Family: Growing up in the 20th Century
Some Memories for Dorenu
All life begins long before our conscious memories. This will be the best I can do to provide part of your history for you. Appended you will, hopefully, find biographies my father, David Aelony wrote of his father and mother, some things he wrote of his own life which I will try to add to, some recollections made orally to me by my mother, Janet Simon Aelony, in her old age and which I wrote down on my laptop computer as we relaxed in her small apartment to see in the new year, 2000. I hope someday that your Mom or her sisters will put what they recall of that crucial half of what helped to form the people you are, the wonders who have so enriched my life and, I see already, your own lives and those of others.
My name is Zev Aelony, ben (son of) David ben Hanoch and Rose (Shoshanah), and Janet (Yaffah) Simon Aelony bot (daughter of) William Zev and Estelle Bloom Simon; husband of Karen and father of Ephraim, Jared (husband of Sara), Bjorn (husband of Liz) and Phillip. Hanoch, who was Henry Bezoff in Denver, Colorado, was the son of Joseph Berezovski. Rose was the daughter of David Zaliouk. David Aelony was born in Odessa in the Russian Empire, now in the Ukraine.
I don’t remember, of course, but have been told that my life began on a romantic camping outing my parents made with another couple to the beauty of Yosemite National Park. Some may consider such information too sensitive for a person to know, much less tell; but on hearing it shortly before Karen and I were married, I found it a warm and supportive revelation.
David was working on his doctorate in organic chemistry at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. It was a beautiful campus where, my father liked to tell me, professors and graduate students rode bicycles while pampered freshman whose wealthy families had bought them a place in the class cruised around in Packards. Dad was on a scholarship from the company he’d been working for after earning his masters at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was Spreckels Sugar, which went bankrupt not long after I was born. He was only half way through his dissertation research, scheduled to take a year and a half, but the bankruptcy managers gave him six months to finish. With a great struggle, he managed to do it!
I’m told that these were both tumultuous and happy times for them. They liked the Bay Area where they lived in a small house they rented from the owners of the main house up by the street. I was shown it once many years later and from their excitement at pointing it out to me, I knew they had happy memories of it. That despite their concerns of the descent of much of the European dominated world into greater barbarism, and the suicide of Mother’s father a few months before my birth, and their economic struggles.
The former included experiences with the followers of Father Coughlin, a vehemently racist anti-Semitic Catholic radio preacher with a large following, and with anti-Black, anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic bigotry in the Baltimore (not from Coughlinites, of course, and despite the state’s Catholic heritage) area when Dad was working there and Mother was studying genetics at Johns-Hopkins University. At one point, I was told shortly before Dad’s death in 1991, it got so bad that Dad considered returning to Odessa in what had become the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union where he had spent most of his first decade and a half -- part of the Czar’s Russian Empire when he was born in 1907, but morphing through various tortured forms prior to his leaving.
The tragic death of Mother’s father led to my being named after him, as was my cousin Billy Friedman, son of Mother's younger sister, Ruth and her husband Sam, a few years later. I don’t know all that led to Grandpa Simon’s suicide. Yo has learned that there was a history of what today would be called clinical depression in the family, and tells me that Grandpa had attempted suicide before. He was also under enormous pressure; he and Grandma Estelle kept the family clothing company going through the deep depression the US was sufferring, borrowing heavily even from Dad with his $600/year scholarship. The company made the clothes for the Lane Bryant chain of clothing stores that catered to well off (but not ultra-wealthy) very big women. It had grown from a little shop at the turn of the century to the engine that raised the entire family to moderate -- and in some cases, excessive -- wealth. Now the very big women were getting smaller and the company was in danger of failing, threatenning to return all the relatives who depended on it to abject poverty. It was a heavy burden. I was told that a factor was that the company’s loans were all ensured against his death and that there was no suicide clause in those loans, so that he knew that with the continuing depression, he couldn’t put the company on a sound footing with his business skills, but could leave it sound and debt-free by his death. The tragedy was so overwhelming that my parents were not even told of it until they learned from others just before my birth.
Our family name, Aelony, also belongs to this period, which is ‘prehistory’ to me. My father’s father had the surname Berezovsky in Russia. He told me that it had been given to an ancestor, my father’s great grandfather or great great grandfather when the Czar required Slavic familias of all his subjects. This ancestor was described to me as having been named Moishe, to have lived in a shtetl on the border between Byelorussia and the Ukraine, both parts of the Czar’s empire. It was north of the regional center of Radomysl. Dad told me that he had never met Moishe, but that he was described to my father as a child by Dad’s grandfather as having been broad shouldered and something of a tough and thus known as Moishe Platzman (‘Moses Shoulders’ in Yiddish). When the Czar’s name recorders came through he had enough clout to get a nice name, Berezovski (‘of birch’ or perhaps of the village of Bereza, named after its birches). Those who couldn’t bribe them were, I was told, often given ugly sounding or degrading names.
When Dad was coming here, immigration laws changed and he and his fellow immigrants on a ship from Istanbul to New York were abandoned in France. The US consul there told them that he knew nothing about them to tell which was more worthy than any other, so aside from a few who had special skills, he would admit them in alphabetical order. Grandma was a nurse willing to work in TB wards and was admitted right away, but the name beginning with ‘B’ cost Dad and Grandpa over a year in France with no resources. Fortunately the French government at the time was more considerate and gave the immigrants temporary work permits. Dad, however, took the first opportunity to redress the problem and on achieving citizenship changed his name, he explained, back to Hebrew. However, a literal translation would have left him further down the alphabet (Livneh), so he switched trees, knowing the judge wouldn’t know the difference or care. I asked him about the spelling and he told me that he inserted the ‘e’ because it would have put him ahead of another immigrant. “Why not a second ‘a?’ I asked. After all I was growing up in Minnesota by that time with all these Aagards, Aabes and Aagequists. His reply was “I was a greenhorn and didn’t know what I could get away with.” So with a little more knowledge we might have been Aalony’s!
