was a challenging time. I was still recovering from the death of Nana a year and a half before. I was trying to find my way in my second year at a new school where I knew very few of the other students. The vast majority of my elementary school classmates were zoned for a different junior high. I made it through 7thgrade and now it was the beginning of 9th(I skipped 8thgrade as part of a New York City program that compressed junior high into two years instead of three) and while I was beginning to make some friends, it still wasn’t easy. (I wrote about one aspect of my junior high school experience, the boycott of schools caused by the busing plan in this blog post)

Making matters worse was the fact that I had matured early. I was fully developed which made me self-conscious. I also had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. My situation wasn’t as bad as my mom’s in that when she was that age she would pass out when she got her period. She told me that she had a friend assigned to keep an eye on her when she was in junior high school. Though she shared that story, I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my concerns. I wasn’t passing out, and the thought of someone being assigned to me was completely unacceptable. My goal was to fly as far under the radar as possible. At 13, if I could have blended into the woodwork at school, I would have been happier.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). If memory serves correctly, the girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to be marked, I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have the issues I had, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I suffered in silence and muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. I remember Dr. Holland asking me a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room with me for that part. He asked me if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no (I was still only 13!). He asked me if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question, so I told him no, again. A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which wasn’t that traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Though I continued to struggle with my menstrual cycle, not everything was bleak during my junior high school years. Eventually I connected with a few girls. Toward the end of 9thgrade, a couple of us made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Geri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out –  everyone had to eat in the cafeteria, no one was allowed to leave for lunch (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks from school. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant and excited as we hurried to Lisa’s house. As we were walking down Avenue K, we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I saw flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We started shrieking and running. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house – we were laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. We took it as some kind of sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year. I don’t think any of us did.

I ended my junior high school career on a high note. I was given an award – the Ben Ramer Memorial Award – for outstanding female athlete. When they told me about it, that I would receive it at the graduation ceremony, I was incredulous. The thing was there were no opportunities for girls to participate in sports, other than gym. There were no teams. We did the Presidential Fitness Program and we had physical education, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t imagine how they determined I should get the award. I felt undeserving, but proud, nonetheless.

Mom and I went shopping for a graduation dress and found one that I felt pretty good wearing, which was saying a lot for me. Graduation day was humid with intermittent showers, which perfect for my hair! It curled just the way I wanted it to, the humidity calmed the frizz. I wore white platform heels and managed to walk across the stage without stumbling. After all of the Sturm und Drang of my junior high school years, things were looking up. I looked forward to a new beginning in high school.

A Loyal Sport

In preparation for writing a blog post, I went through one of my many boxes of memories. I have stashes of letters, photos and mementos and periodically I go through them either looking for something specific or looking for inspiration. In this case I was looking for something specific.

I had a memory of a particular article I wrote about a blind high school athlete, Andre Rodriquez. I have a yellowed, tattered portfolio of articles I wrote when I was in high school and I wanted to see if I had that one. As I recall, that article was featured in the centerfold of the Canarsie Digest, a two-page spread. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it among the clippings. I wanted to write about the experience of interviewing Andre, but I didn’t think I remembered enough without finding the piece. I did find three other items, though, that sparked other memories. One was a pad on which I wrote thoughts on motherhood when Leah was a baby. I shared that essay last week on the blog. Another was a profile of a college soccer star, which I will use for a future blog post. The last item I found was another letter from Zada. Here is that letter:

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10/31/74

Dear Linda,

            I think you might be interested to know why you possess such a love for sports and sportsmanship in general. It all goes back to an event that happened a long time ago. It was my father, your great Zada, who performed an act so sporty, that I think that even the Marquis of Queensbury would have been impressed, had he known about it.

            As you know the Marquis of Queensbury rules pertain to boxing. Our present boxing rules, and the most important one according to the Marquis, was that you never hit a person when they are down. The custom in boxing is to allow the fallen one to take a mandatory eight count, and if he does not arise by the count of ten, it is considered that he has been knocked out.

            Well the year was 1921, your Uncle Sidney was about eight years old or young. The Spilkens owned a bakery on 3rd Street and Avenue C, in Manhattan. So let me try to set the picture for you. It is a Saturday morning, the street is void of pushcarts, and the street cleaners, as was the custom in those days, brushed the accumulation of garbage of the day before, into one spot opposite to where the bakery was. Then a dump truck would come by, and all the dirt would be shoveled into it.

