Someone to watch over me
Reconstructing how my parents met
The odds of any of us being who we are: gigantic. Ever wonder how your parents met and what was going through their minds? Ever thank God for bringing together two people at just the time necessary to produce you?
I think of that at this time between Mother’s Day (May 9 this year) and Father’s Day (June 20). While my parents were alive, I thought of these days mainly as a time to send a card or make a phone call. I wish now they had told me more about their pasts, but from what they did say, along with my interviewing of relatives and research into life in the 1940s, I’ve reconstructed the first steps in what became an unhappy marriage—but one that lasted.
The following is from Lament for a Father: The Journey to Understanding and Forgiveness, which P&R published on June 2.
April, 1946, in Malden, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Eli Olasky, 28, sits two blocks from his parents’ home in a park still with its colonial name, Ferryway Green. A pretty 27-year-old, Ida Green, walks over to him. Years later she tells me, “He wasn’t handsome, but he was good-looking.” The war is over. For both of them, it’s time to make up for lost time and settle down.
Eli takes Ida for ice cream at the Shan-Lor Drugstore on Cross Street. Shan-Lor has a juke box that’s playing a cut from The Voice of Frank Sinatra, the first studio album by the young singer: “Someone to Watch over Me.” The lead song’s refrain: “Won’t you tell her please to put on some speed / Follow my lead, of how I need / Someone to watch over me.” The album has gone to number one on the just-started Billboard album chart.
Eli doesn’t talk much, so Ida tells him about her family. Both her parents were immigrants early in the century, like his. Her father works very hard and has built his own business. Two of her brothers and one of her sisters work for him, as does a brother-in-law. Her mother is sick—but she doesn’t give details, and my father does not ask many questions.
She asks him about Harvard, from which he graduated in 1940. She thinks it must be a magical place, like the palaces depicted in the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts she listens to on the radio on Saturday afternoon. He’s impressed that she listens to operas. He’s never had time to listen to music. He doesn’t want to talk about Harvard.
They seem on first glance to be much alike. They grew up within a mile of each other and probably brushed by in the corridors of Malden High, although he was on the college track a year ahead of her and she was on the business track. They’re both Jewish, although she has almost never gone to synagogue and knows little about Judaism. She never went to college, but she seems smart enough.
Eli and Ida have their next date on a Saturday evening. They meet in Malden’s Suffolk Square. She talks about her favorite places there: the 5&10, the movie theatre, and particularly Berman’s Dry Goods, packed with clothing and fabrics: “Don’t you like the way they hang dresses and suits from the ceiling and bring them down with that long, hooked stick?” My father says, “I never noticed.”
Berman’s has a radio tuned at 8:00 p.m. to WEEI and the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Frank Sinatra is singing a 1940 song by Johnny Mercer: “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread).”
I suspect that my mother, while being charming as she could be, would still let my father know some of her frustrations: how she has to hand her father most of her secretary’s paycheck—food, plus rent for a bed at home that she finally has to herself now that four of her brothers and sisters are married. She tells him she remembers coming to the market with her mother, who fished in barrels for garlic pickles, or bobbed her kerchiefed head to pluck from a low shelf a tray of chopped liver or a carton of eggs.
She waits for him to tell her something about his memories, but he remains quiet, so, seeking understanding, she says more: “My parents fight about food at times.” He says “I want a berryer [a woman with good domestic skills], but you give me chazerei [garbage], and worse than chazerei—dreck.” My mother giggles: “She calls him a fershtinker.”
My father doesn’t laugh, but he’s paying attention to her, which few people do. She yearns for a husband with a high IQ but also a high EQ—emotional quotient—and she convinces herself that he can be the one.
The courtship moves fast. Eli and Ida meet again at Ferryway Green. He invites her to meet his parents. They walk slightly uphill. Then they’re inside at 34 Upham Street, in his parents’ living room. Stuffed chairs topped with antimacassars, small cloths to prevent soiling of the fabric. A tombstone-like cabinet for a radio and record player, with a walnut veneer. On a side table: a piece of sheet music, “Leben zol Amerika” (Long Live America), with pictures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Statue of Liberty.
Ida reads the lyrics as Eli summons his parents from their screened-in porch. The song begins, “To express loyalty with every fiber of one’s being, to this Land of Freedom, is the sacred duty of every Jew.” She gets no further, because her future parents walk in. I have no idea what they talk about, and my mother’s Yiddish by then is rusty—but they smile a lot, and Louis has his arm around Bertha.
My grandparents retreat to their porch. My mother says, “Your parents like each other.” My father replies, “Of course they do. They’re married.” My mother begins a sentence—“but what happens when …” Then she decides Eli doesn’t know her well enough to go down that path.
The next step is meeting Ida’s father, Robert Green. Since this is America, Eli and Ida do not require his consent, but good manners and good finances demand a visit. It’s nine years since Snow White played in the Suffolk Square movie house, and my mother came out of the theater singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” She’s now past that romanticism, but she would still like a memorable wedding at Chateau Guirard in Brookline—which her tight-fisted father will have to pay for.
At 8:00 p.m. Eli Olasky sits at Robert Green’s kitchen table. My father planned to arrive after dinner, but his future father-in-law works late and is now tearing into the flesh of a boiled chicken and sucking its toes. He also eats a little whitefish, stripping the meat with his teeth and sucking on the head.
