SAMPLE CHAPTER, SAVED ON MY COMPUTER IN 2004
A NICE JEWISH GIRL FROM THE BRONX
PART II On a plane flying alone from Newark Airport to Los Angeles, where Alan will meet me at the airport to take me to his home in Malibu, I think of all the changes that have occurred in our lives since I began writing the story of A Nice Jewish Girl from the Bronx about 12 years ago
Bruce gave the name to the original work. I guess I was nice – sometimes.
Years ago, I had a friend named Peggy, who told me that her life was a “plateau,” and mine was a “roller coaster.”
It’s true: My life was – and still is – a roller coaster. And guess who causes it to be this way? Right! I refuse to sit back and allow things to happen. I’d rather continue to reach out to as many of the loving people and fascinating projects that can fit into each and every day of my life.
When Stevie was little, he had a toy called “Rock -‘Em-Sock-‘Em Robots.” He loved that toy. What impressed me most about those robots was that nothing could keep them down. I liked to see them jump right up and start all over again.
It seems that this is the way I have chosen to live my own life.
If one door closes, another one opens. And if the new door does not open, I will kick it down, so that I can enter a new phase of my life, or start a new project.
Sol and I were eighteen years old when we married (he was two months older than me).
We were married in a hall located in a building called “The Ladies’ Day Nursery,” on Washington Avenue in the Bronx. Daddy borrowed $850 to pay for the wedding. We knew that he had no money of his own, so we returned the $850 after we received our wedding gifts.
After we married, we lived with my parents and two sisters – Mickey and Shirley – in a seven-room apartment at 870 East 175th Street in the Bronx, across the street from Crotona Park.
The park was beautiful in those days, with trees, flowers, comfortable benches, hills to roller skate up and down, handball courts – and the wonderful Indian Lake, where we sailed in rented rowboats in the summertime and glided across the ice in the winter.
Several months after we were married, we found an apartment at 1736 Bathgate Avenue, a little more than a mile away from Mama and Daddy’s home.
The apartment was located above a rag store, in a market section where you could buy all kinds of meat, fish, delicatessen, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
We paid $27 a month (and $400 under the table) for our two-room apartment. We were told that the $400 fee was the price for two used Venetian blinds, which hung in the small bedroom.
The apartment consisted of this small bedroom, a kitchen and a tiny bathroom, all in a row. There was no foyer, or hallway. In addition, there was no doorway between the kitchen and bedroom, so we hung a drape to separate the two rooms.
Sol wallpapered the bathroom. It looked fine, until I took my first shower – and the wallpaper came rolling down on my head.
We had two neighbors – a deaf mute (I don’t remember her name), and Leah Greenspan, a spiritualist, who spoke to her dead husband every night. “Irving!” she would shout. And I always heard her, because our kitchen window faced her apartment.
I became pregnant with Stevie five months after we were married, and our wonderful doctor, Emma Aronson, said, “Two babies are having a baby. Your child will grow up with you.”
In April of 1949, Daddy died of a sudden heart attack. I loved him so much, and said I was afraid to cry – because if I began to cry, I wouldn’t be able to stop. Daddy was the most loving person I ever knew and the most influential person in my life. He has left me with many precious memories.
Stevie was born on August 2, 1949, and I named him after Daddy. (His Hebrew name was Schmuel). He was a colicky baby, and I spent many sleepless nights trying to rock him to sleep. Sol worked at night, so I was alone with Stevie. When he slept, I spent my time reading, and knitting many of his outfits, including a couple of ruffled hats.
Aside from the colic, Stevie thrived and he was a beautiful, happy baby. He helped to erase the pain I felt after Daddy’s death, and I adored my little boy.
We bought our first television set – a nine-inch black and white Emerson (there were about five or six channels in those days).
I had diaper service, but no washing machine. I washed Stevie’s clothes by hand, scrubbing them on a washboard that I placed in the kitchen sink. Then I hung the clothes on a line that Mama improvised for me, with a rope that was attached to each end of the wall, under the kitchen ceiling.
Stevie grew into an adorable, bright little boy, and while Sol worked nights, he was my closest companion for four years and ten months, before Ronnie was born.
