MY SISTER RENEE

I have been penning this opus for about 36 years. Lot’s of things have happened during that time that have affected my relationship with my older sister. Renee has always been a special person in my life. In her own version of her autobiography, she recounts the many times that she was responsible for me when mom was off working. She has also been the only viable link with my father. Renee was born on May 12, 1931. My father died on Feb 12, 1943.
Her memory of my father is spotty at best and clarifying about her own early life. She had a limited relationship with Murray Rubin. He was not around most of the time. He either worked at Rubin’s Bookbindery on Hudson St. ( grandfather was the owner), or was off doing his best to be a rabid baseball fan, baseball player and boxer. My dad boxed under the name, “Kid Russia.” He was a sparring partner for a number of the well known fighters and later a kind of fists for hire person in the neighborhood.
Renee sometimes accompanied him on his sojourns to ball games, both hockey and baseball. She claims that she went to her first hockey game when she was three or four. She further claims that I went when I was 6 months old.

Sister Renee claims that dad was not the hail fellow well met or Ozzie Nelson kind of dad. He very often was in a bad mood and did not pay too much attention to her throughout her growing up. She bears him no malice, nor does she express any love for him. Her view of him is colored by our mother’s feelings about being abandoned both before and after his death. She claims not to be very interested in finding out anything more about him, and she spends little time discussing him with me. A pity, for I am intensely interested.

Reench is like that- self absorbed, with a set of her own priorities which do not consist of things outside of her immediate family- her children and grandchildren. She has become more interested in what I do as she has gotten older. She loves her brother as she loved him when she was responsible for him. To Renee, I am still that touseled haired kid that hung around her and her boyfriends when she wanted to be alone with them

Renee is bright and has always been a shining star. She still is an avid reader, a pointed commentator on things political and a real student. I admired her from the time that I can remember. She was so obviously a talented person and destined to go far in the world. I was part of her world because my own world was limited by the 6 day school week, going to Synagogue and listening to the radio.

Renee would take me to her friends home- Charlotte Shustrin, Doris Lifschutz, Judy Chernin, and Arnold Bernstein. She took me to the movies on Delancey St., and in New York to the Astor and the Victoria ( where my mother got us in for free). She is my connection to some of the happiest times in my early life.

I studied with Renee. I quizzed her when a test was in the offing. I helped her to memorize vocabulary words- both English and French, helped her to paste pictures in a book she made about the Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, listened to her as she played a part in a show and generally kept up with her grades and her boyfriends. I knew and went to the jobs that she had and celebrated when she was notified that she had gotten a scholarship to Brandeis University. She never went.

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1949 and WILLARD PARKER HOSPITAL

Now it looks like 1949 was a seminal year in my life. I never realized that one year could contain so many changes to one small boy’s existence. Although my sister Renee was offered a scholarship to Brandeis, my grandmother would not let her go. It was too far away and that was unacceptable. Looking back at it now, Brandeis was not the college it is now. It was in its first year and Renee would have been in the first freshman class. I am not sure, even to this day, what the discussions were about Renee going to school, but she decided that she would go to Brooklyn College and become a teacher.

The world was gay and cheery in 1949. Korea had not yet made its appearance on the world stage. Harry S. Truman was still basking in the glow of a post world war II economy and well being . Mom had worked as a waitress for the 6 years since my father died and had accumulated $10,000 in her bank account- a tidy sum in those days. Renee had graduated from high school and was on her way to college. Mom was going out with some prospective husbands ( some old and rich, some younger and poorer). She was about 38 at the time.

The Summer was going to be a bunch of fun. We were going to spend time in the mountains. We had chosen Mountaindale, the place where my grandmother had her rooming house. We were to go with my mother’s sister Ida, her son Marty, her daughter Rhoda and my sister Renee. We rented a bungalow ( a word that does not seem to exist these days) and spent our time picking blueberries, swimming and generally having a gay old time.

Sometime at the beginning of August, I began to feel ill. I did not want to eat. I had pains in various parts of my body. My mother became frantic with worry. One night, she implored another guest named Eddie to drive us down to New York City and enter me into Willard Parker Hospital on 14th street near the East River.

By the time I got there, I was unable to walk. I was brought into the hospital in a wheelchair. A number of white coated medical professionals examined every part of my anatomy. I had no idea what they concluded. They put me into a bed in a kind of glass partitioned room . As I lay there in bed, I was determined that I was not going to die. Nor was I going to stay in that alien smelling place. I reached above my head and plastered my hands against the cool glass. I raised my body as far as my knees and was on the verge of standing, when my legs collapsed.

