Queen for a Day
Published in fredbernstein.com
Events of the summer of 1969
A mix of shame and pride washed over Anna Bernstein, my grandmother, when my mother walked into my bedroom on a stormy evening in the summer of 1966. I was 9. Anna, who was 70, had escaped pogroms with a baby on one arm and a callow husband on the other, trudged across eastern Europe to freedom, crossed the Atlantic in steerage, and raised four children in a tenement, keeping them, and seemingly half of the Lower East Side, in chicken soup for decades. Later, she lost a leg to diabetes, leaving her bound to a wheelchair that was less conveyance than cursed contraption. Now, this big hearted dispenser of love and nosherei was in my bedroom doing what? A version of the only thing she could be doing.
Opening the door, my mother saw Anna, her mother-in-law, simultaneously watching me sleep and pressing something dark against my lips. My mother, Marilyn, gasped. Anna, she soon learned, was trying to feed me pieces of a Hershey bar without waking me up (a task made easier by the soporific tapping of raindrops on the metal roof). Anna’s method involved patiently melting pea-sized bits of chocolate onto the insides of my lips. If she succeeded, feeding me without having to rouse me, she would have been a hero to Jewish mothers everywhere — a shtetl-raised, kneidlach-making Madame Curie.
My mother’s gasp awakened me, and I downed the rest of the candy bar the old-fashioned way. Anna, embarrassed but no doubt determined to resume her experiment another night, because food was love and she knew I needed more of it, maneuvered her wheelchair out of the tiny bedroom and into the living room, where she would try to sleep, feeling physically and emotionally stranded, on a threadbare wicker sofa.
Anna’s husband, my grandfather Joe, had died years before, though he wouldn’t have been able to console her. And Anna’s son, my father, Milton, wasn’t around. This was a bungalow colony where the husbands, “providers” in bargain basement suits, drove up from the city on Friday nights, arriving after their kids were already asleep, and left on Monday mornings, early enough to get to their offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens by 9 a.m. From Monday to Friday, I was the man of the house.
This was my family’s fourth summer renting from Sam Elkin, who had moved from the Lower East Side to central Connecticut before World War II, and therefore, to those of us from the five boroughs, might as well have been a Mayflower descendant. (His father, I later learned, had run a farm subsidized by the German-Jewish philanthropist, and back-to-the-land activist, Baron de Hirsch.) At first Elkin and his wife, Bertha, who were brought together in an arranged marriage, raised chickens on the property in Moodus (a name that practically screams “hick town”). But sometime in the ‘50s they turned their coops into cottages and began welcoming refugees from a sweltering city -- the Plotzkers from Flushing, the Rosenbluths from Bayside, the Suches from Howard Beach -- with only occasional changes in the line-up.
For kids, Elkin’s Bungalows was a kind of paradise. True, the cabins themselves were rudimentary. And, true, the lawn was crabgrass and the swimming pool an unheated “cement pond,” in the phrase popularized around that time by the Beverly Hillbillies. (Occasionally, my mother would yell, “Freddy, come out of the pool. Your lips are turning blue” — a phrase the other kids then used to tease me.) But Elkin’s Bungalows meant freedom. At a time when even the most neurotic Jewish mothers didn’t feel the need to tail their children, much less apply sunscreen, we had the run of its dozen or so acres all day, every day.
Elkin’s — 10 bungalows arrayed in a half-moon behind the owners’ farmhouse — wasn’t Grossinger’s or the Concord. It wasn’t even Orchard Mansion, the “upscale” hotel just down the road from Elkin’s (in what I learned only half a century later was an unlikely cluster of Jewish hostelries near the geographic center of the state). At those resorts, Jews were entertained, both by headliners and tummlers, men who were paid to organize games like Simon Sez and musical chairs for the kind of families who could pay as much for a week’s vacation as we paid the Elkins, for modest accommodations that matched our modest expectations, for two months. At Elkin’s, we were the headliners, mounting a yearly talent show, and we were the tummlers, banging pots and pans to bid farewell to families as they left, towing U-Hauls, during Labor Day weekend.
In those days, kids expecting to be entertained by their parents were swatted away like flies (decades before those same kids became helicopter parents). Mostly, we entertained ourselves, and the entertainment often involved helping Mr. Elkin with his eggs. A middleman, he bought freshly laid eggs from local farmers (though I never saw him returning from his rounds, which must have happened before I woke up) and resold them in Hartford. First, he passed each of the eggs over a light bulb (a process still known as candling), checking for blood spots that made eggs unsalable (though probably not unusable in Bertha Elkin’s kitchen). Then he placed the unstained eggs in boxes.
