Just the other day, we were driving on one of those old roads in Queens when I spotted Kissena Park.
“My father used to take me rowing there,” I said.
My father could not swim but once in a great while he would take his oldest child to the modest lake in the park.
Also, just the other day, one of our children was clicking in a Stanley Cup game, but scrolled past “The Third Man” – the zither music, Orson Welles smirking in the shadows.
“My father and mother took me when I was 10," I said.
It is one of my great memories of childhood, being judged mature enough to handle the villainy and mystery and politics of that epic movie.
The hockey could wait; we pretty much stayed with "The Third Man" right through the final scene in the cemetery.
My parents taught me to spot the creep factor in Nixon and McCarthy. They taught me the calling of journalism.
My father went off to work six or seven days a week to feed our family. I also knew that he liked working.
As busy as he was, sometimes he found time to park near the railroad main line to watch trains racing toward the city, installing in me the chill of the outward bound.
Sometimes on a Saturday we parked by LaGuardia Airport and watched the airplanes and listened to Army or Notre Dame football games on the car radio.
He also took me to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and made sure I rooted for a team with Dixie Walker and the next year with Jackie Robinson. He taught me to root for the good guys.
He drove me out to inspect the college I would attend. He had never gone, but made sure I did.
I know this: I never thanked him enough.
(My mother-in-law passed recently at the age of ninety-three. Her grand-daughter, Corinna V. Wilson, composed an obituary, from fond memories.)
By Corinna V. Wilson
On February 1, my grandmother, Mary Mase, passed away. She lived many years in Levittown and Shelter Island NY; Bloomsburg and Camp Hill, PA, and Leesburg, FL.
Mary Betsy Grundy was born on April 3, 1921 in Ledyard, Connecticut. She and her twin brother Elwin were the second and third of eight children born to Betsy Crouch and Harold Grundy. Harold had emigrated from England as a young man while Betsy’s family had been in the United States since 1633, when Noah Whipple landed in the colony of Massachusetts. One of my grandmother’s ancestors, Stephen Hopkins, signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the new state of Rhode Island.
Life on the Grundy farm was not easy, and Mary told stories of selling apples door-to-door during the Depression and of the kids going without shoes in the summer to save money. To survive, Harold got a job on the railroad, Betsy opened a bakery in New Haven, and the family operated a boarding house in Orange. Later, they moved to a farm in Waterbury, where Mary met her future and former husband, George Graham.
Mary always said that the invention of double-knit was the greatest thing because she had ironed all of the laundry for her big family and their boarders and really didn’t want to iron ever again. To the end, Mary was also a tremendous baker and could teach anyone how to make the perfect pie crust.
The Grundys were religious people, and Mary’s deep faith in God sustained her throughout her entire life. She often spoke of talking with Jesus directly and of his multiple interventions in her life.
Mary was preceded in death by only two of her siblings – her twin and her baby brother, Tommy. Donald, Harold, Pearl, Bettina, and Lila all survive her and are still formidable in their own right.
Mary was also predeceased by her son, Edward Mase. Her remaining four children, Marianne (my mother), George Lauren (Larry), Peter, and Rachel survive. Mary has 16 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.
Mary married her second husband, our “Grampa,” Richard Mase, in 1947. After his death in 1988, Mary remarried two more times, to Ariel Eisenhauer and Marlin Reisinger. Still attractive to the end, Mary received a marriage proposal when she was just shy of 90, which she declined, despite the amused teasing of her grandchildren that she could be like the Pittsburgh Steelers and have “one for the thumb.”
Mary’s long life had many chapters. She was a jewelry model and worked in a munitions plant in Groton during World War II, an original “Rosie the Riveter.” She was an accomplished seamstress and quilter. She made the best gravy of anyone, ever, and her pin always matched her blouse. She taught her grandchildren how to clam the sandbars of Long Island and she prided herself on being a homemaker and a perfect size 6.
Ninety three years is a long time to live and our family is going to have to adjust to her absence.
(We are thankful to Corinna for expressing what we feel.)
Kathleen McElroy used to be the deputy sports editor at the Times. She was calm and smart and knew her sports, including the one called foo’ball. She is, after all, from Texas.
She was running our Olympic bureau in Atlanta in 1996 when the bomb went off after midnight, and she took charge, dispatching us into the darkness and the confusion.
Later she moved up at the Times, editing the Sunday and Monday editions. She was the duty officer when the Columbia exploded in 2003.
