Norma Cantor Wachtel
March 30, 1915 – December 13, 2005
Norma Wachtel’s autobiography as transcribed by her son, Ken Wachtel
At this stage in my life I am being called upon to relate the “story of my life.” I approach this project with an ambivalence of feelings. I want my children to know that I, as well as they, are products of 4,000 years of history. But, memories can bring many sadnesses. However, facts must be related or we wonder “why?” at some future date, didn’t I ask my mother that? Therefore, for history’s sake, for the sake of my children, and for myself, I will attempt to place myself in time.
I was born, the second living daughter, to my parents Bessie Turetsky Cantor, and to Saul Cantor. I believe it was 935 Webster Ave., the Bronx. I remember my Mother saying it was next to a church on one side, and stables on the other. On Mar. 30th, 1915 [my birthday], I imagine transportation was very rudimentary, hence the stables. I recall practically nothing at this location. It was only after a few years when we moved to 940 Hoe Ave., the Bronx, that I even realized that my parents had had another daughter before my older sister. She had died at the age of 15 months, a victim of spinal meningitis. Shall I digress here to tell you of the cruel, hard facts surrounding this infant death? I have to bring myself in from another planet where we “specialize” in infant death, to tell you that the fear and ignorance of these immigrant parents was feasted upon by the so-called doctors. My Mother never knew what was wrong until a day before the baby died. Then, since they had no money, and money mattered in the days of the Astors and Rockefellers, they placed the dead infant in a carriage they had borrowed from a neighbor, and my father and his brother wheeled her to the cemetery – in a little wooden casket he asked a friend to build. So, you see I do not even know where my sister lies.
Anyway, to return to lineage – my Mother was one of four girls – The oldest, Sophie, my Mother next, Bessie; then Sarah and then Florence. One son, Samuel was the youngest. They came from a small town outside of Minsk; all were born there to Abraham Moses Turetsky, and Libby – Turetsky. They all came together from Europe and settled on the East side of NYC. Somehow I know very little of any extended family. I know much more of my father’s.
AT THIS TIME, I enter, as part of this saga, the Cantor family history as it was submitted on the occasion of the 25th anniversary.
This will give you “background” music (?) but I must be specific. I would like you to know my father. He was all the Sholom Aleichem stories, World of my fathers, Hester Street, etc. etc. rolled into one. But, at the head of his numerous lists of talents, we must say “Jewish philosophe, or philosopher.” I quote him today.
He was born in 1882 on February 5th. (this last item is a mechanical connotation. In Minsk, no one ever kept track of a child’s birth. It wasn’t considered important. With the hard bitter struggle it was looked upon as a temporary existence in a tough world.
I believed there were 22 children born to my grandfather. However, the historical report says 18 – no matter. It’s a minor matter. They lived the usual hard life of Russian peasants. I think my father carried to his dying day, an antagonism against “malamed” or teacher and, or, rabbi since they came to their poor shabby home on weekends and were weekend parasite/lodgers. Guest, not being requested but determined. If there was one small piece of meat or bone swimming in a large soup cauldron; the teacher took the meat, and left the water to the children. I could go on endlessly with stories of my father’s life. I may tell you later on in the tale but for now I’ll return to myself as central character.
I lived in the Bronx for 8 years, and then my father decided to give his family “fresh air,” at which time we moved to the countryside of Brooklyn, N.Y. We had lived in four rooms but when my brother was born, it became too small, even though it had (according to modern standards) a tremendous kitchen. That room held a large kitchen table, two wash tubs near the sink, an icebox, and I remember my mother putting a 25 cent piece in the meter to get us electricity. I was also burned fearfully on the arm by scalding water in one of the pots of laundry that was cooking on the stove. We couldn’t have been that impoverished because I remember a black helper doing that. I still bear the scars. To open a vista – my sister wouldn’t let the servant through with her pot of scalding water; she stumbled in back of a chair; and the hot water poured over my arm. Is this part of a story or part of a grievance you tell a psychiatrist?
Brooklyn, was where the main, the central, the real story of my life took place. We lived in a palace – seven rooms where we were all huddled into three. The others were “Sunday parlors.” I went to P.S. 186 until I was chosen with five other schoolmates to attend Jr. H. S. 60 which was the central school for rapid advance students. I always remembered my childhood as a time when my Mother and Father bemoaned my thinness. Now that I am propelled into the 20th century, I think of the humor in this. Imagine how fashionable I was? However, it seemed a valid reason for deterring me from many of my greatest wishes; one, to be a chorus girl! If I took lessons, my Mother said, I would get skinnier, and then I would really slip through the drainhole in the bathtub.” I have since never seen a drainhole without remembering my Mother’s threat. I loved to sing and dance. Since I couldn’t become a chorus girl – besides “what would Blanchie [my older sister] think of that”. She was going to be a SCHOOLTEACHER. Having a sister in the chorus – even the Roxy – wouldn’t fit the picture. So I resigned myself to going to school, on the bus, off the bus; letting my folks worry about how I would do all “those adult things???” I became a smart girl – but never as smart as Blanchie. Whenever I got an A, I was told Blanchie got an A plus. It could never have been true. It was their way of encouragement. At one time I remembered getting mad and deciding to get a B (a bad Mark). Now I wouldn’t be egged on! I wasn’t, and the ribbing stopped.
