The sun appeared for the first time in a very long time yesterday. Bryce was coming for a visit, so I thought a trip to the zoo would be a welcome treat for him after being stuck inside for so many days. How wrong I was! Once a truck pulled into our driveway to do some repairs on our hot tub, the boy  gene reared up in him, and he told me he did not want to see the the elephants or giraffes. He wanted to stay and watch the man with the truck.

He observed the repairman doing his job, and then he inspected the truck, peeking inside and admiring the tools. He spent the remainder of the day playing with his trains. The thing is, Bryce enjoys crashes and accidents. He purposely turns the straight wooded pieces of the track upside down, which are smooth on the underside. When he then builds his track using those inverted tracks, those smooth pieces always causes derailments.

He always smiles as the trains fall from the tracks. To me, it’s not fun and it makes the game difficult and unpleasant. Is this truly a boy thing, because as the mother of three girls, I am more familiar with tea parties, and Barbie dolls, and playing house?

But today was Veteran’s Day, so I decided to turn Bryce’s game of train crashes and derailments into a teaching moment about his great grandfather. I explained to Bryce that my Daddy rode on a train a long, long time ago not far from here. His train, like Bryce’s toy train, derailed as it was passing over a railroad trestle. The first two cars—two engines—passed successfully over the trestle but the remaining cars—the mail car and six passenger cars—left the trestle and plunged down an embankment.

Two civilians and one soldier were killed. Grandpa said the man who died had been sitting in his seat and asked to switch seats, so that man, Corporal Thomas Vest, died, and Grandpa survived with just a back injury.

Grandpa claimed that he continued to be reminded of that November day in Georgia for the rest of his life, because his back hurt whenever he tried to pick up his children and grandchildren. The thing is, he had fifty-six more years—“the rest of his life.” Corporal Vest did not, but that one request gave the rest of us life. Isn’t it interesting how one seemingly small action affected all of us so many years later?

The Final Postcard: Their Wedding

I am sad that I stopped sending the postcards to Grandma. This is the letter she sent to me after my final postcard in response to the questions:

1. What was your wedding like?

2. What kind of party did you have after the wedding and who came?

Dear Karen

Your father didn’t tell me about converting to the Catholic religion. It was a surprise to me. He went through the process in Texas before we were married. He had been baptized at St. Cyril’s in Boonton because there was no Russian church in the area. So that made it easy for him. I was surprised because keeping a secret was something he wasn’t good at.

 Our wedding was very small, fortunately, because he didn’t know when he could get home. We had immediate families only. Small ceremony, no mass, at 11 a.m., Mt. Carmel. His brother didn’t like the time so he didn’t come. He gave me a lot of grief over the time.

We had dinner in Denville—a place your father and I liked. It was very nice. We went back to the Birch Street house for wedding cake. I remember my mother writing out a check for the dinner. It was under $100. We went away for the night and left for Texas the next day.

 So fifty-seven years later, here I am. This is it for now.



Grandma wore a yellow dress for the occasion. Although all her siblings had more traditional ceremonies, with big wedding parties and traditional wedding gowns, I think that was really what Grandma wanted. She never liked big fusses made over her. That has always been her way.

I am surprised at my Uncle Pete. After all they went through trying to become a family again, and all the effort Grandpa made at getting him back from Russia, I feel it was a slap in the face for him to complain at all about the wedding. He should have kept his mouth shut and came with a smile on his face. I do not understand Grandpa’s family.

Grandma & Grandpa- April 21, 1951

My Grandma & Your Grandparents
My Grandma & Your Grandparents
Grandma and Grandpa's First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951
Grandma & Granpa’s First Home- Killeen, Texas

Doctor Grandpa

I am sure you all remember Grandpa shuffling into his room and returning with a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand to show you. It was his report card, and he was very proud of it. After all, he did get into medical school based on those grades. He went to the First Leningrad Medical Institute, which was originally a medical school for women. It was, and still is, one of the leading medical schools in Russia.

