Tootsie

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: It’s a family photo day today. This photo of my father’s mother, Gertrude (Gertie or most frequently Tootsie) Butler, turned up in a folder where I must have tucked it when retrieving things from my mom’s house. This is not a photo that I remember being around the house or in any albums, which we had aplenty and looked at frequently. Both the age of the photo and her appearance makes me think it is fairly early, maybe the 1950’s. Her face is fuller than I remember it being for the brief time I knew her when I was a small child. It is sealed in a plastic cover and not marked. If I had to guess I would say it was a wallet photo carried by my father.

She always wore her hair in this style, done several times a week at a local salon. By the time I knew her it was of course also carefully dyed. I don’t remember any stray bits of gray. (What would she have made of my all gray hair I wonder?) She was small of stature, about five foot, and the hair gave her several inches on that. By the time I knew her she did not wear high heels, although she was always shod in beautiful shoes. I assume however that heels were in her past as she was always very fashionable.

My Grandma Butler was always impeccably dressed, her clothes purchased when she bought for the store I am told. I am unable to imagine her in trousers; it was always a dress, usually of a beautiful brocade fabric. (My mother said she once ventured into red velvet trousers, but my grandfather vetoed them.) The bit of fur on her collar in this photo reminds me that she was no stranger to fur and wore a long mink in winter.

Our Sunday meal always concluded with marble cake.

She worked (hard) in the family store six days a week on that, her one day off, she would cook a large meal for us. The menu had very little variation and was somewhat exotic and therefore suspect to my tiny tot taste. It was generally made up of a roasted chicken, her split pea vegetable soup (hers made with chicken stock, I intend to recreate a vegetarian version for a future post) or maybe matzoh ball soup, and often something like a noodle kugel. (I hated even the smell of the noodle kugel which for those of you who don’t know is an eggy, sweet noodle dish. Hers was the only I have ever encountered, but looking at it I don’t think I have changed my mind in subsequent decades.) Bread was either what they would call Jewish rye or a black bread. Dessert was almost always a marble cake, pound cake with a swirl of chocolate.

Noodle kugel with raisons. No idea why this doesn’t work for me.

I cannot imagine she went to the store (Butler Dry Goods in Westchester, NY) less well assembled than she was for those Sunday lunches. She consistently wore bright red lipstick and some sort of eye and brow liner. Tootsie wore earrings, always clips, as her ears were not pierced and, as the person who inherited much of her (almost entirely costume and massive collection of) jewelry she did not favor screwbacks.

According to my mother, Grandma Butler really ran the store and kept the books. Like my grandfather she was a Russian immigrant arriving here even younger than him, right after WWI. She came with her sisters, Jennie and Lily. Jennie was the oldest and my grandmother the youngest – their mother died in childbirth with my grandmother. There were two boys also somewhere in the middle, Moe and Saul. My grandmother had been raised by a wet nurse and did even not know her father when he came to pick her up with a new stepmother, and take her to the United States. Rosensweig was their maiden name. I don’t know what her father did, but that side of the family dealt first in junk and antiques and eventually art.

My mother was very fond of her and I believe the feeling was mutual, despite the fact that my green-eyed and freckled mother, was of an ethnic mix that did not include Eastern Europe or being Jewish, which caused some initial consternation.

It is a bit odd to me that her nickname was Tootsie. In retrospect the idea of calling this formidable woman Toots or Tootsie amazes me. As I child I wasn’t familiar with the nickname and the name had an odd gravitas in my young mind. Meanwhile, my sister and I were Lori and Pammy to her (and no one else) and my father Ellie – mom was already Betty so no change there. I cannot remember what she called my brother who was very young when she died, but I will gamble on Eddie.

I share her love of clothing, jewelry and most of all of antiques. My father often said she would have gotten a kick out of my collecting habits (which have grown exponentially even since he knew it). She haunted the auction houses and their house in Westchester was chock full of oriental rugs (huge ones that were meant for hotel lobbies), silver, tables, cabinets, couches and chairs. Some inherited remnants of the furniture are in my room in the New Jersey house, a tapestry rolled up in the room I work in, along with a black japanned bookcase. One of the immense carpets is also stored in an upstairs bedroom.

Gertie died from an infection as a result of a cataract operation – hard to believe now that it is a procedure done in a doctor’s office which requires a commitment of a few hours, but at the time required a hospital stay. She was relatively young, in her early seventies, and still very vital.