In time, our ghetto in Brooklyn was fashionable. My mother’s brother and wife and two children lived 4 blocks away; my father’s brother Will, Rose, Norma, Blanche and Arthur lived upstairs in a two family house – two blocks away; my Aunt Sadie and Uncle Mendl (the rich one) lived downstairs; my Uncle Moe and Aunt Francis lived next door to them. The clan gathered around for warmth and companionship. I looked upon those circumstances as unfortunate at the time. I was constantly being “shlepped” from one family obligation to another. Little did I know that I would look back upon those days as some of my happiest, and responsible for my growth in interpersonal relationships and the wisdom, love, warmth and sources for stories that my family gave me. To this day, I feel very independent. At this time when the family unit is disintegrating because of tremendous economic and social splintering, I can always call upon one cousin or the other as a friend and companion. What a shame that young people cannot feel that outer comfort and shield of family.
October of any year was moving day in the big city. Everybody (or so it seemed to me) packed up and moved to another apartment. Leases were for two years and painting. Concessions were made. There were more apartments than people so the landlords gave “concessions,” or a month or two free rent in order to entice you. So, my Mother who hated painting more than moving – (I still shake my head in wonderment)—packed the brood bag and baggage and moved. We lived on 77th St., then 76th St. until my Mother had a fight with the landlady. That last residence lasted about 1 ½ yr. 73rd St. lasted about 6 mos. for the same reason. These were all two family houses and all ethnic groups came together. All Jewish but with different backgrounds. Russian, Polish, Syrian – and they may as well have come from different planets.
I remember 83rd street. That’s where I became a teenager, an adult, a married lady and a war casualty. My Mother moved without any regard for the “schools around the corner.” However, since we all went to different schools, I really don’t see how she could have accommodated all of us. Frankly, it was hit or miss. When I went to High School, I walked ten blocks, when I went to college I walked ten blocks to the station. I went to New Utrecht H. S. between 1928 and 1932 and college 1932 to 1936. When I was 11 and 12 I went to Central Jewish Inst. Camp in Port Jervis. Now it is euphemistically called Cejwin. At first, I wanted to go home. Homesick. Especially since I was the pioneer camper and was sent to the camp on the possibility it would make me fat-ter. I tell a true comic story about this. Remind me to tell it to you. My days in high school are a blur of books, friends, and good scholarship. The last was expected and no praise was ever given. I was very much older before I realized that not everyone knew everything. That’s what I was striving for. I guess I was led into thinking it was “expected.” My days in college were marked by the heavy imprint of depression. Everything and everybody was poor. It was part of a privileged class – going to COLLEGE when people didn’t have money to eat. I got 50 cents a day and remember waiting in the kitchen until my father made his first installment dealer’s call and returned with the 50 cents. It was a munificent sum. It was carfare, lunch, stockings, pencils and sometimes books. College was a thorough, time-consuming, intellectual adventure. We had everything opened to us – astronomy, history, art, music, etc. It was four years of work from 8:15 in the morning to 5:30 at night – and I am glad about this to this day. By the time we left the cloistered up and down stairs and up and down elevators and up and down subways, we were cultured ladies and men. We carried full loads from morning to night – all liberal arts for two years, and then some specialization. Graduation from high school means you know everything. Graduation from college informs you that you know very little of the world of learning. It did make me hungry for knowledge.