Uncle Dave and I were able to get translations of his high school report card, and while his course of studies was rigorous, I was surprised to find only one grade of “A”, which was in English. Since he was accepted at such a prestigious university and he was always so proud, I expected many more A’s. However, Grandpa’s report card consisted of 11 C’s, and 4 B’s. The only surprises were courses in Engineering and Artistic Drawing. Perhaps the teachers just did not give out many A’s and B’s at that time. Grade inflation has been the subject of many discussions today. Several studies have shown a steady increase in the number of A’s during the last fifty years, leading me to believe those grades were considered very good during the 1930’s.

Grandpa told us that he attended school six days each week, with no vacations during the year except during the summer. Trips to the ballet and opera were regular occurrences on the weekend, an experience he was never exposed to in New Jersey. I wonder if he and Grandma had had the money, would they have taken us. Would I have been raised with more culture? I imagine Grandma turning up her nose at the prospect, but I bet he would have if they had the financial means.

I was most surprised to learn that he lived in a dorm while in college. Never did he mention this to me when I was a college student struggling with homesickness. Did he have a roommate or two he did not like? His college was in the same city where his family lived. Did he go home often? What was college like in Russia? I wish he had shared this with us.

It is sad that he was never able to complete his education after he returned to the U.S. We also all know that he was forced to leave school after refusing to become a Russian citizen, but even if he stayed, his dream of becoming a doctor would have been squashed by the war. Becoming a doctor just was not in the stars for him.

Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935
Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935

Tongue for Lunch- Oy Vey!

Growing up in Boonton, my knowledge of Judaism was extremely limited. My friend Karen’s father was Jewish, so I it was at her house that I had my first taste of matzo. I knew nothing except that Jews celebrated Hanukkah. The Jewish population was too small for our schools to close for any of the Jewish holidays, both then and now.

Then I met Dad. He was Jewish—sort of. His father was against all forms of religion, pointing out how many lives have been lost in wars fought in the name of religion. So his family celebrated none of the Jewish religious holidays. However, Dad was raised with some of the cultural aspects of Eastern European Jews.

The first time I visited his family in Yonkers, I began to learn about the food. His mother served lunch and among the meats at the table was tongue. Tongue! I never knew of a tongue as something other than an instrument to help us swallow, not as an actual food to be chewed. Oh my! Thank goodness there were other choices. I just couldn’t do it.

When I was asked what I would like to drink, I did not realize that requesting a glass of milk as an accompaniment to my turkey sandwich was verboten. I think everyone else around the table exchanged a look before offering me some soda. Did I drink what Dad may have had the day—Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda? That first visit was a long time ago, so I am not certain. But a celery-flavored fizzy beverage and tongue on the same day? That was almost too much newness for this unsophisticated girl.  I did try the soda several times, but it never appealed to me.

As our relationship continued, I was introduced to many other Jewish delicacies, and they were always at a deli. Except for tongue, I enjoyed most of the new food. We used to take you to that nice Jewish deli in Lake Hiawatha—the one with the wiggly table and the same old lady waitress. They had great pickles and corned beef sandwiches. Dad’s all-time favorite is the #3 combo—corned beef, turkey, coleslaw and Russian dressing, which he replicates as often as possible when visiting a deli.  Sadly that deli is gone, and he has never found another to replace that one.

He has introduced you to matzo ball soup, latkes, and potato knishes, and some of you even enjoy your bagels with lox, but not me. I don’t do raw meat or fish except for the time I ordered “salmon fume” in Paris, stupidly not realizing it was smoked salmon.

But the best, and favorite of all “Jewish foods” is Chinese food, which I never had until I met Dad. We used to go to the Chinese restaurant in Lake Hiawatha–the one where there was a recent murder.  Like all good Jews, Dad introduce us to Chinese take-out on the weekends, and now we are continuing the tradition with a Chinese smorgasbord on Christmas Day after the movies.

As for the religion, that I learned from attending Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, where I marveled at the beauty of the language, chanting, and intriguing written words. How much those kids had to learn while balancing their studies at school. It was so impressive.

I learned about sitting Shiva from the movies and after Dad’s father died. We learned about Hanukkah after his mother died and Jamie decide she wanted us to light a menorah and play dreidel in honor of her Jewish heritage.

Finally there are the great words. Oh, so many wonderful words and expressions, but too, too many for now. Another day!

