Mine was a 1940’s and 50’s childhood, full of the optimism and promise that looked forward to the next half of the century, knowing, as my father said, that the worst of times was behind us.
I was eight in 1950, so I can’t recount my childhood in detail. In fact, I can’t remember it with consistency. I have only sporadic memories of the 40’s—they appear as tableaux. A glimpse here of a little girl on the roof of a six-story building in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan on a dark, un-starry summer evening watching her mother take sheets off the drying line so they couldn’t be seen by enemy planes if they flew over. A wisp of an image there of being pinched and hugged by relatives and sent off to my grandparents’ bedroom to play with those fox-fur stoles all my aunts wore—those funny animal skins piled on the bed whose heads could bend around and bite their tails so they would stay on when worn around the neck. I couldn’t imagine how these stoles could keep someone warm, and why anyone would want to wear one. I would be sent off because the grown-ups wanted to whisper about Sam and Sarah, who were coming and who silently bore numbers tattooed on their arms. I saw Sarah’s once when it was summer. Usually, though, she wore long sleeves. Sam always wore a suit, even in summer, so I never saw his. And once I overheard what I wasn’t supposed to. I’d imagined it was their fault, somehow. “A shanda,” the grown-ups said. “A shame.” I didn’t understand the horror, which was the reason I was sent off to play with the fox stoles when the whispering started.
The pictures are sketchy, remote, non-consecutive. I remember, too, snatches of songs of the ‘40’s, silly songs with lyrics like, “Mares eat oats and goats eat oats and little lambs eat ivy,” which were sung fast and the joke was they sounded all slurred together so you couldn’t tell the words apart—“Mairzy dotes and goteseedotes and little lamsy divy.” I memorized the slurred version, but later when I thought about it, the real version wasn’t any more sensible than the unarticulated one. My mother and her friends and cousins would sit around the living room looking very sophisticated and knowledgeable as they listened to those songs and gossiped and played Mah Jong and tended to us children.
“Little ones, come in here and dance for us,” they would call, and laugh tinkly laughs that blended with the tinkle of the teacups and sugar spoons. We were too shy to come in and dance to the music, so we always ran to the bedroom, though I, for one, would have walked through broken glass to have been able to muster up the courage to do something that would put me in their sightline for an extended length of time.
“Why didn’t you come in?” my mother would ask later. I would only shrug.
I thought they were beautiful in their slim-cut, high-shouldered dresses, hair piled high, cheekbones rouged, bathed in salts and perfume—so different from my grandmother and her friends in their ubiquitous house dresses and down-at-the-heel slippers, crushed almost flat by their overweight and stretched bodies, smelling faintly of onions and sweat. Mothers didn’t work then. Not even mothers like mine, who weren’t really rich in the ‘40’s. You didn’t need much to live comfortably in a Washington Heights apartment, and one job in a family was just about right. Two would be taking a job away from someone else who needed it more. That was also the time when a woman’s working implied that her husband couldn’t afford to support his family. At least that’s what it indicated in my family’s circle.
We were Jewish. Our whole world back then was Jewish. It was all I knew when I was a very little girl. The early images faded with time when we joined a less demanding religious congregation in the suburbs. The year back then went from Shabbat to Shabbat, from holiday to holiday, with comforting regularity. At first, we lived in the same building in Washington Heights as did my maternal grandparents. My grandmother’s mother lived there, too, with my grandparents, and on Friday mornings I would go downstairs from our apartment to theirs as soon as I woke up to watch my great-grandma bake challahs and rugelach. The smell of yeast still reminds me of those early mornings, especially the ones in winter when it was cold and I was wrapped in a sweater that was too large for me over my pajamas. My great-grandma would let me make a tiny challah, which I wouldn’t have to wait until sundown to eat. On holidays when we baked, she would tell me stories about the Jews. The stories were old stories, Biblical stories, which I’d later read in religious school; but when I heard them from her, they took on an immediacy they never had again. For many years I believed she, herself, walked with Moses in the desert with unleavened matzoh on her back.
