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To the Memory of Malvina Stone (November 4, 1908-August 27, 2007)

September 7, 2007
Aunt Mal - August, 1974

Aunt Mal – August, 1974

It’s been a month since I have written.

A trip intended to take ten days in NYC to visit family turned into nearly a month. An aunt (who raised me along with my mother), Malvina Stone, had become ill, she would die before I left New York three and a half weeks later. She did not had children of her own but we, my sisters and I, considered her `more than an aunt’, almost a second mother. She (98) and my mother (88) both have Alzeimers. They had lived together with that condition in Hollywood Florida until they deteriorated to the point that one of my sisters had to trick them to coming to New York and placing them in an assisted living facility at Westbury, Long Island.

Just prior to my visit my aunt took several falls in the assisted living facility. As a result she was hospitalized. She never left hospital care again. Although she had had several bouts with death in the past – at least a half dozen times when we thought we’d lose her – this time the grim reaper won, not without alot of help from a bankrupt and inept medical system – the Parker Rehabilitation Center associated with National Jewish Hospital in Nassau County New York, to be precise. I cannot pass that place without thinking dark thoughts about how poorly she was cared for there.

Malvina Stone (b. Magazine) one of 14 children born to Sarah and Julius Magazine (they hailing from Grodno [now in Belarus] and Bialostok [now in Poland]). My maternal grandmother who spoke seven languages fluently and had the voice of an opera singer (as I was told) was considered eugenically unfit at Ellis Island when she first tried to enter the country, had to return to Europe and eventually re-entered the US illegally through Canada taking a train south from Montreal.

Aunt Mal’s is a 20th Century story of a poor Jewish woman growing up in an extended immigrant family in Brooklyn before World War One, and dying a century later after the milleneum had passed by seven years. Of the 14 Magazine siblings, seven survived into adulthood: Louis, Hyman, William, Ira, Joseph, Beatrice (my mother) and Malvina, my aunt. Born `Molly’ (which happens to also be the name of one of my daughters), she changed the name to Malvina as a young adult. Now many of the brothers and sisters are once again together, in death as they had been in life, this time at the New Montifiore Cemetery in Long Island. The Magazines! They were, in their day, so committed to each other, so faithful to their brothers and sisters, so hopeful in their youth for what this country had to offer poor Eastern European Jews. Along with my uncles (and now Aunt Mal) at the grave site is my cousin Jay Magazine (son of Ira and Rose Magazine) who died in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Jay worked at the restaurant at the top, Windows on the World. 6-9 months afterwards DNA testing identified a small body part (I was told a hand) which is buried near his mother and father.

The near month I just spent in New York was emotionally challenging because of the declining condition of my aunt, my mother’s Alzeimer’s, the typical difficulty in making difficult decisions with siblings (although we did pretty well all in all) and the fact that after 38 years it should be no surprise that I felt very out of place in New York. I’d lost much of that tough edge and `built-in-shit detector’ quality that makes New York City living tolerable (although my sisters seem to have gained these psychological skills to an impressive degree). Colorado living has made me soft I thought to myself. Driving a car, even on Long Island and not directly in the city, scared me. The neighborhood in which I grew up – near Jamaica High School – has changed. The Catholic (mostly Italian, some Irish and a precise few Jews) – Jewish working class, middle class and largely white neighborhood now hosts two mosques and has a sizeable Indian and Pakistani population. My impression was that Indians and Pakistanis in Queens seem to get along better there than in India and Pakistan. My presence in New York triggered an almost inevitable flood of memories, not the kind that are overwhelming, but they did remind me why I relocated in Colorado.

The last month of her life, August 2007, Aunt Mal fought so hard to live and we, my sisters and I, along with her great nieces and nephews, and my `almost-brother-iaw’, were by her side most of time, pushing an overworked and understaffed medical corps to meet Aunt Mal’s needs, ease her pain. We got very good at making real nuisances of ourselves with the doctors and nurses and there were many `incidents’. Without this prodding, Aunt Mal’s suffering would have been far greater. In the end, she experienced the kind of shabby treatment more and more Americans will come to know, the kind of indignity which characterizes the health care crisis in America. See Michael Moore’s `Sicko’ for details. A single payer federally funded health care system never made more sense.

