My Childhood

Dad and mom with sister Martha in 1940.

Some of my earliest recollections growing up in New York City in the 1940s and 50s include: boating to Palisades Park; tents on the fire-escape; weekly Hudson River shoreline walks; Coney Island & Nathan's Hot Dogs; hectic holiday shopping at Macy’s; sledding in Riverside Park at night; picnics at Tibbitts Brook and Van Courtland Park; scary subway trips; frolicking at Grant's Tomb; trick & treating on Broadway; crunching through snow Christmas Eve for midnight mass; colorful fireworks over the Hudson River; and, explosive family holiday dinners and celebrations.  Consuming large quantities of alcohol was part of the problem due to the fact that a number of family members wrestled unsuccessfully with their drinking demons

Our apartment was located on the Westside.  Directly across the Hudson was Palisades Park, to the right George Washington Bridge and to the left Grant’s Tomb.  My playground was Broadway and the sidewalks of NYC.  Most Sundays, dad would take my sister and me on walks to Grant’s Tomb and Riverside Church and on occasion we would go to Central Park where we’d rent a boat and row around the lake while dad napped.  Many times my sister and I would steer intentionally into other boats just to wake him.  We often played pranks on him.  One incident that I distinctly remember was in Riverside Park and the newly fallen snow was so deep that it concealed us from dad’s sight – even though we were under some leafless bushes directly in front of him.  It helped that my sister and I were dressed in dark brown snowsuits – and we blended into the scene as we watched dad frantically calling our names.  Dad didn’t think that was funny and he demonstrated how upset he was.  Luckily our clothing was thickly padded for the cold . . . we didn’t do that again!  But there would be future antics we would concoct.

PARENTS & FAMILY

Mom and Dad came from very different backgrounds and each had difficult childhoods.  Mom’s family emigrated from Czechoslovakia at the tail end of the 19th Century.  Her parents were of Czechoslovakian and German descent.  Her father, John, journeyed to the United States in hopes of finding a new life for the family he left in Europe.  Working in the Pennsylvania coal mines gave him the stability he sought and soon sent for his wife (Teresa Palko) and their 7 children.  Their eldest daughter Agnes, being all of seventeen years, was so enthralled with the European style of living that she decided to stay in Vienna, Austria against her parents’ wishes.  It was only after my grandmother made yet another voyage back to Europe and demanded that she accompany her back to America to be with the family.  Agnes had a certain continental aura that persisted into her later years.  After she consumed a few alcoholic drinks she would announce loudly to anyone within earshot that she was actually the Russian princess Anastasia.  I always found Aunt Agnes to be a colorful character that echoed her European background and manifested itself in her bearing and penchant to wear matching hat and gloves every time she stepped outside.  Mom’s father died when she was two years old as a result of years in the coal mines and her mother became the sole provider of the children.  In order to make ends meet she took in boarders.  Another of mom’s sisters was Aunt Pauline (aka Teenie).  She married when she was thirteen years old and ended up bearing fifteen children, of which eight died at childbirth.  Mom, being the youngest in the family, had to drop out of school in the third grade to help with her sister’s growing family.  It was a difficult life for mom - I think that’s why she insisted on a formal education that included college.  She was either helping her mother and peers at home or she was sent to live with her sister Teenie during her many pregnancies.  It was customary for Tennie’s husband Martin to get drunk on paydays and take his way with his wife.  At seventeen, mom was coerced into marrying her first husband, Ishmael Lara, after he threatened to kill her family.  Their marriage resulted in two children, Jacqueline and Fredrick.  Her first husband took the family to Mexico where mom became housekeeper and maid to his family.  After a number of years of washing clothes in the river, cooking, cleaning after his relatives, mom escaped her Mexican life of servitude by contacting her sister Katherine who paid the Red Cross to bring them back over the border and returned to Pennsylvania in 1931.  Realizing that she was a single parent raising two children, she implored her sister Teenie to take in Jackie and Freddy while she sought work opportunities in NYC.  Aunt Teenie was already raising seven children and two more would mean they’d be more hands to help with the chores.  It was agreed that mom would send money home to help the family, and that she would send for the children once she was working and on her own.