Somewhere along the line, she became part of our family, either my third sister or my third daughter -- not that she lacks for family, with sisters galore and the memory of Lucinda and George McElroy, both formidable.
Kathleen’s middle initial is O. Not everybody knows that it stands for Oveta, as in Oveta Culp Hobby, who operated the Houston Post for decades – and under whose leadership George McElroy became the Post’s first African-American columnist.
We always figured Kathleen was one of those out-of-towners who arrive in New York, scout out the restaurants and shops, discover a nice apartment, and stay forever. They are some of the best New Yorkers. But foo’ball may have been a tipoff. She is a Southwestern person.
Kathleen chose to leave the Times, earning a scholarship to the University of Texas. This fall she defended her dissertation -- "Somewhere Between 'Us' and 'Them' -- Black Columnists and Their Role in Shaping Racial Discourse" -- and received her Ph. D. She is now teaching journalism at Oklahoma State University, with emphasis on the African-American experience.
The other day Kathleen sent me a text message that said, “I want to make a difference.” We miss her at family gatherings, and expeditions around the city for the perfect barbecue or the perfect curry. She will make a difference.
Every name has a story, and our daughter Corinna tells hers in a lovely May Day essay today.
She tells the story on the day when she witnessed her friend Jacky Nkubito become an American citizen in DC.
The name happened as Corinna tells it. I was taking a course on the Cavalier Poets with Dr. Ruth Stauffer at Hofstra College in the spring of 1960, the last semester of my very good liberal arts education. I loved the urgency of Andrew Marvell:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
It’s possible I might even have used those words, or at least felt the sentiment, in that beautiful flowering spring.
I also loved the poem Corinna’s Going a-Maying by Robert Herrick, which our daughter describes so nicely.
So how did we name our two other children? Marianne and I agree that her mom, still with us at 93, loved the name Laura. Also, Marianne and I both knew the David Raksin song “Laura,” from the noir movie of the same name, from 1944.
Laura is the face in the misty light
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.
One version is by Frank Sinatra -- long before his ring-a-ding-ding stage, I hasten to add. It's a little lush, but a time piece.
I was sold as soon as the name Laura was proposed for our oldest daughter.
And she’s not the only Laura named for the song. In the comments portion of the youtube Sinatra version, LauraLaVitaEBella says her grandfather gave her the name. Bravo, Nonno.
How did we arrive at David for our third child?
Marianne notes that I wanted to name him Dylan. It would have been perfect. She counter-proposed David – for the Michelangelo statue in Florence.
Many years later, I came to understand King David through the Leonard Cohen song, written in 1984, now one of the great touchstones of contemporary life.
Personally, I am partial to the k.d. lang version on her glorious Canadian tribute, Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
So I say, Hallelujah for music and poetry and art. Hallelujah for May Day. And Hallelujah for Citizen Jacky in DC today.
Our aunt died on Easter Sunday, at 96.
When she was in her early 80’s, Angela would take a couple of buses through Queens, all kinds of weather, to visit my mom at home, in the hospital, in the nursing home.
Technically, she was not our aunt but a vibrant young woman from central Pennsylvania who married into the clan which is like family to us.
“She and Mom called each other ‘forever friends,’” my sister Janet said the other day.
Angela came into our lives right after the war, when she and Joe McGuinness were courting. For a time, she stayed at our house, going to work every weekday at the home base of Horn & Hardart – the Automat, where patrons dropped nickels into a slot to buy lunch. She worked in the office, and escorted me into the kitchen to watch the workers fill the shelves with sandwiches and pies.
One time she and Joe took me to Radio City Music Hall for a Doris Day movie and the stage show. I still remember the Rockettes dancing to the song, “Red Silk Stockings and Green Perfume,” which came out in 1947. They were young, and handsome, and in love, and it was very cool to be with them.
She and Joe settled in Queens, raising three children of their own, but always had time for the five of us. Each of us has stories about their kindness, their advice, how they were there for us.
In the past decade, Angela went to live with her daughter, Kathleen, in Oklahoma. My brothers and sisters who visited her in the nursing home out there described her tootling down the hall in a powered wheelchair, about to run a meeting on current events, still the life of the party, almost until the end. I can hear my siblings asking, “Whom can we call now?”
Nobody likes getting a call at three in the morning. Too many bad options.
I heard my cell phone rattling on the nightstand, the night before Thanksgiving. My wife was next to me, but the question remained: What?
