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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image




     Mama was all of a piece.  But I see Papa differently, in different frames at different times.


     Of course there were many facets to Mama, such as Mama The Shy Singer, or Mama The XBusiness Woman and Help Mate, but mostly, Mama is of a piece.  Quick, witty, loving and almost selfless.  Sharp tongued but totally loving.  This is how I remember her, whether I look back to being solaced on her lap when I ran home from school at five, from my first arithmetic lesson, howling, "I can't make my Number Two," to the last moments before we began to lose her.  Mama took nearly two years to die from the moment she began to realize she could no longer cope.  To the very last she gave love.


     Papa, who loved her mote than she knew or at least acknowledged, could not endure being kept with her when so much of her mind was gone.  He became urgent for himself and his right to be free of her.  But when we had her briefly in a nursing home without him, he cried bitterly and demanded to be taken to her every day.  He needed both to assuage his guilt and yet be free of her.


     But to the last, Mama continued to tend him and pat and soothe him.  As difficult as it became for her to walk, she would cross over from her bed to his, spreading a little slip of hers tenderly over his shoulders, or a towel, or whatever was handy.  And to the last, Mama put her hand confidingly through his arm to walk up and down with him.  In even steps.  Together.


     Near the very end, one day as I tended her, there were so many accidents I cried bitterly as I washed her and scrubbed the bathroom floor.  Almost totally bereft now, this remarkable woman looked at me through her vacant blue eyes and said clearly and distinctly, "You poor kid."  Yes.  Mama was all of a piece.


     But Papa, no.


     The first Papa I see from having sensed or heard, is very angry.  We are in our narrow bedroom off the porch of my Aunt Sadie's boarding house in Hadlyme, Connecticut.  I can't be any more than three.  Aunt Sadie and Uncle Zellick have taken us in for a few weeks.  Maybe months.  Until we are settled in this village.  Mama demanded that we come here.  She threatened to leave Papa if he didn't bring us to the country, away from her perpetual fear of his being out of work and on strike.


     An elite pants cutter with almost no ability to speak the English he had taught himself to read and write, Papa spoke impassioned Yiddish to his fellow workers.  He had not come from the threat of the Czar's army through the Jewish freight car underground across Germany, with his six dollars to qualify him for admission to Ellis Island, to be treated like a pig in Manhattan's sweat shops.


     Mama believed in God, sun , fresh air and milk fresh from the cow.  All her sisters, city bred Levin girls, motherless from the time Mama was eleven, believed that country air instantly meant freedom and bounteous health.  I have seen my Aunt Ettie crack a fresh egg still warm from the hend and greedily suck it down.


     So Mama had said, "Light, enough."  That's how she spoke to him.  To his last name, Light.  She only called him Ruben when she was angry.  When she called "Ru-ben!" he came quickly and we sought sanctuary.


     "Light," she said.  "Enough."  Enough city.  Enough strikes.  Enough running out of money, waiting endlessly through cold winters, waiting for the last strike to be settled.  Enough.  Her sister Sadie would let them stay in the beautiful country until Papa could buy a horse.  Then he would fix up a wagon with notions and peddle on the country roads.


     This is my first picture of Papa.  Angry.  The veins stand out on his forehead.  His gravelly voice is lifted in a tirade so loud that Mama keeps saying, "Shhhhhh.  My God they'll hear us and put us out.  Shhhhhh."  All their lives Mama tried to shhhhh Papa.  "The neighbors will hear you.  The children will hear you.  "Schtimele GONIFF," she'd say, meaning, "Voice, thief."  "Shhhhh.....Saide and Zellick will hear you and they'll throw us and our children out in the snow."


     And I hear Papa saying," One lousy egg your sister gives me for breakfast.  A hundred hens she keeps in the barnyard and one egg she gives me."


     Papa didn't peddle long.  He hung, one final night, from the neck of his half blind mare, crying out with anger.  He couldn't make her go.  Many years later he told me, "I was a pants cutter, not a peddler.  I was all the time ashamed.  Ashamed to go in and beg a woman should buy a spool of thread or a thimble."


     The next time I see Papa, we're in Worcester.  It's the first World War and he is getting such good wages he sends to Hadlyme for us to join him.  Mama closed up her little store with the big Moxie sign on the front porch and moved into the two rooms Papa had rented at Mrs. Greenstein's.