From time to time word would spread that Mr. Elkin needed us to help “make boxes,” and we would scamper up from the pool to the front porch of his house, where he had laid a heavy stack of cardboard on a picnic table. Those who had the technique down (I never did) could fold each of the cardboard sheets, which were already scored and cut, into a dozen egg-sized compartments, plus a cover flap. More curious than dextrous, I usually ruined a box or two (and sometimes gave myself a paper cut) before watching the older children — Ben Plotzker, Barbara Such — perform their magic. This was fun! (Children today would demand to be paid.)
But there was an even bigger adventure than making boxes, and that was going to the dump. Someone would see Mr. Elkin filling the back of his pick-up truck with trash. A dozen of us, in cut-off shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, which we somehow considered adequate protection (today we would require, at a minimum, full-body armor) would jump into the back of the truck, among the metal cans, and hold on to little more than each other for the ten minutes or so it took to reach the Moodus dump. Because our fathers had the family cars with them during the week, this was our big outing, a rare excursion beyond Elkin’s front gate. The dump, a bug- and rodent-infested clearing at the end of a dirt road, where trash lay smoldering and a man named Shmeryl raked the ashes with Dickensian fervor, was an exotic destination.
* * *
I am almost certain Elkin had never rented to a non-Jew (probably because no Gentile had ever asked).
That is, until 1966, when the outside world arrived: John Cullum, a 36-year-old matinee idol, was going to be performing eight miles away at the Goodspeed Opera House, a Victorian confection built by local businessman William Goodspeed in 1877. After he died, the wooden building deteriorated, eventually becoming a transportation department depot. It was condemned by the state of Connecticut in 1959. Then a group of theater-lovers began a painstaking restoration. What could have been a folly was, by 1966, a raging success — home to a regular summer season of musicals, operettas, and farces. Cullum, released from his Broadway contract when On a Clear Day You Can See Forever closed in June, was booked to play the dashing Cheviot Hill in Engaged, a non-musical play by W.S. Gilbert (more famous for his tuneful collaborations with Arthur Sullivan).
Cullum’s family — he had a young wife, Emily Frankel, whose red hair (at least as I recall it) reached her waist, and a three-month-old baby — required more than just a hotel room for the run of the play. Somehow bungalow number 10, the closest to the Elkins’ house, became available.
Cullum was gorgeous — yellow-haired, square-jawed, and manly — tonic for the not-so-merry wives of Elkin’s, who had for the most part emasculated their own husbands. Their hair suddenly done up, they positioned themselves where they were likely to run into the Broadway star as he walked between bungalow 10 and his wood-paneled station wagon.
My mother ordered tickets for the three of us to see Engaged. But there was no room at the Goodspeed for my grandmother, or, more accurately, for my grandmother’s wheelchair. Sometimes, she strapped on an ill-fitting prosthesis and got around on crutches, but no prosthesis would have made the Goodspeed accessible to Anna. The theater occupied the fourth and fifth floors of a building with no elevator.
Engaged was fun — not so much for the 19th century dialogue as for the novelty of seeing somebody we “knew” onstage. We returned to the bungalow in high spirits, but, not surprisingly, Anna was low. After a lifetime in constant motion — one job, feeding doctors during the Depression, required three round-trips by subway every day — she had become a shut-in. Much more than her leg was missing.
The next morning, I spotted Cullum walking toward his wagon. I scurried over. With as much self-confidence as Oliver Twist asking for some more, I asked him if he would sing for my grandmother Anna, who hadn’t been able to see him at the Goodspeed. Cullum replied, with his slight Tennessee twang, that he couldn’t sing without some kind of musical accompaniment. It might have been his way of saying no, politely.
But I reported the conversation to my father, who had an idea. And so, when he arrived back in Moodus the following Friday night, he was carrying an original cast album, the words “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” printed in blocky white type against a blue sky. (A "clearance" sticker from Sam Goody was the only cloud.) On Saturday, my father and I made our way to Bungalow 10 and showed Cullum the album, Cullum pretended to be insulted by the “clearance” sticker, but still we had him. After lunch, he said, he’d sing.
A couple of hours later, I helped my father plug in a borrowed record player. Cullum positioned himself on the lawn of Elkin’s, which formed a natural amphitheater, and bowed ever so slightly in the direction of the seated Anna Bernstein. If you've never heard John Cullum in full voice, you can't imagine what it was like at Elkin’s that afternoon, as Cullum's baritone rang out. “You can see forever . . . and ever . . . and ever more.” My grandmother, who hadn't been seeing much beyond her wheelchair, wept.
It may be one of the few times anyone had done anything for Anna Bernstein. In a lifetime of feeding children and grandchildren, she had certainly known pride and maybe even joy. But this was something new for Anna. This was pleasure.
The Broadway prince had made Anna Queen for a Day. And I had helped.