French Ladies in NYC

New York City women, always warm and fuzzy towards our out-of-town sisters who visit, welcome Vigée Le Brun:  Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, an exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Known as France’s last great portraitist,  Vigée Le Brun enjoyed the patronage of powerful women during a turbulent era.  The exhibition presents 80 of the artist’s portraits; a veritable Who’s Who of Europe’s women of the era (plus some guys in very pretty costumes).

Vigée Le Brun and her most important French female patron, Marie Antoinette, were  both born in 1755.  Portraits of the French Queen provide the visitor with a visual record of the changing values and attitude towards women of the 18th century.

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The scandalous Marie Antoinette en chemise, 1783.  Hessiche Hausstiftung, Kronberg, Germany.

 

Two portraits of Marie Antoinette painted in 1783, when Vigée Le Brun and the Queen were both 28 years old, are presented side by side in the exhibition.  Marie Antoinette in a Chemise shows the monarch in pastoral costume holding a pink cabbage rose, her signature flower, at the peak of its bloom.  Vigée Le Brun displayed this portrait at her first Salon, where it was violently condemned as inappropriate for a public portrayal of royalty.  This was the sort of costume that Marie Antoinette enjoyed at the Petit Trianon, built for informal moments at Versailles away from the demands of court life–and fashion.

The portrait was promptly removed, and replaced by a new, more formal portrait of the Queen deemed more fitting by the Salon.  Same pose, same rose, same sitter….but a change of dress.

 

 

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Marie Antoinette, 1783.  That’s more like it!  Love the bow. Lynda and Stuart Resnick.

New York women, living in a city known for its fashionistas, creative designers and flamboyant dressers, can readily appreciate the implications of the sartorial change.

Gone is that insipid straw hat with the boring blue ribbon; replaced by a sort of Turkish turban festooned with drooping ostrich feathers.  Missing is that fussy gold silk belt that tied at the back of the baggy skirt.  We see instead, a shimmering expanse of slate grey silk  decorated with yards of lace, a double strand of Jackie O pearls, and a strategically-placed striped bow at the low décolletage. It looks as if our girl finally got out of Versailles and took herself to Dry Bar for a decent blowout to have her hair arranged in a delicate pouf.

In place of the shocking pastoral gown is a pastoral setting for the Queen herself.  She stands beside a rose bush from which she has gathered a bouquet of buds that surround a large, central bloom.  A tree trunk seems to grow directly from the panniers of her skirt.  Tree branches, heavy with green leaves, back up the pouf hairstyle making her seem to be a sort of human manifestation of the garden that is France.  Perfect for the Salon.

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Marie Antoinette & Her Children, 1787.  A propaganda piece for the French monarchy based on depictions of the Holy Family.   Musee national des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Another of the many portraits of the Queen on display at the Met exhibition was painted by Vigée Le Brun as a sort of propaganda piece for the monarchy.  Presented at the Salon of 1787, this was the last of approximately 30 portraits of the Queen painted by Vigée Le Brun.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children shows the Queen as a regal mother.  The Queen is shown seated within the palace at Versailles and surrounded by three of her children. Vigée Le Brun based the composition on pictures of the Holy Family and also consulted the Neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David. The portrait was a direct response to the Affair of the Necklace the previous year.  Vigée Le Brun’s goal was to present Marie Antoinette as a devout and loving mother in order to garner the affection and approval of the public.  She failed.

Things did not go well for Marie Antoinette during or after the painting of the portrait. Vigée Le Brun shows the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, gesturing towards an empty cradle.  This is the cradle of his little sister, Marie Sophie, who died at the age of 11 months, before the portrait could be finished.  During the Revolution, David, the Neoclassical painter who had been consulted on the composition for this final portrait, became the virtual dictator of art in the New Republic and a good friend of Robespierre.  As for the French public, they saw only the extravagance of the Queen’s surroundings, dress and hairstyle.

1. Vigée Le Brun_Self-portrait_1790_Uffizi Gallery_Florence

Self portrait, 1790. Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence.  

At the Revolution, Vigée Le Brun initially fled to Italy, where she was invited to present a self-portrait for the Corridoio Vasariano at the Uffizi in 1790.  She depicted herself painting a portrait of her French patron, Marie Antoinette, who would meet her death at the guillotine in 1793.

The artist traveled to various courts of Europe before returning to France in 1802 and living another 40 years before her death in 1842.  At a time in history when women were not supposed to be artists at all, Vigée Le Brun painted both intimate and public portraits of the powerful women of the day.  She used her self-taught technical skills to capture the animation of her sitters and create a portrait of European women of the 18th century. Her recognition as an outstanding portrait painter is long overdue and warmly welcomed by New York women.

Vigée Le Brun:  Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is on view in the Special Exhibition Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 15- May 15, 2016.