That was the most special part of Shabbat and the holidays. The very private part I shared with my great-grandma before everyone else woke up. I remember, too, the celebrations. The seders with dozens of relatives all sitting in a line at a long snaky table made up of the dining room table and many bridge tables of varying heights that extended through the sunken living room living room and up the two steps to the foyer. My grandfather rattled off the Passover story in Yiddish, and for my little cousins and me it was endless. We waited, hungry, way past our usual dinner hour, for the time when we could eat the charoses and matzoh, and make wry faces at the bitter herbs. We’d slowly sink under the table, one by one, clued in by nods and winks from one another, until we were in our own world among the legs of the bridge tables and the shoes of the adults. We’d do it silently, suppressing giggles, convinced that we hadn’t been seen disappearing under the overlapping white tablecloths. We were small enough and the tables were wide enough to enable us to avoid touching any shins or knees. I can’t recall what we did down there. Perhaps nothing. The fun was in the disappearance. After we ate and before Elijah came, we’d sneak off to play with the foxes in the bedroom.
I remember, too, the observances—especially High Holiday mornings, when I was very little and we still lived in the same building as my grandparents. I would go with my grandfather to services and sit next to him and play with the fringes of his tallis in the rear of a hot synagogue, too far back to hear, so near the street that I could make a game of counting the sirens and bouts of honking from vehicles going by. We sat in the back because my grandfather couldn’t always go early. Most Saturdays and even some holidays he’d have to work in the morning or he’d lose his job as a fitter in the fur department at Bergdorf Goodman. He’d start work before I got up on Saturdays, and finish around late morning, with just a little time left to spend in shul. I didn’t wonder then, as I do now, why he didn’t just ask for the time. Bergdorf and Goodman were Jews, for heaven’s sake. My mother said the Jews who owned it were assimilated and wouldn’t understand. So he and I would walk into shul quietly, way after services started, to empty seats in the back, and he would pray fast and I would play equally as fast with the fringes of his tallis. Sometimes a Jewish holiday would fall on a Christian holiday, or a Sunday, and Bergdorf’s would be closed, so he could spend the whole morning in shul. I knew he loved those days, but the strings of the tallis weren’t interesting enough to keep me quiet for the whole service, so he generally wouldn’t bring me on those days. Occasionally on Shabbat I went to shul with my grandmother late in the morning, but I could see less from behind the wooden wall separating the men’s and women’s section than I could from the back of the room, and it was even hotter, so I’d squirm and she’d take me home. Now I wonder what the shul was like that my grandfather had left behind in Russia. Did he miss it, or did the memory of the Cossacks he repeatedly had to flee obliterate any hope of recalling the sanctity of the Sabbath?
As I said, I was 8 in 1950, and I had moved a few years earlier with my small post-war family from Washington Heights to the New York suburbs—New Rochelle, to be exact—and my memories started to take on more coherence. They form stronger images—not just isolated pictures, but continuous visions. My family seemed just like everyone else’s—two parents, my baby sister and I, and no dog. We collected more trappings to prove the bad times had passed forever. We still visited relatives in Washington Heights, and they occasionally came to us for lunch or dinner; but other visitors became more and more like us—young couples with small children living in other suburbs in Westchester or Long Island or New Jersey—and less like the old people who stayed behind in the city. Sam and Sarah came less and less to places where we went, and finally not at all, and the mood got lighter. Once when we were visiting my grandparents who still lived in the city, someone said, “I haven’t seen Sam and Sarah in a long time,” and the group, which had been laughing, stopped. They looked at me and I pretended I didn’t understand about going to play with the fox stoles. I just stood there looking down. I wanted to hear where they went, but no one said anything else. Finally someone said, “How about a game of cards,” and they all bustled about, moving card tables. That was the end of it.
It used to be that sometimes when we visited family who still lived in the City, the grownups would watch Milton Berle or Ed Sullivan on television. Only my Aunt Marion and Uncle Norman, who lived in the apartment next to my grandparents, had a television set then, and we’d all sit around the living room and watch, the kids hunkering on the short row of steps to the living room, and the adults on the chairs and couches. That was before Marion and Norman moved to Queens and my uncle, who had been in the army in France during the War, contracted tuberculosis. He got well—he stayed at home and took new miracle drugs and rested—but the illness was a drain, personally and financially, and their marriage foundered. After that they had two children—a boy and a girl—and stayed together for a while, but eventually they divorced, the first in the family. “How could they embarrass the family like this?” crowed my other aunts and their cousins, but later some of them did it, too. I guess it wasn’t as embarrassing anymore.