Grandpa Was Right

Grandpa was right, but I never realized it until today. When we were living in New York, we were separated from my parents by the Hudson River. There was no route between us that did not involve crossing that river, whether we crossed over the George Washington Bridge, the Bear Mountain Bridge, or the three-mile long Tappan Zee Bridge.

Like a good parent, Grandpa liked to give advance, and like most children, we sometimes laughed at him. Don’t deny it, girls. I am sure there have been times that you have rolled your eyes as Dad or I offered you words of wisdom which you thought was ridiculous. You are younger and have far less experience than us (more than thirty years less), but I am positive that sometimes you think you know more than us. Don’t even try to deny it. Mommy knows best!

Grandpa always told us that he never wanted to get a car with automatic windows, insisting that manual-cranked windows were safer. (Do you even know what this means?) He claimed if our car ever went off a bridge, having windows that could be opened by rolling them down was the only way to insure survival. His advice, to those of us who had to open our windows by pushing a button, was to have always have a hammer inside our cars.

I am fairly certain this is news to all of you. When Dad and I were teaching you how to parallel park, or do a “k-turn”, we omitted this important piece of advice because we thought it was just one of his quirky opinions.

What happened to change my mind after all these years? The awful flood here in South Carolina opened my eyes to Grandpa’s wisdom. As I read an article in today’s paper about the people who died in this flood, I read about a young girl who drowned in her car after leaving the hospital. “How did this happen, I wondered?” Apparently, she got stuck in the water, and called a friend in panic. The advice was to open the window, but she couldn’t because the battery was dead. She had no way out, so she died in her car. After reading this heartbreaking tragic story, I turned to Dad and said, “Dad was right.” This is so sad, yet we keep hearing this story over and over.

So what do you do if you don’t have a hammer or a tool to break your window? Grab something hard– an umbrella, your laptop, your phone (?), or use your foot.  The advice we are hearing over and over is to “don’t drown, turn around.”

Grandpa was right.

Grandma and Grandpa- Young Love

The postcards to Grandma were a great success; sadly I did not start sooner. Like Grandpa, her memories of both the past and present are erratic. I never know from one conversation to the next if they will be crisp or foggy. So today, I am concentrating on postcard #3 written on January 10, 2010—Grandma and Grandpa before their marriage.

1. How, where, and when did you and Dad meet?

Your father came into Norda Chemical looking for a job. I was the one who gave out      applications. He filled it out and I checked it and saw he had checked the wrong box for married, single status. Didn’t get that cleared up ‘til the summer company picnic when he asked me to dance and I asked him where his “wife” was. The following work day, he came into the office and asked for his application back and corrected his error.

 2. Where did you go on your dates?

We would go dancing at a place on Route 23. (He was a very good dancer), an occasional movie, or just sitting on the porch (Whoopee!).

 3. How long did you date until you got engaged?

We got engaged within a year at which time he was called back into service during the Korean War. He was stationed in Texas. Got married during one of his leaves and I went back with him.

 4.  Did Dad formally propose, and if so, tell me the details? Did he ask your father?

He did “ask my father for my hand in marriage” and I’m sure my father said, “Take the whole girl, not just her hand.” We drove back to Texas—a long boring ride. I was shocked I couldn’t get N.Y. stations—only cowboy music.

                                                                     This is all for this letter. To be continued.

                                                                       Love, Mom

Grandpa had already served in the army for a period of four years during World War II.  During the time of the Korean War, the Army began recalling members of the Inactive and Volunteer Reserves because they did not want to deplete all the Active Army personnel in case they were needed elsewhere in the world. This caused a lot of bitterness because many, like Grandpa, felt that they already served their country, but were recalled anyway.

Fortunately, they were back in New Jersey within five months. Grandpa told me once that there was a mistake in the paperwork—his name was misspelled—so he got out on a technicality. Was this really true? I’m not sure, but the funny thing is, his name was misspelled during his service during WW II (Wardmasky), but correctly during the Korean War (Wardamasky).  Did that added “a” really make a difference? Did he avoid being shipped overseas because of that small mistake? It’s an interesting thought to ponder.