It’s one of those old clamshell phones. (I cannot figure out Mr. Jobs’ gizmos.)
I clawed it open.
The message was a photograph of a flower in the frost.
It was from Grandchild 3/5. Given the size of this great land of ours, I don’t see 3/5 that often. A message is welcome.
I pecked out a response: Where?
She has a much faster keyboard than I do.
Discovery Park, she replied.
You have a good eye, I typed.
By now I was actually awake. She had outlasted everybody in her household, residents and visitors, and besides, she is something of a night owl. I thought I would toss out a subtle reminder of the situation.
You know it’s 3 AM here.
This did not seem to faze her.
Yeah, she replied. It’s 12 o’clock here.
I liked her style. It reminded me of six years ago when I received a call around 4:30 in the morning from Sebastian Newbold Coe, Baron Coe, CH KBE, the great runner who was head of the London Olympic Committee for 2012. Lord Coe had come into the office bright and early and asked his assistant to get me on the phone, which she did. He had a lot on his mind. He was abashed, but we conducted business, no problem, and when we finally met in Beijing in 2008, he apologized again. I thought it was very cool to be able to joke with a lord about an early wake-up call.
Grandchild 3/5 did not apologize. Time zones or not, she can text me any time.
Plus, she has a good eye.
My father worked on Thanksgiving and Christmas and other holidays. I felt sad at seeing him head to the subway in mid-afternoon, but we knew the call of the newspaper business.
He had to leave home and head for the office – breaking news, banter, coffee and snacks from somewhere, familiar faces, stories to edit.
Over the years I covered a lot of Sunday ball games and Christmas afternoon basketball games at the Garden, although I don’t remember working on Thanksgiving since a few 10 AM high-school football games many years ago.
At least twice, I checked into hotels close to midnight on New Year’s Eve, in order to cover a bowl game in Pasadena or Phoenix the next day. But New Year’s Eve is a good holiday to duck. In the immortal words of Marv Albert, I’d like to, but I have a game.
Police work on holidays. So do doctors and nurses and orderlies. In New York, the subways run on Christmas, although not in London.
Life goes on. Chinese restaurants flourish on Dec. 25, for the annual ritual of Jewish customers. What do Muslim people do on Dec. 25 in the city sometimes referred to as Londonstan?
In recent days, I’ve been watching the lists of Good Companies and Evil Companies that differ about working on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart, which corrupted people to take over a historic valley in Mexico, is making its workers show up. If Wal-Mart is doing it, it must be bad.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no good reason for forcing – forcing – workers to show up Thanksgiving evening to herd shoppers, who presumably are there on their own volition.
I suggest there is something healthy in a day of rest, even on somebody else’s Sabbath. And Thanksgiving in the United States should be a day of indulging and shouting at the tube and appreciating the people who cook and the people who scrub turkey grease off the pots. Then, at least there could be fitful sleep, working off the calories, before joining the lines on Black Friday.
Why do they call it Black Friday? I did it once. Bought a huge television set. It was still bleak and nasty when I emerged from the Best Buy. The experience felt like a frolic, but once was enough. A few miles away, a worker got trampled.
This year I read that Best Buy is opening on Thanksgiving Evening to fulfill the stockholders’ dream of a third vacation home. They need it, bless their hearts. I’m proposing some kind of law -- state national, unofficial -- to insure just a few hours of shutdown here and there. Otherwise, we’re all just hamsters on the wheel.
I would make this exception – some occupations are essential; others contain a mystique. I’ve come to think my father liked going to work in the late afternoon.
Here’s one list of Good Companies and Evil Companies:
The grand tradition of Chinese food on Dec. 25:
Apparently, some pubs open in London, but not the Underground:
Here’s a list of Black Friday stampedes:
James Agee is back, with a revived version of the work he did with Walker Evans in the American South during the Depression. His ear supplied the words and Evans’ eye supplied the photographs of stoic people trying to survive.
Here is another great collaboration I seek out at Father’s Day: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s adaptation of Agee, sung by Eleanor Steber at a concert in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10, 1958.
The song works for Mother’s Day but even more for Father’s Day, because the lyricism and discordance suggest what is coming soon. Agee’s father died in 1916, which was commemorated in Agee’s A Death in the Family, published in 1957, two years after Agee’s death.
The song describes Agee’s family sitting outdoors, in a time before air conditioning and television. It begins:
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy….
