Category Archives: Family Stories

Say Yes to the [Wrong] Dress!!

Our son Adam had his first date with Sarah on December 25, 2018. They got engaged on June 23. By the time my husband Larry and I met Carol and Dick, Sarah’s parents, in August, they had the rabbi, the October date, the venue, the DJ, and the photographer all lined up. All that was left to do was for them to send out the invitations and for all of us to figure out what we would be wearing. 

In August, Sarah found a beautiful long sleeve white lace dress. At the same store, Carol and Sarah’s sister Molly found their dresses; a long gold brocade for Carol and and a black off-the shoulder top with a lovely flowered patterned for Molly. Julie purchased a beautiful teal green dress on E-Bay, the same place she had found her wedding dress twelve years before. 

When Sarah and Adam asked our granddaughter to be flower girl, The Frisco Kid was thrilled—and prepared. “I will wear my Elsa dress” she announced. My daughter Julie gently explained that rather than her Frozen costume, Mommy would be buying her a special dress for her important role in the wedding. “Okay,” she said. “I will save the Elsa dress for MY wedding!”

Like my granddaughter, I originally planned on wearing a dress I already owned. I had purchased a cocktail dress the previous December for our community’s Shalom Club Ball.It was my favorite color—midnight blue—, and the v-necked sleeveless design fell perfectly on mid-knee. When I shared my decision with my maj jongg group, they objected.

“Your son only gets married once,” said Sharon, who led the charge. “You have been waiting a very long time for this! Get a new dress!”

Soon after this discussion, Larry and I celebrated our 45th anniversary by going out to dinner at a restaurant in one of Orlando’s largest shopping center. I suggested to Larry that we leave early so that we could look at suits for him(Adam and my son-in-law Sam had  already  purchased new suits) and at dresses for me. 

When we perused the men’s department at Macy’s, Larry refused to even try on a suit.”I don’t need a new one,” he said. “The one I have in the closet is fine.” His only concession was to agree to have a tailor remove the pants’ cuffs, definitely no longer in style.

I had better luck—or maybe a better attitude—in the women’s department. After several fails, I tried on a more sophisticated version of the midnight blue dress I had worn to the Shalom Club Ball. Sleeveless with a diagonal neck line, it had a beautiful silver broach on the right side. The saleslady who was helping me agreed with me that was perfect for the evening event. She suggested it would look even better if I also invested in some (expensive) shapewear that would smooth out some of my bumps and lumps. As the chances of losing twenty pounds by the wedding were slim, I agreed. Okay, the dress wasn’t a Size 10, but when I pulled the whole thing together— I looked pretty amazing, and Larry agreed. 

I asked the salesperson to snap a picture on my iPhone, which I sent to my mah jongg group. Within minutes, my phone was dinging like crazy. 

“Yay! You are going to look gorgeousssss!”

“You are one SEXY MAMA don’t play safe go for bold n sexy!”

“You go girl!”

Then the text messages took on a life of its own, where I became to topic of discussion.”She needs shoes to match the dress.”

“[Hair] updo would make it look better.”

“She needs new makeup.”

This discussion continued the following Friday at Mah Jongg. One by one, my “fairy godsisters”:helped me accessorize by shopping in their closets. Beautiful silver sandals. A glittery handbag. A midnight blue bracelet. “Sapphire” hanging earrings.

They had one more suggestion—a trip to Sephora. After a first class make-over, I dropped over $100 on makeup, including foundation, blush, and an eye shadow palette with some silver glitter. I was set!

I wasn’t going to risk a chance of losing the outfit on our flight out to San Francisco. So three days before we left, I packed everything I needed in my carry-on. I carefully placed the plastic clothing bag protecting the dress on top of the shoes, handbag and undergarments. Fortunately, there were no flight problems on our way out, and I hung the entire outfit in our hotel room closet.

That evening, Larry and I met Adam and Sarah for dinner. To our surprise, Sarah showed us Wedding Dress Number Two. She felt the simple white sheath reflected more of her personality than the original Seventies-design.

The days leading up to the wedding were a whirlwind of total happiness and joy. Friends and relatives flew in from around the country. Many took advantage of the beautiful weather and the San Francisco location to tour the area. The night before the wedding, Larry and I hosted a welcome dinner at Sarah’s parents’ home,

The morning of the wedding, my siblings and I took a bus tour of San Francisco while Larry and Adam had professional shaves. We all got back to the hotel in plenty of time to get ready. I put on my new make up, spent a little more time on my hair, slipped on my shape wear, buckled up my beautiful silver sandals, put on my sapphire earrings and bracelet, took the dress out of the plastic bag, and slipped it over my head.

“Larry, would you please zip me up?”

Larry finished knotting his tie and turned his attention to me.

“Marilyn, that is NOT the dress you bought for the wedding,” Larry said. “That is the Shalom Club Ball dress.”