Dinner consumed, Robert Green asks some questions in Yiddish: What’s your monthly income? He’s not pleased with the answer. So what did you gain by going to your fancy college? No satisfactory answer there. He takes a drink from his Coke glass, half full of whiskey and rum.
Robert Green shows my father a 9” x 12” photograph of a wedding the previous year he has just finished paying for. I have that photo, or a copy of it. The star of that show, Bessie, my mother’s older sister, is standing in the middle of the front row next to the tall husband she has just married. He’s in his US Navy sailor’s suit. Bessie’s married sisters sit in front holding corsages. Their husbands stand behind them. Robert Green is prominent in a tuxedo and a top hat, smirking in apparent enjoyment of a dress-up joke.
Way at the back, standing alone, is an unsmiling, sad-eyed woman, my mother. Robert Green points to her and says, in Yiddish, she’s been a good girl, earning money for the family during the ten years since her high school graduation. He puffs on his Lucky Strike and says zi fardint es, she deserves it. He’ll pay for the wedding. But he says Bessie’s husband, Al, has started a junkyard and will become rich. What will Eli do? Go to more classes at that Harvard? How does that put bread on the table?
My grandfather smokes that cigarette down to a tiny butt, holding it with his yellow fingernails. He then removes the remaining scrap of paper so he can save the remnant of tobacco for smoking in his pipe. He calls his pet cat over to his chair, holding up the small fish skeleton. When the cat comes closer, he kicks it and offers Eli advice: If Ida gets out of line, belt her. And if you have children and they get out of line, use your belt on them.
So, maybe only a month after they first met, the plans are made: August 20, 1946, at the Chateau. It’s a splendid affair. I stare at a photo of my father in a tuxedo and my mother in a long white gown. I can only speculate about what’s going on in their heads. They each now have someone to watch over them, but their goals are different. She tells him she never had a doll to play with, a birthday present to enjoy, or a college course to attend. She just wants the basics.
Seven years before, Ida Green’s first trip away from home was by train to New York City. She visited the 1939 World’s Fair and peeked at the Metropolitan Opera stage. Back in Malden, before coming home, she stopped in Suffolk Square and bought flowers for her mother. When she presented them, her mother replied, “I don’t care”—and went to bed, turning her face to the wall.
On August 20, 1946, I suspect my mother is delighted. She and her new husband are wearing elegant clothes. Think of Texaco Metropolitan Opera announcer Milton Cross announcing the wedding to his twelve million listeners on Saturday afternoon: “The curtains are parting now. Eli and Ida Olasky are taking their bows. Listen to the cheers and applause. This will go on and on.”
Her favorite opera is Turandot. The climax comes when the Prince of Tartary sings the harrowing aria, “Nessun Dorma,” with its top-of-the-lungs one-word culmination: “Vincerò,” which translates as I will win. She’s marrying a Harvard graduate. VINCERÒ.
My father’s thoughts may have been more complicated. In two weeks, he’s supposed to start graduate school in Semitic Languages and History. His senior thesis is coming back to haunt him. Since he agrees that the Bible was derived from other ANE (Ancient Near East) religions, he has to be able to read those documents, although he’s not particularly interested in spending his time that way. In particular, he has to spend his first year learning ancient Assyrian, Syriac, and Arabic.
Given his experience with concentration camp survivors and refugees, he has probably in the back of his head the aftershocks from World War II. On July 4, in Kielce, Poland, a mob apparently egged on by the nascent Communist government attacks two hundred Jews who survived the Holocaust, killing 42: anti-Semitism survives. On July 22 in Jerusalem, the militant Irgun bombs the King David Hotel, headquarters of the British administration, and kills ninety-one. It’s a bloody milestone on the road to creation of Israel.
I suspect my father would like to help in some way, but how? Since he’s getting married, it’s easy to say no to appeals to join groups trying to smuggle Jews into Palestine. The British authorities will allow only fifteen hundred a month, but several hundred thousand who survived the Nazis want to go. He has an offer to teach both children’s and adult education classes at Malden Hebrew School: he could do his part that way, bonding them to Jewish civilization and inspiring them to support Zionist causes.
The next week my father tells Harvard’s graduate school that he’s newly married and will delay the start of his graduate studies by one semester: He’ll be there in January 1947. Meanwhile, he’ll teach at Malden Hebrew School.
In three straight semesters—spring and fall, 1947, and spring, 1948, he starts Assyrian and drops it after two weeks. He also drops a course in Arabic and never signs up for courses on “Markedness in Canaanite and Hebrew Verbs,” “The Modal System of Old Babylon,” and “Eighth-Century Iraqi Grammar.” The presupposition in Semitic Studies is exactly what he wrote in his senior thesis: the Bible is merely a document from the ancient Near East, not from God. But I suspect that in his heart he wonders if that’s right.
The new Mrs. Olasky says he should continue with graduate school. My father does not tell her about how Harvard ousted him from Anthropology, nor about the limited opportunities a master’s degree in Semitic Studies would bring him. She wouldn’t understand academic politics, nor is she interested in news from Germany like the attempt by members of “Nakam” (the Hebrew word for “revenge”) to inject arsenic into three thousand loaves of black bread baked in Nuremberg for German prisoners of war, including many SS members who committed war crimes. More than two thousand fall ill and 207 are hospitalized, but none die.
October 1946 brings two milestones. The hanging in Nuremberg of ten Nazi leaders. An Olasky pregnancy. My father celebrates both.
From Lament for a Father: The Journey to Understanding and Forgiveness by Marvin Olasky. Copyright © 2021. Published by P&R. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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