Monday, May 2, 2011

Thoughts about my parents

I meant to post this earlier, but real life got in the way. Actually, this is a statement my parents would never have understood. There was only real life for them.

My father came over to the United States as a ten year old boy in steerage with the rest of his family from Grodnoh, Poland. My grandfather had run away years before, because he was going to be impressed into the Russian army and he fled to the United States. My grandfather, a carpenter, found work in the US and almost every year he made the trip back to the shtetl in Poland where his family lived. Each time he returned to his home in the US he left a little gift. So by the time he had enough money to bring his entire family over it had grown from a boy and girl to three boys and two girls.

My grandfather was a bull of a man when he was younger, but when I met him he was wasting away in the Biolystock nursing home. My grandmother was the unfortunate victim of a laundry accident. She had to hang her wash on a line and one day she hung out of the window too far and fell to her death. Of course, my parents named me for her as a memorial to her as is the tradition in the Jewish religion. All I remember about her is her kechel, which is a kind of hard pastry like a biscotti, only without any additions to it.

My father experimented a lot when he was younger getting involved in some unsavory occupations which I won't go into now. He grew up on the Lower East Side, and since my grandparents were very Orthodox Jews he had no idea of the variety of foods and experiences he could have. When he grew a little older he got involved with boxing and boxed as a welterweight. He was a scrappy guy, but eventually he caught the eye of certain people and started driving for one of them. When I was younger, before my father passed away, I knew nothing about this chapter of his life. It was only afterwards, when we were sitting shivver - a Jewish custom where you stay in your house for at least three to five days after the funeral and pray each day with the prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, that I learned about this part of his life.

When he met my mother my father was almost forty. She had almost given up on finding anyone, and she was older than most women at that time when she married him. My father was a great mechanic and he was in the Air Force during World War II servicing airplanes in the south. Before that he drove a cab in the city and that's how my parents met. He the cab driver and she the slightly overweight daughter of a prosperous merchant. My mother worked in her parent's material and dry goods store, Dimm's. The store had a great reputation and my mother, who never went to college, did the books for her father. My father needed a family, since his was so distant to him, and my mother was drawn to him. He had the gentlest manner and he was also artistic, but he only had schooling to the eighth grade.

They married in the middle of the war, 1942 and had me a couple of years afterward. Both of them worked constantly. My father took a job after the war in the Welbuilt stove factory and my mother worked in the store. They lived with her parents in her huge apartment on the second floor of a two family house. Soon after we moved to Williamsburg when I was three, but still my mother continued to work in the store and eventually my father joined her. That would continue until 1959 when they finally sold the store to an insect exterminator. We moved to Kew Gardens, Queens and my life changed one hundred per cent.

The story of my mother's life is a little different. My grandfather came from Austria and my grandmother was born here. My mother was a working mother before it was popular. We lived down the street in a railroad apartment, but she had it decorated by a professional decorator. We always had slipcovers on the furniture so I never really knew what color the fabric was underneath it. In the spring she would take them off and put on her summer slipcovers. At least she didn't use the plastic that many people used then. I was an only child until I was nine and then my brother was born. At that time the little bit of time I used to have with my mother disappeared. Though she had help at home for my little brother, she was busy from the time she came home. She also sewed all of my clothes, since she was a very good seamstress. In fact, until I was eleven and demanded a new dress for my elementary school graduation, I had never been in a department store to buy clothes. She made all my school clothes and that made sense since she got the material and all the other sewing supplies free.:) She made her own clothes too. Until we moved to Queens she had her sewing machine in her bedroom and I would hear her sewing every night. The other clothes I wore came from my richer cousins and I got used to wearing hand me downs.

I also got used to my mother not showing up for a lot of things. She was always busy in the store. I had to learn to get along on my own a lot. I had lots of friends to go places, because my mother could never take me anywhere. Kids roamed around a lot on their own in the fifties in NYC. We went to the movies on Saturdays without parents, because you could walk there. I never went to the movies at night except for one time I remember my mother and I saw "A Star is Born" with Judy Garland and James Mason. I was so excited to be going to the movies at night with my mother and it was also the first time I looked at her as more than a mother. By the time I was a teenager we had almost stopped talking to each other and this continued until I was thirty when we reconciled.

Both of my parents are gone, so Mother's Day and Father's Day have been only for my children for over twenty years now. My father went in 1969 so my mother spent until 1990 when she passed away, without him. She lived her life by a set of rules. Everything had a time and she did it when it had to be done. But we didn't get along. We would get into screaming matches and she could scream. Her voice could cut glass. I would leave the house to go to a friend's house so I could get some distance between us. She had a good heart, but she was hung up on only her way. When I was younger I had my father's lap for protection, but when I lost him I felt like I was alone. Though we reconciled when I was thirty I never really considered my mother a friend until I had my children. Then we got to know each other as mother to mother. It was a real eye opening moment.

