Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘Cookie

Bad Joke Department

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In this letter Sylvia writes self consciously about the censor. She cannot get used to the fact that there is a third party reading about their private lives. Yet here I am putting these letters out for the world to read. I wonder when personal and private life becomes an historical part of public memory. Sylvia includes a few jokes in this letter that are meant for the censor’s entertainment as much as Alex’s. The first joke is my favorite. The third joke, I don’t understand. [Update, Shtik Drek means piece of shit in Yiddish] Anyone who has lived with me knows I make up jokes about inanimate objects. Sylvia calls these kind of jokes a poor attempt at wartime humor, where people are looking for “phony gaiety” wherever they can find it. I have no such excuse. None of this letter was censored, though it must certainly have been read. I hope whoever read it laughed or cried.

I am repeatedly astonished by how powerful these letters can be. Time and again I have chosen a letter at random (or one that happened to be written on the same date that I am writing a post) and Sylvia’s words feel like they were stolen from my own head. To me the letters are astonishingly relatable. I mean, I don’t have a child, but her letters have an uncanny ability to reflect thoughts that I relate to so strongly.

Sylvia writes sweetly about her apartment with Alex and their cooking habits. She reminisces about their courtship and makes her friends envious by telling stories about their relationship. Here, she also says that she knew she would marry Alex the moment she set eyes on him. Fact or fiction, (who’s to say?!) it’s lovely to read about.

Mommy did go out and is now back. It’s too late to use the typewriter, because although its supposed to be a noiseless machine, it makes enough racket to wake the household.

While making the formula this evening I was so engrossed in my thoughts about you, that I poured Cookie’s milk into the sterilizer instead of into the measuring cup! Isn’t that terrific?

But I’ll begin to show some sense soon sweetheart. In regarding this letter, it sounds a little slaphappy – but that’s because I’m so keenly aware of there being a third party (that censor!) who is introduced to our private life. 

And there are so many things I’d like to say, but can’t, as I can’t grow accustomed to the idea of a stranger knowing our private thoughts! I wonder how he feels about reading other people’s mail – guess if they don’t try to keep a sense of humor they become crabby old maids. So the following is for you as well as the censor.

Bad Joke Dep’t

  1. Did you hear about the moron who thought his typewriter was pregnant because it skipped a period?
  2. Did you hear about the moron who crippled his poor old mother because someone told him to go back where he came from?
  3. Did you hear about the moron who flushed himself down the toiled because someone told him he was a “Shtik Drek”?

Ouch!

I know they’re bad sweetest, man but that’s what is called ‘humor in wartime.” Anything goes. But its probably a hungry effort on everyone’s part to try and catch some phony gaiety.

Dearest, there are so many things I want to tell you but I’m so tired – and sleepy. It’s rather late- and having to crawl into a cold and lonely bed is nothing a gal looks forward to… but I’m not too tired to say you’re one grand guy! Lately, I’ve started telling interesting stories about the days before our marriage when you were courting me (or was I courting you?) and the stories are really amusing. Blanche was envious when I told her that the first time I set eyes on you – I knew I’d marry you – you lucky stiff! As it  — she’s envious, Virgre’s envious, Lida’s envious. All because of you and Adrienne. She’s such a doll – it’s the most —- sensation in the world-

– babe – it’s because you’re not here with me and so all my emotions center around her! But I love that kid so strongly, [cut off] anything happens to her!!! Or to  you – I’d die.

 [cut off]  it’s late and I’m beginning to [feel] a little wacked  up (as usual – — meals) so I’ll close this letter [with a ] close embrace and a wish for your return (funny – I’ve got the [feeling] that you’re not far away from us.

Dearest darling –

Cookie and Mommy love you – so hurry home.

(Ripped off part of a note about Butch)

Love,

Sylvia

Written by Molly

January 21, 2012 at 5:30 pm

That’s me pushing a broom

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This letter is from the U.S. Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. Alex wrote it to Sylvia in 1943.

My darling

A week from today I’ll be in your arms at this time. Sweetheart, forgive me if I don’t write you long letters, believe me I am going in circles from work. They gave us another Battaglion (Battalion?) Standby watch and where ever they need work to be done they send us. Today we shined the administrator’s buildings floors, and besides that we have our own work to take care of, particularly because we have had our extra work taken away from us. I received all your wonderful letters, I can’t do justice to them and I am sorry.