 

 

 

 

The Heather Garden, Fort Tryon Park,  in Winter

NYC’s Most Naturally Sexy Women

 

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Naturalist Lesie Day leads a winter tour in Fort Tryon Park, recently voted the City’s most tranquil spot.

The cast of characters in the natural world of New York City includes islands, rivers, swamps and forests as well as Leslie Day, Ph.D.  A naturalist whose passion is the nature of the City, Dr. Day earned a doctorate in science education from Columbia University and worked for decades as a science teacher in the City.

 

A resident of the 79th Street Boat Basin for almost 40 years and now retired from teaching, Dr. Day continues to educate New Yorkers about the natural world that is the City.  She is now devoted to writing books and leading nature walks throughout the City’s five boroughs.

Dr. Day’s recent tour of Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan included a cast of New York City female protagonists that are waiting for spring to return before revealing their star creations to the City.

These included the yucca plant that Dr. Day reveals is a perennial shrub with a very specialized, pollination system.  Pollinated uniquely by yucca moths, the insect purposefully transfers the pollen from the (male) stamens of one plant to the (female) stigma of another by rolling the pollen into a ball and carrying it under her chin to make her deposit, a sort of New York-style schlep, creating a strange and wonderful courtship and consummation, insect-style.

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A yucca growing on a rocky outcrop in Fort Tryon Park.

At the same time, the moth lays an egg in the flower.  The moth larva feeds on some of the developing seeds.  But it leaves enough seed to perpetuate the yucca.  Nice work, ladies.  We’ll see you in the spring.

Dr. Day also pointed out a walnut-sized egg mass belonging to a praying mantis.  Clinging to a branch, and visible due to the lack of foliage during the winter, the insects deposit eggs in insulated sacs.  Awaiting the return of spring, the eggs spend the winter safely inside.

Masters of camouflage, the insects are hard to spot during warmer months.  Seeing the egg sac was a chance to get up close and personal with the ladies, who have a fearsome reputation in the world of animal sex – that of biting off the heads of their mates.

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Praying mantis eggs in an insulated egg sac or “oothecae” await the warm weather before hatching.

Dr. Day began the tour with a walk through the renowned Heather Garden.  Here, various species of heather made a delightful display, showing their colors through the white snow on the ground.

 

This little lady, with a necklace of heather and a hydrangea hat, charmed us all as Dr. Day described the the origins of the gardens, the various species under cultivation and the pleasures that await the coming of warmer weather.  It seemed evident to us all that she understood the romance of the Heather Garden and the romantic actions of flora and fauna around her.

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A little snow lady adorned in her winter best lady greets visitors in the Heather Garden.

With Valentines’ Day just around the corner, we wanted to make sure everything was all lined up.  So, we’re sharing this final video from Hudson Heights resident and sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, to make absolutely sure.

 

Leslie Day is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, and Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City.

 

New York Women as Collectors of Chinese Art

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She missed a great story about New York women.

Edith Wharton’s first publication (1902) was The Decoration of Houses.  Co-authored with the architect, William Ogden Codman, Jr., the book was a polemic against “lambrequins, jardinières. artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with gewgaws, and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables.”  But Wharton missed what would have made great fodder for her tales of America’s upper class women.  The pioneering role that such women played in the acquisition of these splendid objects — especially those from China — is a tale worth telling.  As avid and discerning China collectors, women of the Gilded Age established some of the first and finest collections of Chinese art in America.

Whereas Wharton missed a great story, the husband-wife team, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, have now written The China Collectors:  America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures.  Like a Wharton story, the book is rich with female protagonists in vivid settings. The settings for Meyer and Brysac range from New York’s  bustling Fifth Avenue townhouses to China,  where  the chaos of the end of the Ching (Qing) dynasty (1644-1911) had led to the collapse of that country’s elite.  And like a Wharton story, the tale of Chinese art in American collections is rife with moral overtones.

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A tale of fascinating characters, vivid settings and questionable morals.

While China’s centuries-old Imperial rule was collapsing, America’s was expanding into international business and foreign affairs.  Beginning with the first Opium War of 1840 collections of Chinese art were up for grabs by foreign collectors.  This period of collecting, so poignant for Chinese, is considered the Golden Age of Chinese art collecting by westernes. In the United States, robber baron wealth of the Gilded Age stretched out its arms to embrace collections made available by both desperate Chinese owners and unscrupulous tomb robbers. Enter American collectors.

Meyer and Brysac, provide a colorful narrative of “foreign devils” braving sandstorms and warlords in China and museum directors stateside, snuggly ensconced in boardrooms with capital to spend.  Behind the scenes, moving much of the action, the cast of female characters play their roles.  In China, Dowager Empress Cixi controlled the Chinese government in the late Ching dynasty for 47 years from 1861 until her death in 1908.  Enter New York women.

