The Saga of Bessie

In the meantime, with Bessie gone, the Meema, is now at the head of the table, matriarch of the home. No meal is ever completed without a major incident. Mealtime became a fearful occasion. The children would begin the meal clinging to their father whom of course they had not seen all day. The Meema, glancing fiercely at Grandpa, raps on the table. The little girls leave off clinging and Pauline, in the meantime, has been sent to the corner tavern with a nickel and a pitcher for the suppertime beer. Nearsighted and astigmatic and, of course, without glasses to correct her faulty vision, she stumbles on her way up the dark stairs to the fourth-floor apartment. Some beer spills. She enters the flat, perhaps an inch of beer and forth missing off the top of the pitcher. Who knows, maybe she has swiped a sip or two.

The Meema grabs the pitcher, sets it down on the table and ZETZ, she hauls off and slaps Pauline. “You slurped it down off the top.”, she screams. A myopic, kind, puny hungry little girl with bad feet that were to plague her all her days, Pauline stumbles off to some corner. Zaida is silent-mournful but, as always, silent. The boys look daggers at the Meema, the little girls cower and cry. The Meema: “Away from the table. No crying here. You’ll spoil the meal. AWAY FROM THE TABLE.” The little girls slip down off their seats, crawling between the chair legs and their brother’s feet. Meema brings the food to table, cabbage soup, maybe with good bones. The boys slip the bones from the soup under the table to the children at their feet. Thus, dinner in the Cedarbaum home with its new mistress. Pauline, eight years old, was the scullery maid as well as the scapegoat. As both; she was indispensable to The Meema.

Before long, The Meema becomes pregnant with little Birdie. Now, she gloats, there is indeed no room for Yitzhak Elya’s children. Baby Birdie was a little beauty, cuddly and loveable, in her infant innocence endearing herself to The Meema by ratting here and there on her older brothers and sisters.

Celia, the silent one, takes it all in, her eyes fastened on her father with the desperate adoration of a child who has already lost her mother and all-but-lost her mother-substitute, sister Bashelah. Celia’s eyes miss nothing. Banished to the underside of the table, she sees the Meema’s hand creep up her husband’s thigh, then crawl further to the seat of his manhood.

She holds him in the palm of her hand. Does he blink? Cringe? Shout? He is silent and silent he remains as his new, hideously ugly wife seduces him while driving his children, one by one, from his home. A childless widow before this marriage, rumor had it that she killed her husband with her sexual excesses.

With Bessie already pushed out of the house, the Meema now begins to evacuate the others from their home. First to go are the older boys, Joe and Morris. Joe, the personality kid, handsome and debonair even as a youngster, with a perennial twinkle in his blue eyes, begins his entrepreneurial tricks, stealing coal off the coal wagons or from the coal yards and selling them at a price, turning his hand to anything to make a nickel; Morris, steady, serious and straight, going early to work in the sweatshops.

Both boys stay awhile with the Wurtzman’s, the ‘halfway house’. Then they spend a week here, a week there, with any relative or landsman or friend who gives them a couple of chairs or a tabletop to sleep on. Meyer, the youngest son, spends lots of time at the Settlement Houses, making contacts who will soon arrange a summer holiday in the Catskills where he drowned trying to save a fellow camper.

Keeping Birdie, the baby at home for the time being, The Meema one day takes Pauline and Celia by the hand, each carrying a kerchief into which she ties their pitiful belongings, takes them to the street where the Wurtzman’s live (the Wurtzman Halfway House Center for Love and Nurture) and leaves them there on the corner to await Basheleh’s return from her 12-hour workday!

The little girls are elated at the prospect of being once again with Basha. Finally, they see Basha coming down the street and they fall into her arms, happy to be gone from the old witch though saddened to leave their sainted, much still and always beloved, helpless and silent father.

In all the years that I have lived and heard these stories over and over again from Celia, Pauline and my mother Basha, Morris and Joe, never once have I ever heard one word of criticism of their father—only praise for his gentle nature, his noble bearing, his extensive learning—only love. My siblings and I would hear these stories and hit the ceiling in rage in Zaide’s weakness; but his children merely shook their heads at our youthful ignorance, our insensitivity and obtuseness.

My first inkling of life’s cruelty and unfairness came through seeing what life had done to the blessed Wurtzman family. Their daughter married an abuser and led a terrible life with him before dying young and childless. The two sons became couturiers, very high class and successful and rich, and the richer they became the more distant from their parents.

Those were the days before Franklin D. Roosevelt and before Social Security. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Wurtzman, frail and elderly whom my parents visited frequently and who were brought to visit us in Borough Park and In Rockaway for extended periods. Old and bent, they were probably 55 years old. Shiffra was bewigged and toothless, but worst of all she had become ‘oivabootl’. Today we know it as Alzheimer’s. Mama and Papa also visited them in Williamsburg where they lived, and Mama combed her sheitel and laundered her dresses and underwear, and cut her fingernails, a devoted daughter.

I remember Mama’s shocked dismay when one day she told this story to Papa. She had gone to visit the Wurtzman’s and walking into their ground floor apartment she found the couple seated at the oilcloth covered kitchen table. It was Erev some Yom-Tov or other and there was a pot on the stove, steaming away. Looking into the pot, what a child does in her parent’s home, Mama saw only boiling water boiling away. Nothing in the pot, nothing in the house to eat, but no one was to know their plight and their poverty, no chance visitor or neighbor.

Mike, their son, had “forgotten” to send the monthly stipend. Mama, with little more in her purse than her fare home, went back to Borough Park and waited for Papa to come from work. Then, with Ester’s help from her $20.00 a week job, Mama and Papa shopped and bought supplies for the Wurtzman’s holidays- and so it went until they died.

But back to the little girls taking their turns living with the Wurtzman’s. How long could this go on? How long could Mama, working all day, six days a week for a couple of pennies a day, provide for the children? And how long could the Wurtzmans put them up? As luck would have it, the Meema sorely missed Pauline’s services and eventually, through a third party, arranged to have her return to serve. So now, Pauline and Birdie had each other.

For Celia, a very different solution turned up. The Lewis’s were a gentle, loving couple with two grown sons and a grown daughter. They had known Ester Devorah and were aware of what was going on now she was dead, their kind hearts troubled at the plight of the orphaned babies. They held a family conference and decided they would “adopt” one of the children, deciding on Celia probably because of her gentle beauty but also because with her no longer being an infant, Mrs. Lewis would not be completely tied down.

Little Celia had spent half her young life pulled here, dropped there; but never before had she been totally separated from her siblings. But, happy circumstance, she would now be a neighbor of her father, able to catch a glimpse of him now and then. No more than that, for one Shabbat she found herself on the corner of Papa’s street. Drawn towards him, magnetized by his eyes as he sat at his window, she halted, stopped by an almost imperceptible shaking of his head. The Meema stood silently behind him. Celia turned silently away, walking at first, then running blindly back to the Lewis’s, sixty years later and more, she recounted the story, adding, Papa ran after me, calling Tzeerale, Tzeerale, but I just ran away as fast as I could. Wishful thinking?

Beautiful, docile, Celia coolly accepted the Lewis’s adoration. Her new big sister and big brothers, already working in their father’s fur shop-factory, spoiled her with presents and treats. Celia accepted the gifts graciously, always with the feeling that these bribes could not compensate for the loss of her own family; her father, her sisters and brothers, and even The Meema who, though cruel, still to her represented somehow, someone of her own. Although only five or six years old, she remembers always the special food prepared by The Meema and 30 years later she made some for her sons Harold, Elliot and Avrum and me…such a delicacy! Stale challah rubbed with garlic over which she poured scalding water, then pouring off the residue liquid. For her children and me, Aunt Celia added a generous dip of butter. Even without the butter, Celia considered this Meema’s tasty treat.

Before long, the Lewis’s suffered severe business reverses and, deeply in debt, were faced with the prospect of debtors’ prison, they threw away the key, and you could be interred for an indeterminate period. In order to avoid that disgrace,
They stole away in panic with Celia by train to Toronto without telling their plan to a soul. Fifty years later, Celia described the terror of that escape, huddled together in that train, heading for a world so distant from everyone and everything they knew.

Once arrived in Toronto they carried out the plan they had contrived on that endless train ride. With only a few dollars between them, they decided that the boys would rent a furnished room, as if for themselves alone, the rest of them hiding out until nightfall, when the boys would sneak them inside.

When the boys were out, first looking for work, later working, the rest of the family would sleep in the daytime so as not to make noise and arouse the landlady’s suspicion. Then at night the boys took their turn sleeping in the bed while the rest crept silently about. Through all the fear, the secrecy and poverty, the Lewis’s continued to dote on Celia. She had the first and the best portion of food. She always got a new dress even when the Lewis’s hadn’t enough food. No matter what, Celia had a doll and a toy. Yet no matter what the Lewis’s did for her, no matter the love and care they showered on her, Celia’s heart was home and she mourned and longed for her own family, feeling abandoned her heart cried out: Why had she been chosen, singled out, the only one to be separated from her loved ones. She felt herself an alien, forever, forever, wandering, forever alone.

Bessie searched for Celia, combing the East Side, canvassing friends and neighbors of the Lewis’s. Nobody knew a thing though some suspected. It was two years ago that a landsman, coming from a buying trip of furs in Toronto, brought Bessie news of the Lewis’s, news that they and Celia were safe. But there was no address. And what if she had known the address. Neither in New York nor in Poland had Bessie been to school. In the United States, compulsory universal free education was not yet the law of the land. Communication, if any, was carried out via the grapevine.

Bessie’s teenage years pass with work in this shop and that, surrogate daughter of the Wurtzman’s, involved in their home, their family problems, their tragedies, keeping track of her own brothers, visiting her sisters on Shabbos, and bringing them small goodies. Most of it, though, she shared with Pauline and Bridie and then, as they came along, her two half-brothers and half-sister, her warm and brimming heart. Her dancing nights over, she does love beautiful clothes and in one old photograph-there is only one extant we see her, eighteen years old or so, head high, full bosom lifted, clothed in a hand-tailored mohair suit, leg-o’-mutton sleeves, waist nipped in, hip bustled, topped with a smartly tailored feathered hat. Mama never said much about those years, except that the Meema has finally let her in the door to glimpse the life of the family and especially, glory of glories, to see her sainted father.

There is an occasional boyfriend—don’t I recall there was a boy with a potency problem? How did Mama find out about that? In general, though, young men take little interest in an orphan girl with no dowry but her good name. Then, at 21, practically an old maid, Papa, Chaim Shepsel, Sam, is introduced short broad shouldered, with dark curly hair, sparkling brown eyes, shy but smiling broadly, he is, at 21, an immature lad. Apprenticed to his father, a butcher, Papa is fun-loving, joy-seeking, and interested only in the cultural life of his community—the Yiddish theater, the musical and opera stage, and on the side, a game of pinochle. Papa sneaks off to see Shakespearean plays, memorizing monologues and entire scenes from the tragedies. He is turned into the maudlin music of the day but also to opera, all of which in later years he shares with his children.

Mama takes notice of this boy. Time passing and at 21, she realizes Papa comes from a good, religious family. Avrum Posner, Papa’s father, a name to conjure with, a man of some means, a property owner. He is a Tzaddik. Sabbath is a holy day in his family, and this is a number one requirement of Bessie. Many immigrants are turning away from the established laws of Koshruth and Shabbos; but Bessie, remember, has made her choice for the virtuous life; her only rebellion, no shtetl in her future. She will never, she determines, wear a wig.

Avrum butcher has full pockets and is known for his good works. He freely consigns loans for needy landsman, offering his shop for guarantee. Well-known also for his hospitality, on Shabbos, he and Bubba make their home a refuge for any Jew in need of a meal and a bed. Indeed, there are always three or four sleepover guests for Shabbos, and for dinner after shul as many as 20 Chassid’s, awaiting their own families’ arrival from Europe. But Yitta prepares these weekly eat-ins: gefulte fish, feast sized challahs, chullent and kishka, chicken and gedepts, tzimmes and tea and cake, all prepared the day before on the coal stove which on Shabbos is lighted by the Shabbos-goy. The service may lack refinements; but the board groans and the dwelling is filled with the Sabbath hoy of exuberant Chassidim, chanting and dancing and dining.

On their first date Papa takes Mama on the ferry to Brooklyn. Fare? Maybe two cents apiece; but he has only one nickel for his date. He offers her a seltzer. One penny. She asks, won’t you have one? No, thanks, I’m not thirsty. Peanuts are two cents a half pound bag, but Papa doesn’t have the two pennies.

