Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Twenty Years Ago Today

Temperatures modulated in the mid-50’s in White Plains today. How different from this past weekend when wind chill temperatures dipped below zero. How different from conditions 20 years ago today when a blizzard dumped 10 inches of snow, stranding me in New York, preventing me from flying down to Orlando for the annual SPECS conference produced by my magazine, Chain Store Age. 

For six hours that Friday morning I sat in the Courtyard Marriott in Rye waiting for an airport shuttle to trudge its way through the snow. None came. All around me vacationers and business travelers expressed their frustrations. One couple vented they had planned three years to fly to New Orleans to partake in the following Tuesday’s Mardi Gras festivities. The blizzard was sure to deprive them of their once-in-a-lifetime experience, they lamented. 

Ordinarily, a delay traveling south would have been an inconvenience easily overcome the next day. But more distressing news happened that day 20 years ago. When I called Gilda to inform her I was returning home she told me my mother had passed away that afternoon in a hospital in Washington, DC, as she awaited surgery to amputate a second leg below the knee because diabetes and smoking had impeded circulation to her limb. She was 78.

Twenty years. I look out my kitchen windows and the memories of my mother are slowly melting away like the remnants of the snow on the grass in our yard. Our children were 17 and 14 when she passed away. How much do they remember their grandma, who, sadly, suffered from mild dementia her last few years? Dan recalls he loved her chicken soup. As a young child, he knew whenever we went to my parents’ home in Brooklyn he would be fed well. And he always knew when they would be visiting our home for, miraculously, cake appeared on our kitchen table. 

As a light snow trickled down Monday I queued up a tape my brother Bernie recorded of our mother 30 years ago. With each passing sequence another of our treasured family stories tumbled into the realm of folklore, assuming, of course, that the testimony I was viewing was the real history and not her memory of the moment.

We had always been told the first time our father eyed my mother, in his store on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he fell off a ladder, not because of her beauty, but at the sight of her wild and frizzy hair. Not so, Mom related, though she did not disagree with the description of her hairdo that day. 

Nevertheless, Kopel walked her to the subway station and secured a date for that Friday night. When he rang the doorbell of her family’s apartment, he failed to recognize the now dolled up Sylvia. That part of the story rang true to form.

The next part contradicted family lore. We had been told they went to see Die Fledermaus, an operetta composed by Johann Strauss II. Perhaps not. According to the tape, they went to a production of a different Strauss operetta—The Gypsy Baron

During their whirlwind courtship—six weeks from first date to a Sunday, September 6, Labor Day weekend wedding, with two weeks or more apart due to separate vacations they took over the summer—a favorite story of our mother was a time our father took her to a friend’s apartment. 

Speaking Yiddish, his friend asked if they would like to be alone, to which my father replied, also in Yiddish, “No, this one I am going to marry.” Unbeknownst to my father, Sylvia was fluent in Yiddish. Only on the tape, Mom said they spoke German which she also understood. 

A story about one of Mom’s late teenage boyfriends also came under revision. She’d often tell us that after her father moved the family to an apartment on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx, a beau stopped calling on her. Years later when she met him by chance, the fellow, an apprentice linotypist, explained the Grand Concourse address had placed her above his station in life. 

An interesting commentary on social status, but the version on the tape had Mom relating that the move that sabotaged their relationship was to an apartment on West 99th Street off Broadway in Manhattan.

Elsewhere on the tape, Mom’s laudatory stories about my high school days evoked no corresponding corroboration within my memory bank.

What isn’t in doubt is the positive influence she had on the lives of her children. When most wives stayed at home, our mother worked full-time as an equal partner with our father in their factory that produced half-slips and panties sold mostly to chain stores across the country. At the same time she actively participated in PTA programs and other social groups while also cooking family holiday dinners that could serve as many as 40 participants.  

She taught my brother and me to play ball. She made sure we went to Broadway shows and the opera. She took us to the Catskills. She enrolled us in private Hebrew schools and eight week sleepaway Jewish summer camps. She made our house the center of activity featuring Friday night poker games with my brother’s friends. 

She opened our door to overnight guests, prompting her to call our home Malon Forseter, malon being the Hebrew word for hotel. Her dinette table was never too full. Unexpected guests were met with the standard retort, “I'll just add another cup of water to the soup.”

Sylvia was a confident, independent woman, best exemplified by travel to Israel and Europe by herself in the mid 1950s when she was just 40. 

I looked over what I wrote two years ago in a Father’s Day tribute to our mother and thought I’d conclude with the same last paragraph: 


My brother, sister and I don’t dwell on the last decade or so of her life when she no longer was the vibrant source of our family life. It is enough to know that together with our father she molded us into the people we are today. And we are happy with the results.

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