Among the most avid China collectors were Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, (daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich and married to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sole heir to his father’s petroleum fortune).  Abby was an adventuress in New York’s art scene whereas John preferred to dwell on art of the past.  But on things Asia, Abby and John are best aligned with Buddhism (her) and Confucianism (him).  Whereas Abby acquired a Tang bodhisattva from the Ling Yen Temple, for example, John’s tastes ran to Chinese porcelain.  Like Jack Sprat and his wife, they licked the platter clean with their broad collection of Chinese art.

In their collecting spree of Chinese art, Abby and John were aided by the approval of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act in 1909.  Crafted by Abby’s father, Nelson, (chair of the Senate Finance Committee), the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act eliminated all tariffs on artworks more than a century old.  The Revenue Act  of 1917 permitted a special exemption from taxes for donations to nonprofits institutions “operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes.”  On display in the city’s largest townhouse at 10 West 54 Street (now the outdoor gardens of the Museum of Modern Art) Abby and John displayed the treasures that are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

Other women in the story of Chinese collecting include Lucy Calhoun, diplomatic wife and collector of textiles and artworks; in China, the Yu sisters, Der Ling  and Rong Ling; and in Boston (but originally from New York), Isabella Stewart Gardner, collector of pretty much everything.

Meyer and Brysac do a masterful job of contextualizing the frenzied collecting of Chinese art into the political, historical and social stage of the times.  It’s a tale of action, intrigue, manners and colorful personalities.  It’s a story of New York women working quietly behind the scenes to move the plot forward.  And like a story by Edith Wharton, the reader is left to ponder the morality of actions and their results — in this case, vitrine after vitrine of stolen and looted Chinese art now on display in American museums.

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Abby Aldrich Rockefeller with Chinese vase at the West 54 Street mansion.

Eliza Jumel: The Woman Who Dueled with Aaron Burr and Won

She’s the woman who dueled Aaron Burr and won. And she didn’t have to go to New Jersey to do it. Move over Alexander Hamilton. For a story about a scrappy American in the New Republic, Eliza Jumel is figure that pulled hardest on her bootstraps to rise in early American society.

Margaret Oppenheimer’s terrific new book, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel tells it all. Oppenheimer, a docent at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan, subtitles her book Marriage and Money in the Early Republic.   Eliza Jumel used every means, every trick and every man she could to advance her progress. Let’s just call her a prototypical New York woman, determined to make it.

Eliza came to the city to reinvent herself and lead a new life. She had entered the world in Providence, RI as Betsy Bowen; an infant daughter born in what was called a “Disorderly House,” where her mother received men nightly. In New York City, Betsey became Eliza, marrying “up” with a union to French businessman, Stephen Jumel. With Jumel’s money, she lived home on the commanding heights of Harlem, overlooking the river. It was Manhattan’s largest estate at the time, and still survives as its oldest home. And Eliza still lives there–as a ghost who occasionally turns up on the premises.

On February 17th, Dr. Oppenheimer will deliver a lecture on Madame Jumel at The Grinnell, close by the Morris-Jumel Mansion.  The date, just after both Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day would surely strike a poignant note for our dear Eliza.

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Don’t let the lace cap fool you; this lady ate nails for breakfast!

An Easy Target

“An old lady living alone is a target,” my mother insisted. This was her argument against hiring somebody to help her clean her house. On the surface, everything was fine. The bathrooms had fresh flowers, but the sinks were caked with dirt and the toilets smelled. There was fresh food in the refrigerator, but the smell of rotten fruit and vegetables beneath the new week’s groceries was overpowering. The garbage disposal was broken and gave off a musty odor. The dishwasher was loaded with dirty dishes, but never run. My mother herself was beginning to carry the stale odor of unwashed clothes. I tried to explain patiently to my mother how much better her life would be if she allowed somebody to come and clean her house.

Each week, I’d take the A train down to Penn Station, get on the LIRR and walk a mile from the station to my mother’s home. There, I’d whip through the house, cleaning frantically and making mental lists of the chores that still needed to be completed. I’d arrive home exhausted, facing a family that had just eaten Chinese delivery so that I could spend time cleaning my mother’s house. My husband whispered fiercely to me at night: “I don’t want you cleaning your mother’s toilet. She’s not a target; she’s just stubborn.”
It’s not that my toilet scrubbing made my mother happy. My cleaning left something to be desired, she informed me. She couldn’t see that her house was falling down around her. But she could see what a lousy job I did on the cleaning. I was good for cleaning the house, but not too good at doing it.

While I was scrubbing her toilet, she would complain that she couldn’t trust people to come and clean her home. They worked for agencies. They were resentful. They didn’t do a good job. They weren’t reliable. They were dishonest. “An old lady living alone is a target,” she would insist. I continued to argue while I scoured the commode.

When I finally told my mother that my husband didn’t want me cleaning her house, she was alarmed. I insisted that I would help her hire a local cleaning person so she wouldn’t be a target.