Papa falls madly in love, a boundless love that grows and grows over the fifty-odd years of their marriage. To Papa, Mama is always the most beautiful, the smartest, the purest, the best. She is his first and only woman. Mama, for her part, looks down her nose at Papa, taking him then and always at his own family’s evaluation—immature, simple and too fun-loving, unlettered and not very religious. All of these characteristics are why Papa’s parents are eager to see him married to this poor and no longer young woman.

However, eager as Bubba and Zaida are for this shiddach, they make it a point to show Basha her place- Basha, the orphan, with no dowry, no means to make a wedding and, don’t forget, going on twenty-two. The Bubba, already obese, stands her full 4’10”, haughty, aquiline nose high in the air, tells Bessie she has no say in the wedding plans. The Bubba and Zaida arrange some wedding party – at Beethoven Hall, five hundred guests and all the food prepared at home. The Klezmer play the whole night long and the Chassidim dance and sing until the wee hours.

At some point the bride and groom escape the general enthusiasm and spend their wedding night in their flat on Suffolk Street—two rooms on the ground floor furnished with cast-off sticks of furniture and bric-a-brac picked up from push carts filled with wares of every sort-the outdoor markets of yesteryear. There is little in the flat: the ice box is a tin chest on the window ledge. There is a coal stove in the kitchen, a couple of wooden chairs, a small table, a bed in the other room covered with a down quilt into which the ketubah (marriage license) is placed according to custom, a few wooden crates, perhaps, to hold their few belongings, Mama’s good mohair suit and hat hanging on a nail in the wall. Papa came to the marriage with only the clothes on his back.

In the morning Papa reaches for his clothes—where are the pants? He doesn’t see them, so he rolls out of bed to look. No pants. Mama joins in the search – there aren’t many places to look for pants, and they were Papa’s only pair. The apartment has been robbed while the couple slept. Mama rushes out to a nearby pushcart to buy Papa a pair of pants. Then, they begin to notice that their few things are missing – the wedding gifts too have been stolen. But where are the pants? Eventually, trying to reconstruct the robbery, they wend their way up to the roof where indeed they find the pants, but they are useless. The thief in frustration over empty pockets has dropped a load on them.

Thus, begins the marriage. Nineteen hundred and two, the year the Queensboro Bridge opened. They had a hard life, a life with few amenities, unremitting struggle for the dollar. Papa knew one trade only, butchering. The newlyweds rented a little hole-in-the-wall on a little street off the main road. In those years you found a couple of butcher shops on every street. For refrigeration there was the hand-delivered ice block. Housewives shopped daily, partly because of primitive refrigeration in the homes, but also because there was never enough money to shop ahead. Marketing in the early 20th century New York City was roughly equivalent to the daily shopping practices in Mexico fifty years later, and the whole procedure was as much social as it was dictated by economics.

Technological conditions: The streets were crowded end-to-end and curb-to-curb with pushcarts and stands overflowing with wares: mountains of dried beans, cascades of dried fruits, barrels and rolls and seeded rye breads, corn bread and pumpernickel; barrels of [bemires] and pickles and sauerkraut, carts with potatoes and onions, fruit stands, and tomato stands and those delicacies, oranges and bananas, spice and herb carts, clothing pushcarts, items new and used.

For the new couple’s butcher shop, Zaida supplied the necessities: icebox, chopping block and hand-powered meat grinder – but only after Bessie had pleaded for them. Whatever Mama and Papa received from Zaida came only after begging, bargaining and humiliation. Zaida’s good works did not extend to his children – it was a more public generosity, perhaps mitzvoth stored up for the here-after. Nevertheless, the young couple now had some means of supporting themselves, and they worked very hard to make ends meet. Bessie, it was, who attracted customers. Her engaging personality, her warmth and interest in others, and her tact and salesmanship made the little shop come alive: a smile, a joke a story, an extra tidbit like a good bone or piece of liver inserted in the package – Mama knew how to keep the customers; moreover, she enjoyed the give-and-take.

After only a few months, Mama was pregnant; but of course, she kept working, never mind the nausea from the odor of raw meat. Meat had to be kept looking and smelling fresh so, after three days, supplies that had not been sold had to be soaked for freshening. Such supplies as were beginning to become gamey and had to be ground for quick sale; and this meant grinding by hand sometimes fifteen to twenty pounds. Somehow, Papa was never available for this chore nor could Mama wait for his return. That meat had to be ground and sold at once! However, one way or another at least one afternoon a week Papa saw to it that Mama leave the store and go home for an afternoon’s rest.

However, one way or another at least one afternoon a week Papa saw to it that Mama leave the store and go home for an afternoon’s rest. Oh, how Mama appreciated those afternoon rests. Wednesday after Wednesday afternoons. After the third or fourth week the light dawned for her. On the next Wednesday afternoon Mama permitted Papa to persuade her to leave; but instead of going straight home she stepped down beneath a tenement stoop and waited. Sure enough, minutes later Papa seps furtively out of the store, locks up, and takes off. It is matinee day and Papa, up to the old tricks of single blessedness, is off to the theatre.

Many, many years later, after Papa had long broken his back in one arduous job after the other and had become a good businessman, a good provider, Mama would sigh, “He was a good man, but it just took him too long to grow up.”

What transpired in that “long time?” between their marriage in 1902 to World War I? The butcher shop was only the first venture. Then there was the fish store. Then the vegetable-fruit store. Both these businesses, like the butcher shop, dealt in perishables-quick losses. The hours were long and filled with hard work: and all the time the babies kept coming, another one every two years. And through those times Mama worked beside Papa in the store. How many times did she rescue the business from his short temper, wooing an irate customer, pampering, and cajoling? How many pounds of meat did she grind, how many fish fillet, how much spotted fruit did she stew?

There were always some kind of living quarter behind the store – a stove which served both to warm the place, the only source of heat, a cot or two to nap the babies, a few dishes and pots to prepare food for all during long shop hours. When they were little, the babies crawled underfoot. As they grew older, they played outside the store, dodging the crowds, the carts and the stands.

Mama’s story-of Yussale and the Passover eggs. They had stored a case of eggs in the back of the store for the Yomtov. Joe, about 18 months old and rooting about, found the crate while Mom and Pop were working in the store, uncovered the top layer and practiced pitching, by tossing one egg after the other against the heated stoves. The stench of burning eggs had Mama running to the back, to find the child had smashed one entire layer – three dozen eggs cooking on the outside of the stove.

Did she thrash the child? Of course not! She stood at the door and laughed and laughed at such brilliant mischief. Never mind how long and hard she had to work to clean the mess. A neighbor, investigating the source of the stench demands, “Aren’t you gonna beat him? “Of course,” says Mama, “as soon as you leave is he gonna get it!” Thus Joe, her firstborn, becomes a heroic figure, an example for several generations of egg-throwers.

The stores never gave them a living so Papa decides to try peddling. For this, though, Papa needs a horse and wagon. The wagon wasn’t too much of a problem, but a horse? Where to keep it? How to feed it? Papa has the problem licked! At the end of day, when the store closed, Papa covers the vegetable bins, spreads the floor with oats and hay, unharnesses the animal and leads him into the shop.

The years pass in the struggle for the daily bread. Papa tries but he can’t keep up with the mouths that need feeding. He fails in one store after the other, fulfilling his parents’ prophesy – Shepsl the incompetent. They are forced to come to Zaida for loans to tide them over – and Zaida and Bubba make them sweat before giving them the handout. Bitter, bitter years of poverty and trial. And all the while the babies coming, Mama dividing her time and strength between the family and the store, one aspect of the responsibilities and work intertwined with the other.

Mama’s father’s health is failing. He has fathered three children with the Meema and now, keeping Pauline as the servant, she drives Birdie from the house. So, there is Birdie of the high spirit and snapping black eyes and curly brown hair, joining Bessie’s children as another member of the family. Birdie, now ten or eleven, is old enough to help out in the store. There is compulsory education in New York and Birdie goes to school. After school she goes to the Settlement house and meets the social workers who become a profound influence. She is learning all the niceties for which she is later to become famous in the family. She knows about vegetables other than potatoes, she remembers Miss Green’s injunction, a family joke to “save the pea water: She learns how to make pies rather than mandel bread, biscuits rather than challah; and I remember the napkin rings into which each family member’s cloth napkin should be tucked away for the next meal.

But before learning these refinements, Birdie executes tiny thefts from the cash register while she is left in the store to help out; a penny today, a dime next week until next week when she has taken a quarter…25 cents! She reached the stunning quarter. That did it, she thought. Thirty years later. She shared her fear then she was in danger of grand larceny. The magnitude of her 25-cent theft cured her of stealing forever!

The Americanization of Birdie – public school and settlement house-filtered down to us kids. Until now, Yiddish was the family language; but Birdie’s influence and Joe’s starting Public school turned this around. No longer was it Yiddish in the home, Yiddish in the street, Yiddish in the theatre, Yiddish in the street and shul. Mama’s children were proud of their English.

Ah, the shul. The shul was Mama’s lifesaver, the Sabbath her only day of rest. The Sabbath was ushered in truly as a bride and it arrived absolutely on schedule. God forbid the candles should be lit one minute early or late for that would betray all other Jewish homes and wives. All work, all household chores terminated with the candle lighting. If you should light the candles before the appointed time, whose wife might still be working and that would be a sin.

Mama’s house was meticulously cleaned beforehand, and festive foods prepared to last the next 23 hours. The table was spread with the best linens, the homemade challahs, two covered with a gleaming white napkin. The candles brightened and warmed the scene as Mama, head covered in her best lace shawl, placed her face in her hands and intoned, first the prayer and then her own private little communion with the One Above. That special prayer was, for me at any rate, an awesome moment. What was going on behind Mama’s hands? Was she crying? It caught at my heart. I knew that at that moment my mother invariably vibrant and cheerful was sad. What was going on inside her in that moment of private communion. In her whole life Mama never had a moment of privacy, always people milling about, the flats and tenements filled with her siblings, the shops filled with customers and her own children, even the streets teeming with immigrants and landsleit. But at the gateway to the Sabbath, behind her cupped hands, she makes a place of priceless privacy, solitude, and peace.

But I was a child and I feared she was crying, and this tore my heart. I wanted to ask her to what place she retreated in those moments, why she seemed so distant, so far away, but I never did. I realize in a way that I relinquished that moment to her – and let her be and have her private place to herself.

As soon as Esther could manage the little ones, (Alice, Yussie, Simmie, and then Toby) Mama would go off to shul on Shabbos; and there, for an hour, or two, and later three and sometimes four, Mama would become restored. Somehow, she taught herself the Hebrew alphabet and learned to read the prayer book. Even more, she learned the sequence of the prayers, knew how to “mish,” going from one section of the prayer book to the other in the proper sequence. How proud she was of these feats. In shul she was another person, behind the curtains or upstairs with the other women, her eyes sparkling, her chin held high, the other women coming to her to find the place for them.

If Friday night was associated with dim shadows and the flicker and glow of candles, Saturday was the shining bride, day of complete rest, no chores, no shopping, as much as possible within the limits of motherhood, a day of total rest, reflection, and prayer. In all of this Papa seemed to have no role to play – the Sabbath belonged to Mama alone.

Here is Esther, Mama’s surrogate/assistant. Like Bessie before her, she seeps into Mama’s old role and spends her youth serving her little sisters and brothers. But unlike Bessie, she never seemed in those years to resent or regret her youth spent in caring for them. As Bessie’s siblings had adored her, so did Esther’s, associating her with all that was good and sweet and dear.

Not that Esther as a very little girl, did not have her moments. When she was four and five, no meal was complete without Esther’s naughtiness. With both parents working and another baby most certainly on the way, the only means of getting attention, no sooner was the family seated for the evening meal she would refuse supper. Down Esther would slide, off her chair to land under the table.

Then the game followed that was to become the treasured routine with each young child as s/he came along: Oh, there’s a pussycat under the table, or a meizaleh, or a puppy. Don’t kick the meizalah, don’t hurt it! Let’s see if the little puppy wants some food, and down under the table would come a hand, fingers holding a tender morsel for Esther. A venturesome child of two, Esther one evening was nowhere to be found. Bessie had a habit, after store hours, of going to the room where all her children slept and count heads. One, two, three, four, one little head wasn’t there.
Sam, Sam, Esther isn’t here. They searched the rooms; they searched the store bins- no Esther. Out in the street they sounded their alarm: Esther, Esther, where are you Esther? No sound or sight of Esther in the darkened streets. The candy store man on the corner, receiving his bundle of late edition news, slid open the newspaper bin to find Esther curled up asleep. Another story for a lifetime.

