The Family Building

by Charlene Wexler


There are not many family patricarchs anymore, nor apartment buildings completely filled with family-- and love. Here is a reminiscence of one such building in the 1950s.

A phone call came for Jake at work.

"Jake, close the store and get home quick," Tillie said. "We have a major problem."

"What is it this time?" Jake asked.

"It's Pa. He's on the roof."

"What is he doing on the roof?"

"Stop the questions and get home."

"What about Izzy? He must be home. He hasn't got a job."

"He's the youngest and Pa won't listen to him. He went up the ladder and Pa made him come down. He cursed him in Yiddish, while he tried to hit him. Thank God it was in Yiddish. The kinder are here. Pa is still angry at Izzy for spilling a bucket of green paint all over the front porch."

"Tillie, I can't just close the grocery store and run home. Get another family member."

"Just put a sign up that Pa is on the roof. Everyone knows Pa," Tillie answered.

A new voice took Tillie's place.

"Jake, this is your sister Sarah. You better come home quick. Pa will only listen to you. We are all here. If your father falls it will be on your conscience."

"Ok, Ok, I'm coming," Jake sighed. When his sisters got together Jake knew he was licked.

"By the way, why is he on the roof?" Jake asked.

"The pigeons," Sarah replied. "They are driving him crazy. He is putting nails on the roof to keep them away."


My name is Sherrie, and I am a member of the crazy family that is gathered around the three-flat red brick building in which we all live. The building is located on the South Side of Chicago. My stubborn, but lovable, 80-year-old grandfather owns and cares for it.

My Aunt Tillie; her husband, Hymie; their three daughters; and their old bulldog, Prince, live on the third floor. Uncle Hymie is a short bald man with a perpetual cigar in his mouth, and Aunt Tillie runs the clan. My uncle Izzy, his wife Dora, son Yale, and daughter Judy live on the first floor. I live with my Dad, Jake, and Mom, Bess, on the second floor, and Aunt Sarah and her son, David, live with grandpa across the street in another one of his buildings. Aunt Sarah's husband Ben died in the war fourteen years ago, and she never re-married, even though she was still attractive.

We have the sandwich apartment. My third-floor aunt and uncle, Tillie and Hymie, communicate by fighting and shouting, the dog barks and snores, and the girls whine. Once they forgot to turn the bathtub off and we got flooded. I don't understand how that happened as the bathroom is the most used room in the apartment, especially when there are five of them sharing one toilet.

We thought we were quiet, but Aunt Dora on the first floor complains that we stay up too late and she can hear us walking around. Maybe it is because Mom always wears heels while the rest of the women wear sensible black shoes. Spider-webbed blue veins make it harder for Aunt Dora to sleep. She says her jumpy legs don't help.

Down the street about three blocks from the bus stop on Jeffery Boulevard was home. Tests in school tomorrow, so I had more books than usual to balance. The jumble of voices increased in volume as I made it across the tree-lined street featuring red-and-yellow brick three-flat apartment buildings. I stopped a minute to watch the boys playing ball in the middle of the street, and the girls jumping rope on the sidewalks, double-Dutch, something I could never accomplish. I moved over to a cute little girl in a blue pinafore. "Hey Lucy, what is the commotion about?" I asked.

"I don't know. It's your family again," she answered. The crack of a bat made me look up. Dodging a ball headed towards the gutter, I continued towards home.

This was not the first time I've come home from school to find all the family members shouting at each other about some perceived crisis. I wasn't surprised to find Grandpa on the roof. Grandpa showed me the wooden boards with nails he was going to use. The pigeons weren't surprised either. A whole group of them sat on the telephone wires contemplating how to outsmart him.

I put my hands on my ears to block out the continuous chatter and shouting, pushed my way past everyone, opened the heavy oak front door, and inhaled the lingering Jewish cooking smells as I climbed up the stairs to our apartment.

Grandpa would be fine. He was a construction worker before he started to buy real estate, and the roof was flat.

I opened the door to our second floor apartment and dropped my school books on the light-colored wooden hall table. Smoke from the cigarette lounging in the green glass ash tray stung my eyes. I backed away from it.

"Hi Mom," I said, loud enough to block out the sounds of Frank Sinatra crooning Anything Goes. Mom did love her small white-and-gold RCA radio. I preferred the new black and white small television with shows such as The Lone Ranger, I Love Lucy, and The Ed Sullivan Show, or my 45 r.p.m. record player with the latest rock and roll entertainers such as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

She moved from the window, letting the lace curtains drop back in place. "What is the commotion about outside now?" she asked.

I opened the icebox looking for something to munch on. Nothing good there, all diet stuff.

"Grandpa is on the roof trying to stop the pigeons," I said.

"I guess they will bother your poor Dad," Mom said. "No one in his family can do anything without him. It is bad enough that he feeds everyone from the store. Your father is just too nice."

"Mom, isn't that why we love him?" I asked.

She smiled at me. "You are so much like your dad. Watch that you are not taken advantage of, my sweet," she said with a hint of playfulness in her voice.

More conservative than Dad due to her experiences in Europe during the war, Mom watched her money carefully. She had a terrible time understanding Dad's family.

Dad and Mom met when he was stationed in London during the war. He brought her home to Chicago. The only photograph of them in London sat on the entrance table. Taken in 1944, it pictured my Dad in full U.S. Army Captain uniform next to a stunning looking girl who was perched on three-inch black heels, and fitted into a tight black strapless dress. They are standing in front of the famous Westminster Bridge. There must be a better story there than the one they tell-met at an officer's club, fell in love.

Oh, she is Jewish like the rest of the clan, but a different kind of Jewish. She is tall, five feet seven, very thin, quiet, reserved, private, and she doesn't keep kosher or play cards, and she doesn't even own a rolling pin! Her hands are soft and smooth. No matter how hard my aunts tried, they couldn't get my mother to join their weekly kalooki card game or the weekend family penny poker game.

Actually, I can't blame Mom. We kids play our games quietly compared to the adults who argue constantly.

"This is poker money, pay up now!" "You're bluffing! I don't trust you." "You don't need another card." You ate the whole bag of candy, you chazer, it's your turn, my God you are so slow, you can't quit now." Etc.