I sought the advice of colleague who also lived on Long Island. “Nothing could be easier,” his wife assured me. “I belong to a local Yahoo group. People are always recommending a couple in town who run their own cleaning company. They live right up the street from your mother. Their names are Lester and Guy.” Great.

I called their cell phone and they came over to my mother’s house within ten minutes. Lester did most of the talking. He and his partner, Guy, toured the house asking questions about linen closets and trash collection schedules. They crooned over the photo of my dead brother and his partner: “So handsome. Such a loss for your family. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your mother.” They gave me their business card and a list of references to call. Before they left, Lester whispered in my ear: “If something comes up, we can be here in ten minutes. Just call us.”

My mother welcomed this couple into her home. We began spending quality time together working together in the garden, eating leisurely lunches on the back deck and watching old movies on YouTube. It had been worth waiting to find this pair of angels, I thought. They were cleaning service and social workers rolled into one.

Two weeks later, I arrived with my family for Rosh Hashanah. We found her holiday table beautifully set with crystal and silver. But in the spice cabinet where my mother hid her gold jewelry, the space was empty. After the meal, we convinced my mother to call the police. They arrived within ten minutes.

At my mother’s holiday table, two police officers sat, drank coffee and listened. We described and drew pictures of the missing jewelry, much of it gifts from my father during their frequent travels. We gave them Lester and Guy’s business card. “You’re not accusing anybody of stealing,” they reassured my mother. “You are just reporting jewelry missing from your home. Then, we write up the report and pass it along to the detectives. They are the ones who determine what might have happened.” My mother was greatly relieved. “You know,” she told them, “an old lady living alone is an easy target.” They looked at one another and nodded in agreement.

A week later, I received a call from the Nassau Police Department. “I believe I have your mother’s jewelry,” the detective said. “I’ll send you a JPEG.” An image of my mother’s jewelry loomed on my computer screen. I recognized the jewelry, but it wasn’t the same. It had been “processed.” A constellation of gold earrings that had long ago lost their mates was next to a ring that was missing its gold coin. A heavy gold bracelet was snapped in three pieces. An antique brooch that had been my great grandmother’s had been ripped off a bracelet my mother had designed to hold it. The jewelry, the detective informed me, had been sold for scrap.

At the police station with my mother, we picked out Lester from a sheet of headshots pulled from DMV driver’s license files. The detective circled Lester’s photo, which we both initialed. We learned that he had taken my mother’s jewelry to a local pawn shop. It was less than a mile away, in the same town where she, Lester and Guy all lived. Only Lester was arrested as he had been the one to sell the broken jewelry to the pawn shop. He had produced the photo ID required by law. The detectives had easily connected his name with the report of missing jewelry during their weekly sweep of area pawn shops.

“Was it arrogance or stupidity?” my mother asked, astonished. “Was it desperation?” The police did the paperwork for an Order of Protection—one for me, and one for my mother. It was standard policy.

My mother suddenly became afraid to live alone. She knew she lived in the same town as the convicted felon who had stolen her jewelry. She asked to leave her home of more than half a century.

I moved my mother into a tiny apartment in an independent living unit for seniors. Now, my mother couldn’t stop thinking about her former home, the home where she had raised her children, lived as wife to my father and reigned as mistress of the house. “An old lady living alone is an easy target,” she sighed. I didn’t want to agree, but I saw that my mother had lost her zest for living. Her spirit seemed to have flown away. When she died not long after the move, I wore a gold bracelet to her funeral that had been stolen and recovered. The bracelet had been repaired, but I knew my mother’s heart had never recovered from being an easy target.

MOTHER CABRINI

MOTHER CABRINI

Cabrini Boulevard runs parallel to the west of Fort Washington Avenue.  Though sounding grand and wide, it is actually a smaller and much less active thoroughfare.  Cabrini Boulevard actually functions as sort of a back road for Hudson Heights residents seeking to avoid the rush of Fort Washington Avenue or desperately (most often futilely) seeking parking in the neighborhood.

Cabrini Boulevard is named after St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.  Mother Cabrini’s first idea had been to go from her native Italy to Asia and convert the Chinese.  But the Pope had other ideas and said:  “Not to the East, but to the West.”  Mother Cabrini’s mission was to cater to America’s Italian immigrants flooding Ellis Islands with dreams for a better life.  Her work was tireless.  Hospitals, orphanages and schools spread across the country and then beyond U.S. borders.

Mother Cabrini’s life was tied to America forever.  She became an American citizen in 1909.  In 1946, she became the first American citizen to be canonized.  Today, she is known as the Mother of Immigrants.

Sister Adelina, a Cabrini nun I grew to know, had told me that during her early work in New York, Mother Cabrini used to stop her horse drawn buggy in Hudson Heights.  Here, she would rest and enjoy the view of the Palisades across the Hudson River.   In 1898, Mother Cabrini purchased a large parcel of land running several blocks north from 190 Street.  Here, she built a complex with a church, a school and a hospital running from north to south.

