What a difference a few years make. I suppose when cultures change, the people who live within them, simultaneously, and automatically modify as well. As a melting pot country, no other place on earth follows this traditionally the way we do.
I grew up in a household where we all worked. Our family followed a pattern, which was set up years before I came along by my mother and father’s parents.
The year was 1904 when the boat carrying my dad’s mother and father, my grand parents, entered New York Harbor.
President: Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt
USA Population: 79,163,000
Brooklyn toymaker Morris Michton names teddy bear after Teddy Roosevelt.
Morris Michtom arrived in New York from Russia about 1889 as a teenager. He married Rose, also a Russian immigrant, Rose was born Jan. 1863 in Russia and immigrated in 1889. Both became naturalized citizens in Sept. 1892. Together they developed an American icon: the “Teddy Bear”.
On December 25, 1902, in a tiny village, some place in Russia, Harvey’s dad, Charles Kalmenson was born into the family of Ethel and Max Kalmenson; two years later they boarded a steamer en route to the United States.
A cartoon appeared in December 1902 by Clifford K. Berryman showing how President Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t shoot and kill a harmless little bear cub during one of his hunting trips. Morris thought to make a stuffed bear similar to the one in the cartoon and put that up for sale, first calling it “Teddy’s bear” in February 1903.
Just like Morris Michtom, each of my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family tree were recognizable individuals. There was nothing robotic about them. Yes they all worked; they all quit school far too early; nary a college graduate amongst them, yet never a thought or complaint about living within a societal inflicted servitude; not as slaves to a ruler, but rather good people who played the cards dealt to them with a zeal for life living in what they all recognized as the greatest country in the world. In retrospect, I would have to say they were the strongest willed people I would ever come in contact with during my own lifetime. These were the immigrant grandparents and their immigrant children who are recognized today as the greatest generation ever.
At family get “togethers” noise prevailed. I mean under the best of circumstances, that many aunts, uncles, and children running around always created the atmosphere of a medium sized commotion at best. It seems appropriate for me to refer to those gatherings as encounters.
What sticks in my mind was the way we were all welcomed by the relatives who arrived at family gatherings before we did. I don’t ever remember a door having to be opened for us. We got there, jumped out of the car and ran up to see which cousins would be there for us to play with. It was a glorious time for the kids. Mom and dad would bring up the rear, carrying a pie or cake mom thought would be suitable for the particular event.
The greetings were enormous smiles on my father’s side of the family, as an aunt or uncle would shout out, “It’s Charlie and the kids.” I guess they decided my mother had not yet earned any form of billing. The funny thing was my mother’s side of the family did the same thing when we visited them. If you were getting the feeling the families didn’t really care for each other, you’d be correct. My father’s attitude towards my mother’s side was mostly disdain. I’m sure their feelings were likewise as well. But regardless which side we visited the atmosphere was alive with life’s greatest gifts. Music, conversation, and monstrous amounts of artery clogging food prevailed.
Believe it or not, as a child I never heard an aunt or uncle complain about their own trials and tribulations. That’s not to say they didn’t understand human plight. Conversations showing great pity for the next guy’s problems were ongoing. I guess it was their way of being thankful for what they had. The common belief however was they all practiced keeping any of the bad stuff away from the children. The premise was, “They’ll have plenty of time to grow up and feel the pain.”
As an aside, that’s how we learned to understand the Yiddish language. Anything the adults didn’t want the kids to hear was spoken in Yiddish. And as kids the minute the adults either lowered their voices or continued their conversations in Yiddish we all made it a point to learn. It’s fun thinking back about how my cousins and me would compare notes on what we thought they were gabbing about. As we learned, we also took on the mannerisms of our aunts and uncles as their story telling unfolded.
I learned gambling and flirtatiousness from my mother’s side. They to were the performers; the overly dramatic, drama queens and kings who never were troubled by qualms. They did what they felt like doing. All were merchants. As a child it seemed to me all of their customers were cut from the same cloth. Bargaining and often times flipping a coin; double or nothing in order to settle on the final sale price. Beware if you tried to pull a fast one on them during a business transaction. Those aunts and uncles all came equipped with tempers. That’s not to say they weren’t adverse to conducting a business deal with a questionable scruple or two. On my dad’s side, the practiced façade was intellect. They were the shirt and tie business people crowd. They were nine brothers and sisters who strove for excellence at all costs; eating, drinking, music and in depth political discussions. Eight of the nine children were in business for themselves. One of the brothers, who was categorized as a “lunch pail carrier” rarely offered as much dialogue as the other brothers and sisters did. He was the oldest, and the first to feel the pressure brought on by the need for him to help support the family. During his lifetime, he labored six days a week as a sewing machine operator in a variety of garment factories. As a child I wondered why he didn’t smile as much as everyone else.
