Aunt Jean would read popular psychology books on the #50 trolley as it bounced down Fourth Street in fits and starts toward Passyunk Avenue. Rocking back and forth in her seat as if she were davening, she read and swayed until the brakes squealed and the wheels ground to a screeching halt for the fifth time. Then she replaced her bookmark, closed I’m Ok-You’re Ok, grabbed the pole beside her, stood up, climbed down the steps and walked the block to Lenny's Hot Dog Stand, where she sold sandwiches.
On Saturdays when I was ten, I rode the trolley and walked to Lenny’s along with her. She’d feed me, before I’d go on to my art class at Seventh and Catherine Streets in South Philadelphia.
Aunt Jean stuffed hot dogs, fish cakes, mustard, chopped onions, sauerkraut and homemade pepper hash into warm buns, and handed them over the counter to customers she addressed as "Baby" and "Doll." "Hey Baby, what can I get you? Something to drink, doll?"
She must've said this at least fifty times a day, never wearing out her smile.
“Eydie Gorme! Sugar, no cream, right?”
She liked to compliment her customers by citing slight resemblances between them and celebrities of the day.
Aunt Jean wore pink, frosted lipstick to match her painted fingernails. Her hair was set and heavily sprayed to a J, I thought, with a flip at the bottom. Her uniform was white and embroidered with ‘Jean’ in red above the chest pocket. Her freshly polished white shoes were flat and wide, made for comfort and support as she stood all day in a ten-by-twelve-foot trailer at an open window above a slight counter. Inside were steam ovens with stainless steel doors and black knobs on top, which she flung open with a large pronged fork to pluck out moist doggies and plump patties of potatoes and fish.
Babobop! The doors bounced back on springs, as steam enveloped Aunt Jean and the acrid smell of hot, fermented cabbage and freshly chopped onions permeated the air, inside and out. She must've smelt it in her dreams. Sauerkraut was kept in a bowl in the oven, its overflow dousing the steaming hot dogs with their signature tang. But pepper hash was what scored Lenny's Hot Dogs local fame. Bubbe Ida's recipe from the old country— a few carrots, a whole green pepper, a head of cabbage, all chopped together in white sugar and vinegar. “How much sugar and vinegar?” New employees would ask.
"Sh'terein! Just throw it in!" Aunt Jean would say with a slight wave of her right hand, repeating her mother's Yiddish. She arrived early each morning to light the urns and chop vegetables. It was just her job but she performed it as if it were her calling.
On Tuesdays before I started kindergarten, Aunt Jean used to leave her cubicle of sweet and sour steam to spend her day off with me. We had a standing date for breakfast at Linton's on Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia where we lived. On her days off Aunt Jean wore black. Her blouse was off-the-shoulder and her skirt was flared out by the stiff, layered crinoline beneath. When I’d press against her skirt, it sounded crinkly, as if I were forming snowballs. Her black heels would clop on the street in short, quick steps. We took my stroller in case I got tired, but I’d usually walk beside her, holding on to the handle. We would need the stroller later to hold our purchases. We didn’t bother with sidewalks. The up-and-down of them was hard to negotiate with heels and a stroller. We walked in the street, alongside the curb. Aunt Jean trusted that drivers would see us and, indeed, they often slowed down to look at her.
“Short stack, side of toast, hold the butter,” Bea, our steady waitress, would announce over the microphone to the cooks, as we entered Linton’s. Heaping dishes of sunny side up eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and thick pancakes with a scoop of butter on top that looked like melting ice cream, rolled out of the kitchen on a long conveyor belt. We always sat where I could follow the route of my perfectly plate-sized stack.
