Category Archives: Family Stories

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.

Where Was Freud When She Needed Him??

Some people don’t remember their dreams. Mine are so vivid that they have become at times their own reality, creating some very embarrassing moments.

When Larry and I first moved to Clifton Park in 1976, we didn’t know anyone. At the urging of Larry’s mom, a lifetime member of Hadassah, I joined the fairly new but very active Clifton Park chapter. The very first meeting I attended, I sat with a group of women who were also newcomers to the community. We became friends, and several of us became pregnant the same year. We attended Lamaze classes together, went to each other’s son’s bris, and attended La Leche League meetings together. Yes, 1978 was a bumper year for Clifton Park Hadassah babies.

When my son Adam was around eighteen months old, that core of Hadassah mothers, along with a few other friends, formed a playgroup for our children. Each week, we would take turns dropping off our child with the designated mother at ten o’clock in the morning. Seven of us would go off on our merry way, free from toddler responsibilities for two blissful hours. The assigned mother would organize activities for the day’s playgroup. During the winter months, the children played with toys, participated in an arts and crafts project, or enjoyed a story time. In the summer, the children went outside and played on the swing sets or in sandboxes. The mom-in-charge fed the children lunch—usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit juice and cookies. By twelve noon, the playgroup mom was more than ready to hand the visiting children back to their own mothers.

The group went well, and the children, for the most part, played well together. Yes, there were the expected outbursts and tantrums and fights.But this arrangement worked well for both the children and the mothers.

The eight of us became good friends, so I was saddened to hear that Fern, her husband Steve, and their son Marshall were moving to Chicago. I shared the news with my friend Diane during a phone call on a non-playgroup day.

Diane immediately questioned my information. “Are you sure?” she said. “I spoke to Fern yesterday, and she didn’t mention a thing about a move.”

“No,” I insisted. “Steve got a promotion with his company. Fern feels bad about leaving all her friends here, but she said this is an excellent opportunity for Steve. They are moving in two months.”

Diane was still doubtful. “Look, I have three-way calling on my phone. Let me get hold of Fern right now and the three of us can talk.”

I agreed and heard a few clicks and buzzes as Diane set up the conference call. We soon heard Fern’s hello.

“Hi Fern!” said Diane. “Marilyn was telling me that you are moving to Chicago!”

“I’m not moving to Chicago,” Fern immediately responded. “Where did you hear that, Marilyn?”

“We talked yesterday, I responded. “You told me all about Steve’s promotion and his transfer.”

“What promotion?” Fern said. “As far as I know, we are staying put in Clifton Park.”

It was just at that moment that the circumstances of my “conversation” with Fern fell into place. Horrified, I realized that this entire episode had taken place in a dream I had experienced the night before. Every moment of that dream came rushing back to me.

“Oh my G-d!”I exclaimed. “I am so very sorry! This whole conversation took place in my sleep!”

I was totally embarrassed. I stuttered my way through apologies to both Fern and Diane. They understood—as much as they could understand that this crazy lady couldn’t distinguish dreams from reality. And what if Fern thought it was ‘wishful thinking’?

All of the mothers in that playgroup remained friends through our children’s nursery school years that followed. Three years later, some of us mothers, who all delivered younger siblings in 1981, formed another playgroup with the same positive results.

Many of us joined the same synagogue. Even after some moved out of the area, we continued to stay in touch. We attended each other’s children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, rejoiced in their successes in high school and college, comforted each other during the sad times, and shared each other’s joy in our former toddlers’ marriages and the births of each other’s grandchildren. Obviously, Fern and her family didn’t move to Chicago. She and Steve still live in the same house that housed our sons’ playgroup over thirty-five years ago. She is currently president of Sisterhood and is stepping up to the plate to become the next president of Congregation Beth Shalom.

I still clearly remember the “conversation” I had with Fern. After that incident, I was a little more careful after waking up from a vivid dream. I have checked myself several times over the years, realizing that I was about to pull another “Fern Moment.” But I also remember our playgroup and the friendships that grew from those once-a-week get-togethers.

The Cohens Move to Keeseville

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My father, Bill Cohen, in front of 5 Vine Street, 1961.

As Larry and I packed up our home in Clifton Park, I remembered my mother’s story of our our 1952 move from Potsdam to 5 Vine Street, Keeseville, New York, where they lived for thirty years.