            Now from that particular place, a wailing was heard, it seems that Uncle Sidney and other boys had provoked in some manner, the Super. (in those days, he was known as the janitor.) But, as usual, the only boy caught was Uncle Sidney. The janitor had struck him, and his cries reached great Zada in the bakery. I told you before, Zada believed that when you strike somebody, that somebody should be of your size. The expression, why don’t you hit a fellow your size? Evolved from that ruling.

            Well, Zada, as quick as a flash, was on the other side of the street, and began pummeling the poor janitor. After a succession of blows to the head and solar plexus, the poor man went down into the heap of rubbish aforementioned. But Zada being the sport he was, and pursuant to the Queensbury rules, picked the man off the ground, held him aloft after he counted to eight, and fearing the man would collapse if he waited until ten, began to belabor the poor fellow, until he thought (Zada) that he had taught the man a lesson, you don’t hit anyone unless he is of your size.

            I’ll never forget, for it comes to my mind often how sportsmanlike my father acted because he did not strike the man as he was lying immersed in garbage. But put him on his feet so that he could continue the punishment in a fair and square manner.

            I must not leave you with a wrong impression, Zada being a thorough sport, gave unto his son Sidney a thrashing the likes of which your Uncle Sidney would carry with him for a long time. You see he was certain that the janitor was plenty harassed by Sidney.

            In other words, he felt that the man was justified in hitting Uncle Sidney, but the way my father figured as I stated before, Sidney was much smaller than the Super.

            Linda, honestly there are so many stories I could tell you about great Zada and about your Uncle Irving. They will wait for an opportune time but being the sport you are please understand the moral of this story. Always protect and defend any member of your family, but do it in a sportsmanlike manner.

            Write to your Zada. I love to read your letters.

  CS  (He signed the letter CS – Charles Spilken)

The letter sparks many thoughts. First, I can’t say I see the connection to my love of sports. But I imagine Zada was taking literary license. Second, I’m not so sure I see this incident as a shining example of sportsmanship. Perhaps Zada meant it tongue in cheek? But, then again, maybe he didn’t. I do know he took quite seriously the idea that you don’t hit a man when he’s down. There is another family story in that vein that my mother told us. When she was a young girl, her father took her to a baseball game. Apparently, the pitcher had a terrible inning and as he was coming off the field, my mother yelled, “You stink!” (A tame epithet by today’s standards!) They were seated close enough to the action so that the pitcher heard her. Zada was appalled by his daughter’s behavior and was quick to point out that you don’t kick a man when he’s down. I believe he had her write a letter of apology when they returned home. Mom liked to tell us that story to impart the message that you don’t pile on, you don’t add to another’s misery.

I also note that Zada wrote that his father gave Uncle Sid a thrashing he would not forget. It is interesting because I don’t think Zada used corporal punishment in his disciplinary approach to parenting. My parents certainly didn’t. Of course, as I have written before, our Dad was an imposing presence, with a bad temper, so he didn’t need to use his hands to discipline us. The raising of his voice and the intensity of his scowl were enough.

The other moral of the story that Zada highlights in his letter is the idea that you defend any member of your family (even if they are wrong), as long as you do it in a sportsmanlike manner. This is a topic of debate in my immediate family. Gary totally subscribes to that philosophy. He will go to the wall to defend Leah, Daniel or me (or his siblings, etc.). There is no question. His first response if his child has been in a conflict is to want to do harm to the offender, who he assumes is not his child. He is nothing if not loyal. He also holds a grudge. Anyone who did Leah or Dan wrong, it could be 20 years ago (they could’ve been 8 at the time!), is still on Gary’s shit list. Okay, I could be exaggerating, but only a little. I see the pluses and minuses of this. His children know with the same certainty that day follows night that he will be there for them.

For better or worse, that isn’t my approach. I have been blessed or cursed with seeing the world in shades of gray. When Dan or Leah or Gary had a conflict with someone, I do ask, what did you do? What was your role in the argument? Sometimes they don’t want to hear that question. Certainly, they don’t appreciate it when it is the first question I ask (I try not to do that!).

The truth is, I don’t believe in blind loyalty. I do believe in unconditional love. If my children or other family members did something wrong, I would be there for them, to help them, to support them as they moved forward and made amends. Of course, wrong-doing can take many forms – from minor to major – and that makes a difference, too. In general, though, I would not look the other way and I would not cover it up. On the other hand, if my child or family member was done wrong, then sign me up, I’m ready to do battle on their behalf.