Newlyweds in Killeen Texas- 1951
Newlyweds in Killeen Texas- 1951
In the Army again 1951
Grandpa in the Army again 1951

Yo Vivo En Boonton

I spent five years learning French, and that time helped me enough to get a taxi from Charles DeGalle Airport to our hotel near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. That’s it! Now, as I have seen how quickly a child can learn the English language in just 2 ½ years based on watching the three of you and now our first grandchild,  I feel that my foreign language education was deeply lacking in quality. I believe that total immersion in a language is the best method to learn another tongue, so perhaps, moving in with a family that has a newborn baby and following that child for two years could have  a far superior result than what is learned in high school.

Did you know that French was not my first foreign language? It was the third. Grandpa made a feeble attempt to teach us Russian. I know several words and phrases, but apparently, the Russian words made me laugh, so he did not persevere. I can say, “I love you, I want to go out and play, good, tea, yes, no, I want to eat, and, of course, Do Svidanya.” That is not enough to carry on much of a conversation with a Russian two year old.

In fifth grade, I began my Spanish education during our Thursday afternoon Spanish club meetings. We learned to count to twenty and inform a new acquaintance that “yo vivo en Boonton.” Both boys and girls were taught to belt out songs in Spanish with enthusiasm and little embarrassment as well as how to perform several Spanish dances. Sometime ( ewwww and yuck), boys and girls even danced together!

Our teacher, Mrs. Simms, was quite the visionary in deciding to expose us to a foreign language during a time when learning another language in elementary school was rare. Little did she know then that in forty-eight years, Spanish would be the second most spoken language in the United States, with more people speaking Spanish here than in Spain.

I chose French based on nothing more than the fact that I liked the sound, but it was not a practical choice. While it is true that French is spoken in twice as many U.S. homes as Italian, which is now taught in some kindergartens in New Jersey (right, Jamie?), it is not nearly as common as Chinese.

So other than that bucket-list trip to Paris a few years ago, French got me nowhere. No matter how much some people refuse to admit, Spanish is the way to go in learning a second language. Mrs. Simms, how did you know?

Spanish Club- School Street School- Boonton, NJ March 1966.
Spanish Club- School Street School- Boonton, NJ
March 1966.  (Can you find me?)

Third Grade Stunk

I read in several publications that negative events are remembered in greater detail than positive ones, which is probably why I remember third grade more than fourth grade. I cannot recall anything happy about that year. I did not like my teacher. She was old and mean and was a firm believer in group punishment. Casey, you would have been in deep trouble if you had her because she didn’t like lefties. I believe she tried to “cure” Aunt El.

According to Aunt El, she very clearly remembers our teacher moving her pencil from her left hand to her right hand because she said it was sinister. Aunt Ellen switch it back when “the bitch” (your aunt’s words) wasn’t looking.

That year, we went on a field trip to the Newark Junior Museum. I’m not certain if that is the correct name or if it still exists today. We were ushered into a room for a “let’s learn about fun things here” lecture.  The not-so-nice man giving the talk brought out a “surprise”, which was a big, black ugly snake. I moved to row five.

The boa constrictor was followed by a lizard. I was not happy, and that is where my fear of all snakes originated. This is not good since we now live where poisonous snakes are all around us. Fortunately, I have only seen garter snakes and three-foot long “harmless” rat snakes. (Harmless. right! In certain settings, any snake could cause my death by heart attack.)

I don’t know what someone did to cause our teacher to punish the entire class. It was probably because she caught a lefty switching their pencil to the right hand. Anyway, the punishment was that we had to “write” our Roman numerals from 1-100. The thing is, her instructions were not to actually write them using a pencil.  That would be way too easy! Instead, we had to paste them onto a very large sheet of paper using toothpicks. I admit that I still remember most of my Roman numerals, but that was a mean punishment!

During third grade, President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember coming home from school and seeing Aunt Marian and my cousin Nancy sitting in our living room crying. That was the only time I remember watching television during dinner. We had a television which Grandpa put on a cart and wheeled into the hall near Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom so we could watch the continuing news coverage of the assasination while we ate each meal.

I watched the events unfold in living black and white: President Kennedy shot as he rode in the motorcade, Jackie Kennedy standing next to Lyndon Johnson in her blood-stained outfit as he was sworn in as president, and then his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald shot on television as everyone across America watched in horror. Grandpa yelled and pointed to our television set as if he were the only one able to see the hand emerge from the crowd to shoot the man in cold blood. I will never forget any of this, even though I was only eight years old.

