January 23th, 2008
The sun is setting on a generation of family. With the recent passing of my step father, Bill Linarelli, the long since and tragic death of my mother just after Talyah Leah, my first child was born in 1988, the devastating loss of the celebrated life of my Grandfather, Albert (Al) Wallace, the advancing age of my beloved grandmother, Esther Wallace, the time has come to record the important lineage and stories of generations of lifetimes of experience and attempt to transmit them authentically for the future children of our family. There are three primary audiences for this work. First, I hope to bring some easement to the emotional batterment of my beloved Grandmother who has encouraged the writing of this story for decades. Her father, Sam Barcan was a proficient author in Yiddish. She has always felt that the writing gene had to be passed onto some family member somewhere, and while I'm certain that I can never be the writer that he was, her encouragement has never the less inspired this writing. And when I'm inspired I can be quite a good writer, if not a god aweful speller (spelling error left intact intentionally).
The second audience for this work is my children. Six in total, a middle sized family for an Orthodox Jewish clan, my children, as most children, can be impetuous, argumentative, plucky, darling, and beautiful and they might not yet be ready to hear the deeply moving tales of our families travails. This is a restless family story spotted with tragedy, rarely at peace, full of love, squabbling like a litter of fresh puppies, bullheaded and suffering in our playful ignorance. All this churning produces outstanding personalities with a laundry list of achievements, both public and private. My children can little yet appreciate how they fit into this colleague of life or this web of history. And yet, when I watch them play and fight, I can see acorns firmly planted in a forest of Barcan's. At some point the kids will be finished with their self absorbed ambitions and step back to understand their legacy and place in the world. Hopefully this work will help guild them in their search to understand their place.
Finally, the last group of readers that I hope to reach is the general audience. I don't know why anyone would be so fascinated with our lives to want to read this, but my Grandmother has assured me many times that writing our story would be a blockbuster on the literary scene. I await for all the fan mail.
I was born into the broken lives of my young mother, and father, whose marriage likely lasted not more than a few weeks after my birth. The initial scene has been recounted into family lore. My father, Morris Safir, my father was emotionally overwhelmed by the prospect of fatherhood but unlike the rest of us young fathers he evidently became very confused and argued with the nursing staff that I wasn't his child. I don't know if he was denying his paternity or if he thought the nurses switch babies. But evidently it was quite a scene, one my grandmother never failed to forget, and as my own children were born it managed to cast a weird dark shadow over the relationship between me, my own children, and wife. She is always looking for some deeply disconcerting fear to utilize for the expression her own emotional jitters. And when my daughter Aviva was born with blond hair, a puzzle to me since dark hair is genetically dominant in the human species, and despite the fact that my wife, Ellen, is blond it was unlikely to have a blond haired brood, I joked that this one can't be mine. The remark was made entirely tongue in cheek over dinner or some jovial moment but it launched an verbose response on the part of Ellen, my wife, who nearly foaming at the mouth accused me repeatedly of being “Just like your father”, the father who I had never met. But when other friends and even my grandmother made similar jokes, Ellen politely seethed as people unwittingly put into motion the full throttle of her most neurotic fears. I'd have to live with the fall out for weeks at a time. It is one of things that has made our relationship over time very difficult and has become of point of competitive contention. The marriage between myself and my wife Ellen can most accurately be described as the inside game of a hockey face off. Ellen is highly competitive with a puritan streak and this relationship as been a nearly perfect bookend to my tumultuous beginnings.
With the early beginnings of my birth, as an unknowing innocent newborn infant, all the pieces which controlled the destiny of my early life was already in place for the theater of rest of my life. There was my absent father, my sweet but overwhelmed mother, and the reluctant but effective presence of my affectionate, wise, exhausted, and loving grandmother and her husband, Albert Wallace. The players had been casted and everyone had their roles.
