Florida – The Sunshine State

I went on my first trip to Florida with Nana and Zada when I was in fifth grade. I’m not sure why I was chosen to go to Miami Beach with them – I was the fourth of the five grandchildren. It was my first time on a plane. I survived the flight without incident. I was proud of myself so I took the unused airsick bag as a souvenir and pasted it in my scrapbook.

It was dark when we emerged from the airport terminal in Miami and the three of us got into a checker cab to go to the hotel. The air outside was surprisingly soft. I had never seen a real palm tree before, but there they were: tall, narrow trunks lining the highway median, dark fronds etched against the violet sky. As I looked out the window of the cab, I could hear the music to the opening of the Jackie Gleason Show playing in my head and I wondered where the June Taylor dancers lived.

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We stayed at the Sands Hotel. I shared a bed with Nana, while Zada had the other double bed. I was excited to go to the hotel pool and show them my swimming and diving skills. Unfortunately my shoulders got sun burned that first day and it was hard to swim after that. My skin was super sensitive and the tropical sun was a new and ferocious challenge.

We spent some time visiting family that I didn’t know and friends of Nana and Zada’s who were also on vacation in Miami Beach. Nana and Zada tried to make me comfortable, but I got terribly homesick. I was embarrassed that I was teary-eyed while we visited with Red Rose (Nana’s friends had colorful names – Goldie, Sugar and multiple Roses).

It got better when Uncle Terry and Barbara, his girlfriend (a year later she became his wife), joined us. Though it was off-season, we went to Hialeah Race Track. Zada, who loved the horses, regaled us with stories about Citation as we looked at the statue of that beautiful animal.

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Uncle Terry, Nana, me and Zada in front of Citation (thank you Barbara for taking the picture; thank you Uncle Terry for sharing it with me!)

We decided to cut my trip short and I went home with Terry and Barbara while Nana and Zada continued their vacation. I came home sun burnt and disappointed with myself. Miami Beach felt to me like another borough of New York City, just sun bleached and hot.

I went to Florida with my parents every couple of years after that to visit the elders. Zada moved to Century Village in West Palm Beach in 1973. My father’s parents moved to Century Village in Deerfield Beach in 1974. One year we took a miserable ride on Amtrak (we arrived 24 hours late!), another year we drove. Those trips, usually during our April break from school, didn’t feel like vacations. They felt obligatory. They could also be fraught.

Zada met and married Laura not long after he moved into Century Village. Laura was no match for our memories of Nana. Even if you took that comparison out of the equation, I failed to see (m)any redeeming qualities. It was later speculated that Zada didn’t want to be a burden on his family, he didn’t have much money, and Laura did, so he did what he thought he had to and married her.

Laura hailed from Massachusetts and prided herself on her fine manners. I think she was of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ philosophy. During our first visit with her, Mark and I were sitting by the pool playing some kind of board game while our parents were chatting nearby with Zada and Laura. We could easily overhear Laura grumbling about how crowded the pool got when all the grandchildren descended from the north like locusts during these vacation breaks. My mother responded icily, “Don’t worry, these grandchildren won’t be here again!” This was not the only time that my Dad had to calm Mom’s rage at Laura.

Despite that threat, we did go back down to Florida in the years that followed. Although I think it came as a surprise to my parents, they ended up becoming snowbirds themselves about 15 years later when they retired from teaching. They bought a place in Boynton Beach in 1988, not far from West Palm where Zada still lived (he outlived Laura by a number of years).

As an adult, with my own children, we would make the pilgrimage to visit the elders, too. Gary’s parents also wintered in Florida. After renting in various places in the Fort Lauderdale area, they settled in Century Village in Pembroke Pines.

We wanted our children to see their grandparents so we visited at least once each winter. Both sets of grandparents did their best to make it enjoyable – and it was. Except for one thing. I couldn’t escape the feeling that retirement communities were depressing. My parents were as active as people could be: Mom participated in no less than two book clubs, the cinema club, she learned to paint, she made jewelry and ceramics and more. She said she felt like it was the summer camp she never got to go to growing up. My Dad played tennis twice a day, worked out, played cards and continued to read voraciously. They went out to dinner several times a week. They couldn’t have been happier.

