For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

I Remember Mindel


by Leslie Neyer-Kapel

M

y grandma lived at 712 Fox Street in the Bronx. The last years of her life she lived aloneon the ground floor.

It was a neighborhood that evoked the true essence of the Bronx. There were elderly Jewish and Italian people who seemed to be left behind by their grown children. They had moved to grander, newer parts of the Bronx. That is what you did in the 1940's.

There were the younger families who were trying to raise their children in a close, safe and homey neighborhood. My grandmother was an elderly widow, and had grown children living a few short blocks away, a daughter on Longwood Avenue and a son around the corner. Everyone knew my grandparents, as my grandfather would sit in his Morris chair in the window and watch the children play stickball in the gutter. He would even admonish the Jewish kids for playing on shabbos, the Jewish sabbath.

When my parents married in 1937 they moved to that grander part of the Bronx; so we lived on Ward Avenue, between Westchester and Watson Avenues. The Westchester Avenue El was a short block away. This was a very desirable location owing to the fact that there were not many cars being owned or driven in the Bronx before and during the war years.

Bronx living back in the 40's, 50's and 60's was so different from what my children and grandchildren experience today. Life in the Bronx had its own rituals, rhythm and harmony. It is hard for me to believe that all of this has transpired in my own lifetime.

To get back to Mindel, she was under 5 feet by some inches, and wore her pepper and salt hair in a tightly wound bun at the nape of her neck. She also wore a twinkling smile in her freshly smelling, stiffly starched house dress. She would prepare her Bronx apartment for the weekend. She would go to the neighborhood bakery down the block, where she would run into my Aunt Norah's dog, "Jerry", waiting outside the store. She would greet him with a pat on the head and a "that's a good boy Jerryla". Inside, she would find her daughter also shopping for the weekend. From there, two doors down she would go to the fruit store. When her shopping was finished, she would go home schlepping those shopping bags made out of oilcloth. It was now time to make her little three-room apartment immaculate to usher in the weekend and to welcome her visiting grandkids.

Friday's ritual would find her scrubbing her bathroom and kitchen floors with brown soap; then she would cover the drying floors with brown paper. Grandma would even sit out on the windowsill to clean her windows periodically. Remember, she lived on the ground floor!

Mindel's existence in the Bronx was not much different from life in the old country. She knew the neighbors, the merchants and life was usually centered in a small radius of blocks in and around 712 Fox Street.

She would bake up a batch of sibela kichels with moon (onion cookies with poppyseeds) which would be stored in a large glass jar kept in the closet.

My dad would call her on the pretense of asking her to babysit for my brother and I. Of course, we were keeping her company. She would make us breakfast on Sunday morning. It would consist of a glass of milk with a spot of coffee and sugar in it; with a large fresh round onion roll smeared with cream cheese, a piece of lox and a thin slice of Bermuda onion. Heaven!

Mindel would then brush and braid my hair and send me out to play in the courtyard of her building with the neighborhood children. There were a group of kids that lived in the building as well as some from across the street. We would play marbles, the girls would play skip rope or "A my name is...", until The Whip came by. Then we would all scramble home for money.

What made this street different from my own on Ward Avenue was that there were still a lot of elderly, immigrant people there and this seemed to lend a flavor of the old world. It was an enlightening experience for me. I thought about these immigrant people. At one time they lived on the lower east side in cramped quarters sharing bathrooms down the hall, with roaches, rats and God knows what else. Now that their dreams of coming to America had materialized, it was time to dream of the Bronx!

When I think about it these days, I am amazed that my life is so different from what it was like on those streets I left behind a long time ago. I can still evoke the smells of the Bronx if I concentrate hard enough. For instance, there is no other smell that compares with hot bubbling apple jelly boiling in the big black cauldron pot on the peddler's wagon, or the smell of the hot roasting chestnuts or sweet potatoes. I can still remember the sliced pieces of coconut stored in their own milk in a glass jar.

But when I think of the Bronx, I think about this little lady who came to this country not speaking the language, not understanding the mores, yet eventually becoming this woman who fell into the American lifestyle while still preserving the best of old world ways.

Most amazing of all about her was the fact that my brother and I were two of her youngest grandchildren out of 17. The oldest grandchild was only two years younger than our father. But, grandma still had the love, patience and devotion for us.

Today, sometimes when I babysit for my grandchildren I think about her and wonder if I measure up to her standards. Her grandparenting did not consist of gifts, travel, visits to the mall or even television. Our treats consisted of a twenty-five cents bag of Wise potato chips and a bottle of Pepsi. Our gift was her love.

I would like to think that there is a little piece of her inside of me to share with my grandchildren; her great, great, grandchildren, and I know that there are still some Bronx ways I have not shed. My grandchild has my Bronx accent downpat. And if I can find a "stoop" here in North Carolina I will teach my grandkids how to play stoop ball.




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