At this point Mama and Papa weren’t making a living from the store and they really were becoming desperate and finally realizing that there wasn’t a store that could earn them a living, Papa went to work in a garment shop. Who knows how much he earned there: five dollars for a twelve-hour day six-day week?
He worked in this shop and that, changing jobs when he could earn an extra quarter, exploited in turn by “Mama’s” favorite brother Morris” who, by now, was a blouse contractor and by Murray Orqanick who had come with Aunt Celia from Toronto. It was always considered a mitzvah, apparently, to squeeze an extra drop from Papa, and squeeze the uncles did. Laying him off when times were slow, forcing him to bet them to take him back, demeaning and ridiculing the guy who was in real need. And while Papa worked in the shops, the boys, Meyer (Mac) and Joe, little men of eight and ten, scurried about the railroad depot gathering up the pieces of coal dropped off the locomotives, scrounging a piece of coal here and a piece there until they filled a bucket, then selling the coal in the shop to one uncle or another, the coal used to heat the steam irons.

Through all the work, the sbklaferai (slavery), Papa complained only of his back never of the work. Years later, recollecting with nostalgia the good moments he would describe the lunches Mama had packed for him, fresh rolls off the pushcarts, rolls she stuffed with juicy freshly fried browned onions in chicken fat that tasted better than the steak she could almost never afford. How tasty, how geshmock.

Then came World War I and relative prosperity. The shops that manufactured blouses, (Mama described how the boss explained in broken English how to make tucks in blouses “Make tzvai tucks and vait a vile (meaning leave a space and then take two additional tucks) were now producing uniforms. But apart from providing more regular employment, the war had little effect on the life of the family. They ate better and spirits were high. The war songs of Irving Berlin were popular, and Papa sang OVER THERE and the maudlin JUST BREAK THE NEWS TO MOTHER. Papa’s kid brother, Jack, later named by Edith ‘Jack the Clacker’ due to the clickety clack sound made by his false teeth, was a sergeant in procurement, never left the country but made a bundle right here in N.Y. City. With no husbands or sons in Europe, the larger family was relatively unaffected by the terrible conflict overseas.

It was after the Armistice that the Spanish Flu devastated entire families, ours included. Half the Posner’s came down with the flu- Mama, Alice, little Toby, little Simmy. Mama and Alice were sickest. It was impossible to get a doctor in this epidemic – and without intravenous fluid or antibiotics, the little ones burning with fever became dehydrated and died one after the other, two in the same week. Mama, desperately ill, couldn’t lift her head from the pillow. Papa laid the little ones out on two kitchen chairs each, Esther and Nussie looking on in awe and trembling. Papa went alone to buy the little coffins. And it was Papa who carried them to the cemetery. Papa alone. Papa finally Grew Up!

There was no time to mourn. Mama was ill and helpless, and Alice appeared to be dying. The doctors were desperately overworked, and no doctor would come to help them. Finally, in desperation, Papa planted himself outside a doctor’s door, waiting for him to emerge. As the doctor climbed into his carriage Papa stepped in front of the horse and cried, “Doctor, Come with me or you’ll have to drive over me!”

[Here we could use a correction from Karen Schaller, daughter of Edith (who like the author of this tale was born after these events but preserved in her memory the family lore). Karen, who can recite the story verbatim].

The doctor saw to it that Alice was admitted to the already wildly overcrowded hospital. There, Alice’s chest was apparently drained of abscesses, a complication of the influenza. Whoever knows for how long Alice, alone in the hospital, hovered between life and death?

In the meanwhile, Mama, now 33, was well along in her eighth pregnancy, debilitated by illness and in shock over the death of her two little girls, Tobey, age 8 and Symmie, age 10 and then the stillbirth of the male baby she expected to be her 8th child. Deeply depressed, she somehow managed to get through the days, and months and then years, caring for her children still the center not only of her own family but of her sisters and brothers who lovingly rallied round her.

They moved to Brooklyn where they opened another vegetable and fruit store. Mama picked up the pieces of her shattered heart and managed to smile for her customers. Not Papa. There were no smiles left in him, so he did the buying and the carting. Never too good with the customers, now he was impossible and couldn’t deal with them at all. Pinochle he could still play, and there were usually a couple of men hanging around the store in the hope that Mama would disappear for a while so they could play a couple of hands with Pop. Then, smell the smoke from his cigarettes and hear his bronchial cough, and you would hear his comments sharp as the crack of cards on the tabletop, his laughter when he had a good hand and his good-natured cussing when the hand was bad.

But the store didn’t provide them a living and Papa had a brainstorm. A snack stand and at North Beach, the site which later became Floyd Bennett Airfield adjacent to the now Marine Park Bridge at the end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The first New York airport, in 1911 it was in a farvofener vincle (i.e., a far-flung corner) of Brooklyn at Jamaica Bay. From Monday to Friday Mom and Pop worked the vegetable store. Shabbos over, Mama spent the night cooking food for the family to take to North Beach. She devised her own version of the thermos, several layers of newspapers around steaming pots of food, the final layer a heavy dish towel knotted into a handle, then nuts and fruits to hawk at the beach the next day.

Sunday at dawn, Mom and Pop, Joe, Meyer Esther, Nussie, and Alice made their way via this trolley car and that to North Beach, to their food stand. There Mama stored away the food for the family and set up the lemonade and coffee for sale. Papa hauled the candy boxes onto his shoulders and proceeded to the beach. He developed into a canny salesman. He stalked his pray – lovers wandering hand in hand, sitting down to rest finally on a sand dune. Timing his appearance to the more compromising positions of the lovers he would then offer his wares to the gentleman. The more compromising the position, the higher the price quoted and the more likely the sale.

Meanwhile, back at the stand, the children played ball and frolicked and when they were hungry, which was, of course, soon after their arrival, Mama would open the steaming pots of meat: pot-roast with potatoes, and kasha, or garlic meatballs and potatoes, or breaded veal, cutlets fried in chicken fat, with plenty of fresh seeded rye and corn bread, unsliced at the bakery in those years, simply cut into goodly sized chunks as needed, perfect for dunking in the savory gravies, or eaten alone with garlic rubbed over rendered chicken fat.

A neighboring stand was run by a childless couple. The woman watched and hungered over the children, taking a particular fancy to Nussie of the blond curls and sparkling brown eyes. One day the woman gently approached Mama. “What a wonderful family,” she said. “Your children are so beautiful, and you have so many.” (Mama had just lost three.) “Wouldn’t you let me have one? Couldn’t I have little Nussie? I’ll take such good care of him. “Looking at her tenderly and raising her right hand, fingers outstretched, Mam replied: “Which finger would you like me to cut off: which do you think I can spare?

To the same degree that was a healing summer for Mama and Papa. They worked day and night, six-and-a-half days and nights a week, with everyone out in the fresh air on favorable Sundays, but they could not continue this way indefinitely. Mama was still an emotional wreck. Often, for no apparent reason, she broke into fits of weeping. Or sometimes perhaps when the children made her smile with their little mischief or cute tricks, or Papa recounted his sales exploits, she would smile, even chuckle; but any smile would unaccountably turn to weeping and then uncontrollable hysteria.

Terrifying to the children, these attacks persisted for the next dozen years or so. I remember years later (for I and Edith, two years my junior, were not yet born) and for many subsequent years of our childhood, how terrified Edith and I used to be when one of these attacks of hysteria suddenly came on. It was so frightening to see Mama laugh and then watch as the laughter turned to tears and then hysteria. Too frightened to leave the house but wanting only to run away, we would hide in the far corners of the apartment waiting for the hysteria to pass. It took a long time before I came to understand that Mama could not allow herself to experience pleasure and if she should smile, grief and guilt for her dead babies overcame her.

Later that summer, Alice became ill with a slight fever. It did not appear serious but was nonetheless worrisome. She had only shortly before been so seriously ill with influenza and here she was a little feverish at first but listless after the fever disappeared. Worse, she didn’t seem to want to get out of her crib. There wasn’t a doctor in North Beach and certainly no hospital, so carrying Alice, who was almost four, in her arms, Mama embarked on the three trolley cars to the depot in Manhattan. There she would find a doctor at a clinic. At the final stop of the trolley, however, health inspectors had been stationed looking for just such a case.

Without radio or TV, without newspapers, how was anyone to know about the polio epidemic that was raging. But polio was taking a terrible toll that summer and city health officials were stationed at all transit routes looking for possible victims of the illness. At the trolley terminal where Mama had just emerged with Alice in her arms, the official approached her.

“Why don’t you put your child down, Mother? She doesn’t seem to want to walk.” Without waiting for another word, the official took Alice from Mama, put her in an ambulance, and sped away, leaving Mama weeping. For days Mama searched the city for her child, now the baby of the family. She searched through each hospital in the city, weeping, wringing her hands, frantic.

When at last she found her, the crisis had passed and Alice slowly regained use of her legs. Within weeks she was discharged from the hospital, able to walk, limping only slightly. Only the muscles of one calf were affected and she managed to dance, ice and roller skate, play badminton and tennis.

What did the grown Alice find the worst of this? She would be unable to wear strapless pumps, no very high heels. Not that Alice ever gave up buying these or trying to wear them. All her adult life her closets were piled high with shoes she fancied: summer shoes, winter shoes, high heeled shoes, high boots, short boots, silk shoes, leather shoes, shoes from Mexico, wooden shoes from Spain, Italy and Denmark, shoes she had worn once, shoes she could not wear even once; but the dream, the hope that she might like Cinderella fit the slipper never dies.

Home again, at last, Alice is a princess. The daughter with nine lives, two already spent, she is pampered. Mama caters to her in every way she knows, and the other children, somewhat in awe of what Alice has survived, attend to her wishes.

North Beach has lost its charm – too far off the beaten path, a seasonal business at best. Thoroughly exhausted and totally spent emotionally, Mama is moreover once again pregnant. Papa now makes his move. He is finished with being a shopkeeper, finished with having Mama work at his side. He had also had enough of being a worker at the mercy of the boss. Any kind of business, he would say, as long as it’s my own.

His experience in the past working at menial jobs for blouse and dress contractors led him to garment trucking. He began by carting garments from contractor to manufacturer on his back; but this soon became too hard for him. So, putting together the necessary few dollars he presented himself to one of the few truck dealers in New York City. In 1919, there were few trucks to be found on the streets of Manhattan and no license bureau. He goes to the dealer, selects a truck, and now, “Show me how to drive,” he says. The dealer demonstrates the clutch, the brakes, and the gas, and off Papa drives. But having to make a left turn, he stalls the truck. Undaunted, Papa leaves the truck and runs back to the dealer for a brush-up lesson.

Now the Posner’s moved to Beaver Street near Flushing Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Beaver Street, the house where Faygale and Yiddissel are born. The house has a steep stoop where the kids play stoopball. Underneath the stoop is the store of the iceman, and I still see the cakes of ice and the ice tong-airs on the steps leading down to his store. Here the customers come for 10 to 15 cent blocks of ice for their iceboxes.

There’s a coal business also, next door. Coal and ice seemed to go together: coal for the kitchen stove and the only source of heat for the entire flat, ice for the kitchen ice box to keep the food fresh. Our apartment was on the third floor – three flights up plus one flight of stoop. I remember the dark hallway and the steep, sharp slate steps which I fell down more than once: one time I fell long and hard but as I hit bottom by hand touched the little rubber ball I had lost days before, that was one of my happiest falls.

Mama birthed me at home. In fact, her only hospital delivery was that of the stillborn infant boy during the Spanish Flu. As the stories go, Esther, then 12, holding Nussie by one hand and Alice by the other, shielded them and said as the doctor arrived: See that black bag? The new baby is there. And hours later, sure enough, they heard the babe’s first cry. I was that baby.

Mama loved that apartment. It had a kitchen, a dining room and three bedrooms: one bedroom for the boys, one for the girls. The front room, Mama’s and Papa’s, faced south, with full sunshine all day long. Here slept the newborn, in her crib beside the opened window, sun streaming in. A good baby. No trouble at all. Esther was the little mother and adored the new child. After school she cared for me. She learned to sew dresses for me on the machine which had belonged to Mama’s mother and now, seventy-odd years later, belongs to me. Convinced that I was the most beautiful baby in the world she entered me in the local beauty contest and wept with disappointment that I didn’t win. Crying on Mama’s shoulder, they devised a little scheme. The little silver cup, which the charities had sent for the Pesach donation, Mama told Esther they would present to the world as my prize, my loving cup, for most beautiful child in the contest. They certainly convinced me, and when I learned the truth years later, how crestfallen I was.