It's worth saying a word in honor of my Grandmother's husband, her second husband and not my genetic grandfather, who despite that has always been loved and adored by all the members of my generation and we considered him every bit our grandfather disproving that blood is always thicker than water. Albert Wallace, my Grandfather, was a Brighton Beach bread son of a religious Jewish family of 8 children who navigate the desperation of the depression in the cottages of Brighton, near Coney Island. At first they rented out their home to vacationers to the Brooklyn seashore until even this failed. They eventually lost the cottage, and then scraped by, often with the help of the Brooklyn numbers racket, a fact that was colorfully disclosed to we in a cab ride back from Brooklyn's Academy of Music and it's newly renovated Majestic Theater. While not the story teller of my Grandmother, he shocked us on that ride of stories of his brush with the law at the Dekalb Avenue train station when ferrying the books and money to the local racketeers for his mother. Who knew! Such was survival in early twentieth century Brooklyn. It's never been entirely clear to me how they survived, but the gregarious nature of his tribe, the cooperative nature of the eight children, their quick wit, and just dumb luck must all have played an important roll.
Without a doubt the families struggles left an indelible mark on his persona and thinking. The man was brilliant with people and partnered that brilliance with an extremely disciplined mind, fanatical work habits, the most highly organized individual I ever met. It was a lethal combination which turned his enemies into beloved friends. Only the most difficult of personalities held ill will towards him, and those relationships he artistically defused. In the end, when his life was over, nobody could muster a bad thought of him. Despite any disagreements they had with him over any detail, even these individuals couldn't deny his enormous heart, analytical mind, and scrupulous honesty.
He was born in 1916, and things started to turn for his families fortunes when sister, Beryl Wallace, started to make headway in as an actress. The families name was Hershburger, but was gentrified in the Hollywood tradition to the current Wallace. In the end she was able to move the entire clan from Brooklyn to early Los Angeles, California. The family was staked to the growing southern California show business economy and my Grandfather would tell me stories of his work running a nightclub on Catalina Island in his youth, including typical details of how they kept track of liquor and prevented theft of the liquid wares. His business skills seemed to be largely honed during his west coast experience. At some point, Al decided that the decadent lifestyle of California wasn't for him. His sisters acting career was really taking off and being expanded by early broadcast mediums, possibly even early television, I don't quite remember. But it was all cut short when Beryl died young in an airplane crash. I'm not certain if he had returned to Brooklyn before or after that. But it was entirely inevitable. While he had come to age in the Golden State, he was clearly a Brooklynite in his heart.
His first marriage is somewhat of a mystery to me, not because the subject was taboo but just seldom recalled at the family dinner table. He married her at an appropriate enough age as she was apparently quite beautiful. They had one son, Steven Wallace, and then she suddenly bolted the marriage, leaving my grandfather with a child in the late 1940's. How he dealt with this difficult situation was more daunting then he ever let on. The only clue I ever got of his suffering was when Ellen left our marriage with the kids to Milwaukee as our own marriage disintegrated. He told me at that time to be glad she didn't just leave without taking the kids. At least she had the heart to take the children with her. I don't know if I agreed with him. Frankly, I was extremely attached to my kids and loved them intimately. Pick your poison.
My grandfather taught me how to drink scotch, greet people with a firm handshake and smile, think deeply of situations, and to share. Sharing was his greatest legacy. Al Wallace gave of himself to everyone selflessly, even when others might have abused the privileged. He was part of the 1-2 power punch of the Wallace family. He and my grandmother were simply regent in their dealings with folks, often holding court at family and camp gatherings. Entertaining and enablers of others, they could be in a crowd of 50 people, hold court and make every individual feel like they were sharing the spotlight and were the center of their attention. He had a love of music, growing up at the beginning of the Jazz era. A faithful record collector for many years, his collection includes original thick platter disks of Sarah Vaughn, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Fats Waller, and his favorite, Al Jolsen. And then when I was born, at a family gathering, or at one of our extended stays in his home when my mother had problems, I sumerly scratched nearly all the records and destroyed the record player as well in a futile attempt to stack 20 disks at a time on the spindle of walnut music system he owned which was tucked neatly into his bar. I always had a foreboding reverence for that clevis in his living room. Perhaps it was this experience which caused me to carefully avoid and to never disturb that sacred spot in the house. Unfortunately for his record collection it was too late.