What do you think?  What does loyalty mean to you?

1982: A Year of Change

 

 

Changes were afoot in 1982. It was a big year for the Brody family. Joshua, the first grandchild, born to my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, arrived February 1st. In April Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara moved from the upstairs apartment in Canarsie to a large suburban house in Morganville, New Jersey. My parents had their first non-family tenants take their place. I began my job search, as I was in the last semester of my master’s program at Columbia. Gary was waiting to hear about medical school admissions, he was wait-listed at Pittsburgh and Downstate (in Brooklyn).  It was a time of excitement and anxiety.

In the midst of this, and maybe because of it, my parents started looking for a second home. I think my father thought that, since they would truly be empty nesters for the first time, my mom needed a distraction. Financially things were more comfortable than ever before. All three of us kids would be out of the house (two were married), they would have a market-rent-paying tenant, and their own salaries had crept up over the many years of teaching. They could afford to consider getting a country home. Their close friends, Cliff and Muriel, were in a similar position and together they went on weekend jaunts exploring places where they could consider buying.

Cliff was my Dad’s closest friend. He was principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn. Muriel was a home economics teacher.  As couples and individuals they shared many interests: travel, food, wine, books, and, for the men, tennis. Cliff and Muriel shared a unique quality: each had a very distinctive voice. Cliff’s was a gravelly bass rumble. Muriel spoke loud Brooklynese with a shrillness that could be hard on the ears. Fortunately, she was funny and interesting, her voice grew on you as you got to know her.

The two couples took weekend trips to the Catskills and the Poconos. They were looking for modest lakefront homes where they could escape from the stresses and strains of Brooklyn living and working. After checking out a number of areas, they came upon Edgewood Lakes Inn, a rustic hotel outside of Livingston Manor in the Catskills. Private homes were being developed on property adjacent to the hotel. Owners would have access to hotel amenities and to a lake. The two couples took the plunge and put down a deposit. Arrangements were made with a local builder.

Given that my parents were life-long Brooklynites, they entered this project with some trepidation. They had no history of being outdoorsy. I don’t recall them ever hiking or fishing or skiing. They had an appreciation for nature – but at a distance. When we drove through a national park, like Yellowstone, we pulled over at scenic overlooks. There were no hiking boots or backpacks involved. If we came across a mouse in our house, we all freaked out. My mother was afraid of all animals. Buying property in the woods, and building a house there, was a bold choice.

Those plans were proceeding while I moved toward graduation. I found a job with the Mayor’s Office of Operations in New York City. Gary continued working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, still waiting to hear about medical school.

At the end of June, I started my new job. I was assigned a cubicle in a row of interior cubicles. I was given a standard issue desk, chair and telephone. I called home and gave Mom my number so they could reach me if necessary (this was long before cell phones). I went through some orientation activities in the morning.  I was setting up my desk in the afternoon when the phone on my desk rang. I was quite surprised. I thought, who could possibly be calling? I was even more surprised when I heard Gary’s voice. I hadn’t even given him the number yet. He shared great news; he was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine! He was very excited and I was, too. But, it was also complicated.

Through my final semester in graduate school we wanted to coordinate our plans. We hoped the timing would work out, that I would know where he was going to be for medical school and I could search for a job there. But it didn’t play out that way.  Time was passing, I had to make a choice, so I took the job in the city. On my very first day of work, on June 21, 1982, we learned that Gary would be moving to Pittsburgh at the end of August.

That night Gary picked me up after work and we went to a bar in Sheepshead Bay for a celebratory drink. We sat at a table and raised a glass to toast his good fortune. Then, Gary asked me to marry him. Though Gary and I were planning our future together, we had not formalized it. There had been no proposal. For reasons I couldn’t really understand, Gary needed to know he was accepted to medical school before he would propose. It didn’t matter to me. I knew I wanted to be with him if he was a science teacher, lab tech or doctor. But, he didn’t see it that way. Now that he had the certainty of admission to Pitt, he popped the question. I said yes. He didn’t have a ring yet, he wanted me to shop with him so he would know what I liked.

We had decisions to make – and not just about the ring. I couldn’t see leaving the job I just started. We agreed that it was probably good for Gary to start medical school on his own so he could concentrate fully on his classes and get adjusted to the workload without worrying about me. Our preliminary plan was for me to stay at my job for a year, get married and then join him in Pittsburgh.