What a gorgeous flight this is. I love the solitude. The two seats next to mine are unoccupied, and I’m sitting near the window, looking down at the snow-capped mountain peaks and gazing up at the clear, blue sky.
My eyes are tearing, because I feel Stevie’s presence up there in Heaven, guiding this airplane. He’s telling me, “Mom, have a great time in California, and say ‘hi’ to Alan, Mary Lou, Jake and Margot. Tell them I love them, as I love you.”
When Stevie was two years old, we moved to a three-room apartment on Westchester Avenue, also in the Bronx.
Our neighbors were Bea and Irving Kaplan, their little daughter, Sophie, Bea’s father, “Papa,” and Bea’s attractive single sister, Cookie.
Sophie was a couple of months younger than my slim, well-behaved little boy, but she was fat and tough and spoiled – and she beat Stevie up a couple of times while her grandfather kvelled (demonstrated his pride in her by clapping his hands and exclaiming, “My Sophie! Isn’t she something?”).
By the way, Stevie grew very tall, and it didn’t take too long for him to learn to defend himself – but that was post-Sophie.
Stevie and I spent so much time together. Part of our daily schedule consisted of sitting in front of the TV and watching “As the World Turns,” as we ate our lunch. Apparently, this instilled his liking for this kind of entertainment, because after he grew up he told me that he never missed his favorite soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.”
During this time, Mama decided to remarry, and she brought her third husband to meet us. Emanuel Pollak (“Grandpa Manny”) was a brilliant man with a photographic memory, who worked as a checker at Tavern on the Green in Manhattan. Manny was the love of Mama’s life.
I will never forget the story they told me about three-year-old Stevie, when he vacationed with them at their summer bungalow in Coney Island. Manny was fast asleep one morning, and Stevie opened Manny’s eyelids and asked, “Grandpa, are you awake?”
When Stevie was four years old, Sol and I rented a four-room apartment on the ground floor of a two-family house on Throop Avenue, also in the Bronx. My sister Shirley and her husband Irving lived around the corner from us with their daughters, Reva and Barbara.
Ronnie was born when we lived in that apartment. Ronnie was a very cute baby, with his curly hair, twinkling eyes and endless energy.
One of the greatest things about newborn Ronnie was that he guzzled down three or four bottles of formula every evening, and then slept through the night.
Doctors made house calls in those days, and I remember our wonderful pediatrician, Dr. Lapin, who came to the house to check up on our new baby.
That morning, after he examined Ronnie, Dr. Lapin sat at the kitchen table with Stevie and me. Stevie was drinking orange juice and, apparently, he was quite tense because he was now a big brother and the doctor was there. So he bit into his glass, actually biting off a sharp sliver. But he didn’t get cut, so all turned out well.
When Ronnie was two years old and Stevie was six, we moved to a new apartment house at 34-15 Parsons Boulevard, in Flushing, Queens. We lived there for six years, first in a three-room apartment and then in a very large four-room apartment on the same floor.
There were benches in the big backyard with play areas for the kids, and we made many wonderful friends in that building.
One of my favorite memories was of six-year-old Stevie who, for a couple of days after we moved in, became the building’s unpaid elevator man. (We didn’t realize that transportation would become his prime occupation after he grew up).
So Stevie pressed buttons for everyone who came into the elevator, as he introduced himself: “Hi. My name is Steven Wexler, my Dad’s name is Sol and my Mom’s name is Annette. I have a little brother named Ronnie, and we live in Apartment 2A. What’s your name?”
There’s nobody I know of who didn’t love Stevie Wexler.
Bruce, my third son, was born when we lived in that building.
My mother-in-law, Ida Wexler, came to visit me in the hospital, and when she saw Bruce for the first time, she said, “He’s so beautiful, just like you.”
And my close friend, June Conboy, who lived in our building, informed me that “Bruce was the patron saint of Scotland.”
Bruce was a charmer, and neighbors would ask me if they could take care of him for an entire day. So I would give them all his supplies and they would wheel him out in his carriage and take him to their apartments.