Gary’s parents were also quite active. David sang in the choir, performed with the Yiddish theater group, and served on the Board of the synagogue. Paula and David went to shul, socialized with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors and played cards several nights a week. They went to the shows at the clubhouse, and they would use the treadmills in the fitness center. Occasionally they went out to dinner, more often Paula cooked or they ate at the cafe on the premises. They too enjoyed their life in Florida tremendously.

Yet, it depressed me – even before their health started to fail. We would drive into sun-drenched Century Village, the buildings clustered like barracks, the tennis courts empty, the golf course sparsely peopled, the man-made lake with no discernible use just a decorative fountain in the middle, and I would feel the sadness descend. The same thing would happen when we drove into Banyan Springs where my parents lived, though it was less cookie-cutter and usually there were people on the tennis courts. It still felt artificial.

It felt disconnected from the regular rhythm of life. I had experienced that feeling before. When I moved into Cayuga Hall in College in the Woods at SUNY-Binghamton as a freshman I struggled. College and dorm life were supposed to be the best time of my life. Instead I felt disconnected, as though real life was going on somewhere else. I enjoyed college much more once I moved off campus.

While some of the melancholy I felt when we visited our parents’ communities stemmed from the constant reminder of our mortality that is a fact of life there, I think it was really that I never did much like summer camp (or dorm life). Too much forced camaraderie, too much pressure to join activities, too much judging of and by others. Maybe we aren’t meant to live only among our own age group at any stage of life – or at least I’m not. Taken all together, memories, associations and my temperament, I’m thinking, when the time comes, retiring to New York City sounds about right.

Resilience

If Nana was the heart of our family, I think it is fair to say that Zada was the spirit. The man I knew was in his 60s and had experienced his share of hardship but still had a zest for life. The stories he told and the stories told about him revealed a love of Chinese and Italian food shared with friends and family, a love of baseball and the racetrack, and a capacity to quote Shakespeare from memory despite not graduating from high school. My dad referred to him as a raconteur – an apt characterization. The recurring theme of his stories was that life was an adventure and you should make the best of it.

I grew up hearing the story of a particular time Zada took my mother to a baseball game – he followed both the New York Yankees and Giants. Noticing an ominous cloud on the horizon beyond the Polo Grounds, Mom pointed to it and asked her father if they should be concerned. Zada gestured to the blue portion of the sky and said she should simply look there. This was advice my mother took to heart. Zada was always looking at the bright side, even when that was difficult to do.

Another essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

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A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While the actual Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

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Me paying homage in 2011

Another legacy of the hurricane was Nana’s distrust of the Red Cross. She believed that they unfairly didn’t allow her back to retrieve the family’s possessions from their second floor apartment. She saw her neighbors being permitted back in to get what wasn’t damaged, but she wasn’t given the same courtesy. She grieved the loss of mementos and photos of her mother who had died some years earlier. Nana, who gave to charity generously and regularly, would not contribute to the Red Cross. Our family continues to look for other ways to contribute when disaster strikes.

Zada was able to bounce back from the losses and disappointments. After some false starts, he and Nana rebuilt their lives in Brooklyn, buying a bakery that they ran for over 20 years.

Zada always seemed to be impervious to the weather in both the literal and metaphorical sense. I remember a near blizzard in Canarsie that added to the myth that surrounded him.

Zada was normally home from work at 3:00 pm. This particular day a winter storm was pummeling Brooklyn. When it got to be 5:00 pm Nana asked my uncles and brothers to go look for him in the park. They took gloves, a scarf and hat, knowing that he would have driven to work unprepared. The boys found him and offered him the gloves, scarf and hat, which he promptly refused. He was, after all, already wearing an extra layer, a yellow sleeveless wool vest. I saw him coming down our street. His gray wool coat was unbuttoned, flapping in the wind, his bald-head uncovered. Snowflakes caked his bushy brows.

As with the hurricane, he was at work as the storm worsened. Zada, now in his early 60s, decided to walk home from the bakery in Greenpoint. It was a long 7-mile trek across the borough, but he made it, bringing with him bags of surplus bread and other bakery items in case we were snowed in.

When he arrived, much to Nana’s relief, he was perplexed by her ministrations. She hovered over him, suggesting a hot shower and hot drink. He didn’t see it as any big deal – he had been through worse.