It took me years before I realized shouting and interrupting each other wasn't normal for all family conversations.

Then there are the Yiddish phrases us kids can't fully understand, though we keep trying. When we hear, zug gornisht: say nothing, we know they are talking about something they don't want us to hear, usually swear words or juicy gossip.

Instead of playing poker with the family on Sunday nights, mom goes out with her friend Sofia. Sinai, a very reform synagogue in Hyde Park, has a lecture series about life that they like to attend. Sofia is different than other family friends. She's not a neighbor or from the synagogue or South Shore or the West Side, and she isn't Jewish. We were told that we should be pleasant to non-Jews whom we encounter in stores, at work, in school, or in other common places, but to have a non-Jew as a best friend was incomprehensible to my dad's clan. Once Sophia wore a red skirt and a tight pink sweater to a Passover Seder, where she also drank too much of the blackberry Mogen David wine. My aunts are not fond of her.

The only time I really heard my mom and dad have a major argument was over Sophia.

"Jake, I just don't understand why we can't spend Thanksgiving with Sophia's family," Mom said. "It's not a Jewish Holiday."

"The family wouldn't understand," Dad argued. "We spend every holiday together. It's traditional."

"I'm sick of the family, the family," my mother uttered as she walked into her bedroom and slammed the door. I stayed quiet in my room, where I imagined the tightening of mom's jaw, and the head shaking of dad as he settled in his recliner.


Mom does light candles on Sabbath, using very straight-lined modern candle sticks. She hates the Conservative synagogue we go to because everything is in Hebrew, and she can't read or understand it. Actually, after all my years of Hebrew school I can only read it, can't understand it either, but the synagogue is a good place to socialize. My grandpa and my uncles spend most of their free time at the Conservative synagogue called South Side Hebrew. I do wish we lived closer to it as we are not allowed to drive on the Sabbath and the Jewish High Holidays, and it is a schlep from our house, especially when we are walking in heels.

Sometimes Mom wears pants instead of dresses! She said if Katherine Hepburn can wear them, so can she. I wish I could wear slacks to school, especially on those freezing winter days. Oh, I can't complain, mom makes sure I'm dressed in the current fashions. I have at least six cashmere sweaters, and matching skirts, plus my trusted penny loafers. My friend Fern teases me because most of my sweaters are in shades of blue.

Our apartment is different, too. The lay-out is the same on all three floors; large living-dining room, small kitchen, two bedrooms, one bath, and a sun parlor. The difference is in the furnishings. Light-colored, straight-lined pine modern furniture free of tchotchkes and plastic covers adorns our rooms. Just one mirror and only two or three pictures on white walls, and for sure no artificial flowers would be anywhere.

One exception to the modern furniture is my Dad's old saddle-leather tan and brown cushioned recliner with the torn arm and with Aunt Tillie's crocheted multi-colored blanket on it. Being settled into that chair next to the tall brass lamp with the paper opened wide was my father's way of relaxing after work. Some days he added his Kaywoodie brown pipe. If he fell asleep, Mom and I made sure we removed the pipe from his mouth.

Everything has a place in our apartment, and the floors sparkle.

Mom is so pretty, with her straight, champagne shoulder length blonde hair that accentuates her honey-brown eyes, and she always smells of lemon.

I wished I looked like her, but alas, my genetic pool is bent more towards Dad's family. Five feet, one inch tall, with unruly curly black hair and a too-big nose is what I look like. I will get the traditional nose job when I am older if Mom lets me. I do try hard to keep from getting too fat, which isn't easy, being part of a Jewish clan. My large, dark sparkling eyes make up for some of my other physical faults.

Dad's family came from Poland, and the West Side of Chicago. They are noisy, loving, clannish, outgoing people. The women are small in stature and on the plump side, especially in the bosom area. They have black, curly hair, or dyed red hair, except for Aunt Tillie who has a shiny silver head of hair tinged with a touch of pepper. She is the only one who doesn't have a standing appointment at Andre Pierre on 71st Street.

When Tillie goes to the beauty shop for special occasions, Pierre starts on her, saying "Tillie, you are a beautiful young woman. How can you go around with gray hair? Let me fix you up. The first dye will be free."

Tillie won't give in. "If God wanted me to have red hair, he would have given it to me. First he gave me black, and then silver. I will keep it. Amen." She taps hard on the table to emphasize her position.

Sarah, who would never contradict her older sister, quietly mumbles, "She is the only under-sixty woman in the synagogue with gray hair."

There are no secrets between them, and to my Mom's horror they become involved in each other's business to a fault. The family functions sort of like an old -fashioned village in the tightly knit, predominantly Jewish section of the South Shore neighborhood, which ran from the lake on the east to Jeffery Boulevard on the west, from Jackson Park on the north to around 79th Street on the south. The rest of South Shore was a mixture of other ethnic groups. We stayed within our own groups, while being tolerant of others. There were some non-tolerant groups in the neighborhood, such as the restricted South Shore Country Club on 71st Street where as kids we snuck in through the lake beach and pulled down the signs that said "No Jews allowed."


"Oh Jake, thank God you're here. Do something!" we could hear Aunt Sarah say through the window.

My father was the family fix-it man. He could fix a car, a roof, or a fight between family members, especially when it involved Grandpa.

I walked over to the opened glass pane near Mom, who was peeking out through a crunched curtain. We watched Dad quietly move up the ladder. He picked up some nails and joined Grandpa in his hammering. They talked together in Yiddish, the secret language they used when they didn't want the kids to understand.

Though he was dressed in shirt and tie and was about four inches taller than Grandpa, except for the thin black mustache covering his upper lip, he still looked like a young boy helping his Dad. In only a few minutes Grandpa and Dad were down from the roof and marching with the clan up to Aunt Tillie's apartment.

"Come Essen, supper, strudel for all," Aunt Tillie announced, as she led the march through the front door.

Mom went into the bedroom. It's not that my Mom dislikes my Dad's family; it's more that, being English, she is uncomfortable with continuous tumult. She would rather listen to music or read her books. She has a whole bookshelf full of classics like Kafka's Metamorphosis, and popular books like Peyton Place, and she lets me read them all, even the juicy parts, so long as I am willing to analyze them with her.