I wrote mom and told her the time I’ll be home, I think we still should do as planned and go over to her home when I arrive. I don’t know what will you do about the shows, but honey I really don’t care. The only think I want is to be with you, near you, to kiss you and make love to you. Everything else is really secondary. So don’t worry about that, if worse comes to worse you will go by yourself after I left and will try to console yourself. This will sound lousy, but honey don’t worry we together and nothing artificial will be needed to stimulate us. I’ll be so happy in the Cookie and Mummy and Daddy combination. What else can a guy want?

It is very nice that the girls wanted to present you with the tickets to make our get together so pleasant, that is really friendship.

Poor Cookie, so she has a rash, I am glad you are taking her to the clinic and I hope her cold is a thing of the past by the time this arrives. You can’t imagine how hard it is to imagine her, because I could believe she is as small as when I left her and I can’t imagine her any bigger.

So mummy’s clothes can already be remodeled, that is splendid, and so cheaply too. I always knew that my wife was an artist.

Don’t feel badly about my castigation, I’d suffer hell for your sake!

Don’t send any mail after Sunday, but Sunday send a long letter so that I’ll be to hold out till Thursday.

That’s me pushing the broom.

That’s me sleeping on my watch.

That’s me dreaming of you and Cookie.

That’s me and you at the station next Thursday evening.

My love to you and Cookie,

Daddy

***

This letter from Alex, written in 1943, is particularly interesting because it goes through such a wide array of sentiments in its short four pages. Each page seems dedicated to a different side of Alex and a different part of the life he is leading. Alex begins the letter in a tired voice, apologizing that he cannot write long letters like Sylvia does. He talks about the work he is doing and how he feels like he is going in circles. None of it sounds particularly rewarding.

On the second page Alex becomes sweeter – focusing on his trip home. Sure, it’s kind of uncomfortable to read about my grandpa wanting to have sex but once we get past that this page is a fascinating display of what kind of man he was. He is a little forceful in his opinion that he and Sylvia should go right to his mother’s house when he returns and spend the rest of their time doing whatever they want together. He does not want to go to a show that Sylvia has been planning to attend. He simply says he doesn’t care about the show and she will have to deal with it. He is  also saying this as a loving father who couldn’t ask for more than to be with his wife and child. The page ends with a kind sentiment that Sylvia has good friends. Alex is aware that he is being a little rude and this is the most tension I have seen so far in one of these letters.

The third page is Alex as a father and husband. He addresses Cookie’s cold and rash and then sadly relates that he cannot imagine Cookie any bigger than she was the last time he saw her. This leads him to tell Sylvia when she should and shouldn’t write to him. His somewhat bossy instructions just show how  important the letters are to sustaining his morale. I am not sure what castigation he is referring to his letter. Is there a family member out there who can shed some light on that?

Finally, the last page is comical and romantic. Alex draws little cartoons of him working, sleeping on the job, and dreaming of his family that are playful and wistful. I love that Alex is always wearing his sailor hat in the drawings and we also find out that he slept on the top bunk of a bunk bed! In this letter he is looking forward to a visit home and think of himself in his family role, signing the letter Daddy.

On a more general side note: I really enjoy reading Alex’s letters because of the way he writes in English. For the most part, he writes so well that you wouldn’t realize that English wasn’t his first language. But every so often you can see that he phrases something oddly and I am able to hear his accent and remember a small bit of how he spoke. In this letter he writes, “I don’t know what will you do about the shows…” There are not many solid examples in this letter but you can see that his letters sound formal sometimes because he doesn’t organize sentences in the same order, or speak as casually as a native English speaker might. It is just something to note and I will try to point this out when we hear more from Alex.

Written by Molly

July 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

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Borscht Belt

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(The last letter is surely one I will need to revisit, there is too much to process all at once.)

In the last letter Sylvia spent a long time talking about what Adrienne ate. She mentions the creamy milk and the quarter of a chicken that “Baby” happily devoured. The letter, written in 1944, indirectly addresses the rationing that the nation was dealing with during WWII. Families were issued ration books and points based on family size which served as a kind of currency for Americans. Meat and dairy products were parcelled out sparingly. Companies like Kraft gained popularity with their boxed macaroni and cheese to substitute for scarce fresh foods.  “The government also printed a monthly meal-planning guide with recipes and a daily menu. Good Housekeeping magazine printed a special section for rationed foods in its 1943 cookbook.” (http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1674.html) It also became a mark of patriotism to “go without.” You were supporting the troops by giving up a portion of the meat you might normally consume.  When possible, families started their own gardens (named, of course, Victory Gardens). Of course, as this picture to the right points out, a good housewife would never complain about her hardships. She is a cute domesticated Rosie-The -Rationer.

It is so difficult, sometimes, to understand how many different ways the war impacted people’s daily lives, how much everyone was forced to adjust.  The very basics –  family, food and shelter – could not be taken for granted. Even when you built a family, had enough food, and made yourself a home – it all teetered on a tentative foundation.

Sylvia also talks a lot about how Adrienne misses her father and is jealous of another young girl who is playing with her dad. This heartbreaking scene must have been as painful for Alex to read about as it was for Sylvia to watch. Adrienne is obviously aware of her father’s absence, even though she couldn’t, at that point, have any tangible memory of him. Sylvia must try to strengthen the bond between father and daughter with her letters  and stories (she even devotes a page of the letter to Cookie’s scribbles), while trying not to make the distance between them feel any more painful.

An unlikely father figure in this letter is the rabbi who sits in front of Sylvia and Adrienne on their way to the Catskills. A lot of Jewish people from New York traveled to the Catskills when they needed a vacation from the city in the middle of the 20th century (it was such a big phenomenon that it was dubbed the “Borscht Belt”).  The rabbi is so good-natured about Adrienne’s actions so it leaves me to ponder, once again, my family’s relationship with Judaism. Once again Sylvia is representing a group of people. She belongs to an era, a culture, a popular movement even though you could read this letter and feel like she is completely alone.

We can’t know what movements in history we are a part of right now.  Nor can we believe that we act independently of the world around us.  But I’m also beginning to understand that doing something that may be commonplace (like being a Jew and going to Catskills in the 1940s or, say … being a 20-something with a blog…) can’t be dismissed simply as a cliché.  An individual’s connection to a community, city, country, or culture makes it possible to relate to – and survive in – the world.

Written by Molly

July 26, 2010 at 8:00 am

The Country and Christening a Rabbi

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In this letter Sylvia leaves the city with Adrienne! The letter is longer and more detailed than many of the other letters. If you only have time to read a page or two of this letter, read page 5 and 6. I will write about this letter in the next post.

My dearest,

Your letter was sent out to me yesterday and despite its shortness it was such a comfort. Darling, you have no idea how much I miss you – especially out here away from the family. Well, enough of that – as there’s no need to tell you how much I miss you, darling. You know all that.

Baby and I arrive in Catskill Thursday – and dearest, that was some trip. I carried Cookie and a heavy suitcase and by the time Cookie and I got off the train I was dripping wet and absolutely knocked out. Cookie slept for an hour and cried for an hour and peed and walked and didn’t enjoy it too much.

The trip was supposed to take 3 hours but it took 4-41/2 hours – and it seemed like a year. Out here, Cookie sleeps much better and also eats lots better. She drinks more than a quart of milk a day whereas in the city if she finished 3 bottles I was happy. I give her the plain pasteurized milk from the town and its rich and so creamy – much richer than the so-called rich homogenized milk in the city – and baby loves it!! Last night she grabbed the cooked chicken with both hands and ate it so fast – all by herself. She ate almost 1/4 of a chicken and a carrot and soup and crackers and milk and she was very happy until

I try to put her to sleep. She sings and dances in her crib – so I take her downstairs and put her in the carriage and she falls asleep to Yasse’s (the farmer’s son’s) crooning – and she sleeps out on the cool porch or under a tree until I’m ready to go upstairs – and then I put her in her crib.