I looked in the mirror. He was right. After all that, I had packed the WRONG dress. Not the dress I bought for the wedding and had spent three weeks accessorizing. Nope, it was the dress I originally was going to wear.

“I can’t believe I brought the wrong dress!” I cried. “I can’t believe I brought the wrong dress!”

In ten minutes, the Uber was coming to pick us up. There was no way in the world I could fly back to Florida and grab the right one. I shook my head and accepted the inevitable.

“I guess I will be wearing this dress to the wedding!” Fortunately, both were midnight blue with silver accents. The only touch needed  was a necklace to fit into the v-neck of the dress. Fortunately, my niece Laura had brought a sapphire and diamond necklace on a silver chain. Perfect!

When Larry and I arrived the wedding venue, we saw Sarah in her beautiful Wedding Dress Number Two and Adam in his new suit. Soon after, Carol and Dick came into the restaurant. Rather than wearing the dress she had purchased in August, Carol decided to wear the dress her own mother had worn at Carol and Dick’s wedding 48 years before.. 

Julie, Sam, and The Frisco Kid came in next. My granddaughter looked like a fairy princess in her pink and white flower girl dress and flower garland.”The only people wearing their first choices were Julie and Molly.  and the rest of the men, including Larry, whose old suit was perfect for the occasion.

To say the wedding was special is the understatement of the year. I may have brought the “wrong” dress, but Adam had married the right person—a smart, caring ,independent woman who was beautiful inside and out. And, in the end, that is all that matters.

First published in (Capital Region, New York) Jewish World October 31, 2019

My Zayde by Francis Cohen


My mother Frances Cohen with her brother Eli circa 1922.

In honor of what would have been my mother’s 102 birthday on September 1, I am sharing with you, my readers, one of her wonderful stories.

I was around four years old when Zayde (Jewish for Grandpa) came to live my parents, my brother, Eli, and me. 

Life had been difficult for my Zayde. His first wife died giving birth to my father Joseph. When she died, she also left a beautiful red haired five-year-old daughter Becky. Zayde could not raise two young children alone, so shortly after his beloved wife died, he remarried as he needed someone to take care of the children. His new wife was cruel to the children, and he divorced her. He remarried a third time to a woman who raised the children as her own. 

When Becky was twenty years old, Zayde brought Becky to American. He arranged with a matchmaker to get her a husband, and then returned to Europe. Soon after, when my father was fifteen years old, Zayde sent him to America to live with Becky and her husband Louis. My father worked in the garment district as a tailor, married my mother Ethel. 

In 1921, the war had ended in Europe, and the Germans had ravished the village of Ragola in Lithuania. Zayde wanted to leave to come to America to be with his grown children, and he begged his third wife to leave. She didn’t want to go, so Zayde came to America alone. He sent money to her for the rest of his life but could never persuade her to come to New York. 

When Zayde arrived in New York, my parents, my brother and I were living in a crowded three-room apartment that shared a bathroom with four people in the next apartment. Soon Zayde began giving Hebrew lessons, and he was able to contribute to the household. 

Despite the further crowding, I loved having my Zayde living with us. As soon as Zayde arrived, Zayde and I became very close. He adored me, and I loved him. He kept telling me that I reminded him of his first wife, the love of his life. 

Zayde soon found out what the rest of the family knew:  Becky’s marriage wasn’t a happy one. Becky had had several miscarriages, but she and her husband Louis never had any children. Louis blamed Becky and treated her terribly. Louis was also a show-off. They had a nice apartment and dressed nicely, but he never gave Becky enough money for food. He said, “The stomach has no windows. No one can tell you what you eat.”

Zayde and my parents felt very sorry for Becky. Besides having no children and a bad marriage, Becky felt guilty that her husband would not let Zayde live with them, even though they had a larger apartment than my parents did. Louis was so selfish that he would not even allow Becky to have her father over for dinner. Becky’s only option was to visit us to see her father.

When I was eight years old, Zayde took me to the Bowery Saving Bank and opened a trust fund for me with $700 he had saved for this purpose. He told me, “A girl has to have a dowry.” Here was an immigrant who could not speak English but was very smart. 

Four years later, in 1929, my Zayde died. I was devastated, and I couldn’t stop crying. My Auth Beau, my mother’s sister, set me straight. “I know how much you loved your grandfather. However, he was an old man and very sick. He was very frail and almost blind. Your mother had to take care of him around the clock. It was a blessing for him and your mother that he passed away.” I accepted his death but never forgot how good he was to me, his shayna maidelah (beautiful girl).

After Zayde passed away, my mother and father kept in touch with Becky and continued to invite her to our home. My mother tried to send me to visit Becky while Louis  was not home, but he caught me just as I was leaving, yelled loudly for me to get out, and I never went back to my aunt’s apartment again. 