     The Greensteins talked about the black-eyed widow where Papa lived when he first came to Worcester.  They said he called her "Cherry eyes."  Papa always loved big, juicy black Bing cherries.  I wondered why he married Mama.  She was thin and her eyes were very blue. 


     There are many pictures I have of Papa for the next few years in New Haven.  Now he is proud.  He's in business.  But now he argues all the time with my Uncle Jack, his partner in their Victory Pants Company.  I didn't know I loved Papa until the company failed and in voluntary bankruptcy, Papa promised to pay back all his debts.


     He couldn't bear to remain in New Haven, where we lived in a Savin Rock duplex only a few blocks from the beach.  Their friends would be too vivid reminders of his briefly successful years as a business man.   Like the time Papa had special printed invitations made up for my tenth birthday party.  He sent them to his friends and mine.  Some of his friends actually came.


     I began to know I loved Papa that long winter after he had gone to South Dakota and Mama, Dick and I waited for every letter in his beautiful handwriting.  Winged and fluted, like the writing we saw in the back of our old Webster's dictionary, it was hard to read because Papa spelled phonetically.  "Dear dotter and vife."  "Spashul for mine son."  "Dear Vife and keeds."


     Papa went to his brothers in Sioux Falls.  To Abe, the "tycoon," who had made it big in South Dakota before he moved to Minneapolis.  Abe rented his original little store to Papa.  The brothers backed Papa's inventory,with their line of credit with Butler Brothers, general store wholesalers of Minneapolis.  Irving, the ladies' man and Nathan the mandolin player.  Nathan was the general store magnate of Dell Rapids, South Dakota, population 1,800, twenty miles north of Sioux Falls.


     While Mama waited with us in Savin Rock, she immediately went into business.  This time it was children's rompers.  Mama knew a woman who designed attractive applique.  Mama cut and sewed the rompers, her partner applied the applique.  Together they sold them at what would now be called boutique prices to friends.  Then, door to door, Mama was an early Avon lady with children's rompers.


     I used to sit and stare at Papa's pictures, taken before their marriage.  He was handsomely dressed.  Mama said he always spent too much money for his clothes.  But she generously added, "At least before he was married.  And for his postcards," she added one time.


     Then she told us about how she used to go to the Catskills in the summers for her vacations.  She had many friends.  She was very funny.  A regular Fanny Brice, her friends said later.  And she was an American business woman.  She had been forelady of a big notions business when she met Papa.  She never would have kept company with "that Greenhorn," except that he was renting a room from her stepmother Dora, with whom she was living.  She and Papa began to go out and pretty soon they were engaged.


     "But this postcard thing?"


     "That was before we were engaged.  And the way I felt about that postcard, I wanted to stop seeing that man.  Forever."


     Mama and her friends came to the porch of the main lodge to get their mail.  One day Mama was handed a large card decorated with a thick, flossy, quilted red satin rose.  Her friends gathered round her to see it.  Then one of them started laughing and pointing to Mama.  And then, inhaling deeply and laughing even louder, Mama looked sharply on the card.  Under the scented red satin rose, in his beautiful, flowing script, Papa had written, "Mama.  Smell from her."


     Nearly every day I'd take Papa's pictures out and look at them.  I kept asking, "Isn't Papa handsome?  Mama, isn't he handsome?"  Was I afraid she would forget him?  That he would forget us?


     When school was out in June, Papa sent for us.  He had rented a good house, again a duplex.  And as she always did, Mama made an adventure of our trip.  Her sisters cried onconsolingly when we left.  To these girls from Brooklyn, a trip west meant only one thing.....Wild Indian territory.


     But Mama took her going away boxes of chocolate covered almonds and handed them out as tips to the porters, all across America.  She fed us from shoeboxes of napkin wrapped roast chicken which Aunt Annie had prepared for us.  I was ashamed in Chicago at a Child's restaurant.  The waitress told Mama she wasn't allowed to bring in her own food and just order milk and dessert for us.  But Mama looked at her with those clear blue eyes and said, "You wouldn't want my beautiful children to go hungry, would you?"  And the waitress said of course not and it was alright.