I wish I could forget that year, but as a bad memory, I will always remember third grade. It was the year of snakes and toothpicks.

Bumping Into History

Throughout his life, Grandpa was always bumping into history, which is why learning about him has helped me learn world history.

I learned about the Great Depression from reading about what it was like living in New Jersey at that time. We all heard his assassination story, so I researched both the man who was assassinated in Leningrad in 1934 and his killer.

His first steps on United States soil after having been away for ten years was on June 22, 1941, which was the day German forces invaded the Soviet Union.  He was finally on his way home. The rest of his family was still located in the USSR, so I learned  that battle was called Operation Barbarossa.

Grandpa’s story never wavered about speaking to a US Intelligence officer that June day, who approached him when he left the ship in Honolulu. That’s the story about Grandpa knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Was it actually possible that he knew?

In 1956, he was visited by the FBI after he refused to speak at the local Lions Club meeting about his experiences living in the Soviet Union.  That was the time when Americans lived in fear of Communists—precipitated by Joseph McCarthy’s own reign of terror and the explosion of the first atomic bomb by the Soviets.  Grandma said his name was Callahan. Here history was literally knocking at his door.

I have tried, and thus far been unsuccessful, in obtaining his FBI file. I once sat next to an FBI agent on an airplane who encouraged me to be persistent, stating that “if the FBI came to your house, and your father had family living in the Soviet Union at that time, then an FBI file does exist.” I tried again this past week through a different agency—the National Archive at George Washington University.

It is not surprising that my parents’ basement was filled with newspapers about historical events such as the assassination of both Kennedy’s, the first walk on the moon, and the resignation of Nixon. Now they are in my attic in a special box, meant for the teacher in the family or anyone who wants to see them.  It was also not surprising that Grandpa died on the anniversary of a date of historical significance—a date when the world changed and a large part of this country also died.

He died on September 11, 2008.  Grandpa was the first person who called and told me to turn on the television that bright sunny day fourteen years ago when I was pulling up weeds around our pool.  I didn’t believe what he was telling me, but I nevertheless followed his instructions and was horrified when I turned on the television to see smoke pouring from those beautiful buildings we had visited and had seen viewed from the hills of Boonton. (Incidentally, my first visit to the Twin Towers was with Grandpa, when his cousin Misha visited from Russia.)

So every year on this date, I reflect back on Grandpa’s difficult life, recall how often he bumped into history, and then sadly remember all those others who lost their lives on that day.

Sea Legs

I was surprised to learn that my first sea excursion was not the cruise around the Hawaiian Islands with Dad shortly after we were married. Instead, it was on a ferry to a small island off the coast of Rhode Island one month after my second birthday. I got seasick both coming and going to Block Island. Fortunately, only Kelly has been plagued with that curse.

From what Grandma has told me, the accommodations were anything but luxurious, but at the incredibly cute age of two, I didn’t care and sadly, I have no memory of the trip. We went with friends of Grandpa, and the biggest excitement during the entire week was created when a man who did the NBC 11:00 nightly news appeared on our side of the island. One of the friends traveling with us was so excited that she had him autograph her cigarette. His name was John K.M. McCaffrey.

It was not a good time to vacation on the island, since we were all awoken several times by Coast Guard lights looking for survivors of three plane crashes and one drowning.

It was a summer of much rain in New England. Grandma and Grandpa dodged a bullet by traveling then, because just three weeks earlier, the island was hit by the first hurricane of the season. Still, there was enough rain to cause one problem for us as we were leaving the island. According to my autobiography, written when I was twelve, “It had rained the night before and the small boat kept filling up. My mother had to bail with a tin can while holding me. We just reached the ship on time. They lifted us up on the gangplank and we sailed into the sunset.”

Grandma was twenty-eight on that vacation; Grandpa thirty-eight. They were so young. Can you just imagine that scene?

Me, with Grandpa- July 1957 on Ferry to Block Island, RI
Me, with Grandpa- July 1957 on ferry to Block Island, RI