Friday, February 18, 2011

How a child learns about death.

How a child learns about death.
© Joel Baumwoll

Kids are mostly oblivious to the adult world around them, and the events that affect their parents or relatives, until something very big intrudes. Usually that big event involves death or serious illness. Then, a kid senses that his world is not quite the same as it had been. If he’s young, say five years or less, the idea is just a feeling. If he’s a little older, close to eight or ten, he understands a bit more of what is going on.

Normally, kids live for the games they play. Give a kid a few good friends, some toys and a place to play and he’s good to go until dinnertime. A collection of lead soldiers was much prized when I was four years old. Dressed in the uniforms of the First World War, they stood bent over, charging with bayonet tipped rifles, crouched over machine guns and next to howitzers. Few of the soldiers looked like the GI who was fighting in France or the Pacific Islands, because lead was being used to make bullets in 1944, not toys. But we know little of that.
Marty Manson and I directed our troops like field generals, conducting hours’ long battles that took over most of the floor space in the small apartments we lived in. Our war had nothing to do with places like Tarawa and the beaches of Normandy. To us, the war was an abstraction. Born in 1940, it had always been part of my life. We wore military uniforms because our mothers dressed us up like little officers, sailors and airmen.
                           From left, Marty Manson, me and Larry Alexander, c1945    
We had no awareness that food and gasoline was rationed, just that there was food on the table and we could go places in our 1937 Plymouth. The only part of the world around us that we were aware of, and intensely involved with, was baseball. Living just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, perennial losers in the World Series to the Yankees, at seven years old, major league baseball was second in importance only to our daily games of stickball. And even these were imaginary recreations of the big league players’ actions and habits. We’d run a play by play inside our heads as we stood at the plate waiting to hit the rubber “spauldeen” with the broom handle.

The voice of Vin Scully would echo in my mental narrative… “Hodges steps in, runners on second and third, bottom of the ninth. Dodgers are down by two and must win this game to stay in the pennant race. Maglie checks the runners, goes into the stretch and throws. Low, ball one. Hodges steps out, looks up to third to get the sign from Lavagetto, and steps back in the box. Maglie throws. There’s a high line drive to deep center field. Mays is going back back, he turns. It is gone. A home run. The Dodgers win and will go on to face the Yankees in the World Series!!”

This narrative would be complete with simulated crowd noises (yeeeahhhhhhayyy) and cheers. Our stickball field faced the side of a large apartment house, 1080 Anderson Avenue. The windows of this building looked down on the schoolyard and reverberated with our shouts and arguments of “safe” or “out, “ball” or “strike.” Several times a week, one of these windows, about five stories up, would open and a matronly woman would stick her head out and holler “yoo hoo. Boyus, yoo, hoo.” It was Mrs. Sarrow, with her usual request. “Go tell Hedi that dinner is ready,” she’d command and request simultaneously.

Of course, we’d groan, and one of us would get the job of hunting Hedi down on the block to send her home. “I did it yesterday,” Paul Josephs would always say, “Your turn.” I think he hated Heidi, because she used to tease him, calling him “Pawleeee,” with a feminine wag of her hips. That was anathema to a seven year-old kid, so he always said it wasn’t his turn.

So here I am up at bat, taking my practice swings, and I see Mrs. Sarrow, back to me, cleaning the windowpanes. Her legs were hooked over the sill, inside the apartment, and her rear end was perched precariously on the sill as she reached out to swipe at the panes with her rag. It was a common site in those days.
Except this day, my eye caught what looked like a bundle of rags falling down to the alley below. Some sense of strangeness told me that this was no bundle of rags, but it wasn’t immediately clear what I had seen. “Wait,” I yelled, put my stick down and ran to the big chain fence that separated the schoolyard from the alleyway. Pulling myself up a few feet I looked down into the alley to see the form of a body lying in an odd position on the concrete walkway. It was Mrs.Sorrow.

We all crowded around the fence and soon some adults ran down the alley. We watched as they bent over her body and someone draped a brown blanket over Mrs. Sarrow, completely covering her body and face. Even at that young age, we knew that meant she was dead.

That night as I lay in my bed, I replayed the sight of her body, lying sprawled on the concrete. The position of her arms and legs were particularly vivid to me. I began to move my arms and legs to positions that did not resemble those of her corpse. I felt that if I lay like I had seen her, I too would die.

