Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.

 

The Wedding

The Silberfarbs arrival in Cuba was greeted with a warm welcome, a furnished apartment and opportunities to work. David’s arrival in the United States, while supported by his uncle and aunt, wasn’t quite as warm. And, it started with a much more trying trip across the Atlantic, than the Silberfarb’s plane flight.

David, and 548 other displaced persons, left Bremerhaven, Germany on the Marine Flasher on January 7, 1949. The Marine Flasher was an American ship that was built to carry troops during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, it was refitted to ferry emigres across the Atlantic. It made many such trips until it went out of service in September of 1949. The American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a Jewish charity which was involved in organizing and funding these trips, made efforts to comfort the traumatized passengers, many of whom were concentration camp survivors, or like David, battered by the relentless effort to endure the war. The AJDC provided kosher food to those who required it, they had novels in Yiddish available, and religious services were conducted on board. But, they could not control the weather.

David’s journey was a particularly challenging one. The North Atlantic was stormy in January and the seas were rough. In fact, the arrival of the ship was delayed by heavy gales. According to a newspaper article at the time, the Marine Flasher had to slow down to withstand the storms. David recalls that even the sailors were sick. David didn’t think he’d survive the waves crashing over the sides and his intense sea sickness. He was never so happy to set foot on land as when he disembarked on the pier of Boston Harbor on January 17th.

His cousin, Benny, Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose’s son, met him at the harbor and drove him to Brooklyn. David had never seen buildings so big or a city so densely populated as New York. In Europe, the tallest building he had seen was two stories! He moved into a room in a house in Brooklyn and he began work for his uncle at First National Pickle Products.

He put on overalls every day, took the subway to Kent Avenue and moved pickle barrels at the warehouse in Williamsburg. David didn’t feel good about dressing like a laborer and hoped for a time in the future when his work would be more professional. In the meanwhile, Uncle Willie took him to the Lower East Side to get a suit. David took pride in his appearance and looked forward to the weekends when he would don his suit to go to synagogue and socialize with fellow ‘greeners.’ Greenhorn was a term used to describe the newcomers. While it may have been meant as a pejorative when used by other Americans, when David and his community used it, they were acknowledging their shared experience.

David went to dances and sought out the company of the few survivors from his hometown. It had been customary, dating back to earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, to create organizations of ‘landsleit,’ people from the same shtetls in Eastern Europe. There was an Iwie Society that met at least annually and David became active in it.

Though David met single women during his first months in New York, his mind and heart were still with Paula. In order to ensure that Paula still had his attention, Aunt Bushe insisted that Paula send a photograph of herself to her boyfriend in New York. She took Paula to a photographer’s studio. Whether the picture did the trick or not, he continued to correspond with her, and they planned his visit.

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Though this isn’t the photo that was taken at the studio, it is from the same time. Paula in 1948 in Cuba.

But before David could visit, Uncle Nachum flew up to New York to talk to him. Since Paula’s father had been tragically murdered, Nachum took it upon himself to look out for his niece’s best interests. He went to the pickle factory and talked to David there. David felt self-conscious in his overalls, knowing Nachum was a successful business man. Paula’s uncle asked David about his future. David explained that he aspired to move up to management and he looked forward to the day when he could discard his overalls, but this was his job now and he worked hard for his uncle. Nachum asked, “Do you love Paula?” David, without embarrassment, replied unequivocally, “Yes.” Though Nachum may not have been impressed with David’s current station in life, he saw something in David’s resolve that gave him confidence. He gave his blessing so that David could visit Paula and then he returned to Cuba.

David flew to Cuba in November of 1949, 10 months after his arrival in Boston.

Uncle Nachum and Aunt Bushe were particularly welcoming to David when he arrived in Havana. He was invited to stay in the guest room of their home. David felt very comfortable there. Lea, Paula’s mother, also treated David warmly as they renewed their relationship which was first established in Ranshofen. It became increasingly clear to David that he wanted to make a family with Paula, and fortunately, she agreed. At the end of the three-week visit, they decided that he would come back to Cuba the following September and they would marry.