I know that upon graduation Dad searched for employment in a depression wracked country. He found it with Monsanto in Dayton, Ohio, working, I believe, on developing soaps and detergents. It is here that my first memories occur. The oldest of those is a vague memory of Grandma, Mother’s mother, bursting happily, excitedly, through a door that had a shower curtain hanging from a circular shower curtain pipe, around it. When, as a teenager, I described that memory to her (I think at the time of her mother’s death), Mother told me that it was when her mother came a few days after the birth of my brother, Yossef. I would have been just short of two, so we were both surprised that I had any memory of it, but she explained that my description of the door and curtain were precisely accurate and that it was a rental in Dayton through which the November wind blew and that Dad had put the shower curtain around it to protect the new baby. I am told that I already talked a lot at that time and that I would stand on the apartment’s balcony (where we lived before Maylan drive) and talk to the neighbors as they walked in and out, but I don’t recall that.
I do recall well the house my parents rented on Malon (or Mailon? Mahlon?) Drive just outside Dayton.
Yo has found the correct address on his birth certificate: 305 Maylan Drive. Since this is the address on the birth certificate, this must have been where the memory of Grandma Estelle coming through the shower-curtained door took place!
It was a small white frame house on a dirt street. There was a matching garage out back with two concrete wheel tracks leading to it from the street. There was a living room in front with a hall off it with the bathroom between our folks’ room and the other bedroom, which was Yo’s and mine. I remember it as a nice home, but it may not have been in great shape as I remember on one occasion, a crash as we sat in the living room listening to the radio. Dad and Mom went to see what happened and plaster had fallen in the hall between the two bedrooms. Later, I remember them complaining that the owners would not repair it.
There was a kitchen with a stove, sink and icebox. I remember the consternation when the pan under the icebox (to catch the melted ice) ran over. I liked when the iceman came, but recall that the ice smelled musty and I wondered about that. The ice box was a nicely made stained and varnished wooden case with brass fittings, galvanized metal lining and two doors the smaller top door was for the compartment where the ice went and had a drain to the pan beneath; the larger lower door was to a compartment with shelves much like a refrigerator but, of course with no little electric light and no freezer.
Dayton was the site of General Motors’ Frigidaire plant, one of the country’s largest refrigerator factories, and refrigerators were becoming more common before production stopped for the war years. The plant was surrounded by fences and guards – as was the Monsanto facility that I would visit with Dad on occasion -- and I remember being told that that was because it needed to be protected against Japanese spies who might come to sabotage it out of jealousy because they had no refrigerators. Only much later did I learn that there was a more ominous reason.
I remember three trees around our house: one we used to climb on the Dayton (east, I think) side of the drive way; a cherry tree (I think) in the back yard and an apple tree which I guarded on the other side, outside our bedroom window, facing an undeveloped area filled with a thicket of brambles and berry bushes. I think that I had tried to climb the apple tree and been told that one should never do anything to damage fruit trees, and I took it seriously. While my folks by then were atheists, the injunction came straight from the Tanakh, the bible.
Maylan Drive was only a block or two long, but had two names; I don’t recall the other. At the end of the block toward the city of Dayton it ended, in a cornfield, where it met the end of another, paved, street which was the border of the city. In 1970 Karen and I were passing through Dayton and with the help of friends from St. Cloud who had moved toDayton, found Maylan Drive. It was now tarred, but still just a long block and had no curbs or other signs of obvious improvement.
In the fall the farmer would cut his corn and put the stalks to dry in little teepees, which our friends, Jerry and Maurine, showed us could be crawled into and we could pretend they were real teepees and play house in them. Jerry and Maurine lived around the corner and were a couple of years older so that they were the leaders of our little playgroup.
Later we heard that Jerry and Maurine’s older brother had been seen doing the same thing. The farmer fired a shotgun at him, causing a great debate over whether or not it was legal to shoot kids who trespassed. Fortunately the shot missed, but we never did go back into that field to play in the teepees; not understanding the principal of the thing, we had the littlest guy, Yo, stand at the edge to tell if any big people were coming, and ran to grab corn or stalks and made our teepee in the thicket.
I also remember going into the thicket to get berries and coming out full of stickers and stains to our parents’ great concern. We kids thought that great, but I learned from Mom as an adult that it lead to demands from our parents and Jerry & Maurine’s mother that, as a dangerous nuisance, it should be cleaned up.
When we moved in there were only a couple of other houses on the street. I remember well that there was a much nicer house to the east and, I think, a house all the way at the other end. Around the block were other houses, as I recall going ‘trick or treating’ with Jerry and Maurine and being taught a rhyme to say, different from that the kids in Minneapolis used. In Minneapolis it was ‘Trick or Treats, Money or Eats!’ In Dayton it was something in which penny rhymed with a threat of tricks if you hadn’t any.
Across Maylan Drive were no houses but an undeveloped area overgrown with young trees and brambles. We kids liked to be explorers and go into that woods as far as the foundation of a house no longer there which was a great mystery to us, especially as our parents whom we thought knew everything couldn’t tell us anything about it. On one occasion when we were about five and three respectively, Yo and I got very adventuresome and walked past the old foundation, all the way to a small highway on the other side of the woods. I remember a few cars going by and a corrugated steel culvert that went under the road, with a concrete funnel leading into it. We walked back and I don’t recall having had any concern about getting lost in there, but I remember that Mother was looking for us when we returned.
Earlier than that I recall that I was given a tricycle and my beloved Taylor Tot passed down to Yo. I rode up and down the block on it and another great adventure was when a steam shovel showed up across from the west end of the block and dug out a foundation. When wooden flooring was laid, Jerry and Maurine and I (Yo was too small to go so far afield at the time) excitedly ran up the gangplank to it and thought it great fun to just run around and hear the echo of our steps in the empty basement. When the construction workers saw us, they chased us away, which we thought outrageously mean, chasing us from our very own play place, which we had discovered ourselves. They were, of course, afraid we would fall off the top or otherwise injure ourselves, but we had no idea of such concerns. In any case, the only untoward event I recall was tipping over on the tricycle while making too tight a turn and landing chin-first on a small, sharp pebble. With the stone embedded in my scraped chin I returned home on the trike, bawling. I remember that Mom took me into the bathtub to wash away the dirt on the scrape and that the pebble popped out and rattled a bit on the bottom of the tub. It no longer hurt, and, proud of the band-aid on my chin, I wanted to go right back out to play.
