Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Back in Time: Inwood 1940

My mother (left) poses with a friend on
Sherman Avenue, Inwood, Manhattan, mid-1930s.

My mother is living in a corner of her childhood.

She doesn’t suffer from dementia, although her memory has worsened.  Her intellect persists, fed by the New York Times and the New Yorker.  She is not grieving; she is not pained.  She just keeps cycling through 1940 where she lives in an apartment on West 211th Street and attends junior high school at P. S. 52.

Her story is set in a particular place called Inwood, located at the northern tip of the island of Manhattan.  While my mother was growing up there in the 1930s, the neighborhood was home to mostly Irish and some Jewish families who lived harmoniously in Art Deco-style apartment buildings built between the wars.   

Contemporary photo of Inwood Hill Park with
the Hudson River visible through the trees

As a little girl, living on Sherman Avenue, she liked to ride her tricycle along the sidewalk in front of her building. One day, she looked across the street to watch a police car pull up in front of a candy store.  The cops leapt out and busted through the door, dragging out pinball machines and smashing them in the street. Mayor LaGuardia believed that pinball encouraged gambling and corrupted youth.

The family moved to a four-room apartment on 211th Street.  An only child, she drew adoration from her grandmother, mother, and father. Her parents owned luncheonettes and worked long days so she ate dinner with just her grandmother. The two were very close; they shared a bedroom. Sarah Olcott cooked, shopped, sewed, and – the story may be apocryphal – brewed something alcoholic which she sold to the local policemen.

The radio, a 20” Philco made of dark wood, sat on a table near a chair and ottoman. On Sunday mornings her father sat on the ottoman with his head close to the fabric screen that covered the speaker, listening to Father Coughlin.

When Father Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest out of Michigan, started his radio program in the early thirties, he was a New Dealer. Then he became obsessed with Jewish bankers and, as the decade progressed, enthusiastically embraced Hitler and Mussolini.

My mother asked her father why he listened to such a horrible man. Her father replied that he liked to hear the other point of view.  

Scholars have thoroughly examined the importance of radio to all Americans during the war years. My mother remembers Edward R. Murrow’s “This is London” and commentary by William Shirer. Those reports must have been thrilling and chilling.

Her grandmother Sarah had emigrated from Kiev around 1900, at the age of 30. She arrived with two young children and her younger sister, Rebecca. The eldest sister, Zelda, stayed behind. Everyone assumed that Zelda had perished at Babi Yar, but a few years ago we learned that she came to the U. S. during the late 1930s. The secret puzzled my mother, who concluded that Sarah and Zelda had argued about something serious and never reconciled. 

Corn Exchange Bank, West 207th Street, Inwood, 1920s.
My mother's mother kept an account at this branch.
Rebecca’s husband turned out to be crazy and slashed her throat with a kitchen knife.  Her two sons, by then grown up and both lawyers, “took care of him,” according to my mother. There may have been restraining order or perhaps the guy was institutionalized.

Rebecca’s daughter, Rhoda, married a man who went into the Venetian blind business after the war.  He did very well for himself, as they say.

Rebecca’s other daughter, Faye, was blonde and blue-eyed.  Since Faye didn’t “look Jewish,” she snagged a top job at a bank.  While on a ship headed to Paris for a bank conference, Faye met a British oil engineer who worked for BP in Iraq. They married and lived in Iraq through the 1950s.

Sadness intruded.  My mother’s uncle, Ben, had been gassed in the Meuse-Argonne during World War I.  He returned to the U. S. and spent the rest of his life in V. A. hospitals.

Her mother had TB and spent years in hospitals and sanitariums. 

I wonder about this attachment to childhood. Surely not every 89-year old feels like crawling back into the past, even if it is comforting.   

Recently I realized that my mother’s point of reference has always been those years on West 211th Street.  When we were growing up, she excessively invoked her childhood.  I wonder if she is now trying to figure out something or someone, but the fact is that reflection has never been her forte.    

And so she simply replays the past.  At least she knows how it will turn out. 

Summer Afternoon by Ernest Lawson
My mother remembers the ancient tulip tree depicted
in this 1908 painting of Inwood Hill Park.

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