I love visiting my mom. I especially like to listen to her stories. Sometimes the stories are so entertaining they sound like a television mini-series or a historic documentary. Most of all, I love to hear her stories because they are the stories that make up my family tree.
And so, as we sat at my mom’s favorite Florida deli to share a hot corned beef sandwich (and splurged on cholesterol-ladden French fries too)…and as we sat at our ‘not so favorite anymore’ Olive Garden (it used to be a favorite, but since they overcooked my mom’s steak and gave her a plate of cold roasted potatoes instead of hot roasted potatoes that she had to send back to be reheated, the Olive Garden is now eliminated from my mom’s list of favorite dining spots. “No more Olive Garden,” said mom, “even if they provide a $4.00 off coupon.”)…and as we enjoyed a cup of hot coffee, bowl of onion soup and some sandwiches on tasty bread at Panera Bread…my mom shared her stories.
I listened intently as she talked about her dad…the grandfather I never met. She didn’t really get to know her dad since he died of kidney disease when she was only 18 months old. (It made me think of my children. How lucky my son was to have 18 years with his dad and my daughter 22.) My mom was too young to remember her dad…but her mom told her the stories and now she was sharing the stories of his life with me.
“Grandfather came to the United States during World War I,” said my mom. “He immigrated from Poland.” “And your Nana arrived from what was then Austria and Hungary.”
“Grandfather started a clothing business on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.” My mom described how he made children’s coats, using the pattern-cutting skills that he had acquired in Poland.
“They lived in a tiny apartment behind the store,” said my mom. “Nana said they used to sleep on chairs with Down comforters that they had brought from Europe.” Business was good and all went well…until my Grandfather got sick and his kidneys stopped working. He and my Nana never realized how serious his illness was and unfortunately it took his life at an early age.
My Grandfather’s business partner bought out the business and left my Nana with very little to live on. She had four young children to raise on her own. My mom was the youngest. “It was not easy,” said my mom. “Nana was very afraid that they would take her children away to live in a foster home…that’s what they did in those days.”
My Nana went on welfare for awhile until her father (my great-grandfather) and my mom’s aunt (my great-aunt) moved in with the family to help them financially. Yes, times were tough.
“At first, we had no refrigerator,” my mom recalled, “there was a man who used to bring us ice to keep our food cold…he was a real iceman. I remember when we got our first refrigerator. It was so exciting. We were able to make our own ice and even make homemade ice cream.”
“We didn’t have a television. We used to listen to the radio and occasionally go to the movies when we had an extra dime…yes, an extra dime. It was a treat to go visit your great aunt L who had a television. We would all sit around in the living room and watch the Milton Berle Comedy Hour,” mom said.
“We had very little growing up,” mom added, “I didn’t have my own room. I had to share a bedroom with Nana and my sister. But, our home was always bustling with kids. My best friend D used to come over all the time because we had a big family (my mom had an older sister and two older brothers). We used to play stick ball outside on the street. It was so much fun.”
By the time my mom’s two older brothers were grown, it was World War II and they enlisted. After they returned from the war, mom’s oldest brother became an architect and her younger brother a carpenter. Each of the family members married and the family tree continued to expand.
How different life was almost a century ago…yes, how different life was almost 100 years ago when my grandparents came to this country.
I wonder if my kids will want to hear my stories when I am a grandma (or a nana)(hopefully…not now…but some day). I hope we will reminisce about my husband and about my parents (their grandparents). And maybe they will look up this blog post so they can learn about their extended family tree.
Yes, I’ll tell them I voted in the historic election the day the first African American President Obama was elected. In fact, I put away my New York Times to save for my grand kids…it will be a fabulous memento since there likely will no longer be any hard-copy newspapers when it’s time for me to tell my stories…and hopefully…yes…hopefully, when it is time for me to tell my stories…I’ll remember where I put that darn newspaper.