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.)