Meyer loved me too – was my slave. Once Mama left me with him while she went to shop and when to shop and when I cried, he let me suck his arm till Mama came home when she found his arm discolored, black and blue. When I was very little, brown-eyed and curly haired, they fought for my attention, fought for my company in bed; and I played them as best I could, one against the other. Sleep with me, tonight, they begged, and I would turn sway and say, “Tonight I think I’ll sleep with Papa.” And they would stamp their feet in frustration. Only Alice failed to admire me. Poor Alice, she looked upon me as interloper. Who is this creature who after all these years (Alice, she looked upon me as interloper. Who is this creature who after all these years (Alice now five and one-half) supersedes me?

I learned to walk, not early, not late, a little over a year. Aunt Celia, coming for a visit one day, watched me carefully. Pregnant with her child, she was sensitive and aware of me as a baby. “I think she’s dragging a foot.” Mama looked carefully, nodding in disbelief. It was true, I was schlepping my right foot. And thus began the rounds – to hospitals and orthopedic clinics. What’s wrong with the child? The diagnosis finally: a polio residual. When had I contracted the disease? Who knows? Mama looked carefully, in disbelief, it was true. I was shlepping my right foot. And thus began the rounds – to hospitals and orthopedic

Mama travelled with me from one clinic to the other. As I chauffeured my children to dance lessons and brownie outings, to drama lessons and Hebrew or Yiddish school lessons, so my mother ushered me by trolley and subway trains to clinics. It was massage and electric foot treatments, water therapy and exercise. I don’t know how many years this lasted but Mama took me for treatments through all the years of my infancy and childhood. Never mind the chores at home, the children in school and at work, the marketing, the hand laundering, the cooking and the cleaning. As long as I was schlepping a foot, my mother was sleeping her weary self to find the magic cure.

And here comes Yiddisel on the scene, two years to the day after Faygale. What joy in the family; a double birthday, practically, only two years apart. These are two birthdays no one in the family will never forget, made memorable by that coincidence. Florence and Edith always considered themselves and their relationship as “something special,” something wonderful. But two more unlike personalities would be hard to find. Florence, quiet, sedate, sedentary, introspective, and very early a bookworm. Edith, slight, wiry, outgoing, dramatic, energetically demanding attention. Their tenth child and Mama and Papa had already had it. Coming as she did after the quiet undemanding Faygale, she was one great shock. Unremittingly alert and active, Edith walking before she was a year old. Hardly before she could walk, she climbed out of her crib one wintry morning, made her way, crawling down the three flights of stairs, then down to the stoop, to the ice store level where she immediately climbed on a large cake of ice and was skating around it.

Whether it was this episode that caused Edith’s severe illness, a grippe which turned into a deadly pneumonia, I don’t really know. But before she was two, Edith did have “double pneumonia,” and there were nurses in the house, round the clock. I remember how we all tiptoed about, speaking in hushed voices. Then, after days and days, there was the “crisis.” And Edith, little darling baby, no longer energetic and alert, became blind. The visiting nurse said, “Prepare yourself. Your child may be dead by morning.” To which Mama, spitting three times, replied: “I have a God in Heaven and He will decree, not the likes of you.”

The crisis passed, and Edith recovered her sight and her energy. And somehow or other Mama kept on going. She had to. There was another baby to care for, this one not her own. Aunt Sophie, Papa’s youngest sister, had given birth to Yussale. A beautiful, bookish intelligent woman, it was fairly common knowledge that she had been hospitalized, diagnosis unknown. Whether Zaida and Bubba married her off to rid themselves of a problem, or whether they believed that marriage would help her become normal, I really do not know. But marry her off they did, and nobody seems to know much about the boy except that he died very, very soon after the marriage. With Sophie chronically, absolutely incapable of caring for herself and an infant, 24 Beaver Street became the refuge where Sophie would leave baby Yussie in Mama’s care while she would go to fall into a dead sleep in another room.

Only two or three years after the loss of her two girls and the newborn, after Alice’s repeated severe illnesses, there she was mother to Joe, 18, Meyer, 16, Esther, 14, Nussie, 11, Alice, 8, Florence, 2, Edith an infant and now Yussaleh.
As large as is this family, even larger is Mama’s heart. What’s one more body in a bed – Mama makes room for them all. A double bed can always accommodate a couple more…two at the head and two at the foot, Sophie returns to her parent’s home leaving Yussale behind with the illness which will soon kill her – asthma. Sophie is again hospitalized at King’s Park, where she stays for an indeterminate time. By Yussale’s second birthday she is dead – who knows of what?

Yussale is a ward of Bubba and Zaida Posner, who live on Boerum Street now, in Brooklyn. The days of Avrum Butcher at age sixty are numbered; a sick, frail old man, suffering probably from cardiac disease. The grandparents with full charge of the toddler cannot cope. Their daughter, Rosie, wealthy, philanthropic, the ‘society lady’ so busy with all her Jewish and Ladies’ Aid Societies, is consumed with her public image and her own brood of eight. The two younger brothers, both still young and courting their wives-to-be, can’t be expected to help.

So, Mama comes once more to the rescue, partly out of pity and warmth, an equal part bitter and resentful over her in-laws’ past ill-treatment of her and her family. But with true “Christian Spirit: she pitches in, visiting their household, once brimming with visitors, food and Chassidic joy, now silent and dimly lit, smelling not of pot roast and freshly baked good but only of rice and milk perpetually on the coal stove for gasping Zaida to sip at; no environment for a youngster.

So, Mama takes Yussale as at least a halftime member of our household once, that is, that Yiddisell has recovered from her temporary blindness and pneumonia. Mama knows too well what it means for a child to be an orphan. We’d hear her say that “an orphan is not a child because he has no parents to protect him, to watch over him, to pamper him. To be without parents is not to have a childhood.”

None in the family really wants this interloper. Papa has enough responsibilities. Joe’s sexual sap is rising, and he has thoughts only of Mollie. Meyer is the one really cruel to Yussie. He can’t stand this little child, finding fault with him constantly, pushing him around. I would like to ignore Yussie altogether, but this is very hard to do. Mama is his true and only protector, and she watches over him fiercely, protecting him from us, forcing a place for him in our routine. But sometimes, the battle is too much even for her and, heavy hearted, she returns him to Boerum Street for a while.

Even without Yussale there the apartment on Beaver Street is full, humming with the activities of seven children, ages two to almost eighteen. Joe and Meyer, always at each other’s necks, worked with Papa in the trucking business. Papa and Joe take turns driving, Joe and Mac take turns carrying on their backs the cut goods from the mills to the cutting rooms of the manufacturer, thence the cut goods from the manufacturer to the contractor, and the finished garments back to the manufacturer. The work is physically very hard and without a truckmen’s association the prices have to be bargained for at every turn. Papa does most of the soliciting of work and bargaining for the prices; but with his temper and impatience it isn’t long before Meyer, more diplomatic and couth, begins to take over.

In the meantime, Joe is courting Mollie and Meyer is trying to make it at law school at night. He finds himself at the end of a ten-to-twelve-hour day on the truck and carting piece goods and garments up and down endless flights of factory stairs, sleeping through classes, and at the end of a semester or two, he is forced to relinquish the dream. But his friend Charlie Smith who lives nine floors above us, makes it through law school. To make this possible, his older brother Sammie and his younger sister Frieda work to support him. The Smiths are our very good friends in the tenement. I find their apartment a refuge. A family of adults they make a fuss over me, and what is more, it’s so quiet and peaceful up there, a refuge from the tumult that always surrounds Little Edith. She’s always running around, carrying on, forever demanding this or that of Mama, making Mama lose what little patience she has left these days.

Mama has still not recovered from her ‘nervous breakdown’, but she has little time to be ill. Joe brings home the news that Mollie is pregnant. Mama and Papa put heads together and, with Mollie’s parents, make plans to ‘shtell a chuppah’. Mollie is a beautiful 17-year-old bride and Joe, at 19, is still a baby. He’s the boy who left school at 14 to go out into the world working with Papa. But the fruits of his labor are not solely his own. Necessity breeds the work effort and whatever comes into the business is pooled and brought home. The hours were long and the work physically hard. Joe learned to drive the truck very quickly, leaving Papa, who had great difficulty at it, sighing in relief. Now Papa had time to solicit work from manufacturers and contractors and to make the monthly collections. Joe was strong with the shoulders of a bull. Profligate with his strength always, in his youth he seemed tireless and never did anything the easy way.

Periodicals of all sorts were his true delight. Before he met Mollie, he would come home whenever he finished work, bounding up the stairs, two at a time; under his arm a couple of just released magazines. Then, eating quickly, he gave himself up to relaxation. Flinging himself on a kitchen chair, tilted against the wall, stockinged feet inside the glowing coal stove, a couple of crisp, red apples in a bowl on the floor beside him, he read uninterruptedly, all the while munching away, oblivious of everything and everyone around him.

There is an aura about Joe as he sits, king of the warm little kitchen; number one big brother, darkly handsome, immersed in the fantasy world come alive in the printed, illustrated
We loved him, admired him, feared him a little, and respected this private time of his, intuiting it was his only bit of privacy.

Soon Joe leaves the nest and builds one of his own, enriching us with another sister, Mollie. With no transition, without tension or stress, Mollie comes into our lives and is at once part of us. Mollie loves Mama and Mam loves her; Mollie loves us little kids and we love her. Even her family became part of our family. The Karasiks. Big, generous Grandma Karasik who served us applesauce in soup plates. Grandpa Karasik, tall, handsome, with his head a crown of prematurely white hair, a thick white extent of moustache flourishing expansively from mid cheek-to-mid cheek lip pages. Joe Karasik, handsome, introspective, soon to be arrested for his part in the big Rubel Coal Co. robbery and sentenced to 20-30 years. And cuckoo Eva of the gypsy clothing and jewelry, and eventually Baby Millie, born the same month as Joe and Mollie’s baby Doris.

Mollie comes to visit every single Friday – comes early in the morning, first along, then with the baby, to help Mama cook for the Friday night family feast. Friday in our house, always a special pre-holiday, if now with Mollie and the new baby it becomes even more special. We are all thrilled to have a new baby in the family. Besides, Yiddis and I are aunts, feeling very special since we are babies ourselves. To be an aunt while still a baby sets us apart from almost everybody in the world in a very positive, special way.

Pretty soon I turn five, and Mama walks me over to school. The principal looks at my birth certificate, mis-reads it, and thinking I’m six, assigns me to first grade. A-ha, thinks Mama, we’ll make a year. This is a very smart little girl, so what does she need kindergarten for? Why should I correct a principal; she’s the one who’s educated I can’t even read. Never mind that I can’t keep up with those children in my class. Never mind that I’m still drinking my milk from a baby bottle. I am in first grade and Mama feels proud that she’s fooled the principal.

For a whole month I suffered. The children are reading Dickey Dare: “He went to school; on the way he met a cow; moo-moo said the cow; said Dickey Dare, I am going to school” That’s what we tenement-ghetto children were reading in New York City, about cows and farms we’d never seen: And I can’t read one word. The teacher is angry, scolds me, sends me to sit in a corner at the far end of the room. My head falls onto my arms and fall fast asleep. At home, I put my little foot down. I’m through with school, I won’t go back. Mama says okay tomorrow you don’t need to go to school or the day after. She doesn’t tell me this because today is Friday and I have the weekend off.

The next day I’m playing school, opening my schoolbook as part of the game, what a miracle has happened! I’m reading “Dickey Dare Went to School”. I run to Mama, just home from shul. Mama, Mama, I can’t read. Dickey Dare. Take me to school. I want to show the teacher: And Mama has to take me to school which is just up the block and across the street – P.S. 24. The gates are shut, locked. Mama has to prove it to me. Sunday the same thing. I can’t wait, then, until Monday morning and thus begins a happy school career.

Mama is still escorting me to clinics where we spend hours together, two or three times a week, after school. There’s a numbered card indicating whether to be screened by the social worker or treated with exercises, etc. etc. Yiddisel is with us through all this accompanying Mama to fetch me from school and travel to the clinic where she must wait through all these appointments with nurses and doctors walking by amid the harsh smells of disinfectants.