I hesitated, not sure where to go. "It's ok," she said, so I followed the clan. She doesn't use guilt as a weapon like my aunts do. My cousin told me, if his mother yells at him, he feels guilty for straining her voice!


I joined twenty-some family members crowded into the red-and-yellow tiled kitchen. Though small, it was warm and inviting. The sweet smell of honeyed strudel mixed with whiffs of garlic-laden brisket and fresh challah met me. Aunt Tillie always had a house full of Jewish food, even on non-Shabbat and non-holiday days. She spent her days in a floral house dress, cooking and baking. Sometimes she even appeared with a pink apron over the house dress. Nobody ever left her home hungry.

Mom has said that it would be nice if she did some cleaning, but her house was always a comfortable place to be for me, and her food was delicious. As a young girl I loved to help Aunt Tillie cook. She was the only one in the family that made light, fluffy matzo balls. Aunt Sara's could be used as weapons.

Later, when I asked for her recipes, she would say, "You learn by helping, watching, and tasting like I did with my mother and she did with hers. There are no measurements, a bissel of dus and a bissel more of dus." Which means a little of this, and a little more of that! Passion filled her world, not order.

At our house, dinner was a guessing game, except for Shabbat when the whole family gathered at Aunt Tillie's house, and Sunday when we went to a restaurant.

David said, "Grandpa insists that my mom follows her mother by keeping a weekly food schedule; Monday lamb chops, Tuesday veal chops or chicken, Wednesday dairy, Thursday meatballs or stuffed cabbage, Friday and Saturday Sabbath dinner of soup, chicken, brisket, kishke, challah, etc., and Sunday bagel, lox, and smoked fish."

Aunt Tillie was loud, sometimes argumentative, but she really had a heart of gold. Everyone always got a big hug from her while the kids received a cheek pinch from Uncle Hymie with the inevitable question, "Who's your favorite Uncle?" Your answer had better be "Uncle Hymie" or you got an extra pinch.

He usually had either food, a cigar, or a big smile on his face in spite of the fact that his high blood pressure required him to slow down on eating and smoking. His excuse to the young doctor was, "I'm Jewish. This is the way we eat." Then he went back to his friend the old retired doctor, the one he prayed with at synagogue, the one he played poker with, the one who wouldn't lecture him. In Yiddish Uncle Hymie was called a kibitzer.

My family believed their strong Polish blood would protect them. Their genetic pool was made up of ancestors who made it through pogroms, freezing temperatures, and starvation. Over and over I heard how Pa had fled Warsaw with the Polish army on his heels. Polish Jews never got out of the army alive, we were told. I don't know about that one. Grandpa was tough!


"Hymie get that damn dog out of here," Aunt Tillie yelled as Prince grabbed a bagel off the table. Everyone calls Prince a big dumb dog, but I think he is pretty clever when it comes to food. Once he stole a whole brisket off the kitchen table. We thought either Prince or Uncle Hymie were going to be dead meat that day. All the windows opened, up and down the block, when Aunt Tillie started to scream and howl.

"Tillie, Tillie, what happened? Who died?" "What's with the screaming and howling?" "Did you hear someone crying?" "Oy vay!" So went the neighborhood "phone"-the one with heads sticking out of the window was so much more efficient than the real phone hanging on the wall. Never saw Prince move so fast as he did that day.

As I filled my plate full of brisket and chopped liver, David came up behind me. He was my favorite cousin, the only one older than I was. He was a high school junior, while I was just a freshman. He also was an only child like I am, so we were connected without worrying about sibling rivalry.

"Sherrie, let's take a walk," David said. "I have something important to discuss with you."

"Not until I'm done eating," I replied. "I don't get this kind of food at home. The best my Mom can do is bagels and lox on Sunday, even though dad has modernized our kitchen with an electric refrigerator that has a real ice maker and a new electric stove. The food must be terrible in England," I said as I took a sip of the sweet Mogen David ceremonial wine, instead of the grape juice provided for the kids.

A berakhah over the wine was chanted by Grandpa before every clan meal, though the real family drink was tea. The tinkle of a spoon against the glass as family members sipped hot tea could always be heard at these gatherings.

In fact, Aunt Sarah was stirring her tea when, with plate in hand, I sat down next to her at the triple-leafed mahogany table with the carved lion paw legs. Contrary to the plastic covers on the red silk sofa, the dining room chairs were covered with leather, and more comfortable. As I lifted my fork she touched my hand and looked straight into my eyes and said, "Sherrie, take care of my David."

I scrutinized her face, looking for some reason for this statement before getting up and moving towards my cousin.

David waited for me. The younger kids gathered around him. He ruffled the thick head of hair on Yale. "How is your bar mitzvah practice going?" David asked. "I bet you can't wait until it's here."

Yale reached up and whispered something in David's ear. David burst out in laughter.

Judy, a small, brown-haired ponytailed six-year-old cousin in a blue lace dress jumped him. She held out her wrists, and said, "David smell my perfume."

Lilac permeated the air. "Wow you make me think of beautiful flowers," David said, with a wide smile across his face.

With a flirtatious giggle, she answered, "David take me with you."

He picked her up, hugged her, and then put her down. "Judy, the street lights will go on soon and you can't be out anymore today," David said.

While she narrowed down her big bright eyes and thought about that rule, we slipped out. I grabbed a piece of rugelach on the way.

Handsome, tall, and slender with a full head of thick black hair, David fascinated me. He wasn't the classic competitive first-born. Sensitive and quiet, he loved to read, work on artistic projects, and go to museums. We spent time together because we had so much in common. Too bad he was my cousin. Girls who thought they could get to him through me tried to be my best friend. He never kept a girlfriend for long.

Slowly we walked down the street towards Lake Michigan. The old city neighborhood had full majestic natural oaks and maples. The sweet perfumed fragrance of the magnolias only added to the delight of a spring day. Flowers were just starting to peak through the lush and green ground. Only a few red tulips were visible. Birds chirped, and squirrels scurried up the trees. Spring was definitely in the air.