We kids could hardly see the small television screen from the steps to the living room, and sometimes we were sent in to the bedroom to play, but we always snuck back to watch. Our favorite act was Señor Wences, a sort of puppeteer who put lipstick on his thumb and forefinger, creating a face that could talk back to him and grimace. We laughed and laughed when he came on, and after it we’d sometimes go off and play without being told to do so, especially if singing came on next. Crooning, it was. It didn’t speak to us. We played with the fox stoles in winter, and in the warm months we’d sneak into the bathroom and blow soap bubbles. Once we tried painting our fingers with someone’s lipstick to imitate Señor Wences, but one of the aunts came in and a few of us got spanked for that. When we did stay to see the rest of the show, I particularly liked watching Carmen Miranda, who danced with a bowl of fruit on her head, and I was transfixed by the tapdancing legs coming from inside the life-size Lucky Strike cigarette boxes. One of my friends told me the dancers had nothing on inside the boxes and that sometimes they took the boxes off to bow. I waited to see that, but it never happened. Not while I was watching, anyway. Soon we got our own television in the suburbs, and the magic disappeared from the visits to my aunt and uncle in the city.
The suburbs offered much to my little family, struggling, though I didn’t know it, to become really American. Not just Eastern-European-American, but really American. I found out years after that it was the same for other groups, but then, all I knew was what I saw every day, and I knew the way they lived made my parents feel they had finally begun to fit in. It didn’t occur to me that we were just as isolated in our suburban ghetto as we had been in our city apartment. It didn’t occur to me because we had a big back yard, and neighbors’ children came over to play in it. I didn’t know that my neighbors were all from the same areas in Washington Heights and Brooklyn and the Lower East Side that we and my aunts and uncles and cousins were from. We lived in a duplex house and the yard was double-size. My parents believed they had found perfection, and I couldn’t challenge their assumptions. My father had a good job in sales in the city; my mother had her own washing machine; our refrigerator had a separate section that kept ice cream and vegetables and meats frozen fresh; and I went to a school that wasn’t overcrowded with “discipline problems.”
“No discipline problems in our school,” I’d hear my mother say on the phone to her sister-in-law in the city.
Then she’d say, “Too bad. You should get him out of there. Move out here. No discipline problems here. The kids are really advanced in class, too. They are learning social studies, and my girls do ballet after school. You should really be doing more for him. He’ll never become anyone staying in that school.”
I knew who was on the other end of the line. My cousin Richie’s mother—my father’s sister—was the only relative she could speak to in that way. Richie’s father, who hadn’t “done well,” actually didn’t do much. He had run a candy store once that had gone out of business, and Richie’s mother was a hard-working drone, dedicated to her son’s upbringing, but uncertain how to do it successfully. She was financially and psychologically unable to leave her old neighborhood. My mother knew all this, and I never understood why she persisted in giving Richie’s mother good advice. Maybe she really thought she was helping her sort things out. I didn’t want to believe my beautiful, gracious mother would purposely flaunt her privileges to a poor relative, so I made up excuses until I, too, wondered why my aunt and cousin didn’t just move to our town.
I grew ashamed of our city relatives after a while. “My parents are different,” I’d say to my city cousins. “They’re not immigrants, they’re real Americans.” The future would be perfect if only they could become part of this norm, with no more memories of the persecution suffered by older relatives. They wanted that future. America had no ills in store for them the way the old country did for their elders. It was all hope and promise. They would be the first generation to bring up their children without fear of being outsiders. America was different, and they could be part of it. They didn’t speak with accents, the way my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles did, and they didn’t dress the same or live the same. The past was behind them, and to be part of this mainstream you had to act like it, dress like it, talk like it, and my older relatives didn’t. My parents’ confidence was the reality, the only stance I adopted then.
The long summer evening playtimes after dinner were different from those in the City. For one thing, we could go out alone at that hour. In the City, my parents seemed young somehow. Now they seemed older, confident, and above all, secure. We had a car. Everyone had to in New Rochelle. It was how the men got to the station to board the trains for New York where they all worked. They would leave the cars at the station and pick them up at the end of the day; and when the wives learned to drive, the women would drop the men off in the morning and come back for them when the 5:25 pulled in. Sometimes my father had to work late and would make the 5:55, or even the 6:25. We children would eat early on those days. It was too long to wait the extra half hour or hour until our father came home. That also meant, though, that we could spend more time outside in the waning daylight, playing hide-and-seek until the moon came up. Then we’d bathe, and once in a very long while, we’d go outside again in our pajamas. Usually, though, we’d go to bed. I’d listen to the adults’ voices on the patio beneath my open window as they talked far into the night, until I fell asleep.
