I’m getting these posts started again with a lighthearted and funny letter from Sylvia in 1943. Alex, at this time, is still posted in Virginia for training. This allows for more levity than the letters Sylvia writes in later years. Cookie has added some illustrations of what look like helicopters and airplanes to the envelope and Sylvia sings and jokes cheerfully as she plans for Alex’s leave. She is still living on Jerome Street in Brownsville in 1943. I appreciate what a blatant form of propaganda the stamp on this envelope is. It simply reads “Win the War” and features an eagle with 13 stars. Sylvia also mentions that she is going to a church committee meeting. If this strikes you as odd, since she was a secular Jew, that’s because it is. The omnipresent, anti-communist censor already wields it’s power in this letter and Sylvia knows she cannot write that she is attending a communist party meeting. While she leaves off with a sophisticated code for her political actions she opens with some of her less sophisticated jokes.
Tuesday – 12/14 (1943)
Dearest Sweetheart –
Welcome home, darling. I know it’s a little premature, but I feel like celebrating your arrival earlier.When daddy comes marching home again Hurrah, hurrah We’ll give him a hearty welcome then Hurrah, hurrah Oh Mommy will cheer and the baby will shout And all the damn relatives will come about And we’ll all shout, “Welcome, welcome Alex, dear!”
Oh darling, Cookie farted loud and long in her excitement-And they’re just like her daddy’s. I smell the resemblance! (JOKE)
Adrienne has the high-chair from Sadie’s friend. It’s solid but I’ll have to paint it, and get a new pillow for her little (?) tuchas. It’ll be perfectly all right for Cookie – and she might be able to use it in a few weeks. Cookie stands like this now and swings back and forth.
She looks quite adorable doing that. Fay and Sam’s kid Susan (KU) did this at 8 or 7 months of age! So you see, our infant is quite well developed. Tomorrow I’ll be taking her to Dr. Black – at 1:30 and I can reach him by taking the line at Jerome and Sutter, so it’s convenient too, besides his being a good doctor. I wrote you about him but you didn’t answer.
Mommy took a nice long walk today (some excitement!) because she’s getting too fat. So please don’t say she didn’t warn you. You won’t recognize her tuchas when you see it. It’s 2x the size it was when last you saw it. And she won’t blame you too much if you refuse to take her in your lap – because she’ll squash you flat!! (But baby I can’t wait to sit in your lap and have your arms around me.) Mommy’s going to church committee meeting tonight. Will write you about it.
Want to mail this off to you. Lots of love and some very warm, close embraces, with a few resounding kisses thrown in.
Mommy and Cookie
Today we are looking at two notes from Alex. Both allude to Alex’s location with mysterious clues and little information. Alex is happy to be exploring a city. This is a consolation for him – getting to travel to new places. He clearly makes the most of the opportunity. I would imagine it would be difficult for Sylvia to read these letters about Alex sight seeing. She cannot be there with him, and she also cannot hear about what he is doing in any detail. These notes are unlike the more long-winded and downtrodden letters that Alex writes when he spends long days on the ship.
In the first letter, written on November 24th, 1944, Alex simply mentions that he is trying to see as many “worth while” sites as he can in this “interesting” place, but says he cannot write anymore because it will be censored anyway.
The second – written five days later – is a funny (and beautifully illustrated) postcard that was mailed from France, though we get no other information about his location. The postcard itself is quite a specimen. I write more about it below the card.
Dec. 4, 1944
Again, a few words to let you now I am well and happy. This place is very interesting to see and I am busy as hell to see everything worth while [sic]. So as soon as morning comes I see to it that if there is a chance out I go. And I come back drenched, tired but happy.
I can’t tell you about what I have seen because obviously enough of it would not pass the censor, but so much the better, I’ll have more to tell you when I get home, which is going to be not so long from now.
Darling every day I make [it] my business to go and see about mail, there is none, that is the answer. But now I don’t mind it so terribly much, not because I love you less but because the feeling that this separation won’t last too long. Dearest I conclude, I have duty to perform for the next four hours and then I’ll “hit the sack” my dogs are barking.