     Mama wanted us to have the best she knew.  An eighth grade graduate, her known world stopped at the outskirts of Brooklyn, but she had heard about Niagara Falls.  She took the northern trip to bring us to the Falls, but I became vomiting sick with my chronic appendicitis on the bridge over the Falls.  Probably the result of too much roast chicken and chocolate almonds.  The Buffalo doctor said, "This child must be operated on immediately."  In 1923 this was a death sentence to Mama.  She cried. But she was very clear and firm about what she had to do.  "Not until I bring her to her father," she said.  All that night the Pullman porter and Mama put ice bags on my fat little belly.  The next day I was well enough to be able to take in Mama's next planned sight seeing tour.  She walked Dick and me through every one of the Chicago stockyards and packing houses.


     The first few months in Sioux Falls were happy.  Mama liked the duplex Papa had rented.  She shopped for used furniture and made curtains.  All of Mama's houses were welcoming and pleasant and like her, clean, clean.


     She helped Papa in the store in the afternoons.  We began to feel Sioux Falls was our home.  For the first time in our lives, Dick and I went to Synagogue and Sunday school.  Papa allowed himself to be coerced into attending some of the social affairs at the Schul.  As a loudly annouced atheist with a furious dislike of any organized religion, "A bunch hypocrites!" Papa had managed to remain unchurched through the many years of his marriage.  But now in this far away little western town, Mama saw the need of friends and Schul togetherness.  Papa came along.


     Then all of a sudden we were without store, without school, without home or Schul or new friends.  Uncle Abe had lost so much money in Minneapolis real estate, he needed to return to his first, old Sioux Falls store to make a living.  He told Papa we would have to leave.  It was the iron South Dakota winter of 1923.  Where would an ex-peddler, ex pants cutter get a job, or a business to support his family?


     Uncle Nate knew.  Dear, round bellied, mandolin playing, "The Nation" subscriber Uncle Nate.  A few years later he would be elected Justice of the Peace of Dell Rapids and give rousing, patriotic, America-loving speeches.  Long before Harry Golden, Uncle Nate was saying, "Where else but in America could a man like me own two stores and be elected Justice from the Peace and get for his children such a vunderful, free education?"


     The affection Dell Rapids had for Uncle Nate, was not to rub off on his brother Ruben's family.  Uncle Nate was gentle.  Papa was a firebrand.  "If you got to say, say it!"  Anyway, one Jew family was O.K.  Two was too many.  The Klux Klan crosses burned every night for three weeks across from our first little house.  My brother Dick, now ten, slept with his Knights of Phythias sword under his pillow.  Grandpa Thompson, Civil war veteran, Hadlyme friend and neighbor, had given the sword to Dick.


     Uncle Nate knew the Dells Cafe was for sale.  He and Uncle Irving lent Papa enough money and arranged for enough bank credit, so we could buy it.  January, 1924, Papa took his family to what he thought was the end of the world. 


     Three and a half years later he came out of Dell Rapids a success.  He had paid up his loans, saved money and sold out at a profit.  His Dell Rapids years were quickly forgotten.  He -- "Kikey" and "Dirty Jew" -- had installed the first electric ice-cream dispenser in the town.  Within months he had become his supplier's biggest user of ice cream.  They told him so.  Often.  I often think how much I am like Papa.  Give me one Gold Star and I'm off running.


     And so was he.  After Dell Rapids he drove a tire truck for only one year.  This was the last time Mama went into business.  This time it was a grocery store in Sioux Falls.  "Why pay rent for a house alone," Mama figured, "when we can rent this fine new house with a grocery store in front."  The only trouble was there were more people who came to our back door to visit, than into the grocery store to buy.  Mama learned to powder the tired round steak with soda, to bring up its color.  And she baked crisp, chunky doughnuts in the family kitchen.  They were very good doughnuts.  Our friends enjoyed them, but  Mama didn't sell many.  Mama thought she should go into business this first year of return to Sioux Falls as a cushion for Papa, if he couldn't sell enough tires to make a living.  Mama didn't honestly believe he was going to make a good salesman.  She was wrong.


     To his customers Papa would say, "Dis tire is junk.  De udder tire is voice junk.  My adwise to you is to buy de foist piece junk.  Cheaper.  Better."  Papa's customers not only began to trust him, they entertained him in their homes.  He was a welcome visitor to many lonely Jewish families in small South Dakota and Iowa towns.  He didn't give compliments.  He just said what was so.  "If you got to say, say it!"