I heard it first on WQXR-FM years ago, and bought the CD, Eleanor Steber in Concert, 1956-58. I later read that Steber was from Wheeling, West Virginia, and wondered if she would have felt any affinity for Knoxville, further down the Appalachian range.
The song reminds me of summer evenings in the 1940’s, when my family stayed outdoors, in our own back yard in the borough of Queens, to catch some slight breeze. I remember fireflies and the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio and my brothers and sisters and my parents.
This is where I usually lose it:
All my people are larger bodies than mine...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth…
When I play this song, I think of our parents, talking about books and politics and the old days, suggesting what is possible for us in our lives.
For those of us who know that our parents were good to us, this is a memory. For others, it may be an ideal, a hope.
* * *
The concert above is from 1948, when the work made its debut. The pianist is Edwin Biltcliffe.
Jane Redmont’s web site has a wise tribute to the song, and includes the lyrics:
My childhood friend Alan Spiegel wrote a lovely biography and critique of Agee in 1998:
Our children and grandchildren will be around. .
My best to all the friends who check in on this little site.
Happy holidays. Be well.
Robbie Parker, the father of Emilie Parker, put on a suit and tie and addressed the public on Saturday.
He was in visible grief, of course, but for a moment his face relaxed as he recalled their brief encounter Friday morning.
He has been teaching his daughter Portuguese – he did not say why -- and at six she went for it enough that she and her dad could conduct a conversation.
Good morning. How are you? -- the ritual between a parent and a child, perhaps for a purpose, or just the fun of sharing one of the world’s more beautiful languages.
“I gave her a kiss,” he said, “and I was out the door.”
When Robbie Parker went out the door Friday morning, all was right between them. They had that language in common.
As Graham Nash wrote in the song, Teach Your Children: “So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.”
We need more than words. We need the connections, the daily acts, the time, the reminders, the bonds that say, “Eu te amo,” before we go out the door.
When I took the no-brainer buyout last December, I talked about watching the wheels go round and round. Instead, I’m watching waves.
Two years ago my wife bought me another perfect present, an inflatable kayak from Sea Eagle. Pumps up with a pedal in 10 minutes. Seats two. All I need is company up front.
This week Grandchild No. 5/5 and I paddled across the bay to inspect a mcmansion at West Egg. We glided through a school of baby blues (you should see them jump when they are fully grown in September, I told her), and watched a gent in a motorboat cut his engine politely when he reached the No Wake sign. I pointed out the Bronx and New Rochelle past the north end of the bay and we talked about the Huguenots who settled there. We watched the afternoon flights heading toward JFK.
After an hour, I told her to navigate toward the dock and the beach. The kayak deflated and was easily stuffed in the back of the car.
The summer is young.
Several younger friends of mine have lost their fathers recently. What I tell them is, it never goes away. My father has been gone for over a quarter of a century and I still feel the impulse to pick up the phone.
Very often, it is about baseball. Every time Frank Francisco is teetering in the ninth inning, I feel like calling my father, who never heard of Frank Francisco, and blurting in morbid tones, “He’s going to give up a grand slam right now.”
Of course, in this new age, my son sends me text messages like, “What are they doing?”
My dad would have loved text messages. He was a newspaper guy, would have loved brevity, learned to edit copy on a computer in his late 60’s. I still can’t perform that intricate task and have great admiration for his picking up a new skill at that age.
The other thing is politics. I grew up hearing my father emitting a growl about McCarthy or Nixon. I’d love to hear him whenever Mitt Romney says something oily.
But the thing I miss the most about my father is his knowledge. He dropped out of high school at 15, but knew so much about books, movies, politics, sports and history. He taught me to love New York City – the ethnic enclave on the Brooklyn-Queens border where he lived as a kid, which other people (not him) pronounced Greenpernt. I have no interest in ever leaving New York because of the drives and subway rides we took when I was a little kid. A war bond rally at Ebbets Field around 1944. The Automats. News stands.
He was always on my side, on all five of his kids’ sides. I realize that more all the time.
Wish I could ask him about the Hungarian politician (whose name I am forgetting) who visited his neighborhood right after World War One, or the first game ever at Yankee Stadium in 1923. My dad played hooky, at 13 so he could attend. I never did slow down and ask him about that day. Wish I could call him. It never goes away.
Or your Jewish bubbe. Or your Italian nonna.
And don’t just listen. Ask questions, Get them to talk.
This lesson was reinforced for me recently in a column about Christine C. Quinn’s grandmother, a passenger who survived the Titanic.