David flew back to New York and shared the good news with his aunts and uncles. He asked Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose to come to Cuba for the wedding. He continued to work hard and save his pennies.

Paula and her family planned the wedding. The date was set, September 3, 1950, at Havana’s main synagogue. At the last minute, Uncle Willie told David that they would not be going. He told him that it was too hard on Aunt Rose to travel. David was profoundly disappointed and hurt. Though he was excited about his marriage, he was deeply sad that he had no family to stand up for him, that he would walk down the aisle alone. It is traditional at Jewish weddings for both the bride and the groom to be accompanied by their respective parents when they walk down the aisle. David missed his father desperately.

When David got to Havana, he shared his disappointment with Uncle Nachum. Nachum offered to accompany him, with Bushe, to the chupah (wedding canopy), and they did. Paula was accompanied by her mother and brother. David also wanted to acknowledge his parents at the ceremony. He asked the cantor to recite El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor objected, saying that it wasn’t appropriate to chant that prayer at a simcha (a celebration). David insisted. He explained that it would make him feel better, it would help him to feel his parents’ presence at this milestone in his life. After quite a bit of back and forth, David prevailed. The cantor sang the prayer in memory of Berl and Rochel. David felt that his parents were blessing this momentous occasion.

 

 

One More Loss

The DP camps weren’t designed to stay open indefinitely. Ranshofen was slated to close. The Silberfarbs and Baksts were making plans for the next step. Batya and Fishel left for Italy. David said his good-bye to Paula, telling her that if her family went to Cuba, he would see her again. If they went to Israel, he wasn’t so sure.  Berl and David left for another DP camp, Hofgeismar, in the American zone in Germany. From there, they hoped to go to the United States. Berl’s brother in New York offered to sponsor them.

At some point during the war, Berl developed a hernia. He was eager to get it repaired before the journey to America. He wanted to arrive in the New World strong and fit. David didn’t understand the rush, he wanted his father to wait until they got to the United States to have the surgery. Adding to David’s anxiety was the fact that he didn’t trust the German doctors. Berl could not be dissuaded. He wanted to go forward, and the surgery was scheduled to take place at the hospital in Hofgeismar.

The details of what followed are unclear. Berl made it through the surgery, but he had complications. Tragically, he died of those complications. David was devastated. After all they had both been through, they were finally on the cusp of a new life. He already lost his mother, brother and little sister. His other sister was enroute to Israel. He was alone to deal with this latest unexpected tragedy. He didn’t have Paula for comfort.  Paula and her family were still in Ranshofen, Austria. David made the funeral arrangements.

Berl was buried in a Jewish cemetery in the town of Hofgesimar. David observed shiva and mourned his loss alone.

David was at his lowest point. He didn’t know if he had the strength to go on. What was the point, he wondered? Why had he survived all that he gone through only to have this happen? He hadn’t received his visa yet and he wondered if he ever would. He wrote to Paula and shared his heartbreaking news. He waited and waited to hear back. She didn’t know what to say, how to offer comfort. She didn’t write. He never felt so alone

One night in the midst of his sorrow, he had a dream. His mother came to him. She reassured him, “You will be all right.” In the dream, she gave him a letter. It was postmarked the 8th. He awoke feeling hopeful for the first time in months. Even though it was a dream, he felt his mother’s presence. Throughout the war, during challenging and frightening times, he felt that his mother was protecting him. He felt she continued to look out for him.

On December 8th, 1948, he received a letter containing his visa. David sailed for the United States in January of 1949.

More Miracles: David in the Soviet Army

Last week’s blog post began by explaining more about the communist takeover of Iwie and then the early part of World War II when the Germans invaded David’s town. It also recounted David’s involvement with the partisans. I misplaced one element of the story. It is important  that I get this telling as accurate as possible. As I explained previously, these stories have been told in drips and drabs over the course of many years. It wasn’t told as a chronological narrative. In addition, as Gary and I continue to have conversations with David, new details emerge. It is a race against time, David is 95, to document the family history. It is a responsibility Gary and I are sharing.