When I was married in 1940, I took $500 out of the trust fund my Zayde had established for me and purchased furniture for our first apartment, including a maple bedroom set and maple furniture for our living and dining rooms. A few years later, the remaining money was used as the down payment on our first house. 

My Zayde’s legacy lives on through his great grand children. All of the children have at least one of the pieces of furniture we purchased with my Zayde’s trust fund in their home. The maple bedroom set, which moved with us our entire marriage, eventually settled in our bedroom in our cottage in Lake Champlain. My son Jay and his wife Leslie, who purchased the cottage in 2000, now have the set. Marilyn and Larry have a table and a bookcase in their home in Florida.

And Becky? Louis died two years before Becky, and at that time it was found that he had a condition that had prevented him from ever having children. After all those years of abusing my poor aunt, he was the one who was to blame. Two years later, my aunt died of cancer, and problems created by the multiple miscarriages. My only regret is that I did not spend more time with Becky. 

Nooks and Crannies House Holds Sweet Memories Decades Later

Our wonderful old house in Keeseville, New York in 1981

Larry and I have lived in three homes in our almost 45 years of marriage. All three have been lovely, especially after we made them our home with our personal touches.  None of the places we lived, however, ever could compare to the memories I have of the house in which I grew up with all its nooks and crannies.

In 1952, my parents moved from Potsdam NY near the St. Lawrence River, to Keeseville, on Lake Champlain. At the time, real estate was limited, so my father found the one house large enough to accommodate Mom, the three children, and a cat. It was an old but proud 1899 Victorian set on a pretty lot only a block from Pearl’s, the department store my father managed.  

The front entrance to the house required climbing seven steps to a small porch and a front unheated vestibule. A large oak piece with a mirror graced the right side; an old makeshift storage closet on the right side of the door held all the outerwear needed for the four seasons of Upstate New York. 

Beyond the foyer, a large living and dining room stretched out across the entire front of the home, with an oak arch dividing the two rooms. Guests often joined us around the large oak table for Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, Passover. 

The blue sectional in the living room came from Pearl’s warehouse, never what my mother wanted, but what we could afford on my father’s small manager’s salary. I have memories of sitting on my mother’s lap on that scratchy couch, listening with my thumb in my mouth as she read me various Golden Books—the Brave Little Tailor, Dumbo. A piano, first an ugly orange upright and, in 1963, a small baby grand, filled up the rest of the space.

 Straight ahead from the front entrance was another door that opened up into the kitchen. When the house was first purchased in 1952, it was the saddest room: one single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, outdated appliances, cracked linoleum floors, a pantry covered with cobwebs and—to the joy of our cat—filled with mice. The first room to undergo a complete transformation, the finished room had wood cabinets, a stove with a double oven, a large refrigerator and enough space for hold a formica-topped metal table with six matching chairs. Just below the clock on the far wall was the hole in the yellow linoleum. It was the forever memory of the day when I was eight years old and threw a fork at my older brother, Jay (a fairly violent reaction to his teasing) which thankfully missed his head before lodging in the yellow tile wall covering. (I don’t remember getting punished.) The door to the right of the hole led to the originally only bathroom with its claw-toothed bathtub. In another fight with Jay,  he twisted my arm when I refused to stop bouncing an  orange against that infamous yellow wall. I passed out. (Jay got grounded for two weeks.) A back door led to a small unheated vestibule,  where fresh milk was delivered for years. 

Here I am around 1953 standing in front of our “Nooks and Crannies” house!

To the left of the kitchen was a small, dark room that became the office. Mom did the store’s bookkeeping on the massive metal desk. The wall behind her was covered from top to bottom with book shelves that held second hand encyclopedias, cookbooks, history books from American Heritage, tons of children’s books, and 75 rpm records ranging from classical masters to Frank Sinatra to Danny Kaye reading Hans Christian Anderson. A chair with a table lamp had served as my own gateway to the joys of reading on my own. 

A second door in the back of the kitchen led to an unfinished and unheated room which originally was a storage area and, through the back window, access to a 30 foot clothes line that was tethered to the house on one end and to  an old oak tree on the other end. Soon after we moved in, my parents converted it to a family room by adding insulation, paneling, and a tile ceiling. Two recliners faced the television, the one on the left my father’s retreat after dinner every night he was home. Mom took the chair on the right, usually engrossed in a book while Dad watched Perry Mason—originals and reruns. 

An enclosed staircase at the far left end of the dining room led upstairs to four bedrooms. The first on the left was my bedroom. A trapdoor to the attic—which was never accessed—provided a source of nightmares for me, as did the long, narrow closet that ran along the side of the room.  When Bobbie was born in 1955, she slept in the crib and eventually the twin bed next to me. Outside of her breaking a ceramic squirrel that held my glasses and watch, I don’t remember any fights occurring over our being “roommates” for the next eight years. 