And yet, it was not until I was nearly 25 years old that anyone told me of this story. My grandfather not only was a sharer, but he never bared grudges. God knows this is the most important piece of advise I can ever give to my children. Bare no grudges, forgive easily and often. Cherish peace. As I grew into an adult and while my own family was very young, I acquired a decent music system with a tape player, turntable and separate CD player. When he saw this the light went on in his head. The love for music he always had was given its second chance and he introduced me to his entire record collection. While he could not play them any longer on his player, I was able to compensate for the scratches with my turnable and recorded about 40 original recordings onto cassette table. He brought an inexpensive but great sounding portable tape player and he was back in business. In time everyone in the family was in on the action, restocking his entire collection and further expanding it. So things came full circle. The boy who destroyed his grandfathers music hobby when he was a younger man in his 50's came back to reignite the passion once again 25 years later.
When reminiscing about my grandfather, tears express themselves involuntarily on my cheeks. In truth I do this entirely too often, and not often enough. Albert Wallace was the wisest man I'd ever been fortunate enough to meet. When my marriage was breaking apart and I contemplated my options we discussed the possibility of divorce. Sagely he said, “There are 6 kids. In my mind how can you divorce with 6 children.” He was right. Finances alone made it entirely impossible.
When discussing my grandfather the question is not if I tirer of telling you about him, but weather you tirer of hearing about it. In the last week of his life he had decided to take me for a stroll and to spend some time. He'd do this from time to time. He'd just latch on you and hangout. In this case we went to have breakfast at a local dinner o Ralph Avenue and Avenue N. Then we went to run some errands which included, among other things, visiting State Senator Carl Krugers office and walking around the neighborhood. He was having a lot of trouble walking at this point. I hadn't noticed it until then. But it was now obvious. His posture was that of an old man. At the age of 89 his health had suddenly degraded. And while his spirit was there, physically he just couldn't keep up any more. We walked slowly together and I listened to him carefully. A week later both of my grandparents went to St. Johns in the Virgin Islands for a yearly family get together that my Aunt Sena had every New Years for her immediate family. He called me just before leaving to tell me he wasn't going to be home because he was flying out to the Islands. I told him that I didn't think flying was a very good idea because of his heart troubles. The change in pressure tends to aggravate potential clots and many older people suffer sudden deaths when flying. He told me that his doctor checked him out and he was cleared to go. Told him bluntly that it didn't make medical sense and that as a pharmacist I had some experience in these matters. He said he'd be OK and that he had a further appointment with his doctor scheduled for his return. I said that I hope this isn't the last conversation that we have and that you don't return in a box. I said it wasn't worth the risk. He assured me he was alright and we'd talk when he got back. It was the last conversation that we ever had. He made the trip there, but had a fall on New Years Eve in the pool. He died of a brain hemorrhage and returned in a casket.
Early in my life I remember warm summer days in Canarsie, my mother and her best friend Elaine Wolf. I remember nothing of my father. My mother, Sherry Iris Israeloff, was the warmest soul I ever met. He was born with multiple birth defects, possibly the result of a virus that her mother suffered as during the pregnancy, most likely German measles. She had one bad eye which had cataracts, and was hard of hearing, especially in her left ear. Other than that, she was a beauty queen, a starlet, the fact of which often ended up with her in hot water. She married at 19, had me at 20, and my grandmother quickly helped push my emotionally unstable father out of the picture.
