Calling on Canarsiens

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I’m not sure what people from Canarsie call themselves – Canarsiens? Canarsie-ites? Either way, I’m asking for your input.

I started this blog with the hope of painting a picture of my life in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the mid 1960s through early ‘70s. It was a time not unlike today, in some ways. It felt fraught, dangerous even. So much was changing and violence, in the form of urban riots and crime, was lurking. I grew up acutely aware of those crosscurrents.

Others growing up in Canarsie at the same time had different perceptions. I deduce this from conversations I have had with friends and from comments posted on the Internet. This isn’t surprising, of course, one would expect different experiences. But some have described an idyllic childhood in which neighbors looked out for each other and children played together in harmony (mostly). Which made me wonder: was my experience the exception?

I want to explore that question. If you (and please feel free to pass this request on) grew up in Canarsie and graduated from either Canarsie High School or South Shore from about 1973-1977 and would like to share your memories, I would like to interview you. Please send me an email at LBakst.Canarsie@gmail.com and I will follow up.

The three major topics I am interested in exploring are: family life, ethnicity/race relations, and perceptions of safety. I am particularly interested in memories of the boycott of schools in response to the busing plan in Canarsie in 1972-73.

This is not going to be a scientific study by any means, but interviews can yield important perspectives. I am hopeful that I will gain more insight into a broader range of experience and then I can share those insights on my blog, either as part of my stories or separately. I will keep the information anonymous, unless you are willing to speak for attribution.

Aside from satisfying my personal curiosity, I’m hoping it will help paint a more detailed picture of that time and place, which in turn should lead to a better understanding of who we are now. I hope the conversation will be interesting to you, too! I hope to hear from you.

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.

The December Dilemma – Part 2

Note:  As a reminder before picking up my story where I left off, Santa Claus had come to the daycare center. I attended and gave Leah and Dan gifts instead of allowing Santa to deliver them and the daycare center agreed to form a committee of parents and staff to look at the holiday celebration for the future.

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Photo from the ADL

As Amy promised, a committee was formed. The committee decided that a survey of parents would be helpful in determining what steps to take.  Since I had a master’s degree in public administration and was on leave from a doctoral program in public policy, I had taken several classes on social science research methods, so I volunteered to help with the survey design and collate the results.

It’s funny but I remember very little about the survey itself – I don’t recall what questions we asked. I do remember, quite clearly, that several parents used the open-ended question to explain that this was a Christian country and if others didn’t like it, they could go back where they came from. For Gary and I that would mean going back to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively – which were (and are) still part of this country, though some might like to deny it.

I was shocked and hurt. While it was only a small number who expressed their view in such an extreme way, I hadn’t expected it. I was especially distressed that this represented views of people employed by the medical center, a group that I thought would be more enlightened.

Despite my dismay, I collated the results and prepared a summary. Frankly, I don’t recall what the survey said in terms of Santa Claus visiting, but I think it must have been inconclusive. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the information the survey did provide and give the daycare center administrators feedback on what to do for the coming year.

Once again, I left work and got on the bus to go to the center. A stop after mine another woman got on the bus and I recognized her as a parent from the center. I believe all parents were invited to attend the meeting, even if they had not participated in the committee. We smiled at each other and she sat down near me.

“Are you going to the meeting?” I asked. She nodded and we introduced ourselves and started chatting. I explained how Santa’s visit the year before had affected my family and that I was hoping that the center would consider changing how they celebrated Christmas. She nodded sympathetically. “I can see how that would be difficult,” she said.

We continued chatting as we got off the bus and found our way to the conference room. The meeting had quite a turnout – all the seats were taken. Extra chairs were brought in, not everyone could fit at the table.

The room felt tense to me. I don’t recall why I felt that way, but I know, even before a word was spoken, that I felt defensive. I told myself to breathe and relax.

The director and assistant director led the discussion. I reported the results of the survey, including sharing some of the disagreeable (to me) comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation devolved. I made my case: Santa Claus may be considered an American symbol to many, but not to non-Christians. Also, Santa can be seen at malls, community centers, churches, on television, etc., so if a parent wanted their child to experience a visit with Santa Claus, it wasn’t difficult to arrange.

The assistant director was outraged by my comments. If looks could kill, I would be dead. “Why should the children be deprived of Santa’s visit?” she asked, leaning across the table, accusation in her eyes. This was clearly a very personal thing to her, as it was to me.

“I was there when Santa came,” I reminded her, “and several kids were crying and others didn’t seem to care.” I was thinking that this should actually be the central point.

“I saw children having fun!” she retorted.

This wasn’t going well. I was getting angrier and angrier. At that point, I stopped participating.