Jay’s room was next to mine. A large closet had been cut to make the second bathroom that required walking through his room to use. It gave me a chance to check out his stash of Superman comics. When he found out I had touched them, he tossed them all out, a decision he lived to regret years later when such comics sold for some decent return. 

Laura’s room was next to Jay’s, which held two twin beds with pink bedspreads. As she was eight years my senior, I was in awe of the crinolines and poodle skirts that covered her floor and the make-up and costume jewelry that covered her dresser.  When she left on a fall Sunday morning in 1960 to enter Geneseo State College, I asked my parents five minutes later if I could move into her room. My mother asked me to wait until at least the bed was cold. To make her feel better, I waited an entire 24 hours. 

My parents’ bedroom was a treasure trove of nooks and crannies. The huge closet had a secret shelf that I found out years later held the store receipts and cash brought home every Saturday night until Dad could make the deposit at Keeseville National Bank on Monday morning. The maple bedroom set included a long dresser that held my mother’s green jewelry box and a glass tray that held Evening in Paris, a package of Sen-Sen mints, buttons, and safety pins. At the end of their double bed was a large oak chest filled with pillows and blankets, and when emptied became  a wonderful boat or train. A second “closet” was carved out of the space above the downstairs foyer. Also unheated, it served as a storage room and a spillover closet. My mother’s long, maroon bathrobe hung in that closet—when I wasn’t taking it out to play dress-up.

The main basement was accessed from still another door in the kitchen. Fourteen wooden steps with no railings led to a warren of four rooms that held, respectively, the washer and dryer; the old coal furnace; the “pantry,” which held extra canned food in case of a nuclear war, and a small room that held paint, Dad’s tools, and, behind a thick wooden door, paints and chemicals. A second basement, a root cellar, was under the family room and only accessible by a half door with a peg for a lock at the back of the house. I remember on several occasions my brother Jay and I, prodded on by an older neighbor  opened up the door that led to that dark root cellar, where we lit magic snake pellets in the dirt. We quietly watched them uncoil, turn black, and then turn to ash.  Years later, when I shared this secret with my mother, she was shocked. “You could have burnt the house down!” she exclaimed. 

Much changed over the 30 years my parents owned the house. The house’s three porches, one on the side, one on the front, and one behind the kitchen, eventually succumbed to age; it was easier for my parents to remove than replace. The metal kitchen cabinets were replaced with wood; the bathroom and its claw-toothed tub was remodeled soon after I went to college, the downstairs got carpeting.  In the late 1970s, Mom and Dad had the house sided in green vinyl, a definite improvement over the white chipped paint. 

In October 1981, my parents sold the house and moved into their cottage year round. Larry and I came  the weekend of the move  with Adam, who was three and a half, and Julie, who was six months old. Everything they wanted to keep was moved to the cottage, where they took up full-time residency until they were able to retire and live in Florida half the year. The rest they had put in a U-Haul for us to sort through once we emptied the contents into our one-car garage. That was the last time I set foot in the house, even though we have driven past it innumerable times. 

Like the last scenes in the movie, Titanic,  I often dream of the house and the memories it held for me and my family.  And one day, I will have the time and courage to knock on the front door and introduce myself to the current residents—the same family that bought it from my family almost 30 years ago.  I will ask if I can wander through my childhood home, and I  will checking all the nooks and crannies one last time—looking for traces of that brown haired, bespectacled child and her life in that old, nostalgia filled house.

In Quest of the Elusive License Plates….

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Larry skipping to our car after finding a license plate from Chihuahua, Mexico

“Delaware!” my husband Larry yelled as we drove past a line of parked cars on Galena Street in Frisco, Colorado. “We got Delaware!”

In our life, “Getting Delaware” is a big deal. Within the first ten days of our five week search for license plates, we had gotten the license plate of the elusive Eastern seaboard state. Could Rhode Island be far behind?

Road Trip Entertainment

Today, while heading for their annual family vacation, children sit in the back seats of a SUV watching Toy Story or Frozen from a strategically placed rear-seat DVD system. When our children Adam and Julie were young,  high tech electronic baby sitters were not available.  We resorted to supplying them with books and food and some random toys to keep them busy.  

We also had aces up our sleeve. On long trips, I read them books—Superfudge and Tales of a Four Grade Nothing were the most popular. At night, we played P’Diddle. The first person to see a car with a missing headlights would yell the eponymous game’s name. The winner could punch his or her sibling in the shoulder. (Of course, Adam and Julie liked punching each other.) And if all else failed, we would pull out our old radio show cassette tapes and listen to Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and the Lone Ranger. Not a Disney or Pixar movie to be found. Amazingly, we managed to get through our trips!

A New Game

For many years, our annual family vacation was spent at parents’ cottage on the New York side of Lake Champlain. The four of us would often take a day trip on the ferry from Port Kent to Burlington, Vermont. During those crossings, Larry encouraged us to check out the license plates. It became a game for us to see how many states we could find squeezed between bumpers. We could pick up ten or twelve states, mostly from the northeastern part of the country. “Dad would become pretty obsessed about our finding those license plates,” Julie recalled. 