I remember a summer evening, -- I must have been about three -- being told to come in to get ready for bed, running down the block and up the walk to the house next door, laughing as Dad chased after me, tossed me in the air and I rode home on his shoulders. Mornings I was allowed to accompany him to the corner, then watch as he walked down the street past Jerry an Maurine’s house and, I think, a block beyond, to a major street that went steeply down hill toward the city. There his car pool picked him up when it was not his turn to drive. Car pools were especially important as gasoline, tires and car parts were rationed; that is, in order to get them you needed not only the money to buy them, but stamps giving you permission to buy them.
I remember that later, I must have been five or six, I could walk all the way down to that street and play with the girl who lived on or near the corner. Once she got roller skates for her birthday. She would walk to the top of her driveway and coast down. The skates were adjustable to clamp on to a child’s shoes. She took them off and put them on me, carefully tightening the clamps with the key, and I tried them, but I couldn’t glide down gracefully as she had. Later when I told Maurine, she told me that ‘roller skates are for girls!’
On one occasion when the car was home, I remember Mother backing it out while I sat in the climbing tree. The right rear tire was flat. Cars then had much cruder tires with cotton cord and no radial belts. They didn’t hold the road as well, were far more subject to flats and blowouts and didn’t last nearly as long.
I laughed because the tire looked like a football as the car jerked up and down on the stiff cold rubber. Mother wasn’t at all amused, and I think thought that I was laughing at her misfortune, but in fact at that age I had no idea even that it was a misfortune. I thought adults had everything under control, though, that was soon to change as I heard adults talking tensely of some things somewhere going seriously wrong and the folks began to go out some nights with civil defense helmets on. I thought they were exciting because they had an emblem on the front that glowed in the dark.
Occasionally Dad brought people to dinner who didn’t speak English and who were newly arrived refugees; I didn’t know the words, but understood that some people far away had done horrible things to them.
That was not long after Dad took me with him to get a new car. It was a fire engine red Studebaker Champion. Though I thought the color was the best thing about it, I later learned that the new ‘42s were already out and that Dad got a deal on it because no one wanted this too-brightly colored leftover ’41. Dad had agreed to pay $800 dollars cash, including the price of the old Plymouth he was trading in. He’d lived through the starvation in Europe late in WWI and the attempts of the victors to crush the Russian revolution, and the Great Depression here, and saved to buy things: he saw credit as a trap. It was a crisis, then, when it turned out that the dealer wanted an extra $8 because the car had had a heater installed – a simple pair of rubber hoses bringing hot water from the engine to a radiator under the driver’s seat, with a small fan below that. Dad said he wouldn’t pay for what he didn’t order. The dealer said it was there and someone had to pay for it. Dad demanded that he take it out. The dealer called his service manager over, who offered to have it removed for a labor charge of $10. Dad was furious – it may well have left him without funds to pay other obligations, about which he was meticulous. I think he ended up paying. We left with the car, which we had until it was replaced with a ’48 Studebaker. Dad and the dealer both knew that war was coming – and Pearl Harbor was attacked just a few days later – and that then car production would probably halt and any car that ran could be sold at a premium. I was almost four then.
We would sometimes go for a drive out into the countryside in the Studebaker on weekends. It was exciting to us. One thing I remember is that most cars then didn’t have voltage regulators and had fairly minimal generators. People would drive in the country to charge the battery, but then when it was fully charged, the battery would start to boil over so they would put their headlights on to prevent that. I had difficulty understanding why anyone would do two such opposite things. Soon after the war began, gasoline began to be rationed and leisurely country drives were rare until the war ended.
I remember wanting to be respected by Jerry and Maurine and joining in locking Yo out of our games sometimes -- as by climbing the tree and telling him that he was too little to play with us big kids, while he cried at the rejection. I felt guilty, but would not give up the prestige of being one of ‘the big kids.’
On other occasions we ‘camped out’ under a blanket in the back yard that Mother threw over the clothesline (it was long before automatic washers, driers and such, though Uncle Myron, Mom’s youngest brother and our favorite uncle, did get us a refrigerator to replace the icebox just before we moved from Maylan Drive to Kenilworth Avenue). He was a navigator in the Army Air Corps, and must have spent all his income to buy it at the special military store, the PX (for Post Exchange).
Some summer nights Mother would pick some cherries for us and we would sit under the blanket tent and marvel at the fireflies. It was just expected that we would fall asleep there and wake up in our beds.
My bed had a sky blue headboard and lots of black ‘V’s representing birds flying among fluffy clouds. The only other time Grandma Estelle came to visit, I remember one of the boards under the mattress falling – probably I’d been jumping on the bed – and our usually very supportive Grandma looked in and said “Oh, you’re going to be in such trouble with your Mother!” It made a deep impression.
It was about that time, with war production workers coming up from the South, that the construction crews appeared outside our bedroom window to build a row of houses next door, and cut down the sacred apple tree, cleared out all the berry bushes and began building simple new houses. I ran out to save my tree-friend, but too late. I cried and cried, feeling betrayed by these adults who were supposed to respect fruit trees, and one of them brought me in to Mom, not knowing what was wrong. When Mother explained, he went back out and built the set of shelves for our toys, which is in Phill’s room as I write this. It was a very big gift especially given the wartime rationing. I didn’t understand that, but understood he wanted to make up for cutting down the tree, and we were friends from then on; it was the first time I’d seen someone up close working with electric saws and power tools and was very impressed. On occasion after that I was allowed to stand a safe distance from the construction with my friends and was given ‘important jobs’ such as holding a hammer or whatever until it was needed.
I remember that a family came to stay with us for a few days because they had nowhere to stay in the overcrowded city. It was Christmas time and they were (like Jerry and Maurine) Catholic. Somehow Mother found a tree, lights and glass decorations. I don’t think Dad really approved of the extravagance, but couldn’t say anything because it was to accommodate guests. Yo and I were fascinated because this was something exciting our friends had enjoyed and we saw ourselves as denied; after that Hanukah celebrations became somewhat more commercially Christmas-like in our house.