Mother's Day is coming and I always remember her and wish that I could tell her how much I miss her. She was a strong woman and she taught me how to deal with people. When I was a girl I used to work in the store after school and on Saturdays. I learned about how to sell things and how to be outgoing with people. I never felt as confident with kids my own age. Though I had a lot of friends, I never felt I was popular. This feeling combined with my own daughter's adjustment problems and bout with bulimia were the basis of my young adult novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, coming in September from MuseItUp Publishing. In my book my main character has two parents, though they are a little offhand with her. I'm sure this comes from my experience with my own parents. Maybe some day I will flesh out their story and put it in a novel. I'll call it: The Story of Sam and Helen.


Wendy said...

You have an interesting background Barbara. Thanks for sharing. You must be so glad that you could reconcile with your mother as mother to mother. I felt your loss. Missing your parents doesn't leave you, does it?

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Thanks for visiting. I was very happy to reconcile with my mother and I wrote a poem about it called "Rebirth". But really when I was pregnant I wound up having to take her to radiation treatments and we bonded then. Her cancer went into remission for twelve years so my daughters could at least have a grandmother for a few years.She was my first phone call in the morning and my last at night. Yes, you never stop missing your parents. I try once a year to light a candle on their birthdays. I always cry when I light it.

Lin said...

I know how lucky I am to have the relationship I have with my Daughter. I did not have it with my Mother, though I did have it with my Grandmother. Makes me wonder if we need a full generation between us to understand and appreciate each other...except that doesn't explain the lack of closeness I have with my son.

Parenting doesn't come with instruction. We all find ourselves suddenly smack dab in the middle of this confusing dynamic with no preparation. Dr. Spock doesn't cover the emotional interplay between parent and child.

What I've finally concluded is all any of us can do is the best our history allows us to create. Mistakes are a heartbeat away, and yet they can blast wide caverns of agony and separation in their wake. The only way to avoid them is never risk becoming parents.

I love my son, and ache for the many degrees of separation between us, but I am overwhelming grateful for the closeness I share with my daughter. Had I chosen never to have offspring, I'd have missed the tugs and tears on my heartstrings, but I'd have also missed the friendship, love, and companionship that enriches my life with my daughter.

In the end I'm a Mom, but a human one, and in the final analysis that pretty much says it all.

Thank you for sharing your family's past with us.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

You're welcome, honey. It's sad that you have that kind of relationship with your son. I only hope that you can reconcile with him as I did with my mother. You are so blessed to have the relationship you have with your daughter. I also have a wonderful relationship with both of my daughters. Though sometimes I can see parts of my mother creeping into my speech and that's when I pull back and stop. I have always been open with my kids and they in turn have been able to speak with me about anything. In our situation now, we have each other when my husband is too ill or goes off due to his dose of prednisone. I don't know what I would do without them, but at the same time I want them to have their own lives. Being a mother is like being on a tightrope, especially with adult children. You are constantly balancing between their freedom and the reality of the situation when they are living with you.:)

Chrystalla Thoma said...

What an interesting post and what a fascinating family history! Thanks for sharing.

Roseanne Dowell said...

Thanks for sharing, Barbar. It's amazing how we never really appreciate our parents until we become parents ourselves. When my mother passed away, quite unexpectedly - but at age 86, my sister said it best - "Parents are always supposed to be here." I still miss her and always will.

Margaret Fieland said...

Barbara, thanks for the lovely post. Both my parents are dead, and have been for many year, but I remember them both fondly. My father was a real stickler for proper English grammar, and most of what I know and remember is because of him. My mother was an artist who specialized in portraits in oil. She had a math phobia -- big time. I had a lot more sympathy for both of them after I had my own kids.


Pat McDermott said...

Such a lovely tribute to your parents, Barbara. I'm sure they'd be quite proud of you today!

Anonymous said...

What an awesome tribute! Thanks for sharing!

Shellie said...

Well versed, Barbara. I agree with Pat, I'm sure your parents would be quite proud of you today. Thank you for sharing!

J.Q. Rose said...

Your growing up in the big city is so different from my upbringing in a small town in the middle of the country. However, the love of family is something we both share. Beautiful post. So happy you could reconcile with your mother.

Nancy Bell said...

Great blog, Barbara. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

jabberingjo said...

Your story is unique in that you tell of difficulties your parents generation encountered.

Those particular problems are not encountered today. It is so good that you write them down.

It is family history that everyone can share.
I wonder if our generation's difficulties will
be recorded by our grandchildren. I know some of my life events are too personal for me to write about. J. Rose KNight JOan Hobernicht

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Thank you Joan. I feel it is necessary to tell about my parent's lives so you can understand me a little better. I grew up in the 50s when life was different. Today's life is beyond what we could have dreamed or what my parents might have dreamed. I have thought about writing a novel using my parent's lives and may still do that.:)