We sat down on the massive grayish-white concrete rocks and watched the icy blue water beating against them. Not much wind made for a calm lake today. Summer fun on Rainbow Beach by 76th Street was becoming closer and closer with each bright warm day.

No sun-baked beach here, but I could still reach the water from my rock. I took off my shoes and socks and dangled my feet in the tepid waves. I scooped up a handful of water and splashed it against my face. A welcome light northern breeze swept by us.

The crowded apartment had been stuffy with so many people and no air. We had two of those new miracle window air-conditioners, but Aunt Tillie didn't. In our apartment they sat in the bedroom and front room windows right over the grinding radiators. Windows closed, air conditioner on, no more worry about cross-ventilation in the summers.

A young boy pedaled by on a ten-speed Schwinn bicycle with wheels that made a weird whirling noise. Sounded a little like cicadas.

David reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette from a Chesterfield pack. He covered the match with his hand in order to block the wind as he lit it. He took a deep puff, letting the smoke spread out through his nose and sail over the water. I had tried a cigarette once and ended up coughing and coughing while my friends laughed and laughed.

"David, what did Yale whisper to you?"

David smiled as he turned in my direction. "The kid said, 'I can't wait for my bar mitzvah because it is my get out of Hebrew school card.'"

Realizing how true that was and how that statement reflected Yale's so very honest personality, we both grinned and shook our heads. Aunt Dora always said, "That kid of mine tells it as it is."

Then I asked, "What do you want to talk to me about? Did you write another poem for me to check?" His poems contained fascinating thoughts and language, but weak grammar and spelling so he always asked for my help. I so admired his artistic talent and his ability to focus on only one thing at a time. My mind tended to wander.

"No," he mumbled, as he tensely stared out across the water.

I could tell that there was something serious on the tip of David's tongue, but somehow he couldn't let it out. An uneasy feeling took over me, one I never felt with David. Normally I felt totally relaxed with him and knew what to expect from our meetings.

Finally I asked, "David, what's wrong? You and I have been honest with each other, always sharing our secrets, since I was five years old. I even told you when I stuffed socks in my bra to look like I had bigger boobs." I thought that would make him laugh. It didn't.

I tried to be more serious, "Remember when we mixed our blood and pledged to be soul mates forever, just like our uncles and aunts have been with each other?"

He pressed his lips together and turned his head away from me. "Sherrie I don't like who I am," David said. "Thoughts floating through my head torment me at night, and I don't understand my body. I am so very confused, and afraid. I'm especially worried about what I'm going to do after graduation next year."

Not understanding, I answered, "That's nuts. You are smart, charming, and handsome, and every girl in the high school is crazy about you." At fifteen, love and sex constituted a romantic concept to me, not a physical one.

Another thought entered my head. Though many dads never came back from the war, David's was the only one in our extended family who was killed. Oh, Uncle Izzy did come back a little messed up, but that doesn't count the same. Dad says Izzy was in the battle of Okinawa and he will never get over the war. So what? He is sweet and nice to everyone and always seems happy, even though he has a slight limp that makes him sway.

"Maybe you are feeling like that because you haven't had a father," I said. "The uncles and aunts always say you have a remarkable resemblance to your dad. Possibly you are trying too hard to take his place." My mind pictured the photograph on Aunt Sarah's mantle of a handsome young man in a tan army uniform, who was just a few years older than David.

He hesitated before answering. "Yes, it does have something to do with my Dad. I don't want to be a doctor. I hate blood."

I shrugged my shoulders and said, "So don't be a doctor."

"It's not that easy," David said. "I am the oldest boy, and I will be the first one in the family to go to college. My father wanted to be a doctor. I've been told the whole clan has put away money for me to go to medical school."

A selfish thought occurred to me. "David, is there money put away for me and the other cousins to go to college?" I asked.

"For Yale maybe, but the rest of you are girls," he replied. "You get married and have babies."

Angry, I got up and started to walk away. Then I turned towards him. "My mother had two years of college before the war," I said. "She wanted to be a teacher. Not every woman is satisfied with just cooking and cleaning. Some of us want to use our minds."

He grabbed my hand. "I'm sorry," David said. "That was insensitive of me. Will you help me Sherrie? You can have the money they saved for me."

I sat back down on the rock just in time to be splashed by the waves. I threw my black cashmere cardigan over my wet blouse. The tension diminished with the water and we both started to laugh.

"I hate blood, too," I said. "I want to be a writer. What do you want to be?"

"I would love to become a decorator," David said.

"Wow," I exclaimed. "You did fix up your room nice. Too bad Grandpa made you take down the fountain. I thought it was neat-so clever to paint those drainage pipes white."

"How can I tell them?" David asked.

"Let's think about it," I replied. "You do have another year of high school. Can I talk to my Mom about it? She's not like everyone else. She can keep a secret."

I had a hard time understanding why he would be willing to give up a chance to go to college. College was my dream. The thought that he could be drafted into the army also occurred to me. The war in Korea had ended, but there was a new conflict starting in a place called Vietnam.

"I could get a job in a furniture store, but I am expected to work in your Dad's store this summer," David explained.

"Me too," I replied. "I would love to have the summer off, but...."

The shine of city lights, the bright crimson sky, and the sparkle of fireflies circling around us meant night was now approaching.

"We better go," David sighed, as he ground out his cigarette. "They will be looking for us." By the time we reached home, the streets were clearing, and the crickets were starting their evening concerts.

David had set into motion a plea for help, so I went to Mom and told her David's story. She had lost family in the war like David had.

She smiled slyly and said, "I'm not surprised. Tell him to wait until the summer and the holidays are over, and I will help him talk to everyone."

I gave her a big hug.

"Thank you, Mom," I said. "I knew you would help."

She stopped me. "Sherrie, you need to continue to be there for him. David is different."


The summer flew by with just two minor family crises.

Little Judy fell off the playground swing and broke her arm. To the horror of the doctors, we all took her to the emergency room, all twenty of us, because that is what close families do.

"Everyone please wait outside. You can sign Judy's cast when we are done," young Doctor Cohen said, with a desperate edge in his voice.