We shared all of this with our parents. Years later I learned from my father that they considered backing out of purchasing the house at Livingston Manor because of the looming cost of the wedding. They had not anticipated that we would be getting married that soon. After considering their options, they decided not to change course. Though it would be tight, they thought they could manage it.

The summer of ’82 passed. We planned the wedding. At the end of August, I accompanied Gary on the drive to Pittsburgh. His father rented a small van and we nervously drove it the length of the curvy, foggy Pennsylvania Turnpike. I helped get him settled, then I flew back home.

I came home to an empty house. In New York City the school year, my parent’s work year, didn’t start until after Labor Day which fell on September 6 that year. They were squeezing the last bit of pleasure out of the summer by spending the days leading up to Labor Day at Edgewood Lakes Inn.

My parents called me from there late one afternoon. That day, September 1, Cliff had a massive heart attack and died. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while he was on the tennis court with my father. It was shocking. Cliff was 52, my Dad was 49. I was devastated for my father, actually for everyone. It was hard to take it all in.

Again, my parents faced a decision about going forward with the house. It was starting to feel like it wasn’t meant to be. While I wasn’t privy to all the details, they decided to move forward and Muriel did, too.

When I look back at 1982, it was such a roller coaster for my family. The birth of Josh. The traumatic death of Cliff.  Dad went for a thorough physical afterwards and found out that he had a bundle branch blockage, meaning that two of the three electrical pathways that regulated his heartbeat were blocked. He was told that eventually he might need a pacemaker. He also found out that his cholesterol was very high. Dad made a number of lifestyle changes as a result. It took him some time to get back on the tennis court, but he did.

Gary finished his first semester of medical school very successfully. We decided six months at my new job was enough, rather than a full year, and I moved to Pittsburgh in January of 1983, we got married in July. The house at Livingston Manor was built and was a happy home for my parents for over 20 years. They hiked, they went cross-country skiing, they hosted family and friends, they picked blueberries from the bushes in the woods nearby, they dealt with an invasion of bats. They mourned Cliff’s loss. Life went on in all its bittersweet glory.

Nana’s Table

Note: The following is a longer post than usual. For readers who have been following me from the beginning, some of the stories may be familiar. I have pieced together previous blog posts, along with new material, to create a more complete narrative of my relationship with Nana (my maternal grandmother). I am experimenting with different forms and approaches. Thanks, Leah, for your edits and suggestions. And, thanks Dan for your suggestion for the title. I look forward to feedback from any and all readers!

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After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith. They bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn. It was August of 1964, they were 30 and 31 respectively, and they were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary.

The house, a two-family semi-attached brick and shingle structure, was on a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the dirt road was awash in mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada (my maternal grandparents) and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, took the apartment upstairs.

I started Kindergarten that fall and thus began a routine that would stretch over the next six years: go to school, visit upstairs with Nana, go back down for dinner with my parents and two brothers, do homework, go back up to watch tv with Nana, and, finally, go to bed.

Long before moving to Canarsie, Zada, in 1941 bought and managed Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in Crown Heights. Nana worked in the bakery alongside Zada and the family lived above the store. A master bread baker, Zada’s challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough.

By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s once thrived was changing. Zada thought that the new immigrants, 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.  At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery in Greenpoint, and moved his wife and two teenage sons to the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.

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, and let myself in. Though it was a two-family house, with separate apartments, I lived in it as if it was one.

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.

“Hello, Sunshine,” her daily greeting to me as I opened the door. Nana’s arthritic hands were wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising. 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 – she knew my answer. Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies, and I was always ready to indulge in a treat. As the refrigerator door swung closed, I saw Nana’s supply of insulin bottles lined up on the bottom shelf.

A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came on shortly after. I ate my pie.

“Tell me about your day, Sunshine,” Nana asked.

“The usual. But, we have an assembly on Thursday and my class is putting on a little play. Maybe you could come?”

Nana sighed, “You know I’d love to, but my feet are hurting so much, there’s no way I could get there.”

My elementary school was not near the house, it was even a long walk to the bus.

“It’s okay, Nana. Maybe next time your feet will be better.”

We turned our attention back to the Mike Douglas show where the Rockettes were dancing. I adjusted 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.

“I did, it was delicious.”

“Good.” I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen, my job done.

The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters in the window. I sat in my cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.