The noise of the collapse brought back the white coated professionals. They tried to calm me but I was focused on getting up and leaving. I believe that they injected me with some sort of sedative, but to this day have no idea what it might have been. When I awoke it was morning and I was in a crisply sheeted bed in a large ward with all sorts of people in it.

I raised my groggy head and peered around. The ward’s inhabitants were of a number of ages, from the middle 20’s to a dark haired young man in a large metal cylinder ( later identified as an iron lung). He was said to have had bulbar polio, whatever that meant. I lay in the bed till some orderlies came and asked me if I was hungry. They had a mobile carrier with a number of trays on them. They pulled one off and offered me some milk, a hard boiled egg, some soggy toast and orange juice.

I tried to get some information from these men, but they claimed that they had no idea of anything. They did tell me that this was the polio ward. I had not heard of that word. I rolled polio over in my mind. It terrified me at first, but as I repeated to myself, it grew less daunting. I guessed that I had a thing called Polio. I could not get up, but I was in a hospital with other polio victims. There was no one there to confirm or deny any of my conclusions.

I was too involved in my own thinking to attempt to communicate with any of the other people in the beds around me. That lasted for a few days. After a time there were calls to people across the aisle and messages passed between those who were ambulatory. Not everyone was unable to walk. As time went by, it was apparent that there were differing levels of polio.
Physical therapy was a staple of the treatment for polio along with Sister Kenney treatments. Large men with white coats would come into the ward and set off a series of screams from each of the people that they touched. Although I had a high tolerance for pain, the thought of these “goons” breaking one of my legs, or twisting in a way that god did not mean for it to go, insinuated into my mind.

In fact, I always felt a lot better after the treatments, which were then followed by hot woolen blankets that passed for the Sister Kenney treatments. The temperature of these blankets was scalding. They were brought to the bedside in some sort of heating device. They smelled of wool and various unguents. One blanket on your back and you remembered the treatments forever. I can still remember the boiling hot wool smell even after all of these years.
From time to time, a number of physicians made their way into the ward to examine the patients. Chief among these doctors was a woman in her 40’s or 50’s, from Sweden.. She was said to be the greatest expert on polio in the world. I was happy to see her and appreciated her cool ministrations. It gave me some hope that this would soon be over. In some sense I was correct.
As you can imagine, laying in a bed most of the day, talking to no one in particular, and listening to the radio weighed heavily on this 10 year old. My mother and her boyfriend, Charlie would come to visit once in a while. My sister Renee and grandmother would also visit from time to time. Charlie eventually became my stepfather and it is his last name that I bear.
Within a few weeks into my entry into the world of disinfectants and unguents, I was actually able to move around and walk. The walking was wobbly and uneven. One of my legs, my left, was the home of most of the residual affects of polio. My getting around was facilitated by an old wooden wheelchair. I was permitted this luxury for no apparent reason, other than my desire to get around and see things. It appeared that others in the ward were not of the same mind.
I had a ball careening around the ward causing trouble at each stop on my journeys. In one mad attempt to escape, I left the ward ( all male) and made my way to the women’s ward. There I encountered by first love- a stringly 11 or twelve year old whose name did not register on my memory. For the next few weeks, we rode everywhere together in the hospital and eventually creating a routine that led us to the children’s ward. There, in cooperative repose, we were allowed to spoon feed some of the very young children who were not able to eat on their own.
I can’t imagine a modern hospital allowing that to occur. I was thoroughly entranced with this young lady and wound up having dreams about our marriage. Funny, as close as we got, I still cannot remember her name. She was released sometime before me, never to be heard from again. I returned to my carryings on and trips around the wards. I was close to being released.
One day, mom appeared with Charlie and announced that they were getting married. I was shocked. I did not know that they were serious about each other, nor did I know at the moment that my mother was pregnant with my sister Sherie ( Sheryl Ann). Charlie and mom were beaming and encouraged me to be happy because I now had a father. Charlie promised that he was getting tickets to the World Series. My team, the Dodgers were playing the Yankees and he was going to take me to one of the games. We never went and Charlie really never fulfilled his role as my father.