“Olee olee infree,” the older children would call, continuing their hide-and-seek games. For me, their voices blended in with those of the adults and with the night noises of the crickets and cicadas. I longed for the day when I would be old enough to always stay out past dark.
My parents were among the first of their friends to move from the City. They were better off earlier, and delighted to be in the vanguard of their relatives and friends. They reveled in being suburban. They joined local organizations—religious, civic—and became somebodies. My father even ran for office in one of those organizations. He practiced his campaign speech over and over again for hours every night. I can’t remember if he won the election, but I vowed never to run for anything if I had to memorize a speech like that. Some evenings my father’s friends would come over and they’d discuss important issues, such as whom they should vote for, Stevenson or Eisenhower. My father was for Eisenhower. All his friends were. I thought everyone was, except that once I heard him arguing loudly with one of my uncles in the City about Stevenson. I knew my father was right, though, because Eisenhower won. We had a mock election in my school and Eisenhower won there, too. We also had air raid drills in school. To avoid death and destruction from Russian atomic weapons, we were taught to crouch in the hallways and cellars of our school. I always felt very good about this because our school was largely cinderblock and I couldn’t imagine any Russian atoms getting through those walls.
On rare Sundays, those who were still living in the City came out to visit us in the “country.” After a while, their children didn’t seem the same as my suburban neighbors. They whined and they ran more slowly. I didn’t like them much. One of them was particularly irksome. Mara was short and overweight and shook her head a lot, and I always had to play with her when she came because we were the same age. She was a niece in the family in the other half of our duplex. They were old friends of my parents from Washington Heights and we had all moved into the duplex together. I don’t recall much about Mara except that when she came over I was always at a loss about what to play. She didn’t like any of my games and never volunteered any of her own. I remember having fun with her only once. It was a crisp, fall-blue October day and I could hear the cheers from the high school football game in the field across the street. I wanted to stay outside in the backyard to absorb as much as I could of the high school world. Mara wanted to play inside, so we compromised. We stayed in the garage and washed her uncle Melvin’s car. We used leaves for rags; and since the hose had been put away for the winter weeks earlier, we used a funny-smelling liquid in a can in the garage instead of water. It was Prestone antifreeze, and took the paint off Melvin’s car. The more the paint came off, the more Prestone we put on, hoping to undo what was happening. Mara went home before the clean car was discovered, and I remember hiding, terrified at what the grown-ups would do when they saw the vehicle. They were stunned into doing absolutely nothing. The crime was beyond yelling, beyond spanking, beyond any punishment imaginable. Not only was the car surface ruined, but the antifreeze was expensive and hard to find, even if you had the money in those days of shortages.
My parents agreed to pay for a new paint job, and a few hours after the discovery, when they found me behind the garage, they were calm. They talked to me. Did I know that antifreeze was scarce and hard to get? Did I know what a paint job cost and how many hours my father had to work to earn that much money? Did I know it wasn’t good to play with a thing like antifreeze if I didn’t know what it was? Even at that age I could tell they were searching for some explanation of why I, a model of reasonable childhood behavior, had done such a thing. My mother was the first to light on an explanation.
“I know you were trying to help, to surprise Melvin with a clean car. But next time, ask first.”
She thought she had figured it out, but it wasn’t that at all. I hadn’t meant to help. I wanted not to have to play inside with Mara, and I had done what I did to be able to stay within earshot of the high school football field. I wasn’t thinking about anything else at all. I was simply being bad. But I let my mother think she was right. It seemed the easiest way. Nonetheless, I had what would be my first conscious guilt trip.
This feeling that my mother was making up explanations for my behavior that weren’t true came again. Not for a while, but it recurred. The next time was in junior high school when I joined a picket line in my town protesting segregated lunch counters in Woolworth’s Southern stores. My maternal grandmother, Bella, who by then was widowed and living with my family and had started to become more mainstream herself, saw me marching in front of Woolworth’s on Main Street and told my mother. I forget what my mother said to my father, who wouldn’t have been happy about it, but I didn’t really care. I couldn’t stand the arguments I’d have with my father when I voiced any sort of opinion that wasn’t rooted in his version of mainstream politics that urged everyone to work within the system to accomplish what my father had achieved.