With all my love to you and baby and a million of kisses.
(I am not certain about whether Alexs reference to receiving no mail is a comment on whether Sylvia has been writing or about whether they are receiving any mail at all.)
November 24, 1944
Just a few lines to let you know I am well. It is a very exciting stay we had here with all the sights to be seen and things to do. It won’t be long now and you shall hear a full report. I hope both you and baby are well. A million kisses and love to both of you,
It’s fascinating that Alex chooses this card. It depicts two very young boys – both dressed as soldiers – talking about whether they have received mail. A gun lies strewn on the ground next to them and two children run and wave the flag of France behind them. The sadder looking has not received any mail because “she does not know how to write.”
It seems he cannot choose one that would give away his location so here is one that comments on the youth fighting the war and on the letter writing process itself. It addresses how young the men fighting the war are and how their morale relies on the mail.
The sign above the little boy reads “Ligne Majino.” At first glance I thought the sign might refer to an “imaginary line,” like one that little boys might create in the games of war that they play. However, the closest reference that I am able to find is, “Ligne Maginot,” which was “a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts, and other defenses, which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy, in light of its experience in World War I, and in the run-up to World War II.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maginot_Line) It was named after the French Minister of War. Whatever the reason that Alex chose this postcard, it certainly seems to tell us more about him than the place he is currently located. I wonder, though, how ubiquitous this type of postcard was in France in 1944.
In this letter, rumors are flying about what will happen next to Alex and his ship mates. This letter was mailed from Norfolk, Virginia in 1943. Alex mentions that he likes the Armed Guard and that the men hope not to be shipped overseas on boats. They were scheduled to return to Brooklyn but it seems that was all they knew. Alex warns Sylvia not to get her hopes up about his return. He closes his letter with a reference to sex. While Sylvia has repeatedly written some scandalous notes, Alex usually refrains from adding any of his own amorous remarks. He throws this in on the last line. Maybe I am imagining this because I am his granddaughter, but I think he was bashful in writing this because the handwriting looks, to me, smaller more difficult to read. Since rumors spread “like wild fire” (as always I am impressed when Alex uses English idioms) on the ship, maybe Alex feels like he could become the subject of the next round of chatter.
Dec. 11, 1944
Of course sure the butt “fly’s as tick [thick] as shit” that’s how we carraterize what is going on here now. Everybody is coming in with stories of one kind or another.
One rumor goes that all the arm guards will be transferred into the fleet. That as soon as we get to Brooklyn we will be shipped out on boats. That we will get a 48 hour leave as soon as we hit Brooklyn. Some say 15 days. That the whole base is crowded. That all who come back from a trip will get 15 days and the ship will get new crews. It is absolutely impossible to make sense on all the talk that is passed around. The prediction or another must come true so we all will say that we knew it ahead of time. Of course, no one here wants the fleet, we all like the arm guard.
Yesterday I dropped a little invention of mine on the mail line. I invented the fiction that all who come out of AG school will be sent out to the Amphibious arm 350 at the time. I said that a gunners mate 3rd class told me, and he was told a chief. Well today this same story came back in my own barracs heard that the captain of the station told the 1st class gunner mate, I almost was fooled myself that is how distorted the story became. I dropped in on the line where we wait for mail and all the gun crew captains are there so it spread like wild fire particularly because no one has any love for the Amphibious core. So tahts what scuttlebutt is and that is why I want to repeat, do not build castles in the air. In the last few letters I am emphasizing this not because there is any change, which you might suspect. So far everything is as was before, but there can be changes and I don’t want you to create illusions and then be disappointed.
For instance, they asked at the ___ (?) today 35 volunteers for KP duty. If they don’t get them, they’ll draft them from the ranks, and I can be just as much in the draft and get stuck here as the next guy. They are kept on the job for 3 months. You see if a similar accession would arise in Brooklyn of course I would not sneeze at it.