What a dear, tough old bird – a genuine family matriarch who had kept the family together for most of her 98 years and 10 months on the planet! Think of what has transpired during the course of her life. There were more horses than cars in NYC when she was born but she died in an age of cell phones and nuclear weapons. She’d lived through (and had memories of) World War I, the collapse of the stock market in 1929, the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan years and now Bush (to whom she simply referred both politically and morally aptly as `that son of a bitch’).

It is from her and my mother, that I get whatever human values I might still possess, as the men in our family in the end weren’t worth much on the human level. They suffered from wild-cockitis much of their lives, used the women in their lives one way or another, squeezing out the life (and more specifically `the money’) out of Aunt Mal and then abandonning them. My dad left, Uncle Sam died after incurring terrible medical expenses. But Aunt Mal was always there. She was there when my father, early on, did not have the money to buy our family’s way out of the `shetlel’ in Brooklyn. Aunt Mal put it up so that the family could crawl into the middle class.

Likewise when my dad needed capital to go into business (silk screen business) Aunt Mal bankrolled him in part. He would soon go on to bigger and better things (in his view) marrying the daughter of one of the silk screening industry’s post war giants (Joseph Ulano). To do so, of course, my father had to dump my mother, which he did (although I do not believe he ever got over the guilt that it all provoked), and betray my aunt’s trust. He moved on, having found his version of a one-way, life time ticket to Disneyland. He never left that world, never wanted to but seems to have had some (minor regrets) later in life. Perhaps not. In the end it was all `a grand illusion’.

My father left a shell-shocked ex-wife (the rest of her life, she never really recovered from the pain of the divorce), but Aunt Mal stayed. Along with her husband my `Uncle Sam’ she helped raise me and my two sisters supporting both materially and emotionally. Uncle Sam – I really had an `Uncle Sam’ – a Jewish one to boot! – and appropriately enough my Uncle Sam was, in his youth, a Communist as was one of his brothers. They both left the CPUSA in response to the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 after which they became Jewish-mafia lawyers. Although I cannot prove it, I am rather certain they did legal work for Meyer Lansky Some of my other uncles appeared to have been involved in minor ways in that network as well.

In the mid 1950s Uncle Sam served 6 months at the Federal Peniteniary in Danbury Connecticut for contempt of court. He refused to testify before a grand jury about his mafia connections. I remember how he told me before he left that he was going on a six month vacation to Connecticut. I was so proud of my uncle that he was so rich that he could go on a six month vacation, but why Connecticut and why in November? And why couldn’t Aunt Mal go with him I asked? Would he write me I remember asking. No he responded. It was only 30 years later, almost incidentally, that I learned the truth of the matter and that was shortly before his death in 1992.

If my father married into wealth, my uncle tried to invest his way there but never made it. Actually the two of them were doing more or less the same thing, and were driven by similar values and powerful urges, the urges of poor Jewish kids growing up in NYC in the 1920s and who were driven to get as far away from the poverty of their youth as possible. Neither talked much about their youths, their roots, their family connections and I would learn only bits and pieces about them by chance in my later life.

I think Uncle Sam only fronted as a lawyer for much of his life after prison. By then (after the late 1950s), his spirit seemed to have been largely broken, his reputation shot. For much of the rest of his life he went through the motions. He’d go to an office in NYC near Wall Street and sit there all day reading the New York Times and take the train back to Queens in the evening. He hardly had any cases and made very little money. We knew this because when he did have a client, it was nothing short of a family event.

Nor did he every completely break with his past. Sometime in 1977 after our first daughter, Molly, was born, Uncle Sam surprised me with a call from what was then Stapleton Airport in Denver. He was on his way to Reno with a client who was facing a federal indictment there. I never was told for what. Thinking Reno is as close to Denver as Philadelphia is to New York, Uncle Sam called me at home to ask if I could take off a few hours to drive him and his client to Nevada. I don’t think he was kidding – New Yorkers are notorious for their ignorance of Western geography. I told him it was too far, 900 miles, but went out to the airport with Molly in tow (Nancy was working) to spend a little time with him at the airport. I spent a half hour with him and `Vinny’, his client a tough looking man with no neck, who spoke what I can only refer to as `high Brooklynese’ with an accent that suggested he had not gone to Harvard. Vinny kept looking over his shoulder. He could have played linebacker for the Chicago Bears. When I asked what the case was about, Vinny’s face turned red, his eyes flashed daggers, Uncle Sam got nervous, and picking up on all that, Molly – then all of a couple of months old, with an uncanny sense that it was time to end the reunion, began to cry, thus mercifully, shortening our historic family reunion.

