Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Delivering Food to the Greatest Generation

I figure that since 2010 I have made more than 1,600 deliveries of weekly kosher meals to elderly residents of Yonkers, Scarsdale, Mount Vernon, White Plains and Hartsdale through a senior food program run by Westchester Jewish Community Services. Today I made my last deliveries. (Grant and government funding for the program ran out several years ago. WJCS could no longer afford to continue carrying the service.)

Several months after retiring in mid-2009 I read a short announcement in our temple’s weekly bulletin advising WJCS was seeking drivers to deliver frozen and fresh food to county residents who by and large were homebound. They didn’t have to be Jewish to qualify, though most were.

With few exceptions my clients were widowed women. About 40% lived in the single family houses they had shared with their husbands, in which they had raised their children. The remainder resided in apartments, for decades as well. Perhaps 20% were bedridden, tended to by aides, usually Caribbean immigrants.

I was a few months shy of 61 when I started. I’m 75 now, younger than almost all of the seniors I served over the years. Only recently did someone younger than I become part of my delivery rounds. It was not unusual to lose a client, to entry into a senior housing facility, a move closer to a child, or their passing. I rarely had a chance to say goodbye. Their absence on my distribution list was the only clue to their disappearance from my route. 

Part of the food delivery program enabled me to engage with the seniors, at least the ones that wanted to converse. Despite leg and vision issues that inhibited her mobility, Sally craved her independence, refusing her son’s entreaties to move from her apartment into a senior facility. He was an eye doctor. With her vision increasingly narrowing, he finally prevailed. 

Unlike most of the women, Rita never permitted me entry into her Tudor-style home. She’d meet me at the door to carry the two bags no matter how heavy they were. She was feisty, full of energy. She only agreed to relocate after a friend convinced her to join her in a senior living complex.

Living across the street from her son, 92-year-old Sarah would say she had lived long enough. Covid travel restrictions ended our weekly chats. 

Most of the women were part of the Greatest Generation, contributing to the World War II war effort when they were barely out of their teenage years.

Gertrude was 19 when she listened to radio reports of the Pearl Harbor bombings. A high school graduate who eventually became a full charge bookkeeper, she hadn’t been able to secure a job before the war, but some time thereafter obtained one at the Wright Aeronautical plant in Woodridge, NJ. 

Each morning another worker would pick her up at her home in Inwood in upper Manhattan. They’d drive across the George Washington Bridge to work. Because of her mathematical bent she was chosen to be a precision inspector for assembled impeller shafts, a critical part of the engine of B-29 Superfortress bombers.

After several B-29s crashed, the cause was determined to be faulty impeller shafts. Assembly of the plane engines halted until re-inspection of all impeller shafts could be conducted. As each impeller shaft bore the mark of the inspector who processed it, it was not difficult to pinpoint who had approved faulty production. 

Over the loudspeaker of the plant, Gertrude was summoned to the manager’s office high above the assembly plant. While she climbed the metal steps to his office, co-workers whispered she was the guilty inspector. Not a comfortable moment for a young woman not yet 20. Gertrude was told that of all the impeller shafts re-inspected, hers alone were perfect. Henceforth, only she would inspect impeller shafts. The other precision inspectors would be reassigned. She would work six days a week. When she wasn’t there, production would stop.

It was that way for about 18 months, until the Japanese surrendered. That day, Gertrude recalled, Wright Aeronautical announced that the 17,000 employees who had worked three shifts at the Woodridge plant need not come back anymore. Their jobs, the nation’s job of defeating Japan, and before that Germany and Italy, had ended.