EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
Near the end of my sixteenth year, my mother's sputum showed blood and she went back to Beth Israel for an extended stay. A woman was sent by the Jewish Social Service to take care of the children. She was crabby and I was surly and after awhile she didn't come back. Hy and I took care of things in a rather slovenly manner. Sylvia was at Craig Colony so that left us five. The Eldridge Street apartment was short on rooms. One entered through the kitchen; there was a short hall, a small room with my army cot and a bureau upon which my ten gallon tank sat ; another small hall with an army cot sticking into my room, where twelve-year-old Irving slept; a bedroom for Millie and my mother, where Mom slept when she was home; and the front room, with a bed for Hy and Abie.
On a good hooky playing morning, I awoke to find a stranger in my room. It seems that Irving had been complaining of a headache and Hy had run downstairs to the candystore to call a doctor. I felt embarrassed and a bit ashamed to be in bed when something was obviously wrong. The doctor glanced at me with disapproval and told Hy that Irving had to go to the hospital; he would send the ambulance.
They took him to Gouverneur Hospital. He had T.B. meningitis and I didn't know what it was; and when I asked, I was given evasive answers. When I visited Irving, he was in a crib-like bed, with bottles and tubes hanging about him. There were no special visiting hours for him. I stood over him, watching him breathe; his eyes were closed and he was pale. A large housefly buzzed about him and I attempted to brush it away without disturbing him. It landed on his dry, chapped lip and I brushed at it angrily but carefully. I kept guard over my brother against a fly. Eventually I chased it out of the room and went back to watching Irving. Was he breathing? Was that a death rattle? I couldn't tell. I went out into the hall and found a nurse and stumblingly asked her to come with me. She felt his pulse, pulled the sheet up over his head and disconnected the various tubes. Then unlike the Florence Nightingales in the movies she left me standing there without a word. It was November 14, 1935.
When I got home, I got a coconut custard pie and a bottle of milk from Dolinsky's grocery store on credit, made my favorite concoction of milk, sugar and cocoa and gorged myself. I wasn't hungry, I was empty.
I visited Mom that night and it was a pleasant visit. No psychic phenomena clouded her thoughts. She asked about the kids, of course, and I told her the truth about almost everything. She talked about coming home and so did I.
After the funeral, my Aunts Sadie and Helen visited Mom in the hospital. They were cheerful generally, but occasionally a face would twist.
Mom said she had to go back to the sanatorium for a while, but she was sure that this time she would be better. She was a little distressed by the atmosphere created by her sisters, but I was able to persuade her that they were just worried about her.
So the kids that were left went back to the home, except for me. I joined Hy at the Lavenburg Corner House and got a couple jobs that seemed perfect for me. I got a job in a Billy Rose's Pet Shoppe on Fifth Avenue between 28th and 29th Street. I took care of the tropical fish and the birds and dogs–I even helped attempt to get two Irish setters to mate. I worked six and a half days a week from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for six dollars a week. I was enraged when the boss took me across the street to an ice cream parlor and treated me to a thirty-five cent ice-cream soda. I had never had one before and I guess I should have been grateful, but I was angry. I could find a better use for thirty-five cents.
There was a girl who worked there who was about five years older than I. We went to 23rd Street Park once to eat our lunch. She drank about a pint of port wine. I tasted it. I did all the cleaning up in the place, and I found that looking into fish tanks this way didn't give me any kicks. I felt like a flunky and began to resent doing dirty work while this girl did nothing. I finally quit for no special reason.
This was a pretty great disappointment to my counselor at Lavenburg. I had told him what I was interested in and he had tried to satisfy my interests, and I had failed him. He tried again. He got me a job in a dog and cat hospital on 94th Street and First Avenue. I could classify myself as a Veterinarian's Assistant. The owner and head was a man of about fifty-five, and his assistant was a recently graduated veterinarian about twenty-two.
I got thirty dollars a month plus room and board. I was on call twenty-four hours a day, and I slept in the spacious attic in a tiny, uninsulated cubicle. They provided me with a gas heater. I was in a quandary about using it. I'd have hated to walk in one morning and find myself asphyxiated. It was cold in January and February!
The job interested me. I got the chance to hold dogs and cats of all sizes helpless so that they wouldn't scratch or bite the operating veterinarian. Operations weren't carried on because of illnesses. They were performed in order to avoid the nuisances that animals in heat can be to their kindly owners.