The other one happened right after Aunt Tillie and Uncle Hymie's dog, Prince, died. Izzy came home from fishing at Navy Pier carrying a brown-and-white mixed-breed dog and a big yellow dog house. The kids who were outside playing ran towards him. With a big smile he shouted out, "Tillie, I brought you a new dog."

Before Tillie responded, Sarah leaned out her window and yelled, "That dog is pregnant. Make him take it back."

I felt sorry for Uncle Izzy. When he came home with fish that he caught, Aunt Dora would yell, "Throw those fish back in the lake. I'm not cleaning them." Now he had to take the dog back, too.


David took a job at the furniture store down the street from my Dad's grocery, so he was busy after school, and we didn't see as much of each other. In fact he dropped away from most of his old high school friends, too, spending more and more time in the furniture store, or with my mother.

"What happened to your cousin? He never participates in our activities. He dropped out of the writing club and the AZA club, plus we never see him at the usual hangouts-the bowling alley, Mitchel's Ice Cream Parlor, the baseball field." This was a familiar line of inquiry from several of the girls in my school, plus a few of the boys. I wasn't sure how to answer. The last time I saw David he was coming out of my apartment after talking to my mother.

I tried to make conversation. "David, how was the game? Did you see Little Louie? My dad and the uncles had taken the boys in the family to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play. The Sox were on a winning streak and everyone on the South Side was hopeful for a pennant win.

"Sherrie, we were so high up and it was cold and dark," David said. "The dough pretzels were delicious, though." He knew I was jealous and tried to minimize the experience just like old times. I was grateful.

I missed him, but my second year of high school was more challenging and busy, and I had a boyfriend. He went to South Shore High School on 76th Street while I went to Hyde Park High School on 63rd and Stony Island. Both schools were tied together socially, sororities, fraternities, dances, football, etc. so it was no big deal.

With disheveled brown curly hair, tall and lanky with a handsome face was my Jeff. Jewish, of course, otherwise I would be thrown out of the family like my Aunt Barbra was. I was told Grandpa sat shiva for her and no one was allowed to see Aunt Barbra ever again. Marrying out of the faith was worse than eating a sausage pizza!

From the first time that Jeff and I started to date, he made life exciting. Jeff had this gorgeous white Chevy convertible with a red leather interior, which meant we could travel to downtown Chicago instead of spending our Saturday nights on 71st Street at the Jeffery Theater and the Patio Restaurant.

"Why do you always order a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke when we eat downtown?" Jeff asked. "Aren't you hungry, or are you afraid that I don't have the money?"

I twisted the curls on my forehead as I thought about how to answer. "Well, once you did shuffle me out of a restaurant pronto because we couldn't come up with enough money for a tip, but really it is because I don't know what is kosher," I said.

He smiled. "Never thought of that. Sorry Sherrie," Jeff answered as we left. "I guess we will stick with the delis. The prices are right and they are kosher."

I felt a little funny. More and more kids in my generation were pulling away from the kosher life.

The lake was different downtown. We parked by Oak Street Beach and gazed out at the reflection of glass and steel high-rise buildings or rested our eyes on luxurious white yachts, and dreamed of a different life. Engaged in innocent flirtations we kissed and hugged a little while listening to the new rock and roll singers like Chuck Berry, or if it was late enough we romanced with Franklin McCormick as he recited love poems over the radio. I did have a midnight curfew, which was hard to meet sometimes.

"Sherrie, it is 12:44," Dad asserted. "Why are you late?"

Never Mom, always Dad was the one I had to answer to as Jeff mumbled goodnight and hurried down the stairs.

"I'm sorry Dad, but we went to see the colored lights and music display at the Buckingham Fountain," I stammered. "It was so fantastic that I couldn't pull myself away."

"Sherrie, the display is over at 11 o'clock," Dad said. "I know because it was always one of my favorites."

"Dad, we had to walk to the car," I replied.

His eyes pierced through me, his lips compressed into a small line. The stare and the absence of sound coming from him terrified me. I felt a shiver up my spine.

"Dad, Dad, I promise, I won't be late again," I begged.

"Adjust your blouse and go to bed," he finally said. I was never late again, nor were my clothes ever in disarray again.

Jeff promised to teach me how to drive when I became sixteen. None of the women in the neighborhood drove. They didn't need to. A shopping stroll down 71st Street was almost a daily chore. What their metal carts couldn't carry was delivered by the stores.

I was the one who broke the tradition, and learned to drive. It wasn't a quick easy learn. I put a nice dent into my boyfriend's car before Dad agreed to teach me. Never could parallel park well. Always turned the wheel too much, or hit the brake too hard. Having the neighborhood kids cheer and tease me as I practiced for the driving test didn't help. I was thrilled when I passed the test. So were Mom and Dad. They now had an unpaid employee to do the errands. Freedom was when I got the car for myself, which wasn't often because like most families in the late 'fifties, we were a one car only family.


Besides my Dad's grocery there was Rosenblum's Drugstore, a good place for a soda while waiting for prescriptions. Fialikoff's Kosher Butcher was the perfect place to use one's haggling skills. (Oh, how I hated the raw acid smell in that store. As a kid I dropped my ice-cream cone on the sawdust floor and ran out.)

Then there were the beauty shops where the neighborhood gossip flowed constantly, and a little ways east on 71st Street was South Shore Deli and next door was South Shore Bakery. The bakery had an unusual marble cake with alternating white and chocolate squares covered by chocolate frosting. Between delicious bites we kids puzzled over how it was made.

Of course, the many dress and millinery shops for those special occasions popped up across the shopping street. Trying on hats until Mrs. Munishkin threw us out was a favorite of us young girls.

I can't forget the jewelry store, the one the women of the family took the train to around once a year, or for special occasions, when a ring was needed for a wedding, a watch for a Bar Mitzvah, or a bracelet for a special anniversary or birthday. The women picked the item out, but the men made the actual purchase. The store, owned by a relative, was in the jewelry building on Washington Street in downtown Chicago. Sparkling diamond engagement rings sparked dreams of the future for us young girls, and memories of past days for our mothers.