Once we had sold the house in Potsdam, Bill moved to Keeseville to start his new job managing Pearl’s Department Store and to find a house for us while I stayed home with the three children. Unfortunately, there were not many houses for sale that summer. Bill finally called at the end of June to tell us the good news: He had found a large four bedroom colonial just a block from the store. He told us to start packing as we would be moving at the beginning of August, a few weeks before school started. “The house just needs a few repairs that I will take care of before the move,” he said.  He paused, and before hanging up added,  “Oh, by the way, make sure to bring the cat!”

Although we had hoped to be settled in our new home well before Labor Day, the closing on 5 Vine Street was not completed until five days before school started and a day before Marilyn’s second birthday. As a result, Bill had not been able to arrange for the “minor” repairs he said the house needed.

That Saturday morning, movers filled up a Pearl’s Department Store truck with all of our furniture and possessions and arranged to meet us in Keeseville.  After traveling three and a half hours in our red station wagon, Bill, Laura, Jay, Marilyn, the cat, and I finally arrived. As we pulled into the driveway, I got my first glimpse of our new home.

The outside of the house was beautiful. The house, a  white Victorian colonial with green shutters, was situated on a pretty lot with lots of bushes and flowers. A screened-in porch was on one side of the front of the house, and another porch ran along the side. We walked across the lawn and climbed up six wooden stairs onto a small porch that lead to the front door. We entered the house through a small enclosed foyer that lead into a very large living room and dining room with lots of windows that spanned the entire front of the house. A beautiful oak archway separated the two rooms.

But when I entered the kitchen, I faced a disaster.  In the center of the room was a big old fashioned non-working black stove.  Above the stove was one lone light bulb hanging from a wire from the ceiling. That and an outlet for the stove and refrigerator were the only working electricity in the entire kitchen. The unfinished wood floor was covered with torn linoleum.  When I turned  on the single faucet in the old metal sink, there was no pressure, just drips of rusty water because the house was connected to an almost empty well. In place of kitchen cabinets was a filthy, dark pantry.  I knew then why Bill told me to bring the cat:  lots of mice had moved in before we did.

As my eyes filled with tears. Bill tried to comfort me.  “Please be patient.  Nothing can happen over the Labor Day weekend, but by Tuesday, carpenters will be tearing down the pantry and fixing up the kitchen. I promise you will be happy with it”

The children and I went to explore the rest of the house. There was only one bathroom, a small dark room next to the kitchen. Behind the kitchen was an unheated shed. Upstairs, the four bedrooms had lots of windows, which only served to shed light on how shabby the rooms actually were. Like the kitchen, the floors were unfinished, and all the rooms needed to be painted.  The basement was dark and damp, with several small rooms, including one with a large coal furnace and another with a wringer washer. The furniture from the tiny house in Potsdam barely filled the rooms. To add to our problems, Laura’s beloved second-hand piano that we brought from Potsdam had fallen off the moving truck. It had survived, but barely, and it was even more off key than it was in Potsdam.

By Sunday night, everyone was tired, exhausted, and upset. Laura and Jay had not wanted to move in the first place as it meant a new school and new friends. After living her first two years in a tiny box, Marilyn was terrified of the big, dark house and clung to me for dear life. The only one who was happy was the cat, who had already polished off several of the mice in the pantry.

The next day was Labor Day, and all the stores were closed. To cheer Laura and Jay up, we took them to the empty store and selected new outfits for them to start school.  Marilyn, the birthday girl, got a new dress.To celebrate her birthday, we had an indoor picnic in our new dining room with the food and paper plates and cups we had picked up Saturday at the local A&P.

The next morning, Bill left for the store. I put Marilyn in the stroller and walked Laura and Jay across the keystone bridge that spanned the Ausable River and then up the hill to the school to register them for classes that Wednesday. When we arrived back at the house, a crew of men from the town was digging up the sidewalk in front of the house to connect us to town water. Inside,the carpenters were tearing down the pantry. Brightening, I realized that, without the pantry, I was going to have a nice big kitchen. I was very encouraged until the electrician came to connect our new electric stove. He told me the stove was fine, but the wiring in the rest of the kitchen was so faulty that if we did not take care of it immediately it could cause a fire and burn down the whole house.

As the months went by, the kitchen and the rest of the house underwent the needed repairs and we began to love 5 Vine Street not only for its rooms but also for all the stories those rooms held. All our children grew up there, and we lived there until our retirement over thirty years later.

Love Sealed in (Kidney) Stone

 

Larry and I were married on September 8, 1974, at Agudat Achim, with our reception immediately following at the synagogue. Our memories of the wedding are a blur, most contained in the beautiful wedding album that sits on our bookshelf. However, our honeymoon is one of the most memorable…and unusual…on record.