Females went through a much more severe ordeal than males. The operation for sterilization was called an oophorectomy. It involved the removal of the ovaries and it was a major operation, done, hopefully, while the animal remained unconscious. Depending upon the weight, a specific number of nembutal capsules would be administered orally by me. Then an ether cone would be held over the nose, and the assistant (I) would attempt to make sure the patient would hover in the zone of not waking and not dying. Sammy watched an operation once, but had to walk out to avoid fainting.
Sometimes it wasn't easy. Shallow breathing can become no breathing quite quickly. When it did, there would be a roar of frustration from the surgeon. He would do several things to get the heart beating again–pour ether into the incision, blow in the patient's mouth, slap it on the chest, and finally pick it up and swing it around, and very often he succeeded in bringing the animal back to life. Those that died were apologized for and were disposed of, as the owner wished, for a moderate fee–perhaps fifteen dollars. Animal lovers paid. Disposition was in the garbage truck that came around. At least, the animal was shrouded in either a rag or a bag, and the driver and helper would be remembered at the season to be merry.
The males would stand, after having been doped to make them unresponsive to rough treatment. Their scrota would be tied tightly so that the testes bulged. There would be two quick slices with the scalpel and the male seed carriers would pop out, their umbilicals cut. The incision sutured, the neuter was safely through its ordeal. I never enjoyed watching that, I guess I empathized too much.
In the echoing din of the morning's squeals, yelps, snarls and yipings I would clean out the soiled cages and mop them, and eventually the room, with a carbolic compound that was both disinfectant and deodorant; feed the animals; and take those that needed walking, walking. The need was due to worming. I would give the chosen ones their worming pills (amount determined by the doctors) and watch them as they strained and evacuated roundworms.
Those animals got back at me. For years, the occasional nightmare would visit me. I would dream that I was evacuating, but not rectally; I would be vomiting never-ending streams of wiggling, foaming ascarids. I'd wake up gagging, not screaming.
Sometimes I had to deal with vicious dogs, and I still shudder a bit at the fearsome threat that can be conveyed by a serious of harsh snarls. I also was fortunate to deal with many wonderful, soft-hearted, soft-eyed, snugglers. Sometimes I had to kill an animal. Owners who couldn't bear to watch their loved creatures suffer from pain-wracking terminal illnesses would request euthanasia, and I would be the administrator. It wasn't fun. I would be as kind as possible, inject the strychnine-loaded needle into the heart, and hold the animal as it quickly expired. The disposition, always an extra payment by the thoughtful master or mistress, was in the garbage truck.
I visited the kids at the HOA every once in a while and they seemed to be doing all right. Sylvia would write to my mother occasionally, and outside of one difference of opinion, Hy and I got along well. He wanted me to march in the May Day Parade and I couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't know why exactly; I guess I wasn't that politically inclined. I was certainly not anti-communist. One of my favorite heroes of all times was Robeson, who may or may not have been, but his sentiments were exceedingly clear. Hy really got hot, but the hotter he got, the less impact he had on my resolution. I know it wasn't spite. I didn't march.
* * * * *On June 9, l936, I got a message at the Lavenberg Corner House to come to the orphan asylum. I was shown to a hospital ward on the grounds, and Abie lay in a crib with various tubes stuck in various places in his arms. He didn't recognize me. It seems he had scraped his knee while running and playing, it had become infected, the infection had entered the bone, and he had developed osteomyoletis. He died the next day. I think I was there, but I don't remember. He was buried in the same Potter's Field in Queens where Irving was buried.
Aunt Sadie couldn't keep her tears back when she visited Mom after the funeral. Mom wanted to know what was wrong. Nobody could or would tell her and she actually quivered in agitation. My aunts made hurried excuses and left.
"Ich darf zehn deh kinder," she wept.
"Mom," I said, "they can't let kids come into a TB ward."
"Eddahleh," she tore at my heart, "in the doorway."
"Mom, they won't do it," I cried. "Wait, wait, wait! What about if I get the principal at the school to send a note about how they're doing? Wouldn't that be okay?"
I got in to see the principal and explained why I wanted what I needed. I explained my mother's illness, her extreme worry, her weakness, and a ton of bricks fell on me when he refused.
"Just a note," I begged. He shook his head.
I stalled Mom a few days. Aunt Sadie came again–again with the tears of compassion for my poor mother.
When she left, I was alone, and my mother was a clawing, begging, tearful, whispering, promising, quivering wreck. The words gushed from her. They became one gigantic, "Please!"