A SAD THING HAPPENS IN MY FAMILY

About 10 years ago a bunch of us were standing around around at a celebration in our synagogue. For some reason, the eight of us were discussing our families when we discovered that all eight of us had fathers who had died before we were 11. We began to refer to ourselves as the “Dead Dad Society.” We all had a bunch of things in common, whether male or female. We were all poor, no place to go. Many of us went to live with grandparents and an insatiable curiousity about our departed dads.
My father died at age 36 on February 12, 1943. His passing was marked by two events that I remember clearly- the day he fell down in the kitchen, his face red and vein in his forehead throbbing and a strange vision of a little four year old boy sitting on a kitchen chair, eating pea soup, watching lines being painted on the street and then tying his shoes.
I was taught to tie my shoes by my sister Renee. She was very proud of her accomplishment. She was patient with me, while mom was so much more excitable. This was a terrible part of her life. Even though my father was rarely home- at the pool hall, a ball game, a hockey game, or maybe even at work, mom was devastated. We did visit dad in the hospital, but he died almost immediately.
Where could we go? Renee was finishing 6th grade, we had no money for rent. Mom was going to go out to work ( making bandages for the war), but who would take care of me. I was sent to day care for a while, but could not handle it. Amidst the screaming, Renee came and got me and that was the end of that. So we packed up and moved in with Grandma. Renee stayed with the Weinstein twins, Charlotte and Renee ( a real coincidence, since Renee’s best friend was Charlotte Shustrin) till the end of the year. We never saw Charlotte after that. Mom and Renee were not really the friendly kind of people who kept up with the people those with whom they had a relationship. Even today, Renee is proud to say that she has no friends, only acquaintances. She echoes mom’s voice when she says, “ Why do you need anyone other than your family?” Fortunately, her husband Stanley is the same way.
One can only imagine the kind of turmoil that went on in our small family. From an independent living space to living with grandma, grandpa and a border. The transition was quick and mostly seamless. It was a huge change in all of our lifestyles from which we grew into adults. Strict morality, prayer, orthodox Judaism ( for one little boy) and a plethora of experiences that would shape us all.

Marchione’s, Portnow’s and Charlotte Russe

I believe that I was somehow Manchurian Candidated by the Portnow Truss sign on Grand Street. It flashed on an off in my eyes for about 6 years when I was small. My first experience living in Grandma’s house was in the big bedroom in the middle of the Apartment that faced both Clinton and Grand Streets. The Portnow Truss sign ( and I did not know what a truss was until the Yiddish work Kileh was explained to me) was of a kind of organgish red that burnt into your retinas from three blocks away. Somehow, as I was growing up, I felt that I was in need of a truss, even when I found out what it was. I was given the idea that athletes wore trusses so that they would not get a hernia ( whatever that was).
There was no explanation for the Portnow Trusses, other than some brief mention of it when we all went to Coney Island and got beet red. It was then, amidst the smell of Noxsema that the sign had its biggest affect. It was downright annoying. On the hottest evenings in the Summer it would be laughing at us with its glaring luminescent, as if to say, “ See, if you had bought a truss, none of this would have happened.”
The other bright lights along Grand Street and really much closer, was the divine Marchione’s ice cream emporium. I was not aware of any other foods that might be sold there, but its ice cream was world famous ( or so I thought then). Walking into Marchione’s allowed this small boy to enter a world of frappes, black and white ice cream sodas, two cent plains, lime rickeys, vanilla malts and the unbelievable banana splits.
The lights were very bright in the ice cream parlor, and that it what it was- leather seats, small sextaganol tiles in white with black patterns, wire chairs and shiney tables, mirrors and the smell that dreams are made of. Each concoction was a work of art. The shakes were placed in a stainless steel container and placed under the Hamilton mixer. One could see the white liquid go back and forth in a wave fashion smelling brilliantly of malt. There are very few places where malteds are made outside of New York City. I have even tried to make one at home with little success. Something about the milk, the ice cream and malt in some happy combination made those malteds the stuff of dreams, or Willy Wonka.
Going to Manhattan on the subway was always a treat for this little boy of 8 to 10 years of age. For in no place else that I knew was there the cake and whipped cream delight of a Charlotte Russe. Even now, as I look at this page, I realize that the words mean a Russian Charlotte ( a queen perhaps, a delight at some foreign court in the 17th or 18th century???). The container was a stiff sort of paper or white cardboard. The kind that you used to get in new men’s shirts. It was scalloped, turned on itself into a circle with no bottom. In it was a vanilla or yellow cake of some short, piled high with whipped cream and topped with a cherry. I believe that it cost 10 cents and was only found in candy stores close to the subway. I have never seen it in any other place since then. It disappeared from my view and probably from the view of the rest of the world. If it does exist anywhere right now, it is probably delighting children whose mouths are now heaped full of cake and whipped cream.