The Spilken family motto may be, as my grandfather said many times, ‘make the best of things.’ This was not a philosophy that came naturally to me. I have trouble looking at the bright side. As a freshman I was walking on the campus of SUNY-Binghamton in the fall of 1976 with my very good friend, Merle. She pointed to a particularly vibrant red leaf on the ground and exclaimed, “Look how beautiful!” “It’s dead,” was my pithy response. Merle just looked at me. To this day we laugh about our differing perspectives. Fortunately, I have Merle and Zada’s legacy to remind me that there is another way.

 

Loss

Zada was 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 was eleven years old and 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; they were trying to decide if she needed to go to the hospital.

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 hotel in the Poconos.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, though it was still only early afternoon, we heard people at the door. My Dad came in.

“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.

She was 56.

“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, her siblings 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.

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. It was my first experience with profound loss, but not my last. I learned that I don’t shed tears of grief and I still don’t understand why not.

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Nana and me on the porch on East 91st Street in 1969 or 1970

Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful

My hair was a constant source of difficulty when I was growing up.   A mixture of curls, waves and wiry frizz, it was entirely unmanageable. This was before the advent of the myriad of gels, creams, sprays and treatments that line a full aisle of CVS today, products that I take full advantage of now.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fashion required girls to wear their hair long and stick straight, if they could. I was in a state of war with mine – and my unruly hair was winning.

Combing and/or brushing my hair after washing were a nightmare for me and my mother, and anyone who was within earshot. It was always a jumble of knots that made it unbelievably painful to brush out. I wonder if our neighbors considered calling child protective services – if that existed in the 1960s. I must have sounded like I was being tortured.

Nana entered the fray by offering to take me to her hairdresser. Nana would get her hair done every couple of weeks. She would come 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.

After getting Mom’s agreement, Zada drove Nana and me across Brooklyn to her beauty parlor. Neither Nana nor my mother drove, that job was left up to the men or public transportation. We arrived at the salon; Nana was greeted with enthusiastic hellos. The smell of hairspray hung in the air. Most of the other patrons were Nana’s age. I was invited to sit in a raised vinyl chair. I was nervous and excited.

A new style had come into fashion – a shag, which was a layered cut that allowed for curls. I watched the hairdresser cut and shape my hair. Turned out this cut worked for me! When it was done and I looked in the mirror, I smiled. Somehow the texture and wave of my hair worked with the cut. The other people in the beauty parlor commented on how good my hair looked – a new experience for me!

Zada picked us up and drove us back home. We were excited about showing everyone when we got back to the house. 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 had 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…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 sniffled.

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

I did.

As I look back on that incident, and more generally growing up in that house with my parents, grandparents, uncles and brothers, it was more fraught than I understood at the time. There were undercurrents of resentment, disappointment and perhaps jealousy. I didn’t think about how it might have felt for my mother; that came much later. Fortunately, through those undercurrents, love shone through.

Nana’s Kitchen

After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith and bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn in 1964. They were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary. We, my parents and two older brothers, moved into the two-family semi-attached house on East 91st Street, a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the street was awash with mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, would take the apartment upstairs, leaving their home in Crown Heights.

Zada, my grandfather and master bread baker, bought Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in 1941 and the family lived above the store. His challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough. One of my first memories is of standing in front of the display cases in the bakery, eyeing the goodies. I took my time deciding: a brownie? an éclair? a large chocolate chip cookie? Nana waited patiently. She took a break from waiting on other customers to give her grandchildren their chosen treats.

By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s sat was changing. Zada thought that the new people, 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. (The first time was in the hurricane of 1938 in New London, Connecticut.) At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery, moved his wife and two teenage sons and rented the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.

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

Nana sat with her arthritic hands wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising from it. “Hello, Sunshine,” my daily greeting. 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, getting a plate and fork – she knew my answer.

Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies. It is no wonder that everyone in my family struggles to this day with their weight.

A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came shortly after. I ate my pie. Nana sat back down. We talked about our days, her aches and pains, the performers on the shows. Occasionally I would adjust 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.

“Yup, it was delicious.”

“Good.”

I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen. The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters of the window. I sat in my golden cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.