Early summer days in Canarsie pass one long day at a time. As the earliest of memories can be stitched together, the bright sun on a red tricycle, riding up and down the street, and being greeted warmly by retires, milkweed pants and dandelions, you would believe that childhood could never be disturbed. This would prove not to turn out to be the case. The earliest memories always include my sister Heidi, who was three years my younger. There is limited memory of my father and the impression is that one time I might have met him but that he appeared as a total stranger. One time my grandfather on my fathers side came to our house and took my favorite rocking horse away in a bizarre twisted confrontation with my mother. She just resigned herself to the inevitable when he came storming into the house, babbling something about some other child needing it, and how I was too old for it. I must have been about 4 years old. I might still harbor a regret about losing it. Clearly the contact between my mother and my father or his family in those early years was more extensive than anyone let on. But he took the horse right out from underneath me, kicking and screaming. 30 years later, while working as a pharmacist in Crown Heights, I saw a metal and plastic rocking horse just like it. Itka Shira, child number 4 was just born and I immediately purchased the horse within moments of seeing it. I took it home and bequest it to my latest favorite daughter. She rode it for years, and developed a great fondness for horses in the general. The horse, unmounted from the metal rack that supported it is still in the house. Itka is now a beautiful young women of 14 in her freshman year of High School. I got the last laugh on that one.
My earliest memories also include my stepfather, Marty. A career security guard, and a man of little education. he married my mother before I could really remember. They had some great scheme which must have tied into the entire situation between my mother and my father, and one day they joyfully asked me if I'd like Marty to adopt me. Since I never had any other father in my memory other than him, when my mother and Marty excitedly approached me at the age of three prodding me, “Do you want to be adopted by Marty and make him your real daddy?” I had no idea what the heck they were talking about. Do I want to be adopted? Is that like, “Do you want to go to the park ?” or “How about we go to the store and get some ice cream?” Sure, I'll take an adoption. Give me a double scoop of vanilla.
By far the most exciting thing to happen in these early days was a visit from Grandma. One of the greatest side affects of being the love children of a near teen and her possibly emotionally unstable divorced husband that you acquire a very young set of grandparents with excited aunts and uncles.
At the time of my birth my grandmother was a sprite 47 year old women, younger than many of the 39 year old women on craigslist fishing for younger men. Esther Wallace, the gregarious, lovely, animated, passionate young women provided the meat and potatoes of family in our home. My mother was my grandmothers child. This was clear and even today when I sit and talk with Esther I can see my mothers language, hand movements, expression, and even tone of voice. All three of us share a lisp with the letter 'L' although mine is the most pronounced. Grandma Esther's best attribute is her enormous heart.
Esther throws herself passionately into every important situation. As a child, her Passover celebrations were the highlight of the year. Her small apartment could hardly contain all the company, but she had an expandable table which was only used for the occasion which she spread out through her small living room. As children we were squeezed between guests, as dinner was served among all the gackling. Her fancy salt ceramic salt shakers decorated the room, decked out with a fine linen tablecloth and a near endless supply of food. I wasn't especially fond of the gefillte fish, probably make from white fish, but the matzah ball soup was the most delicious thing that I had ever tasted. I pour a ton of salt into the clear broth and then came the turkey, and the roast, mashed potatoes, and her unique and extraordinary sweet loshen (noodle) kugel sprinkled with raisin and cooked almost to the consistency of pudding. Soon other dishes would be added to the extraordinary culinary palette including her unique variation of tsimis, which was the center dish for decades of thanksgivings, Passovers and all family gatherings. She also had the special touch for matzabris, oatmeal, french toast and that mainstay of every dinner, she chicken soup, made in a 40 year old Presto cast iron pressure cooker which she kept alive for decades after its expected use by periodically nagging the company for new rubber gaskets until she exhausted their supply. Then, into the new millinium the company compensated for their error of running out of gaskets for this mid century model by giving her a top of the line, brand spanking new pressure cooker, made of 100% pure stainless steal, which she hated but reluctantly used anyway.
By the late 1960's The family was growing beyond the capacity of my grandmother's house. My mother had 2 kid. Her sister and my aunt had two children. My grandfather's son and his wife came, and my grandmother still had a children of her own at home, my Uncle Hal. And I'm quite certain, although its hard to remember the details of all family members that we newly met at these events, that there was also some extended family members in the room, perhaps my second cousin Alice, or one of my grandmother's sisters, one who lived in Washington and another in Connecticut.