She is so very bored, running about, climbing walls. This child cannot stay still. She is so, so active; so naughty. The contrast between Yiddis and me is so pointed. I’m good, she’s bad. I’m quiet, she’s noisy. I love to playhouse, school, and pretend I am an actress. Edith loves to run outside, jump up and down the steps, tear through the apartment, and act out. If Yiddis doesn’t get her way, watch out. She has a temper tantrum. She flings herself to the floor, stamps, kicks and yells. Mrs. Kaplan in the apartment below bangs on her ceiling with her broomstick, hollering “Give the kid a potch.”

Yiddis screams and kicks harder. If anyone else comes near her she writhes and screams as if she were having a fit. Mama and Pap lose patience, Papa yells louder, Mama starts sobbing and runs out of the room. If we’re lucky, Nussie is at home from school or work or both. He alone can manage Yidisel. As he comes close, the child stops squirming. He eases her out of her tantrum. With his quiet tones she falls into his arms. He tells her a story, crooning softly to quiet her. So, after ten minutes or twenty or a half hour, life comes back to normal.

Nussie and I can now do our homework at the dining room table (there is no living room, and the bedrooms are filled with beds). Mama can resume cooking or washing windows, depending upon where she was when Edith began the performance, after, that is, she has quieted and cajoled Mrs. Kaplan who’s been hammering at our door demanding quiet; life, in short, goes on until Edith’s next spell. Alice, in the meantime, is down on the stoop playing ball with Lillian Shipovnik whose parents are the janitors of the building.

The Shipovnik’s, Lillian and Morris remain Alice’s lifelong friends, Lillian married early to Abe Zapruder, who in 1961 fortuitously took the only existing moving picture of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Nussie made lifelong friends of his many High School buddies; all of them bright and ambitious, high achievers. Many went on to college. The seven or eight Jesmian’s, sharing a common history, later to become for Nussie and wife Inda, “the group”. Maybe there was something about the teeming tenement life and ghetto atmosphere on the East Side of Williamsburgh that was instrumental in forming ties which persisted, often for a lifetime. Sam and Clara Kalish had such friends. Meyer, until he married. Nussie. Alice.

Nobody had a living room or a room of one’s own in which to entertain, no television or victrola. The kids all played outside; stoop ball, kick the cans, potsie, jump rope, boxes on roller-skate wheels were homemade carts. These were the games which occupied us. On Spring nights, we huddled together on the stoop. On balmy evenings we gazed together at the moon, told spooky stories and played teenage kissing games under the stoop. The ball players and rope jumpers remained friends, sometimes forever.

Now there were three boys helping Papa as Nusaleh took his turn every day after school. What a smart scholar; Nussaleh had skipped two years, graduating from High school at sixteen. But already he had been helping on the truck for two years. I guess for Mama, who had never been to school, and Papa, a High School education impressed them as adequate.

Here in Beaver Street, after I was born, Mama did start night school. But then she became pregnant with Edith…and after Edith was born there wasn’t time or energy left for her delayed schooling or anything else. Nusssie started college at night after a long day of backbreaking work, then the trip downtown and after classes the return trip home – day after day the same grind.

And how often was the truck stuck, or the contractor held him up until a lot was finished? Nussie kept at this schedule for a couple of years, and then like the rest of us, he quit. The college dream died hard; but now Joe was a father, and the trucking business did not supply two full livings. So, Joe left to become a plumber’s apprentice, and now Nussie was really stuck. Papa had to have his help.

Esther, in the meantime, graduated with an “Academic Course” from Bushwick High, where all the older siblings attended; but in addition, she specialized in “commercial” subjects. Esther graduating – the first girl” to achieve this. What an occasion this was for Mama and Papa; but where were the white shoes to come from that went with the white dress Esther had cut and made with her own hands, and the inch-wide white ribbon that went not only around as a head from over one eye to behind the opposite ear. If one looks down in her Graduation photograph, the shoes seem out of proportion to this four-foot ten-inch petite woman. The
upstairs neighbor loaned her shoes from her graduation six months before only Frieda Smith was five foot six inches and she wore shoes two sizes larger than Esther. No matter. They were white!

Now Esther really comes into her own. She’s being “rushed” by a real intellectual type. Manny Streisand, a college boy, is planning to be a schoolteacher. He writes poetry, dedicating his very long-winded 19th century types to Esther/Dorothy. But Esther is now working for a lawyer, really coming up in the world and pretty soon. Now an experienced legal stenographer, she is working for two lawyers, Hammel and Hecht, and she has a crush on one of them.

This is an important crossroad for Esther. Her bosses own a boys’ summer camp, Camp Chipinaw, and Esther/Dorothy is invited to spend her summer vacations there. Manny Streisand loses whatever importance he may have had for her… there’s no chemistry. Esther sets her cap on Hammel.

Esther brings her pay envelope, $12, to Mama; things are looking up for the Posner’s and we take an impressive step up. Papa finds an apartment in Boro Park in a two-family house for $50 a month – $20 more than they’ve been paying. A two-family house on a street lined with young maples has an apartment with 6 ½ rooms. Mama would no doubt prefer to stay on old familiar ground in Williamsburg, not Papa. Papa is intent on “moving up” and from this point onward Papa thinks about middle-class life, vacations in Lakewood, N.J., summers in Rockaway, to be followed somewhat later by airplane trips to Miami Beach. Papa loves change and soon he will show he has no qualms about flying.

The year is 1928. Joe has been married about six years but there have been no additional weddings as yet. Meyer is working very hard at building Papa’s business and Nussie is her “helper.” Papa, still actively promoting business, is beginning to defer to Meyer who is so capable, so smart, so willing.

Edith and I love living in Boro Park – 1849-53rd Street. It’s a joy to be out in the street and we play to our heart’s content. Yiddis shoots around corners on her roller skates, while I look on, without a twinge of envy, just pride. But Yiddis is not content. I look up from the book I’m eternally reading to find her at my side. She bends down and removes one skate, fastens the skate onto my “good” foot. I resist. She insists. So, drawing my left arm over her shoulders, she propels me forward. It’s actually on the wrong foot. I’d be better to have the skate on my “bad” foot so I might take the strain on my good foot. No matter. Yiddis, the wild one, is infinitely patient with me and she hobbles me up the street. I hate it but protest only weakly.

The children are playing jump rope in the street. Yiddisel is a champ at double Dutch. She can go on jumping forever. But the kids always appoint me the “steady ender”, permanently for the duration of the game. Edith chafes, finally balks. Pitting her expertise against the practicality of the players, she champions my right to try and jump. I know I can’t do it. The kids know I can’t. Only Yiddis won’t believe it and she makes me try. Tomorrow we will practice, she promises me, in the backyard where no one can see; we will practice skating and jumping rope. You’ll see, you can do it and I have realized how much this means to her.

All this time Mama is watching us as she washes the windows as she does every single week – she must love the fact of all those windows, all that light coming into this beautiful apartment. There’s the window in the boy’s room.” The room is really “the music room”, large enough only for an upright piano. But Nussie and Mac share a double bed in that room. And that’s all that fits into it. Whoever climbs in first at night must be climbed over by a second arrival; and getting out in the morning is another acrobatic feat. The sun parlor, adjacent, has six windows, four facing the front of the house, two on the side.

Thank God we can’t see the rest of the windows in the apartment. The front windows are quite enough, as we watch Mama sitting out, and polishing her front windows, with ease and a certain pride. What a champ she is. Mama sits outside the window, sash pulled down close to her thighs to secure her, and she washes, and polishes, with especial care yielding clear glass panes without streaks. But neither Yiddis nor I can stand to watch her. We’re terrified she might fall. And she plays on our fear, throwing up her hands and making as if losing balance, laughing all the while at our discomfort. There is this tiny sadistic streak in Mama; and we fall for it each time. That sadistic streak shows itself again, especially with me. I’m known to all the family as “sensitive,” meaning I cry very easily.

Mama and the older siblings discover this and all they need do is go “Boohoohoo. Sob. Sob. You hurt my feelings,” at which the tears course down my cheeks, and my heart feels that it will break. How can my beloved family, following Mama’s lead, be so cruel to me? But they think my response is so dear and they play the scene often. How terribly I am blinded by shame and the pain of such betrayal. Only Yiddis understands. She leads me out of the chamber, my hands covering my face to hide my tortured mien.

Where does this tender sensibility stem from? Maybe from her own pain. We are both at school, P.S. 121, just down the street on 53rd Street and 20th Avenue. They’ve built the school on the fringe of Washington Cemetery, and in the mornings as we rise and salute the and sing “Oh Say Can You See”, we do indeed see funeral corteges and burials, even of some famous people, actresses, and public officials. I’m a model pupil. The teachers dote on me and I bask in the light of their approval. And Mama and Papa are proud and joyful to get my reports at Open School Week.

But oh Yiddisel: Already she’s been held back in first grade, marked thus for failure from the earliest beginnings. Bright, outgoing, cheerful and undisciplined, she learns she can get the attention of teachers and classmates as she does at home; by being naughty. And naughty she becomes.

Fearful that she will not measure up scholastically, she distracts the children with noise and small pranks. The teacher responds by giving her punishing homework: I will not make noise in class – three hundred times. Yiddisel comes home, flaunting the assignment, but refusing to do the busywork. Running outside, without a morsel of after school treat, thus punishing Mama, she plays the day away. At nightfall, all of us having finally congregated from work and from school, having cleared the kitchen table in the dinette, Yiddis remembers her punishment, that it isn’t done, that in all likelihood, it is now too late to even think she can complete it, cries finally dashes from the room in hysterics. Finally, as with one movement, we each take up a pencil and paper and write for our Yidissel, our “brat”, I WILL NOT MAKE NOISE IN CLASS. Edith calms down and we all heave a sigh. We have gotten through the scene.

Bedtime, we all adjourn to our sleeping spaces. Here in this six- and one-half room apartment, there is our kitchen and adjoining dinette, dining room and adjoining living room, music room and sun parlor, and three bedrooms, one, the boy’s room already described. Mama and Papa share one bedroom. And the girls, four of us share the other. Now this room, while bigger than the boy’s, barely accommodates a double bed and high riser with wardrobe chest, half for hanging clothes and half with four narrow drawers. Esther is allotted one drawer, Alice two, and Edith and decreed the allotment of space, but so it was. And the sleeping arrangements. Oh dear, nobody wanted the high rise. For one thing, it had to be made up each night and again put together the next morning. Secondly, in those days the lower section of the high-rise was sheer spring covered by a strip of cloth. Uncomfortable? Deadly. Along about two a.m. the sleeper is jolted out of sleep, stabbed in the rib or the belly by a jutting spring. Result? It was not uncommon for all of us girls to sleep in the double bed-two at the head, two at the foot or bunk together with our parents or into our brothers’ beds. Sleeping arrangements were kind of makeshift.

Early next morning, say around 5:30 a.m., Nussie was the first to rise. His hour of privacy, he could manage it only at that hour. First he would say his morning prayers, “laying tefillin,” then he fixed his cereal, in the warm months corn flakes and milk, in the winter, oatmeal. Then, propping a book before him he luxuriated in the early morning silence and rare peace, reading and eating and readying himself for a long day at school and work. All of us respected this arrangement and rarely did any of us infringe or interrupt.

Soon enough the morning tumult would begin the rush for the one bathroom, the annoyance at anyone who took too much time washing up. That was principally Alice, who went through a morning ritual of hair brushing and makeup over the one bathroom sink which she only grudgingly made available, to brush teeth and wash up.

Then began the morning ritual of getting the reluctant Yiddis ready for school. How tortured she must have been. And how she tortured Mama. My big eyes would watch the performance morning after morning, all the older siblings gone to work and school. Yiddis had a temper tantrum every morning. Tiny, thin, wiry, she would, of course, refuse to eat. Refuse to dress. Refuse to go. Finally, Mama in total frustrations might tear across the room and shake her once or twice, hurl the wet washcloth across the room at the child. What a way to start the day – for Yiddis or Mom.

Around this time, Esther, the legal stenographer made a great decision. The Americanization of Yiddis and Fay. We now are Edith and Florence. Esther is adamant over the change; she brooks no interference. For seven or eight years we have been Fay, Faygie, Faygale and Yiddis, Yiddisel. No more. Never again. Edith and I are convinced that this is who we are; we never question it.

Oh Esther, how we adore her. She is so good and loving. And she is also so pretty. Thick long auburn hair, laughing brown eyes, smiling face. And a trim beautiful figure. Shapely legs and slim ankles. Feet squeezed into spiked heeled sample size 4B shoes. Click, click down the street on her way to work. Click, click, click up the street at night on her way back from work. Now Papa gets a brilliant account: Adler and Adler, designer clothes, and Esther, a sample size, gets all the samples for a fraction of their cost or for nothing at all. Esther, the wage-earner, rates the best.

