Beyond mother's dreams. Women who found they could choose

STARLIGHT, starbright, first star I see tonight.... What'd you wish for, grandma? I've stared at the sepia print remembering your green eyes that color film could now capture. I can almost smell fragrant brown spice cake cooling on your oilcloth-covered table. Your boxes of wooden matches were too high up for me to reach, but you needed them to light the stove. You let me shell peas; recite my day's adventures; stand on a chair to stir the soup; complain about my mom, your daughter. When you left a Russian shtetl and passed through Ellis Island, young, strong, and alone, were you frightened or exhilarated that circumstances for you would be better than for your mother?

An arranged marriage to someone in the same Pinsk village surely would never happen to you now. Tired and poor, you stood under a statue's torch; both New York and New Jersey's water pushed against an immigration building. You chose New York.

Choice. Incredible. Something new for a 17-year-old girl.

Why didn't we ever talk of dreams and wishes? You spoke of Russian ox carts versus New York pushcarts, icemen, and fourth-floor walk-up apartments. But didn't you wish for an elevator? Raising children in coal-heated rooms ... public schools ... door-to-door salesmen offering pre-sewn clothing ... were these something you once never imagined?

Pregnant, were you scared when only you, with my year-old mother, took steerage back to Pinsk to see your family? Why'd you have to sneak out, and where in Poland's woods did you give birth to my aunt? Did you whisper America's wonders to your mama when you saw her, in 1909, for the very last time ever?

Dreams. Wishing stars.

Your five children shared one bedroom: two girls, twin boys, and another boy. Schooling was a luxury. Relatives pressured, ``Make your children quit and help support family.'' You knew unmarried women who worked in Manhattan's garment ``sweatshops,'' cleaned houses ... but some ``elevated'' themselves as teachers at home so they could care for their children. The neighborhood widows earned money making flower hats or powder puffs.

But you, the feisty immigrant who made sure children's births were registered, moved the family from Manhattan - to the Bronx - to Brooklyn as each neighborhood became overcrowded, defied well-meaning relatives so your children could have high school diplomas. But how did you manage to support one son through Cornell for a master's degree, and another for a master's from the University of Michigan before World War II even started?

Were some of your wishes granted?

What did you wish for, Mom?

While falling asleep on a featherbed on the roof because the Bronx summer heat made indoors unbearable, what went through your mind? Did you dream of more space than this crowded three-room apartment for seven? One bathroom, in the hall like a janitor's supply room, was shared by all tenants who lived on the same floor; did you wish for a private one for your family?

In middy blouses you hand-sewed and your mother's navy skirts, you played the piano, heard Calvin Coolidge and Al Smith making speeches, took a two-hour subway trip from the Bronx to Coney Island to picnic and play, got a nickel to spend on an exciting form of recreation: Saturday movies.

After you graduated from Evander Childs High School, your mother moved the family to Brooklyn, made you aware of Brooklyn's Tammany Hall, but was silent with sex information. You gave piano lessons days and took psychology courses at City College of New York at night.

Gramophones played Caruso, but lullabies in Yiddish, Italian, and French came through open windows; songs sung by mommas from the old country were repeated by mommas in this new one ... where women could sing, love, talk, work, dream, grow, choose.

Choice. Incredible for a young bride in 1930. You chose Flushing, a suburb of Long Island's north shore. Simple wants: space, yard, separate bedrooms for three daughters so each could slam shut a private space that none could invade, sharing life with my father.

I grew up, the middle child, in a large slate-roofed house with two-and-a-half bathrooms, and four bedrooms. Only the oven needed lighting; ``magic,'' not matches, lit the stove. You owned a Frigidaire, a suction vacuum cleaner, a mangler ironing machine.

You helped me learn piano scales as the 1939 Bendix automatic washing machine churned. You learned to drive a 1938 Chrysler, freeze home-grown summer fruit and vegetables for winter. But you never became a suburban matron or forgot how fragile are wishes and dreams.

For someone who slept on a fire escape, was uprooted from friends when her mother moved through three boroughs, who pushed aside tears after playing in Carnegie Hall and then finding there was no more money to continue with piano lessons, you wished to give your girls a safe, stable place to develop: a home.

When you won Brooklyn's ``Miss Pitkin Avenue'' beauty contest in 1925, did you wish you could've shut the mouths of relatives who scolded that ``nice girls don't continue in pageants''? You made sure your daughters felt proud of their beautiful bodies.

Wishes. How did you feel, July 4, 1946, when we traveled for our family vacation to Washington by airplane!

Starlight, starbright.... What did I whisper to the night's first star? You can choose to be anything was somewhat scary, because I wanted everything.

Suddenly, my widowed mother juggled insurance checks and got a job as a bookkeeper in Manhattan so she could pay for her girls' (ages 16, 20, 22) education. I got a bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut, School of Education, then attended Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sure, an ``MRS degree'' was some peers' intentions, and, at the time, I looked down on home economics majors feeling girls should have learned that from their mothers ... but even home ec people took English, chemistry, sociology, and ... dreamed.

You can wish to be or do anything; my daughter, as well as my two sons, grew up knowing that most of my wishes materialized!

Grandma scrubbed floors on her knees, Mom used a string mop, I use a sponge stuck on a long stick, my daughter has no-wax vinyl and merely dampens hers; she also has Phi Beta Kappa and two summa cum laude degrees. Like her brothers, her extensive formal education wasn't a privilege or hoped-for, it just was.

What more did you wish for, my daughter, when you stood beneath a bridal canopy in 1986, replacing a name, accepting women's universal domestic life?

As a dishwasher whirs, you read to your son. Air conditioning (no rooftop featherbeds), microwave oven (no matches), VCR taping of television shows for viewing after baby's bedtime, disposable diapers, permanent-press clothing ... more time for your Mensa intelligence to devise creative ways to enrich and expand your son's mind. With daycare centers an accepted societal alternative, you've a choice to work or not to work outside the home.

Starlight, starbright ... grandchildren ... wish for anything ... even to walk on the moon.

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