Marshall Field's downtown had a special salad made with almost a half a head of lettuce, hard-boiled egg, Swiss cheese,and a slice of rye bread. All was covered by thousand island dressing. Eaten in the Walnut Room after shopping completed the day for us. With high heels resting next to sore stocking feet we quietly endured the thirty minute train ride from the Randolph Street station back to 71st and Jeffery Boulevard and home.

In the summer we needed to find seats next to open windows as there was no air conditioning. I was always willing to ride backwards when we turned the back seat so we could face each other. It was hard to talk over the colicky-clank noise of the wheels meeting the rails. We were a family use to shouting so we managed.

My family did love jewelry, especially Aunt Tillie. She always wore small diamond earrings, plus a gold chai on a chain, and we were always hunting for jewelry she took off while baking.

"Sherrie, Sherrie, help me find the ruby and diamond ring," Aunt Tillie would say. "It was Ma's and as the oldest daughter it will be yours one day so you better find it."

If the rings weren't on the sink ledge they were in her pocket. But it was a fun game to play when I was young, and I did get the ring and a gold bracelet from the grandmother I never met. They flop around on my arm and I am afraid to change them or wear them. I will pass the jewelry on to my children or nieces so they stay in the family.

Aunt Tillie also was the keeper of the family silver. Every Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year.) the mahogany box would be taken down from the top shelf in her closet and her daughter Lizzie would knock on my door.

"Sherrie, it's polish the silver day," Lizzie would say. With a frown on her face she would complain, "What is wrong with the stainless? It takes us all day to get the tarnish off the sterling. I don't think God cares."

I differed with her as I kind of got a high from making something ugly turn into something sparkling and beautiful. I couldn't understand why we didn't use the sterling more often, especially since most family dinners used meat silverware.

As we were busy polishing and chatting, I asked Aunt Tillie, "Where is Aunt Dora?"

"She's lying down," Aunt Tillie said. "She's been feeling nauseous this morning."

Lizzie and I both raised our eyebrows.

"Mom," Lizzie said. "I saw her knitting a yellow blanket. Is she pregnant?"

"Isn't she too old?" I asked, eyes wide open.

Tillie put down the fork she was cleaning and stared at us, and said. "She is only thirty-eight. You girls treat us like we are ancient."

Then she threw her hands out in front of her and uttered "Poh, poh, poh," to ward off the evil spirits.


Anyway, finding a parking space near the apartment building was hard enough for a one-car family. I can remember Aunt Tillie yelling, especially in the winter, "Yale, there's a parking spot in front, quick go save it for your father and Uncle Jake."

Yale would answer to no avail, "Ma, it's cold out. Dad could be late."

My mother didn't forget David. She and David spent time talking to each other. They finally decided to confront the family at the Yom Kippur break/fast. It was a time of forgiveness. A twenty-four hour fast was tough to handle so Mom decided to start the discussion while everyone was anxious to get to the food, thus cutting down on any arguments.

Right in the middle of the family settling around the large dark wooden table filled with food Mom, dressed in a long, tan skirt and a lime-green cashmere sweater, banged on a pot, and in her rich sharp British accent she told the family to be quiet. Mom never did this, so everyone froze into a shocked state.

I heard Aunt Tillie say, "Could she be pregnant?"

Mom ignored her.

"David has something to tell you," she said. "It is a hard decision and he needs you to listen."

Looking as handsome as ever in a white button-down shirt and brown khaki pants, David stood up and took a deep breath before talking. I knew he had been practicing for days.

He said, "My family is so wonderful. I want to thank all of you for being there when my father died. It kept my Mom and me going. I know the family wants me to follow my Dad's dream of becoming a doctor, but I must follow my own dream. My dream is to become a decorator. I know you have saved money for my college years and I am forever grateful. I hope you will use whatever money I don't use for Sherrie and the other kids."

For the first time ever the family actually became quiet. Tic-tock went the black and white round wall clock, a sound I never remember hearing before. They sat there staring at David, while David turned to me with lips pursed, face pale, and head down. I reached over and squeezed his cold hand. He squeezed back hard. I knew he was struggling to keep it together.

Mom stood up and clapped, and so did I. I was proud of David, and of Mom, too. It was the first time she actually became part of the family. Soon most of the family came forward and hugged David. Dad put his arm around Mom and whispered something in her ear. A big smile covered her face.

Grandpa didn't go near David. I heard Grandpa say to David's mother, "I told you Sarah. The boy needed to do man's work. You babied him too much."

The color drained from Aunt Sarah's face, while her hand stretched over her heart. Her reprieve from grief for her husband centered around protecting her son. David's recent changes in behavior she attributed to adolescence, and she paid no attention to Pa's warnings, not that it would have made a difference in David's nature.

The teacup chattered as Aunt Tillie's shaking hands put it down. With tightened jaw she rose up from her chair and walked over to David and to my mother. Then she took them to where Grandpa was sitting, and she said, "Pa, it's settled. The boy must follow his dream. When you were young you and Ma followed your dream and came to America."

Grandpa ignored her, got up, cleared his throat, and pronounced the Jewish cure for everything: "Let's eat."

It was the late-1950s and I didn't have a clue about what David was really telling us until about five years later when David introduced the family to Daniel, his design business partner-and life partner. As I watched David, who was now dressed to the hilt in Polo shirts and pants, give Daniel a passionate smile, I remembered a time when I taught David how to cha-cha before he went to a dance with a girl named Doris. I then realized sometimes people aren't whom they seem to be.

With lingering nostalgia I thought about all the girls who were so crazy about David. It was hard for me to process that David preferred boys to girls. I swallowed hard and brushed away the few tears running down my cheek before congratulating them. The David I knew growing up was no longer the same person, but it felt good to see him happy.

My mother sat by me. As she put her hand on mine she said, "Be happy for David. A few years ago I was afraid he would do something terrible to himself. With Daniel he has a renewed passion for life."

I smiled and answered, "Yes mom."


By then I was the first girl in my Dad's family to go to college, thanks to David. His coming out gave me the courage to follow my dream. He taught me to be myself even in the midst of fear and uncertainty. While my friends were getting married, or becoming secretaries or teachers, I was taking the Illinois Central and then a bus to the University of Illinois at Navy Pier with the hope of going on to law school.

