"Even though many of our loved ones have passed away, in many different ways, in subtle and not so subtle ways, they had a profound impact on our lives. Many of us continue to talk about them, about their lives and the relationship we had with them. By engaging in this story telling, we show the love we still have for them, at the same time keeping their memory alive. It shows that their lives were so very important, not only to us, but to others who had come into their lives, and that they made an important contribution to the world. By striving to tell their story in this way, we honor their memory."
my Family STORY > Steven Lasky > GRANDPARENTS > FLORA AND HARRY NESS
Flora and Harry Ness
Pearl (seen below) was a proud graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School (this is her high school picture), which still stands in the East New York section of Brooklyn, New York.
Here Pearl, in 2005, talk about her mother Flora, her dedication to her family, and what a good a cook she was. Pearl here was interview by her son, Steven Lasky. (Click on the earphones icon below to hear the short, four-minute clip.)
As a small child, the tenement building in which my grandparents lived for nearly fifty years seemed to be an imposing edifice. Along the side of the street on which they lived and on the next, apartment building after apartment building all stood connected to each other, linked together like inseparable sections of a fortress protecting those who lived behind their brick facades, their windows and fire escapes. One of these buildings in particular gave shelter, safety and comfort to my maternal grandparents and their children for many decades until the neighborhood fell into decay. I can still see these buildings and others nearby in my mind's eye--the barber and butcher shops across the street, the corner deli, the candy store and vegetable stand, the local bakery, the Supreme movie house down the street--all were symbols of what was once beautiful and memorable at that time the neighborhood where my grandparents once dwelled.
I heard Yiddish spoken everywhere as I walked along the many streets of East New York, which was the section of Brooklyn where they lived. I often would smell the rich aromas of Jewish cooking that seemed unavoidable (assuming anyone would want to). These smells are forever etched into my soul and make me long for those days when my grandmother would cook such delicious and heartfelt meals during our family visits. Feeling part of this neighborhood that was filled aplenty with Jewish immigrants, many of whom had arrived in America through Ellis Island just a couple of generations earlier, meeting friendly neighbors, making many family visits to my grandparents' Brooklyn apartment on a regular basis during my childhood, these are memories that I will carry with me and cherish for the rest of my life.
I was born in Brooklyn some years after the end of the Second World War, but resided there (in an apartment directly adjacent to my grandparents) for only the first few years of my life. My family and I moved out to Long Island when I was only three years old, my mother wishing to leave the place she called "Concrete City." This did not mean however that my family and I were leaving the neighborhood for good. We would often return within the following ten years to visit my grandparents, most often on a Saturday, returning home the very next day with my father, who would arrive there after his day's work. On the car rides home to Long Island, we had our own routines to pass the time. We would often play the word game "Ghost," each of us trying to avoid saying the letter that would form a word. In times of relative quiet, I would often peer out the car window at the out-of-state license plates as they passed by and I would count them, or I would try to make words out of the three letters that would appear with the set of numbers on most every plate.
I remember with great fondness the frequent visits we made to my grandparents, when my family and I would ascend the few flights of stairs and enter their apartment. We were always greeted by a series of smells and aromas that always seemed familiar and welcoming. This two-bedroom apartment in which my grandparents lived had been their home since they moved there from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Monroe Street, in 1917. It was also the place that my mother called home for the first twenty-eight years of her life, having graduated many years before from the once-renown Thomas Jefferson High School. Just next door to my grandparents' flat was a similar apartment in which she and my father had lived for more than seven years after their marriage, right after World War II had ended. They were fortunate to get an apartment, as I understand that at that time apartments were hard to come by.
I recall that my grandparents' front door opened into a hallway and was directly across from the smaller of their apartment's two bedrooms. This was the room that was filled with my grandfather Harry the tailor's Singer sewing machine, along with all the material he used to use to make dresses for my mother and sister. I remember that whenever I entered that room, there would always be the smell of cloth material and camphor balls that lay in his tall wooden closet. It is hard to imagine that in the early years, my mother's two brothers and uncle all slept in that same small room. My mother says that she never had her own room, and that she always slept on a cot in the hallway.
The smell of camphor quickly would dissipate as we walked down the hallway that led into a kitchen, clad in plain white walls and linoleum flooring. Even before entering the kitchen, we could all smell the Jewish food cooking on the stove, a delicious aroma so richly evocative that so many decades later I can still imagine the odor of schmaltz and freshly-made chicken soup wafting through my nostrils. I can hardly picture my grandmother being anywhere else but in the kitchen. It seems that, with whatever memories of my visits to my grandparents I still do have, I usually see her there, cooking or cleaning. Memories are funny that way.