Today, you encounter the walled complex directly across the street from the 190 Station of the A train.  The complex is bordered by Fort Washington Avenue on the east, and on the west by Cabrini Boulevard.

Mother Cabrini Church is a fascinating moment of mid-twentieth century religious architecture.   The church is designed with its main doors on the west side, off Cabrini Boulevard.  But that entrance hasn’t been used in years.  Church visitors enter through Fort Washington Avenue.  This means that they approach the altar from the rear and back track into the main sanctuary.

Mother Cabrini herself presides over this space.  Her relics are displayed, somewhat like Snow White, under a glass coffin beneath the altar.  She is dressed in the black and white habit of her order.  On my first visit, I was fascinated to see how well-preserved she appeared.  She pretty much looked like the old Italian nun that she actually had been at her death, only with a fresher, more dewy complexion.

The relics of Mother Cabrini rest below the altar.  Mosaics depicting key events in the life of Mother Cabrini adorn the walls.

The relics of Mother Cabrini rest below the altar. Mosaics depicting key events in the life of Mother Cabrini adorn the walls.

The secret to her youthful complexion is revealed by a small plaque on the wall of the church.  The plaque informs visitors the saint’s “hands and head are venerated in Rome.”   This means that what the visitor actually sees is the decapitated and handless body of Mother Cabrini.  These body parts are  covered by wax that has been cunningly modeled and painted a rosy pink with the slightest tinge of blue.

For weeks after I made this discovery, I indulged in ghoulish fascination over how these alterations had actually had been carried out.  Finally, I decided that I really didn’t want to know too much.  I was happy to know that Hudson Heights was under the protection of such a strong woman.  But after this revelation, my children refused to set foot in the church for years.

Behind the altar are beautiful mosaics depicting the major events in the life of Mother Cabrini.  These read like a scroll from left to right, beginning with her early education in Italy, and ending with her work in New York and her canonization.  My favorite mosaics show her kneeling in front of Pope Leo III with the words:  “Not to the East, but to West” above the scene.  The settling of New York is defined by a mosaic depiction of the Statue of Liberty.

In addition to her missionary work, Mother Cabrini became known for miracles.  These played a role in her beatification and later, her canonization.  In her church today are hundreds of small tributes thanking her for working cures and solving problems.   I find the most interesting of these are the handcrafted tokens with pictures of babies or young children who have been conceived or cured with Mother Cabrini’s help.  In glass vitrines lining the walls are relics associated with Mother Cabrini.  These range from wax seals to night gowns to the spring from her dentures.

Visitors to the shrine can also ask to be blessed by her relics, which are kept in a drawer in the gift shop.  One of the lovely ladies working in the gift shop told me that many people come asking to be blessed.  If you make such a request, you are asked if there is any particular part of your body that needs Mother Carbrini’s attentions.  “One gentleman came in and said he had prostate cancer,” the lady informed me.  “I told him not to worry.  Mother can go anywhere.”

On her feast day in November, a procession marches down Fort Washington Avenue with various statues.  The parade is accompanied by the Mother Cabrini High School band in their school uniforms and The Red Mike Festival Band from New Jersey in oversized red caps as they walk south from 190 Street to 181 Street.

As I have a terrace that looks out over Fort Washington Avenue, I participate by throwing rose petals off the balcony.  I try my best to hit the statues as they pass beneath my apartment.  But Fort Washington Avenue is wider than you would imagine.  My efforts mostly result in flower petals hitting the sidewalk below.

From my balcony, I can see the complex hospital, St. Elizabeth, built by Mother Cabrini.  The hospital shut its doors years ago, victim to real estate inflation and government health care directives in the 1980s.  The building is now another Hudson Heights coop, though it still retains a small chapel on the side, and semi-circular drive under its entry canopy.  Many residents of Hudson Heights were born in St. Elizabeth Hospital.  Local lore holds that it was here that Maria Callas entered the world, not the swankier Flower Hospital on Fifth Avenue that is claimed in her biographies.

Located between the hospital and the church, Mother Cabrini had built a high school for girls.  The students were a familiar sight in Hudson Heights in their maroon jackets and plaid skirts.

Mother Cabrini High School is flanked by a church to the north and the former St. Elizabeth Hospital (now a coop) along Fort Washington Avenue.

Mother Cabrini High School is flanked by a church to the north and the former St. Elizabeth Hospital (now a coop) along Fort Washington Avenue.

In January 2014, the neighborhood was stunned by the announcement that Mother Cabrini High School would be closing its doors at the end of the school year.  The newspapers reported low enrollment figures and fiscal hardship.  After one hundred and fifteen years, Mother Cabrini High School will cease to exist.   It would be the second casualty in Mother Cabrini’s Hudson Heights complex.