     After a year on the tire truck, Papa became the company's first gentleman salesman, writing up his tire orders for later delivery.  Within a few years he walked into Phil Sieff's S & M Tire Company in Minneapolis and said, "I will be your first road salesman.  My territory will be South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota."


     Later multipmillionaire Phil Sieff told this story for years, the way a lover speaks of his first mistress.  "Thank God," he said, "I didn't have the guts to throw him out.  I wanted to.  I simply didn't have the guts.  He just walked in and took over."  Papa delighted his young boss, especially when he opened up the whole midwest territory for Phil's oyster.  Phil, born of northern Minnesota Jewish parents, long time husband to a "shiksha" who didn't want their children to grow up Jewish, reveled in Papa's totally gut-Jewishness.  "What is with it," was one of Papa's phrases.  Phil was enchanted.  The more sentences Papa twisted -- and the more tires he sold --- the warmer their attachament grew.  Papa moved into a lake house one summer and wrote the landlord a complaint Phil quoted to anyone who'd listen.  "Landlord.  Pay attention.  House.  Rats overrun with."


     And the time I said, "Papa.  Why do you fight so much with Dick?  You know how you love your son."  Papa glared at me.  "How I love your brother you could put in your right eye including your brother."


     Phil's affection remained as Papa became his Sales Manager, trained other men for the road and finally went back to Sioux Falls, this time to become the owner of the Dakota Auto Parts Company.  Papa had been lending money to its owner, on his sales trips through the South Dakota territory and had been promised first option to buy.  Now he was ready.  There couldn't have been a better moment.  World War II made every scrap, every used auto part valuable.  If there is a time for all things, this time was Papa's.


     The rest isn't as interesting.  As in most success stories, the hero becomes less exciting [when] he accomplishes what he set out to do.  Jailed at sixteen by the Czar's government for distributing Socialist propaganda, this old line Socialist now couldn't rest until he bought his first Cadillac.  He would drive up to each filling station and walk around the car as it was being filled, waiting to hear words of praise or admiration. He was mostly disappointed, but he kept trying.  However, he had the grace to switch back to Oldsmobiles at trade in time.  He'd made it.  He'd proved it.  His other two major goals were to be achieved later, Mama's big diamond ring and finally, her mink stole.  Her "minik" stole, worn like an accolade around her shoulders in the chill of (also later) Miami Beach evenings.


     The next to the last picture I have of Papa, covers his happiest years.  Mama and Papa began coming to Florida over forty years ago.  Later, they gave up their Sioux Falls home to move to Biscayne Bay, to a high rise, year round apartment.


     From his eleventh floor balcony, Papa owned the Bay and the world.  In a color, candid photo we have of them, Papa and Mama are grinning broadly at the camera, Mama with her mink stole draped over her shoulders.  Papa is so pleased his eyes are almost shut tight with the stretch of his big smile.


     In this new time on Miami Beach, Papa's famous temper was in danger of being forgotten.  He loved having friends over to look at his view.  Mama's space shoes were his special delight.  "How do you like such misschegass," he asked proudly.  "Seventy five dollars for a pair of shoes."  Every step Mama took in her seventy five dollar space shoes, she gave him pleasure.


     Papa's gifts to Mama and to us, grew more lavish.  When he gave Mama her great, new diamond at their fiftieth anniversary, he had achieved about as much happiness as a man could hope for in his lifetime.


     Many months before Mama died, Papa had stopped writing letters.  Then checks.  Then anything.  Months after printed words meant nothing to him, he kept fingering his magazines, trying to make us think he was reading.  Many nights he walked through our house screaming, "My money.  Call the police.  What happened to my money?  My name is R. J. Light," he would say to me.  Then, to catch me, "Who am I?"  And I would reassure him.  "You're Papa.  My Papa."  Sometimes he believed me.


     But now, Light, enough.  Enough now life, Papa.  You are three years of empty loneliness beyond Mama.  You don't speak anymore.  Your housekeeper and nurse has taken over where I can't help you anymore.  I can't bear to see or tend your nakedness, Papa.  You are my proud father.  I can't so humble nor diminish you.  You are gone and not gone.  Here and not here.  Enough, Papa, please, please, enough.


     Papa died in Miami, February 23, 1971.


Copyright Issues


This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Bee Baxter Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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