Tag Archives: #keeseville

Cohen family noted Shabbat with fish in the 50’s, but now is a different story for Marilyn. 

Friday was Fish Day.

No, we weren’t Catholic. Growing up in the Fifties, in a small predominantly Catholic town, fresh fish was often available on Friday. Looking back, I am not sure if it was really that fresh. Yes, Lake Champlain was three miles away, but I don’t think local fishermen provided the fillets that lay on top of the ice in the Grand Union. 

There was a second reason Friday was Fish Day. My father managed a department store, and Pearl’s,  along with the other stores in Keeseville, was open until 9 o’clock every Friday. Dad hated fish, so my mother would make some variety of it on that night. If it wasn’t fresh, it is a frozen block or two that my mother defrosted, covered with bread crumbs, and baked along with frozen french fries. When she wanted to save time, she heated up some Gorton’s fish sticks. 

Friday dinners were  a contrast to our Monday through Thursday, “Father Knows Best” routine. Dad would come in the back door at 5:30 and immediately sit down at our formica topped kitchen table. We children took our places, assigned after one night of our fighting who sat where.

“That’s it!” Dad said. “Wherever you are sitting tonight will be your place from now on.”

Dad sat at the head, his back to the radiator and the yellow linoleum tile on the wall. When she wasn’t putting food on the table, Mom took her place at the foot, her back to the old white Kelvinator range cook stove with its double oven. Jay, the only son, sat to his left. Laura, the oldest daughter  took her place next to Jay. Bobbie, the youngest, sat to Dad’s right. I sat in between Mom and Bobbie. 

Dinner was usually chicken, potatoes and a vegetable that had been peeled off the waxed box and boiled in a pot on the stove under done. Occasionally, we would have spaghetti with Ragu. Notice I did’t say pasta. In the 1950s, the only pasta available was macaroni for macaroni and cheese and regular old fashioned spaghetti noodles. Who knew of ziti or angel hair or cellentani?

Our dinners were usually over quickly. By 5:55, Dad had pushed himself away from the table. While the children dutifully moved to their bedrooms to do homework and Mom washed the dishes, Dad headed for the back room and the television set. The local news was followed by Huntley and Brinkley. The rest of the night was filled with Perry Mason, Checkmate, and other early television shows. In those days before remotes, Dad would rely on us post-homework to change the station. This did serve an educational purpose: When Bobbie was in kindergarten, she was having difficulty learning her numbers. It was a “Eureka” moment when our family realized that Bobbie had no problem changing the channels to Burlington’s WCAX (Channel 3) and Plattsburg’s station WPTZ (Channel 5). 

The Friday night  late closing provided another benefit to the four Cohen children. As we had no school the next night and Dad wasn’t home to dictate what programs we watched, we ate our dinners on TV trays in front of our favorite programs. This included The Mickey Mouse Club, with our favorite Musketeers, Annette Funicello and Tommy Cole and a little later, The Flintstones. By the 1960s, both my parents worked at the store, and I was old enough to look after Bobbie as we watched Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, and Route 66. 

Where did synagogue fit into this picture, especially in our Reform congregation that only had Saturday morning services for Bar Mitzvahs? Mom finally got her driver’s license in 1955, just before Bobbie was born. Driving the 30 mile round trip up and back to Plattsburgh with four children tow, especially in the winter, was out of the question. It was not until the mid-Sixties that Mom would make the trip with Bobbie and me. Although we all attended Hebrew school though Jay’s Bar Mitzvah and all of our confirmations, a traditional Shabbat dinner with challah, candles, and a Kiddish cup was not even a consideration. Dad worked, and it was Fish Friday!

In fact, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Larry and I started our own tradition. Last March, I became fully invested in baking challahs each Friday for ourselves and those friends whom we felt needed the comfort of a golden loaf straight out of the oven. We began lighting the Shabbat candles, pouring a glass of Manischewitz, and putting my cross stitched challah cover over one of  the warm loaves. How could we do all this and NOT set the table and prepare a special dinner, whether we were participating in our twice-monthly Zoom services or just enjoying a quiet sheltering-in-place meal at home?

As we and our friends are vaccinated it is time to invite a couple or two or three to share this all with us. I look forward to carrying on this tradition with my children and grandchildren this summer. Yes, I have come a long way from Friday fish sticks in front of Annette Funicello and the Flintstones

First published in (Capital Region NY) Jewish World May 13-May 27, 2021. 

Picture (Fried Fish at home.jpg) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

How a book changed my life

Can a book change a life?

Our tenth grade English class was deep into The Scarlet Letter, the classic by Nathanial Hawthorne. I was mesmerized not only by the writing and the story, but also by its symbolism. Hester Prynne carried her shame on her chest every day, the bright red letter A which identified her as an adulterer. Things weren’t bad enough in Puritan America without her having to not only hold her beloved Pearl in her arms but to have her shame emblazoned for all to see.

Our teacher, Mrs. Frances Clute, was a friend of my parents She and her husband John had spent time with my parents, and she knew me well.

One day, after class, Mrs. Clute asked me to stay a little longer. As the rest of my classmates dashed out the door for Mr. Kennedy’s World History class, she pulled out a small book from one of her desk drawers.

“This is Catcher in the Rye, Marilyn,” Mrs. Clute told me. “I know how much you love The Scarlet Letter. This is also a book that deals with symbolism. I am giving it to you with your promise not to share it with any of your classmates.”

I was grateful for her trust. Even if I knew nothing about J. D. Salinger’s 1951classic, I knew she trusted me and saw in me the enthusiasm and the intelligence to handle its content and meaning.

I probably read it all that night, the whole story of Holden Caulfield, his depression, his flight from his private school, his trip to New York. I read how he wanted to save his sister Phoebe from any dangers that she would experience. I “got” the meaning of the “catcher in the rye,” the person who wanted to always protect those whom he loved.

I also saw why Mrs. Clute had been furtive in her gift. The book had language that was certainly not in books  usually selected by Keeseville Central School. I now don’t remember if it contained the “F” word, but it had other language and actions that were certainly not broadcast in our small upstate New York town. What made it great was the symbolism, the depth of the story behind the words.

I had already decided that I would be a teacher. After reading Salinger’s classic,  however, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I would spend my college years reading other classics, and then I would go on to teach others to love literature as much as I did.  I followed that dream. 

Looking back,I realize from my older eyes how shallow my understanding and appreciation of great literature was in college.There are classics that I read and hated, Moby Dick probably the most memorable. (I had to read it in one week. It was about a whale.) 

In my first teaching job, I was assigned to share Brave New World, 1984, and Night with juniors and seniors in our school small town near Albany. I realized that not only did they not understand the books’ meanings. Most of them couldn’t even read. I had been a last minute replacement for a man who decided in June to pursue his doctorate, and all the students had signed up to be in “The Cool Class with the Cool Teacher.” I was not the cool teacher.

In the years that followed, I have tried and failed to read other classics, including Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I missed the depth in so many books.

It is January, and as I have every year, I have those four books on my “To Read” books. I probably will never get to them, preferring the New York Times best sellers and ones recommended by my bookish friends. But maybe, in honor of Mrs. Clute, I will take my copies of The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye down from my shelf. While sheltering in place during this pandemic, I will revisit my friendship with Hester Prynne and Holden Caulfield. And, even though I know I have still a great deal to learn about literature and symbolism and the classics, I will accept that Mrs. Clute recognized that I had that spark in me. And for that I will be forever grateful.

Picture Credit: By Mary Hallock Foote – The Scarlet Letter – edition: James R. Osgood & Co,, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11264794 

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.