EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
My mother's mother was Gitel Greenberg. She and six of my mother's brothers and sisters lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I think the last time I saw her I was about twelve. She was small and always loving and seemed very, very old. She walked slowly and spoke slowly, trying to answer my questions so that I would understand her Yiddish.
Willie, who was frowned upon by the family because he married a shiksa, had an antique business. He had lived with Baba before his marriage and her house, though not cluttered, had its share of antiques. There were a number of grandfather's clocks, a huge print of Noah's Ark with all the animals walking up a long gangplank, two by two, another print of an eye staring through a pyramid–I guess it was my first museum.
I don't remember ever meeting my Zayda. He may have died in Europe though I have a warm feeling about him.
My mother's oldest brother was Morris, who owned a feed mill. He was the rich brother. His wife was Fanny, who acted like an aristocrat and whose smile I mistrusted. They had two sons, Oscar and Benny. Benny committed suicide when he was twenty-two.
I think Sam was married to another Fanny. Julius was married to Sadie and she was probably the friendliest of my Allentown relatives. Then there was Jake, whose wife I don't remember even though I was occasionally accepted into their home for a few days.
My mother's sister Sadie was married to a hulk of a man whose name was Max Sherman, and they had at least three children. Ida, who was about Hy's age; Daniel, about mine; and Schmuelke, about Irving's age, I guess. I stayed in their house once and, though I have no recollection now, nor had any at the time, I was accused of beating up Schmuelke. I didn't get invited again.
All of the Allentownians lived comfortable lives for as long as I knew them. My Aunt Helen, the educated one in the family, married Julius Nemetz, a chemist, and they lived in Rockford, Illinois. They had one child, a boy, who was drafted into the army, went through basic training, was sent overseas, and was killed. Uncle Julius eventually made the hellish adjustment. Aunt Helen never could. She grieved. Her son's death put a period to her life.
Fortunately, an early attachment Aunt Helen formed for my sister Mink helped stabilize her. She wanted Mink to come and live with her and Julius. Though that didn't pan out, the three of them benefited from the warm relationship.
Uncle Julius was always interesting to talk with and he was always ready with advice. He gave Leo and Mink his sixty or sixty-five or I-don't-know-what-year De Soto.
My favorite uncle, Joe, struggled to make a living in Brooklyn. He, as well as all my uncles and aunts, had several children. Uncle Joe was an inventor. One of his inventions almost took hold. It was a bedspring that could be tilted up by stepping on a pedal so that the housewife could clean it and the floor under it with ease. He had a patent on that, at least.
Mom's youngest sister was Bertha, the sewing machine girl. While working in a factory she punctured a finger with a needle, developed a blood disease and lived with us until the infection killed her. She became too infirm to work and my mother took her into our family. She must have been no older than thirty when she died.
Aunt Bertha was always ailing. Her skin was unattractive and she used to make up some mucillaginous mess and sleep with her face covered with it. It would peel off in the morning like a heavy wax. I guess it was supposed to have a depilatory effect. She was never very friendly with me, because I was a devil with the kids. She was particularly fond of Mink. My sister was particularly scrawny when she was very young; a poor eater; a bit sickly; had had St. Vitus Dance at one time and her frailty touched Aunt Bertha who sought to shield her from the hell that she had experienced.
My aunt may not have been very sprightly, but she was instrumental in saving all of our lives. At the time, we lived on the ground floor of 71 East Fourth Street. There was an airshaft that was used by tenants to hang clotheslines. Our kitchen window was angled against the kitchen window of the ground floor of the apartment of the house next door. The apartment in the rear had the same arrangement.
We were a family of eight and slept in two beds. It was my habit to sleep with my head under the covers. The cover was a pehrena–a thick, down quilt. It was midwinter and I slept blissfully, but was awakened by a scream-shout from my mother. Coming up from under the quilt I discovered her and my mother scrambling on the floor and my brother stumbling towards the living room windows. I jumped out of bed and helped him open the windows, letting the freezing air in. He opened the front door and shouted and soon the apartment was swarming with half-dressed neighbors and very quickly police and emergency truck men who held a cone over the noses of each member of my family, and though I obviously didn't need it, the man in charge looked at me and decided to make my day. He held the respirator over my nose and told me to breathe deeply.
My mother was up, my aunt was up, the kids were up, Hy was up, and I was up. Coal gas from the faulty furnace had almost wiped us out. It seems Aunt Bertha had to go to the bathroom, had gotten out of bed, become dizzy, and had fallen down. The noise awakened my mother, who went to her assistance, also became dizzy, and had also fallen down. She had shouted and Hy had gotten up. She shouted for him to open the front room windows and I had awakened to help him. We felt heroic and immensely happy. It was quite theatrical. Our pictures were in the center section of The Daily News. I was a celebrity in school...for a day.