Today I can identify. What a burden it must have been. He was the oldest child, in a new country; without friends; and accepting the involuntary removal of his childhood, without explanation, or with even the remotest understanding of his transformation into manhood.
Every one of the new folks in town practiced the precepts of early to bed and early to rise. None of them had any inkling of whether it might make them healthy, wealthy, or wise. It is also doubtful that any of them knew it was our own Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase. What was happening in actuality was quite simple; everything was a contest with life itself. Don’t get me wrong. None of the old timers went to bed thinking about being the first person in the neighborhood to awake each morning. Just plain good common sense governed just about everything they did. The more hours of daylight they could devote to business, the more chance there was of selling whatever it happened to be they were hawking.
What occurred to me early on as a kid was the warm way they all greeted each other. It was as if the entire community was pulling together, even under the sorriest of conditions. The charm of hearing a person with a strange language saying good morning, and how are you this fine day to an equally traveled neighbor returning the greeting, will always remain with me.
“You know, mine boy…Irving Berlin wrote that”
Talk about “good morning how are you”, giving a lift to ones spirits. Know one ever had a greater display of pride in the United States then those European immigrants. There seemed to be a history lesson instantly available on the tip of every tongue. “Irving Berlin wrote God Bless America in 1918. He doesn’t make a dime from it. Every penny goes to the Boy Scouts of America, and to the Girl Scouts of America.” And when they said the word America it was always so special. Even arguments turned somewhat positive, when one of the combatants said to another:
“Don’t tell me what to do. This is a free country we live in. Or haven’t you heard?”
“I heard, I heard. I heard long before you heard. I came here to this country three weeks before you did. Did you know his real name from Germany was Baline, Israel Baline?.
“Don’t tell me, I heard”
“Good Morning, Here’s Your Crutch” may strike many as a strange title for a personal journal. To all of you who might feel that way, cool, I agree with you. A great part of my life is free form; like when a flip card appears, and it’s up to you to say the first thing that pops into your mind. Admittedly, I am often painfully abstract in the assumptions which strike me each time one of life’s flip cards reveals a new question, a new challenge, or a new debacle of any kind. Without hesitation I’m going to wade in. In my defense, I remind you of the people who influenced the earliest part of my life. None of those folks who traveled long and hard by boat in order to get to this country, believed in half way measures of any kind. It was always a robust “Good morning” offered each and every day, to who ever came their way. Their greetings were straight forward, to the point and emanating from the souls of people who felt, being allowed to breathe and pray freely was gifted to them in Gods eminence, these United States. The hours they toiled made them self-sufficient.
One day a peddler who moved from street to street with his horse drawn wagon filled to the brim with used furniture and anything of value he could find in the street, offered this little six-year-old boy a ride in his wagon. I accepted with great joy. It was my first crack at being a cowboy. It was also the first time I received an intellectual message from a stranger. I sat next to the peddler on the flat bench seat that felt like we were three stories off the ground. Between us were his crutches. It was also the first time I had ever seen crutches, and had no idea what he used them for. A block later when our ride came to an end, I found out. As the peddler climbed down from his wagon the crutches came into play. The peddler was unable to walk without their aid. His very strong arms came into play as he easily lifted me down from the wagon. As I thanked him for the ride, the peddler noticed how curious I was about his crutches. “They’re called crutches”, he said. “I need them to walk.” And then with the deepest and warmest smile he offered me, “To walk, but not to think. Don’t ever use a crutch in order to succeed. It won’t help you.”
And so it was that a person, who failed to say good morning to me, triggered the writing of this blog. And in my mind there arouses another flip card, with the question: Does it take an immigrant to train this new generation, so consumed by self-centeredness?
Have a great day. It was my pleasure being able to talk to you. And please, if you get a chance, say hello to anyone who knows me.