I am sorry about Frankie not being well, if I didn’t mention it in my other letter, I am sorry but I was thinking too much about coming home.
If you have the occasion to get the high chair from Sadie’s friend, by all means get it you can always place for the few dollars you have to spend. You are beginning to develop a bad tract, everything for Cookie and always Cookie first. You carry that further and you will find that no one will count anyone but Cookie. Of course that will bring other things in its wake you will be jealous of her and pauper her and so on. Next time. –
You to say, it was for yourself.
Mail your last letter not later than Wednesday, it will reach me here on Friday. Don’t wait for me at the station because I’ll be in ranks anyway and I can’t break out, and I don’t want to be tempted.
I love you darling. Kiss Cookie for me.
I’ll make love to you soon in the meantime kisses
I find it poetic that the quote next to Sylvia’s yearbook photo is, “She will never pass into nothingness.” Lately, as I walk around Brooklyn, I try to notice traces of the past. Each neighborhood carries the weight of it’s past so differently.
Some traces can be found because of neglect. The land has been left untouched or the real estate hasn’t been deemed valuable enough to call for renovations.
Other traces are found because of conscious preservation like a memorial to a person or an event.
I live in one of those so called “up and coming” neighborhoods where there is a 24/7 organic food store and several new coffee shops. Most recently a new burger place opened up that reuses and rewrites the past. It’s called “Dutch Boy Burger” and calls attention to itself by utilizing the widely recognized Dutch Boy Paint logo (logically enough a Dutch boy painting). It has that 1950s diner quality to it and fetishizes the cute old-timey marketing of Dutch Boy Paint. In my household Dutch Boy Paint is most noted for it’s criminal marketing of lead-based paints to children. The dutch boy symbol directly appealed to children and parents who might then be enticed to paint their children’s rooms, toys and cribs with a coat of lead. This burger joint probably isn’t banking on that association for it’s business but I think it is a pretty direct re-writing of the past and employment of nostalgia for a new product. “The whole space used to be one of the Dutch Boy paint shops that were bought by Sherwin Williams,” Roff tells Grub Street. “When we took off the old storefront, the original sign was hanging there and was in pretty good condition and now it’s hanging in the restaurant.” (http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2010/03/dutch_boy_burger_opens_friday.html)
Then there are traces of history that are right in front of you but you fail to notice them because they are part of your daily setting.
Then there are traces that are so subtle you can’t help but have them catch your eye.
Sylvia was just about my age when she lived on Navy Walk with a young child. Whereas I am still trying to learn how to take care of myself she was already wise enough to take care of another human being!
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a book that helps explain some of life’s complications through a mix or fantasy and logic, conflict and triumph, character and description. Books like these stay with you for life. The characters are friends that you can depend on. Children’s books are one more way people can pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. Sylvia’wrote a children’s book that is now 60 years old and I’m writing about it here of in The New Yorker – but it’ll have to do!
Sylvia and Alex’s second child, David (my father) was born in 1947. Here we have a draft of a children’s book that Sylvia wrote accompanied by a letter to an editor. The letter is quite open and honest. I find it funny that while Sylvia is sending a manuscript (“MS.” in the letter) meant for children she states frankly, “[T]hese kids can just about knock the hell out of one.”
There is a second page of a letter that is dated 1949 and I’m not sure if this is from a previous draft of the book. Sylvia writes there, too, that she is “pooped… but really pooped.” (Another joke!) Though these letters seem so personal (and her reference to Hungarian film finding it’s place in cinema indicates that she may be writing to a friend of Alex’s), the words are still quite eloquent. Sylvia explains that, despite her exhaustion, the urge to write does not leave her. She writes, beautifully, “My mind is rusty. My fingers are rusty. My ideas are gone.” Still, she writes!
I like that this manuscript introduces a new relationship to the family. It is clear that Sylvia is writing for her children as well as about them. This book is about the relationship between siblings: their expectations of one another, their disappointments, their guardianship, their admiration and their love. (Thanks to the world of self publishing, I now “publish” this with no editor at all. Can you tell?!)