Our game continued when our vacations expanded to Cape Cod. We would find an occasional Georgia or even California, but most people who headed to the Cape were from the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. A family vacation to Acadia National Park gave us a chance to expand our repertoire. I think that Larry was as excited to find that license plate from Alaska as he was to see Cadillac Mountain and Thunder Hole.

We Pursue the Plates

The children went along with their father’s fascination, but it wasn’t until Adam and Julie were out of the house and we began traveling out west to several national parks that his interest in tracking down all fifty-two plates intensified. and I became his mostly willing Pursuing the Plates Partner.

Fifty-two? That is part of “The Official Rules of the Game.” We are obligated  to find all fifty states, including both the yellow and turquoise New Mexico plates, and Washington, DC. We also track Canada’s ten provinces and three territories—including its newest Nunavut— as a bonus. (Bet many of you didn’t know all that information about Canada! See how much you can learn  plate pursuing!) Larry, the statistician, is in charge of keeping track of all our finds in his head and categorizing them by regions. I, the writer, am responsible for writing down each state as it is found and keeping the tally sheet with me at all times. 

Sightings Vary

No matter how complicated the rules, we are always able to pick off the big states—California, Texas, and Florida— quickly.  Non-contiguous Alaska and Hawaii are more difficult because of the distance—but we have found them almost every year.  Washington DC may be small in area, but anyone who has experienced the District of Columbia during the summer can understand why its 700,000 residents head out every July and August for cooler climes.  

The small states are the most problematic. As noted above, a license plate from Delaware is a coveted prize, as is West Virginia and New Hampshire. And Rhode Island? Legend says that Rhode Islanders consider any drive that takes more than twenty minutes a road trip. The probability of a “Little  Rhody” driving all the way to Colorado or Utah is slim. They usually are the last plates we find—if they are found at all.  

Many of the plates have been spotted while we are on the road, usually with Larry—the designated driver— behind the wheel.  Example: “Wait! Is that Maine in front of us?” Larry shouts.  He then speeds up the car and gets closer to targeted car to confirm. “Yes!  We got Maine!” We are lucky we haven’t yet “got”  a ticket for speeding or tailgating in the process.

And speaking of dangerous situations: Larry views every parking lot as a plethora of potential picks. He often takes circuitous routes through rows and rows of cars in search of an elusive New Jersey or West Virginia. I live in fear that my “Plate Patroller” will be so preoccupied in his hunt that he will get hit by a car backing out of a space. And sometimes, I am not afraid—just angry. As he usually has the keys to the rental car, I often find myself standing next to the locked passenger door, waiting in the rain or blazing heat or wind until Larry finishes his final scan and returns.  

Bounty Hunter in Action

At times, Larry has resorted to tracking down the actual drivers. While carrying groceries into our Colorado rental, Larry spotted a family sporting University of West Virginia sweatshirts walking into the condo next to us.  Larry tore after them to ask if they were from the Mountain State.

When they answered yes, Larry immediately followed up with the second, and more critical, question: “Did you drive your own car?”

”Sorry! It’s a rental!” 

Darn!

Unexpected Treasures

A few times, our search has yielded hidden treasures. We were walking into a Kansas City Royals vs. San Francisco Giants spring training game in Surprise Stadium in Arizona when Larry saw a license plate from Canada’s Northwest Territories. Not only was it the first time we had ever spotted a plate from that far-flung Canadian region, but also it was shaped like a polar bear!

We had another exciting find at Bahai Honda Key in Southern Florida, when we spotted a license plate from Germany. The owners—a young couple from Munich—had shipped their old Volkswagen van over to United States. After time in the Keys, they were continuing their journey through Mexico and Central and South America.

Now that we have Delaware, we only have eight more plates to go: non-contiguous. Alaska and Hawaii; New England’s New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont; Washington, DC; and West Virginia. Luckily for us, we have three more weeks in Colorado to find them. Wish us luck!

Update: An hour before I was to send this out, Larry found New Hampshire AND Chihuahua, Mexico! Wow! Only seven more to go!

Onto Our Next Adventure

 

Now that Larry and I have become summer “residents” of Colorado. I have challenged myself physically more than any other time in my life. It is my Rocky Mountain boot camp. I return home thinner, stronger, healthier—and already thinking of our next adventures in the Colorado Rockies.

Our daughter Julie came out to Eagle County, Colorado, in 2003 for a one year teaching position at an environment school. Fresh out of college, she fell in love with Colorado, the Rockies, and Sam —not necessarily in that order. Fourteen years later, she, Sam, their daughter Sylvie and their dog Neva live in Frisco, Colorado, seventy miles from Denver on the western slope of the Continental Divide.