I couldn’t smell much of anything except for cigarette smoke. Aunt Jean liked her coffee black, her toast dry and her cigarettes unfiltered. She’d take long, languorous drags on her Raleighs, hold the smoke in her chest, then exhale with a deep sigh, relaxing back into her chair. The cigarette sat perched on the elegant pedestal of her carefully positioned fingers and tapered, painted nails. I knew that she’d taught piano with those fingers and I’d seen her play duets with her daughter. What I didn’t know then was that she had been offered a career as a classical pianist in New York when she was a young woman, but her immigrant mother had been afraid to let her go. Instead, she was paid to improvise on the Wurlitzer keyboards of silent movie houses in Philadelphia during the nineteen twenties.
“Can you teach me to play piano?” I’d ask. “I don’t have the patience to teach or play anymore,” she’d say from behind her smoky curtain. “But, how about you?” She’d lean forward, holding her cigarette like a pointer toward my face. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “An artist,” I ‘d say, while doodling on the placemat. “What do you like to draw?” “Stars,” I’d answer, showing off the blue, intersecting lines on my paper canvas. “They sparkle, just like you! You’ll be anything you want because you’ve got personality,” she’d insist. Then we’d walk out of Linton’s and down the avenue singing, “Cause you got personality, walk with personality, talk with personality, smile with personality, charm…” We’d end up at Woolworth’s five and dime store, where she’d buy me crayons. For herself, she’d choose a new lipstick, maybe a bottle of nail polish or a stiff, sandy emery board. Aunt Jean and I were close for thirty-five years until she died of emphysema. In her later years, I became her confidant. She told me about her husband Leon.
“He said he was sickly, and didn’t want to have children. So, I had three back-alley abortions, and almost bled to death the third time. When I got pregnant again, the doctor told me, ‘You better have this baby‘.” “When you’re young, you do dumb things,” she said. “I could've had four children, like your mother.” The fourth pregnancy resulted in a daughter whom she adored, fretted over, and raised alone. Her daughter was born with a hip deformity and had to wear a bar separating her legs for the first five years of her life. She needed to be carried, and her sickly father wouldn’t carry her.
“Divorce him! What good is he?” her sister, Lena, urged her. “I liked him well enough, but Lena kept nagging,” Jean sighed. “Perhaps she was right. He wasn’t much help.” So, she divorced him. She and her daughter moved in with her parents, never asking for child support. Meanwhile, Lena remained unhappily married for fifty-five years.
“When I turned 50, I got a nose job and started going to dances,” Aunt Jean said. “I met a man and we dated for a while. Then he told me he was married with children. And yet he went to singles dances! We continued until I said, ‘Enough. Enough, already!’ I never dated again. All my life, I lacked confidence so I joined the library, thinking books would help.”
Jean always remained under the yoke of her large family. When she and her siblings reached the eighth grade, each of them left school to help support their clan of thirteen. Their mother thought that Jean had musical potential and paid for piano lessons from a neighbor. She did and at age twenty, she hung out a shingle on the front door of their Philly tenement, ‘Jean Kravitz, Teacher of Piano’. My mother, the youngest sister, recalled the family’s pride in Jean, and how it was her job to polish the sign daily. The twenty-five cents per lesson Jean earned bought all the coal for the family furnace.
In their crowded household, Jean’s chore was to do the laundry. She scrubbed what little clothing all of them had on a washboard, leaning over a metal tub full of suds. She cranked the clothes through a wringer, before hanging them on a line in the alley to dry. I often think that this was why she began giving herself manicures and painting her nails. Her hands had to look presentable as she practiced Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ with her students. Jean followed fashion too, sewed and designed her own clothes. Her blouses highlighted her broad, ‘Joan Crawford’ shoulders, and her flared skirts fluttered in the wind as she walked from her home to the silent movie houses in Center City. At those opulent, early 20th century movie palaces, such as The Boyd and The Stanton, Jean’s keyboard improvisations accompanied the antics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The demise of silent movies coincided with the start of Jean’s marriage. She continued to teach piano in her home until it ended. Then she and her daughter moved back in with her parents, she stopped teaching, and went to work for her brother, Lenny. “Lenny needs my help,” Jean always insisted. Besides, her parents were so proud that the enterprise they’d begun with a pushcart during the Great Depression, had become a second-generation family business. She sold sandwiches for the next forty years.