The man who lived in the apartment fronting ours was found to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
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Hy liked to recite poetry. He loved Robert W. Service and Kipling and, copycat that I was, I too started reciting them. "Gunga Din," "Fleurette," "The Face on the Barroom Floor," many, many more. Those were his apolitical years. Later on he started to recite excerpts of a more revolutionary nature from soapboxes at Stuyvesant and Union Squares. I never felt smart enough to confront hecklers or answer questions about the state of the world.
I was very good at recitations. I was always chosen first in class. However, I guess my sins caught up with me in about the fourth grade. I was given a recitation to memorize by my teacher. Proudly I took it home and studied it. The house was in a bit of a shambles as we had just moved in our downward spiral. Barrels of dishes, pots and pans, food, bedding and farshideneh chazerai cluttered the kitchen. I put my speech down and that was the last I saw of it. I should have; of course I should have; I should have told my teacher, but I was ashamed. I wanted to find it. The days flew by. I couldn't find it. The teacher asked me once in a while how it was coming. I had the opportunity to confess, but by now I was frightened. Finally push came to shove. . .she wanted to hear it.
I know it's not possible to remember a facial expression for close to sixty years, but I have such a sense of staring at the archetype of the betrayed one. There were pain, dismay, and thwarted mayhem on my teacher's face. I didn't get to make the speech.
In fifth grade I received, from another teacher, two awards, a praise card for Enunciation and another for Cheerfulness. I don't think I was that calculating, but every time my teacher looked at me I was smiling. As for enunciation, Ahvahdeh.
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My sister, Sylvia was (is?) an epileptic. The story was that at the age of two she had been frightened by a mad dog. She was a very bright kid, but the seizures affected her brain through the years. She was never stupid, but any of her days or nights could be blighted by a spell. The doctors said that some damage was caused–I think tiny hemorrhages occurred and a subtle change was taking place. The spell would come upon her suddenly. The first awareness of it was an eerie low-pitched moan that grew in volume as her body would thrash about, her muscles become tight, her jaws clamp, her eyes bulge. And the moan would grow to an ever-louder groan. She could not be restrained; and when it appeared as though her arms would break from the strain, there would be a lessening in the quivering rigidity, her eyes would flutter, she'd breathe heavily and slowly relax.
In the throes of the attack, we had been given to fear that she might bite off a piece of her tongue, so we'd force a wooden object between her jaws. Medical literature today says it's not necessary.
Her spells frightened her classmates and her teachers, so she couldn't attend school. I would take her to a movie sometimes when she hadn't had a spell for a long time. She was being dosed with phenobarbitol and our hopes were always high that she would "outgrow" this curse. There was always an extra problem when we went to the movies. I had to make sure there were empty seats on either side of us. If not, we'd have to move, to avoid the hands that sought to "feel us."
Sometimes we'd sit through the whole show and everything was okey-dokey. Well, we might have to move once or twice. But too often, as I was absorbed in the movie, the moan would begin and I'd be unaware because of being rapt in the film. But the sound would grow and grow and I'd become alerted to it. I'd have to find some way to prevent her from biting her tongue. Once I jammed my finger between her teeth and almost had it bitten off before I could remove it. I'd lead her out of the movie house when she was strong enough to walk. We'd run the gamut of the disturbed, curious audience, and when we got home she'd go to bed.
We were not a particularly healthy family. I know that Hy had contracted infantile paralysis as a child, and it had left him, luckily, only with one shoulder lower than the other. This didn't interfere with his athletic competence. He was pretty good at stickball and softball and I think he even played some hardball. I remember watching a game in the Hebrew yard behind the Hebrew school we attended and hearing his team cheering him on, "Yonny, go! Run! Attaboy!" or something like that. I never associated with his friends.
I remember coming home from Central Park once and finding an ambulance in front of 57 East Fourth and watched as they took Millie and Irving and Abie out of the building on stretchers. They were taken to Bellevue for observation. At the time polio was hitting too many kids their age. They didn't stay long, but it was a scary situation. I was listed as malnutritious when I went out for the football team. I also had a heart murmur–I was hoping to suffer with it so I could catch up to the rest of the family, but it was meaningless. I must have been fifteen.
It was Mom, however, who suffered most. The pressures of raising five children and me grew too great for her. She lost weight, started coughing a great deal and had to go to Beth Israel Hospital. She had Consumption, a dread disease for which there was no cure except rest. T.B. It was whispered, not spoken aloud.