This was the beginning of a nightly ritual that lasted for years. I was probably in my 20s before I could lie with my legs akimbo and my arms stretched out in the way she had lain. That’s how powerful the image was for me. And for at least a year, I had twilight fantasies of her head and shoulders rising above the sill of our bedroom window, looking in, and calling to me to find Hedi.

Mrs. Sarrow was my first-hand encounter with death, but as a five year-old, I had a different kind of experience with the grim reaper.

I was home after 5 PM, listening to the radio; a western show. The announcer broke in “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin from CBS World News. A press association has just announced that President Roosevelt is dead. The President died of a cerebral hemorrhage. All we know so far is that the President died in Warm Springs Georgia.”

My parents sat in stunned silence and began to cry. I had never seen either of them cry and I could not understand why. My father said, “President Roosevelt died,” as though I could understand who he was and why his death was a matter of such sorrow to them. He wasn’t a relative, a friend or even anyone they knew personally. It was to be many years before I understood why his death was a matter of such immediate sadness for a couple of middle class working people in the midst of a terrible war.

My second personal encounter with death occurred in the third grade. I was assigned a line mate at PS 73 whose name was also Joel. Joel and I were supposed to hold hands as we stood in rows of two waiting for the bell to ring to enter the school building in the morning and after the lunch recess. I wasn’t friends with Joel and did not play with him. And I did not like holding his hand, mainly because he had a large wart on the base of his thumb. I could feel this wart not matter how I tried to avoid contact with it. I was terrified that I could “catch it” and one would grow on my hand.

I never said anything about this to anyone, but dreaded line up every day. In 1948, we returned to school after the Christmas holiday. The streets were still buried under piles of snow from a storm that had hit the northeast on December 26th. For the kids of Anderson Avenue, the snow was a dream come true. We spent days tunneling through it, sledding over it and throwing snowballs at buses and cars as they slithered past.

As we filed into the schoolyard on the first day of school after the break, there was a strange buzz among the kids. My friend Marty ran over to me. “Did you hear what happened to Joel Cohen? He got killed. He was sledding on the lot up by 166th Street and he went under a bus.”
The New York Times even reported the death.


Killed? I never knew a kid that got killed. The idea that we would never, ever again see him was slowly sinking in, but I remember being in a kind of dream-like state. The thought that a kid I knew, and held hands with every day had disappeared was hard to understand. I was assigned a new line mate. For a fleeting instant, I was relived that I would no longer have to feel that wart.


The death of Al Jolson was another event that I recall with clarity. The tabloids of
October 1950 all announced in large black type “AL JOLSON DEAD.” At ten years of age, I was vaguely aware of who he was, since it was impossible not to hear his voice, on radio, and on a new medium, television. My parents had many 78-RPM records of his, singing Yiddish songs, and popular hits like “If you knew Suzie” and “Mammy.” They would play these, interspersed with melodramatic recordings of Jan Pierce, singing “Bluebird of Happiness”: and “Because.” My old man would sing along in a kind of out of tune karaoke, complete withexaggerated arm gestures.

I came home from after school to find my mother in tears. “Al Jolson died,” she said to me, as though I would understand the magnitude of the loss. She never explained why she cried, and it wasn’t until I had some concept of history that I understood Jolson’s role as an iconic immigrant Jew from the Diaspora who had made it big in America. Even the “goyem” listened to his singing and paid to see Jolson’s movies. His death somehow diminished the status of Jews.

The final death I experienced in my first decade was that of my grandmother. My mother’s mother. Leah was a soft spoken women, a refugee from the Cossack pogroms in Moldova who had remarried an American and settled in an apartment on Ogden Avenue. I was often left in her care while my mother went on errands, and doctor’s appointments (I learned much later that my mother suffered from angina in her early 30s).

Like most Jewish grandmothers, she doted on me. We made raspberry sodas by spooning preserves into thick glasses and shooting seltzer from heavy siphon bottles into the black sweet jam. She was a semi-observant Jew, and I recall seeing candles burning in multi-faceted glass jars on top of the refrigerator. I learned these were “yartzheit” candles, memorials to the dead. Grandma Leah was a source of unlimited affection and admiration for me.

