by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
I never saw any pictures of my parents when they were children. The earliest picture I have of either one of them is their wedding picture.Dad was a handsome young man of nineteen and Mother a serious, attractive young woman of twenty-two.
My father as I knew him, however, was a short, slight, bald, unprepossessing man, whose long nose was his only distinguishing physical feature. My youth was shadowed by the fear that I would inherit that nose, but Mother always assured me: “Don’t worry, if you get Daddy’s nose, you’ll have an operation.”
Father had a number of outstanding character traits: he disdained education; his principal motivation was to provide for his family; and he was a terrific businessman who could make a living wherever he found himself and with whatever was at hand. In making a decision, he consulted no one, and, once his mind was made up, the proverbial wild horses couldn’t get him to change it.
My mother, when I knew her, was about 5’5″ and solidly built. She wore a size forty-four; because of her size, she had difficulty finding clothes with style and bright colors. They didn’t make them for large women in the 1930s and ’40s. She always told me how lucky I was to be short because I had my pick of clothes when shopping.
Mother’s hair was a grayish-white and she wore it in tight curls, which she kept in place with long bobby pins. She was fair-skinned, with a mass of freckles on her face and arms.
I had a stronger resemblance to my father–I was built like him and had his coloring. I also looked to him much more as a role model than to my mother. He was the decision-maker in the family, the one with the power. My mother busied herself largely with housekeeping and cooking, activities that did not interest me.
Though larger than my father, my mother was a softer person–but she wielded a power of her own. Father’s decision to move to the Catskills illustrated that.
After we arrived in the United States from Berlin, Germany, on May 1, 1934, we first settled in the Bronx at 500 Southern Boulevard. That’s where I learned to speak English. Our apartment was in a building that was built in a semi-circle around a small garden. I would stand in the garden listening to the other children at play. Whenever I caught an unfamiliar word, I’d run upstairs, repeat it to my brother, Hermann, and he’d give me the German equivalent. I turned six a month after we arrived in the United States and started kindergarten.
My father returned to the business he knew. He opened a men’s clothing store in Manhattan with a partner, but the business did poorly. And my father found that he could not take the pace of life in New York City. In Berlin, he had closed his store at midday, gone home for lunch and a rest, and then reopened until 7:00 p.m. That was the schedule to which he was accustomed. The hurly-burly of life in New York was too much for him.
In the summer of 1935, the family took a few weeks’ vacation in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the summer resort area for New York City’s Jews. Shortly after our return, my father announced to the family that we would be moving to a village in the Catskills. He would buy out his partner and run the business as long as necessary to pay off his creditors. Then we would move to the Catskills, where he planned to go into the resort business. My father had never been in the resort business or in anything even approaching such a business, but that issue was never raised. Instead, my mother exploded for another reason. “Are you meshuge, crazy?” she asked. “Do you think I’m going to leave this city for a dorf, a village, in the mountains?” All their lives, wherever my parents lived, my father wanted to move, and my mother wanted to stay. When they visited neighbors, my father wanted to sell our house and buy theirs. This time was no different. But my mother adamantly refused to consider the idea of moving.
Father said no more. He was a man of few words, but those few words one needed to listen to. Since no one was listening, he turned around and left the apartment. Hermann said, “I don’t like the look in his eyes. I’m going to follow him.” So saying, he went out the door after Father.
Father went down to the East River and sat on a piece of lumber, staring out at the water. Hermann went over to him and suggested they go home together. He pushed Hermann aside and told him to go home to Mother, but Hermann was worried by the vacant look in Father’s eyes; he ran to the nearest bystander and asked him to call the police. When Hermann returned, Father was walking into the East River. The police came and pulled him out of the water. His eyes had rolled up into his head, and he no longer knew what he was doing. The police wanted to call an ambulance and send him to the hospital, but Hermann persuaded them to release Father into his custody.
Hermann brought Father home, soaking wet and incoherent. Mother took one look at him and said, “All right, we’ll move to the Mountains.”
That’s how we came to the village of Woodridge, New York, in 1936, a village one square mile in area with a population of about seven hundred people.
**An excerpt from Sonia Pressman Fuentes’ memoirs Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You**
copyright Sonia Pressman Fuentes
This piece was previously published in Passager, the Immigrant Issue (University of Baltimore) 30 (1999): 15.