It's hard to believe that my family and I
only visited my grandparents for less than ten years, before my
grandparents were forced to vacate their Brooklyn apartment and move to
Long Island to live with us. Sadly, my grandmother had already developed
cancer, and very soon after she left their Brooklyn apartment to be with
us she went into the hospital and passed away there. My grandfather had
experienced first-hand the effect of a changing Brooklyn neighborhood of
the early to mid-1960s. Having been the victim of a mugging not soon
before, finding himself older and frailer, he was not so reluctant to
leave Brooklyn for safer surroundings. For him though life on Long
Island was boring, and he always felt that there was more for him to do
in his old surroundings of Brooklyn. I think this feeling was common for
many of our parents or grandparents who were accustomed to "city life."
Though this was true then, he was not well either and also developed
cancer. Had he still lived in Brooklyn at that point, his activities
would have been limited then even there. I was fortunate that, frail as
he was, my grandfather was able to attend my bar mitzvah. This occurred
within a year of their moving in with us; however, within a year or so
after this seminal event in my life, he too passed away.
Of course I feel so very fortunate to have had the years and experiences I had with my grandparents. Our time together was all too short, and I wish that G-d in Heaven will give me the chance some day to be with them (as well as all my beloved family members) once again. I have only good memories of them and cannot say a bad word about them. I often think that there is yet another wonderful memory of being with them that I have forgotten about, a memory that hangs on the rim of my consciousness, ready to be recalled, if only...
It is perhaps the greatest legacy that grandparents can leave their grandchildren, a forever memory of belonging, love and connectedness. Like so many families with parents or grandparents who came to America from such countries as those in Eastern Europe before the war (in the case of my grandparents, who came to the U.S. between 1906 and 1907), they never talked about their lives in Poland. I know that they used to read the Yiddish Forvets (Forward) all the time, so perhaps they got their news of what was going on back in Poland from this Yiddish newspaper. Knowing what I know now, it isn't surprising that they didn't want to talk about their early years in Europe, having left their homes in northeastern Poland while they were still in their teens, never again to see many of their own family members whom they left behind.
I had developed a deep affection for them early on. Others who visited were cousins whom I had never met before, and would never really get a chance to know and would see them again perhaps only at a bar mitzvah affair or wedding.
Returning to the topic of our family visits to my grandparents, my mother, sister and I would often arrive at their apartment directly from my father's haberdashery in Jamaica, Queens, New York, which was just a subway ride away.
As a young boy, I always liked taking the subway. I enjoyed looking at the changing scenery high above the street level, the clanging of the cars, the screeching of the brakes, one minute riding on the El (elevated subway) looking across and down onto the city landscape; other times traveling underground in a tunnel, the cars clanking loudly as they made turns along their route.
When we arrived at Livonia Avenue, which was half a block away from my grandparents' apartment on Williams Avenue (the subway stop nearest to my grandparents' home), we would walk down the stairwell from the overhead El subway platform, myself at least in eager anticipation. I looked forward to stopping in at the little candy store/smoke shop that was ensconced in a small spot on street level, right in front of the stairwell exit. I liked to collect comic books back then, so we would stop in there sometimes, and I would buy a comic book or two. What a treat! After that, we would walk the five blocks to my grandparents' apartment, passing store after store, apartment after apartment. I remember that when we would pass by the bakery, which perhaps was on the corner of Hinsdale and Livonia, and we would stop in to buy cookies or cake. I would want to buy one of those cookies with a cherry in the middle on top; my sister always liked the cookies with the sprinkles. Sometimes we also picked up one of those deliciously fresh honey cakes.
When we finally arrived at their apartment and entered the kitchen, I can and will always remember first going to my grandmother (most often she was wearing an apron), and giving her a big hug; I would always receive a warm kiss on the cheek in return. I will never forget how her look changed in the last year or two of her life, as she became ill with cancer; it seemed to me, even at my young age, that she aged so much once she became sick. I can also remember my grandfather, and how much he loved us grandchildren. I recall that he enjoyed rubbing his stubbled cheek on the small cheeks of my sister and myself. I can remember the times when he and I would sit down in the living room and watch TV together. He would sit on the armchair, and I would sit on the floor between his legs. He would usually press his knees against the temples of my head, thinking it was funny; it was! I remember too that I liked to watch TV there (and everywhere else), and that my grandmother's favorite TV programs were "As the World Turns" and wrestling. She also liked to watch wrestling!
