THE JOYS OF APARTMENT LIVING – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I lived in an apartment building in New York City from the time I was born till I was 42 years old. I loved it and miss some of the perks of apartment living, but I’ve lived in a house in a rural suburb for 26 years.

Surprisingly, I had more of a social life with my neighbors in my building in New York than I do now on my woodsy street. As a young mother, I was lucky to find four other young moms in the building with kids close in age to my kids. We all lived on the same elevator line. That meant that we could run up and down the back stairs to each other’s apartments. We could also take the elevator, but the stairs were quicker. By the time the kids were five or six, they could go up and down, safely, on their own. We all became very close.

Photo of my building on Park Avenue in NYC

This was a Godsend. When we wanted company, we could pop in for an hour or so, with or without the kids. When we needed a break or time to cook dinner or make phone calls in peace, we could send our kids upstairs or downstairs, depending on who was free at the time. Our building had a real ‘neighborhood’ feel. People don’t always think of cities as having these mini communities. But they exist pretty much everywhere, if you make an effort to create them.

Another great advantage of city living is the joy of having doormen in your life. They are an amazing class of people who serve their tenants in many ways. They act as mail deliverers. You handed them your packages and they magically delivered them to the appropriate carrier or service. You never have to deal with the logistics of mailing or shipping anything. The doorman would also accept packages and deliveries on your behalf, so you never had to stay home to accept a delivery. What a luxury!

City Doorman

Doormen can also let trusted workmen into your apartment when you’re not there. So you also never have to wait for workers to show up before you can leave the house. Another great perk!

Another role a doorman can play is to entertain your kids. If you get friendly with the day doorman, they will allow your kids to play in the lobby. My kids skated and skate boarded up and down the long hallway in our lobby. My daughter practiced her cartwheels down that hallway.

This was a part of the very long hallway in our building

The doormen also let the kids ‘spy’ on people in the elevators from the security cameras in the lobby. That was apparently great fun and a real treat.

Typical surveillance camera setup in apartment lobby

The best doormen will let your kids go wild, when no one is looking. There was a very large Ficus tree in our lobby. The doormen let my son, David, put his pet python in the tree to explore through the branches. This continued for a while, until one tenant saw the snake and complained.

Today’s version of our old Ficus tree in the lobby

There can also be disadvantages to apartment living. I grew up on the seventeenth floor. In 1965, there was a major blackout, extending throughout the city and into New England. I was home sick that day. So the housekeeper and I had to carry our thirty pound dachshund up and down at least fourteen flights of stairs to walk him. He could only do one or two flights on his own. (NOTE: most apartment buildings in NYC omit the thirteenth floor because of superstitions!)

Another disadvantage to living above and below other people, is gravity. When the bathroom directly above yours develops a leak, the water runs into your apartment. And often into the apartment below you as well. We had paint and plaster falling on our heads while we showered for a year and a half because our upstairs neighbors could not control a major leak in their bathroom. We replastered and repainted the ceiling three times during that period.

Painting in my old lobby of the apartment building

The apartment below us had similar problems. In addition to the inconvenience, this became an insurance nightmare involving three different insurance companies. For me, the benefits of apartment living outweighed the disadvantages for many years. But after living in my own house for so long, I could never again live in a little box within a bigger box. I have fond memories of city life, but I never want to go back!

NEVER OLD

We knew each other from across a room. She had dreamed of me. I recognized her. We were friends pretty much instantly. Through 40 years, our lives, even when we were out of touch and on different continents, have followed parallel paths.

Our husbands are friends and sometimes similar enough to be startling. We wear the same size clothing, even the same size shoes. Like most of the same music, movies, books.

 

Yet we come from completely different backgrounds — ethnically, religiously, culturally. It has never mattered. Not way back when we met or now.

We have seen each other through so many crises, so many rough times and we’ve always managed to be there and banish the gloom. I think the thing we have most in common is a weird, ironic humor … a sense that the only real power we have over a malign fate is our laughter.


Friendships that last a lifetime and remain active and alive, not “memories” of what were, are rare. That two lives could follow such similar paths for so long is even more rare, but it happened. And I am very grateful. I know there is somewhere on earth at least one person who can make me laugh no matter how horribly wrong everything is going.

MY GRANDMOTHER – THE EARLY YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!

NEIGHBORS

This isn’t a friendly town. People fraternize with the people who attend their church and seem to regard anyone else as potentially hostile.

Of course we didn’t know that when we moved here. We knew that it was a very white town, that Garry was likely to be the first (only) person of color, and I might well be the first (only) Jew. In fact, apparently well-intentioned people said stuff like “Gee, I’ve never known a Jewish person before” and honestly didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Garry just got stares until they realized they’d seen him on TV. Celebrity beats skin color, at least here in the north.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Our situation was made more complicated by our neighbor, Ned. Big guy. Rode a Harley. I love Harleys, but there are Harleys and then, there are Harleys. This one was chopped and loud. When Ned started his bike, the vibration alone could knock me out of bed.