Our first night as man and wife, we stayed in a hotel in Glens Falls. The next morning, we headed up to Quebec City for what we planned to be a romantic week in one of the oldest cities in North America.

Larry had made the arrangements to stay in a brand new hotel that had opened just weeks before. Our room was large and lovely, with a huge king-sized bed and a lovely view of the city. Once we finished checking it out, we went out to dinner a restaurant in the Old City, a lovely old place with stone walls and a fireplace. We both enjoyed French onion soup and steak and returned to our hotel.

At two o’clock in the morning, Larry woke up in agony with severe pains and cramps in his lower back. He thought he had food poisoning, maybe the French onion soup? He tried walking around the room, but in the end he just curled up in a ball on our king sized bed and moaned. After an hour of no relief, we realized we needed medical help.

The hotel was so new that the phone in our room didn’t work. So I threw on some clothes and went down to the front desk to ask for a doctor. He showed up at four o’clock and quickly diagnosed Larry’s pain as a kidney stone. The doctor gave Larry a shot of morphine. He gave me the name and address of the closest hospital with instructions to take him there first thing the next morning. Larry fell into a drugged sleep, and I watched him from the couch. Kidney stones? I knew nothing about kidney stones. I figured that he would be on dialysis the rest of his life. I stayed up the rest of the night trying to envision life taking care of an invalid.

Early the next morning, I packed up our bags, checked out of our beautiful hotel, and drove Larry to the local hospital’s emergency room. His X-ray confirmed that he, indeed, had a kidney stone, a hard, crystalline mineral material formed within the kidney or urinary tract. While kidney stones are painful—described by sufferers even worse than the pain of childbirth or broken bones— we were assured that they are not life threatening. No, he would not be on dialysis for the rest of his life. However, since he was in a great deal of pain and far away from home, the doctor recommended that Larry stay until he either (1) passed the stone; or (2) had surgery to remove it. So Larry checked into his $400 a night hospital room. Once I knew he was settled, I checked into a $9 a night boarding house across the street that was recommended by the hospital staff.

Outside of our doctor, everyone else in the hospital and boarding house spoke French. I had taken the language for five years in high school and a semester in college. Surprising even myself, I was soon able to carry on limited conversations with the nurses, the patients, and their families. By the end of the week, we were engaging in long chats in French, punctuated by broken French —moi!—and broken English —the native Québécois.

My poor husband, however, didn’t remember any of his two years of high school French. I walked over from the boarding house each morning, and we spent the day together—when I wasn’t chatting with “mes nouveaux amis”—holding hands and watching French television. To add insult to injury, his roommate’s doctor’s prescription to pass the stone was for him to drink beer—lots of it. So every night, a group of his family and friends came over with several six packs of Molson’s, and they had a grand old time. Unfortunately, the beer didn’t flush out the stone. Larry’s roommate had surgery on Wednesday to remove it.

The same fate was to befall Larry on Thursday. The surgery was considered ‘minor,’ but it required ‘retrieving’ the stone. Ouch! Not a great way to start off married life.

On Friday, Larry, now stone-free, was released from his “honeymoon suite.” We began our drive back home. Of course, Larry couldn’t drive, so I took the wheel. As I was going down the highway keeping pace with the numerous trucks heading for the border, Larry yelled out, “You’re going ninety miles an hour!” Whoops. Larry had me pull over, and he drove the rest of the way.

As originally planned, Larry and I stopped over at my parents’ cottage on Lake Champlain on the way to Albany, two days earlier than expected. My mother took one look at our sad faces and immediately assumed the marriage had already tanked. We quickly explained where we had spent the last five days. Our marriage was still intact, although our honeymoon was definitely a disaster.

Larry and I tried to make up for our lost honeymoon several times before getting it right. The next summer we headed to Nantucket, only to be delayed a couple of days by a hurricane. The next trip was to Washington, DC, where gale winds closed down the National Zoo and knocked out all the electricity in our expensive hotel. We certainly got past all those vacation missteps, as we are celebrating over forty years of marriage. Yes, our marriage is written in stone, partly in kidney but mostly in love.

Ice Cream Cone

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My maiden name is Cohen. In all honesty, however, it should have been Cone. As in ice cream cone. As in my favorite summertime/anytime treat. As a matter of fact, if I were one of the Israelis wandering the desert with Moses, my manna from heaven would have tasted like Breyer’s Natural Vanilla.