Alice, still in school, is green with envy. Esther has first pickings of the clothes, but not if Alice gets here first. How we look forward to Saturdays with Esther. Sometimes she takes one or the other of us (Edith or me) to work with her. The bosses are usually not there on Saturday, and she sits us at a typewriter where we bang away while she gets her work done. Then she takes us to the Automat for lunch, and we drop a nickel in the slot for a sandwich. How hard to make a choice-there are so many different sandwiches – sandwiches made not Jewish rye or pumpernickel but soft white bread. Or maybe we should get baked beans, only they have pork, or maybe wonderful red-and-white Automat spaghetti and creamed spinach. (At home our only green vegetable is canned green peas.) And pies for dessert- ala mode. Pies are something we see only at Aunt Birdie’s and Uncle Lou’s house – they’re Americanized. At our house there’s yeast cakes with ‘nests’ of raisins and nuts and cinnamon, sponge cake, strudel or honey cake. Mama sometimes makes apple cake, but the crust is not cakey not crusty.

Mondays are heavy cleaning days for Mama but on Tuesday after school, Mama, leaving Edith skipping rope, takes my hand and we go food shopping. Up the street to 18th Avenue, we round the corner, cross the avenue to our first stop, Izzy’s Fruit Market. Rimmed spectacles slipping down his nose, Izzy stops whatever he is doing, whoever he’s serving, to greet Mama. Mama who has never forgotten what it’s like to be on the other side, the storekeeper, as she never forgets the orphan and she never forgets me, there at her side. In 1929 she bought me strawberries in Winter; for Meyer she bought tomatoes, for Alice green vegetables, for Nussie cucumbers…all out of season, all very expensive.

I was so proud of her. What joy for me to go marketing with Mama. Everywhere she went the storekeepers stopped everything to wait on her. Mama is in her glory too; dispensing noblesse oblige with a smile, a joke – with concern for the families of the storekeepers. 1929. For how many millions did life turn topsy turvy? We were lucky, though. Papa had a business; thus, the boys too had a living. Business might be slow but unlike the multitude of unemployed, every morning there was work to go to.

Banks closed. Uncle Murray had a bundle in the Bank of the U.S. unlike the Posner’s who never had one but did have a truck and business accounts. These business accounts might be outstanding for months at a time; but eventually, Papa would collect $50, $100 on account from his contractor or that, and so could pay a couple of months back rent and catch up on payments to butcher, grocer, and fruit man. Mama might chew her nails and blush with embarrassment as the bills mounted; but, during the Depression’s last ten years or more, the storekeepers never hesitated to give Mrs. Posner credit. Experience told them they would all be paid eventually. Mrs. Friedman, well-fixed financially and kind, never troubled Mama or Papa, waiting patiently for the rent, sometimes as long as three months.

How lucky we were that Papa had a business. Around us people were being dispossessed for non-payment of rent, furniture hauled into the streets, children frightened and wondering where they were going to go, men and women abashed and panicked, not knowing where to go. Our family had a roof over our heads and food to eat.

How Nussie managed to scrape together the couple of quarters I’ll never know, but he managed now and then to take Edith and me on some memorable outings. To take us to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade cost nothing but train fare. But a Harold Lloyd movie or a vaudeville at the Paramount in downtown Brooklyn and the automat after the show had to cost something over a dollar. There, at Flatbush Avenue Extension, as at the base of every subway stairway, stood unemployed veterans selling apples in the biting cold and wind. Large red delicious apple, each one polished glinting and shining, piled in a giant pyramid of these magnificent mouth watering fruits, a nickel apiece. For as long as these veterans had these stands, from 1929 to the beginning of April in __, I never had one extra nickel; never could buy a single one of these luscious treasures. A nickel: but that was the cost for subway fare to the other end of our known world…to the Bronx, even.

Zaida Posner had died and Bubba alone cannot manage Yussale. He comes and stays with us for months at a time, going to school, PS 10, with Edith and me. Edith has already been left back and school to her is forever hateful. I remain a model student though I am finally discovered by the teacher to be very nearsighted. My first pair of eyeglasses. A miracle…trees have leaves!

Edith and I set out for school together with Yussie each morning but, somehow, Yussale gets lost every day on his way to school. Edith has been clutching my arm, leading me through shortcuts, clambering over fences and railroad ties. I never know how it happens that Yussie disappears. One morning, Mama gets a message from school: Joseph Shulman hasn’t arrived. Mama has already learned to look at the clock. If by 10 a.m. there is no call from school, she heaves a sigh – the day is saved for Yussale. But should she get that call from school, Mama grabs her old fur coat and combs the streets for the child. She always finds him, and he never can explain what has happened. Mama brings him to his class and walks the 10 blocks back home.

Mama fixes a delicious lunch for us to take to school, which is too far away for the round trip at lunchtime. Lunch packages for us three children, also for Alice and Nussie in school and for three truckers she packs feasts. She knows of no peanut butter, or cold cuts. Yummy, we get pot roast sandwiches, veal cutlets with thick chicken schmaltzy crusts. Still, I look with envy at the kids who buy the school lunches, spaghetti and fishcakes, hot dogs and beans. Mama brings Bubba regularly for a visit.

Bubba needs a bath and on Boerum Street the tub is in the kitchen, and there is no one to help her get in and out. Bubba has lice and she has such a terrible smell. We kids hate being near her. No taller than 4’8”, her girth is awesome -she must weigh 350 lbs. Years later, as she lay dying, the doctor drew back and whispered to me “Elephantiasis.” Several folds of fat were her upper arm, her stomach a vast expanse. Even her short legs descend in layered folds to her ankles, eventually disappearing into her wide black oxfords which she cannot reach to tie.

It takes two to get Bubba into the bathtub, if possible, it is Esther, thankfully, who is Mama’s assistant. Bubba’s big black sheitl is left behind in the bedroom and we see now the few stray stands on her skull. The hallway is just barely wide enough to accommodate waddling Bubba, Mama and Esther following closely behind. Edith and I, round-eyed with wonder at the prospect of their getting Bubba into the tub, run and hide. Mama and Esther scrub and rinse away our grandmother.

Then, if getting Bubba into the tub was a problem, pulling her out is a feat. Weaving and pushing fore and aft, Bubba is finally out of the tub and, eventually, Mama leads her back and tucks her into her own bed so she may recover from the ordeal. Then, having washed and hung out Bubba’s clothes, mama dresses her afresh. Soon Bubba makes her entrance. We observe her sheitl is in place and her body clothed. I can see how really pretty she is, aquiline hose, high cheekbones, rosy cheeks.

She makes her way into the kitchenette and proceeds to eat the repast Mama has spread for her. She eats, as always, slowly, methodically. Bubba doesn’t have much to say, though when she speaks her voice is strong, husky and resonant. Bubba would rather be elsewhere than with us and we feel it – with her daughter Rose who, however, is entirely too taken up with her good works. Bubba makes excuses for her while Mama burns. Not too much talk from Bubba today. Is she depressed? She is making ready, perhaps, for the long silence. Only one sentence can Bubba say in English although she has lived in New York over 50 years. To us children she always says, “I love you.”

Many years later, long after Bubba’s death, when Mama herself a widow, she says, “I could have been kinder to her; I might have been better, more understanding, warmer.” Lonely herself, she now says, “I could have given her more time.”

The years pass, Mama occupied with young children now growing up, Yussie intermittently with us for months at a time, teenaged children with their romances and growing pains, and marriageable sons and daughters. Mac comes home late, late, one night, far later than usual, goes directly to Mama’s bed and calls her into the kitchen. Hearing the excitement in my big brother’s voice, I wake and join them.

Meyer is ecstatic, he’s fallen in love. Stepping into a bakery that evening, on his way to pick up garments he sees the baker’s daughter, he meets Rose. She is beautiful, a totally natural beauty. Meyer is madly in love. Mama listens, I listen. Oh, the wonder of it all; he is so thrilled and jubilant. We hug him. We kiss him. Who can match his joy, though? There is little sleep that night. Soon he will bring her to meet us, maybe the very next Friday.

He takes to stopping off nightly to be with her before coming home. We see less and less of him. No matter. Mac is now 23. High time he were married and we are thrilled he has met the right girl. Mama and Papa especially! Eventually, the Friday night Rose visits us arrives. Rose is no Molly. Molly too is reserved but this reserve, unlike Molly’s warmth and kindness, is deliberately withheld. She is very pretty, pink and white all over and buxom. She clutches her handbag, keeping it in her lap throughout the meal. We begin to wonder what is hidden in there. We suspect it is the rouge she denies using on her “naturally rosy cheeks.”

She feels a stranger in our midst, a stranger she will remain. No matter. Mama and Papa accept her joyfully. She is Mac-Meyer’s chosen one. Papa showers her with gifts: a diamond ring, a Persian lamb fur coat. The year is 1931 – dark days of the Depression. But nothing is too good, nothing is too much for Meyer’s bride. The wedding is elaborate. A full catered affair, the ceremony officiated by a rabbi and not one but two cantors -opera star cantors- including the world famous Yussale Rosenblatt. Papa and Mama hock Mama’s rings for the occasion – how else pay for the flowers, the music, the cantor and the rabbi to say nothing of the clothing to outfit us all. What an occasion this wedding of a devoted, favored son.

Mama and Papa have waited a long time for Meyer to find Miss Right. But that’s the end of Meyer’s devotion to the family. Speedily and thoroughly, he transfers his allegiance and if we want to catch a glimpse of him it must be at the garage where the office is located or later when I sit the babies who come 1-2-3. Nor does Rose come to visit us. No, she is no Molly, and although the Posner Friday night feasts continue, the Mac Posner’s quickly exclude themselves.

Still, Papa is doing better than most of the men in the community, in the city, in the United States as a whole. He buys us a new living room suite, green plush sofa and two chairs. Edith and I love especially the high-backed plush chair, though the plush smells something like cut grass because the maker of the piece acknowledged that to save money, he’d used fresh grass rather than dried as filler. Edith and I take turns sliding down the backs of the chairs and Papa has a fit. The suite cost $50. Mama doesn’t like the set; but Papa has taken the matter in his own hands; he will have a living room with a piece for the Victrola and the new radio.

Where should the children sit, Papa wants to know, when we listen each evening to Arthur Tracy, the Street Singer, sing his theme Marta, Rambling Rose of the wildwood, and where should Yiddisel sit to hear The Lone Ranger? And the grownups, should they stretch out too on the floor? So, whenever a decision has to be made about improving conditions, what is always enough for Mama is not enough for Papa. It is Papa always who leads the way up. As he took the initiative with the move to Boro Park, with the purchase of furniture, so he bought the new-used Pierce- Arrow.

Since the day of the truck purchase, Papa has learned to make a right turn, a left turn, and he can make out only fairly well in reverse. But he hasn’t learned much about driving, nor has his sense of direction improved at all. Every Sunday we pile into the car and off we go for a drive, first for the day Mama loads the car not only with food but with people. She cannot bear it if we aren’t seated two deep, one child on the lap of one adult. She looks for passengers, usually not needing to look far. Maybe Bubbah can be loaded into the car (in which case there’s no room for anyone else besides the youngest children and Mom and Pop. Or there’s Shiffra Wurtzman, and Yussale, a neighbor and her child. Always, a couple of extras to share the pleasure, making the drive no pleasure at all for Papa who wants only his own family. All one needs to start a fracas is to say the word “drive.” And so the outing invariably begins IN BATTLE.

Then it’s a question of where to go. We just Go. Setting out with a jolt and a few false starts, we’re on our way. Alice lets out a shriek – in the distance, up the street, she sees a cat, and terrified the car will strike it, she screams. Papa, fearing he has already killed a pedestrian, pulls on the emergency brake, the car halts, and Papa turns up his pupils in a dead faint. Recovering, we proceed on our jaunt, foundering some ten miles on, lost somewhere in Queens, either on a railroad track or at the entrance of a cemetery.

On one of these Sunday excursions Papa eventually finds himself and the “touring car” filled with passengers in Rockaway – Edgemere. The way is long to Marine Park Bridge those days. We must go through Brooklyn, into and around Queens then the long way past the rolling ocean and the Five Towns to finally arrive at the ancient and imposing Edgemere Club Hotel. And adjacent to the old hotel are the most desirable places set high on ramps, the bungalows for summer rental. – Papa has a new goal. He finds a good one, the 10th bungalow from the beach!