Dad was born in the Philippines in the early 1900s and his parents’ background included a number of nationalities: Filipino; Spanish; Turkish; and Portuguese.  His father was a cook by trade and mother would weave hats and catch fish that she sold from a cart she would pull on her travels to neighboring villages.  At age seventeen, dad decided to leave the islands and migrate to the U.S and join his older brother Philip in California.  His parents expected him to be a priest but dad had other plans for his life.  Upon leaving his family he vowed that his first born son would be the priest.  His arrival in San Francisco brought new lessons and experiences.  His culinary training began in a Greek restaurant where the owner took an interest and introduced him to the art of cooking.  Dad, in a moment of candor, told me that he owed his cooking abilities to the owner, but he found it strange that after a long day’s work shift they'd go to the back of the kitchen and he was expected to sit on his teacher’s lap!  During the late 1930s dad moved to NYC where he met mom at a Filipino dance.  At the time mom was employed as a chamber maid for a family on 5th Avenue and dad worked in various restaurants where he increased his knowledge in culinary arts.  Very soon they were dating and began a life together.  Jackie (13 years old) and Freddy (12 years old) joined them and they moved to a larger apartment on Broadway where mom took in boarders to make ends meet.  Mom’s life was one of servitude while dad worked and slaved in NYC kitchens – their lives were humble to say the least.  His employment included the Stork Club as a waiter and chef cook at the Hotel Empire.  During his years at the Stork Club he was honored to have his art work appear in Ripley's Believe It Or Not column.  He and my uncle Philip worked years on the Cunnard and American Export Lines with passenger ships sailing between NYC, South America and Europe.  Dad would be gone months at a time working back to back cruises leaving mom with the parenting responsibilities.  We were lucky if we saw dad a few days out of each year.  My uncle Philip was the playboy in the family.  During the 50s and 60s he sailed to Europe.  He enjoyed working back to back cruises and felt more at home at sea then on land being a confirmed bachelor.  One memorable voyage was when Grace Kelly sailed to Monaco to wed Prince Rainier in 1956 on the SS Constitution.  He invited the family on board and gave us a tour of Ms. Kelly's staterooms before the ship sailed.  My sister and I received postcards from the port stops around the Mediterranean - a collection I still treasure.

FAMILY VACATIONS

My Ford City, PA family 1964

I remember the first time mom took us to meet her family.  We journeyed by train from NYC to Pittsburgh where we were greeted with disapproving looks and whispered conversations by my conservative rural relatives.  A white woman mother to two dark skinned children in the late 1940s was unacceptable.  She was often asked by strangers if she was the nanny, and when mom explained that she was our mother people would only shake their heads in condemnation.  During the summers my sister and I would spend days in the sun and our skin darkened due to our father’s background.  The fact that mom was again involved with a man of color did not sit well with her backwoods family.  Her sisters would tease her that the next man she’d marry was going to be black.  Overtime dad was accepted by mom’s family – winning them over with his cooking, charming them with his warm friendly demeanor and free haircuts.  Dad’s stint in the Merchant Marines during WWII gave him the expertise of preparing meals for the officers and crew as well as being the ship’s barber.  The lessons I learned that summer were: don’t lock your father in the outhouse on a hot summer day; stand clear of cousins or they’ll kick you in the stomach; and, always poke holes in the top of the container filled with fireflies.

I appreciated the simple country life of my mother’s family and looked forward with anticipation to our yearly three month visits.  I was introduced to story telling, Sunday school classes and the evangelist, Katherine Kuhlman.  Bus rides into Pittsburgh to see her always included bags of sandwiches and a variety of side dishes and drinks.  We would get there early and stay late into the night so provisions were a necessity.  My cousin Julie was born with cerebral palsy and my aunt would make weekly journeys in hopes of a miracle.  After years of surgeries and therapies she was still confined to a wheelchair.  My aunt’s first eight children were stillborn, and Julie was her ninth.  Sadly, that miracle never arrived but her faith in God stayed strong and unswerving.

Each evening we would be entertained with stories retold by my extended family members.  They would share my mother’s family history and photos of long lost European relatives that I would never meet.  Stories of horror and fantasy were always a feature, but my favorites were the ghost stories.  One concerned my grandfather and his encounter with a ghost when my mother was just a few months old.  To this day, I don’t know the validity of the story but chills run through me when I think of the tale.

