Mom: A Bronx Woman
y grandmother had my mother, Helen (Penny) Schulberg, at age 17. For her first few years my mom lived in Manhattan on Grand Street. At age three, with Grandma Frances working and mom under the care of a day sitter, mom somehow separated herself from the sitter and crossed Grand Street by herself. This event became the motivation for two things mom became known for life-long: crossing the street regardless of the traffic or traffic signal, and walking as fast as humanly possible given her incredibly short legs. In later years, when mom wore heels, her gait was so distinct she could be heard approaching from blocks away.
Soon after age three, mom and Grandma Frances moved to the Bronx. Mom attended P.S. 64 through the eighth grade, and went on to attend Roosevelt High School on Fordham Road. She was going to be the first in the family to graduate high school, and it was such a big deal that her paternal grandfather was going to take the subway up from the Lower East Side to attend the ceremony. However, for her to graduate she needed to first take and pass a swimming test. This was quite challenging, as she really never caught on to the art of swimming. Nonetheless, the day of the test came and mom bit hard and swam across the pool and treaded water for a minute, thereby passing the test and going onto graduation. Following graduation, my mother committed to never getting her hair wet again for the rest of her life. She would never again go deeper than her waist in any body of water, other than a bath.
After high school, mom started a job in lower Manhattan at the Eagle Pencil Company. She started on a Thursday and the next day, Friday, was an early day, due to the Sabbath. The boss told mom he'd see her back to work on Sunday. Mom responded that she didn't work on Sunday and was resigning on the spot and wanted her paycheck to use for getting her hair done on Saturday. Although payday was Tuesday, the boss relented and cut her check then and there and additionally gave her a parting gift of a pencil. Another early job she held was in a jewelry store putting watch bands on watches. She decided that her pay and that of her co-workers was too low and organized an employee walk-out and picket, calling in a union for the employees to join. The boss came to mom and said that if she could convince her picketing co-workers to return to work and not unionize, he'd give them each a 25-cent per hour raise and give mom $200, provided she terminate her employment. Mom convinced her co-workers to return to work for the 25-cent raise, after which she promptly resigned, took her $200 payment and used it for a Miami vacation with a girlfriend.
In the late '30s, my mother and her mom were vacationing at a Catskill hotel, where my dad, unknown to them at the time, was the athletic director. There was an evening social event where single women were asked to take off one of their shoes, throw them in a pile, and single men would each pick a shoe from the pile. The woman whose shoe was picked would then be that evening's date for the man picking the shoe. My dad, a participant in the event, watched my mom take off her shoe and place it in the pile. Although small in size (barely five feet and 100 pounds), blue-eyed mom with her dark hair dyed strawberry-blonde looked like a small Lucille Ball. Getting back to the shoe pile, dad went straight for mom's shoe and picked it. Voila, mom and dad's first date was that night and it ultimately led to their marriage after WWII.
In 1946, after serving heroically in WWII and returning home unscathed, dad married mom, who had waited dutifully for him. During the war, many beautiful love letters were exchanged between them. Early in their marriage, while living in an apartment on 172nd Street and Walton Avenue, dad asked mom about moving to a single family home in northern New Jersey. He had money saved during his army days and could get a low-interest GI loan. Mom was a die-hard New Yorker and apartment dweller and was adamant about staying in New York, in an apartment. She told him that if he pursued moving to New Jersey, it would be without her. Her threat prevailed as they stayed in the Bronx and the Bronx is where my younger sister Meg's and my formative years were spent growing up, being schooled, forming friendships, and meeting our life partners. Big thanks to mom for that.
