Friday, February 16, 2018

Twenty-Two Years: Time I Lived With My Mother and Since She Passed Away

Deducting the year I spent in Syracuse earning a master’s degree in newspaper journalism, I lived 22 years in my parents’ home in Brooklyn before starting my professional career in Connecticut at The New Haven Register. 

Twenty-two years. My mother passed away on this date 22 years ago. As it is this year, February 16, 1996, was a Friday. 

Two years ago I chronicled some memories of Sylvia Forseter on the twentieth anniversary of her death ( Naturally, there were more that never made it into that blog post. Here are some from my first 22 years with her, mostly from the years before my bar-mitzvah.

Mom was the antithesis of the “early to bed, early to rise” practitioner. She stayed up late and did not enjoy waking up early. Mom and Dad worked together in their lingerie factory. Dad would leave the house between 6:30 and 7 am for the near one hour drive up Ocean Avenue, then Flatbush Avenue, across the Manhattan Bridge and through the streets to the parking garage near their factory of the moment on Broadway, anywhere between Houston and East 8th Street. 

Mom would not walk to the subway, the elevated BMT line at Neck Road and East 16th Street a few blocks from our house, until after 9 am. It’s not that she stayed home to shuffle her three children off to school. I have no memory of her making breakfast for us. Nor did she make lunch for us as our school served a hot lunch every day. She just wasn’t ready for the morning. She enjoyed a leisurely cup of coffee and a cigarette before the hourlong ride on the train, less crowded at her preferred time than during rush hour. 

When you run your own business there’s no clock to punch in, or punch out. My parents rarely left the factory before 6 pm. My father navigated the stop and go traffic down Broadway, onto Canal Street, then back over the Manhattan Bridge and the return trek down Flatbush Avenue (idling only to secure a New York Post—back then a liberal tabloid—at the end of the Flatbush Avenue Extension near Prospect Park) before chugging down Ocean Avenue to our home on Avenue W.

She was different than most of our friends’ mothers. She went to work every day in “the city,” an uncommon practice in the 1950s. She liked to say my poor eating habits—she claimed I used to throw green peas at her from my high chair—prompted her escape from housework. In truth, her father had trained his four daughters to be vital participants in commerce, either on their own or with their respective spouses. She’d proudly tell people she was a full-charge bookkeeper, the equal of any CPA, without the high-falutin degree. 

Every Wednesday night she’d do payroll at our dinette table, tallying up the piece-work tickets each sewing machine operator completed the prior week and the time cards filled out by the hourly workers. The next day she’d walk from the factory to the nearby Chemical Bank branch to secure the necessary bills to stuff their pay envelopes. I wasn’t trusted to get the money until after I had graduated college.

The dinette table in our row house attained unparalleled status in our home. It was on that table that Sylvia emerged as an impresario of Jewish culinary arts and social entertaining. Before Rosh Hashanah she would roll dough into small triangles filled with shredded brisket for kreplach (Jewish wontons, or ravioli, your choice of international comparisons). Or she’d sit at a chair while stuffing and then sewing up helzeleh, chicken neck skin filled with matzo meal, schmaltz (chicken fat), and spices. Sounds gross, but it was yummy. (Heck, if the Scots can eat haggis, Jews can swallow helzeleh. On the subject of eating the unimaginable, she also boiled chicken feet in her soup, a, ahem, “delicacy” I never sampled, but was relished by my father and his brother, Uncle Willy—must have truly reminded them of meals back in the Ottynia shtetl of their youth.) 

For special occasions, particularly if they pertained to my brother Bernie, she’d make a crown roast, lamb chops stacked vertically in the shape of a crown. 

Among her other savory treats: sweet and sour lamb tongues, sauteed sweetbreads, gefilte fish, kneidlach (matzo balls), breaded veal cutlets, and the best chicken soup you’d ever slurp off a spoon. She never met a vegetable anybody would like eating. She was not a baker. That last task was assigned to our housekeeper/cook who made dinners for us after our mother returned to work. I’ve never, for example, tasted a more delicious pound cake than the one Bertha baked. My sister Lee agrees. Bernie was partial to her apple cake. 

Even on weekends she abstained from rising early enough to prepare breakfast for her family. If we did eat a cooked meal it was our father who played the short order chef. His specialities were French toast made with leftover challah and what he called “army eggs,” scrambled eggs with fried salami circles.

During my pre-adolescent years my parents socialized quite often. Mom enjoyed dressing up but rarely disposed of any ensemble, explaining that sooner or later the outfit or dress would come back into style and she’d be Johnny-on-the-spot-fashion-ready if she simply stored it in a closet long enough. 

To my mind she had two things that distinguished her when she dressed up. Depending on the weather, she would wear a mink stole (several tails could be attached as optional accessories), a black Persian lamb coat or a silver fox three-quarter length fur coat (she wore that coat to my bar mitzvah reception).  

And, as the daughter and sister of jewelers, she had some impressive pieces of jewelry. I would always wonder from where her jewelry would emerge as it never could be found in her bedroom. It wasn’t until my late teenage years that I was let in on the family secret. My parents has secreted a safe in a closet under the staircase leading to the basement. Dad had built a wooden frame around the safe. He placed a piece of wood in a slot in the front of the frame and draped a blanket before it to conceal its presence. Only after it became difficult for him to crouch inside the cramped closet did they share the safe’s combination with me so I could retrieve the family jewels my mother required that evening.

The dinette table also served as the location of the Friday night poker, hearts or Fan Tan card games my mother organized. The five of us played deuces-wild poker for penny-two-three stakes with two or three of my brother’s friends who would arrive shortly after we finished dinner. We kept a kosher house, but too often in my recollection I was forced to bring a pig to the table as I shook out coins from my glass piggy bank to fund my losses. 

