Name: margalit
Location: Massachusetts, United States Professional writer, educational advocate, opinionated ultra liberal mother of 18 year old twins, living life in the slow lane due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, and diabetes.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Walking down memory lane

Neil has a great post up today about dinner at his mother's house. As I was reading it I was totally pulled back in time to my Great Aunt Lillian's house, where dinner was quite similar. I was thinking about how it comes about that two NY families from different boroughs and slightly different generations can be so similar and it came to me that it isn't so much generational as a moving up in the class system so prevalent in NY city during the post WW1 to post WW2 time period. For Jewish families living in NY, mine in Brooklyn, Neil's in the Bronx, Jewish emigres arriving in NY lived a hardscrabble life. Most of the emigres weren't educated, came from schtetl life in eastern Europe, and were employed in the trades. Although my grandmother and her sister, my Great Aunt Lillian were both born in the USA, their families were originally from Poland and their father was a bootlegger and liquor salesman. My maternal grandfather was born in Russia and was an upholsterer.

Aunt Lillian, being the 'ooops' baby of her family, was many years younger than her other sisters. She was only a few years older than my mother, and was more of my mother's contemporary than her aunt. She graduated from high school and even attended a bit of college, enough to get a teaching certificate. She married my Uncle Harry, who worked in an office during the day and attended law school at night. It took many years for Harry to get his law degree, but once he did, they left Brooklyn and moved to Rockville Centre on Long Island. Two children were born of this marriage, my cousin David arrived first, my cousin Nancy several years later.

The mental illness that runs through my entire maternal ancestral line did not leave Aunt Lillian's family immune. Nancy was in and out of mental institutions most of her adult life, and David was pretty darn nuts as well. Both of the kids were brilliant. Nancy attended Goucher college when it was part of the Seven Sisters, David was at Harvard. They grew up on Long Island where they lived fairly charmed lives with everything available to them that they wanted to pursue. But often, charmed lives aren't enough.

Nancy was severely depressed and was never able to hold a job for any length of time. She was often working as a cashier at Woolworths or such, living in Somerville and working mostly in Cambridge. I believe my aunt supported her. When I was working in Europe and traveling back and forth between Boston and Europe on almost a weekly basis, I got a phone call from my sister telling me that Nancy was in Cambridge Hospital, not a strange occurrence. Except that this time she complained incessantly that her back was hurting her and the hospital ignored her, as they tend to do with mentally ill patients. In actuality she had lung cancer and the tumor broke through her skin in the back before anyone would listen to her. She died about a month later. As I was the only family member with a place to live in Boston, Nancy's parents stayed at my house and I became a hospice worker for a while. It was very difficult, as Nancy was very sick physically and mentally. Her death was a blessing, but she refused to sign a will to the bitter end, leaving my elderly Aunt with YEARS of paperwork to deal with. And a law suit. It was a huge mess.

Meanwhile, my cousin David was "missing." Nobody seemed to know where he was or what became of him. Ostensibly he just disappeared into the atmosphere. The family always talked about where he could be, but nobody knew. Years passed and little by little I got the story out of my Aunt as to what happened to David. First, he had a brush with the law when he created the first Term Paper for Sale business while he was in college. We all knew that part, of course. It was so typical of our nutty family members. But when he was in the last year of his doctorate he got involved with a VERY famous and influential biographer who was very married. When their long term affair was threatened with national exposure, David agreed to change his identity and 'disappear' in exchange for not having his budding career ruined. In doing so, he left the east coast and moved to Oklahoma, where he taught his entire career at the University of Oklahoma. He died a few years back after a second bariatric surgery which affected his heart in some way. In his later years, after the story got out, I met him a couple of times, and man....was he strange. I mean really really odd. Now, looking back, he probably had Aspergers, but in those days that wasn't a known diagnosis.

My Uncle Harry died when I was in high school, and soon after Lillian married Noah. If ever there was a guy that was more perfect for her, I can't imagine who it would be. Aunt Lillian was VERY bossy. She ordered poor Noah about like he was a manservant and he did everything she wanted adoringly. They were perfect for each other. She'd scream "Noah" and he would come running. Noah was, by far, the most boring man I've ever met. OMG, he was like watching paint dry. He had his routine down pat. He would walk about 1.5 miles every morning to pick up a newspaper. On the way back he would stop and check on Aunt Lillian's best friend since kindergarten, and then come home and read the paper. He would play golf until lunch time unless there was snow on the ground. He came home from lunch, which was a fairly formal affair with a fruit course, a sandwich and a few accompaniments, and of course some type of dessert and instant coffee. With coffee mate.

After lunch Noah would do the grocery shopping for dinner and help Aunt Lillian prepare it. Like Neil's mom, dinner was a big deal every single night. She would set the table in the dinette off the kitchen with a table cloth, her good china, sterling silver, and crystal glassware. There was a bread and butter plate with butter knives, and of course a salad plate and an entree plate. She used linen napkins and silver napkin rings.

Dinner started with a melon slice or a half of a grapefruit, broiled. The fruit course set the tone for the evening. Next came a bit of an appetizer, often her famous tuna mousse served on a bed of iceberg lettuce.

Then out would come the salad in a lovely Waterford bowl with matching salad serving pieces. The salad consisted of iceberg lettuce, red onions sliced, sliced mushrooms and cucumbers without the peel, and of course those horrid tomato wedges of pale pink. The dressings were served in cruets and she usually made them with oil, wine vinegar, and various dried herbs that were older than Noah.

With the entree a bread basket with bread wrapped in a napkin and margarine on the side. Noah always loved bread with his meal, she would say. She would put a few slices of rye, some rolls, and a few pieces of wheat bread in the basket. Then the entree would come out. There were always two veggies served in their own china bowls that accompanied the entree. Usually there would be green beans or broccoli in one bowl, and squash or potatoes in the other. Sometimes she served rice. The entrees were strictly chicken and fish, mostly broiled with dried herbs atop. She was not a great cook, my Aunt. But she set a mean table.

Dinner was not over until we had tea or the infamous instant coffee. With that were served a few noshes, dry cookies from the Jewish bakery were mostly eaten. And then out came the ice milk or diet ice cream.

After dinner Noah would do the dishes while Lillian went into the guest bathroom to sneak a cigarette. She snuck 3 or 4 cigarettes a day her entire life, and we all knew it but played along. She would redo her lipstick, spray the bathroom with lysol, and come out all refreshed and ready for an evening of falling asleep in front of the blaring TV. Always PBS, of course.

Noah and Aunt Lillian got into a car accident in 2001. Noah died within days of the accident, Lillian died from residual injuries months later. I loved my Aunt Lillian with all my heart. She was a real character, funny as hell, smart as a whip, interested in art and theatre and the symphony right up until her death. She used to take off winters and go to Mexico where she took art lessons and painted in San Miguel de Allende. She wasn't very good, but she loved to paint and she loved Mexico. She outlived both of her children, which had to be horribly difficult, both of her husbands, and all of her siblings. She was fiery and kind, political and artistic, warm and crazy all rolled into one. She was the only relative on my mother's side my children ever met and she loved them.

I miss her very much.

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Blogger Jen M. said...

Great story - thank you.

29/7/08 12:29 PM  
Blogger Daisy said...

Noah may have had Asperger's, too, from the sound of him! I love the story of the Term Paper for Sale business; he must have been both school-smart and street-smart to make that a success. (OMG, I'm a teacher, what am I saying??!!)

29/7/08 1:38 PM  

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