The meeting continued for a bit longer. The director, to sum things up, said that they (the staff) would make a final decision about Santa and inform parents within a week. I left thinking they were going to keep things as they were, given that the staff seemed so invested in it and there weren’t very many parents objecting.

As I walked out of the meeting and headed back to the bus stop to go back to work, the woman I came in with stopped me. “It would’ve been much better if you could have explained it the way you did to me on the bus. You were too strident.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry. I told her I would’ve like to have done that, too. I kept walking.

I sat on the bus thinking about what she said. Was it me? Did I present my case poorly? I know I was wound up, and I probably did come across too strong. But, I couldn’t help myself. I felt under attack.

The daycare center kept its policy of having Santa visit. We went through the same process as the year before.

One day, as we approached Christmas, one of Dan’s teachers, who had been Leah’s the year before, asked us if we had gotten our Christmas tree yet. I said no and left it at that. What was the point of explaining it yet again? Was it willful ignorance?

Leah was to start Kindergarten the following fall. She would be attending School 16, the public elementary school a few blocks from our house. The Albany Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered an aftercare program with transportation from School 16. We looked at whether it made sense to move Dan at that point, too, so that they would continue to be in the same place.

The JCC daycare program was more expensive (Dan was three when we were considering this) – plus the medical center took the cost of day out of the Gary’s pre-tax salary. We had to considered whether we could afford to make the move.

It wasn’t much of a decision to make. We moved to Dan and Leah to the JCC that summer so they would be settled in before Leah began Kindergarten in the fall. In many ways, it was a relief. While Gary and I weren’t interested in putting our children in a Jewish setting for their education or care, it did make things easier for the time being.

It wasn’t the end of our battles over Christmas celebrations, we had a few in the public schools, but none so painful and fruitless as that first one.

The December Dilemma

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Celebrating Leah’s birthday at Kidskeller (daycare center). Dan is to her right.

It was late fall of 1990. I went through the revolving door of my office building to leave for the day, as I did five days a week. By the time I emerged on the sidewalk, every thought about work evaporated. It was like crossing into another world, one totally focused on Leah and Daniel (my children, aged 3 years and 18 months). If I offered to bring something from home to a colleague at work, let’s say a book, by the time I got to the street, the thought was gone. No chance I’d remember to bring it. The next day I’d arrive back at the office, realize I had forgotten and apologize to my colleague. It was hopeless. My brain was on overload.

In the fall of 1990 Gary was in his second year of his endocrine fellowship, his fifth year of post-medical school training. I was working full time for the New York State Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review. Leah and Daniel attended a daycare center, Kidskeller, that was part of Albany Medical Center, where Gary was in training.

Each day I’d leave work, take a bus to VA hospital where our car was parked. I would take the car to the daycare center and pick up the kids and drive home. Sometime later in the evening, Gary would call and I would put the kids in the car and pick him up. Honestly, I don’t know how our marriage survived those years– at times we were hanging on by our fingernails.

On one particular day, I got to Kidskeller and was getting stuff from Leah’s cubby. As was often the case, there was a note from the head of the program with information about upcoming events. I quickly read it and saw that Santa Claus would be visiting the center in a few weeks. I took a deep breath, folded the note and put it in the bag with Leah’s other stuff. The same note was in Dan’s cubby. I would read it more carefully later that night.

After Gary got home and had dinner, I showed him the note, which asked parents to bring a small wrapped gift for their child so that Santa could distribute it when he visited.  We were not happy. I resented being required, in effect, to get gifts when money was so crazy tight. I also resented having Santa Claus imposed on us – he was ubiquitous already! While some Jews may partake of Christmas rituals, we didn’t. I enjoyed the lights and decorations that brighten the season, but we didn’t exchange gifts or acknowledge Santa Claus and we didn’t want that for our children.

We were surprised that a daycare associated with a medical center would approach the holiday without recognizing the awkward position in which it would put non-Christian parents and children. After discussing it, Gary and I decided that it was likely too late to ask them to change the plan, but we would talk to the director so that maybe other plans could be considered in the years to follow. In the meantime, I would come to the center at the appointed hour with a gift for Leah and Dan and give it to them myself.

The next day I stopped by the day care director’s office and asked if I could schedule a time to meet with her. I told her it was about the center’s plans for Christmas. She readily agreed and we set aside some time the following week.

I arrived at the meeting as relaxed as possible. I knew there was nothing to be gained by going in loaded for bear.

“Amy, I wanted to explain how the plan to have Santa Claus come to the center, and give gifts to the kids, put Gary and I in a difficult position,” I began.