Until 2015, we would come out to visit them every year for a couple of weeks. Since our granddaughter arrived, we rent a condo close to their home for a couple of months to escape the Florida heat and to enjoy being Zayde and Gammy.

As Frisco is located 9100 feet above sea level, Larry and I take a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude. Once we have our mountain lungs, we take advantage of all the area has to offer.

Larry plays in a  pickle ball league three or four times a week—their motto is “We play with an Altitude.” On those days, I leave our condo, pick up my “granddog,” and Neva and I take the trail up to Rainbow Lake. It’s an easy one mile hike to the lake, only made a little tricky by its popularity. Neva and I have had to share the shoreline with up to twenty people and almost as many dogs. On quieter days, we have the lake to ourselves. We play Neva’s version of fetch: I toss a stick into the freezing water; she fetches it; I chase her down to retrieve it. Then we head around the lake, making our way back along a rushing creek home.

When Sam and Julie took us on hikes the first years we visited, I was intimidated by their longer excursions. Would we get lost? Could I handle the steep climbs? Would I fall off a narrow precipice, my body found by the rescue team a week later? Would we run into a moose or bear? After many years of hiking, my moments of terror are limited only to a few dicey paths that are a little too narrow or steep for my taste. “I’m scared,” I utter under my breath.

One of our favorite hikes, Lilypad Lake, takes us along a moderately steep path to a sturdy wooden bridge that spans a rushing creek. Climbing up the stream, we come to a section that overlooks Frisco and Lake Dillon. Another thirty minute climb through forest paths and wildflowers brings us to a lake on the left and a pond filled with lily pads on the right. As chipmunks beg for crumbs, we enjoy water and a trail bar before heading back down.

The longest, most difficult hike we took this summer was to McCullough Gulch, south of Breckinridge. The entire trip is in the shadow of Quandary Peak, one of Colorado’s fifty-three mountain peaks that have an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. A few miles drive up a dirt road took us to a parking lot and a half-mile hike to the trail head. The path up the trail got steeper, muddier, and—in my wimpy opinion—less passable. At one point, a short section of small boulders required some scrambling. Above us, two mountain goats grazed. About one and a half miles up, we made our way to White Falls, a waterfall that cascaded from the lake above us. The sky, up to that point blue with fluffy clouds, got darker. From the waterfall, we made our way up to the glacial lake above us.

While not difficult to follow, the path got steeper and required more scrambling around slippery rocks. At one point, we got slightly off trail and needed to climb over some boulders. “I’m scared!” I whispered loudly. Although we were never in any imminent danger of falling, I was saying prayers for our safety. I tried not to think of what our children would say if the broken body of their sixty-something mother was found at the bottom of my imagined crevice. Just as we got to the top of the boulders, a young boy bounded past me to meet the rest of his family on the trail. Pretty embarrassing for me to be so afraid when child regarded it as standard playground fare.

After climbing a final steep grade, Larry and I reached the beautiful glacial lake at the top of McCullough Gulch. Beyond the lake was the magnificent site of Pacific Peak, a 13,900 footer. We had made it! We ate our snacks, drank some water, and enjoyed the spectacular view. Although the wind was strong, the sun was shining and the clouds were fluffy when all of that suddenly changed.

Hail! The skies opened up, and we were being pummeled with pea-sized pellets. We put on  our raincoats and slipped our way down the mountain, this time avoiding the “rock climb.” By the time we got to the waterfall, the hail had turned to spitting rain. A mile further down, the sun came out. Four and a half hours after we had started, we had completed the hike, tired but so glad we had done it.

Larry and I completed a number of hikes during our eight weeks in Frisco, each one providing breathtaking views of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and wildflowers. We experienced heat and rain and thunder and lightening and occasional bug swarms, but only once did we have to cut our hike short.

Our last weekend in Colorado, Sam, Larry, Sylvie, Neva and I hiked Black Powder Trail on Boreas Pass. Our two-year-old granddaughter soon tired of riding in her carrier on Sam’s back and decided to tackle the hike on foot. This worked until Sylvie and Neva found a pile of dirt created by burrowing animals that they regarded as more fun than further climbing. After a half hour of digging and snacks, all twenty-two pounds of her led us the way down the trail.

When I share my pictures on Facebook with friends and family, many comment on how strong and brave and fit we had proven ourselves to be. When I share descriptions of our hikes with native Coloradans, however, they are less impressed. “Oh yes! We did that hike in the winter with our snow shoes,” they comment. Or “If you enjoyed McCullough Gulch, you should try the thirteen mile hike up Meadow Lake Trail.” I can see clearly why GetYourFitTogether.com has named Colorado the most fit state in the country. And I know already that my  granddaughter and I will fit right in.

My Family’s History of Immigrants

The history of the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City is intertwined with my mother’s family and in particular, my smart, generous, resourceful Aunt Lil.