My love for ice cream is in my genetic makeup. While I was growing up, a day wasn’t complete in the Cohen household without our dishes of ice cream. In the 1950s in our small town, choices were limited. Our freezer usually held one or two half gallons of Sealtest Neapolitan. Having all three flavors for six people worked out well. My father chose vanilla topped with a huge helping of strawberry preserves. My mother went for the strawberry. The four children took whatever we could scoop up with our vintage gray aluminum Scoop Rite ice cream scoop.

Our favorite food also played into all of our family’s special occasions. We dished out ice cream at birthday celebrations, Yom Kippur break-the-fasts, the first post-Passover meal, and Thanksgiving—what was apple pie without the a la mode! As an added treat, my parents would take us for ice cream at the Frosty Dairy Bar, a restaurant on Route 9 in Plattsburgh. Going there allowed us to go beyond Neapolitan, giving me my first tastes of “exotic” flavors like pistachio, chocolate chip, and cherry vanilla.

Fortunately, I met and married a man who, although not as fanatical as me, enjoys ice cream. He loves me enough to tolerate my addiction. Otherwise, I doubt if the marriage would have lasted. Our first date was a movie and a trip to Friendly’s. Larry had a chocolate Fribble, and I had a hot fudge sundae with—you guessed it—vanilla ice cream. It became our go-to place after every movie or play for many years.

Once we had children, we usually kept at least one half gallon of ice cream in the freezer, vanilla for me and Stewart’s Swiss chocolate almond for Larry—he still hasn’t forgiven Stewart’s for phasing out his favorite flavor. Once they could hold a kiddie cone, we would bring Adam and Julie during summer months to the Country Drive-In, a popular hamburger/soft-serve ice cream stand off Exit 8 of the Northway. Julie took Larry there every Father’s Day for a hamburger, fries, and an ice cream cone from elementary school until she graduated college.

My now-adult children don’t place ice cream as high on their favorite food list, but they take care of their mother. Julie and Sam makes sure they have Haagen-Dazs ice cream or gelato waiting for us in their freezer when we visit them Colorado. Adam humors us by taking us to Bi-Rite Creamery for a waffle cone whenever we visit him in San Francisco.

As empty nesters, we usually have a half gallon of vanilla ice cream in the freezer. I will have a small scoop once a week. Larry will indulge a little more often using his own “in-house ice cream routine.” First he softens the ice cream by putting the whole carton into the microwave for a few seconds. He then uses the Scoop Rite ice cream scoop we inherited from my parents to transfer one or two scoops into a cereal bowl. He squirts on Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate syrup, throws on a few Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, and tosses on a healthy handful of chopped walnuts and sliced almonds. When Larry was laid up with a leg surgery, I tried to cheer him up by ‘recreating’ his masterpiece. I failed miserably as I messed up the proportions of ice cream, chocolate syrup, and nuts. To be honest, I think Larry treats ice cream as another way to eat nuts.

For me, however, a simple unadorned dish or cone of vanilla ice cream is my favorite food, a link to my childhood as well as one of life’s great pleasures. Ice cream even has played an important role during one of the most poignant times of my life. When my mother fell gravely ill four days before she passed away, she lost her desire for food. I asked her if she wanted anything special to eat. She whispered, “Strawberry ice cream.” The cafe at Coburg Village, the independent living place where she was living, had none. The wonderful young woman working behind the counter, upon hearing the story, went up to the main restaurant and brought me back a huge dish of strawberry ice cream to honor my mother’s request. When I got back to Mom’s bedside, she ate three or four spoonfuls before she pushed my hand away. “That was delicious! Thank you!” That was the last food she ever ate, a true Cohen to the end. I can only hope that I, like my mother, will a long, happy, healthy life that concludes with the sweet taste of vanilla ice cream on my tongue.

Until we relocated to Florida, one of my favorite stops was the three-mile trip to the Country Drive-In for a vanilla soft serve. As a matter of fact, I needed to make a trip there to take a picture of my eating my cone for the Jewish World, It was a cold, rainy, day, making it quite tough to buy that cone and eat it. Someone had to do the job, however, and who better than Marilyn Cone Shapiro?

Bluebird Powder Day

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While visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Frisco, Colorado, I went cross country skiing for the first time in several years. It seemed like everything was in place. Clothes? Check. Skis and poles? Check, Beautiful snow cover? Check. Perfect temperature? Check. Ability to cross country ski? Not so good!

Julie had moved to Colorado after college for a “one year” teaching position at a science school near Vail. She fell in love with the mountains, the snow—and Sam. They were married in Moab in May 2007, and after completing master’s degrees and finding permanent jobs, they purchased a home in Frisco.

