Category Archives: Keeseville

What Makes Us the Same? Trip to Shoah Museum Inspires Writer to Find Commonality

 

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On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:

Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.

These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah.  I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence.  I began to reflect on my own live  and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”

As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.

Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however,  when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center

The EOC, a  division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist,  after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and  then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field.  I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.

In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.

But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets.  When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”

Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.

Big Wheels and Big Hills

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Summer mornings on our neighborhood in Upstate New York during the 1980s were quiet—until eight o’clock  At that hour—designated by the parents to be  late enough to ‘start the engines’— the garage doors on almost every house opened one by one. A fleet of children, all sitting low on seats of their Big Wheels, flew down their driveways and began circling the ‘track’ that surrounded the grassy knoll in the middle of the cul-de-sac The Daily Devon Court 500 was officially in session.

Biking had been part of  life since I was a child. I spent hours riding a second-hand three speed on rolling hills past apple orchards and Lake Champlain beaches  Larry and I pedaled through the back roads of Albany County, me on that ancient three speed and Larry on the bike he had ridden to deliver newspapers in Saratoga Springs. Once our children graduated from Big Wheels to two-wheelers, the four of us took family outings on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Trail.

When we turned forty, Larry and I traded in our relics for lighter, more efficient ten speeds. Larry had to give up competitive running in 1996 due to an injury, and he began biking more frequently. He encouraged me to join him, and we pedaled our way around Southern Saratoga County.

Cycling became a social event.  For a couple of years, a group from Congregation Beth Shalom met on Sunday mornings in the synagogue parking lot for a ten to fifteen mile circuit. Larry and I were enjoying our biking.

And the length of our rides together increased: twenty miles, thirty miles at a clip. As a members of the Mohawk Hudson Wheelmen, we participated with several other riders in metric half centuries, one in which I rode the sixty-two miles in honor of my sixty-second birthday. Larry completed a hundred miler with a more hardy friend.

Despite all my biking, I never was totally comfortable on hills. While Larry gleefully viewed them as a challenge, I dreaded every long, steep incline. I usually made it with a great deal of effort. Once in a while, however, I had to resort to getting off the bike and pushing it to the top.

My fear of hills prevented me from taking advantage of all the all the biking trails near Julie and Sam’s home in Summit County, Larry had taken some rides with Sam, but I bowed out. On our visit in July 2012, however, I had several months of biking long distances in New York under my belt. Larry and I finally took Sam up on his offer to join him for what Sam billed as an easy, fairly flat twenty mile ride around Dillion Lake

“There is a little incline at the beginning of the trip,” Sam explained while we adjusted our seat height on our rentals and snapped on our helmets, “but I am sure you two can handle it.”

As Sam had promised, the first four miles on the bike trail, were flat and straight. Then we arrived at the bottom of Swan Mountain. I craned my neck to view the bike lane that ran along a fairly busy two lane highway. The summit appeared to me to be five miles away,

“Sam, this is not a little incline,” I said. “This is a mountain! How long is it?  And what is the increase in elevation?”

“We go from 9100 to 10200 feet, an 11,00 foot ascent over about a mile,” Sam conceded. “I promise we’ll take it slow.”

Within one half mile, I was huffing and puffing. And sweating. My shirt was stuck to my back; under my helmet, my hair was glued to my head; my socks were drenched. I even had sweat running out of my ear canals.

“I can’t do it,” I yelled to Larry and Sam, who were riding with little effort 200 yards in front of me. “I’m going to walk the rest of the way. I will meet you at the summit.”

“Are you sure?” Larry asked. They barely waited for breathless “Yes!” before they pedaled off and left me to push my bike to the top.

Fifteen minutes later, I met up with Larry and Sam at the Sapphire Point Overlook.

“I made it!” I said to Sam. “It’s all downhill from here!”

Then I took a look down the trail. Whatever goes up must come down, but this down was a steep descent on a narrow, serpentine bike path crowded with other cyclists

“What the heck, Sam?” I exclaimed. “I thought climbing up was bad, but I can’t handle going down this obstacle course!”

“Sorry, Marilyn, but it’s the only way back to our house without adding another ten miles,” said Sam. “Just take it slow.”

“Don’t worry!” said Larry. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Larry’s ‘right-behind-you’ promise lasted an even shorter time than Sam’s ‘we’ll-take-it-slow’ promise. Terrified and white knuckled, I kept hitting my brakes. Larry couldn’t bike slowly enough to follow behind and had to go ahead. I prayed all the way down to the bottom, where I caught up with Larry and Sam for the second time that day.

The remaining miles were less dramatic. And, by the end of our vacation, I had actually forgiven Sam.

Since my bike ride from hell, however, I haven’t attempted a repeat in Colorado.These days, I love riding through my mountain-free community in Florida—elevation in the Orlando area peaks out at eighty-two feet above sea level. Big hills—like Devon Court’s Big Wheels—are in my rear view mirror. And that is fine with me.