My maternal family story began Ragola, a small shtetl town in the southeast part of Lithuania.  My grandmother’s Ethel’s birth mother Channah married Buck (first name unknown), a radical and a “free thinker.”  Buck’s unorthodox views were too much for the religious Channah and her parents. Soon after the birth of their son Rafael, the marriage was dissolved. A few years later, Channah married Elihu Hirsch Osovitz. Rafael was soon joined by a half-brother Sam.

Five years later, Buck came to their home and took Rafeal with him to America. Channah, heartbroken,died a few weeks later during childbirth. Channah’s parents took Sam into their home. The infant Ethel—my future grandmother— was placed in a home a wet nurse.

Three years later, Elihu fell in love with Faigah “Vichna” Levinson, the daughter of a prosperous couple in the baking and grocery business. At first Vichna’s parents did not approve of their twenty-year-old daughter’s marriage to a thirty-plus widower with two children.  However, their union was a love match, a rarity in those days of arranged marriages.

Ethel adored her new mother, In fact, it was not until she was introduced her maternal grandparents seven years later that Ethel realized that Vichna was her step-mother. During that visit, Ethel  also learned that she had an older brother Sam in America.

Elihu was a pious man and a student of the Torah. Grandma Vichna was the breadwinner, working in her father’s store. They shared a shtetl “duplex” with another family. Each side of the small wood building held one room with a curtain in the corner hiding a bed to provide the parents some privacy. The two families shared an outhouse.

By 1899, the couple had four more children sharing their one room house: Joe, Lil, Paul, and Rose. Fearful of the threat of pogroms, Elihu and Vichna insisted their oldest daughter cross the ocean by herself to “die goldeneh medinah”—the Golden Land— for a better life. At Ellis Island, fifteen-year-old Ethel was met by her brother Sam and her half brother Rafael Buck. It was the first time she had met either sibling. Staying with distance cousins, Ethel got a job in a umbrella factory for three dollars a week.

Back in Ragola, behind that thin curtain, Vichna and Elihu conceived three more children: Bea, Ruth, Morris. As the oldest girl living home, Lil was responsible for her younger siblings until she was sent to America when she was twelve years old to join Ethel.

The two sisters rented a room with a family of six children and four other boarders.Giving her age as fourteen, Lil obtained a job as garment worker in a sweatshop in Greenwich Village.  She viewed the location— the top floors of the crowded, airless Aisch Building—as “a firetrap.” To  prevent workers from taking too many breaks or stealing, the owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits.

Ethel, struggling and unhappy with her job, accepted her brother Sam’s invitation to move in with him and his wife in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Paul, Joe, and Rose followed their older siblings to America.

When Paul encountered health problems working in the sweatshops, Lil relocated him and Joe to Burlington, Vermont. She also gave them  money  to purchase a wheelbarrow and enough second hand items to peddle goods to Vermont farmers and their families. First traveling on foot and then on horse and wagon, the two brothers saved enough money to open a store in Alburgh, Vermont. This was the start of Pearl’s Department Stores, department store chain that grew to twenty-two stores in Vermont and Upstate New York.

Working in the factory on Washington Place, Lil proved to be a  fast and efficient seamstress. When she demanded a raise, she was fired—a blessing in disguise. A week later, on  March 25, 1911, the “firetrap”—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—was the scene of the deadliest industrial fires in New York City history.  A hundred and forty-six garment works died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths.The tragedy led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire)

By that time, Elihu had died. Lil had saved $75  to pay for the remaining family members’ ship passage. On April 11, 1911, an elegantly dressed Lil  greeted Vichna (44), Bea (11), Morris (9), and Ruth (6) at Ellis Island. Lil rented an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for herself, Rose, and the four new immigrants.

Lil continued to be the main breadwinner in the family. She obtained promotions as a seamstress in various factories specializing in blouses and dresses. She often made as much as $20 a week, a greater salary than even most of the married men with whom she worked. Her hard work came with sacrifices. Lil attended night school, but after a hard day’s work in the shop, she fell often asleep in class. As a result, she never spoke or wrote English proficiently, relying heavily on Yiddish her whole life.

Now that the entire Osovitz family was in America, Vichna now focused her efforts on making sure that her oldest daughter in Baltimore was married. She arranged a match between her Ethel and Joseph Cohen, a lonely tailor originally from Ragola who was sleeping on a cot in his sister’s apartment. On January 14, 1912, Ethel and Joe were married in a large banquet hall  filled with family and friends from the old country. Nine months and four days after the wedding, their son Eli—named after Elihu—was born. Five years later, they welcomed Frances—my future mother.

A few years later, with the entire Osovitz family finally settled in The Golden Land,  Lil married Sam Waldman, a butcher. Lil worked alongside her husband in stores in New York State: first in the city, then Long Island, St. Regis Falls, and, finally settling in the Syracuse area. The entire family remained close throughout their lives, as have their many descendants of the original nine siblings from Ragola, Lithuania. And all of us recognize and appreciate the strong role our Aunt Lil played in our history.