Hearing the news, made me think about Mother Cabrini and her vision for the complex she built on the lovely spot overlooking the Hudson.  I like to imagine Mother Cabrini might feel the closing of the school was a sign that her work among the immigrants of the last century had been accomplished.   The children and grandchildren of those immigrants were now simply part of American life; full participants in its rights and responsibilities.   I like to imagine that Mother Cabrini would point her finger at our New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, whose Italian grandparents were immigrants to New York City.   Finally, I like to imagine that Mother Cabrini would tell our Mayor that he should drop the knife and fork, get a slice to go, and take the A train up to Hudson Heights.  Here, he’ll see firsthand what a difference a strong, New York woman made to the lives of thousands of New Yorkers at the turn of the twentieth century.    And, he can still enjoy the views of the Hudson.

STORIES FROM HUDSON HEIGHTS

TALES FROM AN OLD NEWSPAPER

My daughter began a friendship with an elderly couple on the third floor.  She loved to visit their apartment where she would always find a bowl filled with hard candies and she could play with the cats in the apartment.  She called the couple Ruth and Abraham.

Ruth was originally from Holland, and Abraham from Berlin.  They had met and married in Palestine as refugees who had lost all other family.   Abraham was about ten years older than his wife, and his body spoke of his ordeals.  His knees were gnarled and painful.  He spent his days on the sofa where, he read a creased and folded newspaper through thick, black glasses that magnified his eyes and the coarse hairs of his eyebrows.  A small gray cat named “Shmuel” was either curled up on the sofa next to him or draped across his thin frame.

local residents on Fort Washington by Susan NYC via Flickr

Writing a homework assignment for English class, my daughter described his labored movement moving from the sofa to the dining room table: “His body unfolded like an old newspaper; and like an old newspaper had so many stories to tell on its worn and wrinkled surface.”  The story he most often related to my child was the death of his younger sibling, a sister, aged three, at the hands of the Nazis.

Abraham’s family had been desperately poor.  He and his younger siblings were sent to be cared for by the Jewish orphanage in Berlin.  It was one of the first stops for the Nazis in their Final Solution as they took over the capital city.  Abraham’s cracked voice choked with rage as he shouted:  “The Nazis killed my baby sister.”  His trembling fingers were clenched into fists.   For a split second, in his impotent rage, I could see the young man he had been.  Now, an old man, his hands could no longer manage to hold a fist.  But the passion in his voice reverberated through the years and through the ears of my child.  She felt his heartache, relating his stories to her brother upon her return from a third floor visit.

Ruth was just the opposite of her husband and his house-bound ways.  She was most often encountered on the streets, pushing a black metal shopping cart in front of her.  She was easy to spot, her slow progress along the street was punctuated by the whirl of pigeon wings, the soft cooing of dozen of contented birds that swooped down to feed on the birdseed or bread crumbs that she scattered as she made her daily promenade around the building.   The cart was filled with plastic bags, and the plastic bags were filled with food for the birds, a combination of bird seed and stale bread and crackers.

Ruth was a familiar sight, and a sight many people in Hudson Heights did not enjoy.   Stopping to chat with Ruth wasn’t always very pleasant.  She could often not be bothered to wear her false teeth, leaving gaps through which spittle flew when she spoke.  Her blouses were often covered in cat hair.  Worst of all was her jacket, spattered with pigeons poop in an irregular pattern that seems concentrated on the sleeves where she let the pigeons alight to feed from her hands.

Passersby would should insults at Ruth as they walked or jogged past her.  They saw her act of feeding pigeons as both illegal and disgusting.  They gestured to the mess on the sidewalks.  They demanded she stop and threatened to call the cops—a gesture Ruth knew was ridiculous.  The cops from the 34th Precinct pretty much ignored Hudson Heights except for the incessant ticketing of cars.  My children referred to these pigeons as “flying rats.”  I recall my son once marveling at a pair of pigeons perched on a tree branch:  “Look Mommy, the pigeons think they’re birds.”

Ruth would sometimes shout back at her antagonists.  “They are just as worthy as birds in the park,” she would retort.  For Ruth, those people were making a distinction between tiny brown sparrows, which were okay to feed, and the larger pigeons with their iridescent markings which the law said should not be fed.  And for Ruth, it was the same distinction that had been made between Jews and Gentiles in Nazi Europe.  “Why is this bird worthy to be fed and not the other,” she demanded rhetorically.  That is what Hitler said about the Jews.  I will feed whatever birds I wish to feed.”

 I knew that no matter how many people shouted at Ruth, she could always be found feeding the pigeons of Hudson Heights where patriots had battled Hessians and Tories—and lost.  While her husband clenched his fists in impotent rage, she was fighting Hitler with her plastic bags of birdseed and bread crumbs.