When I came to visit her she told me wrathfully about a young intern who would come into the ward and call out, a la Ted Lewis, "Is Everybody Happy?" My mother took it a couple of days and then lashed out at him.
"What's the matter with you? Is everybody happy! We're sick people here and we have pains and we suffer. How can you be so foolish?" she berated him. He ceased and desisted thereafter. Mom eventually improved in the hospital and came home.
We were getting some financial help from the Jewish Social Service. As Passover approached, they would send us to a place that supplied us with a considerable amount of clothing: suits and shirts and dresses and underwear and socks and shoes and handkerchiefs. . .They were a blessing. They also sent us to a place that was perhaps a mile away from home for food packages. My mother took me along to help her carry the boxes of matzos and matzo farfel and matzo meal and various other Passover food staples. They gave us plenty and we were both piled down when we left. I was about twelve and pretty strong, but the packages were bulky and heavy and home was forever away. My mother, always fighting to save pennies, weighed my struggles and stumblings against taxi fare. What a giant she was! On her own she would have continued until she dropped, but I got my first ride in a taxi: fifteen cents for the first quarter mile and five cents each additional quarter mile.
While her symptoms of T.B. had abated, Mom had to go back to the hospital for a mastoid operation. It's an operation on a bone in back of the ear ; and when she was brought up from the operating room, she had a gigantic bandage jutting out from the side of her head. I was the great hospital visitor. I'd usually be there when she came up etherized and wait till she woke. How feeble and pale she was. I'd hold her hand and wish her love and finally she'd waken and I'd start breathing again.
I don't know if I missed any visiting hours. I'd kiss her hello, give her the news, usually stay for the entire visiting hour and kiss her goodby. Hy visited also, but was always involved in some social or political activity and couldn't stay long.
One time, after just coming out of the ether after another mastoid operation, Mom was very upset. She held my hands tightly, kneading them as she pleaded tearfully, "Eddaleh, call Allentown. Something's happened. I know something's happened. Bertha–find out about Bertha."
"All right, Mama. I'll call, I'll call. I'm going right away. Just calm down. lt's bad for you."
Aunt Bertha, who had been feeling poorly, had been taken to Allentown. Uncle Julius Greenberg and his wife Sadie were taking care of her. I think they had put her in the hospital. My mother couldn't quiet down. A nurse noticed her and a doctor was called who gave her a sedative.
Who had money for a phone call? Not me. I walked home from Bellevue on twenty-sixth street to fourth street, found out where Hy was, listened as he approached this mystic instrument I had never used. He only needed a nickel to talk to Aunt Sadie in Allentown. A magic word "Collect."
Aunt Bertha had died.
Hy told the doctor, who listened as he tried to break to Mom gently. She was like a gathering storm, almost silent in her grief, then gathering power until, warding off the doctor's needle, she promised she'd control herself, but he had to discharge her. She must go to the funeral of her baby sister.
She got her way. The bulging white mastoid bandage bobbed as she mourned, she mourned, she screamed, she questioned God. The cemetery mohel snipped the boys' ties and the girls' something else's and held his hand out as he offered prayers to the gray, silent sky. When the wooden coffin was lowered and the handfuls of earth plopped on its lid, my mother tried to throw herself into the grave.
After the funeral my mother pressed her brothers and sisters for a proper stone. "Ahn ubgehackteh beym." A chopped-down tree to symbolize the death of a maiden. Generosity was held in check in my mother's family, but there was no stopping her when her cause was just. I don't know where that chopped-down tree is. I don't know where the unmarked pauper's graves are where any of my family was buried. It's probably a worthwhile pilgrimage.
Due to my mother's chronic illness, and against my mother's will, Sylvia was sent to Craig Colony, Sonyea, New York, a sanatorium for illnesses such as hers. We'd send her packages of food about once a month and I'd write my mother's dictated letters occasionally. She came home for a visit once in a while but her condition worsened. Possibly because of the atmosphere of hopelessness that must exist in places where people can see mirror images of themselves becoming weaker and suffering more attacks despite heavy doses of drugs, Sylvia's sense of hopelessness led her to superstitious hopes for miracles, and eventually she turned to Christ. It didn't cure her, but it gave her hope.
Mom tried to go back to work when she returned from the hospital but the sputum cup at her bedside showed pink and the doctors told her she had to go to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Catskills. The furniture was put in storage and the family parceled out. Hy was seventeen and was accepted at the Lavenburg Corner House, which was a youth home. The administrators tried to find jobs for the boys who stayed there, and meanwhile there was a game room with a pool table and some card tables with checkerboards in their centers. There was a large dining room and each boy had his own private room.
