[This is the third and final part of a three-part story about the years immediately following World War II as I experienced them as a very young boy in Brooklyn.]
For my mother, too, the war of the 1940s continued in the early 1950s. Like most mothers in the neighborhood, she stayed home and did the housework while my father worked a subway ride away. Inside the house, she dusted and vacuumed, listened to the radio, bought from the milkman and bread man, dealt with the Fuller Brush salesman, and watched over me as I played on the living room rug. Sometimes, when she found time, she read stories to me from a thick red book of fairy tales and legends or just talked to me about anything that came into her mind or mine.
One thing that came into my mind one fall day added yet another item to my growing stock of fears. My mother and I had just returned from the funeral of a neighbor. He was a man whom she had known well enough to chat with whenever he passed by, and so she felt obligated to attend his funeral. After we returned home and she had settled into her favorite living room chair, I gradually formed the question that had been materializing all morning.
“Why do people die?” Having undoubtedly heard the question twice before from my sisters, she responded promptly, “Because God wants them to live with him in heaven.”
The conversation proceeded along scripted lines: “Does God want you and Dad?” “Yes, but only after a long, long time.” Pause. “Does God want me?” “No, Eddie. Not yet.”
This answer was not as reassuring as it was meant to be. It left me with the clear understanding that I was certainly going to die. The slanted sunlight made parallelograms on the living room rug, revealing dust motes floating in the still air as I worried that God might make up his mind about me pretty soon. Apparently the jury is still out.
My mother’s life was dominated by economics; she must have dreamt of rationing and scarcity. I would go with her to the butcher’s shop on Sheepshead Bay Road and watch as she alternately flirted and haggled with the butcher to induce him to be generous with her meat ration.
I also remember her taking my sisters and me on a trip, no doubt undertaken for the sake of economy, to a grim poultry operation on 12th Street, which was several blocks outside the main Sheepshead Bay shopping area, past the neighborhood where our local Black population lived. The destination was a dirt-floored establishment—more farm than shop—that offered live chickens for sale.
The chickens were held in wooden crates until purchased. The floor smelled of what must have been offal and blood, and the atmosphere was raucous with prescient chickens. My mother dealt directly with a man in a smeared apron. She selected the chicken she wanted and the man took it, upside down and flapping, to the next room. After a few seconds of frantic noise, the man returned with a headless chicken, which he threw into a vat of hot water and then put it into a machine that spun the chicken and somehow removed most of its feathers. Then he wrapped the chicken and gave it to my mom. This trip horrified me and my sisters, and we must have made our feelings obvious, for we never took it again.
When rationing was over, my mother switched from the local shops, where she had free rein to use her bargaining skills, to the larger A&P, where prices and portions were formalized and the shopping experience sanitized. Since she often shopped during the week, when my sisters were in school, many of these outings were mom-and-me trips. For both of us this was an enjoyable weekly routine.
The way my mom did the shopping, the A&P was filled with excitement. She showed me how to shop properly and economically—judging the ripeness of a cantaloupe by squeezing it and sniffing its button, or picking appropriately ripe bananas by squeezing (she was a big squeezer) and observing the color of the peel, especially the veins where the sections joined. She had a specialized technique for every fruit and vegetable, which essentially boiled down to using as many senses as appropriate (especially the sense of touch) for each item.
Throughout the store, she demonstrated the economical art of selection. Often, even after squeezing and looking over every fruit and vegetable in the produce department, she would accost Tony the Produce Man and have him get her the “fresh items from the back.” Similarly, she would send Rudy the Butcher on a quest for cuts of meat better than the ones in the showcase.
Tony the Produce Man was just a functionary who performed his produce management task with a good nature, but with Rudy the Butcher, a handsome young German, my mother enjoyed a weekly flirtation. She would often send him back two or three times to find even better pieces of meat or to grind the hamburger one more time. In every case, he complied with a knowing smile, a humorous remark, and often a wink. They were both the happier for the interaction.
In the impersonal parts of the market where prepackaged goods were shelved, my mother would shake the cans of soup to pick the one with the most solids, palpate and shake the cereal boxes to find the fullest one, look through every package of bacon to find the one with the least fat, hold up the milk and soda to find the bottles with the least amount of fresh air between cap and liquid, and search every shelf for the goods that had an old price instead of the current one. I quickly learned to be her accomplice, shaking, palpating, staring, and comparing relentlessly. Sadly, these practices remained with me into young adulthood.
She supplemented store-bought food with whatever she could obtain in other ways. Sheepshead Bay was home to a large fleet of fishing boats and we occasionally went to the docks on Friday afternoons to bargain with the fishermen for a piece of cod at a good price. Her primary motivation was that such fish was unrationed, unregulated, and cheaper than in the stores, but it was also fresher and much better tasting. An added benefit was the bazaarlike feel of the scene, with its unshaved, muscular fishermen shouting flirtatiously to her as she cheerfully shouted back, demanding better fish at lower prices. We would probably have done this more often if my father had liked fish more and mistrusted Italian fishermen less.
Mom had a green thumb and when she decided to start a small garden in the back yard, it produced an abundance of tomatoes, zucchini, and greens, which we ate often. She swapped her extra vegetables for apples and peaches grown by Mr. Crafa, our next-door neighbor, a man blessed in horticulture.
My mom’s economies were not confined to groceries. She knew the secret of making clothing last forever. Like the rest of our block, she was not too proud to take hand-me-downs from a circle of neighbors and relatives who had children a year or two older than one or another of us kids. My sisters, who were as clothing-aware as I was not, had to make do with garments that were maybe once in fashion and definitely cut for a different body. As for newly purchased clothes, my mother had a habit that I thought odd even then: She would never release for use any newly bought article of clothing until it had done time in the drawer, unwrapped, for at least a month. Maybe she always bought a larger size than needed and wanted to wait for us to grow into it. Or maybe this was simply an artificial way to make her purchases last longer.
If you looked into my mother’s past, you would find the reasons for her skill at making do with little. For one thing, she was the tenth child of an Italian immigrant mother and first-generation-American father (the final number of children was fourteen). Strictly by the rule of primogeniture, her food was scant and clothing well-used. It must have been entirely natural to transfer these economies to her own family.
For another thing, she had experienced the force of the Depression as a young woman and was accustomed to making every penny go impossibly far. She was young during both the fun years of the Roaring Twenties and the grim years of the Depression. The lesson was clear: Fun is transitory and must ultimately be paid in the coin of grimness.
All in all, despite the tangible ghost of war and want, mine was by no means a mean childhood. I never, ever felt poor. I never had any sense at the time that I was a member of the struggling half of the middle class. I had what I needed: a family, friends, things to play with, a church to go to, and later when I was old enough, a school right across the street.
But I was wary.