On any given day, my visit with Nana might have included one of her friends from the old neighborhood. Like Nana and my mother, they relied on public transportation or car service because they didn’t drive. The nearest bus to our house left them with a long, windy walk across Seaview Park.

Alex, the tailor, who had one leg shorter than the other and wore a clunky orthopedic shoe, trudged across the park. Alex repaired the holes in my winter coat pockets by replacing them with a colorful, satin smooth fabric. I loved the orange and yellow cloth so much I wished I could wear the pockets on the outside.

Dora, Yetta and both Goldies made the trek to Canarsie, too.  They climbed the stairs to Nana’s second floor home and settled in at the marble table, like I did.

Invariably they would bring a small trinket for me, a large chocolate coin wrapped in shiny foil, or a miniature stuffed animal. Nana smiled as they gave me my small treasure. After asking me what grade I was in and if I liked school, they went on to speak to each other as if I wasn’t there. I listened. Nana served tea and cake.

It seemed that Nana was a collector of lost souls. Some had physical problems, some would be considered spinsters, but no matter, they had a place at her table.

One day I took my usual place at the table and Nana shared an idea. Since my hair was a constant source of difficulty, she wanted me to try something different. A mixture of curls, waves and wiry frizz, my hair was entirely unmanageable.  This was before the advent of the myriad of gels, creams, sprays and treatments that fill an aisle of CVS today. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fashion required girls to wear their hair long and stick straight. I was in a state of war with mine – and my unruly hair was winning.

Combing my hair after washing it was a nightmare for both me and my mother, and anyone who was within earshot. My hair was such a jumble of knots that it was nearly impossible to endure the process. I would avoid the whole thing for as long as my mother would allow.

Nana came back from a session at the beauty parlor with her silver hair teased high, each hair sprayed into submission.  Fortunately, that wasn’t what she had in mind for me, though that still might have been an improvement.

She explained that she spoke to another hairdresser at her salon about me. A new style had come into fashion, a shag, and they thought it could work. If I was interested, Nana would make me an appointment. I readily agreed.

After getting Mom’s consent, Zada drove Nana and me across Brooklyn to her beauty parlor. Nana was greeted with warm embraces and enthusiastic hellos. The smell of hairspray hung in the air. Most of the other patrons were Nana’s age.

A shag was a layered cut that allowed for curls. I watched as my hair was trimmed and styled. When it was done and I looked in the mirror, I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. For the first time, my hair looked good! The other people in the beauty parlor even complimented me.

Zada picked us up and drove us back home. We were excited to show everyone. Nana walked in with me to see Mom’s reaction. Mom looked at me puzzled for a long minute, brow furrowed, and said, “I have to get used to it.” Her face said she didn’t like it. I burst into tears and ran to my bedroom. As I left I heard Nana say loudly, “Feige, you don’t know your ass from your elbow!”

I had never heard Nana use a curse word – ever. And, I never heard her say a cross word to my mother. I also had never heard that expression – it conjured up an image that shocked my eleven-year-old self. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry – so I did both.

After a minute or two, Mom knocked on my bedroom door. “Nana’s right, Linda,” she said as she sat down next to me on my bed, gently stroking my back. “The cut looks great. I’m sorry for reacting that way. I was just surprised.”

“Ok,” I sniffled, “but I can’t believe Nana said that!”

“Well, she was upset with me. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the haircut.”

“You really think my hair looks okay?”

“I do. Go upstairs and let Nana know you’re feeling better.”

I did.

 

A few months later I climbed those same stairs to my grandparents’ apartment, knowing Nana was no longer there. I opened the door and found Zada 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 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.

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 resort hotel in New Jersey for the Easter/Passover holiday break from school.

Mark and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Mom and Dad had returned the night before from their first ever vacation without us. They went to Florida, while Nana and Zada watched us, and came back happy and tan. That happiness lasted only a few hours.

They also brought back souvenirs. With nothing to occupy us but our worry, Mark and I took our new alligator-shaped water guns and chased each other around outside – down the alley next to our house, into the backyard and back to the front. Squirting each other, we laughed to relieve the stress. Eventually we tired ourselves out, went back into the house and just waited.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, though it was still afternoon, we heard people at the door. As the front door was being unlocked, I could see my Aunt Simma through the sidelight, tears streaming down her face. My Dad opened the door and came into the kitchen.

“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.

“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, my aunt and two uncles 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. It was strange – the happy chatter mixed with grief.

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.

At the time, I thought Nana was old. She was 56. I am 58 as I write this.