GRANDMA

There are two pictures in my house of Frieda Bernstein (ne Petkofsky). One was taken at Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe’s wedding in 1943 and one of her as a younger woman. In each of these pictures you can see the toothy smile that characterized her at her finest. I have told stories about grandma to my wife , children and grandchildren, but have never really captured the contradictions, the venom, or the acceptance of her fate.
Grandma and Grandpa Israel had an arranged marriage. She was 5 foot 5 and called the Hoche (tall one) in her town of Rozhnoi ( now Ruzhany) in what is now Belarus. Grandpa was 4 foot 10 in his stockinged feet and not known as anything in his nearby village of Prozhnoi. It was not a match made in heaven.
They were married in 1898 and had at least 7 children. Four of them survived. They were in order- Ida, Sonia (my mother), Morris and Ruth. Grandpa left Eastern Europe in 1912 on the ship Kaiser Wilhelm, just as the war clouds were gathering in Europe. He worked as a coal gatherer, seller and made very little. He eventually became a paint mixer and died of lead poisoning in 1950. Grandma and her brood were stopped from coming to the U.S. until 1921. I can only imagine the hardships that she and her children endured during those 9 years. Certainly the relationship, if there was any to begin with, was destroyed during that time. My grandmother and grandfather did not talk to each other directly until the day that he died. Many of us were used as intermediaries.

My mother told stories of her youth and my grandmother in a sotto voce when grandma was either out of the room or we were in another place. It appears that there might have been some happy times in Grandma’s life, but those were not spoken of openly. Somehow, Grandma accumulated some money during the 1920’s and was able to buy a summer rental property that she called a “Kochalein” (cook alone). The Lorraine Hotel was in Mountaindale, New York. It had a main building with a number of rooms for Jewish families escaping from the grinding summer heat of New York City. The bungalows in the back were never fully rented, allowing for family members, my sister and cousins among them, to have a great Summer vacation.
Sometime in the late 1930’s, before I was born in 1938, the property was sold, or taken from Grandma for taxes. I never knew why it happened, but that it was a source of great anger among Grandma and her children. We rarely spoke of it in a home where history was dissected on a daily basis. My mother especially told tales of the “old country,” her youth and her work.
One of mom’s stories has forever colored my feelings about the German people. During World War I, the town of Rozhnoi was part of the Russian Empire ( it is now in Belarus). Mom always described it as Russia-Poland, 125 miles South of Vilna, Lithuania. The Russians ( or Cossacks as Grandma would call them) treated the Jewish people in those Eastern European towns horribly. You may recall at the conclusion of that wonderful musical Fiddler on the Roof, the Russian soldiers (Cossacks) come into the town of Annatefka and burn it down.
At some part of World War I, the German soldiers liberated the town of Rozhnoi. For a short period of time, the inhabitants were treated in the same way that Jews were treated in the German Empire. Mom told me of the German soldier who have her a chocolate bar.
Her face always lit up when she described the moment of tasting the chocolate, which may have been the first time that happened in her life. A German medical officer lanced an abcess on my mother’s neck. He also wanted to buy my mother from Grandma. Grandma refused.
Sometime later, the Germans had to retreat from the town and the Russians came back in with a vengeance. The rounded up all of the important people in town brought them to the square, lined them up and shot them. My mother and all of the other inhabitants were made to watch the horror. Mom could never understand what happened later in Germany. To her last, she remembered that German soldier who gave her the chocolate and not the maniacal fiend that turned Germany into hell on earth.

Grandma was never quite as open about her past as Mom was. She mostly told stories of family- of great get-togethers and great food. I have concluded, from my life’s experience that food is the great common denominator among ethnic people. The long road from dirt poor to respectability is paved with large portions of fattening meals and diabetes- inducing sweet things.
It is no coincidence that going out to a restaurant for modern day ethnics is an echo of a past that, at one time, lacked adequate nutrition. I once heard Roy Campanella, catcher from the Brooklyn Dodgers, explain to a group of reporters why he put 6 or 7 pats of butter on his bread. “When I was a kid growing up in Philadelphia, we didn’t have any butter. Now that I can afford to, I am going to put as much butter on my bread as I can.”

For our family, food was a symbol of the bounty of America. Can you imagine the Statue of Liberty standing in New York Harbor, arms outstretched to the wretched of the world inviting them all to come here to this land of plenty with a corned beef sandwich in her hand.