In 1960, a week before the presidential election, Northeast Philadelphians lined the curb of Castor Avenue to catch a glimpse of Senator Kennedy’s motorcade en route to a rally in Levittown. Aunt Jean was working at Lenny’s on Castor for the evening. In the most daring moment of her life, she prepared a hot dog with the works and rushed it through the crowd into the hands of soon-to-be President Kennedy. Jean caught the senator’s eye and exclaimed, “Lenny’s Hot Dogs. Best in town!” And as she recalled, “He smiled and took a bite!”
Aunt Jean didn’t retire at sixty-five. Instead, she installed herself permanently at Lenny’s. In her senior years, she’d open at 6 am, chop the onions, prepare the pepper hash, start the coffee and warm the steam table for the younger employees, who’d saunter in by 9 o’clock.
When she finally did retire at eighty, she kept busy and remained social by preparing weekly dinners for her family. Osteoporosis robbed her bones of minerals and stature. Her hands shook wildly while she salted the soup. She cut a familiar figure in the neighborhood, bent over her shopping cart for support, pushing slowly and carefully toward Castor Avenue.
“Hey baby, what’s happening?” The choppy rhythm of her deep, smoky voice was familiar to the deli and dairy men with whom she liked to flirt. She and they would be the last generation of Jewish shopkeepers lining the Avenue. “Jean, look at this beautiful piece of fish!” the deli man would call, angling a foot-long slab of kippered salmon toward her at eye level, the better to savor its fresh, salty brine. These men saved their best for her as they knew she appreciated quality and was willing to pay for it. She’d return home with her shopping cart full of delicacies, fragrant over-sized fruit and fresh chunks of sweet butter for her weekly family gathering. She’d never owned a car. She preferred to walk.
Aunt Jean pushed ahead toward each new day, filling her life with simple pleasures, never minding not having fulfilled her larger dreams. When I think of the forces that helped shape her life, I can understand why. She grew up in an immigrant Jewish family. Her parents arrived in Philadelphia from Russia in 1909, when she was three. They lived in tenement slums until they got a foothold. There were eleven children and they depended on each other for emotional support, while their parents struggled to feed and clothe them. “F’moch dinah pisk! Shut your mouth! Open your eyes. Watch. Listen. Learn. Don’t make trouble.” This was what Jean heard and it shaped her whole life. She didn’t want to disrupt anything or make trouble. She just wanted to please. Her attitude towards her talents and ambitions was inherited from her struggling parents. Who are we to dream such dreams? Just be good-natured and fit in. That’s all she hoped for. She knew it wasn’t enough. Yet, how could she possibly oppose the people she loved. Simpler became easier for her.
Aunt Jean spent her final years in a nursing home in Florida near her daughter’s house. She needed oxygen treatments because of her emphysema. One time when I visited, she remarked that some of her aides shared first names with our family members. “I pretend that’s who they are,” she winked. I typically travelled down to Florida for Christmas. She knew this and would wait for me. In 1995, I bought a house in Pennsylvania and decided to stay home over the winter break to get it into shape. I should’ve let her know ahead of time that I wouldn’t be coming but I didn’t. Instead, I prolonged her suffering. She waited for me, then finally stopped breathing on December 29 — true to form for a lifetime of living for others. I consoled myself with her own words, “When you’re young, you do dumb things”.
Tracy Kauffman Wood received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and a Master of Arts in Education from Maharishi International University. She has been a freelance photographer and writer for thirty years. Her work has appeared on PBS, Womensmemoirs.com, Rathalla Review and various blogs and websites. She has taught writing at Temple University, facilitates memoir writing workshops and currently tutors writing students at Delaware County Community College. Her book, Our Dementia: A Memoir has just been published by Auctus Publishers.