I went to Camp Anawana in the Catskills when I was 13. I loved it. It was a private camp situated on a private lake and I had my cousin Dotty, her brother, my brother and sister with me. I made lifelong friendships there. Leon Abrahams was 11 when I was 13. We became the best of friends (an understatement) for as long as he lived – and beyond. (Sometimes I give Leon’s answer to a question that pops up today.) Lillian, who later owned Camp Allegro, Justine, Helen, Dotty and myself were the five who maintain even now a closeness that runs the gamut from superficial to intense. When I was 18, I could not get a job as a counselor and was too old to be a camper. I attended summer school and went to camp for weekends where I met my husband. He shared bunk responsibility with Leon. He had just started Bellevue Medical School. Suffice to say that our “romance” took place on 23rd Street as I emerged from the subway, and [then] he trotted down to 28th St. where Bellevue had their school. No East River Drive – just Bellevue on the water. This was 1933 and the world was broke. The 5 cent [subway] fare and the trip from the North Bronx [where Sidney lived] to Brooklyn, with many changes [from one train to another] consumed the money and time. We married in 1940 on June 23rd. World War II was on, but it never occurred to any of us that we would soon be swept in. Sept. 1939 England entered the war, and on Dec. 7th, 1941, the Japanese pushed us in – much to their regret, and ours. We were married in 1940 and Sid arrived home from the China, Burma, India theater [of war] in 1945. My war experiences were unpleasant, ugly, and depressing and informative. I traveled from my father’s house to Columbus, Georgia in 1940 and thus started my homeless, stateless journeys through North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. No one can ever convince me that the South can be known as “hospitable.” I found the deep South cold, antagonistic, bigoted and ignorant. I have many experiences to prove it. Suffice to say, I was glad to leave although my taking off point for home was Mississippi. There I was fortunate to meet a widowed schoolteacher who had been educated in the North, and after she was convinced “she wouldn’t be found dead in her bed,” proceeded to slowly regard myself and my husband as human beings. [When Sid went overseas] I left there to meet my father in Atlanta. We met to drive home together in my first new car, a Plymouth. [During the war] I lived at 1205 Ave. R., Brooklyn, where [after Sid returned in 1945] I brought my firstborn son Kenneth Mason to live for two months. He was born July 18, 1946. We left Brooklyn [to move to Westchester County] like Ma Kettle – loaded to the runningboards. My Mother was crying over me as if I were going to Siberia. It might have been. There was no Major Degan, no N.Y. Thruway, only U.S. Route 1 – the Boston Post Rd. My wartime sojourns ended when I found my shoes, all my dresses, all the pots and pans (whatever was left after being beaten for six years) in the appropriate closet for them. I moved into my first real apartment in Sept. 1946. The pleasant three room cockroach-infested apartment in a fourth floor walkup looked like a palace to me. It was Mamaroneck, NY, a beautiful warm friendly village on the Sound. The apartment had a beautiful view across open fields and to the water, but it was the victim of neglect by the landlord’s agent and laziness on the part of the “janitor.” How we came to this far-away place is another twist of fate. We would have gone anywhere after the war. To a place we could find a retreat for a 3-month old baby, an eager housewife and a returned veteran who had to return to hospital duties to try to catch up to other non-soldiers. Sid’s Uncle Hymie was a silent investor in a house in the north woods called Mamaroneck. A school teacher there married a school principal and left a 3-room apartment. Hence my castle. I have never since gotten the joy and pleasure of arranging, re-arranging and organizing the few possessions we had. We arrived “home” after a painful hiatus [the war years]. We were followed within the year by Seymour and Bernice Leicher, Uncle Hymie and Aunt Annie’s daughter and son-in-law. They, too had come to seek refuge here. They lived in the best suite in town (I thought). Four rooms on the first floor. No dragging up the steps with food, blankets and baby. There was no dryer in the apartment house, I remember. I was great on the benefits of fresh air, so I proceeded to hang out wet washed diapers on the outside line. I collected them like huge frozen sheets of cardboard and melted them down on the radiators. At any time, my apartment smelled like a wet, fresh-air day in spring or a sauna. Bernice and Seymour were wonderful cousins and companions. We were sorry to see them go. At the end of 2 years they decided to move to “inexpensive” Rockville Centre. Fern [their daughter] had been born and they felt the houses in the neighborhood were too expensive. I didn’t feel the apartment was too small for [the] 3 of us. Our second son Marc James was born on Jan. 29, 1954. We had lived in our four room flat for five years by that time [as when Bernice and Seymour moved out of the four room flat, the three of us had moved in]. When Marc was 10 mos. old and Kenny 8½ yrs. we found 624 Munro Ave., where we now reside. Kenny did a great deal to influence us to move on that block since he had school chums there already. I bless his instinct.
It is now almost 30 years since we moved into this house. It has been a silent witness to our pleasures, our joys, our heartaches, our failures and our disappointments. But I wouldn’t have chosen any other place. Our house gave us comfort where it could.
From the Larchmont Gazette:
Norma Cantor Wachtell, of Mamaroneck, NY, died December 13, 2005 at age 90. Born March 30, 1915 in New York City to Sol and Bessie (Turetsky) Cantor.
Survived by sons: Kenneth and Marc Wachtell and a brother, Irwin Cantor (wife Rita). Predeceased by her husband, Dr. Sidney Wachtell and a sister, Blanche Gladstone