Thoughts for a Monday Morning

I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.

I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.

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As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.

Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.

Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.

Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.

What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.

I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.

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Zada and me next to his Toyota Corolla in Canarsie (1973)

I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.

During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.

Letters from Zada: Graduation

For years I wanted to write about my family. When I started writing in a serious way a year and a half ago, I thought I would be focusing on my relationship with my grandmother, Nana. I have written about her, and I will continue to explore those memories and how they shaped me. I have been surprised, though, by how prominent my memories of Zada have been. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Zada was a storyteller. I remember running to the basketball courts in the park across the street from our house to retrieve my brothers, Mark and Steven. Zada was going to tell stories! Extended family was visiting our house in Canarsie and Zada was going to regale us with his tales of growing up on the Lower East Side and of his first car. Hearing that Zada was going to be sharing those tales, Mark and Steven set aside their game and came home immediately. Now that is testimony to how entertaining Zada was!

Fortunately, Zada wrote some of his stories to me in letters. I don’t have all of his stories, not by a longshot, but I have carefully stored the ones that I do have. The one I have shared below gives a number of insights into our family, including: (1) why the Spilkens speak so loudly 🙂 ; (2) why we prize our family so much; (3) where the emphasis on critical thinking began; and (4) how much education was valued. Perhaps you will find other insights.

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This is the letter that I have reprinted here. He alluded to stories ‘for another telling’ throughout this letter. Unfortunately I do not have many of them. I’m not sure if he actually wrote those other stories down. If other family members have them, please share!

Here in Zada’s own words:

June 1973

Dear Linda,

In a few days you will be graduating Junior High School. The first step in achieving a world of knowledge. It brings back to me thoughts of my own graduation and the indelible impression it made on my life.

I measure the fortunate circumstances in my life in milestones. The first milestone is becoming aware that you can read the printed word, and being able to imbibe and digest all the beautiful things that have been written. This also gives you the extreme pleasure in being able to formulate your own ideas and opinions.

All the other milestones are experiences that leave a lasting impression. With me it would be from the time I met my beloved, the thrill of seeing my firstborn and the satisfaction I had from the ones that followed. The sublime devotion they have accorded me. Becoming a grandparent and knowing the family will be perpetuated eternally. A boy growing up on the East Side of New York, and seeing Palm Beach for the first time (that is a story for telling later).

So now, dear Linda, I will try to tell you why my graduation affected me so that I carry the memory with me forever. My parents came to this country about 1905. For various reasons my father was forced to leave Poland (also for telling later). He left behind my brother Jack, Irving, and sister Lillian and myself, also most important of all, Mother. My father worked hard, long hours in order to make enough money to pay for our passage to America. Within two years he sent for us. We arrived at Ellis Island and were taken to our new home on Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington. This neighborhood was known as the lower East Side.

My father’s salary was meager, in order to supplement his earnings and allow us to exist, Lily and Irving went to work. My mother took in four boarders. In those days for $5 a week a boarder would get food and lodging. Now picture a four-room railroad flat, toilets in the hall, man and wife, three children (Jack came to America later) all in one flat. The fortunate thing was that my father and two of the boarders worked nights so that they were able to sleep days. In other words, it was quite a quiet household. That is why when I grew older instead of talking moderately, I shouted in order to make sure that everybody heard me.

Eventually things got better. Unions came into existence, more money was expended for salaries, my father’s wages were tripled. We were able to live in better quarters. We said goodbye to our boarders and moved to East New York, Brooklyn.

In the year 1915 East New York was the equivalent to what city people today think of as the mountains (the Catskills, that is). I must not forget to tell you that in the interim Bess, Ruth, Harry and Sidney became additions to the family. (We lost Ruth in our first year in East New York).

So now I am the oldest of the children going to school. In the year of June 1917 I am to be graduated from Public School 109, located at Powell and Dumont Streets. Finally the day arrives I am to be graduated and the only one of the family that will be present is my brother, Irving. Extenuating circumstances made it impossible for any others to attend.