In general I resemble my mother’s side of the family more, but one day in my twenties I caught my father unawares sporting bright red lipstick and I guess for a moment looked just like her. At five feet nine inches and with my hair shorn short at the time I couldn’t see it, but it was a lovely compliment from him I have never forgotten.

My Grandmother’s House

Pam’s Pictorama Post: These recent photos of my grandmother’s house were sent to me and brought a parade of memories to mind. To start, it is interesting that for me it is my grandmother’s house despite being the house my mother grew up in, not only with her mother, father and younger brother, but aunt, uncle, cousin and, I believe, my great grandmother at one time. Still, my grandmother was widowed at a young age, family moved out and the upstairs rented to tenants during much of my childhood. Therefore it was always my grandmother’s house in my mind. The house, I recently learned, was built by my mother’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant to this country who I believe brought his family here when my grandmother was a small child. My mother tells me that the house was built solidly with thick beams and hand hewn wooden nails that could be seen in the attic and basement, places I have little or no memory of. My mother grew up on the ground floor and her cousin on the second floor. These photos were taken from a car by one of my cousins.

The house sits on a corner. When I was a child there was a large empty lot next to it, and between the house and the lot was an enormous cherry tree. (My mother says her grandmother had the entire lot planted with a vegetable garden and chickens. She remembers helping her with the garden and collecting the eggs.) When my sister and I were little (this is before the appearance of my brother or at least when he was a tiny tot) the extended family would gather on a late spring day and pick endless buckets of cherries. Those were cooked down into preserves which found their way into cherry pies and onto toast for the entire year. (I don’t know why, but I have no memory of just eating the cherries. Odd when I think about that now because as an adult I adore cherries, but these were for cooking.) There were other big, old trees on the property, a swamp maple, another cherry. There was also an enormous hydrangea and my grandmother threw rusty nails near the roots where the iron made the flowers bloom an icy blue.  (Although I liked the white flowers too.) There were flowering plants on the porch and around the yard. I remember my grandmother as being partial to geraniums. Easter egg hunts in her yard are my first memory of snow drops and daffodils that were just poking out of the early spring soil.

Her house looks much the same, although painted a different, tan color instead of the medium gray I remember. The house next to it, which was later built on the empty lot, distracts though and it makes the house look a bit unfamiliar at first. The memorable features of the house for me were the deep, shady porch where we spent endless hours. There were wooden rockers (very comfortable) and a few scant lawn chairs (itchy and uncomfortable) and my grandmother would have us all on display for the neighborhood. The neighbors would indeed stop by, see us grandkids and hear or share what the gossip or news might be. There was a sweating glass pitcher trimmed with metal (looked like one part glass coffee pot, I have not seen one since) which would be full of very sweet lemonade or ice tea which we drank from reusable, thick molded plastic cups. My grandmother’s house had no air conditioning so summer meant the porch. (Although I guess a window unit eventually found its way to her bedroom window.) The other great feature of the house was a small windowed side entryway which my grandmother called the sun parlor. It was a catch all space and a room I always liked, but one we never spent much time in.

Lastly, there is this photo of the garage which is hard to see here, but I have special memories of that. My mother’s father repaired outboard motors, hunted, made fishing lures and was a gifted all around mechanic and handy guy. The garage contained his work area with a cement floor, smelling distinctly of petrol, motor oil and wood. In the off seasons, his wooden fishing boat The Imp sat outside next to it. I have memories of watching him and my father scraping barnacles off the bottom, sanding and painting it, gray I believe, with perhaps a little white. It seemed huge to me, but I’m quite sure in retrospect that it was a relatively small boat. There is a side door across from where the car is. The trees and hedge were all planted later for privacy – I remember it as all being open.

garage2.jpg

Also well remembered was the kitchen which, although well proportioned, was not huge, always very sunny. It somehow expanded magically, like a clown car, as we crammed what seemed to be the ever growing family around meals at that table for many holidays, but most memorably Christmas (breakfast) and Easter (brunch). My mother’s brother, John, would be telling funny stories that made everyone roar with laughter. I wrote about this a little quite a while back in my post Ann’s Glass.

However, as families sometimes do over time ours has contracted rather than continuing to expand. Folks are living in different areas, retirement, death, divorce and rifts mean there are cousins and others I have not seen in a long time. As with most people though, they all live in my memory like I saw their forty year younger selves just the other day.