Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy were, without question, the aunt and uncle closest to us. They lived in Springfield. We saw them many many Sundays, maybe most, when I was avidly young and eager until what age, I don’t know. I know it stopped, our going over there, or my going over there. I must have spent time there from the beginning of my life. I probably remember best my exciting times there from when I was four, five, and six until what age I outgrew childhood visits there.
Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy were good to us and good to me, the child I was. In contrast, the aunts and uncles on my father’s side – there were many of them -- were aunts and uncles in name only. Tante Etta and Uncle Max. Uncle Sholem. Another Uncle Izzy. There were more. I don't remember their names. I was nothing to them or they to me. Not at all. They were strangers who came over to play cards with my mother and father on occasion, but they were never my aunts or my uncles. I don’t remember interest from any of them or their even talking to me.
Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy were much more, but, neither were they the aunt and uncle in storybooks. I would like to go back and be able to know them now, because I didn’t know them then at all. They were like fixtures.
Funny, Tante Fanny who died before I was born, was more present to me than Tante Lena. What, why, is this? because of my mother’s stories about Tante Fanny and what she meant to my mother? Tante Lena, in contrast, was just there. The sister who was not there mattered more.
But here’s the thing. Try as I may, I still don’t feel warmth and love in my heart for Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy. I’m sorry. I have some good memories, yet my memories are sterile and ice cold. Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy deserve greater, and I can’t find more. For them, it is like my heart was never green grass, only dried hay.
My daughter, who never met them and didn’t know them any more nor less than I, noted two things about the first draft about Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy. She noticed my remoteness and she noticed that I never revealed any of their happiness. She said you just can’t tell a story without any happiness in it. There has to be contrast.
Everyone has happiness. They must have had happiness. It can be as little as the taste of a favorite cookie and a glass of milk. I’m sure they were happy that we came over to visit.
The thing is, if I were to describe their courtship, their hopes, their dreams, I would have to make them all up because I know none of it. Uncle Izzy had no family, no relatives at all so far as I know. I don’t even know what part of Russia he came from. I don’t even know he came from Russia. He had no accent that I remember. I know nothing of his background story. I don’t know how he and Tante Lena met. I don’t know their happiness that must have been theirs before his accident.
Uncle Izzy lived in a wheel chair, was always home in his wheelchair, in the same grayed undershirt, and he spent time with me. He did those metal twisty puzzles with me -- us. Maybe he liked me. I didn’t know what spending time with me meant. I was always glad to go over to Tante Lena’s and Uncle Izzy’s, yet I did not know my time there as love.
Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy owned the apartment building they lived in. It had a big beautiful wooden banister that my niece Baby Gloria and I would slide down, and the hallway always had a dry echo. Their last name was Richmond. That I am sure of. The area of Springfield they lived in was also called the Richmond part of town and, it could be, the building itself was also named The Richmond. There must have been a time when they had some prosperity before Uncle Izzy’s accident that left him paralyzed.
He had been an iceman, had his own truck, his own ice business. How he must have loved hefting up the big squares of ice on his shoulders with the giant clutching tongs and climbing stairs with them over his shoulders, delivering them into the little ice boxes that people had in their homes and the bigger ice boxes that grocery markets had. He must have enjoyed talking to his customers, giving them good service and playing the important role of delivering ice to keep their food fresh.
Tante Lena excelled working in Magaziner’s Bakery. I can remember her enjoying it. The place was busy. There were always lines of people holding their numbers they pulled from the slot. There was nothing like those Jewish bakeries. I don’t know if there are any like them anywhere in the world now. Thick Jewish breads that you cut into thick slices yourself at home. Water rolls, bagels, yes. Everything in Magaziner’s Bakery was something to bite into hard and then tug away with your teeth. Then there were all the pastries that, as my father would have said, melted in your mouth.
Tante Lena used to make homemade root beer. How I loved it. How we all did. She made it from yeast and the actual roots of root beer, not just a flavor but the actual roots. She must have liked making the root beer and then astonishing people with how good it was.
She must have enjoyed an occasional time out with girlfriends drinking real beer. I remember being with her once in a dark bar, and I didn’t like the smell.
I remember her round wooden kitchen table that she served tea on. There was a time when she had a gentleman boarder in her house, and she served him breakfast. She took pride in preparing breakfast for him. I saw Tante Lena cut a navel orange in half and serve it to him with a little teaspoon the way a grapefruit is served. I never had seen that ever done before or since.
Those memories and the 4th of July ones are the best I remember. Of them all, yes, I think the 4th of July memories were the best. We had firecrackers and sparklers. Then there were those little bumps on paper or cardboard that you could hammer, and they would give a little bang. The 4th of July celebration went on several days before the 4th of July and perhaps a day or two after the 4th of July for the children in those days, at least in my world.
One year when I had used up all the fireworks I had before the actual 4th of July day, for the first time, Tante Lena would not buy me more supplies. This sobered me, and I also respected her for it.