"Mom, I'll tell you, but you gotta promise me; you gotta promise me–"
I don't know what I said. How could I ask her to promise not to be affected? Yet that's what I wanted from her. And she–she would have promised anything. She had to know. It was killing her not to know. So I dropped the bricks on her heart one at a time.
"Irving got sick in November. He got very sick."
"Very, very sick." I choked out.
"So what happened?" her voice was rising.
"Mom, you promised! I won't tell you."
There was no pause. "Tell me!"
"He died, Mom."
"Oy Gottenyu! Toit? Mein kind? Far vuss, Gott? Far vuss?"
I was on a track now too. "Mom?"
She could feel it. Her moaning died. "Mehr? There's more?"
"Toit! Mom, please," I whispered as she was suddenly silent. And then her voice started to rise and a nurse was in the room and I was suddenly confronted with people asking questions and I stared at accusing faces twisted in disgust at the barbarian to whom they listened.
My brother tried to console me, agreed that she was suffering tortures that were being heaped upon her with no malice. At the funeral he berated my Aunt Sadie for causing my mother's death by her inability to control herself. Youth forgets. But when Hy, Sammy, and I stopped off at Aunt Sadie's when I was driving us down to Florida for a summer vacation, Danny ordered us out of the house because of the accusation. Children love their mothers, I guess.
When I came to the hospital in the morning, I was told I had to identify my mother. I was led down and down and down to a large rectangular room, On one long side of which was a wall made up of what appeared to be metal files. In a businesslike manner a figure that remains shrouded in my memory led me to one of the files, took it by the drawer pull and drew my mother out.
I looked at this familiar, yet strange creature dressed in a white cotton hospital gown. Her jaws were clenched shut; her face was ashen. I wanted to kiss her, but I held back in embarrassment, or was it the fear of death? This was my mother! Should I kiss her? Could I kiss her? What kind of beast was I?
The drawer was closed. My decision was made for me.
* * * * *
It was a moist, mournful morning. The same rituals that I was becoming too familiar with took place. The ancient rending of the garments of the bereft had evolved to a snip of an old tie or of the collar of a carefully selected rag of a dress. The seedy looking, black-bearded chanter of gibberish held out his imperative palm, collecting from the small group who had come to see my mother into the earth. There were no eulogies given. I followed the lead of others who threw a fistful of earth on the wooden coffin. That was the end of the ceremony. We didn't stand around to watch the grave filled.
Only Hy and I were there. Sinki was at her sanatorium and Minki had been sent to the HOA camp. As we walked to where the cars were parked, Hy told me that Uncle Joe wanted us to move in with him. That was okay with me. We got into the few old Fords and Chevies and rode to the gates of the cemetery. A new Oldsmobile sedan blocked our caravan. A man got out of it. I knew him. I hadn't seen him for eight, nine years, but I knew him. I started toward him. I didn't know what I intended doing. Hy stopped me with a hand on my shoulder and said softly, "Wait!" He walked over to our father.
I had yearned for a father all my life, but I didn't, couldn't want this one. I stared at him and rebelled at my own feelings. Despite myself I was attracted to him.
I remembered a conversation that had taken place before the funeral. My Uncle Julius was holding forth in that unique mixture of Allentownian drawl and Yiddish accent. "It's happened before; it'll happen again. The children go back to the father." I'd thought it too ridiculous to discuss. For too many years I had fed my hatred by totting up the things I blamed him for.
And then Hy came back to me and said we should go back to him! I was flabbergasted. "Like hell–"I growled.
Hy interrupted me. "I can't see any other way. He's gonna take Sinki out of Craig Colony and put her in a foster home until he can set up a home for us all. He'll help us get along until we can get to be a family again. You'll finish high school and he'll help me get a job in fur."
School had been meaningless to me since the deaths of my kid brothers. I'd always been a hooky-player, but I'd been smart enough to pass everything but French, and the teacher had made a deal that he'd pass me if I didn't take the Regents. Who cared? And–and with Mom dead? I didn't care if I never went to school again, but what Hy was saying shook me up. I didn't feel I could argue with him.
We said goodbye to the relatives. There were shakings of heads, but no outright, "I told you so," though there might just as well have been. Then we went to the Olds and my father perfunctorily introduced us to a woman named Jean, asked Hy to sit in the back next to her, and had me sit in the front. After he had driven for a few minutes, he took his right hand from the wheel and laid it on the back of the seat behind my head. After a few moments he tried to caress my head. I angrily brushed his hand away. He didn't try again.
* * * * *