About a month ago Grace Camblos, a biographer, photographer, and author, invited me to participate in a four week memoir writing class. One of the “prompts” she gave to us was to write about, “The house I grew up in.”
I remember it well. The address was 144-15 33rd Ave., Flushing, Long Island, NY. We moved there in about 1938. It was a two-story house with a finished attic and basement and was the third of three houses on the block. They were the first of many, built by Abraham Levitt, who went on to develop Levittown on Long Island and in Pennsylvania.
I was 14 in September of 1942 and I just got back from eight weeks at Camp Man, the Queens County summer Boy Scout camp, at Ten Mile River in upstate New York. It was a Monday morning and the High Holidays had just begun. My grandmother’s room was just next to mine at the head of the stairs. I got dressed and was heading off to school — to Fieldston. As I passed my Mema’s room, her full-time nurse came out and said, “I can’t revive her.” We went into her room and turned her over so she was face down with her head to the side. I climbed on top of her and rhythmically pressed down on her rib cage administering artificial respiration 1940’s style, that I learned how to do as a Boy Scout.There was no resistance, no push back. Her body did not respond to the pressure. I could not revive her. Reality struck. I felt the difference between life and death. I felt it in my hands.
My grandmother, who was born in Thorn, Germany, near Berlin, 75 years earlier and who migrated to Philadelphia when she was eight — postponed dying until Holy Week when, according to tradition, The Book of God is open and only the chosen of the chosen people are called to die.
I was the eldest son of her youngest, her Davie, her baby. She had four others — Hortense, Walter, Rose and Sidney. I was a “good kid” and special in her eyes. Mema was warm, gentle, kind, caring and quiet. She knew her mind. She was a fine cook. Her cucumber salad was to die for. I can still taste it. She would have been more than glad to share her recipe. I have very few regrets, and not having Mema’s recipes is one of them. The trouble is that she never used a recipe, never measured anything, never wrote anything down. It was only later in life that I figured out how I could have gotten around that. I could have measured out the ingredients beforehand, let her use whatever amounts she wanted to and carefully watched what she did and measured what was left over. Then we’d have those recipes!
The experience of being with her when she died taught me some important things. It was a blessing to have been there because I now have no fear of the transition called death. One thing that changes when someone dies is the way we communicate. My Mema is still with me some 71 plus years later and I relish our time together. She’s here with me right now as we suggest that there no reason to fear death. It is part of life. Each of us will experience it. Each of us will die. Her encouragement and her love for me is always present and so is mine for her. Now and again I think of her, talk to her and know she’s listening. I am blessed to honor her now.
While you are alive, make the most of it. All we can do is take responsibility for ourselves, take care of ourselves and make a contribution in the time we have and never forget to enjoy it! This is what my Mema taught me and we pass that lesson on to you. Know that we offer it to you with caring, affection and Love. We will always be part of you.
I guess that was the house I grew up in.