People frequently stayed with us, often relatives of Mother or people who came over on the boat with Dad or people those people had given our names to.
Every summer Dad took a vacation and we traveled either to his parents in Denver or Mother’s in New York. During the war these trips were by train, otherwise by car. I remember visiting at Grandma’s house in Brooklyn which she describes a bit in her attached reminiscences. I remember it as a huge 3-story house, somewhat run down, on a tree lined street. Not long before it had been elegant, and was not really old.
We must have gone once in winter because I remember Uncle Myron pulling me on a sled. He pulled me across the street where the curb was broken and down to a shop at the corner where we shared a chocolate malt and his buddies came over to sit with us. They were teen-agers, but to me they were big, important people, and I was privileged to be able to sit with them and listen to their serious discussions about high school and girls. Even after we moved to Minnesota where malts were thick and creamy, I remembered that thin but very malty drink as the standard by which I measured all others.
Myron would carry me around on his shoulders and show me how I looked way up there in a mirror and I have found that my sons, nieces and nephews and other young children get the same pleasure from this play that I remember.
I also remember his taking me up to the third floor where there was a small room with a washbasin, to wash my hands before dinner. I liked going up there and sliding my toy tractor with rubber treads down it. On one occasion it fell and I never found it and searched for it all the rest of the time I was there. Only when I was much older and able to describe it, I learned that the adults had no idea what I was looking for.
I remember that in the back yard, with flat tires and decrepit, was a big old black Franklin car. I think it was the only one I’d ever seen. My uncles would only tell me sadly that it didn’t work. I remember also a tree, which Mother mentions in her memories as a peach, though I didn’t know what it was. When she mentioned it to me and I didn’t remember its wonderful peaches, she was disappointed. The car was a mystery and I looked at it every time Myron took me out that way for a little walk.
Yo was still too little to go with us at that time, and our eldest cousin, Iris Friedman was an infant. We must have driven out for that visit, because I remember fondly Mom and Aunt Ruth taking us somewhere in the two families’ cars, our red Studebaker and, if I remember right, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Sam’s tan Stude. I remember sleeping in the living room of their home, a lower unit in some kind of pleasant brick row house with a little bit of lawn out front. I half woke up as Uncle Sam was leaving to deliver milk early in the morning, and when later I woke up for the morning, there was a dime by my pillow: a great fortune to me, then. It could buy two bottles of soda or two candy bars at that time, and it was probably the proceeds of delivering milk to several houses.
I remember all our aunts and uncles there very warmly. I remember Yo and I being invited to spend an evening with Uncle Dave and Aunt Gertrude in their apartment. They were, I suspect, giving our folks a night out. They had no children and were determined to entertain us. They had records of the then-recent musical, Oklahoma! They sat us in front of the record player and dutifully stood by changing the records as each of the records of the time, 12” 78 RPM discs that scratched or broke very easily, contained only about two or three minutes of the long show. When we asked about the song “Poor Judd is Dead” they worried that this might be too sad for young children, so they told us that Judd was a donkey. That ended the show in tears as we had more of an image of the sadness of the death of animals at that young age than of humans. In the musical the song is sung by a young man conning an outcast in the community into loaning him his surrey, a horse-drawn carriage, to take the young lady of his dreams out for the evening, by imagining how people will remember this generosity at his funeral at some unknown future time. Other than that I remember the visit as exciting because everything was different at their apartment in comparison with our house in Dayton. Perhaps because it was small and because they had no children it was meticulously neat. Uncle Dave was a corporate lawyer at that time. He and Uncle Len had very wide interests and regaled us with fascinating information.
A few years later when we visited, Grandma had moved to an apartment on Nostrand Avenue near Church Street, also in Brooklyn and had remarried. Her new husband was Bernie Mayer and he was a kosher butcher. Myron had gone to the army air corps. I remember Mother’s Grandmother coming there to visit and our going to visit her. She would bring baked goods and I loved them because they were nice and chewy. She was always very attentive and kind to me and I really liked her. As an adult I mentioned liking the things she brought and Mother laughed. It was the reason I was her favorite, she said. No one else liked her bread and cookies because they thought they were too hard. She was old and didn’t remember to take them out of the oven on time. I remember a tiny, friendly gnome of a person.
Bernie was looked on as a bit foreign by the family. It must have been a bit tough for both of them to be dealing with adult families who didn’t know each other. Grandma was a very creative person who had spent much of her adult life designing fashions for big women for the family clothing company that she and Grandpa Simon had organized. After Grandpa’s suicide she founded a small company to make useful household items from then-new Lucite plastics materials. She designed and put into production such items as candy and other serving dishes, cigarette containers, ashtrays and so on. She was one of the first to apply plastics to household items, and quality items at that. She was just getting it going well when the materials were restricted for the military and the enterprise, her last, closed.
When we came to visit during the war, Bernie brought us the finest meats. We didn’t appreciate it because we didn’t understand what was going on, though we were aware of rationing. When we accompanied adults shopping we saw them not only pay with money, but with ration coupons and sometimes little plastic bits. Much later Mother explained that Bernie had saved the fractions for us. That is to say, when a customer paid the weight could never be exactly the amount the ration chit was for because meat could not be cut that exactly. Bernie measured what he’d sold against the chits and saved the remainder, negligible on any given day, for visitors, and then used them to bring home the best for us. The idea of the best was different then: steaks highly marbled with fat were what was considered desirable.
I remember ration coupons when we got shoes, when Dad got special permission to get new tires for the Studebaker – we went to a special office where he presented documents showing that he was permitted.
Buying shoes then was exciting. Not for the shoes. I, at least, had little interest in clothes. Mostly I was uncomfortable in the itchy wool clothes Grandma told mother to buy for us. It was the x-ray machines that excited us. Shoe stores and the shoe departments in department stores had blond wood consoles from GE on which you could stand and see how well the shoes fit. For us kids it was exciting because you could see the bones in your feet and the nails in the shoes. It really did help fit the shoes, but was an example of industrial hubris, because it was put on the market and promoted at a time when the genetic damage and potential cancer implications were not well understood.