When Brucie was less than one year old, I became pregnant again, but after six months, I developed a kidney infection and a high fever. I was very sick, and I lost that baby.
In 1961, we celebrated Stevie’s Bar Mitzvah at the Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, before we moved to our new four-bedroom split-level house in Iselin, New Jersey.
Now we had a great backyard, big kitchen, playroom and dining room. Each boy had his own room.
We made new friends, and my sister Mickey, her husband Zack, and their sons, Robbie and Richie, lived just a couple of blocks away.
I found a great obstetrician, Dr. Paraskevas, and I was so happy when Alan, our fourth son, was born on October 18, 1963. Alan was five weeks early, and he weighed only four pounds, six ounces, but he was an absolutely gorgeous baby.
In those days, new mothers spent five days in the hospital after the birth of their children. However, we had to leave Alan in the hospital for an additional week after I was discharged, until he weighed five pounds.
My sister Mickey came with me to visit him one day. As we stood by the nursery window along with other visitors, the nurses held up the babies.
Alan was so tiny that he fit in the palm of the nurse’s hand. As she moved her hand from side to side, displaying my child from all angles, Mickey shouted to her, “Is he getting too heavy for you?”
We celebrated Alan’s brith at home at the end of November, when he was a little more than one month old. It was a happy day for us personally, but a shocking and sad day for the country.
Our television was turned on in the playroom, and we heard the news that our President, John F. Kennedy, was shot.
A personal family incident occurred the day after Alan’s brith. Our eight-year-old Ronnie became very dizzy, and I called Dr. Petti, our new pediatrician. Dr. Petti came to the house – doctors were still making house calls in those days – checked Ronnie, and told me to keep him in bed.
However, poor Ronnie kept falling out of bed, so I had to phone Dr. Petti again. Dr. Petti told me that if this problem continues, he would recommend that we take Ronnie to a neurologist. I was very upset.
Just a few minutes after I spoke to the doctor, I opened the refrigerator to get Alan’s bottle, and I noticed that the big jug of wine, which had been half full when our guests left the day before, was now almost empty.
It wasn’t difficult for me to diagnose Ronnie’s symptoms, and I called Dr. Petti to let him know what I had found.
The doctor never forgot it. Even years later, he referred to Ronnie as “The kid who got drunk at his brother’s brith.”
The years passed and the boys grew. We had fun times and rough times – and many times the house seemed like a zoo.
Sol worked nights most of the time, and I spent my days taking care of my children, reading, knitting outfits for myself and for them, and watching my favorite soap operas.
When Alan was little, we watched “As the World Turns” together, as we munched on sliced applies spread with peanut butter. (He still enjoys that snack).
Two evenings a week I played Mahjong and Canasta with neighbors. Sol and I usually went out on Saturday nights.
We had two great babysitters – middle-aged women named Julie and Fannie – who cooked, kept the house in good shape, and charged the unbelievable fee of fifty cents an hour, until I was finally able to talk Sol into giving them a raise.
Three dogs took turns joining our family. First was Laddie, a collie who the kids really loved. However, Alan was asthmatic, and allergic to dog hair, so poor Laddie spent his days in the basement or the backyard. However, this did not completely solve the dog hair problem, and the kids were broken-hearted when I brought home a large sign from Dr. Petti. In big red letters, he had written, “NO DOG!”
A few years passed, and after I discovered that some dogs – including Schnauzers – are safe for allergic people because they do not shed, we adopted Scruffy. Soon after, Sam became part of our family.
Scruffy was very smart, but quite crazy. Sam, on the other hand, was dumb, but extremely lovable and sweet.
We finally had to give Scruffy away, after he bit the young daughter of Sol’s friend Vinny and his wife Gloria, who attended our surprise 25th anniversary party.
“Surprise” was not the proper word for the party, because Bruce informed us about a week before the scheduled date, that Sol and I would be invited to Vinny and Gloria’s house for a drink, and other friends would come to our house in order to help the kids prepare food for the party.
In addition, Bruce warned us to “act surprised” when we walked into the house and saw everyone there.
