(by Sheila Bellen)
Five foot two, eyes of blue, a flapper who loved to dance—that was my mom. She arrived at Ellis Island from Hungary in 1907 with her mother (my Grams) and an older brother and sister. Her father and two other brothers had arrived some years before. They wanted to make sure that Grams would have a proper place to stay and that they all had jobs. Williamsburg, Brooklyn was walking distance from where the Ellis Island ferry docked, and had a large community of immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Mom left high school in her senior year; her sister had gotten a typing job, which seemed very grown-up and glamorous to Mom, and she already knew she could type faster than her sister. She heard that the A&P supermarket was looking to hire a typist. They had a pool of 95 men and, with the addition of Mom, five women.
Sadie, one of her fellow typists, was getting married in Montreal, Canada, and Mom was asked to be her maid of honor. The best man was my dad, who instantly fell in love with this “ball of fire.” There was one important agreement before she consented to marry him: that all their children had to be born in the United States.
That’s where the problem started. Dad owned two large newsstands in Montreal, several multi-family houses, and two taxicabs. When my parents moved to the U.S., my father left his father in charge of the businesses, which failed in his absence, leaving Dad nothing.
I was born during the Depression. My mother wasn’t well, and her doctor advised her to find “a distraction.” I was her distraction. Even though we were poor, she decided that I would be the next Shirley Temple. Around the corner where we lived was Miss Donner’s Dance School, and for 50 cents, you could get an hour class of tap, toe, ballet, and “elocution.” We didn’t always have the 50 cents, and had to ask for it from relatives. Luckily, I learned fast, and Miss Donner was delighted to have a new two-and-a-half-year-old student.
People who couldn’t afford to hire entertainment for their events could hire young people, and Mom became my manager. The standard pay was a box of candy. Once I received five dollars, which I used to buy a white dress with a sailor collar. (During the Depression, clothes were precious, and I was obsessed with not getting them dirty. I never allowed to sit on a step without paper under me.) I danced at the 1939 World’s Fair and at Jones Beach—any place where children were performing. My mother constantly embarrassed me by offering me to dance at any school function, without my knowledge, until I was called up to my teacher's desk telling me about a letter that she had received from my mother.
Mom was a letter writer. She bragged that it was her letters that got my brother Howard into medical school and my brother Arnold an interview in dental school. And when she gave up on Hollywood, she turned to Broadway and secured a letter inviting me to an audition. (It turned out to be an open call with everyone there dressed in proper dancing practice clothes, except for me in my "cute summer sun suit." I never bothered to show the invitation they'd sent. The last time she took me to entertain was at the Stage Door Canteen during World War II. A serviceman came over to talk to me, and my mother said, "She's only sixteen!" The next year, I was away at college. Since I had insisted on going to an out-of-town school, I had to earn money every summer, at a dance studio teaching children tap and ballet.
Mom never really learned how to cook. Before she got married, Grams was in charge of the kitchen, and as a married woman in Montreal, Mom had a maid who cooked. In Brooklyn, she had a husband, three children, and no money. The iceman brought a five-cent piece of ice, carried on his shoulder, for our icebox, and we always had cold milk, but sometimes we ate cereal three times a day. Mom tried to give us a variety, so each day was something else. It could be HO Oats, or Wheatena, or lumpy farina. On school mornings, I wasn’t allowed to leave until my bowl was empty, even if I was full (I was reminded that the children in Europe were starving), and on Sundays she’d get up early to make us a special treat: cornmeal with pot cheese. It was awful, but she thought it was wonderful, so we ate it.
When the country was climbing out of the Depression, my uncle, who owned a sweater factory, told my father he would be hired if he got training as a pattern maker and cutter. It turned out to be a double win. Not only was Dad well employed, but Mom could tell him what kind of costume she wanted me to have for each special tap dance. They would choose the fabric, Dad would make and cut the pattern, Mom would sew it, and I had an incredibly beautiful one-of-a-kind costume.
When I started kindergarten, we moved from a third floor walk-up with one bedroom that I shared with my brothers to a two-bedroom apartment on a beautiful tree-lined street, and Grams came to live with us. Mom learned how to loop the collars on sweaters and went to work with Dad while Grams did the cooking and baking, which made us all happy. When I walked into the house after school, I could smell her apple pie, ready to come out of the oven. I was her official helper in the kitchen. She never used a recipe, which fascinated me, but of course she knew how something would taste, having made it so many times. On Fridays, the dough for challah was ready and waiting for me; I’d put on an apron and make my own small loaf with the dough Grams had set aside for me.
After many wonderful years caring for the family, Grams she had a stroke. She recovered well—she walked down the aisle at my wedding and met her first great-grandchild—but she had to be on a salt-free diet. Mom told her to make all our food without seasoning. If we wanted salt, we could add it at the table. The food was so tasteless that when my brothers returned from their years in the armed services, they both said, “It was the best food I ever had.”
If I couldn’t get into the movies, it was determined that I would be a teacher. But dancing remained a huge part of my life, and it always meant something to my mother too. Later in life, she developed Alzheimer’s, but whenever she heard music, she’d jump up and dance.
Sheila Bellen taught grades K-6 for 37 years. She has been a volunteer for AARP and the Make A Wish Foundation; was a Big Apple Greeter and a photographer for Hadassah. She is also a painter. She lives in New York City.
Cream of String Bean Soup
1 T. vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb. string beans, ends trimmed and cut into pieces
2 c. vegetable broth
1 T. paprika
1/2 c. sour cream
1/2 c. milk
1 T. cornstarch
Heat oil in a pot, and sauté onion.
Add green beans and vegetable broth.
Cover pot, and bring to a boil.
Add paprika, reduce heat, and simmer about 30 minutes until beans are tender.
In a small bowl, whisk together sour cream, milk, and cornstarch.
Add to pot, mixing well.
Bring soup back to boil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, until thickened.