Like my mother, I attended P.S. 64. During the '50s I was in the fourth grade with a teacher I'd call a witch, but that would be an insult to witches! For years this teacher displayed a nasty disposition to her classes and in my class, but for a few teacher's pets, the remaining students suffered her wrath. I was called names, one friend was re-seated from the front of the room to the back, and another friend was once made to stand inside the coat closet. This was totally undeserved as we were not problem students either academically or from a behavior standpoint. After several weeks of my complaining to mom, she called a meeting with not only the teacher, but the principal and vice-principal, and at the meeting really laced into them. Not only was I further spared the teacher's wrath until term's end, but at the start of the next term, with me safely tucked away in fifth grade, that teacher was removed from teaching and relegated to working in the school library. I'm pretty sure this was due to a collective parental uproar over the teacher, not the least of which was my mother's input. The bottom line is that mom, albeit not alone, deserves credit for making fourth grade life for those behind me much less stressful.
By the late '60s, Walton Avenue was becoming somewhat dangerous. One evening when my mom was returning home from work, as she approached the apartment front door she saw a guy trying to jimmy the lock and break in. Instead of running away, she yelled out, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" The guy became startled, stopped what he was doing and ran past her, down the stairs and out the building. Break-in averted.
Like so many others from the south Bronx, we moved to Co-op City in the early 70s. Not too long thereafter, residents were being telemarketed to buy burial plots at a Putnam County cemetery. Most people would have hung up the phone, but mom, age 54 at the time and always wanting to be prepared, actually thought it a good idea and purchased two burial plots, unbeknown to my dad. Apparently, she missed the telemarketer telling her that the purchase comes with a viewing of the cemetery and grave sites and he scheduled a date and time for the viewing. Two weeks later when the scheduled date and time arrived, the phone rang in our apartment and my father answered. The man on the other end asked, "Are you not coming, I'm waiting at the cemetery?" Dad, ashen-color, turned to my mother and asked, "What man is calling about waiting for us at a cemetery?" So startling was this phone call to my father, that he might have needed that burial plot right then and there!
Sometime in the mid 80s after dad had passed, my mom, by then in her late sixties, was standing in front of her Co-op City building with a dear friend and neighbor, waiting on a cab they'd called to take them to the airport for a planned vacation flight out. Out of nowhere, a young guy appeared and grabbed her pocketbook, knocking her to the ground and running off. Among the contents of the pocketbook were traveler checks and credit cards. Undeterred, she got up from the ground and in her high heels started running after the guy. It was a fruitless effort, but one wonders what would have happened had she caught him. Her pocketbook was later found in a Co-op City trash bin with the credit cards and traveler checks intact. Guess the crook didn't want anything other than cash!
My mom worked for many years at a bank on 170th Street between Townsend and Jerome Avenues. In the late 80s, the bank merged and a number of employees too young to retire were let go without any remuneration. It turned out that when mom first started working there, in a moment of vanity she had lied about her age on the employment application, citing a younger age than she was. When the merger happened, she was one of those being let go and underage for a pension despite having the requisite number of years of service. With the needed income trumping vanity, she suddenly came clean about her real age, showing proof. The bank, having not verified her age at the time of her employment, was required to retire her with a pension, and she continued receiving that pension till her passing.
As mentioned earlier, my mother lived a relatively healthful life before and after dad passed, and until her own passing in January of 2015. Her funeral and burial occurred a few days after a New York area snow storm, with the ground still snow and ice-filled . The Putnam cemetery in which she was being buried was very hilly. The vehicle procession was traversing the cemetery and climbing a number of icy hills. My car was directly behind the hearse carrying mom. Toward the top of the last hill before the grave site, the hearse not only stopped moving forward but, with its tires spinning, began sliding backward. My wife started screaming, fearing that the hearse's backdoor would open with the casket sliding out, or the hearse was going to continue sliding backward and slam into our car, or both! Fortunately, hearse finally gained traction, the backward slide stopped, and mom made it to her grave site. My wife swears this incident was mom making a statement and playing her final joke on us!
Indeed a character and often feisty, my mother lived by a consistent set of philosophies:
I know I speak not only for my family and me but for all who knew her that my mom, a great Bronx woman, is sorely missed.
Input for this piece was in part provided by my sister, Meg Torelli.