By the time I was nine, I knew that grandma had problems with her heart. She also had a variety of other ailments and was in and out of the hospital several times. My mother was very upset during these spells, and I could see how concerned she was and how little I could do to change anything.

Toward the end of 1950 we made a huge change in our lives. My father decided to move us from the Bronx, which he was constantly disparaging in summer as “like an oven, you could fry an egg on the hood of a car” and in winter, as a dirty, snowy place. That he had to drive two hours every morning to get to his job in East Orange New Jersey had no small part in his dislike of the Bronx.

We moved into a large early 20th century house on a leafy street in Montclair, New Jersey. After I got over living in a state that had no major league baseball team, I grew to love Montclair. I made fast friends, even girlfriends and was
having a great time.

However, grandma had taken a turn for the worse, and after an operation to remove her gall bladder, a decision was made to move her to our house to recuperate. A hospital bed was installed in my kid brother’s bedroom and an ambulance delivered her from New York. It created a kind of strange vibe in the house, a bit scary, to be honest. The hospital bed was an alien thing, and the seriously ill person who was my grandmother was spooky to me.

Her stay did not last long, and there was great commotion, as she had to be taken by ambulance back to the hospital in New York. The next week or two are a bit vague, as our lives were turned upside down, with my mother going in to New York nearly every day. A kind of sadness enveloped the house, which came to a head when she died in the hospital. Though she seemed like an old woman to a ten year old, I realize now how young she was, just fifty-six years.

Her funeral, at a place just off the Grand Concourse on East 167th Street, was bizarre for me. Rows of benches filled with my relatives, some of whom I did not recognize led to a long wooden box on a platform in the front of the room. Sounds of sobs and sniffles came from all directions, and I was scared and upset to see my mother crying so much. I was given over to Aunt Rae for caretaking.

Rae was a small round woman with a voice like Ethyl Merman’s and a manner like a bar room bouncer. She was my mother’s aunt, and I was told years later that she had been kidnapped by gypsies in Romania and returned to the family after a period of a few weeks. The joke was that even the gypsies couldn’t take being bossed around by Rae so they sent her back. She lived in a small apartment several doors away from ours on Anderson Avenue, and was often the appointed babysitter for my younger brother, “Genie” and me. Rae adored us, and made her feelings known by grabbing my cheek between her thumb and forefinger and squeezing it hard enough to make me howl, while she exclaimed “what a doll face.”

My father couldn’t stand Rae, mostly because she was an incredible busybody, and seemed to delight in sowing discontent between husbands and wives in the family. I suppose it was her jealousy, since she had never been married or even had a serious boyfriend, as far as we knew. She would also burst into our apartment for impromptu visits, regardless of what may have been going on in the privacy of the place.

Rae was fond of cooking lamb chops in a small electric broiler. These she would subject to enough heat to turn them nearly black, and inundate the entire first floor of the building with the smell of burning lamb chop fat. She did the same with lumps of calf’s liver. It was many years before I could eat either without gagging on the memory.

At the funeral, Rae got it into her head that I had to go up and look at my
grandmother’s corpse before the lid was closed. Why it was open, I have no idea, but someone must have asked for viewing, which I gather is unusual for Jews. Of course I was horrified by the idea, but she was not to be denied. I was pulled to the front and forced to look at Leah’s face. I remember going cold all over and turning away quickly to get away from that place.

During the service, Rae took me next door to an ice cream parlor called Addy Valens, and ordered me a hot fudge sundae. I guess she realized how upset I was, and wanted to make me happy. I had never eaten a hot fudge sundae before, and I remember this glass, shaped like a big open flower, heaped with balls of vanilla ice cream and covered with dark chocolate sauce that was actually hot. The whole was covered with a mountain of thick whipped cream. It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten! I scooped the ice cream and hot fudge into my mouth as fast as I could. The sweet cold vanilla contrasted the bittersweet taste of the chocolate, and the cream was very dense and rich tasting.

It has been fifty-seven years and the memories of both events are vivid and clear to me. I have never had a sundae as good as that one. It has become my Madeleine, soothing me after the terrifying experience of the funeral.

And that day marked a passage for me, where I no longer lived in a world of play, oblivious to the terrible things that were happening and could happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment