is a retired librarian, braille text translator, and grandmother. She
enjoys reading, quilting, birding, and tracing her familys roots.
She holds a B.A. in history from Hunter College, New York City, and an
MLS from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
by sheila list
Chicken: Golden brown on top, rubbed with a little garlic and onion
on the inside to give it flavor and seasoned with paprika to create
a wonderful pungent smell. Occasional flakes of parsley float like miniature
leaves in its juices. Moist, white breast meatsucculent, and very
sweet. Served with small, whole browned potatoes and candied carrots.
Flashback: the Sabbath meal. The candles are lit. My mother covers her
head, closes her eyes, and says the prayer. On the lace tablecloth sits
the Proud Chicken, Selmas creation, sharing the spotlight with
family and conversation.
We didnt have a dining room. The table was kept in a foyer opposite
the living room and before my parents bedroom. It was massive; dark
English wood with two drop leaves and a burl center. Thick legs ended
in a clawed fist and joined lattice woodwork to form an X in the center.
It took three people to lift and carry it into the living room. We used
it for Passover seder and when relatives came for Sunday dinner. A low
cutglass bowl rested on a doily on the table, and was the only relief.
My grandfather Jake had bought this monstrosity for my parents as a
wedding present. I had to dust it every Saturday morning and got my
revenge by putting my books, keys, and incoming mail in a not-so-neat
pile on it. It may not have been beautiful but with a tablecloth on
it, the Proud Chicken(s) still looked pretty good.
Family origins have always interested me, yet I know little about my
grandmother, Dora. Information on the 1899 New York marriage license
lists her fathers name as Abraham Shreiber, her mothers
maiden name as Enie Dim. She was a country girl from Northern Bukovina,
Austria-Hungary. She came by ship to work as a maid in New York City.
Her second cousin Jake Willner, a baker, met the boat. She and Jake
were married on January 17, 1899. Both list their birthplace as Galizia.
According to the 1900 census they lived at 193 Delancy Street. Jakes
age is given as 20 and Doras as 23. Abraham, their first son,
was eight months old.
Everything familiar to her she left behind: the sights, smells, and
the rituals; the way food was cooked and business conducted; her ability
to be understood. And what did she know of life and men at 22? Did she
really work as a maid? I feel certain that she did. When I was 14 I
took a summer job as a Mothers Helper for $15.00 a week in Richfield,
CT. It was my first job. I wanted to get away from my parents who were
fighting a lot. My mother was not thrilled. Your grandmother Dora
would turn over in her grave, if she knew a granddaughter of hers was
doing that kind of work, Selma said. So, I dont think Dora
liked her work, or stayed very long in it. But did she love Jake? What
do you know about life and men when youre 22?
She was a religious woman and lit the Shabbos candles on Friday nights.
The house had been cleaned, the children bathed, the roast chicken meal
prepared and ready to serve. The candles glowed brightly. A sense of
comfort and safety pervaded the kitchen. All was ready for Jake, her
husband, lover and friend.
My mother Selma never spoke much about Dora who had passed away six
weeks before my parents married. "How do you plan a wedding without
your mother?" I wished I had asked her. The rituals and traditions
must seem hollow. I sensed my mother did not get along with her. She
respected her because she was her mother, but the mind frames were different.
Selma always wanted to be a teacher. She was an excellent student and
avid reader. By eighth grade she knew she wanted to go to high school.
But that was not to be. My grandfather Jake by this time had a successful
bakery and restaurant in Manhattan, and my mother and her younger sister
Anna spent ten years working in it without pay. Selma kept a family
album and the photos show two well dressed young women, so I guess my
grandfather was never cheap about letting them buy pretty clothes...but
no salary. And what did Dora have to say about all this? Didnt
she want better for her daughters than standing in a bakery all day?
I felt my mothers frustration; felt that Jake used his daughters
as cheap labor.
Nevertheless, my mother had spunk. Papa, Im registering
for high school, Selma said. And he told her, You will have
to do whatever needs to be done in the bakery before school, and stand
in the store after school as always. It was too much for her,
too tiring. But she vowed, If I ever have a daughter shes
going to high school. Now my sister Doris went to Queens College,
graduated, and became a teacher. Selma was proud. But I was a horse
of a different color. So, when I was an unhappy sophomore at Hunter
College and wanted to drop out, my mother was horrified, and insisted
that I finish. And she was right!!! Years later, in my heart, I thanked
her...but I never told her so to her face.
Selma had a difficult childhood which I think made her a very strong
person. She felt she had to fight for everything she wanted. In her
early teens she realized the way out and up was education. Looking back,
I realize that my mother had a profound impact on my career, how I raised
my children and live my life. Now, at 60 plus, I think about my relationship
with my daughter, Julie, and wonder what she will remember of me.
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