Larry and I visited Julie and Sam at least once a year, usually around the Fourth of July in time for the parade, town celebration, Julie and Sam’s annual BBQ, and the fireworks over Dillion Lake. Julie and Sam had fully embraced the Colorado winter life style and had encouraged us to visit them during the snow season. For many years, we demurred because of our work schedule. After we retired, Larry and I preferred to spend our winter months getting away from snow and cold, NOT heading in the opposite direction to 9000 feet and more snow and more cold. In 2014, as I missed my daughter, I made the decision that I would go to the mountains in the winter, even if Larry wouldn’t join me.

As soon as I entered the kitchen my first morning there, Julie asked me if I wanted to cross country ski. She and Sam live only a couple of blocks from the Frisco bike trail, and the snow was fresh enough for us to ski right from their house. I agreed to give it a try.

Julie fitted me with an extra set of boots, poles, and skis. I snapped my right foot into the right ski easily, but the left boot/left ski didn’t cooperate. Six to eight tries later, both of my skis were snapped in. By the time we finished, the bottom of Julie’s skis were stuck with snow. She took them off, went back into the house to locate scraper chipped the snow off her skis, and put them back on. Then she showed me how to lift up each ski so at a ninety degree angle and balance on the other leg while she removed the snow and ice from the bottom of my skis. Once we were done, we headed out of the driveway towards the bike path.

The snow was as beautiful as anticipated. I naively thought that cross country skiing would be like riding a bike: Once my skis were on, I would be gliding along the path like a pro. However, I was a little older, a little less flexible, and a little heavier. My progress was pathetic. Fortunately, Julie was a good teacher. She reviewed with me how to kick up my heels, how to glide, how to lean forward to get better momentum. But despite my attempts, I always was at least two hundred yards behind her.

A “Vail 11 Miles” sign soon appeared along the bike path. My mind went back to a show on the Travel Channel, where Samantha Brown did a midnight ski from Vail to Breckenridge. Watching her glide effortlessly in the moonlight, I had thought, “We should do that when we go to Colorado!” But after twenty minutes on the trail, I was bathed in sweat, breathing heavily to compensate for the altitude, and seriously questioning my ability to ski another yard, much less eleven more miles. I didn’t want to disappoint Julie. I soldiered along.

We poked along for a mile or so, and Julie suggested we scrape off the sticking snow from the bottom of my ski as we practiced at home. I kicked out my left ski, tried balancing on my right leg, and crashed to the ground. After several attempts to get up, I finally had to remove my skis and right myself. Now I had to get back into the bindings. Multiple unsuccessful tries later, Julie initial patience was wearing thin. She pointed impatiently to the spot on the binder where the boot snapped in. “Right here?” I asked.

“Yes!” she answered. I put my toe in and snapped the binding down—on my poor daughter’s finger. She spewed out a string of obscenities fit for an angry, drunken sailor.

“I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed. “But where did you learn that language?”

After a couple of more tries, I was into my bindings and on our way again. We had to stop a couple of more times to scrape our skis, but I was enjoying the experience.

Forty-five minutes later, we were home, cozy, warm, and sipping tea.

Sam came down from the home office where he had been working. “You’re back! How did it go?” he asked.

“I’m a little rusty,” I said, “but I’m catching on.”

“How far did you go?” he asked.

“Actual miles were around three,” I said. “For me it felt like we went the twenty-two miles to Vail and back. For Julie it must have felt like to hell and back.”

The next morning, I woke up feeling pain in muscles I didn’t remember I had. But when I went down to breakfast, Julie was ready to try it again. A half an hour later, we were back on the bike path. My skis had clipped in on the first try, and the wax helped me glide smoothly over the fresh tracks Julie broke in front of me. I could not stop smiling. When I fell down, I picked myself up with no trouble.

“You’re doing so much better this morning, Mom,” commented Julie. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Every minute!” I responded.

“This is a bluebird powder day,” Julie said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s a Colorado expression,” explained Julie. “The sun is shining, the sky is a brilliant blue, the snow is a perfect powder, and the temperature is ideal.”

“You’re right, Jules! It is a bluebird powder day!” And we kept on gliding through the powder.

My Two Moms

Doris and Fran 1979_Adam BD

My two moms at Adam’s second birthday party. Doris Shapiro is on the left and Frances Cohen is on the right.

Larry has a very special relationship with Mother’s Day: He was born on this Hallmark Card Holiday on May 9, 1948.