The Silence of the Frogs

On the lanai in our new home, Larry and I have a large set of wind chimes that make beautiful sounds with the slightest breeze. One morning I had a Shalom Club board meeting at my home. The patio door was open, and I commented to those gathered around the dining room table that I never get tired of hearing the music. “It’s fine during the day,” one of the board members commented. “But have any of your neighbors complained? I had to ask my neighbors to take theirs down as I was losing sleep!”

How ironic that I never gave it a thought, I who has struggled with noise most of my adult life.

It certainly wasn’t a problem when I was young. Our house in Keeseville backed up to bowling alley on the right and lumber yard to the left. Often times the lumber trucks would come in at 2 am. And the noises of the pins crashing in the bowling alley? That was constant.  In addition, we lived less than 15 miles from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and the jets flew over our house all the time. I never heard them, never thought anything about them.

When my parents purchased a cottage on Lake Champlain in 1966, we were lulled to sleep each night by the sound of crickets. Guests from the city who stayed over night complained, but to me it was a symphony. When I went to college, the dorm was always noisy. Radios blared, people stomped upstairs, and parties went on into the wee hours on the weekends. In addition, our campus was a scant few miles from the Albany airport.  Planes were flying over our dorms and our classrooms all day. Did I hear any of that? Never.

With all this history of noise, you would think I would have been totally desensitized. The apartments that followed, first with a former college roommate and later in our first two years of marriage, had just the occasional sound of footsteps overhead.

In 1976, Larry and I bought our first home, a nice raised ranch on a very quiet street in Halfmoon. The first night we moved in, we opened our bedroom windows to get some fresh air and were hit with a wall of noise. As we looked out into the darkness, we saw the headlights of the cars flickering through the trees. What we hadn’t realized when we bought the house was that we were less than a half a mile from the Northway. The sound from the cars varied from a low background hum during the day to a cacophony of  sounds during the rush hour. The winter cold exacerbated the volume. The worst time was in the summer when the windows were open. We could even hear trucks changing gears.

It would be wonderful if I could say that I handled this with calm and fortitude, but I fixated on the noise. Despite a lovely backyard and a big flower garden, I spent as little time outside as possible. During the day, I kept the doors and windows shut and turned up the volume on the radio or the television. At night, we turned on the window air conditioner in our bedroom so we didn’t have to open the windows. Within two years, we put the house up for sale and began to look for a quieter spot in Clifton Park.

On a warm September afternoon, our realtor showed us a lovely home on a quiet cul-de-sac two miles west of the Northway. The front lawn was plush and green, the skies were blue, and a cute squirrel lopped its way across the expansive front yard. The back yard backed up to a quiet wooded area, and the house was immaculate on the inside. We put a bid on it the next day.

A week later, I made arrangements for my mother-in-law to see the home. While we were waiting for the realtor, we saw a plane fly over our heads on its way to the Albany Airport. It was so low that we could read the Southwest insignia on its side and see the wheels descend as the pilot prepared for their descent. “My goodness,” my mother-in-law exclaimed. “You thought the Northway was bad! How in the world are you going to handle the planes?”

As soon as I was near a phone,  I called Larry and burst into tears. “We are on a flight pattern!” I cried. “The plane noise is worse than the noise from the Northway.We can’t buy this house!”

Larry tried to calm me down. It was too late to go back on the contract, and I felt as if I was going from the frying pan into the fire.  However, over the thirty-six years we lived there, I made peace with them.  As a matter of fact, that last morning, when I said goodbye to our neighbors before we started our 1300 mile trip to our new home, I cried like a baby, wondering how in the world I could leave our lovely, quiet cul-de-sac behind.

Larry and I drove down to Florida pulled into the driveway of our new home in early June evening. The house was closed up, and the air conditioning was on full blast to counter the early summer heat and humidity. We unpacked the suitcases and boxes and wine we had brought down with us to settle in a bit before the moving van was to arrive three days later. By 10 o’clock, we were tired and ready for some down time. We poured two glasses of wine and opened up the doors to our lanai. We were hit with a wall of noise.

“What in the world is that?” Larry said. It took us a couple of minutes for us to realize that the roar was coming from the nature preserve behind our home. We had arrived at the height of mating season in Central Florida, and we were hearing tree frogs, alligators, wild boars, and goodness knows what other animals lurked in the wildlife preserve behind our house. The noise was louder than any college dorm, any expressway, any flight pattern we had ever heard. But somehow this was different. This was the noise nature made, similar to the sounds I heard on Lake Champlain years before. I was home.  I started laughing, and I gave Larry a hug. “We’re home!” I said. “L’chaim!” And we clinked our glasses and toasted our new home, our new life, our new adventure.

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The pond behind our home in Florida

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.