Tuesday, July 11, 2017

July 11, 2017--First Girlfriend

I especially loved D's family.

At that time I was interested above all in families that would welcome me and offer an alternative to the limitations of my own extended immigrant family. Freud would have had a lot to say about that. I probably wouldn't have disagreed.

This was many years ago, when I was about to be 16.

We met in Tannersville, NY where both families had summer homes. Ours more a cuchalalane (a modest bungalow with a small kitchen) we rented than a classic cottage; theirs a shingle-style rambling affair in the better part of town that has been in the B family for decades. As a striver, I was eager for that--having associations in the better part of town.

The meeting happened in Greenberg's market where I was sent with a long shopping list to stock up on food supplies before the fathers began to arrive for the weekend after an exhausting week in the city. D had a summer job there, stocking shelves and helping customers find where the bread was arrayed or if there was any fresh salmon. I needed bread and shyly asked D for help. She cheerfully directed me and, boldly, as I turned away, asked if I played tennis.

Though I never had held a racket in my hand, I impulsively said that I did.

She said, "Then how about meeting at the high school? They have tennis courts in the back and no one in the summer ever uses them."

"Well . . . I . . . I don't, don't," I stammered in the hope that by doing so I would not be understood and would evaporate and not have to deal with the mess I was making, "I don't . . . Well, I do . . . I mean . . . of course I have a racket . . . but . . . but my cousin . . . Ruthie has it and. . . ."

"Not to worry," D said, "You can borrow my sister's and so how about tomorrow at 3:00? I get out early on Fridays."

"I . . . I . . ."

I immediately thought about how I would wiggle out of the date or, if I couldn't arrange that, learn to play tennis overnight. I was a good athlete and . . .

But from somewhere within myself I found the chutzpah and did show up. And somehow, because I had decent eye-hand skills, I was able to make contact with the ball and hit it back to D. Or maybe she, realizing I wasn't telling the truth, took pity on me and gently lobbed all her shots right back to me rather than slash at them.

After an hour or so, she decided it was enough and suggested we go to Warm's diner for a drink and a slice of their incandescent huckleberry pie.

And so in 1950s-style we became a couple. We played more tennis, inhabited Warm's, and even went to the movies at the Orpheum Theater. I came to love D but, again, for me being welcomed into her family made our summer romance complete.

D had a beautiful and accomplished sister, E, who would be entering medical school at the end of the summer and an elegant and deeply cultured mother, A, who took charge of their elaborate family and social lives--two homes--one in Tannersville, another in Paterson, New Jersey. D's father, Dr. B, was a research chemist with an international reputation and a long list of patents. Chemical dyes were his specialty and though I knew virtually nothing about chemistry or dyes I could listen to him for hours as he told me about his training and then his work. I basked in his continental charm and worldliness and his willingness to pay attention to me, to take me seriously. He was originally from Germany, but rarely talked about his life there. I never even wondered about why that might be.

Tennis was the least of the things I lied about.

I felt to be interesting to them, for them to retain interest in me, I needed to enhance the story of my life, especially my education as that was a subject of great interest to the entire B family. So, though I was about to enter my junior year in high school, Brooklyn Tech, I told them that I would be enrolling in Columbia in the fall. I felt this was necessary to keep D interested in me as she was about to enroll in Douglass College in September. How would it be for her to have a boyfriend who was still mired in high school.

I was able to maintain this deception over the next two years while we continued to see each other and as I frequently spent time on weekends with the Bs in New Jersey, because my cousin Chuck was a junior at Columbia and I pumped him for information that I shared with D and her parents about what it was like to be a student in Morningside Heights.

But slowly, inevitably, without sturm und drang, just as the result of the passage of time, D and I drifted along different paths (I was finally admitted to Columbia), and though there were no tearful or heartrending conversations, I found myself visiting the Bs less often (though I attended E's wedding) and we hardly saw each other during summers since my family gave up the house in Tannersville. And so, after another year or two, our relationship came to a sputtering end.

Though we vowed to remain friends, over the decades we lost contact.

Then recently, as the result of many friends having passed away, I found myself doing what Rona calls "obituary runs." With the power of the Internet I have been looking up people I know with whom I have lost touch to see how they are faring. More honestly, to see if they are still alive.

I was happy to find that D is, that she lives in Pennsylvania, and appears to be a leading member of her community, especially within the Jewish community. But when I clicked on E, I discovered that she had died in 2014. At only 81.

There was an extended obituary as E was also deeply involved in her New Jersey community and had been a successful and highly regarded physician. More than that, the obituary filled in much that I did not know about D and her family. And helped explain the silences between Dr. B and me--
With her family, E came to the U.S. in September, 1941. [She was eight years old.] One of E's earliest experiences was being put on a kinder transport to save Jewish children from the Nazis. Her father, CB, mother A and sister D, (who was too young to travel), followed shortly after and met up in Belgium. 
Two years later, after the German invasion of Belgium, C was rounded up with others and sent to an internment camp in the south of France. A, with E and D, made her way through occupied and unoccupied France to reunite with C after he had secured release at the behest of a U.S. chemical company. 
They were able to board a French ship for the U.S., [but it was] was ordered to turn back by the Vichy French. The ship went to Casablanca instead. Their journey was not over, the family went from Casablanca to Spain to board an old tramp steamer, the SS Navemar. The Navemar's usual cargo was coal and carried no more than eight passengers. 
On its last trip, the ship carried more than 800 passengers, who slept in holds covered by soot and in life boats during the seven week passage to the U.S. The Navemar was the second to last refugee ship permitted to dock by the U.S. before the borders were closed and was sunk on its way back across the Atlantic.
For weeks now I have been unable to stop thinking about the Bs' harrowing story and the things not spoken. The full story of their lives. The truth of their past. The pain and remembrances. On a different scale, my pathetic lies. And the limitless promise of love.

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