My other grandma— my father’s mother, Rivka— had been living with us until my mother’s mother, Bella, was widowed. I liked having her there. I used to love to look through her drawers of trinkets and lacey handkerchiefs, and she’d tell me stories of how she came to have them. Her son—my uncle Louis, who had been at the front during the war—had given her some silk and lace ones when he had come home, and she gave them to me. Once I saw a newspaper clipping among her things with Sam and Sarah’s names on it. I asked about it and she said it wasn’t anything, but I had already read the words “double suicide.” When my maternal grandmother was widowed, tradition ruled that she would move in with her daughter, my mother, and that my paternal grandmother, in turn, would have to relocate to her daughter’s home. This was Richie’s mother, Lena. Rivka had had nothing to do when she lived with us, but moving to Richie’s home restored her powers as housekeeper, cook, financial manager, and nurturer. Everything Richie later did well was directly attributable to Rivka.
Mara didn’t come over too often after the car incident, to my relief; and the next time she did was on a day I had to stay inside to finish my homework. Although I disliked Mara, she was part of the pattern of that time: children who came out from the City to play in the suburbs. When Mara’s family, themselves, moved to the suburbs a few years later, I expected that Mara would change and become more like a suburban child—the way I was. I didn’t hear anything about her because her aunt and uncle moved from our duplex to another, posher, part of town. For all I know she could have turned out like another girl I knew in school who later was arrested as a member of a domestic terrorist group.
My favorite time in those years before becoming an adolescent, was when my parents had company. It was usually on a Saturday night. The house would take on that particular smell it had after my mother had polished the furniture and run the new vacuum over the wall-to-wall carpets. Then came the setting up. There were cocktail napkins to arrange, and special towels for the bathroom, and coasters and ashtrays and toothpicks for the hors d’oeuvres. I did all this while my mother, excited and radiant, prepared the cheese platters and set up the coffee and cake assortment. I liked it best when there were little cakes, ones that didn’t have to be cut up—Danishes and tartlets and spongy cookies and little brownies that I could remove from the platter before the company came and eat without detection and without spoiling the arrangement.
After we finished putting out the food, I’d watch my mother do her hair and I’d play with the silk scarves in her makeup table drawer. She had long hair then, which she pinned up elaborately as women did in the early 50’s. Her scarves smelled of her perfume, Guerlain’s Shalimar, and I was comfortable at the thought that my parents wouldn’t be going out that night, but would be home with me, even though I’d be upstairs. I’d always disliked having babysitters, and was vaguely embarrassed at still having them when some of my friends didn’t. My mother said we still needed them because of my little sister, not because of me, but it was still difficult to explain to my friends. I didn’t argue much, though, because the truth of the matter was that I was scared to stay home alone with just my little sister. My parents had tried leaving me once in the afternoon, and I had wound up calling a neighbor in to check on the creaks and rattles of the house to make sure no one else was there. My parents were mortified. The lady who lived next door assumed that when I called I was really hoping her son would be home to come check out the house. But that wasn’t it. I was really unnerved.
My mother would go down again a few minutes before the guests were due, to be sure that everything was as she had left it, and I’d go down, too, in pajamas now, until the first ring of the doorbell sent me scurrying upstairs. Company always came after my sister was asleep, but I would sit on the top landing and listen to them come in. There were six couples who came all the time—my parents’ “circle”—and they alternated houses, repeating the same party again and again. As I said, I liked it better when the party was in our house. After I tired of sitting on the landing, I’d sneak downstairs and take a peek. Sometimes I’d be noticed and someone would say, “Come in and have a cake,” and I’d have one even though I wasn’t hungry. They’d talk to me for a while, and then I’d go back upstairs. This happened until I was old enough to be ashamed of coming down in my pajamas, and by then I wasn’t as interested in my parents’ friends as I was in my own. When I finally went to bed and fell asleep, which was usually after the guests had left but before my parents finished cleaning up and came upstairs, it was with a sense of satisfaction. My parents—my beautiful, sophisticated mother, and my handsome, proud father—had made it into what they thought of as the American mainstream.
It didn’t get any better than that.
Enid A. Goldberg has lived most of her life in New York City. Her career has encompassed both teaching and writing. She is the author of 14 published nonfiction books.