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Summers in Upstate New York in the 1920s

It seems natural for me to remember things back to when I was two years old, though it surprises many people. They constantly challenge me by saying, "How could anyone remember that far back?" But I do, as clear as if it were yesterday, and I’m sure I’m not yet into my second childhood.

The first place I lived was 425 West 172nd Street, the neighborhood known as Washington Heights. Back then it was quiet, genteel, and middle class. My home was a brick building of four floors, nestled among many others. All the houses were about the same, with enough differences at their entrances to distinguish one from the other. They were all walkups, since elevators in that era were reserved for high-rise apartment buildings in wealthy neighborhoods, or office buildings and multi-storied warehouses.

image84.jpg (77246 bytes)My parents hired a nursemaid who also helped with the housework. Irish she was, with a thick brogue, and her name was Nellie. Though mother spent as much time as Nellie changing diapers, bathing, and feeding me, I was mad about Nellie, and she about me.

I’ve been told that, as a child, mostly I either smiled or laughed. My mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Wohlfeld, lived only a few streets away. They had settled back in New York in 1921 from Indianapolis. My lone Uncle Louis lived nearby as well, having recently graduated from Columbia University. Aunt Bertha, whom everybody called "Bert," taught high school English in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, but spent a good part of her summers in New York visiting her one and only "nephoo." I was fussed over, spoiled rotten, constantly hugged and kissed, so why not laugh a lot; who was hurting me?

Grandpa made sure his one and only grandchild would have the best of everything. The first fall and winter of my life, when my mother took me out daily for greatly extended periods of fresh air, my carriage sported a mink blanket that Grandpa had made. For weekends, when both parents walked me, I was covered with a Russian sable blanket.

Grandpa loved children, and though he could become angry if any of his children misbehaved, he could never bring himself to physically punish them. Back in Indianapolis, if Grandma told him about a naughtiness committed by any of the children during the day, he would take off his belt, grab that child by the ear, pull the offender into the parlor and close the two sliding doors. Then he’d lash the sofa with his belt while the child screamed for mercy until my grandmother couldn’t stand it any longer. She’d knock frantically on the door, begging, "That’s enough, Joe, that’s enough!" Grandma only found out about the ruse when all her children were grown, and by then it was too late for her to even be mortified.

It was common practice in the 1920s for fathers who could afford it to send their wives and children to nearby summer hotels and boarding houses, where the men could commute by train on weekends. Each August, Mother and I were packed off to upstate New York to escape the blistering dog days of summer. In the city, most apartments had an electric table fan, often one in each room, that whirred and oscillated trying to cool the summer heat. On hot nights, it was quite usual for me to sleep on a mat outdoors on the fire escape to try and catch a cool breeze. Back then, the only places that boasted the new invention of air conditioning were the big movie palaces. The live theaters along Broadway closed the beginning of June for the summer and opened their new seasons at the end of September.

Mom and I, along with other mothers and children in our neighborhood who had become friendly while "airing the kids," headed for a very nice boarding house in Rochester. The women lounged in foldout beach chairs of color-striped canvas with wood frames, which usually took the talents of an engineer to set up but which any mother could unfold and do in two minutes. For dads who were more adept, it took the better part of half an hour.

The boarders gathered daily in the huge back yard. Some mothers knitted, some read the latest best sellers, and others talked about rearing children — exciting subjects like that. We kids amused ourselves with games, spending the days in our one-piece cotton bathing suits and running back and forth through the lawn sprinkler.

One summer afternoon when I was six or seven, I found on Mom’s dressing table what I thought was a box of Chiclets: little square, white candy-covered pieces of chewing gum. I popped one in my mouth and took the box downstairs to share with my friends. There we were, all sitting around chewing gum and enjoying ourselves. About ten minutes later one of the kids said she wasn’t feeling well, got up and went over to her mother, who took her immediately upstairs. Then another little girl about my age said she had stomach cramps and was whisked into the house. The kids left one by one, then two by two, until it was a mad rush for all of us.

What I had thought were Chiclets, were a strong laxative called Feen-A-Mint. I managed to clean out the whole back yard for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening.


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