December 26, part 1
Family lore has it that my Grandpa Sam Labes, upon finding out that my Grandma Pearl was pregnant with their 6th child (there was a son named Jack that did not survive infancy) – he emphatically stated that if she did not terminate the pregnancy, he would leave her. You would think that two people who had been through the Depression, World Wars and emigrating to a new country would know one another. Well, Grandma Pearl did not take my Grandpa Sam at his word and saw the pregnancy through to its’ end – producing their 5th daughter.
Grandpa, it seems (in this case, anyway) – was very much a man of his word. He left Pearl when my aunt was born with 5 daughters to raise alone. What a guy.
My point in recounting this story is two-fold; I am providing context for the larger story about my extended family and – somewhere in here is the underlying driving force that brought my parents together. Pearl sent her daughters to work directly after high school so that they could contribute to the household. Each of them would give a good portion of their earnings back to her to assist with expenses. 6 mouths to feed, clothing, (I’m told they mostly wore “hand-me-downs” from the older sisters, rent, utilities etc.
It seems the sisters were incentivized to meet a man and get married in order to take the financial pressures each of them bore. I suppose it was also an attractive proposition to be taken care by a man for a change.
The Labes women lived in a multi-family home on 76th street between 18th and 19th avenues in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I’m told my mom and dad met in the late ‘40’s when she was 13 and he was 17. She would “steal” his bike. How cute. On the sidelines, my grandmother was ever-present, sitting in the windowsill of their ground floor apartment keeping a watchful eye over everyone and everything on the block.
My father and his friends congregated on the corner of 76th street, about a half block from the Labeses. One Summer Day in 1949, he was on his way to meet them to head out to Raven Hall. (Raven Hall was a social and beach club that opened in 1867 and took up an entire block at West 19thstreet in Coney Island. It had a gym, handball courts, steam rooms and the biggest saltwater pool in Brooklyn. It was destroyed in a fire before I was born in 1963. The Abe Stark ice rink and parking stands in its’ place today).
Pearl was on her usual neighborhood watch in the window, leaning on her pillow and stopped my dad. She had an urgent favor to ask. She explained that that night, my Aunt Shirley had invited her boyfriend’s parents over for dinner, but the dining room chairs were wobbly and loose. My dad proceeded to tighten up the chairs as they made chit chat. By the time he was done, his friends he was on his way to meet had already left to go to Raven Hall.
Pearl not-so-subtly suggested that he take her daughter, Rita with him to meet his friends at Coney Island. Was the entire “fix my wobbly chairs” line just the bait to size him up and initiate this first date with my mom? You bet. She was 13 years old at the time and he was 17.
As my dad recounted this story to me a zillion times during my life, he was quick to point out that Raven Hall was where the Italians congregated. He had a seasonal membership there, but there were other beach clubs in close proximity. Washington Baths was a couple of blocks away from Raven and also had a pool and provided beach access. As my father tells it, he opted to bring her to Washington Baths instead because she was a Jewish girl and thought Pearl would be more comfortable with that.
So, thus began my parents’ courtship. There were tales about that pool over the years. The one where my mom swam up to my dad as he stood at the water’s edge and he watched as the tissue floated out from her bathing suit top was my favorite.
After that first “date”, he was enlisted to “babysit” Rita every Saturday night. Is that what they called it back then, really?? Seems a bit creepy but she was only 13. She would routinely steal his bike (that’s how they flirted at 13 years old in 1949) and so it went.
My dad got drafted into the Army a few years later. According to my mom, he claimed he “would die“ if he had to enlist without becoming engaged immediately so he would know he had something to live for and so, on December 26, 1953 at the ripe old ages of 17 and 21, my parents got married. My mom graduated high school early to accompany my dad to Augusta, Georgia, where he would complete his basic training. Pearl’s mission was a success; she managed to marry off her 4th daughter to a nice, local Jewish boy from a “nice” family. (More on that later).
Thus came to be the first significant December 26 event. There were to be more to come. Read on.