Those sidewalks, so devoid of footmarks and graffiti, sidewalks that glittered with mica in the light of evening streetlamps, were a battle ground for Ruth.  And each day she fed the pigeons, she was winning that fight.

YOUR NAME IS ON THE LIST OF THE DEAD

The Helner family lived on our floor, and I often bumped into Mr. Helner during my daily chores.  Mrs. Helner had been born in the same town as her mother.  She explained to me, “When my mother was born, it was in Hungary.  When I was born, it was Romania.”  Honestly, it might have been the other way around.  It was tough for me to understand the shifting borders that had defined her life before Hudson Heights.

Mrs. Helner still had a very strong accent—Hungarian or Romanian—I guess.   She tried to speak very precisely so that she would be understood.  She was a proud woman, once telling me about her experiences, “I picked myself up and I made a life of dignity for myself and my family.”

From Mrs. Helner, I learned the history of the previous residents of my apartment.  Before we moved into our apartment, the family of a United States Army colonel lived there.  The Colonel, as everybody had called him, had served in Europe in World War II.  He had been present at the liberation of the camps.

Mrs. Helner had married her husband, a doctor, after her arrival in New York.  Dr. Helner had often come to the apartment during the Colonel’s final decline, to attend to his medical needs.  “It was my way of thanking him,” he explained to me.  “I was so pleased that I could pay back in any way the man who had saved so many lives in such a terrible place.”  This story made me feel much better about my new building and its residents.

Mrs. Helner had been filmed by Steven Spielberg for his Shoah Remembrance Project.  She had also written a memoir about her experiences, which she lent to me one day after a chat in the laundry room.  Her goal in writing was an accurate recitation of dates and places—just the facts ma’am.  There was little mention of her feelings and emotions, as if she had used up her quota of humanness just surviving.

Reading her memoir had been surprisingly boring.  It was nothing like the small tales she often told me in the laundry room that I found so fascinating and moving.  One day, as we folded sheets, she told me that throughout the entire war, she had kept a piece of the afikomen hidden in the roof of her mouth.  It was something her father had given to her before he was taken away by the Nazis.

The afikomen is a piece broken off one of the three Passover matzohs.  Part of the children’s role in the Passover seder or service is to search the house for the hidden afikomen.  The seder cannot be completed without it, and the finder receives a small gift or reward.  She kept that piece of dry matzoh hidden, on the roof of her mouth, while she was starving to death, until her liberation by American troops.  “Then,” she said, “when I was liberated I threw it out because I didn’t need it any more to keep alive. I knew I had survived.  Now, I wish I had kept it.  I have nothing left from my father, not even a picture of him.”

One day, I ran into Mrs. Helner at the garbage compactor.  She approached me with a strange smile and offered, “I just had a strange call from my grandson in Yerushaliyim.”  .

“My grandson called me from Yad va Shem,” she explained, referring to the monument commemorating the Shoah called the ‘Hand of G-d.’  “He said, ‘Grandma, I have a question for you, but I’m not sure how to ask it.’”  She gave a wry smile as she savored her words.  “Just ask me, I told him.”

“Grandma, I’m at Yad va Shem, and your name is on the list of the dead. How could that have happened?”

She didn’t lose a beat.  “I told him, I know exactly how it happened.  Let me tell you so you can understand.”

I knew from our conversations in the laundry room that at the beginning of the war, Mrs. Helner had been transported to the first of three concentration camps along with her two cousins who lived in the same village—the place she and her mother had both been born.  The three girls had been thirteen, fourteen and fifteen at the beginning of the war.  She was in between her two cousins in age.  She took up her tale a few days before Liberation.

“The Nazis knew the end of the war was coming.  They had lost.  They wanted to get rid of us.  They marched us day and night.  Then, they forced us into the river.  None of us knew how to swim.  I have no idea how I made it to the other side, but I did.”

“Later, my older cousin told me, ‘You were strong for us.  You told us that G-d would open the waters for us just as he did for Moses when the Jews were fleeing Pharaoh.’  I have no memory of that at all.  I just know we made it.  All three of us.”

“We arrived at the camp, but my younger cousin was dying.  When they called for appel, the prisoner head count each morning, she could not stand by herself.  Although I knew it was forbidden, I held her up.  Not to do so would mean that she would be sent to the infirmary; and from the infirmary, straight to the ovens.”

“Sometimes appel took a long time.  Those Germans counted and recounted us until their accounting books, accounting books of dead and living human beings, could be reconciled.  Sometimes we would stand for hours.  And that day, it took a long time for the Germans to be happy with their count.”

“At some point, an S.S. man saw me holding up my little cousin.  Then, oh I got a beating,” she shook two fingers on her right hand fiercely as she said this.  I could barely imagine a grown man beating a teenaged girl, and her gesture was terrible.  She continued: ‘When he decided he had beaten me enough, he pointed to my cousin lying on the ground.  He said to me, ‘Take her to the infirmary and you stay there too.’”  She shrugged:  “I knew I was dead.”