For example, David recently revealed that when they lived in the ghetto, they attempted to create some kind of normalcy. They conducted Sabbath services. His aunt, his mother’s sister, got married there. Those details give a fuller picture of the experience. I want to share those pieces, even though I already covered that part of David’s story. This is a ‘living’ process, so to speak. I hope my telling it in this way, doesn’t detract from the narrative.

Now, back to the events that I misplaced in last week’s blog entry. When the Bakst family escaped to the woods, when first Berl and then David carried young Gussie through the snow drifts, I wrote that they were not able to connect with the partisans. Actually, David’s younger brother, Eliahu (they called him Ellie), joined the Bielskis at that time (I mistakenly thought he went back to the ghetto with the rest of the family and joined later when David and Berl joined Iskra).

The Bielskis were a just-forming Jewish partisan brigade. Lead by two brothers, the mission of the Bielskis was to save as many Jews as possible. Their members swelled to about 1200 by the end of the war in 1945. They set up a community deep in the Naliboki forest. They carried out other missions, as well, including sabotaging German rail lines. Ellie, who was 14 when the Soviets came to Iwie, would have been 17 at the time. He participated in those activities. Ellie and another partisan were on a mission to get supplies from a farm when they were surrounded by German troops. They tried to shoot their way out. Ellie was killed on January 5, 1943 as he tried to escape. (Our son, Daniel’s Hebrew name is Eliahu in memory of David’s brother.)

The remaining Bakst family, now just Berl, David and Batya, soldiered on in spite of the mounting and unrelenting losses.

Now I will return to the thread of David’s story. He and Berl, and the recently rescued Batya, continued their activities with Iskra. Iskra was a Russian partisan brigade that was initially resistant to accepting Jewish members. Antisemitism wasn’t the sole province of the Germans, unfortunately hatred of Jews was shared by many in Eastern Europe. A fellow Iwie resident, Motke Ginsburg, had previously joined Iskra and proved to be a valuable asset. He vouched for Berl and David. Over time they were accepted.

The efforts of Iskra and other partisan units were coordinated to some extent with the Russian army. Intelligence was shared. Slowly, with the sacrifice of many Russian lives, the tide of the war turned. The German army was repelled and fell back from eastern Poland. The Soviet army came to Iwie. This time the Soviets, due to Berl and David’s partisan efforts, greeted them as heros, not undesirable capitalists.

David, now 19, was conscripted into the Soviet army. Another difficult chapter of his war time experience began. He left his remaining family and was assigned to a regiment. The Soviet army was an inhospitable place for Jews. David, with his strawberry blond hair, blue eyes, and unaccented Russian language skills, didn’t share his semitic origins. As a quick, intelligent and strong young man, David was assigned a role as a communications officer. He carried equipment and laid communication wire near the front.

On one occasion, David’s regiment was hunkered down in a foxhole when they started receiving shelling and artillery fire. The foxhole was actually a series of connected trenches. Panic erupted with soldiers running trying to escape. David was last in a line of soldiers, running away from the onslaught. He was confronted by an officer, who asked, “You, too, David?” The officer was disappointed that David was retreating along with others in his platoon. In the Russian army if you were caught retreating you risked being shot by higher ranking officers. Knowing this, David stopped and turned back. He had no weapon other than a grenade, having left his rifle in the scramble to escape. He ran back into the fray and threw the grenade, killing several German soldiers and wounding one Russian. David survived.

The skirmish ended and David’s regiment regrouped the next day. The captain of the unit called David out during roll call. David feared that he was facing punishment, he had no idea why he was being singled out. To his great surprise and relief, he was heralded as a hero. The commanding officer asked him what he would like as a reward. He asked for a furlough to visit his father. His request was granted. David journeyed back east across Poland to Lida, where his father and Batya were living.

[The story will continue next week with David’s return to Iwie and his continued service in the Soviet army.]

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.

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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