Ned was massive. Tattooed. Hung with a bunch of skin-heads. They had raucous parties with lots of beer. We didn’t expect to be invited and we weren’t. Ned also flew a Confederate flag. Prominently. We learned he’d always done it. It was part of some family roots thing tying him to his original home state of Georgia. Me? I thought them — and still think — it’s time the south moved on. The war ended a long time ago. Get over it. But I’m from New York so I probably don’t get it. Apparently a lot of people don’t get it.

Our neighbor’s house was the only one in the Valley flying a confederate flag and we were the only mixed-race couple in town. Ironic, to say the least. And we were a poster couple for hate groups.

Garry is pragmatic and tough. His mild-mannered demeanor belies his Marine Corps interior. Semper fi. Moreover, he couldn’t have survived 40-years as a reporter without being tough. One fine summer’s day, music screaming from Ned’s boombox, Garry looked at me and murmured those fighting words: “This is ridiculous!”

Photo: Garry Armstrong

He marched down the driveway, through the woods that join our two houses, to Ned’s front door. Garry knocked. Loudly. When Ned finally answered, Garry said: “Hi. I’m your neighbor. Garry Armstrong. Do we have a problem?”

Shortly the flag disappeared along with a noxious black jockey statue. Turned out, Ned was a plumber. He fixed our bathroom pipes. The whole skinhead thing dissolved in the face of a brown-skinned guy who did news on Boston TV. Seemed it was less important who Ned was than who Ned, with a little encouragement, was willing to become.

Eventually Ned got into drugs. Or something. We were never sure what. His wife left. His life fell apart. One day, he vanished. Fortunately, he gave back our extension ladder before leaving.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Other folks live there now. They are not actively hostile, which is about the best one could say of them. In the two and half years they have lived there, they’ve never said hello. I doubt they ever will. They object to our dogs barking. Hard to argue with that but they’ve got dogs who do their own share of barking. There are a lot of dogs around here. If you are outside in the evening, you can always hear a dog barking somewhere.

I miss Ned. No one fixed pipes like he did and gave us a huge discount. He turned out to be a funny guy and a good neighbor. Who’d have thunk it.

A FORTUITOUS FRIEND – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Sometimes people come into your life inauspiciously and then suddenly become pivotal to your existence. For me and my children, that person was Brian.

To explain how our lives intersected, I have to give you some background. My parents had a beautiful house on 40 glorious acres in Easton, CT. There was a second building on the grounds, made up of two one bedroom cottages. The full-time caretakers lived in one of the cottages. They were hired to run both houses and take care of all the land and the equipment that the ground care required.

Brian came to work for my mom as a caretaker in 1981, shortly after my father had died. I was 32 and had a two-year old son, David. Brian was 39 and was married to a woman named Peg. Brian was smart, well-read and very interesting to talk to. He also had a great sense of humor. We hit it off immediately. He was also incredibly handy, skilled and knowledgeable about all things house and garden related. Perfect for the job.

Brian in 1989 at one of David’s Birthday Parties

I began spending most of each summer in CT with David and later with my daughter, Sarah, too. We lived in the other one bedroom cottage that backed onto the caretaker’s house. My husband joined us on summer weekends. We also spent many weekends there in the spring and fall. Brian and I became good friends.

Brian got divorced in 1985, shortly after Sarah was born. He now had more time to spend with me and my kids. Which was fortunate for us.

In 1991, we moved into the CT house full-time. My husband worked as a lawyer in NYC so he only came up once during the week and on weekends. So I spent a lot of time as a single parent. Brian picked up the slack and started acting like an uncle, or a surrogate father to the kids.

Brian helped me chauffeur the kids to after school activities, play dates and doctor’s appointments (my son had a lot). He went to more softball games, school performances and gymnastics exhibitions than my husband did. And he was the only one who knew how to videotape these performances!

Brian, David and Sarah in 1993 at David’s Bar Mitzvah

Brian heard about what happened at school every day and knew the kids’ friends. He developed close and supportive relationships with both David and Sarah. He also helped the kids with homework and school projects. David had ADHD, so getting homework done took the full attention of an adult most week nights. Brian took turns with me working with David and hanging out with Sarah or helping her with her school work.

I don’t think any of us would have survived that period without Brian’s dedication and friendship. In many ways, Brian was a more hands on, day-to-day father to my kids than their biological dad. He even took Sarah on a trip to Williamsburg when she was eleven or twelve.

Brian was very handy (I am not) and could make almost anything. So, when Halloween came around, Brian and the kids went crazy. They picked weird costumes and Brian made them work. They went as things like a gum ball machine, a refrigerator with shelves and a door that opened, and a bed, complete with pillow and blanket. The kids were thrilled that they could be so unique and creative with their costumes. They still talk about them!