I don’t know what caused the change in Bruce, but I noticed during the last few years that he is very good about keeping secrets.
Here are some highlights of the boys’ growing up years:
First, their nicknames:
Alan: “The Lip”
- I took three-year-old Stevie to the playground located across the street from our apartment on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx. I was quite embarrassed when he shouted, “Mommy, look at the wicked stepsisters!” The playground was supervised by nuns who lived on the premises.
- When Stevie was four years old, I decided to give him ballet lessons. “Mommy, take my shoes off!” he shouted as we entered the room. This was his first (and last) day at dancing school, where he was the youngest, tallest, and only boy in a class of girls who were gracefully prancing around in their little tutus.
- Stevie, age thirteen, calmly called me one morning at 5 a.m. from the downstairs playroom of our new split level house in Iselin, New Jersey. I was sleeping in my bedroom upstairs, when I heard him say, “Mom, there’s a fire in the playroom, but it’s okay. I’m putting it out.” Eight-year-old Ronnie had constructed paper airplanes, set fire to them, and aimed them at the brand new drapes which decorated the sliding door to our backyard. We had a housewarming a couple of days before this incident, and one of the gifts was a fire extinguisher, which Stevie made good use of. We were thankful to him for being so resourceful and putting the fire out, but I had a rough time cleaning the white powder (from the fire extinguisher) which covered every part of the house.
- Alan, when he was two years old, had a very severe asthmatic attack, and was rushed to Union Hospital. So there was my baby, strapped into bed, and encased in an oxygen tent. With his lower lip protruding, he begged us to “Take my seat belt off.”
- Five-year-old Brucie, very early one morning, climbed on to the stove and then up to the tall refrigerator, in order to reach the cabinet where I kept the baby aspirins. He shared the bottle of aspirins with two-year-old Alan: “One for you, one for me.” When I came downstairs soon afterwards and noticed the empty bottle, I immediately called the emergency squad and we rushed the boys to Rahway Hospital. They certainly didn’t enjoy getting their stomachs pumped.
- We went out one evening after Sol had given Ronnie a haircut. When we got home, Ronnie answered the door wearing a hat that covered his head and half his face.
- Stevie, age fourteen, left us a note that he was “running away from home.” We later discovered that he had been hiding out in the doghouse in the backyard.
- Another evening, we went out and left Stevie to paint the dining room. I had bought, what looked to me like a can of cream-colored paint. When we got home, Stevie had completed the job and he was very proud. Our dining room was now a bright orange. I don’t remember when the job was re-done – but I don’t remember living with an orange dining room.
- Brucie, age one-and-a-half, in our apartment in Flushing, was on his knees in his playpen, scrubbing the mattress with a dish towel. We had a cleaning lady named Merline and, when I saw what Brucie was doing, I asked him to repeat after me: “I’m a boy; I’m tough.” Brucie continued to clean the mattress and said, instead, “I’m Merline; I clean.”
- Brucie, age ten, organized a group of kids, including seven-year-old Alan, to “clean up the town of Iselin.” He called the Board of Health, the Mayor’s office and The News Tribune, to let them know about his project. A photographer and a reporter came to take a photo and write the story. After the article was published, Bruce and his group (that looked like a bunch of ragamuffins) abandoned the project.
- Bruce, age twelve, worked as a salesman for Holiday Magic Cosmetics. Holding Alan’s hand, with his supplies in an attaché case given to Stevie as a high school graduation gift, he went from door to door selling his wares. I remember that he earned a $22 profit in one hour. However, Brucie’s distributor was upset when I told him my son could no longer work, as he needed time to study for his Bar Mitzvah.
- Alan, who did so well in all his classes, always surprised me because he did this without exerting any effort.
- When I attended Middlesex County College, I had to take two math courses. Since I had never studied math in high school (I had what they called “commercial courses,” including bookkeeping), I had to learn mathematics, including algebra. Alan, who was my coach, told me more than once, “Mommy, I can’t believe you are so dumb.”
When Alan was four years old and starting kindergarten, I brushed up on my steno and decided to get a part-time job.