I can only imagine the joy Doris and Ernie felt when their second child, a son, was born. He was a beautiful baby. From what I heard from his mother and still hear from his three sisters, Larry was an easy child: quiet, never got into trouble, spent time either in his room or with his friends on the baseball field. He grew up, went to college in Boston, and completed his master’s degree at Syracuse University.

By the time he finished graduate school, Larry’s parents were more than anxious for him to meet a nice Jewish girl and settle down. After meeting me at the Purim party, Larry kept me under wraps until that May, when he invited me to his house. I had a major strike against me; I had completely forgotten his birthday, which fell on Mother’s Day that year. But Doris let that pass once Larry brought me home. Jewish? Check! Nice family? Check! Single and available? Double check! By the end of June she and Larry’s Bubbie Rose, began to put some pressure on him. So what if we had only been dating for three months?

“So what is your relationship with this person?” Doris asked.

“I guess we’re going steady,” Larry replied.

“Steady, smeady,” huffed Bubbie Rose. “She’s a nice Jewish girl.You don’t go steady. You get married.”

Larry and I dated through the summer, and August, we were already talking marriage. Of course, we didn’t share that with our families, but Doris was still working on it. One day, she showed me her engagement ring. “Whoever marries my son will wear this ring,” she told me. Very subtle!

When his first attempt at proposing to me in Saratoga National Battlefield was thwarted by a bee sting, Larry tossed romance out the window and asked me to marry him on our walk home from Rosh Hashanah services on September 28. We shared the news with my parents over the phone, but we saved our big announcement for his parents at the Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast on October 6, which coincided with Ernie’s birthday.

“I have a special birthday present for you, Dad,” Larry announced over coffee and birthday cake.

“Another ugly tie?” snorted one of his sisters.

“No, I’m giving you a daughter-in-law.”

Everyone started hugging us and yelling “Mazel tov!” Doris was true to her summer promise. She ran into the bedroom, grabbed the engagement ring, and put it on my finger. I am sure I am one of the only people in the world who had her future mother-in-law place an engagement ring on her finger. Again, very subtle!

After that day, Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro became “Mom and Dad.” I was really fortunate in that I now had two sets of parents who loved me deeply. Larry’s parents treated me as well as, if not sometimes better, than their own children. Mom, happy with Larry’s choice, often kiddingly said, “If you two ever get divorced, I get custody of you.” I may not have been able to make a brisket or a bed as well as my mother-in-law, but for the most part, I could do no wrong. When we delivered two grandchildren, it was the icing on the cake.

Throughout their lives, Mom and Dad were wonderful in-laws. They took great joy not only in their children’s accomplishments, but also in the accomplishments of their daughter/sons-in-law. They adored their seven grandchildren and showered all of us with their love and their generosity for many years.

My parents and in-laws hit it off from the first time they met, and they spent many happy times together as dear friends as well as mishpocha. When they both retired, my in-laws purchased a condo a minute’s walk from my parents. Ernie and Bill golfed; Doris and Fran shopped and shared confidences over coffee.

When Mom died during heart surgery in April 1994, we were all devastated. And when Dad followed her a mere eight months later, the grief was overwhelming. Since their passing, so many wonderful events have occurred where they were not there physically but were there in our hearts. At so many occasions—bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, the birth of their great-grandchildren—at least one of the children or grandchildren have said, “Mom and Dad would have been so proud!”

A few years before Mom passed away, I gave her a framed poem entitled “My Other Mother.” The first lines read, “You are the mother I received/the day I wed your son/And I want to say/Thank you Mom for the loving things you’ve done.” She kept it on the wall in her bedroom. When she passed away, I took the poem and hung it in our bedroom, next to our wedding picture. So on this Mother’s Day, I want to tip my hat to my two moms, the one I received at birth and the one I was given through marriage.

Our Passover Bris

Larry and I at Adam's bris. Adam was asleep in his bassinet, waiting to go home.

Larry and I at Adam’s bris. Adam was asleep in his bassinet, waiting to go home.

This year, as we prepare for Passover,  my thoughts are not only on the upcoming holiday but also the memories of a very special Passover thirty-six years ago.

At this time in 1978, Larry and I were anxiously awaiting for the birth of our first child. My mother and my older sister had delivered their babies early and easily, and I was expecting the same experience for me. It didn’t turn out that way.  After I had gone through several hours of unproductive labor, our baby was delivered on his due date, Saturday, April 15, by Caesarian section. Despite the unexpected surgery,  Larry and I were absolutely thrilled.  We had a perfect healthy little boy, our little tax deduction, our Adam Michael Shapiro.