“I dragged my little cousin to the infirmary.  I don’t know how I had the strength to do it.  I placed her in the first bed.  I said goodbye.  Then, I walked to the end of the infirmary and jumped out the window.”  She shrugged her shoulders as if in answer to my unspoken question.   “I was dead already.  I had nothing to lose.”

As Mrs. Helner neared the end of her story, a strange smile came over her.  Her eyes seemed to look back half a century.   “I snuck back into the barracks, and three days later, we were liberated by the Americans.  My little cousin was dead.  But I knew that my older cousin and I had survived.  We would live.”

She remembered: “Those Nazis were very efficient.  My name had already been added to the list of the dead.  They liked to have their lists just so.  That is how I ended up at Yad va Shem although I have lived in New York for over fifty years.”

She smiled:  “My grandson said, Grandma, the man at Yad va Shem says to send him some document to prove you are alive, living in New York.  The man says he will be happy to take your name off the list of the dead.’”

WRAPPED IN BROWN PAPER

The number of Holocaust survivors in Hudson Heights prompted the local synagogue to let loose a bunch of kid with video cameras.  The idea was an oral history project, interviewing the survivors who were still part of the daily fabric of Hudson Heights.  Time was running out for them to tell their stories.  We viewed the videos at the Shavuot ice-cream party/religious school graduation of my daughter’s friend.

Shavuot and Sunday School graduations often go hand-in-hand as Shavuot is usually in May or June.  On Shavuot, the Ten Commandments are recited in the synagogue to mark the giving of the Decalogue through Moses on Mount Sinai.  I heard two stories about the choice of ice-cream party and the tradition of dairy meals on Shavuot.  One said the ice-cream party was a reference to the Torah being spiritually as sweet as honey and nourishing as milk.  The other that when the Jews returned to their tents after receiving the Ten Commandments, there was no time to prepare meat, so a quick dairy meal was prepared.  In this way, ice-cream parties had become a happy way to celebrate religious school graduations with large containers of ice-cream and a buffet of toppings set out for the graduates, their friends and families.

The Sunday School graduation was very nice.  The Book of Ruth was read to compare Ruth’s embracing of Judaism with the acceptance of the Ten Commandments by the Jews.  I was pleased that my daughter could see how strong a woman could be, and how making a commitment was something one took seriously in spite of inconveniences and hardships.

In the Social Hall, the graduates and their friends and families ate ice-cream while their videos were shown.  The videos were terrible—out-of-focus and shaky.  But the stories were amazing.  While we heard stories about the camps that we expected, other stories were smaller, more intimate.  One, perhaps the smallest, was the one that haunted us the most.

The narrator was an elderly Jewish lady I knew by sight as we passed each other along Fort Washington Avenue, trekking back and forth with groceries.  A small and vibrant woman, she was composed but thoughtful as she chose her story, obviously one of dozens she could choose to tell.  It was the story that for her, was still ongoing.

The story began in the living room of a Jewish apartment in pre-war Germany.  “We had all applied for papers,” explained the narrator.  “Some of us asked for papers to go to Palestine.  Others had relatives in other countries.  My husband had a cousin in New York, so we applied to come here.”

 Our good neighbors, they also had family in New York.  We felt better that we wouldn’t be alone in a strange city in a strange land.  Our families had grown up together and would be neighbors again when we settled in New York.”

“Our papers came first, and we began to pack up everything in our apartment.  We knew we would never return to Germany.  We thought we would never see our city again.  But we were glad that we were taking ‘the best’ of the city with us, our neighbors, to our new home in New York.”

“When it came time for us to leave, our neighbors were still waiting for their papers.  ‘We’ll join you soon, just as soon as our papers come, we’ll join you in New York,’ they said.  And the mother gave to me a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.  ‘Please take this for us to New York.  Some linens, so that when we arrive, we’ll have something to start our new lives.’”

“I took the package,” she explained.  “But they never came.  They didn’t get their papers in time.”

The video seemed to end as a long silence ensued.  Then, the voice became tighter, higher, more constricted as the story continued.

“I still have that package.  It’s on the top shelf of my linen closet at home.  Those linens are still waiting.  I’ve moved three times, and each time, I took that package with me.  Now, I don’t know what to do with those linens.  Who will take care of them when I’m gone?  Should I give them to my daughter for safekeeping?  Should I open the package?  Who will take care of those linens when I’m gone?”

In the Social Hall, the sound of scraping chairs and shuffling feet completely quieted.  Who could answer?  Like the Story of Ruth, we had heard a Shavuot tale about families moving away from their native land, settling in a new place, planning for a new life.  Ruth had become the ancestress of a king.  This woman had linens wrapped in brown paper and tied with string to be passed along to the next generation.  And a story that would endure.