I was hired as a secretary for Equitable Life, an insurance company with offices in Menlo Park. My starting salary was two dollars an hour, and the hours were from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Since Sol worked nights, he was at home during the day while I worked, so in case any of the kids had to stay home from school for one reason or another, their father was there for them.
After a couple of years, I began to work longer hours and I told the kids to call me – only if there was an emergency – and I would be home in ten minutes.
I remember one call I received from Alan: He was shouting, “Mommy, emergency, emergency! Bruce hit me!”
I was with Equitable Life from 1968 to 1977, and in 1976 I began to take courses at Middlesex County College. I was thrilled when I discovered that I really had a brain!
After I left Equitable, I was hired as part-time secretary to the administrator of Rahway Hospital. In the meantime, I took more and more classes, graduating from Middlesex with a 3.8 average and then transferring to Kean College (now Kean University).
During the years at Middlesex, I discovered I had a talent for writing and received the school’s creative writing award.
With the encouragement of two English professors, Jerry Olson and Dan Zimmerman, I applied for, and was hired, to write feature stories for an (now defunct) Elizabeth, New Jersey-based newspaper called The Daily Journal.
I loved school and told some close friends that I was “decorating the inside of me.”
In August of 1981, Sol and I divorced and he married Suellen Turk one week after the divorce was final.
My best friend Sylvia and her husband Eddie were a great comfort to me during this period.
I moved to Margate, a garden apartment in Edison, New Jersey, and, while attending Kean College, I was hired to cover the town of Rahway and to write feature stories for the Woodbridge News Tribune. I worked myself through college, receiving fifteen credits from Kean College for life experience.
Besides writing for the two newspapers and taking twelve credits each semester, I worked as advisor to senior citizens at the Edison Jewish Community Center, babysat, took some public relations’ assignments, and was Margate’s rental agent on weekends. I was busy seven days every week.
After I graduated from Kean College (now Kean University), I was hired to do freelance work for many publications, including The New York Times, Business Journal of New Jersey, Dun and Bradstreet Reports, New Jersey Business Magazine, Atlantic City Magazine, Modern Electronics Manual, Siemen’s Co., New Jersey Business Magazine, New Jersey Success Magazine, and Pet Dealer Magazine. I received numerous awards for my work.
During this period, and for almost ten years, I had a wonderful boyfriend – Al, who was a commercial fisherman. Al kept me supplied with lobsters and crabs, attended all my family functions, and we enjoyed many happy times with family and friends.
I don’t know what I would have done without Al, Sylvia and Eddie, who were always there to comfort me when Mama died in May of 1982 at the age of 86. My precious Mama, the belle of every ball she ever attended, was the light of my life. Thanks to her, I inherited a positive outlook on life, and like Mama, I will remain young until the day I die.
Stevie and Ronnie had already married before my divorce from Sol and Ben, my first grandchild, was born. In subsequent years, Bruce and Alan married, and the family continued to grow. I now have four daughters-in-law: Maureen, Karen, Joanne and Mary Lou, and nine grandchildren: Ben, Jason, Ashley, Matt, Evan, Alex, Emily, Jake and Margot.
Ben is married to Casey, and their two-year-old son Ryan is my first great-grandchild.
For the past ten years, I have been dating Milt, who is very dear to me.
Thank God for my children, grandchildren and Milt, because they are the best things that have ever happened to me.
I was always so happy to say that I have four sons, and they all live in New Jersey. Alan and his family have moved to California, and that’s okay, because they are still close and I plan to continue frequent visits to them.
However, losing Stevie has broken my heart and life will never be the same. My sweet little Emily consoled me soon after Stevie died, when she said, “He’s alive Nana – he’s alive in your heart.” Yes Emily, he is alive in my heart – and I continue to relive my memories of him in order to keep him close. Even though Stevie has left me precious gifts in the persons of Maureen, Matt and Evan, who are such a comfort to me – the pain of losing him never goes away.
I am working on a biography of Ike Heller, a great guy who convinced me to write my own story for my family.
This is the project that has resulted. I will continue to go on – loving each and every one of the dear people who are included this story and are an integral part of my life.
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