By Nancy Eder, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
I have just returned from Lithuania where for five days my sister, Ellen, and I visited the Jewish museum and the national archives seeking information about our grandmother. We weren‘t very successful since we lacked vital information such as her parents’ first names. The family name was Taft, but we were told that there were many Jews with that last name. Young women were often not noted in the birth records. She left Vilna (now known as Vilnius) in 1912 to come to America.
Now I am back in New York and two weeks later the story begins:
Four friends will meet in Monticello, New York. Why on earth would one want to visit Monticello in September, 2009. Monticello’s days of glory are long gone, and from what I hear the town is not much to look at. But Sally has rented a cabin near a small lake and has invited three of us to visit. We are friends from several years ago when I shared ownership with my boyfriend of a small seaside cottage near the town of Orient on the tip of Long Island.
Sally moved to Florida several years ago and now summers in Monticello. Susan and Ellen who still live near Orient, would pick me up in Harlem and drive the rest of the 90 miles to the Catskills. How much fun is that?
The weather forecasts rain, but the promise of gold and red leaves still covering the mountainsides beckons. We leave on my 71st birthday, September 22nd. It is not noteworthy as a particularly significant birthday, but at this stage of life one realizes that every year is a gift from the gods. Every day – birthday or not – must be lived to it’s fullest squeezing out all the good juices.
So, dragging a small suitcase with one hand and carrying my freshly baked plum torte in the other, I race down to Susan’s car and we are off to see Sally in Monticello.
Three days fly by as I spend most waking hours biking, walking, rowing, and painting the Catskill landscape. We languish over bagels and lox and the NY Times. The crumbs of the torte from last night still sit on the glorious sundrenched back porch. The sun plays behind the mountains and lights up the lake just a short few steps from us.
Time is up. We hate to leave, but Susan and Ellen have a long trip back to Orient. It’s time to say goodbye to summer and to Sally and to pay for the cabin. Cynthia and her husband own a house on the property as well as five or six cabins. As we trudge up the hill to say goodbye, Cynthia invites us in to see her home away from home. She and her husband live in Park Slope and have spent summers up here for half a century. The house was once part of a hotel and grounds owned by her grandparents. Summers of paying customers who rented rooms and square danced on the yellow pine floors are now history. This room is now her kitchen with light pouring in from curtainless tall windows. Pianos and paintings, pots and pans, tables and chairs plus ephemera from years of yard sales fill the room with color. The two-story house calls to us to view the lake in its orange and gold-leafed glory.
But we’re in a rush. We have a long drive ahead of us.
On the way out of a place begging for more questions and answers about its past, I spot a large framed black and white photograph of the parachute jump and the boardwalk in Coney Island. I stop and gaze at the people crammed together like postage stamps on the beach. Men dressed in black one-piece bathing suits and women in long dresses fill in the sandy background.
Where did you get this photo? She found it in an old hotel. Cynthia explains that her father-in-law worked in a shop on the boardwalk and the photo has special significance to her husband since he grew up in Sea Gate.
Sea Gate? In Brooklyn? Why that is where my grandparents lived for many years from the turn of the 20th century until they died. Could he possibly have known my grandparents? They lived in a large Stanford White building with wrap around porch and turreted roof. Hydrangeas as large as blue cabbages rimmed the porch like a lace collar. I spent memorable days visiting them from babyhood on. My grandfather died when I was barely three, but Sonia, my step-grandmother lived there in that huge house until I was a married woman in my thirties. But wait. That’s for another story.
Back to Monticello.
Cynthia calls her husband to come out of his den. “This is Nancy Orans. She’s the granddaughter of Lou and Sonia Orans.”
“Did you know my grandparents . . . Sonia and Lou?”
“Yes. Sonia was a beautiful woman. My parents were very friendly with them. And especially I remember Moe and Gertrude and Anita and Bernie Gurney and. . . “
“I’ve just returned from Lithuania looking for Sonia’s roots in Vilna. We didn’t have much success and now I’ve found her friends right it my own backyard. This is incredible! But we must leave. Would you please give me your email address and please write down your last name?”
He scribbles down his email address, and we leave…I’m torn not having had time to speak to him at length. Having traveled 4000 miles and come back full circle, here might be my source of information. But there is no time to talk.
We leave. I’m exclaiming, disbelieving, wild with expectation of what I’m not even sure. I must continue the contact with this man. We stop for gas. I get out the scrap of paper with the email address. And his last name. It’s ARENSEN. Wait. That’s a familiar name. Only it’s spelled wrong. I remember the name was ARONSON. . . at least in my mind. But I can’t remember whose name it is. We drive on. Wait. What was his first name? Ted, shout the Susan and Ellen. Ted Arenson.
Wait. TEDDY Arenson. I knew a boy named Teddy. He has red hair and freckles. He’s a few years older than I am. I loved that boy. What? What am I saying? Wait. I even have a picture of him. I can see him sitting on the steps of my grandfather’s house in Sea Gate. I am sitting next to him, but I’m very little…and he is big. He is glowering into the camera looking rather sullen. I am smiling and happy. I am little. My dad took that photo. But where is it? Is this man, Ted Arenson, the little boy I remember as Teddy?
We arrive in the city. I scramble through books and files and papers. I have recently moved to Harlem and have discarded old papers and even pictures. Could I have thrown out that photograph that my dad took. I wouldn’t have thrown that picture out. Stop it. I say to myself. You are really getting carried away. Reaching high on a shelf is a weathered leatherbound looseleaf with plastic sheets and lots of little pictures of me stuffed into the envelopes. My dad was an amateur photographer and I know that he took that picture. I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have thrown it out. Wait. It’s here! There is Teddy sitting on the steps of my grandparents house next to a small girl. He’s looking back at me out of time and place with that dour expression. And that small girl is me sitting back on the steps smiling and looking at the camera out of two-year old eyes. I turn the photo over and the hand stamped date indicates “September 15, 1940.” Just a week shy of my 2nd birthday. It’s got to be Teddy and me! I must get in touch with Ted Arenson. I call to find out his telephone number from Sally. I call Ted.
“Were you called “Teddy” when you were young?
“Of course,” he says.
“Did you have red hair and freckles?”
“Of course,” he responds. (Why, ‘of course’ I think.)
“I have a photo of the two of us taken on the steps of my grandfather Lou’s porch. You would be eight or nine and I was just shy of two.”
The next day I race down to the village to my old office and scan in the picture. I have found another picture of me kissing Teddy as he smiles. Off to Ted go the two photo attachments.
Ted writes back sending thanks for the kiss.
Had I not seen the photo of Coney Island this memory might not have gotten jiggled. Why did I ‘love’ this little boy from so long ago? He had made castles on the beach for me. Memories of sand-dripped castles and the boy who built them. Who knows what magical memories children take in and remember. Who expects a remembrance of sixty-nine years ago to trigger a connection to another.
– by Nancy, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
Nancy Eder worked for over thirty years as an administrator at New York University. She wields a paintbrush in the Pyrenees, a shovel in school gardens, and now a pen in her second year of the “Writing from Life Experience” workshop.