Thus, a bungalow filled with children, Mama’s sisters and brothers, Aunt Birdie, Aunt Celia, Aunt Carrie for afternoon luncheons of fresh bread and butter and mixture-and-cream, sliced juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, steaming coffee and Mama’s yeast cake with nests of raisins, nuts, and sugary cinnamon. Mama mistress of all -serving all, joking with all, endless storytelling of the old days, Aunt Birdie growing sleepy and Mama sending her “little sister” to rest, “Throw yourself down on the bed for a bit.”

And weekends, bungalow brimming with Esther’s friends, Meyer’s friends; the 4th of July ten friends slept there on beach chairs, on the floor and Mama fed us all, all morning long. Mrs. Wurtzman was brought for a visit, a week or more. One of us vacates a bed for her gladly. Though we had no rapport with feeble, toothless, frail Shiffra, we remember, we know what she has been for Mama. Mama’s neighbor with the retarded daughter, they came for a week. Mama’s former neighbors from Flushing Avenue: Mrs. Posner used her relative wealth to fit everyone in. What we lacked in comfort she more than compensated for in warmth and hospitality.

Now and then Mama made time for a “dip” in the ocean. What did she need the water for, she had the ocean breezes; but a couple of times a week she actually made it to the water. Friday, erev Shabbos in particular, (perhaps because she’d been up half the night preparing gefilte fish, challah, yeast cake, chicken soup, lukshion, meat and more for the next 24 hours….) We’d watch from inside the cave we dug in the sand as she walks to the water’s edge, there she goes, step by careful step, bathing suit down to her knees, slowly, gingerly through the breaking waves and the, ah! dunk, she immersed herself to her chin, cupping water to her chest and dripping it down her bosom. Mama never did learn to swim, but all of her children do.

And oh, the chants of the vendors of Rockaway in those years’ shoemaker, shoe repairing. Dugan Baker, Doogan—White polish man: “Alla kinda white polish; ‘alla kind stuff for white shoes!” And the beach vendors: boys, like Cal’s cousin, ‘Uncle’ Al Solomon working their way through college taking photos, selling ice cream, ices, Eskimo Pies. The Knish sellers. The ear-splitting candy vendor: Buy my candee, my good candee; Buy my candee, you’ll be happee, in our stomach, after dinner, you’ll feel fin; five for a nickel, ten for a dime, five for a nickel, ten for a dime, five for a nickel ten for a die-ie-ime; You’ll be happee-you buyee!

Mama goes back to the bungalow to make supper: cutlets in thickly breaded crust; or fried flounder, bone in, crust like no one else’s ever, and Mama’s spaghetti to go with the fish; Del Monte tomato sauce over boiled spaghetti; and, for Alice’s benefit, canned peas.

That night, maybe Uncle Louie will come to join Aunt Birdie. Uncle Louie, the only professional in Mama’s generation – a chiropodist. American born. Tall. Blue eyed, black mustache. A tyrant; but such a charming ladies’ man. Oh, how Mama adores him. And how he woos her. With flowers and always a box of candies. Mama fairly swoons with pleasure. We fear him but love him. He’s a jokester. After supper, expansive, he invariably sends the younger children, Edith and me, to the kitchen “for a glass of water.” We catch on early. He’s telling a dirty joke. Remember the one about the farmer “blowing out the candle?” Gales of laughter from the “old folks.” We can never figure out what’s so funny. Uncle Murray, the intellectual, “almost” made it to doctor, missing the third year because his father died, leaving him sole support of two families. Uncle Murray gives a synopsis of the latest play he and Aunt Celia have seen, standing room only.

It’s always holiday time in Mama’s house – we’re either preparing for it or experiencing it. Like Passover. Preparations begin in October for the spring holiday. The day Concord grapes appear in the shops Mama orders several bushels-full and Papa brings up the winepress from the Friedman’s basement. After supper, Mama and Papa sit in the kitchen sorting grapes. Mama drops the perfect globes into the wine press which is stained purple in large splotches from years of pressing. Papa turns the screw handle –squeeze, squeeze, another turn, harder and tighter, as juice squirts into the waiting glass container. Mama sorts, Papa, presses; the purple level rises. Then, container half or more full, Papa rolls it away, replacing it with another empty jug. And so, into the night. The grapes gone, the squeezing and pressing done, Mama measures out the sugar and Papa pours and mixes to achieve their very own version of professional Pesach wine. “Quickly, quickly”, Papa stuffs into the necks of the jug’s wads of cheesecloth, capping all with a tightly fitted cork, Papa then rolls the jugs into a cool, dark closet, there to ferment into the local version of Manischewitz Concord wine.

Six weeks before Pesach, work begins in earnest. Mama begins to clean the house; every drawer, every cupboard, every shelf, clothing and bedding included, is emptied, dusted, aired, re-lined. Every nook and cranny is finely swept. Mama takes stock of our clothing as she goes. Tight-lipped she notes we all need new shoes, new underclothes and nightclothes, a new dress or two for each of us girls, spring coat and hat for shawl. And a new tablecloth is a must for the Seders.

The table and bed linens are something else. She’s been a good customer for the dry-goods peddler; Mr. Sachs has discovered Mama’s passion for fine linen. Like the insurance agent who calls every week to collect the quarters and fifty cents for the insurance policies in the name of each child as well as Mama and Papa, Mr. Sachs makes his monthly call to collect his fifty cents for the items Mama has “laid aside by him.” Damask cloths, huge in dimension, quilt covers, rolls of fabric.

Wonder of wonder, the Limoges coffee set which sits honored on the highest shelf of the linen closet, a glorious golden picture, the set etched, decorated in exquisite pattern…six dainty cups and saucers, six cake plates, coffee decanter, creamer, sugar container. Never to be used, it is Mama’s highest material achievement. Just to look at it swells the heart. And we are proud of it too. Mama is providing a trousseau for each daughter and even 50 years later we retain the evidence – tablecloths and sheets purchased ‘on time’ from Mr. Sachs who thusly supplied her with her luxuries. This forerunner of buying on Credit, then as now the only way the very poor can make their wishes come true.

With the new linens put carefully aside to be used the first time on Passover, two weeks before the first Seder is the time to begin scouring the kitchen. The stove is scrubbed, the burners soaked for hours in washing soda and ammonia, and the insides scrubbed and rinsed. There will be no cholah baking or chometz cake-baking until after Pesach. All the dishes, utensils and pots and pans are taken down, packed in boxes, and made ready to store in the basement. There is a completely different set of dishes and pots for this holiday. The changeover is a formidable task.

Mama is already beginning to prepare foods which have to be specially cooked kosher for Pesach. There are as yet no Pesach commercial specialties for purchase. Everything must be made at home. There are no dairy products. We will eat meat products day and night for eight days. Matzoh with chicken fat and salt will be breakfast, with plenty of eggs, tea and cake. Matzoh meal pancakes and potato pancakes twice a day. No milk or butter or cheese. We drink tea with honey and specially made jam.

There is a special borscht to be made with beets scrubbed, parboiled, sliced and grated, and then put up for special marinating. Mama’s hands will be beet red for days. There are pounds and pounds of fresh horseradish grated by Mama’s hand, heavy, hard labor without the benefit of food processors and Osterizers. Mama also renders pound and pound of chicken fat. She does all the cooking, all the baking, the big girls helping as they can. Honey cakes will be made in advance and special holiday sponge cakes. Alice loves to bake, and Mama lets her do as she wishes. Mama’s eyes roll because Alice makes a mess. I am Alice’s scullery maid, cleaning and washing up after her, all the many pans and bowls she loves to use. The day before the Seder, Mama buys and expertly fillets pounds and pounds of pike and whitefish, for the gefulte fish we all love.

As her larder is full, so Mama’s tables accommodate countless diners. We sit in ragged rows around the table, one and one-half people to one chair and serving space. Some Seder nights even so we cannot all fit and some, the girls of course, take standing room only. No matter. When will we ever get to eat, we wonder? But we know that first Papa must do his entire “thing”. Seder is endless and some of the celebrants will have drunk too much or eaten too much, and, after having worked a long day may slip off somewhere for a nap, leaving a set here and there. There are endless dishes to do and all the girls and women take turns. At great length, the final kiddush and sighs of relief, and the young folk sing out cheers of relief. Papa pounds the table; glares at the roughnecks: “Quiet, Zul, Zein, Shalt! Respect the Service!!!” Now we’re splitting our sides and Joe, in exuberance, squirts the seltzer bottle at Sara, Aunt Birdie’s adopted red-headed daughter. Screaming with laughter, Sara all but falls off her seat.

{Thirty years later, at Joe’s 50th birthday celebration, this same Sara decides to wrap small stones with gold paper to give them to Joe as a symbol of the golden future still lying ahead for him. Going to a neighborhood city park to gather the rocks, she notices a policeman eyeing her. Raising her eyes to look at the policeman from her squatting pose, Sara explains, I’m gathering these to give as a birthday present to my friend. The policeman nods slowly, turns and walks rapidly off.}

Folks are loathe to leave; a couple of Aunt Birdie’s children and anyone who cares to. Let them stay, says Mama, we have plenty of room. And, indeed, there is plenty of space as many of us relinquish our beds to sleep on quilts on the floor. We all know that in the morning, whenever we may rise, Mama will prepare matzoh brie fried in chicken fat, and bubbalach (matzoh meal pancakes) spread with granulated sugar or special Pesach jam, with sweet lemony tea to “wash it all down.”

If Seder nights are unadulterated joy, not so the many ordinary Friday nights. Perhaps it was that after a long week of hard work Papa finally relaxed and ate too much. Somewhere towards the end of the meal, however, as we made ready the final course of tea and cakes, Papa would exclaim “Oi,” roll his eyes back and go off in a faint. Papa’s having another spell. Quick, someone get the spirits of ammonia.

Quick, put it under his nose.” Terrifying these spells. I stand there transfixed – frozen, staring; staring at those round white globes that have replaced Papa’s warm brown eyes. Raise his head, yells someone! Good idea, because Papa’s stomach (his corporation everyone calls it, including himself) forms a substantial mound that can surely stop his breath. In a matter of moments, Papa comes to and we all heave a sigh of relief. Some think it is an act. Except in the moments of hysteria no one seems to take these episodes seriously – not enough to investigate their cause. Years later, Aunt Carrie made the diagnosis Epilepsy. That was ruled out, however, by my own employer Dr. Kubie, a neurologist-psychiatrist (and Freudian) who labeled it “a great psychoneurotic.”

In general, though, life is good, the family is growing. Esther, not married yet, meets handsome dashing, money-in-his-pocket Sam, otherwise known as Dempsey because of his likeness to the famous heavyweight fighter of the day. Esther looks down her nose at him but keeps him on the string, enjoying his good looks, his attentiveness. Sam showers Esther with presents. She is adorable and he adores her. Mama and Papa are not pleased; they are rude to Sam. Never mind. Sam pretends he doesn’t notice, and he showers them, too, with presents. Sam is a traveling salesman, selling fountain pens and anything else that comes to hand. He may be gone for two or three weeks at a time, Mama and Papa heaving a sigh of relief. Maybe he’ll forget to return. But he does come back. He always comes back. He is a great salesman, and he sells himself to Esther. Mama is angry. Mama is sad. Mama cries. Papa shouts and bangs on the table. Terrible, constantly terrible scenes take place now. How can you do this to yourself? To us? No matter. Esther will marry Sam. Mama and Papa bow to the inevitable.

The year is 1932. Meyer has just married Rose a year ago and Mama and Papa have stripped themselves for that affair. But Esther – apple of the eye Esther – can’t be let go without a royal send off. This means a trousseau; clothing and linens, dishes (two sets; diary and meat), pots, (two sets), clothing, the last item taken care of, thank God, by Adler and Adler. Esther is still a sample size six. Esther and Sam are married at Park Manor, a very stylish hall on Eastern Parkway. Cost – $1.50 per couple. For this wedding Mama hocks her rings and Papa borrows on his insurance policy. I go with Esther and Sam to Daniel Jones on Rivington Street and Sam, with inherently fine taste, selects with Esther’s approval, a handsome Spanish oak and velvet living room. The furniture delivery is held off until Sam can scrape together enough money for the rent and deposits on gas and electric. In the meantime, Esther travels with him, to Chicago, to Cleveland, to Philadelphia. Between trips, the newlyweds move in with Mama and Papa.