Now that we had a son, we needed to plan a bris. Unlike today’s births, the average stay for a woman who delivered by c-section in the 1970’s was eight days. We arranged to have the ceremony and celebration in one of the conference rooms in St. Peters on the following Sunday.

Now we faced the difficulty of finding a rabbi and/or moyel. Sunday was the second full day of Passover. As a C-section was not a “natural birth,” the holiday technically superseded the commandment of the bris on the eighth day.  Fortunately, my brother and sister-in-law had a close friend who was the daughter of a local rabbi, and he graciously agreed to officiate on “yontiff.” One of the doctors in my ob/gyn practice, who was Jewish, agreed to perform the circumcision.

By the time we had set everything up, it was Friday, the first night of Passover.  Larry was invited to a friend’s for seder and I had a decidedly un-Passover dinner in my hospital room. One of the nurses came in to check on me, and I commented that I thought I had developed a bed sore from lying around the hospital bed for the past six days.  She took a look, and said, “That’s not a bed sore! You’ve developed a cyst on the bottom of your tailbone.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not a doctor,” she started. “ But you probably will have to have surgery to remove it, and you will have to stay in the hospital for another week while it heals. Of course, as it is an infection, you will have to be in isolation and not be able to take care of Adam until you are healed.”

That did it for me. I was recovering from major surgery, we were planning on a bris on Sunday, and now I was facing more possible hospital time. I did what any other sane, sensible postpartum mother would do: I had a complete, hysterical melt-down. Unfortunately and to add to the drama, Larry was at a seder at a friend who had an unlisted number, so it took some effort to get the phone operator to agree to contact Larry and then have him call me back. Once he was reached,, Larry left his friend’s house mid-seder and drove back to the hospital to comfort me. The next morning, my doctor assured me that a good dose of antibiotics would work in the short run, with surgery only an option down the road if necessary. The bris was still on, and it was time for us to focus on the celebration.

The day of the bris, my mother and mother-in-law  came with Passover wines, cakes and cookies, along with fresh fruit. They covered the tables with white table cloths, and used an extra one to  cover the crucifix that was hanging on the wall. Our family was all there, the rabbi was sweet and kind, and the doctor who performed the circumcision was steady handed.  The adults, including the father and mother, handled the procedure calmly.  The most attentive guest was our five-year-old niece Katie, who took a unusually close-up interest in the procedure. When asked if she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, she replied.  “Yes, or a fireman!” After the ceremony, we all sipped Passover wine and ate sponge cake and macaroons. Friends and relatives said good-bye, and Larry drove me and our soundly sleeping son home to Clifton Park. We now could begin our life as a family.

I healed nicely, never needed surgery on the cyst, and, outside of having to call the paramedics my second day home after I got my wedding ring stuck on my finger, things settled down to the new normal of having an infant. Over the years,  Adam has had to celebrate many birthdays with Passover sponge cakes and macaroons instead of the traditional birthday cake.. However, he and our family always enjoy the retelling of the Passover bris as much as the required retelling of our “sojourn from Egypt” at our seders.

 

 

 

 

Best Gift

The baby grand was the center piece of our living room in Keeseville.

The baby grand was the center piece of our living room in Keeseville.

For our family, three of the best gifts we ever received were an ugly orange spinet, a mahogany baby grand, and a walnut Yamaha upright.

After the war, my parents and my two older siblings moved from New London, Connecticut, to Potsdam, New York, so that my father could help my Uncle Eli, my mother’s brother, with his clothing business. Housing was very difficult to find in 1948, and my parents were left no option but to purchase a very small ranch on top of a very windy hill. Cramming the four of them into the two-bedroom house was difficult enough. When I arrived in 1950, things got even more crowded. The kitchen was so small that the person sitting in the kitchen chair nearest to the refrigerator would have to stand up if someone had to grab the milk. Laura and Jay shared a bedroom, and my crib was sandwiched into my parents’ bedroom. The tiny living room had a couch, two chairs, my playpen, toys, books, and, in time, a very ugly piano that was one of my sister’s best gifts.

Potsdam was not only the home of the state college but also the location of the Crane School of Music, which provided many musical opportunities to the community. My sister walked past Crane on her way home from school every day and heard the students practicing their instruments. Intrigued and inspired, she asked my parents for a piano. After proving herself by taking lessons using the neighbor’s rickety spinet, she got her wish. My parents purchased an old upright painted a hideous butterscotch orange that barely fit into the already full living room. The tiny house often reverberated with music, especially when friends gathered around the piano. My Uncle Eli, who could not read music, played any requested song by ear, so he often was on the piano bench.