HOLLYWOOD

Summer vacations from 1952 to 1958 were spent at a small beachside hotel in Hollywood, FL.  We had vacationed in Pennsylvania and Canada and Florida was a new location.  I remember the first experience with racial bigotry was in 1952 on our first road trip to the sunshine state.  NYC was a cauldron of many cultures and nationalities living in the same building.   On our journey we always took the Chesapeake Bay ferry where I found black and white drinking fountains and restrooms.  Of course, I asked mom, “Where are the brown ones?”  Her response was to use either one, they’re the same.  I decided to use both.  I never gave much notice to skin color until our first trip through the southern coastal states.  Brother Fred was expected to help with the driving but he had other plans.  After his discharge from the Navy he lived with us.  Upon our return he announced his engagement to the girl across the street.  He and Rose had been dating and she had a car that Fred loved driving.  Mom asked him why was he going to marry and his answer was, “She has a car!”  I also found out later that she was also the first girl he dated who would not sleep with him unless they married.  So, they married and had two sons, Freddy Jr. and John.  

Florida was paradise in the late 1950s.  One could walk for miles on the beach and see a handful of buildings.  Hollywood was a sleepy seaside town on the brink of an influx of full time residents from the north.  There are so many memories from those treasured years . . . harvesting coconuts on the beach, hunting for shells, driving to Key West, tourist attractions.  Our yearly two month vacations had a definite effect on Mom so much that she put a deposit on a home in July ’58.  Needless to say dad didn’t like the idea from the start.  NYC was changing and mom wanted to raise her children in a better environment - and Florida offered her that opportunity.  Dad's culinary experience would insure employment and begrudgingly went along, hoping that mom would soon abandon her dream once we returned home.  We hastened back to NYC where we packed a small trailer hitched to the back of the family car and journeyed to the sunshine state.  September was weeks away and we still had to be enrolled in schools.  That Christmas found us in our newly built home where, for the first time, I had my own bedroom.  Actually, it was the guest room – since I ended up sleeping on the living room floor when visiting family and friends would stay (which was quite often).

 

SIBLINGS

Fred, Mom with Martha, family friend Mary and sister Jackie on the beach in 1940.

Jackie never forgave mom for leaving her in Pennsylvania.  Being the product of a mixed marriage (Czechoslovakian, German, Mexican and French) she soon understood why she was considered a “half-breed” by the residents of the little rural town of Ford City, PA and even by her own family members.  Her feelings persisted into adult life and she would never miss the opportunity to remind mom of her early childhood and feelings of abandonment.  No matter how many times mom would explain her actions, Jackie felt cheated out of a loving and safe environment.  At 17 she was streetwise and rebellious.  Mom had difficulties with her that would erupt into verbally assaulting each other.  The cruelest things would be said and it would end with one of them walking out.  On December 30, 1944 Jackie married Darryl Wells, a young soldier she met at the public pool.  At their first meeting she announced that he was the man she was going to marry.  Little did she know that her marriage would include his mother, Katherine (Mrs. Wells) for the next 33 years.  She shared their first apartment, and when they purchased a home in Hollis Long Island, Mrs. Wells helped with the down payment as did mom.  My sister and I looked forward to visiting our nieces: Sherry and Patty.  But, with everything going for her, Jackie still wrestled with her demons; often finding solace at the bottom of a bottle.  Family celebrations often ended in chaos due to the quantity of alcohol consumed. 

Fred was 16 when he joined the Navy and served in the Korean War.  Mom would tell the story of signing him into the service after speaking with an officer and realizing that her son would have a better chance of an education than staying with the family.  He had been running with characters of ill repute.  As mom told me, Fred and his buddy, Shadow, would use youth and bravado to their advantage on the streets of NYC.  I remember as a youngster, Fred would come home on leave in his Navy uniform and toss me into the air.  He even bought me a matching sailor suit complete with cap.  Later in life, he struggled with his own personal demons that weighed heavily on the family.

Martha was the favored child.  Being dad’s first born girl, all the attention was showered on her.  Even four years later when I arrived on the scene; I was relegated to stand in her shadow.  I think that’s why she didn’t remember me being around when growing up.  My sister was formally trained in singing, acting, dancing and piano.  School recitals and plays always featured her in lead roles and solo parts.  She was the pride of my parents and groomed to be the star of the family.  Her schooling was at Saint Walburgas Academy (a private girls school) on the upper Westside from the first grade through her junior year of high school.  Her senior year was spent at Central Catholic H.S. in Fort Lauderdale since we moved to Hollywood, FL in 1958.  More on this later.

