When I was about 12 years old, my mother gave me a wonderful gift. She bought me not only a train ticket, but a ticket for a special little compartment with a pull down bed, a sink, a closet and a good reading light. All this to take a night train to New York City, where I would spend a vacation with my Glaser relatives: Uncle Jim, Aunt Helen and their daughter Millicent. It was a lovely trip through the Pennsylvania countryside. Even better was to see the Glasers waiting for me in Penn Station.
I had met the Glasers several years previously, and was madly in love with Uncle Jim, an elfin gentleman with a head of white hair. At that time I believe my uncle worked at the New York Post--and even then I knew I too wanted to be a writer.
My week or so with the Glasers, in their Bronx apartment, opened a whole world for me. This was a world where adults spoke with youngsters as equals--about politics (they were socialists), about books, about the world in general. Way beyond my experiences with other adults.
Here is the cast of characters: Uncle Jim, a highly politicized writer/editor. In his younger days, he was an activist for John Reed and Reed’s efforts to stir up support in New York and Philadelphia. According the others in the family, Philadelphia became too hot for Uncle Jim at some point, and he moved his family to Pittsburgh.
Then there was Aunt Helen. I loved to go shopping with her at the stores on Pelham Parkway, carefully selecting for fruit, the vegetables and the marvelous breads for the day. To make my trip even more special, Aunt Helen organized a little trip to Manhattan, to see the Planetarium with her niece and her sister-in-law. Afterwards, of course, we met Uncle Jim at his favorite hangout--Horn and Hardart--watching food magically appear behind little glass windows.
Next came Millicent, the daughter of the family, already studying for a career as a mezzo-soprano, hopefully at the Metropolitan Opera. This was something totally new for me. What could be more glamorous than singing for your supper. Millicent was glamorous-looking. with a lovely face and thick, curly hair. I watched one night as Aunt Helen carefully worked olive oil into Millicent’s scalp and hair, practically strand by strand, to give her hair rich body.
In that age of radio,afternoons offered a weekly highlight, the Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Millicent brought chairs into the front room, lined with bookshelves and filled to overflowing with books. She fiddled with the dial until the station was clear and static-free. Then came two or three hours of rapt attention to the day’ opera.
Oh, I forgot to mention The Little Mother (a name I have always used to identify this ancient woman who was the doyenne of the family). She, too, joined the opera audience. I do not know her name and I did not speak to her because we did not share a common language. Hers may have been Russian and it may have been Yiddish. She wore carefully made and beautiful clothing and was attended with great deference by all. I believe she was Uncle Jim’s mother. I also believe that she spent time at the homes of various of her offspring. I know I saw her also at the home of my mother’s Aunt Mary.
What I remember most of all from my visit was the love and respect shown by each member of the family to all. I never heard a voice raised in anger or denigration. Little gifts were shared by all. A trip to the movie theater was accompanied by lovely bars of chocolate filled with fruit jams. A dinner cooked by Aunt Helen always featured a lovingly made potato kugel. And the books--in the many years I was to visit, then and in the future, I could never have read all the books on the shelves, but they were eagerly shared with me and I read and digested each one.