Sarah modeling the “Bed” Halloween costume that      Brian made with her

Brian was also a sea of calm in our otherwise tempestuous lives. My husband was bipolar. When he had manic episodes, things got ugly for long periods of time. Brian was our sanity and ballast during those times. He was there for me when I was having meltdowns over my husband’s erratic, volatile and often mentally abusive behavior. He helped keep me sane and strong for my children and helped them deal with the same situation. I was often overwhelmed. Brian made my job with the kids manageable, both emotionally and logistically. And he made life more upbeat and fun for the kids.

Brian continued to work for my mom until she died in 2002. After that he lived with me, my second husband, Tom, and the kids for a few months before moving to Canada. He now lives in Florida but always spends a few weeks a year with us in CT.

Brian, me, David and Sarah at my 2002 wedding to Tom

My kids and I will always be grateful to Brian, who stepped up when we needed him. We are all still very close and consider Brian an important part of our family. We were very lucky to find someone who fit so seamlessly into our lives and stayed with us through thick and thin. Brian also gained a second devoted family, so it was a win-win all around.

THE BIZARRE TRIP TO EUROPE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

When I was in high school, my parents didn’t travel. A good friend, nick named ‘Cookie’, was going to Europe for three weeks over the summer with her family. She invited me to join them. I was 15 and thrilled.

The first week we were going to stay on our own in Surrey, England, outside of London, with friends of Cookie’s family. Then we would travel with parents to London, Paris, Geneva, Zurich and Vienna.

Me and the family in Surrey, England

As soon as we arrived in Surrey, Cookie pulled the rug out from under me. She told me she was jealous of me and hated me. She said she planned to make the trip as miserable for me as possible. This was like a kick in the gut to me. Where did this come from? And what was I supposed to do now, alone in a foreign country with a declared ‘enemy’?

Cookie tried to ingratiate herself with the family and exclude me. It didn’t work. The two kids, a son around 18 and a daughter around 21, liked me better and complained to me about Cookie. But I still felt the hostility and the tension. It was very uncomfortable and scary.

When we were traveling alone with her parents, Cookie tried to turn them against me. She tried to sabotage me at every turn. Again, it didn’t work. Her parents just got annoyed with her. She kept on trying though.

Me on the trip in Paris

I couldn’t even write home about my situation because I always shared a room with Cookie and she hovered over me. My letters home are all chatty and upbeat except for a few hurriedly sneaked sentences at the end of each letter. The postscripts were short cries of anguish and pleas for help.

I had never been exposed to this degree of negativity, competitiveness, and outright hostility. It was an unpleasant and weird and particularly difficult for a 15-year old. I must have been more mature than I realized to have survived but even enjoyed some of the trip. We saw beautiful places and did  cool things. I just tried to ignore Cookie as much as possible.

To add insult to injury, we came home on the ocean liner, Queen Mary. There were no activities for kids and it was mind-numbingly boring. On top of that, and having to deal with Cookie 24/7, the food was became inedible. They ruined eggs for breakfast! We lived off candy from the vending machines.

Photo I took in Geneva, Switzerland

I’m grateful this trip didn’t turn me against traveling. In fact, it whetted my appetite. If I enjoyed traveling under these circumstances, imagine what it would be like with a friend as my traveling companion!

SHARING MY WORLD – THE END OF SUMMER

Share Your World – August 28, 2017


What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

Any day in which I wake up, still breathing … and if that is a go, then …

Being with friends. Having one of the good days where most of me works, a day on which I’m not tired start to finish.

In short, being alive, feeling reasonably healthy and being with people I enjoy. And a few dogs.

Complete this sentence: My favorite place in the whole world …

Ultimately home, but there are other favorite places too. I love the mountains best, but almost as fond of the seashore and rivers .

Really, anyplace that I can find beautiful is a favorite place on some level. And if i can take pretty pictures too? All the better.

Who was your best friend in elementary school (prior to age 12)?

That’s an interesting question. I had a best friend, but she was not my best friend. We had a complicated and occasionally difficult relationship. She was pretty, sexy, and cute. I was not. I was smarter than she was … which she didn’t like because she was smart in her own right, but she used her intelligence mostly as a way of attracting people.

Mary (left), Marilyn (middle), Carol (right). We were 6 or 7.

Boys, when we were young. Women, when she got older. I wonder how our relationship would have changed had she known then what she came to know later in life.

There are many strange twists life takes, aren’t there?

What inspired you this past week?  Feel free to use a quote, a photo, a story, or even a combination. 

It was good to have a friend in the house, even though it was only a few days. He and Garry are essentially the same age … Garry being 4 months older. But Ben, like me, has had a couple of heart surgeries and like me has never entirely recovered from it.

It’s a hard thing to explain to people who haven’t walked that walk … the tiredness that never quite goes away which comes with a permanent weariness. It’s not that we don’t work at overcoming it, but it gets harder and stuff that was so easy … isn’t. Things that were no big deal? Big deal and getting bigger.

This week, just having a friend to be around who remembers those days of old, when he drove the old Renault (or was it a Peugeot — I always forget) and we were both discovering who we were. They weren’t perfect days, but they were good ones — and fun to remember.