Through thick and thin, Aunt Mal fiercely protected Uncle Sam’s dignity and reputation. But his real profession most of his life wasn’t law, but milking Aunt Mal for almost every penny she was worth. And she was worth a good deal. Aunt Mal had entered the field of electrolysis in the 1930s (something I have always considered a modernized version of a form of medieval torture) – removing excess hair from people so they could look less primate-like. She did this for half a century, had an office on 34th Street and Madison Ave (then very sheik) and was once written up in Vogue Magazine (sometime in the 1960s) as one of the five best at it in New York City. She worked nearly 12 hours a day, five days a week and eventually went blind as a reward for such detailed painstaking work. Yet even after she’d lost her sight Aunt Mal knew every corner of her apartment so thoroughly that unless you knew her well, it was not obvious that she could not see.

She made alot of money. Uncle Sam spent it. They were a well oiled team in this respect with a well defined division of labor. And they played `pretend’. She pretended that he earned a living (which he rarely did the many years I knew him) and she pretended that he wasn’t robbing her blind at every turn. Their apartment in Elmhurst used to have a walk-in closet where Uncle Sam would spend Aunt Mal’s money mostly without her knowledge or permission. Uncle Sam had what I can only describe as something approaching a genuis for bad investments with impeccable timing. Indeed I believe he never could pass up a bad one, the worse the possibilities the more like he was to be attracted to it. He once boasted – it was in early 1958 just before the Cuban Revolution – that he had recently invested in a gold mine in Cuba, with of all people, Ernest Hemingway and that both he and Hemingway were about to become rich. Mercifully, he didn’t live long enough to lose the rest of her money when the stock market bubble burst in 2000. His finely honed financial instincts would have made him a prime candidate to have heavily invested in Enron.

This way, Uncle Sam went through his wife’s hard earned wealth. He didn’t leave Aunt Mal destitute, but nearly. If not for a relative of my friend Michael Myerson, Peter Schillinger, Aunt Mal would have been penniless. Schilllinger was able to get some of Aunt Mal’s money back from one of Uncle Sam’s many failed real estate schemes. She lived on that money – as did my mother – for five years.

For most of the 15 years that Aunt Mal survived Uncle Sam’s death, she did what she could to keep a stiff upper lip, and assiduously lived in denial. As if she were trying to convince herself that her marriage had been a success, she repeatedly spoke about how well she and Uncle Sam got along, how generous he was (with her money), how funny (he was extremely funny), etc. etc. But as she slipped into Alzheimers’ somtime after the age of 95, the traces of bitterness began to surface – how she had given him everything, how he had wasted it away and left her with virtually nothing.

Aunt Mal used to say with some pride how Uncle Sam had never yelled at her, and in so doing measuring him against other men of her day. She was quite proud of this and repeated it frequently as if that compensated for his having bled her dry financially. I guess the rules were you can rob your wife blind as long as you don’t yell at (or hit) her and that qualified Uncle Sam for the highest compliment she could bestow on any human being – `oh, he’s such a nice man’…`with the word `nice’ being heavily emphasized.

But hospitalized, in delirium and near death, the denial she had cultivated all of her life evaporated. Her criticisms of Uncle Sam (and men in general) sharpened as I listened to her – writhing in pain before the doctors would give her morphine – repeat over and over `all men are bastards’. Maybe he wasn’t `such a nice man’? I loved him by the way, his foibles were human enough and I long ago decided he couldn’t help it and did the best he could to make it through this strange world of ours.

But he didn’t hold a candle to his wife, my Aunt Mal.

Maybe she had a point?

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