There’s a small apartment in Brooklyn where the letter “C” adorns the door. Behind that door is a hidden treasure trove of love and memories.
My mother grew up in that apartment, along with my uncle and my grandparents. It’s a small one-bedroom where family love seeps through every corner. To this day, my 85-year-old mother idolizes her 86-year-old brother. My mother loves to recall the days in 1940s Brooklyn, when her brother went to the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.
When my mother looks back, her eyes glisten. In those days, her brother (now a retired art director from Life magazine and Warner Books) and his “deviant” buddies would cut school, but never got in trouble. In fact, their parents never found out. My mother would write him notes and forge their mother’s signature; Grandma was none the wiser.
All our lives, my sisters, cousins and I heard how “bad” this gang of performing art school boys were. In old pictures, they look just like the guys in The Lords of Flatbush. They were that good looking. With that same glimmer in her eyes, my mother recalls how all her friends had a crush on her brother. All the girls would clamor to come over to Mom’s just to catch a glimpse of her beautiful artist brother and his friends.
All in the Family
Having all those kids in that small space couldn’t have been easy, but their home was always open. My mom and her brother didn’t have bedrooms, but they didn’t mind. My grandparents, of course, had the bedroom, and my mom and her brother each slept on a separate couch, one in the living room, one in the hallway. As teens, one always had to let the other one know when they had a date coming over.
A lifetime went by. My mom and uncle grew up and got married. In fact, their weddings, and that of a first cousin who lived in the apartment next door, were all within six weeks of each other. All six of them like to joke that if they had spaced their weddings further apart, they would have gotten better presents. They all moved into single-family homes in the suburbs.
My grandparents stayed in the apartment for more than 50 years. After my sisters and I were born, my mother would schlep — as the natives say — from Long Island to Brooklyn, every Sunday, with all three of her young girls in tow.
We loved visiting Grandma Sophie and Grandpa Barney. Grandma always had something cooking on the stove, matzo balls or chicken, cooked in the chicken fat she saved. She also saved pennies in a jar and we would count them and split them three ways. It never split evenly, one of us would always get an extra. Grandpa would be sitting in his chair smoking a cigar and reading The New York Times. He would hug us so hard we couldn’t breathe. We loved it.
Grandpa was the original Archie Bunker. Opinionated, and yes, a little bigoted. My older sister would add on to her boyfriend’s last names to make them sound Jewish (like Levitan-ski), I kid you not.
Grandma’s was a quieter love. As kids, we never saw evidence of it, as they had her medications perfected by the time we came along, but she was manic-depressive — now called bipolar — in the days before lithium. In fact, she was one of the first patients to receive the miracle drug that saved her life.
Unusual Love and Protection
My grandpa, small in stature, a cigar always in hand, had a belly laugh that was contagious. His days as a butcher in Brooklyn sounded like something out of The Godfather. He loved to regale us with stories.
He was a butcher his entire adult life. In 1911, he emigrated from Russia when he was only 12. He came over by himself, and I believe his mother and siblings followed later.
He and Grandma met when he showed up at her brother’s butcher shop as a temporary butcher. She was the cashier. While Grandpa was working there, he cut off his index finger from the first knuckle. The story he loved to tell was that Sophie was so beautiful he couldn’t take his eyes off her. So, while he was directing the meat over the meat cutter, he was staring at her and not paying attention and cut his finger off. He put the cut-off tip on ice and brought it to the hospital, hoping they could sew it back on. But in the 1920s, this was not possible. The stub became his badge of honor. And his emblem of an undying love.
In 1930s Brooklyn, butchers and other small businesses had to pay “protection” money to the Mafia to ensure “nothing bad would happen to their shops.” Grandpa was no exception. A cousin of the head of “The Family” was at Grandpa’s shop collecting when he suffered a heart attack. Grandpa would never let a man suffer on his watch. Instead of waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he loaded the cousin into his car and rushed to him the hospital, with those few minutes saving the man’s life.
From then on, Grandpa was in “The Family’s” good graces. He never had to pay protection money again. Not only that, they offered Grandpa, a man who was raising his family in that one-bedroom apartment, a mansion. Family legend has it that Grandpa didn’t want to be controlled by the Mafia, so he respectfully refused the offer. But they never forgot what Grandpa did. Grandma and Grandpa attended the head of “The Family’s” daughter’s wedding. And in later years, when Grandpa fell ill and was hospitalized many times, he always had a 24-hour nurse by his side.
My grandparents are long gone. Grandma passed first; a year later, Grandpa died of a broken heart. Another family lives in that apartment now. If we were to knock on that door adorned with a C, a stranger would answer. But we would still be able to feel the love seeping through the cracks.
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