Skip to main content
We rented the largest party room in the building. It was my mother’s eighty-fifth birthday. Men, women and children swarmed the buffet. In one corner a young husband and wife team played keyboard and violin: some Broadway tunes, some Yiddish standards and a dash of Johann Strauss. Some of the attendees I hadn’t seen in years and indeed a few of the older ones surprised me by still being alive.
My mother, Barbara, pointed out the new rabbi and his wife from her synagogue. At one time my father was president of the brotherhood there at the same time that my mother was president of the sisterhood. My parents had been generous supporters of the synagogue. As they got older they attended services less often but their financial support never wavered. They gave to other causes as well, including a local hospital, a children’s summer camp, and the community food bank. Staff from these institutions also showed up at the birthday party.
It soon became clear more people were coming than we had expected. I sent my three grandsons out to get more food from a couple of kosher delis nearby. My mother’s oldest living sister, Phyllis, had made her appearance shortly after the doors to the hall opened. Her eyesight was failing but she still had a sharp mind and a deceptively pleasant voice that carried far.
“Where’s the food Lenny? You can’t invite guests and not feed them.”
“More is coming. It’s on its way, Aunt Phyllis.”
“Here, Lenny, take this and put it with the other presents.” She handed me a small but heavy box wrapped in pink tissue paper and I placed it with the gifts on a side table.
There were flowers too. Among them was an exceptionally large bouquet of roses with a birthday card attached. I asked my mother, “Who are Vittoria and Giovanni Rossi?”
She just giggled like some teenager. “It was so kind of them to remember my birthday. People in Staten Island were always nice,” she winked at me.
“I’ll explain it to you another time, Lenny, not today.”
I had a vague memory of the four of us, my mother, father, and sister and me, visiting some people in New York City. I must have been four years old. But I had no idea what connection our family had with those strangers and now Barbara was putting me off.
At eighty-three my mother had moved to Pine Glen seniors’ condominium. Not that she wanted to. Barbara even now retained her slim build and stood erect but her robust health was a mirage. Dad had died six years earlier so she was living alone. My sister Sarah and I had been worried about her climbing up and down the stairs in her house.
“No, I’m doing fine, Lenny, don’t worry,” she told us time after time until one day she wasn’t doing fine. Sarah and I got her a caregiver to help out but that did not solve the problem of the stairs. Barbara protested but finally agreed and we moved her to the Pine Glen building a few blocks from the intersection of Bathurst and Wilson. It was close to her old house, her friends and the synagogue.
With everyone talking in the crowded hall it was hard to hear what people were saying. A young woman in a blue suit introduced herself to Barbara.
“No, not at all, dear,” I heard Barbara saying, “I was just a housewife raising my kids. But it did have some interesting moments.” She smiled a smile that said, none of your business. “Go eat something. The pastrami is very good.” And with that she waved the woman away.
Barbara turned toward me, “Make sure that nosey witch doesn’t bother me again, will you Lenny?” Her face was red with anger.
My mother was not one to talk much about her past or her family history, not even to Sarah and me. And whenever I had asked Aunt Phyllis about the family saga, she was happy to talk about her own life but evaded questions about my father and mother. “You know, I’m getting old and there are things I don’t remember. Go ask your mother.”
“It’s all boring stuff,” my mother would say. “Anyway I don’t remember most of it.”
Sarah and I, of course, lived through parts of that history. We knew our father, Frank, worked long hours six days a week and his business didn’t always prosper. Sarah figured he was too honest to take advantage of fools or people in financial trouble so he would often forgo transactions that would have made him money.