As it happens, I also had an Irish grandmother with strong connections to the same White Star line that owned the Titanic. I am angry with my youthful self for not asking questions of my grandmother, or at least observing. Quinn was better at it.
Quinn is the speaker of the New York City Council and a front-runner for mayor in 2013. As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approached, Quinn told Jim Dwyer of The New York Times how her elderly grandmother almost never talked about how she managed to get out of steerage and into a lifeboat on that terrible evening.
Dwyer’s lovely column is included here:
Quinn said she knows a little about her grandmother’s adventure because she had the opportunity to ask questions when she was 13.
“The only time we spoke about the Titanic was when she was recovering from a broken hip, and I asked her the story when we were hanging around her room,” Quinn told Dwyer.
Now that I am a grandparent, I wish I had asked questions of my Irish grandmother, who mostly lived with us until she died when I was 12. I had plenty of time to observe her and ask questions, but, unlike Christine Quinn, I failed miserably.
I can remember my grandmother as an old lady in a black dress, who took me, the oldest of five, to church, to the diner for breakfast, and a few times to the movies. I can see her visiting her old-lady friends on Adirondack chairs at Lake George in upstate New York. In my mind, they are all dressed in black, interchangeable.
But I cannot even remember her voice – I think she had long since lost any Irish accent -- and I cannot remember her ever speaking about being Irish. If Bing Crosby would sing an Irish ballad on the radio about “strangers” who tried to impose their rule on the Irish, there was no response from my grandmother. Nana had long since become Anglicized and Americanized.
And I never asked her – and she never told me, as far as I remember – how she got from County Waterford to the New York area. It involved a circuitous trip that I cannot piece together. I do know that my grandmother’s sister moved to Brussels and lived through two ruinous world wars, but my grandmother took a different path. And it also involved the White Star Line.
When my mother was fading in her late 80’s, she mentioned that her mother had worked in South America as a governess, but by that time she could not supply any details. I know my grandmother spoke French from her frequent visits to her sister at Rue Sans Souci in Brussels. Did my grandmother also speak some Spanish? Did she work on the White Star Line to gain passage from England to South America? How did she meet the Australian-born ship’s officer whom she would marry, as they settled in Southampton? All gone now.
My mother could remember being in Southampton in May of 1915 at the age of 4, and going down to the harbor as people grieved for family and friends who were lost on the Lusitania. The Titanic was part of her life, through her father.
And after the war, the officer’s family immigrated in style on the White Star Line and ultimately settled in upstate New York with a large home and a nearby farm.
I’ve asked my younger sister, Janet, who was the “pet” of my grandmother, if she could remember anything about Nana, but she was too young to take in those kinds of details. We all agree, we were not the kind to sit around and tell stories of the old days. I try to tell family history to our grandchildren, but the opportunities are rare. One of my grandchildren, the youngest, actually uses the old-fashioned implement of email to ask me questions about trips I take, and what I do. She shows promise.
I am respectful and a trifle jealous that Christine Quinn had the sense to ask questions of her grandmother. I would urge everybody to do the same.
_ The holiday mail brought photographs — American backdrops, Indian faces, in their late teens and early 20s. And in one card, news of a baby.
My wife refers to herself as The Stork because she used to fly with children, from Delhi or Mumbai, through taxing layovers in Europe, onward to American airports, to be greeted by family reunions. She would make her deliveries, then hop the next flight home, her stork work done.
Marianne estimates that she escorted 30 children on 13 trips, sometimes with a companion, sometimes solo. Many of the families send photos and news — musical instruments, sports, graduations, weddings — and now a baby.
The children, mostly girls, had been left in bus stations or on the steps of police stations, had been placed in orphanages, given the best treatment possible, offered first to Indian couples, and also treasured by Norwegian families, American families.
We heard about the Indian children through Holt International of Eugene, Ore., which cares for children all over the world.
Our contact, our friend, Susan Soonkeum Cox, arranged for me to visit a center outside Seoul, during the 1988 Olympics, to visit a man we’ve been supporting for decades, since he was a child. Susan later asked if I’d be interested in volunteering as an escort, and I said I thought my wife would be good at that.
Marianne was more than good. Not only did she love India from her first minute, but she also became involved with an orphanage in Pune, sometimes called the Oxford of the East. She watched the skilled officials and workers, and sometimes jumped in where she thought she was needed, learning from Lata Joshi and other friends and officials there.