Sylvia was in Craig Colony and the kids and I were sent to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. We all stayed at The Reception House, which was a kind of quarantine area. I was fourteen and my first night there, along with about twenty other children of various ages–six to fourteen–and various sexes–male and female–was viewed by a female authority and her female companion. The viewing consisted of uncovering the lower parts of our anatomies, raising our uniform nightgowns and exposing our genitals, which were sometimes fingered by the authority. Since I had been sent to summer camps twice, it was no novelty to have women look at my privates and tell me to cough, but I was still embarrassed. One fellow my age refused to comply and was adamant in his refusal despite being scoffed at by the female authority. Henry Wolfe became my very good friend.
My kid brothers and sister only spent about a week at The Reception House and then were transferred to the large building that constituted the orphan asylum. They went to school there, had recreational facilities, and became absorbed in the community. Henry Wolfe and I stayed on there and we had a pretty good time. No school, and we played ball and talked about whatever it is that boys talked about then.
I was pitching a soft ball game one day and a ball came straight at me. I held out my hands and the ball hit the end of the little finger on my right hand and the top two joints went to the right, the bottom joint stayed right where it belonged. I had a dislocated finger and was hurried to the physician at the Home clinic. He gave it a jerk and it straightened the finger, though I still have a bulge on the bottom knuckle.
For some reason that I can't fathom, another boy and I were chosen to go out on the town with one of the matrons. She was an extremely pleasant person and took us to the Loew's State in the morning to see a movie and vaudeville. I remember the songs, "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You, You Devil, You Dirty Dog," and "Underneath the Harlem Moon," being sung, but I forget the movie.
Then we went to Chin Lee's and had a delicious unkosher meal. After that we went to the Rodeo at Madison Square Garden. The whole day was a trip to dreamland.
I was eventually sent to live with a family in Elmhurst, Queens. There were two other boys from the Home living there. They were sixteen year old twins and both were members of the high school football team, tall, broad, powerful fellows. I shared a room with them. They weren't particularly friendly, and I used to wonder if a fourteen-year-old could win in a fight with a sixteen-year-old. That's as far as it went–wondering.
The family consisted of a mother and father and three children; a boy about twenty-five, another about seventeen and a girl I can't remember, but probably an adult. They used to play a great deal of bridge and I'd watch, and I learned something about the game. They played Auction and I would be too eager to make my bid to realize that a bird in the hand was not worth two in the bush. You got credit for what you made even if you bid low and made a grand slam. It took a long time for that to penetrate.
I remember the seventeen year old son of the family was very supportive and would praise me and call to the attention of whoever was in the room any good play I made. The mother and daughter were kind, the father didn't concern himself with me, and the football players resented having to take "the kid" along when they were practicing.
I was there for about four or five months I guess, and then my mother improved enough so that she was able to convince the doctors that her health would suffer if she weren't permitted to be with her children. The homecoming was pretty nice while it lasted. There were interims of my mother's going back to the hospital when the sputum cup looked suspicious, and then returning home again and again. I don't think my behavior improved. There are stories about my having a nervous breakdown, but I lay that to the natural tendencies of story tellers to indulge in exaggeration. (Not me, of course.)
I think I enjoyed the reputation of being bad. My mother had her collection of curses she leveled at me. "Ah schvartz yore of dir! (You should have a black year!) Ah chahleryeh zulst du choppin! (A plague on you!)Phar vuss hut Gutt mir gischtrofft? (Why has God made me suffer with such as you?) Du bist ahzay vie dyne totten, ah selfisheh chahleryeh! (You're the same as your completely selfish father!) Ah meshugenah! Bist duch a mishugeneh!" (You're crazy!) And other forgotten ones.
But if I did get sick, she brimmed, she flowed, she radiated tenderness: "Mein tahyerer." (My dear one) "My sweet one, my poor child. Oy Guttenyu," (Oh, Dear God.) "Hubrachmunis ahff der kind!" (Have pity on the child!)
And of course, there would be the conversations, the dreams of a Jewish Mother. "Kenst zyne a ducter. No, bist nisht a zeh shane, hust a prusteh shanekeit, ubber bist nisht mierse." (You could be a doctor. No, you're not so good-looking. You have common good looks, but you're not ugly.)
We were a cheek-kissing family; no lips. But we hugged and we shouted and we laughed and some of us cried. It would drive me crazy when the kids argued, talked too loudly, or laughed too hard. I would lash out at them. I was a reader, not a scholar, but I didn't want to be disturbed. I really was a selfisheh chahleryeh.
Hy was the bright one in the family. The trouble was that his effort dropped down. He quit high school, took a civil service exam for postal clerk and, no mean feat, got a job as mail carrier. That was big money in those days. I don't remember how long he kept it.
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