I stayed overnight sometimes. I know I must have had good times there, yet I don’t remember that I ever felt loved by Uncle Izzy or Tante Lena. I knew what it was to feel loved by my father and two brothers. I later knew what it was to feel loved by my second grade teacher, Miss Bancroft.
Talking about love, Interestingly, Uncle Izzy’s Jewish name was Loveleh. It must have been his Jewish name. His English name was Isadore.
Hmm, here is something I never remember seeing. I never recall that my mother and Tante Lena had a disagreement. Tante Lena wasn’t the sister of my mother’s heart. Tante Fanny was, and, yet, and I just think of it now for the first time as I write this, Tante Lena and my mother never had hard feelings. Hard feelings were not hidden in my house. Imagine, my mother never had a grudge with Tante Lena. Just think of it, my mother and Tante Lena never had a misunderstanding!
There was also that Tante Lena had a lesser status because she and Uncle Izzy never had children. Being childless was considered a blight. Poor Tante Lena because she never had children, never could. I know I listened to discussions as to whose fault it was, Tante Lena’s or Uncle Izzy’s. Woe to a woman who bore no children.
The story of Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy is the calmest family story I ever heard. It has its dramas, serious dramas that should have been heartrending, yet, somehow, in a way I don’t understand, they didn’t, and don’t, have the impact the other family stories did. Perhaps because Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy were nearby and had not died and my mother didn’t feel so wounded by their wounds.
Why is that? What made my mother add drama to tragedy everywhere and not to Tante Lena’s and Uncle Izzy’s? My mother didn’t cry tears for Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy, didn’t cluck her tongue and smack her lips for emphasis in the telling? How did the story of Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy somehow become factual, not lit up at all, and that was it.
Their three tragedies were: Having no children, Uncle Izzy’s accident, and Uncle Izzy’s death.
Now I will tell you how Uncle Izzy wound up in a wheelchair. I knew him only in a wheelchair.
As I already said, he had been an iceman, had his own truck, his own ice business, and Uncle Izzy had been a tall handsome sprightly man. He delivered ice to homes from the back of his truck for little iceboxes in homes or stores, once a week, or, maybe it was twice.
One day, like any other, Uncle Izzy was at the back of his truck picking a big square of ice with his giant gripping tongs that snatched on to the ice and held it. In this suspended moment, a car or truck drove into his back. That’s how Uncle Izzy wound up in a wheelchair forever more.
I wonder why my mother never added ringing details to Uncle Izzy’s story. Why didn’t she add that it was a sharp triangular piece of ice broken from the square of ice he was just lifting up that pierced his spine, or the tongs themselves had cut precisely into his vertebra. Why was there no mention of what kind of a car, or truck that knocked him over? Who was the driver? Why wasn’t the driver railed against again and again? There was no cursing or spitting upon him or even a name attached to the man who had wrecked Uncle Izzy’s life.
I wrack my brains, and I cannot recall any oft-told story or passion or compassion for Uncle Izzy and his life, not from me, and not from others. Now I would make a toast to you, Uncle Izzy. Now I would get to know you and become a friend.
It’s not only that Uncle Izzy lived the rest of his life in pain in a wheel chair. He lived in a wheel chair on the second floor without an elevator or ramp. He never got out of the house except later when he had another surgery, though he must have gone for doctor visits as well. Who carried him up and down the stairs, I have no idea.
Even as young as I was, I sensed that Uncle Izzy lived on the kindness of Tante Lena and that, as innocent as he was, Tante Lena at best tolerated him. There was a cast in her eyes that seemed to mock him.
After Uncle Izzy’s second surgery, my brother Sid picked up Uncle Izzy from the hospital. My brother had a very comfortable Chrysler at the time. My brother had to drive very slowly because the slightest movement hurt my Uncle Izzy all over.
I don’t know how long after that it was. I was in my teens and didn’t go over to Tante Lena’s and Uncle Izzy’s anymore. What? Was their usefulness over and I gave not a backward glance?
It was a Sunday. I answered the phone, and it was a neighbor of Uncle Izzy’s and Tante Lena’s who had called and left a message with me for my mother. Uncle Izzy had somehow crawled down the apartment stairs and dragged himself across the street and bought some rope from a store there, crawled back up the stairs, and hung himself with the rope he just purchased.
I was not upset. I was even blasé. Sort of like: Okay, so Uncle Izzy hung himself. What does that have to do with me? Apparently, nothing. I must have passed the message onto my mother the same way I would have told her about a routine call, oh, like dry-cleaning was ready to pick up.
I don’t recall any sadness of mine for him or the life he had lived and that he had ended.
Even in death, I don’t have the tears for Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy I have for all the others who have died, even though, as aunts and uncles, Tante Lena and Uncle Izzy were the only ones who really were aunt and uncle to me.
At Uncle Izzy’s funeral, Tante Lena threw herself on his coffin and cried her heart out, “Loveleh! Loveleh! Loveleh!” until strong arms pulled her away.