I went on to explain that we didn’t view Santa Claus as a secular figure and that we didn’t observe Christmas. She listened. I think it came as a surprise to her that we were troubled by Santa Claus, as she didn’t see him as a religious symbol at all.

We agreed that there wouldn’t be any change to that year’s plan. She understood that I would come with my own gifts for Leah and Daniel. We also agreed that the center would form a committee of parents and staff to discuss holiday observances and make recommendations for the future. I was pleased that she was willing to do that.

The day of Santa’s visit arrived. I left work, taking my lunch hour, to go over to the center. Santa was scheduled to visit Dan’s room first. The children, who were between 18 months and two years old, were sitting on the floor in a circle. Their care givers and a couple of other parents were spread throughout the room. Dan climbed into my lap. Santa was led in by the assistant director. Santa sat in a chair and read off each child’s name, inviting each to come up and get their present. After some cajoling by an adult, most of the kids toddled up to Santa. Only one or two cried. The adults were smiling and laughing. I gave Dan his small gift. Santa left and moved on to the next age group.

I left Dan and went to Leah’s room. She was with the 3-4 year olds. While some of the kids were still reticent, more of them shared the excitement of the adults. I gave Leah her present. She seemed a bit perplexed, but was always excited to get a gift.

I went back to work, struck by the feeling that Santa’s visit meant more to the adults than the children.

When I went back to pick up Leah and Dan at the end of the day, one of Leah’s teachers asked Leah if she would hang the ornament they had made on her Christmas tree. Leah turned to look at me, not sure how to answer. I smiled and said, ”We don’t have a Christmas tree, but we’ll give it to someone who does.”  Cathy said, “Oh, you don’t? Hmmm.” I took Leah’s hand and we went to get Dan.

Driving home, Leah asked, “Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?” I explained that we aren’t Christian and we don’t celebrate the holiday. We celebrate other holidays. “I wish we celebrated Christmas,” Leah said wistfully. “I understand, Leah. We can still enjoy the lights and stuff. We just won’t be observing it in our house.” I changed the subject, “What should we have for dinner?”

I hadn’t expected to confront this so soon. She was three and a half.

That wasn’t close to the end of it.

(My next blog post will relate what happened with the day care center committee and the following year’s holiday season.)

 

Adventures with Aunt Clair

Aunt Clair, my father’s younger sister by two and a half years, may be short in stature, but she more than makes up for it with an outsize personality. One of my earliest memories was a weekend where she watched me and my two brothers while my parents were away. As I recall, we named her car ‘Bumpity Morgan.’ I don’t know if that name was a result of its poor suspension or New York’s potholed streets (or both).

I could be mixing different times together, but I recall Aunt Clair driving us in ‘Bumpity’ to the beach in the Rockaways. We were enjoying jumping the waves and collecting shells when the sky grew ominous. Aunt Clair poo-poohed it for a while and we continued to enjoy playing in the water and sand. Eventually it became clear that a storm was rolling in. We gathered up our things as quickly as we could and made a run for it. We got to ‘Bumpity’ just in time to avoid the lightening and fat raindrops. Wet and sandy, we climbed into the car and went back home, having squeezed out the last possible moments of fun. This was a very different approach from my parents. Mom and Dad would have packed up sooner, cleaned the sand off our feet and gotten back to the car with time to spare.

Aunt Clair, 81 years old now, lives in the same rent-controlled studio apartment in Greenwich Village that she has occupied for almost my entire life. When you think of a person who spent over 50 years, living on their own, in the Village, you might imagine someone with idiosyncrasies – you might imagine my Aunt Clair.

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Aunt Clair and me, June 2017 Photo credit: Mary Sulzer

She stands maybe 5’2” with curly white hair, there may be remnants of light brown strands from her younger years. Even 40 years ago, whenever I would walk with her, she would remind me that she had to take twice as many steps to keep up – she considered me to be tall! I didn’t think I had a particularly long stride, unless I was next to her.

Like her siblings, she has large, lively blue eyes. Like her siblings, she is razor sharp smart and insightful. She has a hearty laugh – my kids tell me we sound alike when we laugh.

Aunt Clair is feisty. My father loved telling stories about her toughness, even as a little girl. One involved an unfortunate dentist who told the young Clair that the procedure he was about to perform wouldn’t hurt. Well, it did. Clair was indignant, claiming that he lied, so she kicked him in a particularly sensitive spot and climbed down from the chair.

Making your way in New York City as a single woman wasn’t easy. I remember hearing about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. I’m not sure how that ended up, I think she ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though my Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did in that case. He advised, if in a similar situation, to not fight back and risk serious injury. Aunt Clair didn’t (and still doesn’t) find it easy to back down.