One judge was balking at allowing adoptions because of rumors that children were used as servants in America. Somehow Marianne got an appointment with the judge and displayed her photo album of healthy smiling children, in the bosom of America. The judge, to his credit, got the point.
The orphanage needed a new building. Somehow Marianne convinced a farmer to make some land available for a new building, which is now in use.
She could operate in India because she loved the people — Hindu and Muslim, Parsi and Jain, all the castes. She was invited to wealthy homes for lavish meals and shared modest lunches at women’s shelters in the slums. And always at the end, an armful of children, meticulously approved by Indian and American authorities. Stork time.
I don’t know how she did it, carrying multiples of children from a year old to 8-9-10 years old, with bathroom issues, food issues, language issues, children who knew they were going to a new home, but first having to go through customs, waiting rooms, cramped airplane seats, the faces of strangers. Marianne's aunt Bettina knew some flight attendants on that great airline, Pan-Am, until its lamentable collapse at the end of 1991; many of them moved over to Delta. They sometimes upgraded Marianne to business class, where she cajoled German or Scottish or American businessmen to hold a crying child while she changed another baby’s diaper.
Once she was forced to stay overnight at a Heathrow motel, with an infant and a 7-year-old. When they went down for the buffet in the morning, the older child could not believe there was that much food in the world. She sampled, she ate, she laughed out loud at her fortune.
I went with Marianne once, on a trip that began with missions to Thailand and Vietnam. Seeing India through Marianne’s eyes was an adventure. She had the cadence and she had the words and she had the body language. She was home.
Our trip back was from Mumbai through Frankfurt to JFK. I was given a healthy boy of 2 or so; we bonded in minutes, doing guy stuff — he grabbed my beard, I elbowed him gently, we wolfed down our meals, I nicknamed him Bruiser and was more than a little sorry he already had a family waiting for him in the Midwest. A French seeker, in a robe and sandals, coming back from an ashram, spelled me at times on the first leg.
Marianne’s child had a high fever. The Pan-Am attendants upgraded them, helped ice him down and keep him hydrated. On landing in New York in the middle of the night we rushed him to the hospital, where a medical SWAT team jumped in — discovering an ear infection. A few days later, he was with his new family out west. He’s in college now.
On Marianne’s last run to her beloved Pune, she and our older daughter, Laura, brought home one more child — our grand-daughter Anjali. But first there was a farewell ceremony with our friend Mrs. Joshi.
The boy in the red outfit in the photo, snuggling up with Marianne? I asked her about him the other day. Oh, she said, he was deaf. Whenever she was in Pune, she always had a child in her arms.
I’ve never found a way to tell the story of Marianne’s love of the children, her love of India. She should write a book about her 13 trips, but she says she’s an artist, not a writer. The holiday card, the news of a baby, brought it all home. The Stork is a grandmother now.
As Christmas Eve approaches, I think about my Aunt Irene.
She was blonde and bubbly, what the show-business columnists of the day called a “chantoozie,” singing in clubs on the East Side of Manhattan, when there was still quite a Mitteleuropa presence in that neighborhood.
Irene worked late, slept late, and was always about nine hours behind the rest of us.
“I do remember going with Mom and Dad to a Hungarian restaurant in Manhattan, where Irene did stand up and sing a song to the accompaniment of a violin player,” my kid brother Chris recalls. “She had such a big voice, full of flashy highlights and vibrato, and she gestured dramatically with her hands.”
That was Irene. At this time of year, she would hum snippets of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” around the house, but she launched into high gear only on the afternoon before Christmas.
My family would crowd into Grandma’s modest row house in the Jamaica section of Queens, every inch covered with ornate decorations. Grandma would serve us sweets, maybe even a sip of Tokay wine for the adults, and we would wait for Irene, who had embarked in late afternoon, heading to Gertz or Macy’s in the hub of Jamaica.
Finally there would be a bustle in the narrow hallway, and Irene would burst into the crowded living room, tossing her fur coat in a corner and distributing packages, exquisitely wrapped, for all of us. The packages had just been wrapped by exhausted clerks, eager to go home to their own holidays, and now we were tearing into them, barely half an hour later.
I cannot remember what gifts she gave us, only that they were elaborate and expensive. She must have spent every dime she had made for months of singing in some smoky club.
Irene is long gone. I regret that I never saw her perform, but when I hear the strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I know I caught the best of Aunt Irene, in her own sparkling living room.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: