My life goes to hell when I don’t listen to Aunt Jenny.
I did it once and now I’m doing it again. The first time I didn’t listen, I got divorced. This time I wish I could divorce myself.
Aunt Jenny is always right.
Aunt Jenny wasn't just my alternate mother. She was my alternate universe.
We stayed at her house when my parents ran off to Vegas—a rather frequent occurrence, since my Dad was a mathematician and worked in probability and statistics. I always joked that he lost at the tables like everyone else—but he knew why.
Aunt Jenny was much tougher than my mother. She and my father had escaped the Nazi’s when they were children. Complete story includes a raging river with water up to their necks – Switzerland, Freedom --looming on the other shore. Unsurprisingly, she was unbelievably unspoiled, and looked at the finer things in life with a bit of a laugh.
She was truly beautiful; I saw pictures. Blonde with green eyes, bosomy, and possessed of a big laugh and the kind of energy that makes men know you will make a great wife.
Uncle Max gave her a second escape—from her home at eighteen. They became quite the power couple in the neighborhood. Their living room was always full of people and parties. Every night they went out to movies, lectures, plays. They knew everybody and everybody knew them. This is still true. Just a few years ago, I was snorkeling off Grand Cayman and the guy next to me on the boat had been to their house.
Aunt Jenny got her PhD in French Existential Literature. She interviewed Elie Wiesel. She taught at some of the best high schools in Manhattan before she and Uncle Max made Aliyah to Israel. Her two children are a respected doctor and musician and a master teacher and musician.
When I went to visit them in Jerusalem, some of their sixteen grandchildren crowded around me to hear stories about “Grandma.”
I told them what it was like to stay there, all those years ago. How different it was from my usual school mornings. How, when I was little—say in third grade—my storybook mother would silently enter my sister's and my bedroom at 7 AM-- using but the gentle sunrise to illumine the careful peeling off of our pajamas as we lay, like princesses, in bed. How she would dress us in our tights and jumpers, and walk us downstairs to a nice breakfast of Cocoa Krispies and low fat milk, toast, peanut butter, orange juice and kisses. Then she would drive us to the bus stop so we wouldn’t have to walk the three blocks and stand while we waited.
At Aunt Jenny’s, it was different.
At 7AM the light was snapped on. “TIME TO GET UP!” We barely opened our eyes, but Aunt Jenny was already on a whirl back down the stairs. “Hurry, get dressed!” she would call. Then, the killer: “I’M POURING THE MILK!”
“Aaaaaaaaah! Don’t pour the milk!” we would scream after her—bolting upright, grabbing our clothes, shoving our shoes on, wondering if we could risk a minute in the bathroom.
Uncle Max would be sitting at the giant glass kitchen table, with the curly wrought-iron base you could see right through to, a scoop of cottage cheese adorning his cantaloupe.
He would be on the phone with Bubby—his mother –in-law, Aunt Jenny’s mother.
“Hellooooo MA!” he would shout into the phone. “Vi gayst?” Then he would wink at us and set the receiver down carefully. Within one second, a stream of Yiddish would fill the air, continuing as we slurped our sodden corn flakes.
It was still going as Aunt Jenny hustled us out, and then ran with us, panting and in dread for four whole blocks lest we miss the yucky bus with the unfamiliar kids that we had to take whenever our parents went on vacation and dumped us with Aunt Jenny and Uncle Max.
Their grandchildren would scream with laughter. Tell more tell more!
What I didn’t tell them was about the time Uncle Max bought Aunt Jenny a marquise shaped diamond. He wanted her to have it; he was already rich. She came by our house for her usual Sanka with my mother, the ring on her finger. “I don’t know,” she said, doubtfully, looking at it this way and that. To my eyes, it didn’t go with her bitten-down nails, her “let’s wait for the next express bus to Manhattan because in ten more minutes it’s a dollar cheaper” and her general wardrobe from Filene’s.
But I remember wanting her to have it, I thought it was romantic. But I also remember being proud that she didn’t really want it, certainly didn’t need it, and didn’t feel like anything other than her scholarship and hard work determined—or displayed-- her value.
Which brings me back to why Aunt Jenny is always right.
When I was 15, she told me: “Always make your own money. Never depend on a man to support you.”
It drove me. I watched the women of my mother’s generation, subservient and less-worldly. It’s why I refused two marriage proposals that came with the “offer” –a fiat, really—not to work. And it’s why I found myself on the Scarsdale train every morning, shlepping in with all the other husbands.
I loved my job in advertising, and I loved that I was good at it, and I loved that I made a lot of money.
I left it for reasons that I thought were right at the time, and maybe they were. But it shook up my marriage, shook up my kids, and not making my own money has, frankly, made me into a less secure person.
Aunt Jenny always worked. Sometimes she had three jobs at once. She told me: “So what if I’m making twenty thousand dollars and he’s making a million. It’s MY twenty thousand dollars.”
So here I am, at a crossroads, older, poorer, and obviously no wiser.
A couple of shuls are interested in Sruli—nice, because our shul has just merged with another shul, and the other, more senior Rabbi, got the job.
I hope Sruli gets a new pulpit. He deserves it, and he really is a wonderful Rabbi.
Our music business is doing well, but it’s a music business.
“Always make your own money. Never depend….”
I got my advertising CV together. I’m starting to network. I’m finding that separate, proud, dependable place, getting back to myself.
Hold on a second, Aunt Jenny. I'll be right down.