I don’t have that piggy bank anymore, though sometimes I still have to dip into cash reserves during poker games with my friends. Not too often, but enough to remind me of fun times back in Brooklyn those first 22 years of my life.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Reminiscing About a Favored Aunt in the Shadow of the Super Blue Blood Moon

As Gilda and I drove south on the Hutchinson River Parkway just before sunrise Wednesday the moon was low and loomed larger than normal. It was the morning of the Super Blue Blood Moon and though it appeared bigger and closer than usual it was not blue and had only a tinge of the blood red it would develop when seen later on the West Coast. 

Were she alive today my Aunt Pola might well be preparing for the wedding she never experienced. She would say, my sister Lee recalled earlier this week, that she would marry after a blue moon. Well, blue moons—the second full moon of any month—never presaged a wedding announcement. But Wednesday’s lunar eclipse produced a super blue blood moon, the first one over North America in 150 years. Wistfully thinking, it might have prompted her to begin assembling her trousseau.

Some families have that mysterious, maybe even dysfunctional, uncle. If not in your own family you might associate him with Uncle Ben from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who ventures off to Alaska, or maybe Uncle Sid in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, a rascal of a man, or perhaps, heaven forbid, Uncle Charlie, the serial killer of widows in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Our family had no such ne’er-do-well. But we had Aunt Pola. I never quite knew what she did to sustain herself during her 78 years. Oh, I know she helped her father in his jewelry store and later assisted Aunt Vicki and Uncle Harry in their jewelry business. And she did bookkeeping for different small firms after her father died in 1951. And she liked playing the stock market. My brother Bernie enjoyed talking investments with her. But I never pieced together how she paid for her travels or her studio apartments along West End Avenue in the upper 70’s in Manhattan or her larger apartment on Indian Creek Drive in Miami Beach.

I did, however, learn a cold, hard fact of family economics life as a teenager. I can’t remember what it was I wanted to buy, but I do recall asking my parents for the bank book reflecting the weekly funds I had diligently been depositing every Friday throughout my elementary school years. In truth, it was money my parents gave me, but I am sure each of you would agree with my assumption that once given the money was MINE. 

Wrong. My parents—my mother, really—had turned my bank account over to Aunt Pola. I had more than $800 in that account. Pfft! Gone with the wind. I remember saying I hope my bar-mitzvah money would remain mine. “We’ll see,” my mother replied.

Following the birth of a son (Sol) to my grandparents Louis and Sara, Pola was the eldest of four sisters. Pola, Sylvia (my mother) and Victoria (Vicki) were born in Lodz, Poland. Lily came after the family reunited in 1921, Louis having emigrated a few years earlier. 

The trip from Europe was not Pola’s first adventure. When she was around four years old gypsies kidnapped her. She couldn’t recall any specifics of her captivity or release, but, like O’Henry’s classic story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Pola was returned to her family in due haste and without a bounty being paid, though she did acknowledge the gypsies took her earrings and the collar of her dress. 

Pola might have been snatched because her parents had the outward appearance of wealth. They lived in a two story house with parquet floors, a balcony, two servants and, a rarity for Lodz in the years surrounding World War I, interior running water and a toilet. 

On the way to America, the four children and their mother encountered an unexpected delay and expense. My mother came down with measles. They had to stay in Paris for several weeks. By the time they arrived in New York their cash was depleted, as was Louis’ from buying second class passage for five.

At Ellis Island Pola encountered the first “colored” person she had ever seen. She screamed. She also ate something she liked the rest of her life—frankfurters in green pea soup.

Pola grew up in the Bronx, first on Third Avenue and then the Grand Concourse, in apartments adjacent to her father’s jewelry store. In 1938 the family moved to Manhattan. Louis had bought a store at 97th and Broadway. They moved to 99th and Broadway and then to 98th Street. 

From her father, she said, she inherited the trait of putting off work till the wee hours of the night. Eleven to two was their optimal work time, a habit my brother also practices. 

She had a deliberate, intense manner of talking. She was highly opinionated. She liked going to the movies. In late 1970, or maybe early the next year, the two of us went to see a double bill at a Brooklyn movie theater: I Never Sang for My Father and Five Easy Pieces. The first movie became one of my favorite films about family relations. 

Five Easy Pieces was another portrait of a father-son dynamic. But the story got only as far as the famous chicken salad sandwich scene in the diner before Pola had seen enough of Jack Nicholson We left the theater. (One of these days I’m going to have to watch the full movie.)

Pola also “had the wanderlust,” first evidenced by her departure to California in 1942 when she was 28. She stayed two nights in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles before a cousin moved her to a hotel in a more Jewish neighborhood. 

The Ambassador had a storied history. Six Academy Awards ceremonies were held there, many Hollywood stars were guests, it housed the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and, tragically, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the pantry of the hotel’s kitchen as he was exiting a ballroom after his 1968 California presidential primary victory. 

Pola lived in Los Angeles for two and a half months. She returned to New York to attend the wedding of my parents in September 1942. She dreamed of going back but never did till late in her life.

Back in New York, she lived with her parents. In January 1951, with her parents scheduled to fly to Florida where her sister Vicki was vacationing, her father entered her room around 2 am. He said he wasn’t feeling well, that she shouldn’t wake her mother. He said he was going back to bed. He never woke up.

Her mother, she observed, died that day, as well, though not physically. Always frail, she lasted another four years. According to the Jewish calendar Sara Gerson died on the same date as her beloved husband, Louis, the 13th of Sh’vat.

Pola Gerson died June 4, 1992. She was 78.

(FYI—Many of the details of Pola’s early life came from a videotape interview Lee, Bernie and I produced in 1987, five years before she passed away. I would encourage everyone with older relatives to undertake similar recordings to preserve family and personal histories.)