FAMILY MEMORIES

In Riverside Park - Martha had height & weight advantage

Theater was in my blood from an early age.  Growing up my nieces and I would put on shows for the family  holiday gatherings - lots of singing, dancing, skits, puppet shows. . . we entertained them with our creativity and inventiveness - I guess that came from watching too many Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films.  Martha was our headliner and would sing the latest hit parade songs.  Card games always included the children - Black Jack; Canasta; Pinochle; Gin Rummy; 7 Card Stud; Poker - we learned them all and found out that card games could be an unexpected source of pocket money due to the betting aspect.  During the spring family gatherings were often held at Coney Island, Palisades Park, or at surrounding lakes and beaches.  Maybe less alcohol was consumed but we were enjoying the warmth of the family during those happy outings.

Subway rides always were an adventure.  Every so often you could expect threatening drunks or lunatics providing a scary ride.  Rush hour was impossible - throngs waiting to get on and crowds disembarking made for a chaotic scene of confusion.  Martha once was separated from mom and got carried away by the mob at the wrong station.  Another memorable ride was when my sister and I were in matching western costumes - from black western hats down to the cowboy boots - on our way to Madison Square Garden for the rodeo featuring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  Holiday shopping always was exciting with each of us loaded down with purchases from Macy's and Gimbels maneuvering our way through the crowds.  I remember dad one memorable excursion to the 1950 Thanksgiving Day Parade, picking my sister and me up to see the balloons and floats passing.  Mom stayed home and prepared the holiday dinner.

Mom and dad learned to drive in 1951 and purchased their first car - providing me with a multitude of road trip memories.  Mom was the preferred driver due to dad's inability to accept backseat directions from her.  To get mom's attention he would drive on and off the shoulder of the road intentionally causing terrifying moments.  Niagara Falls was the first place we visited with the family car.  I remember donning the wet weather gear they provided and the family took a walk under the falls - and almost got swept away with the falls fury.  Florida trips soon followed and we stopped at every tourist spot that attracted our attention.  The summer of 1952 we ended up in Key West and considered taking the car ferry to Cuba but settled for a small beachside hotel that was soon to become our annual summer retreat for the next seven years.

When Rose married Fred she didn't realize what a crazy family we were and was shocked at holiday gatherings with the alcohol induced anger.  She preferred to spend holidays with her family and I don't blame her.  My brother made Rose's life challenging - she was a saint for putting up with his behavior.  Fred was wrestling with his drinking demons and often she would call crying and upset.  One time he took his infant son bar-hopping and left him at one of his frequent haunts.  Luckily they contact mom and she retrieved the baby.  He would cause his own problems and then expect others to bail him out.  Visits with my brother's family were few and far between.  Mom had the bad habit of remembering past events that were points of contention and arguments would ensue - she was loving but tenacious.  Their two sons never really experienced how loving their grandparents could be.  His son, Freddie Jr., had his share of demons and would enter my life again in the early 1990s.

Sleepovers at Jackie's home in Long Island were special times - we  pitched tents in the backyard using bed linens and play board games and tell stories.  Apartment living doesn't afford much room and walks in Riverside Park were a means of escaping the confining walls.  My sister would always make fudge and our meals were alfresco.  My nieces are close in age to me with me being the eldest - and were my best friends in childhood.  We shared much of our family history together and survived.

Martha was a tomboy.  Being four years older than me she soon realized that she could order me around without much resistance.   She would use her weight to her advantage - a favorite trick she had at the beach was to push me under the water and stand on me.  I remember my mother screaming, "Where is your brother?" - all along I'm squirming under the weight of her body pressing down on me and she's playing dumb.  We were a loving family!  Halloween would find us trick or treating on Broadway.  There was a family of little people living on our block and every year they would be in costume and beat us up with socks filled with rocks and take our treats.  Martha would often rise to the occasion and threatened them with a fight, only to lose each time.  Maybe that's why she went to finishing school in hopes that her rough edges would be softened.

Annunciation Elementary School was staffed with Adrian Dominican nuns and they did not spare any rods in keeping students in line.  They had an arsenal of cruel, degrading and insulting ways that would rival the Spanish Inquisition.  It was standard practice to slap students around and beat them with thick wooden rulers or dress the offending student as a nun and humiliate him by marching him throughout the school.  Final report cards were handed out by one of the parish priests and there were some that would use hands and fists on failing students.  Most of the nuns were warm and gracious, but there were some that were evil incarnate with their torture techniques and you learned early on to steer clear of them unless you wanted a physical altercation.  They were frustrated bitter women venting their anger on their students, daily.