By the end of the meal coffee was served, chocolate was put out and the family photo albums were passed around. Although they we not nearly as filled as they are today, great merriment was made sharing photo's and of course out popped all the new fangled Polaroid Camera and their instant photos were added to the collection. My Grandparents relished the company and the family with no ulterior motivations. It was pure unadulterated family love which fueled these events and for which they worked. Top to bottom they were perfect events.
There has always been a museum like quality of my grandparents house. Initially I believed this to be my Grandmother's handiwork. But over time it was clear that they bother shared in this maintenance and contributed to the effect. In fact, in some regards my Grandfather was more rigid with regard to cleanliness and order than even my Grandmother. And it is not to say that either of them were neat freaks or nuerotic about order. These things came easy to them, like Dwight Gooden's curve ball. the grace wasn't forced but was natural. The house had several permanent pieces to their “collection”. They have a huge brass tea urn which was designed to be filled in the middle with coal to keep the tea warm for guests, brass shabboes candle sticks that she never used for their intended ritual, but was passed down through the generations. They have in the living room their parakeet statuettes, the walnut standing piano with ivory keys, the transistor radio in the bathroom connected to the lights, a ghostly pastel portrait of my mother, the Renoir print of a mother with her children and floppy dog full size and hanging in the parlor on the top of the staircase. The small round table and chairs which, like the pressure cooker, lasted over 40 years remained eternity in her small eat in kitchen. And most of all was the dozens of broadleaf tropic plants that my Grandmother fussed over, always complaining how she's hated them, and yet she watered them, trimmed them, and grew the cuttings into new plants under her small florescent light above the sink in the kitchen. All of these things are as dependable as the sun. There house was like the hour hand to a clock. Day to day, month to month, year to year, decade over decade, you never noticed any change. But if you looked over photographs of years gone by you will notice a new picture, Picasso swapped for a larger than life photograph of themselves, the blue plates with the scenes of 18th century rural America finally all fell of thee kitchen wall and broke. My mothers had made tapestry of the names and birth dates now fill that emotional and physical space. The shag carpet in the living room...gone, and works of art have been added.
To add to the museum affect of the home, Esther managed a feat as mysterious to me and any of the secrets of the cosmos. That house was the same comfortable temperature and the same perfect humidity every day, regardless of the season or the outside weather. This was nothing short of a miracle. When I heat the house, the air becomes dry, but she combated this with use of unique small screens which she used on all the windows, allowing air to pass through. I've never seen the screens anywhere for sale, and surely they would cause our house to freeze. But not hers. With perfect lighting, perfect temperature, perfect humidity, came a perfect couple, never too cheery as to be over the top and insincere, and never brooding or hostile. It was a house full of love.
My grandmother has a magic closet in the hallway that lead to the bathroom. It stored her vacuum, winter coats and a seemingly endless supply of most appropriate toys. Rubber balls, bubbles, toy cars, dolls with rolling eyes all seemed to stream at her command when the kids arrived. In my later teens and early twenties, when I lived with my grandparents, I investigated that closet very closely, and while I could always find spare bottles of top shelf scotch, never could be found any toys. And then when my own kids first visited, out came the toys again! It was a complete mystery. When I grandmother pulled toys out of the closet I walked over to the door and peeked in. I saw nothing, no sign of toys. I could never figure it out.
The co-op my grandparents lived in was a common red bricked two story project and they lived in the upper level of the corner building. As such, they had windows in every direction. The spacial outlay of the inside of the apartment is very difficult to map to the outside of the house. It wasn't until my early 40's that it became clear that the master bedroom has a window that opened out to Avenue T, or that it also shared a wall with the living room. Stranger still was the small room in the back corner of the house, the one that housed my Uncle through his college career. I'm still not sure where it faces and I lived for almost two years in that room. The kitchen window opened to the back courtyard where the car garages, driveway and laundry lines shared a space. From that kitchen window many interesting conversations took place between my grandparents and us children. Talking through an open window down to the street is normal. Instead of the street, family business was conducted in the backyard through the kitchen.
I had, of course, played punchball and whiffle ball in the back with neighborhood friends. Anything that involved 4 bases, a ball and 3 outs was a favorite. And when we couldn't get enough guys together, and often just two of us was enough, there was the side of the strip of garages along a walkway which served for Chinese handball. I was the last of the Spalding generation, and for that I was extraordinarily blessed. I had a particularly close friend named Lee Lederman down the block. One cool fall day I walked to his house to cokes him to play ball. I kept pestering him when he said, we don't even have a ball. I show him the pink Spalding in my pocket. Lee smiled ear to ear and said, “What, do you always come equipped?” I didn't tell him the ball came from the magic closet.
And yet, with all this, Esther could be quite volatile in her own way. Most often it was completely predictable. He had more than her share of verbals scraps, especially with my mother, but one could not preclude her husband, my uncle, my aunt and of course myself. She'd never lose control, but you would know she was unhappy and wears her emotions on her sleeves. I know that this is completely contrary to the picture of tranquility and self control that she possessed. But it is true never the less. She is completely honest, even when she is being demonstrative. As a young boy I once told her I felt like punching a school teacher in the nose. Boy, she let me have it, not with viciousness or despair, but with passion and love. “You can't spend your life punching people in the nose and fighting!” she exclaimed. “I HATE when you talk like that. Stop saying things like that.” I tried to explain that I didn't want to hit him, I just felt like I would want to hit him, if I was that kind of person, which I'm not. Forget about it. She wasn't buying any explanations and she lectured me for the next ten minutes while bundling me up for the cold weather and finally pushed me out the door to go to school.
There are enumerable example of my Grandmother Esther using hysterics for positive influence on the family and while they were never insincere, in truth she never lost emotional control. Two classic stories that come to mind is when she first met Ellen, my future wife, and when I was hospitalized after a severe bicycling accident.
The first time Ellen came to New York, she being a Midwestern girl I had met in San Antonio Texas while in the US Army, she stayed with us. I was 20 years old living with my grandparents at the time, and I picked Ellen up at the Kings Highway train station in Brooklyn. She was so excited about coming to New York, and very giddy and nervous. She bunked out in the den as I recall. The radio in the bathroom was on top of a small cabinet attached to the wall high up above the toilet. It was on the far right, and the plug was swung behind three of the broad leaf tropic plants my grandmother loved so much which also sat on the cabinet just to the left of the radio and planted in clay pots. The cord then swung freely along the wall about 18 inches and then behind and on top of the medicine cabinet over the sink. It then plugged into a small plug in the light above the medicine cabinet. When the light turned on the radio went on. And this arraignment existed without happenstance for several decades. On this particular day Ellen decided to move the cord, just slightly so that it hung slightly in front of the mirror and served the dual purpose of the a door for the cabinet.
I have no idea what caused her to move the cord. I'm sure it was something innocent. But at about 1AM in the morning, my restless grandmother decided to go to the bathroom and then for some reason opened the door to the medicine cabinet. The wire caught and you could hear CRASH CRASH CRASH, and then screams coming from the bathroom, “Who DID THIS!! What in the world is happening here!” All three pots shattered with potting soil all over the bathroom. Ellen was stunned in embarrassment. She ran to the bathroom to help but was harshly rebuked and shooed out of the bathroom like a pigeon. Then my grandfather got involved trying to help clean, but there was no getting into that little emotional box that my grandmother created. The Queen of Hearts had reestablished her authority in her home and several beaming but subtle psychological messages where laid down for both Ellen and Me. Needless to say, it took a while for Ellen to regain her feet when dealing with Mrs Wallace. But in time, she did very well in winning Esther over and today is one of my Grandmother's favorite people.