Mama and Papa hold their noses to the side—they have grave reservations about this marriage. Sam pretends not to notice, and as he will do for the rest of his life he runs around the apartment in his underwear. Yes, he has a robe, but robes are not for him. Never. Exhibitionist, we wonder? Esther, of course, has given up her wonderful job for the lawyers. It would not do for a young married woman from Boro Park to continue to work after marriage. She enjoys traveling with Sam and they are gone much of the time.

Then, life takes a sudden turn. Mama is sick, she’s nauseated. She has terrible stomach pains. “Oy, Gotinue, Gotinhimmel, please God don’t make orphans of my children”. We have a telephone at home but in our panic cannot reach the doctor. Esther tells me to run quickly to Dr. Grainger around the corner on 52nd Street and I do, my heart racing faster than my feet as I charge into the doctor’s waiting room. The doctor is right there, seems to be waiting for me, and I tell him: Come quickly, please, please. My mother is very sick. She has bad stomach pains. Dr. Gradinger, bless his soul, leaves patients in the waiting room, grabs his bag putting both me and the bag into the car. He recognizes immediately it is not Gall Bladder but a heart attack. He gives Mama morphine and she quickly quiets. We ate a hushed meal, Alice, Esther, Edith and I – terrified, awed. Mama lies there silent but breathing.

That afternoon, Dr. Siegler comes with a ‘heart man’ and they haul up the stairs the portable Electrocardiograph machine. What a miracle, they can bring it up the stairs and into the bedroom. The machine comes in several parts- they look like four huge suitcases and they must be very heavy because it takes three men to carry them up the stairs. We children, awed, frightened, disappear ourselves. Even Esther isn’t permitted in the room. The doctors take the measurements via the machine. Diagnosis: massive coronary – coronary occlusion. They prescribe complete bedrest for six weeks.

The apartment, the atmosphere of the home: all changed. There is not a sound from Mama’s room, and we listen carefully in order to hear her every breath. We tiptoe around the house. Somehow the little ones get to school each morning and the older children to high school and/or work. We all return, hushed, silent, fearfull.

As the weeks go by, we stand at the doorway, looking in on resting Mama. She is a wonderful patient, but weak and frightened. We all gather courage as the weeks go uneventfully but Esther and Sam have moved into the apartment with us. Esther and Alice do not permit Papa to use his own bed in Mama’s sickroom. Now and then, Papa manages to sneak in, in the middle of the night. We children gnash our teeth, so angry with him. How dare he “disturb Mama” No complaints from her, however, and Papa has a thick skin…Is it possible he knew, better than his children, the value of loave and the tender touch?

Mama’s condition is improving and Alice spells Esther some evenings. Esther is nurse, attendant, and cook for Mama and the entire family. Sam drags her to go for a ride when Aunt Carrie comes to visit; big, blousy, out-sized Aunt Carrie. The family looks on her as a combination nurse, nutritionist and social arbiter. It is from Aunt Carrie as well as Aunt Birdie that we girls have learned American social niceties!

This particular evening, after Alice has taken over from Esther, Alice’s tall, handsome boyfriend, Nat Rosenblum, phones. There’s a free concert somewhere, does she want to go? Aunt Carrie orders me to take Alice’s shift so she can accept the date. I am so angry, angry at Alice, at Aunt Carrie. Why am I so angry? Am I afraid to be alone with Mama, in full charge? I only know how angry I am and hurt that Aunt Carrie and Alice both have put me in this position. Esther, who has the largest share of the responsibility, by far, never, never complains. Why am I so bitterly resentful?

Mama is improving. She has bathroom privileges. Then she takes a meal in the kitchen. Things at home lighten a bit. We are not so much in terror of Mama’s every breath, every movement. She is thinner and very weak – she’s been six weeks in bed. Now she can even visit the doctor in his office. Happy day, Mama may forsake her bed. Papa can rejoin her in their room. She has been sick enough for her disability insurance policy to pay off. 100% disability. What a bonanza. Mama collects about $20 a week. And now, while still collecting, Mama may resume activity on a very limited scale. The doctor shows her, for example, the way she may dust furniture. Holding a dust cloth, she may pass it over the furniture as she walks. No bending. No pushing things around.

Mama follows instructions to the letter. She has been frightened indeed and takes no chances. She walks slowly to the corner store and back. She cooks a little. We all still tiptoe round; like hawks we watch her every movement, each response, to any activity. We have been well frightened too.

It is 1933. Times are still bad but somehow the trucking business is in the black. Papa again makes his move, this time he has investigated two new vacation possibilities in Lakewood, New Jersey. He finds a strictly kosher hotel with grounds right on the lake. Mama’s protest over, off they go. Esther is left in charge of the household. Mama and Papa are gone for two whole weeks and Edith and I are in glory land because we have Esther all to ourselves – Sam is away on a sales trip; but unable to part from Ester for too long, her returns in a day or two.

Esther tries out her culinary adventures on her little captive audience. This vacation she experiments with lamb stew. Lots of lamb stew. Now, Mama despises lamb so never makes it and the smell and taste are new to us. Mmm, we find it pretty damn good. “Tasty”, says Sam. Alice, the one member of the family with refined palate, turns up her nose and fixes a salad for herself. Not Mama’s salad for herself. Not Mama’s salad which consists of lettuce and tomatoes; Alice’s salad has cucumbers and red radishes too. Are there other vegetables? Nussie can’t touch the lamb either, nor will he eat tomatoes. I can’t remember what he substitutes, maybe oatmeal. So, there’s an awful lot of lamb stew left. And the next night Esther serves it again for dinner. Oddly enough, this night there is less lamb stew eaten, though Sam still says “Tasty.” For a week, Esther serves us lamb stew warmed over. Unforgettable, both taste and smell. We join, forever, Mama’s distaste for lamb.

Life resumes an even keel with Mama’s gradual return of health. Esther and Sam move out on their own. Now there are only three of us girls sharing the bedroom and Nussie has the little porch bedroom to himself. Mama begins preparing fancy salads to tempt Edith’s appetite, and she worries about my meager social life. A bookworm, I’d rather sit around and read than play with the kids in the street. Mama compromises her ethical code on my behalf.

All the neighborhood kids go to the movies on Saturday afternoon. Not me. I’m religious. One Friday afternoon Mama gives me fifteen cents and tells me to go to the Culver Theatre, down MacDonald Avenue, to buy my “children’s ticket” in advance for the Saturday afternoon movie. In this way, money will not be exchanged, and I’ll be able to join my peers at the movies on the Sabbath. I am awed by this action, maybe shocked. I’m half aware of the love behind this act yet I do it only half happily. There is something dishonest about it I feel. And indeed, it is the beginning of the end.

I will never again be the same religious child. In short order I will begin to spend money on Shabbos, travel to meet my new junior high school friends who come from slightly distant neighborhoods, eat chometz on Pesach, experiment with Chow Mein (slightly nauseous) expecting with each transgression, hoping perhaps, that the sky will fall. But the only thing that does happen is the first glimmer of awareness of Mama as an ordinary mortal. The very strength of her love for me has made her blink at her principles and I am more an iota resentful than grateful. For her act of love, I will make Mama pay for the rest of her life. Shabbos will have no meaning for me and the kitchen in my home will not be kosher. Thus, Mama will never be able freely to eat in my home. Yes, I will have separate dishes. Pans, and food for hers. Her food in my home will forever be separated but not equal. For all that I have loved her and valued her so dearly, I unwittingly made her pay this debt and made her pay forever.

Around this time a new family moved right next door. The Kaufman’s. Doctor Sandor Kaufman, with five daughters and one son; Bea, Billie, Anne, Bernice, Dorothy, and Freddie. They spoke with an accent, coming as they did from [S – aft-it] Louis (pronounced Lewis). Dr Kaufman (no one ever knew doctor of what), was a dapper man who wore a fedora hat impresario style, one half of the brim turned up, the other half pulled down over one eye, and on his shoes he wore buff-colored spats, a suede-like cover buttoned around the shoes’ uppers.

His family all feared him but were proud of his title and bearing, especially his beautiful mouse-like wife. Dorothy, almost my age, became my best friend. Shortly after they moved in, we became aware of certain irregularities in this family. Almost every evening we would hear shouts and, alternately, wailing come from the apartment. Dr. Kaufman, dapper and well educated, was a wife abuser; and on those occasions his wife and the children would set up such a wailing that all in the neighborhood could hear.

Mama didn’t have to hear these outcries more than once. The second time she snatched up her coat, the old, heavy Alaskan seal with the ragged beaver collar and rushing downstairs, she marched over to the neighboring house, pounded the door, and admitted herself. “What is going on here? You better shame yourself, hitting a woman. If I ever hear a sound from here again, I’ll call the authorities”.

From then on, Dr. Kaufman, when he passed Mama on the street, would seep off his Fedora, and holding it to his heart, would make Mama a sweeping bow which Mama acknowledged with a haughty expression. Two years or so later Mrs. Kaufman died of some sort of bladder hemorrhage and I remember hearing her daughters cry to their father just before she died, “Why don’t you even get a doctor for her?” And my ears still ring with the wailing of those girls that whole long night that their mother lay dead in her bed.

2 thoughts on “The Saga of Bessie

  1. Susan Volk

    Sam Rubel of Rubel Ice and Coal was my great uncle on the Shapiro side of the family. His daughter, Honora, was my favorite aunt.

    Contrary to your description of my grandmother, Rose Posner, as being cold, she was an amazingly warm, caring and loving grandmother. She taught me how to bake when I was six years old, and gave me all of my great grandfather’s recipes. I use them to this day. When I was 4 years old, I expressed the desire to fly in a plane. So, my grandparents took me to LaGuardia airport and flew me to Providence to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney for the day. When I was 8 years old, Grandpa Max and Grandma Rose took me on a vacation to California for 3 weeks. They took me to Lake Tahoe so I could learn how to snow ski and then to Los Angeles and on to Disneyland. My grandfather was wheelchair bound by that time, but he never let that interfere with our relationship and memorable outings. Later on, they both were extremely supportive of my career choice in the arts and helped me in talking my parents into letting me attend the University of Pennsylvania for a masters program in Material Culture. I still remember my vacations and time spent with my loving grandparents as if it were yesterday. My husband, Jeff Volk, loved spending time with my warm, caring and loving grandparents. We spent many vacations with my grandparents at their Palm Springs home and have amazing memories to pass on to our daughter.

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  2. Susan Volk

    I would like to introduce myself. I am Max and Rose Posner’s eldest grand-daughter. I am also Samuel Rubel’s, of Rubel Ice and Coal, grand-neice (In the beginning of your post, Rubel Ice and Coal was mentioned in a ditty about someone robbing my ancestors’ business).

    In defense of my grandparents, Rose and Max Posner were two of the kindest, loving, charitable and generous people to ever inhabit this earth. I have many fond memories of my grandparents from my earliest recollections commencing at the age of two years old. The other fact that was left out of your recollections of Bessie Posner and her relationship with her son, Max, was that my grandfather supported Bessie and many other Posner family members financially his entire life.

    As a young girl, and right on through the early years of my marriage, I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ home. Even though my grandfather was wheelchair bound and bedridden by his Parkinsons disease, he never let it stop him from interacting with and taking his grandchildren on outings…trips to the Bronx Zoo, annual trips to Ringling Brothers Circus and to the Macy’s board room to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade with the Chairman, outings to see every Broadway musical and all of Elliot Feld’s new ballet productions. And of course, my grandmother was right there by his side enabling and encouraging him to do all of these activities.

    At a very young age, during my sleepovers at my grandparents home, my grandmother would bake and teach me all of the recipes her father handed down from his bakery in Brooklyn. It was a time for us to bond and talk about life.

    As the eldest grandchild, my grandparents often took me with them on their travels, and trips to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney in Providence. I remember when I was four, I expressed the desire to fly on a plane. So, Rose and Max called my Aunt Marion and flew me to Providence for the day so I could experience a flight on an airplane! When I was eight, my grandparents took me to California for 3 weeks to visit my Grandma Rose’s two sisters and my California cousins. During that trip, we went to Lake Tahoe and Grandma Rose enrolled me in ski school at Heavenly Valley so that I could realize my dream of learning how to ski. Even though my grandfather was in a wheelchair at that point, we still went to Disneyland so I could meet my hero, Mickey Mouse.

    My grandparents were great role models for me. They valued family, education and charity to others. They were the warmest, most supportive people I knew and were instrumental in helping me achieve my life’s goals.

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