It helped that we were in the 1960s by that time, which were much different than the quiet, innocent 1950s when homosexuals had to stay underground, and girls could only look for a "MRS" degree. I could be more than a housewife, secretary, or a teacher. I was thinking of law with a sideline as a writer. I wanted to be the first woman in the family to be able to support herself. College gave me a sense of freedom.

Every fall around the Jewish holidays and on the anniversary of a loved one's death the family piled into my Dad's brand new white big-finned blue Cadillac convertible and Uncle Hymie's coral and white old Hudson and drove out to Waldheim, the Jewish Cemetery on the West Side. It was the custom to honor the memory of a loved one rain, snow or whatever. We recited the prayer to preserve the soul of each departed member and left pebbles on the large monument markers to show that we were there. Lunch time in a near-by restaurant was where memories and stories flowed of the departed.

"Do you remember when Ben threw the tomato at the wall?"

"It wasn't at the wall. He was trying to hit me and missed."

"He ran out the door in his underwear."

"What could he do? Pa was chasing him."

The year 1965 was a sad one for the family. It was a year that made me realize how fragile we were, and how little control we actual had over our lives. "Man plans and God laughs," goes the old Yiddish proverb.

Grandpa had a stroke and couldn't walk, or talk. Aunt Dora had a miscarriage, and stayed in bed in a state of depression. I helped take care of both Grandpa and my cousins.

After spending two hours with my grandfather, trying to help him to move, Aunt Sarah brought me into the kitchen.

"Sit down," Aunt Sarah said as she padded the red vinyl kitchen chair next to her Formica kitchen table. "I appreciate your help with Pa, but you have a full college schedule and we are all helping to watch him. You have to realize he won't get better."

"Aunt Sarah, you don't understand," I replied. "I love him so. He is my only grandparent. Yale and Judy have two other grandparents."

"Yes, but Dora's parents Faye and Ben live far away on Devon Ave, so Pa is special to them to, and Hymie's parents live in Florida, so those cousins only have Pa nearby too," Aunt Sarah explained.

She got up and went by the stove, to pour herself a cup of tea. While Aunt Sarah was dipping the tea bag in the water she turned towards me, and said, "Honey, you are young, and haven't lost anyone like I have. Pa is close to ninety and it is natural for him to die at that age."

I didn't understand Aunt Sarah, and believed that she had become a cold uncaring person. I thought the family had gone through the worst of times. That is, until my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

My mother died right before my college graduation. I was at the hospital with her at the end. Twelve long-stem roses sat on the night stand. A basket of apples, oranges, and grapes rested untouched, while she was taking her last breaths. Her nurse told me that the hearing was the last sense to go. I leaned in close to her, and told her I had been accepted to John Marshall Law School and that I would be going for her. Her head turned towards me and her eyes smiled.

Up until my mother's death, the family at Waldheim had consisted of relatives I had heard stories about, but never knew. From then on, I would visit with a different purpose. The stones and flowers I would leave on my mother's grave would come from a broken heart.

At the funeral David was almost more upset than I was. He leaned on me while sobbing.

"Sherrie, your mother was the only one who ever understood me," he said. "If it wasn't for her the family would have ostracized me. I loved her so."

It took a while before he controlled his crying. I gave him some of my Kleenex.

For some reason while the rabbi spoke, instead of joining the prayers I fixated my gaze on a red-breasted robin, ear towards the ground, busily searching for the early morning worm, which may be for the bobbing heads peeking out of the nest resting between the branches on the ancient oak tree located near my mother's grave. I thought Mom would be happy that she is being buried next to life being renewed. To this day when I see a robin, I think of her.

After my mother died from lung cancer at the young age of forty-six. Dad asked me to go through her things and take whatever I wanted. For sure I knew I wanted Mom's collection of books. Her typewriter, open and set up on her desk, made me believe I might locate that novel she always planned to write. If it was there, she hid it well. All I found were scribbled notes with sayings from famous people. There was a file folder labeled David which I planned to read at another time. She had recognized his situation early on.

It would be hard to find someone tiny enough to wear her clothes. Maybe her hats. I smiled as I fingered the orange Mr. John hat with the one green feather. Dad and I teased her about it, and she never wore it. I tried to stand in her shoes, but they were too high, too tight, and most of all they represented a steadfast resolve and maturity I hadn't reached yet.

Chanel No.5, Mom's favorite perfume, was in the air. Breathing it in, savoring the scent made me feel closer to her. I looked through her dresses before I came to one of her favorites, a green flowered dress. I took it off its hanger and held it close to my skin. It, too, still had her scent.

I tried to think of her life instead of her death. Just six months after her diagnosis she was lying in a hospital bed among tubes and oxygen tanks, taking her last breath. So fast, it was still hard to believe, even though it was a time when the word cancer was usually associated with a death sentence.

Even though I was surrounded by my Dad's large loving family, it was still hard to imagine life without my mother.

A week before she died she said, "Remember me the way I looked before that terrible chemo stole my hair and my looks." I will always remember her as the young beautiful woman she was. I really thought my mother would live forever, at least into old age. Besides grief, I realized I also felt anger.

I spent a lot of nostalgic time in her closet and drawers gathering pictures and personal items before finding a box filled with costume jewelry, plus one and very disturbing item I had never before seen.

Dad, seated at the round wooden breakfast table, was drinking coffee, and reading the morning paper when I entered the kitchen with the box. I waited until he took a drink of his coffee, and a bite of his Danish, before I removed something from the box. I held it out towards my Dad, pressed my lips together, stared at him and demanded, "Please explain."

He put his Danish down and wiped his face with a napkin before taking the large gold cross out of my hands. I was hoping he would tell me that it belonged to a friend of Mom's. Instead, he said, "I didn't know your mother still had her cross."

"Dad, was Mom..." My voice cracked before I finished the sentence. I took a deep breath and started again. "Dad, was Mom Jewish, or did we just live a big lie?"

"Sherrie, please try to understand," Dad said softly. "It was a different time. Your Mom's grandmother was Jewish, but your Mom's parents were Protestant and she was raised Christian. I loved her so, and I knew Pa wouldn't let me marry her if he knew the truth. If I did it against his will he would have torn his clothes and sat shiva for me like he did with Barbra.