Now let me set the picture of Public School 109. We did not have an auditorium, but an assembly room that at the most would have held about 150 people. There were about 60 students, and the like number of adults (the graduation exercises were held on a weekday morning accounting for such a small attendance).

Our principal was Oswald D. Shalakow. A real administrator and fine gentleman. There was no valedictorian, so our principal gave the graduating address. This is the problem he posed for us, and he expected answers:

A teacher leaves her classroom and forgets her wallet, it is open and money is in the purse. Two students enter the room individually. The first one sees the money and is tempted to take it, but he fights with himself, and finally he overcomes, leaves the room but does not take anything. The second boy enters the room, sees the money, leaves without giving a thought about taking the money.

The consensus of the graduating class was that the first boy deserves all the credit, because he had to battle his conscience and he had won.

But our principal explains to us that the second boy should get all the credit, because, his reasoning was that the first boy may someday succumb to temptation, and would not be able to resist taking the money. But the second boy is inherently honest. It never enters his mind to take anything that does not belong to him. It may be different today, morals being what they are. So form your own opinion as to who was right.

Now the diplomas are to be handed out, so the principal makes this request. Please refrain from applauding the individual, but when the last graduate is called, he would welcome a large round of applause for all of the graduates. Names would be called alphabetically and if people would applaud at the start they would get tired when it would come to the “Jays,” and it would not be fair to the boys that would follow.

The assembly room is quiet, the names are called, each boy as his name is called approaches the principal, receives his diploma, and returns to his seat. Now he comes to the “Esses.” He calls Charles Spilken. I rise, on my way to the principal. I hear a deafening clamor, take two pieces of marble and clap them together, that was what my brother Irving was doing with his hands. Understand that Irving had two very strong hands (more in a later telling). If the floor had opened up, and I fell thru, I would have welcomed that kind of calamity, I was so embarrassed. But years later when I looked back at that incident, I realized that all the emotion, all that happiness seeing his first graduation, especially that of his little brother, who was now on his way to becoming a somebody, because in those days to be educated was to reach the pinnacle of success. That he could not suppress the feelings within his heart, that he forgot everything, but to give vent to that pride.

That is really how my love of family originated. To love one another. To revel in each other’s successes, to be steadfast in each other’s adversity(ies). To have a ‘swelling pride,’ that cannot be subjugated by petty annoyances.

Then will I consider myself blessed, especially Dearest Linda if you can realize how proud you make your Zada, for being able to be present at the maturing of Linda Brody.

I’ll leave for West Palm Beach knowing that I am endowed with the best family a man can ever possess. May that feeling within me age, but never grow less.

Zada

Zada, my cello and me

 

 

I was lugging my cello to the bus stop, finally bringing it home from Bildersee Junior High School so I could practice over the weekend. A familiar mustard-yellow Toyota Corolla pulled up to the curb next to me and I saw Zada, my grandfather, roll down his window. “Lindele, let me give you a ride home,” he called out.

“Thank you! How’d you know I’d be taking my cello home?”

“Your mother mentioned it to me, so I thought I would see if I could catch you on my way home from work.”

Zada was coming from Danilow’s, the commercial bakery where he worked, wearing his uniform: a white short sleeved shirt, white pants and black belt. Hunched over the steering wheel, he was nearing 70 years old.

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I carefully manipulated the cello into the back seat and climbed in the front, relieved not to have to manage the cello on the bus – actually two buses and a long walk across Seaview Park to get home.

“It’s going to rain,” Zada told me. I saw no sign in the sky, so I asked, “How do you know?”

“I feel it in my bones. Uncle Michael told me he felt it in his leg this morning, too.” I harrumphed dismissively.

“What? You don’t believe me.”

“You can’t tell the weather with your bones,” I said, choosing to put my confidence in science instead.

Uncle Mike had badly broken his leg the previous summer and according to Zada (his father), it would function as a barometer for the rest of his life.

“Wait, you’ll see, you’re young,” Zada said.

Conversations with my grandfather often went this way. I could argue about anything with him, including the weather, but I usually didn’t make any headway and neither did he.

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