11. Brooklyn

 

The 1950s opens with Dora and Louis living in Brooklyn where they moved in the ’40s. A lifetime of hard work accentuates their age; they look old. Dora is still sturdy, but Louis is frail. Their Avenue P apartment is comfortable compared to earlier places. In the living room there is a TV / radio / phonograph console proudly boasting a 10 inch screen. In the kitchen, along with the inevitable jelly glasses, is plenty of seltzer in thick glass siphons. Visiting grandchildren can get it mixed with cherry syrup. Life finally allows for small luxuries.

Then Louis develops Parkinson’s disease. His doctors speculate it’s related to the beating he received in the Russian army. As the disease worsens he becomes bedridden and in 1952, after a long hospitalization, he dies. This soft spoken, gentle and kindly man is gone. His portrait is hung in the house that bears his name and the next grandchild, Al’s daughter, is named to honor his memory: Lois. Other grandchildren, Susan to Irving, Andy to Frances, Toby to Ida, Diane to Irv and, lastly, Jason to Al also come into the family during the 50’s.

“The Season” in Sharon Springs, May through October, keeps Dora busy. It means cleaning rooms, doing laundry, cadging customers, and innumerable other chores. The daughters, assorted grandchildren and others are on hand to help during July and August. This aging but vital woman works hard. A rooming house, the Brustman House, is her livelihood. It ensures her independence.

As the resort’s clientele age and die, new patrons replace them: refugee Hassidic Jews. They are of the Satmar Sect and most are concentration camp survivors. They come for sulfur baths, hoping to repair ruined health. The Satmar are very different in many apparent ways from the previous Jewish clientele: they are disdainful of other Jews, keep to themselves, and dress unusually. They wear black caftans, white stockings, fringed shawls and wide fur hats. In addition, they are fairly poor and do not spend money in the village.

The resort’s character changes with this new, smaller, and insular customer base. The season becomes shorter and far less prosperous. The music concerts stop, the movie house is shut, and most shops close for good. The resort’s long slow decline accelerates and properties are sold off cheaply to the Satmar, including the Central Hotel next door to the Brustman House. Other hotels are just left to rot.

Several Greyhound buses shuttle each day between Sharon Springs and New York City during the season. Few guests or visitors have cars. But when Max or Al is in town, the family has access to private transportation. Ah, Max Haber’s tan DeSoto and Al’s Chevy Bel Aire — the stuff of legend!

At the Brustman House, a refrigerator and gas range have replaced the icebox and cast-iron stove. Ever more layers of bargain wallpaper and linoleum thicken the walls and floors. Steve, the tipsy town handyman whose main qualification is being cheap and available, every so often jacks up a tilting porch or replaces a rotted floorboard, usually in a manner that defies convention and/or logic. All the while uncles Bill, Max and Teddy are busy repairing, mending and fixing everything else that needs it; just about the entire house and its contents. One way or another the place is miraculously kept a step ahead of disaster. The cumulative legacy of this frugality still stands, a shrine to relentless thrift.

There are dark moments too. One is when Dora is rushed to a Cooperstown hospital with a stroke. Another is more private and recurring; the nightmare of the Holocaust is never far from Dora’s mind. Somehow the Nazis’ murder of her family creates a survivor’s guilt that produces frequent remorse. “We could have saved them,” she constantly tells Hinda, “We could have saved them.”

Now that all her children have children of their own, everyone is busy with the business of family. Dora watches her fourteen grandchildren grow. There are bar mitzvahs and high school graduations. Ida and Max move to Florida and, as the ’50s became the ’60s, Mark and Frances each celebrate 25th wedding anniversaries. “Where does the time go?” Dora would always ask.

Then in 1961, suddenly, Dora dies.

Photo: Dora with Blossom and Elsie and a gagle of grandchildren, Sharon Springs, 1954

Continue on to The Epilogue

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