Giants of My Youth III
Friday, June 8, 2012 • 9:49pm
My Grandmother Rose, described herself as a tough old bird. And she was! But she always had a soft spot in her heart for me. I not only loved her, I adored her, and I feared her just a little bit too. She was the daughter of Solomon and Rizzel Siegel, my great grandparents, who owned a chain of small grocery stores until the Great Depression.
Rose was married to Lew Lange all the time I knew her. There had been a prior marriage to my mother's father, a man named Sam Brody, but that was never spoken of and I didn't learn about it till I was sixteen. It was considered a shameful, dark secret to be kept from the kids as long as possible.
I frequently slept over at Rose and Lew's house as a boy. It was like a vacation for me. Rose had a Friday night poker game with her Carney friends. Since my bed was the repository for the ladies' coats, I would burrow into them like a mole, absorbing the strange perfume scents and feeling the smooth mink fur, which was popular but unnecessary in Miami. I would eventually fall asleep to the sound of clattering chips and occasional laughter. Then my grandfather Lew, would wake me at 3am for a trip to the bagel bakery. My job was to hold the bag of fresh, hot bagels on the way home and I would invariably sample one.
Rose and Lew were late sleepers, so I would wake up early in the morning and pull out the stack of 78 rpm records they had collected from friends with Juke Box concessions and I would play them to amuse myself until they woke up. I grew to appreciate Al Jolson, Vaughan Monroe, Peggy Lee, Patty Paige and a whole generation of pre-Rock n Roll artists. To this day I find myself humming some of their melodies and can even sing the lyrics of some of their hits.
Rose was a carnival worker, operating children's games. Over the years she owned a balloon dart throw, a duck pond, and in her later years, a game where kids would shoot corks from specially adapted BB guns until they knocked down a target with a prize. Carnival work involves long hours standing on your feet, but Rose never complained. In contrast, she often told me how hard it was to work in her father's grocery store, where, on cold winter days, her hands would hurt from fishing for herring in barrels filled with salt water.
While I was working on the carnival, I remember seeing bona fide mobsters quake at Rose's tongue-lashings. She paid a premium for her locations and expected to get the very best. As I remember, she always got her way.
Rose was an excellent cook. Every holiday from September till May was celebrated in her home and she did the cooking. Even in a hotel room, she would magically create a cooked brisket of beef, slice it and place it on rye bread with raw onions and butter. We called those big, sloppy creations "dukies", which is carnival lingo for a sandwich and I would relish those delicious treats in the back of the car during long jumps on Sunday afternoons. Rose was a heavy smoker. While she cooked, a cigarette with an impossibly long ash would dangle from her mouth. The family joke was that her cooking tasted so good because there was always a hint of cigarette ash in it and the rumor might have been true.
A permanent fixture of Rose's kitchen was a salami, hanging by a string on its end from a wall-mounted can opener with a plate under it to catch the dripping grease. Her two favorite ingredients were butter and garlic. Many of her recipes began with "first you take a pound of butter." When people complimented her pot roast, roast chicken or potato kugel, her answer was "Planty Knubbel" meaning lots of garlic.
I learned how to avoid angering Grandma Rose at a very early age, and when she was sharp with me it never bothered me, because her scoldings would be followed by a hunk of dry salami or a plate of her rugalach cookies and milk.
Once, as a young boy, while going through some of her things, I found an old retro cigarette lighter that I just had to have, so I pocketed it. Somehow, that sharp old bird knew about my larceny and confronted me. I was terrified, but instead of a scolding, she patiently explained how it was wrong to steal and how disappointed she was in me. Her disappointment was the worst punishment she could have inflicted on this little boy.
From Rose I learned that charity doesn't have to be confined to institutional giving; charity can be personal and immediately interventional. I also learned that if people weren't responsible with your generosity you had to cut them off.
While with her on the carnival, I remember seeing men who were down on their luck coming to Rose to borrow a few bucks for a meal or a ride to the next town and never being turned down, even when they already owed her money.
Frequently, when business was slow, Rose would shout from inside her booth (we called it a joint) to someone walking down the midway. It was usually a roughie or some other show worker who she had heard about. The summoned individual would walk up to her counter with lowered eyes and in her stern voice she would say, "When did you last eat?" Invariably the answer would be a subdued "I'm okay Mrs. Lange" to which she would tartly reply "I asked when you last ate." The answer was usually yesterday, or the day before, and sometimes three days previously. Rose would respond by putting her closed fist holding a five dollar bill into his hand so no one would see him taking charity and she would say, "Go over to the cookhouse (or Bozo's Broasted Chicken after the cookhouse closed) and have a meal. Don't spend it on booze and when you have a good week pay me back."
Rose never kept a ledger or a list of people who owed her money. She had a steel-trap mind. Sometimes a guy would sheepishly approach her and ask for five bucks for a meal and Rose would respond, "I gave you a fin (five dollars) three weeks ago; you had a good week last week and you didn't pay me back." The guy would look embarrassed and Rose would slip him another five, saying, "Pay me back this time or there won't be another." And they did pay her back as soon as they could, because they knew Rose was their lifeline in an emergency.