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The Osovitz Family: Bottom left to right: Rose, Ruth, Bea, Ethel, and Lil. Top left to Right: Paul, Sam, and Joe. All their names were Americanized once they moved to America.

My Dad, The Designated Driver

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Bill Cohen, my father, in his best Errol Flynn imitation!

A Father’s Day memory: It is 1956. My father is sitting behind the steering wheel of an idling sedan in the driveway of our house in Keeseville. Laura, Jay, and I are squirming in the back seat. Dad is smoking a Kent and listening to a baseball game on the radio. He gives the horn an impatient tap to hurry along my mother, who is inside the house diapering Bobbie and pulling together last minute items for our car trip. He honks again, more loudly. “Where is that woman?” he asks. “We’re going to be late.”

For over sixty-five years, my father was our family’s self-appointed Designated Driver. Born and raised in Queens, my father learned how to drive when he was fifteen years old at his grandfather’s farm in Burlington, Vermont. In 1940, my mother took her place in the passenger seat. By 1955, four children were filling up the remaining space.

Out of financial necessity, our family usually owned “gently used” cars. No matter how pristine they were when purchased, each vehicle soon lost the ‘new-car’ feel once our huge family—with an occasional dog along for the ride—took ownership.

These were the days before cars had safety features. No one wore seat belts; babies sat on mothers’ laps; Dad’s extended right arm held us back when we were forced to a sudden stop.

As the family grew, sedans gave way to station wagons. One or two of us children happily climbed into the back, where we bounced our way to a school function or the beach or a relative’s house or even to visits to our grandparents in New York City, oblivious to any danger. Fortunately, Dad was an excellent driver. He was never involved in an accident. And his only speeding ticket was when—as he never let me forget—he was rushing home from a trip to Plattsburgh after I was car sick.

Not that he wasn’t guilty of “pedal to the metal.” In the 1960s, my father was elected coroner of Essex County, New York, a position he held for over twenty years. When he got the call from the state police that he was needed to investigate an unattended or suspicious death, Dad would rush out to his car, put the Essex County Coroner sign in his window, slap on his “Kojak” flasher on top of the roof, and drive to the scene like a bat out of hell. If the call came in the middle of the night, one of us would often ride with Dad to keep him company. I remember sitting in the passenger seat while Dad careened through the back roads of Reber or Willsboro or Port Kent, praying one of the other three coroners in the county wouldn’t have to investigate our untimely demise.

Soon after they retired in 1981, Dad and Mom began spending half the year in Florida. Each year in mid-October, they drove the 1500 miles to their condo in Lauderdale Lakes. The week before Memorial Day, they took the same route back. Although they eventually took the auto train to reduce driving time, Dad continued his reign as exclusive—and excellent—driver.

As he got into his eighties, however, his driving skills declined. His hearing was poor, his reaction times were slow, and he relied too often on cruise control so he wouldn’t have to regulate the gas pedal. Concrete car stop bumpers in parking lots saved many an eating place from becoming an impromptu drive-in restaurant. Still, Dad insisted on taking the wheel, promising to limit his trips to nearby restaurants and stores.

In 2005, while visiting Mom and Dad in Florida, Jay and his wife Leslie made plans for the four of them to go out to dinner. The usual fight ensued. “I’ll drive!” Jay offered. “Absolutely not,” Dad countered “You’re my guest. I’ll drive.”

The route to the restaurant included a section on a multi-lane expressway. Dad was in the far left lane when he suddenly crossed four lanes to get to the exit ramp. “We watched in horror from the back seat,” Jay said. “Fifteen years later, I can still remember how Leslie’s nails felt as she dug them into my arm until I bled.”

After that incident, we children insisted Dad give up the car. We arranged for Mom and Dad to move into Coburg Village, an independent living facility near Larry and me that offered, among other amenities transportation to stores and doctors’ offices. They flew up to their new home, and Laura and Jay drove Dad’s car to our house. Dad’s Toyota would stay safely in our driveway until Julie picked it up and drove it back to Colorado that summer.

For the next few months, Dad complained incessantly about how we had taken away his independence. The day Julie came home to claim the Toyota, however, Dad pulled out of his wallet the registration AND an extra car key.

“You could have walked down the driveway and driven that car anytime you wanted to!” I said.

“I know,” he said with a wink.

After that, Dad grudgingly accepted his place in the front passenger seat when either Larry or I drove. Six months before he passed away, Dad got a brand new shiny red mobility scooter. When I came over to have dinner that night in the Coburg dining room, Dad was already sitting on his new toy with a huge smile on his face. Mom and I followed him as he navigated his way down the long hallway to the open elevator door. Entering a little too fast, he gently hit the back wall. “I’m fine!” Dad said with a wink. “I got this!”

Of course he was fine! My father was finally in the driver’s seat again.