"It was a different time," he repeated. "My mother and father came from an arranged marriage. At birth my mother was promised to my seven-year-old dad. Love wasn't considered. Religion, family, economics, and obedience came first."

Those big bright dark eyes that I had inherited were pleading with me, as my father gently caressed my hand. I pulled away from those strong loving hands that had always made me feel safe.

"Dad, who else knew?" I asked, wondering if the whole family had betrayed me.

"No one, but I know Tillie and Sarah suspected, but they never asked me," he said.

I sank down into a chair, tears flowing down my cheeks. "This explains the blond hair, small nose, the different food, and the fact we never went to London to meet her family," I said. "We lived a lie. You told me she was raised very Reform. You and mom lied to me. That is what hurts the most."

"Honey, when I met your Mom her mother had died from cancer and her brother had been killed at Dunkirk, and she wasn't sure where her father was," Dad explained. "She had no immediate family. I'm sorry. We should have told you."

"What does this make me? Am I Jewish?" I asked, as my gaze was fixed upon the cross. I unconsciously fingered the gold star hanging from my neck. If only Mom were here to tell her side. I wondered, was she miserable all these years being someone else? No wonder she understood David.

"Of course you are," Dad said. "Your father is Jewish, and your great grandmother was Jewish, and your mother was part Jewish."

"Is this a lie or can I believe you?" I asked. "Do you have any information on mom's family?"

I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster, something like Holden Caulfield when he lost his teenage innocence. Yes, people die young and your parents aren't always truthful.

Dad gave me what he had, but my attempts to find my Mom's family were unsuccessful-but I did find Aunt Barbra. She was divorced twice and living in California. Her sisters never lost contact with her. They were obedient to Pa, but family was family no matter what.

I went out to California to visit her. She was quite different than the rest of the clan--big blonde wig, movie star makeup, and a revealing jump suit covered her paper thin body. Her bra pushed together enormous breasts that didn't seem to go with her body.

Alternating between the slim cigarette in one hand and the glass of vodka in the other she said, "Sherrie, I was a rebel, always fighting with my mother, hating the old ways, hating being poor. She called me a 'curvy'--a loose woman--for wearing make-up and running around with boys. I ran away with Dennis just to be free. That only lasted a few months, but it did get me to L.A."

Laughing, she got up and hugged me, and said, "Honey, I've had a wild life. Someday, you can write a book about your old Aunt Barbra. Was this your first flight?"

"Oh Aunt Barbra, thank you so much for the ticket," I said. "I could have come on the train for $40, which would have been one-third the price."

She waved her cigarette-holding hand. "Honey. I wanted you to have the experience."

Smiling, I answered, "It was a magical experience. I dined in luxury on a chicken, corn, and mashed potato dinner, stretched out on the sleeper seat, marveled at the sights through the window, bored my seat mate with my enthusiasm, and I will always treasure my travel bag with its mouthwash, toothbrush, and eye patches Thanks for getting me a ticket in the front of the plane, away from the smoking section.. My only problem was clouded ears, like I was on an elevator in a high-rise building."

"Ah, honey, you need to chew gum upon takeoff and landing," Aunt Barbra said. "Didn't anyone tell you?"

"No, but you are the only one I know who flies on airplanes," I said.

I picked up my coffee cup and turned and glanced out the window at the swimming pool surrounded by majestic mountains and blue sky, thinking how different this scene was from Chicago's West Side where she grew up. Did she even know any of her neighbors? I never spent a day in South Shore without running into someone who knew me or one of my family members.

I put my coffee cup down looked into my aunt's dark brown eyes and asked, "Did you ever miss Chicago and the family?"

Her demeanor changed. The vodka and cigarette were placed on the marble table and she produced a hankie from her pocket. Tears that spread her mascara welled up in her eyes, before she answered, "Never Chicago, but in later life I so missed the family. I wasn't allowed to come to my mother's funeral. The old Orthodox ways were set."

With Aunt Barbra I had my first taste of pasta that didn't come out of a Franco-American can or was served with kasha. Delicious it was, but most likely not kosher, and I'm still a little guilty.

In California, I had my hair cut into a blunt-cut bob, and learned how to put on real make-up.

"How old are you?" Aunt Barbra asked.

"Twenty-one," I replied.

"Why are you not wearing makeup?" she asked.

"I have lipstick on," I said.

"Awful too," Aunt Barbra asserted. "Orange lipstick on a rose complication."

She grabbed my hand and pulled me into her warm and cozy pink bedroom.

"Sit," she said as she motioned to a small pink and blue flowered chair in front of a dressing table. When she opened the table's drawer I gazed at more makeup then I had ever seen.

She pulled out a rose colored lipstick and said, "Try this one."

After I applied the lipstick she said, "Look in the mirror. Can you see the difference?"

"Yes," I said as I started to raise myself from the chair.

Aunt Barbra pushed me back down, saying, "We've only just begun. You are lucky to have those thick black eyebrows. They do need some plucking, though. Does my sister Dora still draw on asymmetrical brows?"

I burst into laughter while my mind pictured my Aunt Dora's face. I answered "yes."

Aunt Barbra just shook her head.

About forty minutes later I could hardly recognize the girl in the mirror. Aunt Barbra then packed several containers of makeup in a bag for me to take home.

My Dad wasn't happy with my new look when I got home. Truthfully, I couldn't remember how to keep it anyway, but I'll always remember being a princess for a weekend.

As I flew back my breath increased and my heart beat faster when Lake Michigan with the tiny boats, and the Outer Drive with the miniature cars, came into view. Chicago was still home, and Jeffery spelled with an "ery" still meant you were a Chicago South Sider, one who traveled almost every day on Jeffery Blvd, spent your Saturday afternoons at the Jeffery Theater, and spelled your son's name with that ery.

Right after my Mom passed, Grandpa died and joined her in Heaven. He may have come back as a pigeon, because more of them are resting on the roof than ever before! I do miss him. There are not many family patriarchs any more, nor apartment buildings completely filled with family and love.

Rate this submission


You must be logged in to rate submissions

Loading Comments