In 1952, my father took a job in Keeseville, New York, managing a Pearl’s department store one of several in a chain owned by my great-uncle Paul. In order to save money, my parents hired a couple of men from Pearl’s to pack up the household belongings into the company truck and deliver them safely to Keeseville. Unfortunately, the men dropped the piano while unloading it. The piano, never in tune to start, was now hopelessly flat and sported several non-functional keys. That didn’t stop us from playing. My older siblings and I took lessons with varying degrees of mediocrity. We mixed our John Thompson piano lesson books with more popular sheet music, including such Fifties hits as “Stranger on the Shore” and “Mack the Knife.” My sister’s and my favorites were from the American Songbook. We had a healthy collection of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.

By the age of twelve, I had gone through a couple of piano teachers, one who retired and one who moved away. Despite the lack of lessons, talent, and a decent instrument, I still loved to play. I alternated between the classical music I learned from my former teachers and all the music my sister had left behind when she went to college. I began lobbying for a new piano. I knew, however, that getting even another second-hand one that was in a little better shape than our orange relic was probably out of financial reach for our family.

One evening before Chanukah in 1962, my parents called me into the kitchen. That afternoon, my father found out one of his customers was moving to a smaller home and was selling a used baby grand for only five hundred dollars. Was my father was interested? Yes, I was, in fact, getting my wish. I cried for joy, even more so when the beautiful instrument with its shiny mahogany finish was delivered later that week. Unlike our tiny box of a house in Potsdam, our Victorian house in Keeseville had enough room for the baby grand. With a minimal rearrangement of furniture, the piano became the centerpiece of our living room.

That January, I started lessons with the new young Keeseville Central School music teacher. Initially, I was humiliated to find out that I needed to start from the beginning level books to improve my skills. Over the next three years, I managed to work my way through the third level of the John Thompson series. My teacher, knowing my love for the movie and Broadway show tunes, also supplemented the classics with more contemporary selections such as “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, and, my favorite, “Moon River.”

The piano again became a gathering place for family and friends. I often played while my siblings sang along. My brother even joined in with his trombone. I missed lots of the notes, my sisters were not known for their vocal talents, and my brother was no Urbie Green, but we loved the chance to be together. My Grandpa Joe played Yiddish songs after he moved in with us after my grandmother’s passing in 1966. Uncle Eli got to hammer out his share of songs when he visited us from Potsdam.

Once I left for college, I played infrequently, mostly on school breaks. When my parents moved out of their big house in Keeseville in 1982, the piano was sold as none of the children had room for it in their homes. Before my parents downsized, however, I collected all the sheet music from the house and stored it in our home “just in case” we ever got a piano. I had little chance to play—until I received my second best gift ever.

After my daughter Julie was born, I was home with the two small children. The days were getting long. Knowing how much I loved my baby grand in Keeseville, Larry encouraged me to look for one that would fit into our home. The Yamaha upright I selected from Clark Music in Latham was delivered two weeks before my thirty-second birthday. Armed with all the sheet music my family and I had accumulated since my sister started lessons in Potsdam many years before. I spent many hours playing the piano, both for enjoyment and for the peace and serenity playing gave me.

When she was a junior in high school, Julie decided to take piano lessons for the first time. I felt my musical life had come full circle when my daughter’s teacher recommended we purchase new, unmarked John Thompson lesson books. At her first and only piano recital, Julie choose Pachabel’s Canon and my old favorite, Moon River.

When Larry and I decided to move to Florida, I initially thought of selling the piano. It was expensive to ship to Kissimmee; I didn’t play that often; I could always use the piano in the Palms, the community center a mile from our house. It was Larry who insisted that we pay the moving company to bring the piano with the rest of our household. There was no repeat of the Potsdam debacle. The piano arrived safely in our new home. We placed it on an empty wall in the living room. From the moment I first touched the keys, I knew Larry was right. The tile floors and open floor plan improved the sound quality over that produced in our bi-level in Clifton Park.

Soon after we moved in, I had three couples over for a Shabbat dinner. After dessert, my friend Becky, who taught music in high schools for many years, started looking at my sheet music collection. “This is fabulous!” she commented. “Please play for us!” Not used to an audience, I played hesitantly for a few songs,then Becky graciously took over the keyboard. For the next hour, we belted out songs from Les Mis and Wicked as well as my old favorites, “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Moon River.” I had tears running down my cheeks from happiness. Thanks to my piano, our new home was filled with the sound of music.