It took her a little while to get used to walking on the grass, but now she does walk on it, slowly. She talks to the chickens and gets down on her hands and knees to kiss the cat and dog. I’ll get her a puppy when we get home since she loves the dog so much.

We have a small room up here but we’ll probably get a larger room in a few weeks when some of the family moves away. I’m very anxious for you to come up here after this trip. You’ll like it dear – as ten days here wouldn’t make you irritable with its crowdedness.

Cookie wrote this page to you – to tell you she loves you and misses you very much.

Darling, there’s so much to tell you- like how Cookie broke her milk bottle over a rabbi’s head on the train. He was sitting just in front of us, and he kept praying and his head went back and forth. Adrienne watched his head go up and down – and she was fascinated. Finally she said “da da dad” in rhythm to his praying. And in the middle of his prayer he’d say “sune- da da” “da da” – I was hysterical. She’d pull his hat – and hit him with her milk bottle and he loved it! Then after one particularly hard knock he turned his head and the bottle fell and broke and the milk spilled. It was like a christening of a ship and the rabbi being the ship.

Or else I can tell you how jealous she got when she saw one father here playing with his little girl – and his girl kept laughing and saying “daddy”. Adrienne walked over and stood there. Then she lifted her arms and said nodding her head, “daddy.” Darling it was all I could do to keep from crying … She misses you, dear and she’ll certainly enjoy your presence here when you come up. (and so will I!)

Keep writing me from wherever you are darling – and send me a cable to say that you’re alright! Also, hon, keep on collecting coins for my necklace. I’ll have it made after the summer.

About taking care of Cookie – I love it and don’t find it hard at all. So don’t worry about us. We’re both fine.

All my love hone and write me soon, drage (?)

Io te ama, amore

Sylvia

P.S. I asked the farmer and his wife how much they wanted for the room and the wife said $40.00 for the summer! Her husband protested as he wanted more. It was embarrassing for me – but it still isn’t a lot. I suppose Anna and I will share it. I won’t ask her for it unless she brings it up. Edward will probably be up here in about a week and he’ll love it out here.

Write soon, darling

All our love-

Sylvia and Adrienne

Written by Molly

July 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm

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Birth

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Dearest –

I love you…
And if you love me-
Come to the hospital
In a 1-2-3!
______________
Gone to Beth Israel –
Be calm, daddy. – (I am not!)

Love -
Sylvia

(First I’ll call the doc from the drug store.)

2 o’clock.

This note, scribbled to Alex on June 8th, 1943, the day Sylvia gave birth to my Aunt Adrienne, encapsulates Sylvia’s spunk and charm. On my best days I can only hope to be as clever and lovely as she when she was in labor.

This rhyming, calming, joyful message isn’t the beginning of the story and it isn’t the end but it certainly is one beginning and I’ve got to start somewhere. As this blog unfolds you, imagined reader, will read the correspondence between my grandmother, Sylvia, and my grandfather, Alex, as they navigated through one of the nation’s most trying times.

These posts will focus on their letters, the historical context of the letters, and my experience learning about Alex and Sylvia’s lives. Alex and Sylvia lived in the Fort Greene Projects of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s. Alex, like thousands of men, was in the Navy and sent abroad during World War II. Sylvia, like thousands of women, stayed at home with a newborn child, Adrienne – most often referred to in the letters as “Cookie.”

I never met Sylvia but I hope to begin to understand who she was as I read and write about her. She has long been a mysterious presence in the family history. She is someone who is never forgotten but hardly known by any living family members. These are the two protagonists in this unfolding story. The progenitors.

This week marks the 6th anniversary of Alex’s death at the age of 91. At a Passover seder that my roommates arranged I realized that the last seder I attended was just days before Alex died, my senior year of high school. I am looking to understand who Alex was as a person long before he was my grandfather.

This blog is about discovering who these two people – who are both typical and unique – were and what their relationship meant. I never knew Sylvia, but she and my grandfather wrote hundreds of letters during the years that Alex was stationed abroad – letters that I cannot adequately describe with a few trite adjectives.

This is the story of one part of the nation’s history filtered through one well-documented relationship. I think this is a journey that should be shared and valued.

Written by Molly

April 5, 2010 at 9:42 pm

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