My mother passed away earlier this year, a fact that still shocks and unmoors me. She was 91 years old, and had become increasingly unsteady and bewildered, but her resilient old body knew only to keep going and somehow it seemed she always was and always would be. Communication was difficult, primarily because of her deafness, and I used to write her notes, although eventually even those were hard for her to follow. So you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered an audiotape I made of a conversation I had with her a decade ago. It’s a poor quality recording with a distracting background hum, but it’s startling to hear her voice again, loud and clear as it used to be, with its almost comical New York accent.
Even then, she had obviously forgotten many details, and my own prompts and responses during the recording are unfortunately intrusive, despite my good intentions, but at times she did launch into lucid little narratives, and they are fascinating and touching. I wonder now why these fragments of her long life lingered in memory with such clarity while others blurred and vanished entirely, and I'd like to share a few.
She talks about her ill-fated musical aspirations:
I had a piano in Corona in the room in back of the store. We had the store, remember. It was an old upright, a nice piano, and I wasn’t playing it yet. I just had a couple of lessons. And you know, my mother, she chopped it up for firewood. I cried. I says, “Why, Mother?” She said, “We need the wood for fire.” I lived in a cold flat. It was a cold flat in back of the store. She had someone come and chop it up...Oh, I felt so bad. But we were poor, you know. And we needed the firewood."
When I remind her that she used to be a good singer, she recounts a story I remember her telling me when I was a little girl:
"Yeah. I went to a studio to test my voice. My mother took me. We went on the train. We had to go to Brooklyn. We went to the studio and they told me to sing a song. Do you know that I wouldn’t open up my mouth?! I was so shy. The man told my mother. 'She’s not ready yet. Take her home.'”
It must have been a terrible disappointment for both of them. A lost voice, a lost opportunity. I wondered how her mother reacted:
"She wasn’t mad. She was a good mother. May she rest in peace. She was a good mother, my adoptive mother."
There are lots of memories about the candy store her parents ran when she was a child in Corona, Queens:
"We had candies for a penny, and we had candies for a nickel. My favorite candy bar was the Wow. It was a nickel. It was a big bar with marshmallow. I loved it….Besides candy, they sold nuts, salty seeds, Indian nuts, and what do you call the other seeds? Pumpkin seeds. We had big jars and you scooped them out. I think it was like a penny a cup or two cents a cup. Yeah, we had that candy store for a while. I lived in back of the store. We had four rooms in the back and we lived there. We lived upstairs too for awhile. But we moved down. The janitors were the Picklers."
"And I had a friend there that used to come. Her name was Mildred Piantanida. She used to come for her Coke. She loved her Coca Cola. And cigarettes. We sold cigarettes, you know. And she would sit and talk with me. Her name was Mildred Piantanida. She passed away a long time ago. She was quite young. She had two sons, two boys, and her husband was Italian. Piantanida. Oh, she was a nice lady. She was my friend. She gave me a lot of business, you know. Yeah, she was older than me. And I moved away. And then I heard when she had passed away. She was sick. I never forget her. She was very nice."
Speaking of a job she held in Manhattan’s Garment District in the 1940s, my mother seems proud:
"I worked for Kolmer Marcus in New York. One day George Raft came in for his coat. I filled out the slip. They sold men’s suits and coats. Expensive…Daddy couldn’t afford a suit there."
But speaking of Daddy:
"You know where I met Daddy? At a dance. With my girlfriend Sylvia. That’s where I met him. I met him at The Manhattan Center. It was a dance hall...he came over, and he swept me off my feet."
"Then I got married and I moved into the house where he was living. His mother was a sick lady. She had that illness. Multiple sclerosis. I met her, she met me. She took a liking to me. They used to have a lady come in and take care of her. She passed away in the hospital. She was young too. I remember. I didn’t go to the funeral. And then when Daddy came back I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I felt bad. He handled it fine. He was strong."
There are more meanderings on the tape, mostly bits and pieces prompted by my specific questions and hints, and I recognize that there are mistakes and points of confusion, but I am so glad I made this effort to record her when I did.
This is all I have now of my mother’s voice, which would otherwise be lost for all of time.
And her memories seem like glimmers from a different era, still shining here like dewdrops, small occurrences that helped to shape a life now ended.
This is why oral histories matter. This is why The Living Stories Collective exists, and we hope it continues.