I also remember that, perhaps it was during Pesach, my grandmother would buy extra filbert nuts. I was taught how to play a game with filbert nuts, just as if each one was a marble. I'd sit down on the floor, flicking one against the other. I also remember the times I used to help my grandmother make kreplach (Jewish ravioli.) We would make the dough from batter and I'd flatten it with a rolling pin. I would cut the dough into squares and place bits of meat on top, folding each one until it was ready to be cooked. I've been told that my grandmother also made her own challah, noodles and gefilte fish. I will also never forget those cobalt-blue colored seltzer bottles with the shpritzers, and the times I helped my grandfather carry the empty bottles down three flights of stairs and place them under the stairwell by the mailboxes, soon to be picked up by the traveling seltzer delivery man.
Since there was no air-conditioning in
those days, I would occasionally sleep out on the fire escape in the
summer when it was really hot and stuffy in the apartment. Their fire
escape was directly across the street from the local barber shop where I
used to get my hair cut when I came for a visit. I also remember
Bernstein's deli on the corner of Williams and Riverdale, and Katz's
candy store across the street from the deli (more comic books) on
Riverdale, and those red trucks that used to come around from time to
time with kiddie rides mounted on them, such as the one that was
circular and used to rotate, and even one that had a little Ferris
wheel. I recall that my grandfather took me to movie theaters twice,
once to the Biltmore Theater on New Lots Avenue to see Vincent Price in
"House on the Haunted Hill," and another time to see the movie, "Jalopy"
with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the East Side Kids. I will never forget
Benny's Pickles store which stood on Blake Avenue, where vats sat in
plain view right behind the large store windows, giving the potential
customer a choice of how many and which types of pickles they could buy.
I believe we even brought our own glass jars, which we would fill up
with pickles or perhaps a pickled tomato. Lastly, how could I or anyone
who ever lived in the neighborhood forget Fortunoffs, which sold so many
things for the household!
How much times have changed. I remember that my grandmother actually had to clean clothes by hand with a washboard, hang the wet clothes on a line that stretched from the window of her apartment, across the courtyard to another. Also in those days, people actually cooked at home most all the time, and didn't eat out very often. "Take-out" wasn't very big in those days! I was told that my grandmother would never eat outside the home, as she never knew what they put into the food.
I am fortunate that I was born in Brooklyn, long after the olden days when my grandparents were forced to live in a dark and dimly lit cold-water flat on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, where there was a common bathroom in the hallway that all who lived on the floor had to share. No more iceboxes for my grandparents, as they were able to obtain a refrigerator not long after the war was over. Still there was the possibility of the overflowing "shissel." My grandparents had their own telephone too; no more having to tip a kid a few cents to run up three flights of steps to tell you that you had a call waiting for you at the corner drug store.
My family and I lived in the apartment next to my grandparents until I was three or four, when my mother finally decided that with two kids, enough was enough. She no longer wanted to live in "Concrete City," as she used to call it, so we moved out to Long Island. Over the next nine years we would go back often to Brooklyn for a visit, and for me a visit to my grandparents was always filled with great anticipation and a warm, fuzzy feeling. Such a visit was always a welcome relief, albeit temporary, from whatever difficulties I may have been facing as a youth, and I could always count on a needed dose of love from my grandparents. It seems that during the years of these visits, all in the late fifties and early sixties, the visits we had with each other took place over a greater number of years than it did. Today, the same amount of years seems to fly by.
It was a time perhaps only fifteen or twenty years after the Holocaust, a time when there were still distinct Jewish neighborhoods all over the five boroughs of New York City, where you could hear Yiddish being spoken every day by immigrants who worked hard every day (most not on Shabes) in order to feed their families. My grandparents were so very proud to be American citizens. I feel so very fortunate that I had such wonderful grandparents (and parents), that I still would have the feeling in my heart to care so much about my parents and grandparents, that I would want to write about them and make such great efforts to honor and preserve the memories of not only mine, but all our parents, our bubbes and our zaydes. I do so, if for no other reason, than to return the everlasting, unconditional love they had once shown us during those important, memorable years of our youth.