I learned that I had a bit of her spirit when I had an experience going into the subway. It was 1980 and Gary and I were going down the stairs to the station, Gary was ahead of me. I had a backpack on and I felt it being jostled. Without thinking, I spun and said loudly, “What the fuck are you doing?” There was a young man with his hand on my knapsack. He looked startled and he turned and ran. Gary had stopped, but the incident was already over. I surprised myself, it was an instinctive reaction. I guess I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.

Some of my fondest memories of time spent with Aunt Clair involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders.  She continued to bike, even to chemotherapy appointments when she was in her late 70s!

When I was college-aged and home for the summer, I joined Aunt Clair for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! Earlier that evening I went with my parents to see an off-Broadway play. We drove into the city from Brooklyn with my bike was strapped to their car. Aunt Clair met us at the theater when the show was over. We retrieved my bike and went to her apartment to drop my stuff off and then headed uptown.

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Photo credit: Snapshot for Sore Eyes – Central Park at Night

Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain which is located mid-park at around 72nd Street. Central Park begins at 59th Street and stretches to 110th, south to north. East to west, it encompasses two avenues across (Fifth to Central Park West). It was odd to be in a place that most people thought of as dangerous at that hour. In those years, I wouldn’t have gone into Central Park by myself in broad daylight. It felt exciting and adventurous to be there amongst so many fellow cyclists.

We rode around the park, stopping periodically to hear about its history. We left the park and rode along the east and then west side of Manhattan. We rode through the theater district all the way down to the deserted financial district. The financial district felt like a movie set, with the skyscrapers seeming like two dimensional facades. It was so quiet, it was eerie. At that time, there were no residential buildings in the area, so there weren’t restaurants (other than those that catered to the lunch crowd) or clubs or theaters. It was a ghost town during off hours. We were able to ride in the canyon of Wall Street without other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. I got up close and personal views of the architecture and sculptures in a part of the city I had only seen on a rare school trip.

Our tour concluded at sunrise at Battery Park. A hazy sun rose over the mouth of New York harbor. We rode back to the Village, got breakfast at a brasserie and ended the adventure with a nap at her apartment. Midafternoon she drove me and my bike back to Canarsie.

It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair.  We took other bike rides together – on Martha’s Vineyard and in Boston, too. She introduced me to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – we bought wonton soup and ate it midway across – long before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. I’ve seen plays, movies and ballets with her. We’ve eaten many meals at wonderful hole-in-wall restaurants in her neighborhood. I learned so much about the city, and about being independent, from my time spent with her.

I was fortunate to grow up in an unusual family – made up of interesting, quirky and intelligent people. Aunt Clair’s feistiness, strong opinions and independent streak could sometimes create friction with other family members, especially my Dad (who shared some of those same qualities). But, I have been lucky to have her.

 

On Turning 58

Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.

On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday.  Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it?  And, so what if it was a little stale?  It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.

There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.

My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!

For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come.  As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.

The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!

I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.

Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.

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Shana tova.

A Remembrance

I stood at the foot of the hospital bed, playing solitaire on the tray table.  With each turn of a card, I looked up to see my father’s large blue-gray eyes staring at me.  Memorizing my face?  Asking for something?

He was beyond speech; four years into his illness.  Chronic lymphocytic leukemia was supposed to be relatively benign.  “You can live with this for twenty years and likely die of something else,” said the doctor at the time.   Four years later, aged 72, he was diapered and speechless in a hospice bed. I didn’t understand how he had gotten to this point. Even though I saw the disease rob my father of himself, bit by bit, it was still a shock.

When I was growing up, he was often mistaken for a wrestler or football player.  Such was my father’s presence.  A deep, resonant voice, broad shoulders, with a bald head and prominent nose – he was the perfect dean of a New York City high school.

He was also the perfect social studies teacher.  A voracious reader; he consumed biographies of Jefferson, Lincoln, Russian histories, westerns by Louis L’Amour, and any and all novels about the mob.  All with equal gusto.

I continued playing solitaire.  The slap of the cards on the laminate was a familiar sound to him.  I would hear that sound as I came down the stairs in my own house, when my parents visited, and see him at my kitchen table, playing solitaire while waiting for the rest of us to be ready to go – wherever it was we were going, Dad was always ready early.

I kept looking up at his eyes.

My flight was 5:45 a.m. the next day, Sunday, March 13, 2005.  That flight would get me home in time to see Leah’s final dance recital (she was a senior in high school and would be going on to college in the fall) and to celebrate Daniel’s 16th birthday.  I took my leave, giving him a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze of his diminished arm. My mom and my brother Mark were with him and that comforted me.

He died that next day, on my son’s birthday, during my daughter’s dance recital.

I still see his eyes looking at me.

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