I’ve been collecting stories of my father’s life for a while – interviewing and video-taping conversations. I loved hearing stories of my parents lives ever since I was a kid.
I enjoyed hearing about what life was like when they were young, the story of their relationship, what their challenges and struggles were, and how adorable and quirky I was when I was little. (of course.)
But I didn’t record my mom’s stories, and as the years go by, some of those stories are fading, and there are holes in others.
So I’ve been filming, photographing, and writing down my father’s stories. During the winter months when he’s in Florida, we meet on my video conference line, and I record them. When we’re together, sometimes I set up the video camera and let it run.
One day last autumn I brought my still camera, and we went out for an outing, checking out the area in New Jersey where he spent his formative years.
The day started in Newark, NJ on the street where his folks lived when he was a little guy, until he was about 5.
It was on this street he says he had his “first consciousness of being a person.”
He pointed out a scar on his thumb – barely visible now – that he got when he was 4 or 5 after sticking his hand inside a tin can (to get something out; he can’t remember what it was now). He wiggled it around inside, and couldn’t get the thing out, and quickly pulled his hand out and … rip. Wailing, his mom immediately ran outside to see what the screaming was about; she grabbed a towel, wrapped his hand in it, and scooped him up in her arms to run down the hill to the doctor who lived in their neighborhood. The hill, once thought to be really big, he says, turned out to be more of a long incline, but for a moment I could see my dad as a little boy, scared and crying in his mom’s arms as she ran down what looked to this little guy like a very big hill.
Then we drove to the building in Newark where his grandfather (the namesake of my brother’s son) had Cooperman’s Deli (which he bought after owning a pushcart for the first few years after he immigrated to the US from russia). The family lived upstairs from the Deli, and we stood in the sunlight trying to imagine Dad’s father, uncle, grandfather, and grandmother all crowded in this little apartment above what is now a bodega-like store on a busy cross street in Newark.
We drove around the city, checked out the Weequahic section – an area that was almost exclusively populated with Jewish immigrants – the park where he used to go; we hunted for the old hot dog joint where he used to go as a kid. We drove to the street where his great uncle lived as he shared the story of going to a “fancy” restaurant with tablecloths with this uncle for the first time (again, up a “big hill” that turned out not to be all that big).
Off to East Orange to see the home on Eppirt Street where my grandmother’s family – the “Eppirt Street Aristocracy”– once lived. Far from wealthy, the nickname was given by my grandfather because unlike the (blue collar-ish) deli-owning Cooperman’s, the Schwartzmans and Beckmanns of Eppirt Street worked in (white collar-ish) manufacturing. Immigrants from Germany, Dad says they looked down on his father’s Russian family because they were (they thought) less cultured. (amazing how, even then, after being tossed out of their respective countries because of their religions, these folks had an us/them mentality when it came to others in their “tribe.” heartbreaking.)
Living in this house? The grandparents, an unmarried aunt, my grandmother, her sister, her brother, and her brother’s wife. Aristocratic? Not by today’s standards, that’s for sure.
While we were standing outside the Eppirt Street house, and Dad was telling me about the time he and his sister begged their parents to adopt a stray dog that was in the neighborhood (they “won” – this was how we got brownie, he told me), a man came to the front door – obviously checking out the two strangers who seemed to be casing his home. We reassured him that we were not there with nefarious intent, and told him why we were there. Hearing that, he asked us if we wanted to come inside and look around. Dad broke out in a huge smile and started up the stairs; once inside, he began pointing all over the place: The steps look exactly the same; that’s where we all sat at the dining table; that’s where Uncle Bill used to have his desk … his face was lit up, and the owner of the house got a real kick out of it too.
If we thought that was going to be the highlight of the day, we were wrong; on our last stop, we got an even bigger treat.
On Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, we went to look at the house where the Cooperman family moved when Dad was 6, and where he lived until he went to college, and then came back for a bit before going to the Navy after college. Not too long after that, his parent’s downsized and sold the house.
As we walked along the street, Dad named the families who lived in each house with stories about many of them. When we got to his house, like we did on Eppirt Street, we stood in front as Dad pointed out the windows: Living room, dining room, kitchen in the back … Mom and Dad’s room, Norma’s room, my room.
Riding high after the Eppirt Street tour, we’d already decided that when we got there we’d knock on the door, and if someone answered, we would see if we could convince the current owners to let us take a look around.
Dad walked up the door and rang the bell; I hung back on the sidewalk. No response. He waited and rang one more time. Then he turned around: It was worth a try. Just as he started down the steps, the door opened a crack. Standing behind a storm door, an older woman peeked out behind the glass, suspicious. Dad offered his pitch: I’m showing my daughter the neighborhood where I grew up; I lived here with my family until 1950-whatever. Suddenly, the woman’s face softened and she said: I bought the house from your parents, she said. I’ve lived here for 50 years.
She opened the door, welcomed us in, and gave us the run of the house. In every room my Dad had another story or detail to share: You know the chairs that are in my living room? They were my mom and dad’s; dad’s was here – he pointed to the left of the fireplace and on the other side: and mom’s was there. In the dining room: When I was a little guy I loved Sousa’s marches; my parents used to put on records to watch me march around the table … In the kitchen he stood staring at the little nook that housed a small table. Dad sat there, Norma here, me there, and Mom over there.
After coming up from the basement he told the story of how he once tried to save a praying mantis he found outside in the autumn. He put her behind the furnace in the basement, only to discover a few days later that she’d laid some eggs … which later hatched. The basement was teaming with insects, he laughed. His mother flipped out, and when his father got home he searched the basement, captured them, and put them outside in the cold; my father’s attempt to save lives thwarted, but the natural order of things restored.
At the bottom of the stairs, he quietly said Thirteen, and as he walked up, there were indeed, 13 steps. The heater in the bathroom behind the door, he said, was where he would crouch in the mornings until the the house warmed up. He pointed to where a large hook used to hang on the wall of his old room where he’d toss his clothes at the end of the day in a game of clothing-basketball. When we went back outside he pointed to several trees and told me how he planted them with his dad. The stories continued long after we left.
What a fabulous day – seeing the places that mattered to him and hearing all the stories bubble up. What a treat. What a gift. Lucky me.
The next time, I think I’ll want to go see the places he lived in the early days of his relationship/marriage to my mom …
Try this at home: Write about your childhood home.