OUR LADY OF WEST 231st STREET (with apologies to Stephen Adly Guirgis)
My mother, like her mother before her, was a beauty. She had black hair, grey eyes, and, as she was informed later at art school, a “perfectly proportioned face”. She and her mother were both”ladies”, in dress, manners, and aspirations. My mother was second generation American, not common at her time amongst Jewish-Americans. Her family lived in Riverdale, on 231st St. and Kingsbridge Road (not, they would emphasize, Kingsbridge Avenue which was in the Bronx and, therefore, beneath them), in a large private house in an integrated (Irish and Jewish) neighborhood. Her father was a tailor, referred to by the family as a designer, who made beautiful clothing for us in his basement workroom, during his off hours from his garment district job. Her mother was a stay at home wife, a luxury in the days of the Great Depression. The home, the kids, and my grandmother were always beautifully turned out in upscale fashion. The family referred to my grandmother as a “Philadelphia lawyer”, as there was no winning an argument with her on any subject.
My mother was talented. She played the family piano by ear, there being no money during the Depression for lessons, and also sketched beautifully in the manner of magazine illustrations of the time (she later attended the Art Students League for a short while, where she was greatly in demand as a portrait model because of her striking looks). She dropped out of high school in her senior year. I never knew why, but later presumed it to be because she had to work during the Depression, to help support the family, which consisted of her parents, my mother (the eldest), two younger brothers, and a much younger sister. During her working days, she was a “salesgirl” in upscale department stores. She was in her mid twenties when she married my father, a Russian immigrant (her family referred to him as a “greenhorn”), who owned a cosmetics store on Upper Broadway, an elegant street, for which he himself made perfumes, creams, and other beauty products. They both used to tell my sister and me that when she came into the store, customers always asked what products she was using to maintain her perfect complexion. My mother, who wore no makeup except lipstick, and never used creams, would cite the name of the product that my father was pushing that week, and the customer would buy it.
After an elegant kosher wedding (my grandparents were observant, despite their assimilation), they moved into an apartment on West End Avenue, an prestigious location very much in keeping with my mother’s aspirations. My mother was a Broadway aficionado. She especially loved musicals, and would come home and play the songs she’d heard on the baby grand piano that my father had given her as a wedding present.
And then, my mother’s life radically changed. My father, the more practical of the pair, saw cosmetics sales dropping during WWII, and decided that, since people always had to eat, he would leave his cosmetics store and open a grocery store in Elmhurst, Queens. We moved to an apartment there, and my mother’s social status immediately dropped. She suddenly became a grocer’s wife (my mother always referred to my father not as a grocer, but as the owner of a supermarket) in a lower middle class, predominantly Irish neighborhood. My younger sister and I grew up as the only Jewish children in our public school, which was as much like a Catholic school as a public school could be (prayers every morning, release time for religious instruction on Wednesday afternoons, teachers who had themselves been Catholic school students). What made things stranger, still, was that my mother had joined my father, an atheist socialist, in his beliefs, so our family practiced no religion whatsoever, and the dispensation that the teachers publicly doled out to us to skip prayers at prayer time because we were Jewish only made us feel more odd. To this day, I know all the popular Catholic hymns and prayers, and none of the Jewish ones. My mother, however, took advantage of the Wednesday afternoon release time, claiming that we were getting Jewish religious education when, in fact, we were going into Manhattan with her for music lessons.
Once again, my blog is becoming an epic, so I will leave this story to be continued in my next blog (February 10th), and hope you will join me again at that time.