Every other year we went to Denver to visit Dad’s family. There we were also treated royally by everyone, especially Grandma Rose and Grandpa Henry; but the most exciting part of every trip was visiting with our cousins Manya and Naomi. Dad was an only child, but his cousin Ben Bezoff, son of Grandpa’s brother Max and his wife, Manya, was Uncle Ben, and he and Aunt Cheri and their daughters were the exciting pinnacle of each trip.
Grandma and Grandpa Bezoff lived in a big redstone house Dad had bought for them. Even the sidewalks in the neighborhood were made of redstone, as were most of the big houses
. They had worked as nurses in the National Jewish Tuberculosis Hospital. It was built in Denver for the clean mountain air; hard to believe today, but hopefully familiar to future generations.
They were now retired and lived off the income from renting rooms in their large house. There were always interesting people to meet there: a retired sheriff, an artist who had painted beautiful scenes in Japan while given refuge there from the holocaust, a single mom with a little girl. In the front hall was a real grandfather clock that worked with weights rather than springs, so it was a fascination to watch Grandpa reset the weights.
We ate in a large dining room closed off with sliding doors that went into the wall. It was full of dark woodwork and tiffany lamps. Dad bought them a radio-phonograph, which had a place of pride there. There was also a novelty lamp which, when you turned it on caused an inner shade to rotate, showing a small boy peeing. It amazed me that they would have such a thing.
Grandma was a tiny little woman, very skinny, and Grandpa was not quite so skinny, but bent over a bit and with a bit of a pot belly. He wasn’t supposed to do heavy lifting, but it didn’t seem to slow him much.
The house was on a corner on Race Street, number 1374 if my memory is correct, and on a bit of a hill above the streets. It was between two beautiful parks. Cheeseman Park a short walk in one direction was a large open grassy park with an open pavilion. In front of the pavilion was a stone marker with a brass plate on top, which allowed one to sight along its lines to learn the names of the various peaks in view. Dad liked to walk there with Yo and I. Sometimes he brought a ball along and tried to teach us to play soccer.
In the other direction was City Park, more to excite a child with a small zoo and climbing toys. Just outside the park was a shop that rented bicycles, and one day when I was seven, Grandpa rented a fat-tired two-wheeler and helped me up onto the seat as we started down a long walkway through the park. He was holding me up so I had no fear, but when I got near the end of the walk, I called out to Grandpa to stop and realized that Grandpa was far behind and I had no idea how to stop the thing. Fortunately there was a path around a round flower planting and I managed to turn around and pedaled back toward Grandpa who caught the handlebars and let me down. Of course now I was very excited and couldn’t wait to do it over and over again. Grandpa was not strong and shouldn’t have been doing such heavy lifting, but was too indulgent to even disclose a hint of that to me. When we returned to our new home in Minnesota, the folks found a used Schwinn advertised in the want ads and bought it for me for $7. I was in ecstasy. I soon found that if I found a steep enough hill, I could get on the bike by myself, and was happily riding around the block and a few months later even riding to friends’ houses in the neighborhood. The bike had a spring on the front fork to cushion bumps, called ‘Knee Action’ and I thought it the greatest in the world, though I saved until I had fifty cents to buy a headlight for it, only to discover that batteries were extra.
The excitements in Denver included going with Uncle Ben to the State Legislature where he was a representative and later a senator. He was also a radio newsman and a small, phone-booth sized, studio had been built just off the floor to allow him to broadcast the news from there. I remember that I was very impressed with Uncle Ben, but somewhat sobered to see that some members snoozed or just weren’t paying attention much of the time.
Another landmark was one of the newspaper buildings, I think the Denver Post, that had a black stripe around it which I was told was to mark precisely one mile above sea level. Later Uncle Myron visited us there with Rose, and said he wouldn’t set his altimeter by that stripe.
Some times we would take a bus or drive up to the Red Rocks Park on Lookout Mountain. I was very impressed at the time that ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody was buried there, and spent some time in the museum, but mostly Yo and I clambered up the rocks. For a while ‘Buffalo Bill’ was my big hero and I bought a ‘Hand Tooled Buffalo Bill’ wallet in the tourist store. When Karen and I visited there around 1973, I saw a park ranger yelling for a kid to get down from those same rocks and realized what a foolishly dangerous thing we’d done. Perhaps because it was more common for children to die of various diseases and other causes then such dangers weren’t paid as much attention to and we did get to do exciting things no longer permitted now. Even then, Mother told me that when she looked up and saw where Yo and I were, she was terrified, but afraid if she said anything we’d be more likely to fall.
I remember that I went for a while to a preschool in Dayton, in a large room with lots of kids and lots of toys. The room was all tiled, perhaps at other times it might have been a gym. I liked it a lot, but after a child died of some disease in a toilet stall, Mother took me to another school. I also went to a Jewish community center, which I liked a lot. Mother would put me on an electric city bus, and the kindly driver made sure I got off at the right place.
In about 1943, the owners of our little white house needed it for some family members who were moving to Dayton. Dad and Mom bought a very nice, large house on Kennilworth Avenue. Next door was a family with three boys who became our regular playmates named Billy and Bobby and Boyd. Soon I was walking to Van Cleve School with them and a couple of older kids. Kennilworth ended in a large convent and school with spacious grounds grazed by sheep. We were supposed to walk around it, but often cut through. On the other side was a steep hill leading down to a main road with electric buses, and across that street was the big old brick school with a playground around it.
I remember that I felt big, grown up, to be going to school, but also that there were things that I didn’t like. We were issued thick green pencils and punished if we used anything else. We had to sharpen them with a knife. I also began holding the pencil in my left hand and would get a slap with a ruler to remind me that that was the wrong hand. Years later in Minneapolis I was taken to a researcher at the University of Minnesota to find out why my hand writing was so bad and he did some tests and concluded that it was because I was naturally left handed, but I never did succeed in changing back.
I remember that we started each session by standing and saluting the flag with our arms outstretched. At some point someone noted that this was the Nazi salute and we were instructed to put our right hands over our hearts, instead.
We were warned that if we saw balloons or dolls on the sidewalk as we walked home we shouldn’t touch them because the Japanese were planting them with bombs to blow up American children. In Dayton it was far fetched enough that our air-raid volunteer parents told me that I shouldn’t pick up anything I saw on the streets because it belonged to someone else, but that it was highly unlikely to be a bomb. Everything around was full of war fever. I played with a pasteboard bomber from a Cheerioats (the original name of Cheerios) box, that dropped marble ‘bombs’ on ‘enemy cities’ with no idea that kids like me were under real bombs every day. Comic books were filled with war stories in which American soldiers were handsome and kind, Axis soldiers, especially Japanese, were basically faceless, with checked in faces or ugly expressions of pure evil.
I couldn’t read yet, but asked about the rows of pictures across the front page of the Dayton paper every day and was told that the long row was soldiers visiting on leave (a photographer came and took Uncle Myron’s picture when he came to visit us), and that others were of local boys killed or wounded. Uncle Ron was making very little money as a navigator in the Army Air Corps in England, but one day big boxes arrived and he had sent Mom a vacuum cleaner and a refrigerator from the army exchange, things not really available to civilians at the time. Yo and I were excited about them, especially as we misinterpreted the script on the side of the vacuum cleaner as ‘Coca-Cola’. We were intrigued by the refrigerator but were sorry to see the ice box go.
I absorbed these things with a child’s uncritical eyes, and remember that I didn’t yet see ‘races’. On one occasion Dad and I were on a streetcar in Denver, I sitting by the open window on a warm summer day, and saw some soldiers in uniform. I pointed them out and Dad said they were Chinese. I asked how he knew, and he looked embarrassed for a moment then said he could tell by the ‘sunburst’ shoulder patches on their uniforms.
Meats were rationed and chicken was still a rare treat, so the folks bought some chicks and raised them in a cage in the back yard. To me they were pets and when Dad cut the head off my favorite, Bigchie, the first to go, I was shocked and horrified and cried and cried. I don’t think it had occurred to me before that where meat came from. I liked animals and was sorry when they were hurt.
I remember walking home from school and seeing a horse that pulled a bread wagon. There was home delivery of bread and milk then, and the bakery was fortunate to have still used horses and so not been limited by gas rationing. Their wagons had a big sign on the back reading “Hit me easy, I’m full of rye!”, but this one had been hit from behind driving part of his harness into him. In retrospect I don’t think he was seriously injured, but there was blood and I stood around crying with some other kindergarteners until a truck we called the Horse Ambulance came to take him to the vet.
A street perpendicular to Kennilworth ended at our back yard. There was frequently an old Ford with a rumble seat parked there. Billy, Bobby and Boyd and Yo and I adopted it and would climb on it. The oldest of the neighbors knew how to open the rumble seat and we liked to sit there and pretend we were going for a ride. Fortunately for us, the owner never returned while we were up to these shenanigans.
Billy and Bobby and Boyd’s father was a roofer and had a big red truck with lots of ladders on it, which we all thought was a fire truck and was very exciting. Then one day he fell from a roof and was injured and Mother explained what he did. I remember that he had no income while unable to work and that our folks talked to their Mom with great concern.
There wasn’t a whole lot of snow in Dayton, but when there was a little we loved to play in it. I remember the bunch of us kids taking a shoebox and going across the street to the back yard of another kid that we thought had more snow. We’d pack the shoebox full and then build with the bricks until we were bored and went on to something else.
When I was in first grade and Yo in kindergarten, Dad was suddenly fired along with several other Jewish scientists of Eastern European origin. He was promised recommendations from Monsanto to assist him in getting a new position. To his surprise, he didn’t even get responses from the many letters he sent out. Then one potential employer took him aside to tell him that he couldn’t even consider hiring him based on the ‘recommendations’ he got from Monsanto; that he was telling him because the letters seemed slanderous. He told him that his other recommendations were such that he should have no trouble getting hired if he only didn’t ask for a letter from Monsanto. Sure enough, his very next letter was responded to with an invitation to begin working at General Mills in Minneapolis, MN. Dad never did learn the answer to the mystery of why his old boss would have said something so cruel about him, or what it was that he wrote.
The house was put up for sale and Dad took me to the ration office to get special stamps to allow him to buy tires so that he could drive the Studebaker to Minnesota.
Meanwhile I got sick with a couple of the diseases that were then considered a normal part of childhood. The one I remember was Chickenpox, because I broke out with itchy scabs all over my body. Mother covered them with an orangish stuff that dried into a hard powdery coating and somewhat eased the itching. I probably wouldn’t have concentrated on it so much, but there was not much else to do. Almost as soon as I was over that I had some kind of fever and had to be quiet again, not part of my normal nature. Such diseases were a common part of childhood before being limited by vaccinations. On another occasion our departure from a vacation in Denver was delayed when I woke up in a sweat with the Mumps, then also common. On yet another occasion, we were in Denver when there was a polio epidemic and children were not allowed to leave to go to other areas. Poliomyelitis was a terrifying disease that often left its victims paralyzed, sometimes unable even to breath on their own. Dad had two friends who were prominent doctors, whom we knew as Boo and Bo. They arranged to get a serum, gamma globulin, which was given to suppress the disease, and we were allowed to go home. The Salk and Sabin vaccines have since made polio rare here. There is, however, some suspicion that one of the experiments leading to a polio vaccine may have lead to the transfer of HIV from monkeys to humans.
Dad drove to Minnesota and began work, but was having trouble finding a house, so it was decided to get the household items shipped and that Mother and Yo and I would go to stay with Grandma in New York until a house could be found. The movers came, packed and left.
Our tickets were not for a few days hence, and we stayed with friends of our folks who had a daughter, Joanie, our age. On the morning we were to leave, the 12th of April, 1945, Joanie’s mother drove off on an errand while Mother took a shower and the three of us were sat down in front of the big Magnavox radio that we thought was really super. We were listening to a program when it was suddenly interrupted to announce that President Roosevelt had died. Then funeral music was played. We ran upstairs and pounded on the bathroom door. Mother was annoyed to be called out of her shower and when we told her what we had heard she chewed us out for spreading rumors at a time like this. When Joanie’s mother came home, Mother told her about the incident. The family had a radio in their car, something Dad would not countenance as an unconscionable luxury. Joanie’s Mom said that maybe something had happened because when she’d finished her errand and gotten back in the car to drive home, all stations were playing only funeral music. She then drove us to the train station. We’d been there before. It was always bustling with crowds of happy people greeting arriving relatives and friends and crying over people leaving, especially soldiers being shipped off to Europe or Asia. This time the people were there but it deeply impressed me because it was so quiet. People talked in whispers or hushed, sad tones.
Taking the train was always exciting to us. At night, porters came and changed the seats into bunks and pulled curtains down next to them. The main lights went off, replaced with dim green lights – what John Dos Passos described in his USA as ‘the green snore of the sleepers’ – and we were rocked to sleep by the trains’ clackety-clack and rolling motions as it rounded bends. On one occasion Mother got a roomette, and Yo and I found a few coins in the seat cushion and then went up and down the aisle finding pennies, nickels and dimes and feeling wealthy, indeed. Mother would frequently try to get us to look out the windows, to see our country, but we found the goings on inside more exciting. We might look at interesting things she pointed out for a few minutes, then return to our comic books and toy cars.
In New York, Mother tried to enroll me in school as we might be there some time and she hoped that I might finish first grade there. They ruled that we hadn’t lived there long enough, and Mother was angry, though I just enjoyed the vacation.
In April, Dad bought a house in Minneapolis, and we came at the news. The house wasn’t to be available, however, until the beginning of June, so Dad rented what had been an unfinished and uninsulated summer cabin in Mahtomedi east of St. Paul. It belonged to a someone named Fr . There was a radio personality of the same name, though I don’t know if it was the same family. The cabin was right down by the lake, maybe half a block away. At the foot of our street there was a small dock on the huge White Bear Lake, too big to see across. Equally exciting to a kid, there was the foundation across the street for a house that wasn’t there. We kids climbed all over it.
Up the hill was a small retail area, and on Saturdays or Sundays sometimes Dad would walk up there with Yo and I and buy us Push-Ups, an orange flavored frozen treat in a cardboard tube that one ate by licking the top, the pushing up on a stick to get more.
Here I was allowed to go to school, and walked there with some other grade-schoolers. It was a much freer experience and I was surprised that I could use ordinary pencils, erasers were permitted and the classroom experience was somewhat less rigid. Here, instead of the dark-green covered colorless texts of Dayton, we read inane but colorful first readers with Dick and Jane who told their dog to “Run, Spot, Run!” I liked it better, but still was happy when school was out.
I remember Mother being angry when someone called on the phone, I think a wrong number. They exuberantly called out ‘You can hang out the clothes, now! The Italians have surrendered!” The Italians had switched sides in the war some two years before, but it was the racism implicit in the statement that angered her. I remember that she explained that to me. This time I understood. In Dayton I had been told by other kids of a new family moving into one of the newly built houses on Maylan Drive. I had repeated this news to her as I had been told it by my playmates, “Dagos have moved in to one of the new houses.” I got slapped and didn’t understand why for years.
I remember that after we got to know the other kids, they took us up the hill to a streetcar stop and showed us how to hop on the back of the street cars as they left the stop and ride it to school. If it wasn’t stopping there, they pulled the rope to get the trolley that powered the electric motors off the power line, bringing it to a stop. We then would run into the crowd of kids playing before the school bell rang; the conductor would get off in a rage and complain to the school authorities, but couldn’t tell which of the scores of children had done it. It was, of course, both dangerous and an imposition on all the people on the streetcar whose trip to work was made longer, but to us it was just exciting.
At that time there was a fairly efficient system of streetcars that sped people from near the Wisconsin border on the east all the way to Lake Minnetonka on the west. These were big wooden-bodied yellow cars with black trim that seated perhaps 50 or 60 people on benches covered in split cane, woven, and painted over many times by the mid-forties. There were also wide aisles which were crowded with people standing during rush hours. They had big windows, which you could open, and above the windows was a row of ads. Most had been built in the local streetcar company’s shops between the 1890s and 1910 or so. They had a big steel hoop in front with a net in it that was called a cow-catcher, though there were no cows in the city by that time as far as I know. In open areas, if I recall, some of them could go an incredible 80 miles and hour. Cars then were much slower and less dependable. There were problems. Many of the cars were old and stinky, but after the war, beautiful new cars were replacing the old ones. The tracks were in the middle of the streets and were both a danger to car drivers whose tires became deflected by the rails, and they also were an obstacle to traffic. All cars behind them had to stop every time they stopped in the middle of the street. The power came from a big direct current generator in downtown Minneapolis.
The system was improved with beautiful steel-bodied cars, quieter and more comfortable, from the St. Louis Car Company beginning around 1949 or fifty, I think. I remember being excited when we were waiting downtown for a Minneapolis-St. Paul line car with Mom, and for the first time saw one of these shiny yellow, green and black cars appear.
The street cars had a driver’s chair and controls at each end. When the car got to the end of some lines, the motorman threw a rail switch that allowed the car to go onto the set of rails going the other way, then he would walk to the other end of the car and just start going the other way. There were places like 38th Street where the Bryant cars which weren’t going further could just drive into a short spur, called a wye, and turn around in that way. There was also a wye on Grand just north of 48th, near where I got morning Tribune and evening Star newspapers for my paper route.
Unfortunately the company was facing declining revenue because new cars were becoming available and people had money to buy them because of savings from the war years when there had been relatively full employment and people got paid but couldn’t buy many things because of rationing, and so saved money. Also, young families were buying houses in the new suburbs where housing was cheaper, but where the street cars didn’t go, and so had to buy cars to get to work. Rather than adapt to the new circumstances, management sold the assets and switched to the current diesel bus system. That was quite controversial and some of the top management were indicted for corruption – if I remember correctly some went to jail.
We had moved into 4350 Garfield Avenue South around the first of June, 1945. There were two nice bedrooms downstairs, one for the parents and one shared by Yo and I until I moved upstairs a few years later and had that huge room to myself. There was only one other Jewish family about a block away, the Yurkos.
Minneapolis Jews had been ghettoized along with ‘Negroes’ and other minorities, and the system of so-called gentleman’s agreements prohibiting sales of homes to these groups was just beginning to break down within the city. For Jews and other ‘off-white’ groups the breakdown was fairly quick, over a decade or so; for African Americans and some other groups it has never been close to complete. In the fifties I remember being surprised to learn that African American real estate agents were forbidden to use the term ‘realtor’ which was still legally restricted to whites.
Our house was old and needed much work, but a cozy, pleasant house with a fenced back yard and nice lawns. Grape vines grew on the fence. There was also a dog house with clapboard sides and a window on each side. It looked nice to us, but none of our dogs would ever go into it except under protest, and left quickly as soon as they felt permitted.
Clotheslines stretched to the garage, and it was customary for families to hang out their clothes only on Thursdays. In the most remote corner of the yard, where the fence curved down past the driveway toward the alley, was a stone structure with a grill at the bottom where we burned the garbage; in the fall we also burned the leaves in the street in front of the house, which caused a haze to hang over the city. Most houses were still heated with coal, so everything was a bit sooty, anyway, though Minneapolis had a reputation as a clean city because it was compared to most industrial centers.
Next door, between our house and the corner of 44th Street, lived two elderly ladies, sisters of a former sheriff, who suffered from alcoholism, but who were always very nice to Yo and I. Most of the time they stayed in doors with the house dark, but when they came out and saw us playing they seemed to take heart in that and always had something nice to say to us. On the other side was a family with a girl whom I saw as virtually an adult – she must have been all of twelve at the time. She and the older boys she attracted played ball in the middle of the street, a common practice then, and let us play sometime. I remember summer evenings when we were called in at 8:30 to go to bed and I was sorely disappointed because I could hear the older kids still playing. After a while Yo and I were allowed to have an old radio when the family got a newer one. It sat on the radiator, and Yo and I would sneak over to it and listen to ‘Boston Blackie’ or ‘Suspense’ or some other serial. There was no TV here, yet, so radio programs were the major entertainment. We would have the radio on very low with our ears right up against it, then when we heard footsteps approach as our parents came to check on us, we turned it off carefully so that it wouldn’t make a loud click and jumped in bed, pretending to be asleep. I don’t think we really fooled anybody. They knew we’d calmed down enough that if they just stood outside the door a few minutes so we couldn’t return to the radio, we’d fall fast asleep. Most of the time it worked.
The most exciting thing that summer was that Uncle Myron came, on a furlough from the army air corps. The war with Japan continued, and this was supposed to be his rest, but he spent the time helping with the new house. I remember him painting the kitchen chairs (Karen later stripped them and finished them natural with great effort). I also remember that one of the problems with the house was leakage through the south wall of the basement, and Ron dug out a deep trench along that side and lined it with concrete to direct drainage water away from the house. He also laid concrete on part of the cinder hill up to the garage, but until the alley was paved a few years later, it was always a challenge to get in there as the garage was about 3 feet higher than the alley and parallel to it, only about a foot over. With cinders and gravel that shifted under the weight of the tires, it was always risky to get in or out. I was pleased that it was finally paved about the time I began learning to drive, though not in time for my first effort which resulted in my creasing the front left fender of our navy blue ’50 Studebaker Champion. I was mortified, but to my surprise, Dad just insisted that we go for another drive and that I try again, this time successfully.
Estelle Bloom Simon Mayer
Grandma married William (Zev) Simon. After his death and a few years as a widow, she married Bernie Mayer. A few days after Bernie's death, Grandma also died, from severe diabetes, a hereditary condition her descendents should be aware of.
She was a short, heavy, energetic lady. She was a career business lady, and very creative in a day when women were supposed to be stay-at home wives and mothers. This was both by necessity and choice. My mother's decision to stay at home with Yo and I until we went to college stemmed from her feeling that the cost to the children was too great, but on our visits to NY and her two visits to us, I remember her as warm and supportive.
A century ago it was a sign of desirability for a woman to be stout. Bernie would point it out and while her daughters thought that crude, it became clear to me one windy day on the boardwalk at Jones Beach that Grandma revelled in it as I watched her proud reaction.
My mother talked of how Grandma's career as a clothing designer began. She would help customers in her father's drygoods store. Many of them sewed, but were not sure how to adjust patterns to their own or their children's figures. Estelle, who was too short to stand by the counters and cut the cloth, would jump onto the counter and having only looked at the pattern, look at the client and cut the cloth with the necessary modifications. She earned quite a reputation as she was uncannilly accurate. She also was reputed to use the material more effectively, using less material than the patterns specified. The client would then take the material home to sew it together. Later she would sew for some of them to make some extra money.
When she and William Simon married, they began to copy Paris fashions and make copies for the second echelon rich ladies. She would go to the shows, and then figure how to make more copies from the same amount of material. Mother said that the wives of the Heads of great corporations wore the Paris originals, while the wives of their executives wore Grandma's copies -- when they dared risk the wrath of 'their betters'. Grandpa ran sales and accounting, while she did the design and production.
She had very definite ideas on design and enforced them on the family, resulting in some resentment that I was unaware of until mother's senility when she expressed it. I do remember that when we were children, Grandma sent mother letters with detailed drawings of precisely what clothes mother should buy us -- including itchy wool suits we refused to wear and cried when forced to. She had designed her children's rooms until they left home and any deviations desired by the young people was viewed as clear evidence of bad taste, and was resented in particular by the two daughters. Still mother appreciated Grandma's talent and pioneering role.
The Depression and Grandpa's depression critically damaged the company and the family.
After Grandpa's death, which ironically saved the company at that time as the loans were insured in case of his death, Grandma started a new company which pioneered in making art deco household items from the then new synthetic plastics, particularly Lucite. We had cigarette and candy dishes, among other things from this enterprise. Unfortuately, just as this project was really getting going, the materials were eliminated from civilian use for the duration of the war. It was Grandma's last enterprise.