Rose was an early cataract surgery patient. The closest location from Miami for the operation was Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. Those were the days when cataract surgery was followed by six weeks flat in bed with sandbags holding your head still. She and her friend Irene took the train from Miami to Philadelphia for her surgery twice, because they would do only one eye at a time in case something went wrong with the procedure. Rose told me that she and Irene got on the train in Miami one afternoon with a deck of cards and a bottle of Scotch. They got off the next morning with the deck of cards and no bottle of scotch. I can just imagine them sitting up all night, smoking, drinking and playing cards. J&B was her favorite. She called it Jewish Booze.
I learned from Rose that people's greatest strength also could be their greatest weakness. One of Rose's eye surgeries went badly and she developed a painful case of glaucoma. For years she survived on aspirin, since it was the only available over-the-counter pain reliever and she refused to take opiates. The doctors offered to kill that eye several times, but she refused. Finally, after many years of pain, her eye healed and I remember Rose gleefully showing people that she could once again thread a sewing needle. This tough determination also had a negative side. Rose could be stubborn. I remember her having friends with whom she would no longer speak because she would not back down in an argument.
Rose was both smart and wise. She could play a hand of bridge and remember every card that was played, or play poker all night, and remember every hand. At a dinner I once asked each family member what they thought was the most exciting time in which to live. Without hesitation, Rose gave the most insightful answer, saying the time in which she lived was the most exciting in all history -- in her life she saw horses and buggies give way to automobiles, crude airplanes lead to space exploration, kerosene lamps and candles transform to electric light, radio, television and talking color movies.
Rose was a bona-fide flapper, complete with rolled stockings above her knees that she would tie into a knot to her dying day. She and Lew showed me how to do the Charleston and she would tell me tales of nightclubbing in New York in her youth to see Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor or about traveling up to Harlem to hear jazz and drink depression-era booze.
Rose and Lew lived in a small, two-bedroom house in Miami, but that house was a popular destination for family and friends from all over the East Coast. Every few weeks one of Rose's sisters or brothers would fly in for a visit. The time was spent from their arrival until departure, playing cards, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and cooking dinner. Occasionally they would go to the dog track, Jai alai or Miami Beach. Always they would bicker and argue over everything-- from the color of the sky, to politics to who sold the most salted herring in their father's store. It didn't mean they disliked or didn't love one another, it was just their way of relating.
Among Rose and Lew's friends were George Hamid and his wife, owners of the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, where the Miss America pageant was held. My grandfather knew Hamid from the time they were both circus workers and though the Hamids could afford one of the fancy hotels on Miami Beach, they stayed in that little house whenever they visited Miami. Among the Showmen bigshots were Ada and Bill Cowan, Bill Moore, Eva Daniels and a woman named Analee Jones. They were all much wealthier friends and very frequent visitors to her home.
Analee Jones was a cultured southern lady, who, when widowed, took over Jones' Better Bingos, a collection of traveling bingo parlors on carnivals. Analee was always gracious, dignified and kind. When I was in the Army at Fort Gordon, GA and a carnival came to town, I took her to dinner at the Fort Gordon Officer's Club. When I met her again, decades later, I had forgotten that evening but she hadn't. It was a memorable night in her life and I was delighted to have returned some of the kindness she had bestowed on Rose and myself.
Rose's closest friend was Irene Moore, who after the tragic death of her husband later became Irene Levy. My mother called Irene her "fairy godmother", because of her generosity. I learned very early not to compliment Irene on something in her house because she would insist that I take it. I was able to visit Irene last winter. She celebrated her 100th birthday this year and she is as sprightly, sharp and generous as always. Her generosity has been returned by the family that adopted her, lives in her home and cares for her.
Within the insular world of carnival people, Rose's friends were important people. In the larger sense, the carnival people were important because they brought entertainment to small and dreary farm and mill towns for one week a year. They were important to me because they were kind and generous as I was growing up. I believe they felt they couldn't belong to the mainstream of society and were glad to see one of their own make it in the larger world. It took some time for me to realize that their kindness to me was their way of making my life better than theirs, but to this day I envy their closeness and sense of belonging within their own community.
Rose remained a tough lady till the day she died. When her husband died, she never shed a tear. Late in life, she contracted breast cancer, had a mastectomy and shoved a few tissues into her bra, never complaining about her disfigurement or pain. After a life of two-pack-a-day smoking, she gave up cigarettes and never mentioned having withdrawal pangs.
Rose and Lew didn't love me; they adored me. Shortly after they both died, my wife and I stayed in their condo for a few nights. Before going to sleep in their bed, my wife asked if I believed in ghosts. I told her that if there were such beings as ghosts, and if Rose and Lew were haunting their old home, they would protect us with all their power. Those were the most peaceful nights of sleep I ever had as an adult.
©Copyright 2012, Henry Bassman. All rights reserved.
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Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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