the museum of americana

a literary review

An Alphabetized View of My Mother’s Edward B. Shallow JHS Autograph Book, January 1936—Nonfiction by Barbara Krasner

“Alone”

A 1936 song performed by Tommy Dorsey and his band, my mother listed this in her autograph book as her favorite. It is a mournful tune, unless she happened to be dancing with Best Athlete Arnold Glickman.

Boyfriend

Joseph Richman signed his autograph with the closing line, “Your Boyfriend.” See “O” entry. He wrote twice on his page that she shouldn’t forget him.

Class Leader

My mother entered her own name under “Brightest.” Such chutzpah. Years later, she told me her teachers praised her for her writing. Her penmanship was enviable, too. But I think “brightest” here has another connotation. She probably lit up the hallways with her presence. See also “O” entry.

Dancing

It’s no wonder my mother listed this as her favorite profession. She had long, lean gams. Unfortunately for her, even after Arthur Murray lessons, my father wasn’t much of a dancer.

Elizabeth, Elsie, Edith, Esther, Estelle, Eleanor

Apparently, girls’ American names starting with “E” were popular around 1920, the year my mother was born.

Favorite Chum: Miriam Dondes

Like my mother, Miriam was the daughter of immigrants. Like my mother, she followed a commercial course in high school. By 1940, she was working as a stenographer and still lived at home with her parents. She married Frank Brenman in August 1941. Miriam lived in a rowhouse at 66th Street between 17th and 19th Avenues. My mother lived on 68th Street.

Game

Probably the reason my mother was into football, so she stated in her autograph book, was because of Hero (see next entry).

Hero, William Shakespeare

My mother’s idol, a local boy with the unlikely name of William Shakespeare, came not from Stratford-upon-Avon but from the fields of Staten Island. This Merchant of Menace later played football as a halfback for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and was drafted into the Pittsburgh Steelers. He pretty much opted out to earn bigger bucks working for the Cincinnati Rubber Company. By then, my mother moved on to another hero, my father.

Italians

The president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer of my mother’s class all bore Italian surnames: Nigro, Benfante, Pantamura, Primavera. Two were boys (president and treasurer) and two were girls (vice president and secretary). The roster all came down to mothers insisting on two things: wearing clean underwear daily in case they were in an accident; and eating. Happy? Eat. Sad? Eat. Tired? Come sit and eat pasta, meatballs, Sunday gravy.

John Spinosa

He apparently provided competition to Joseph Richman, Morris Rich, and Irving Creditor (see “O” below), for he wrote, “To whom you love, forever faithful.” I think my mother was a flirt, a skill sadly not passed on to me.

Kind memories

Fragrant as the breath of flowers
Add grace and sweetness to
The passing hours.
Your sis grad-u-8
—Florence Mondre

Florence’s parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. They arrived in the same year as my mother’s father, 1913. Florence married Sidney Strauss in 1942. My mother never mentioned her.

Lillian

L—love
I—interest
L—life
L—liberty
I—includes
A—all
N—necessities in life
votre Cousine
Tessie

This would be Tessie Barnett, Sol and Ben’s older sister (see “W”). Tessie was not French. Her mother came from Russian Poland. She did not speak French there.

Motto

“What you can do tomorrow, don’t do today.” I find this ironic since in her later years, her favorite motto was, “What do you want to order from the butcher three weeks from now?”

New Utrecht High School

Following graduation from Edward B. Shallow, my mother enrolled in New Utrecht’s girl’s commercial program. On the Favorites page, she insisted her favorite college was Hunter. She never got there.

Our eyes have met

Our lips not yet
But I will get you yet.
Your friend,
Irving Creditor

I wonder how Joseph Richman (see “B”) felt about this. I wonder how Morris Rich felt about this. He added a postscript to his autograph: “I love you.” I wonder how John Spinosa felt about this (see “J” above). Oh, Lil, you tease, you.

Program for graduation

The program of January 1936 included “Go Down Moses” as demonstration of exodus from junior high school enslavement, and “Swing Along,” also a Negro spiritual. Most of the Jewish students would later know a version of “Go Down Moses” from the Passover Seder hagaddah.

Quinn, May

You can always tell when the autograph comes from a faculty member like May Quinn. The handwriting is impeccable—and May actually wrote something, instead of just jotting down the date and her name. She wrote, “Be true to your God, your country, and yourself.” A quick check, too, of her name among the faculty and administration signatures found on the two pages at the beginning of the book confirms Miss Quinn’s identity.

Remember the fun in Miss Goat’s room

Both Esther Cohen and Rose Becker (“Beckie”) wrote this in my mother’s book. Their 9A teacher was May Goat, confirmed by Miss Goat’s autograph. I’m guessing the name changed somewhere over the Atlantic. But maybe not. Miss Goat was a member of the local Dutch Reformed Church. She was born in 1884 as Mary Goat in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her father, Frederick, born in England, and her mother Mary, née Cook, moved to Brooklyn at some point. In 1930, May still lived with her parents. Sometime later, or earlier, she married a man with the surname Jordan.

Stamped Hearts

The first autographs in the book bear the marks of an inked and stamped heart. The first page wishes “Success and Happiness in the future years. Your mother.” I think my mother’s sister actually wrote it. Especially since the next autograph, the second in the book, is from my grandfather, in the same handwriting. His message states, “May the road before you be bright and clear and lead to bright and happy years. Father.”

My mother’s younger brother had the foresight to date his entry on the next page. He went on to become a member of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, with his blond hair and ability to understand German through his Yiddish. My father encouraged him to become a lawyer. He wrote, “For Sis, Do all the good you can to all the people you can in every way you can as long as ever you can. Your brother, Ike.” He was one smart eleven year old. My mother’s older sister wrote on the next page on the diagonal: “To Lily, Meeting is a pleasure, parting is a grief. But a false hearted lover is worse than a thief. A thief will not rob you and then run away. But a false hearted lover will lead you astray. Your sister Belle.” Wise advice from an eighteen year old before my mother entered high school.

I can imagine that after dinner, the whole family passed the book around. Maybe my grandmother insisted, “Here, everyone sign.” One final autograph over a stamped heart, this one from the number one chum, Miriam: “Yesterday is dead, forget it. Tomorrow has not come, don’t worry. Today is here, use it. Your loving friend, Miriam.”

Tale of Two Cities

Evidently, my mother cited the Dickens classic as her favorite book. Did she know he was anti-Semitic? When she attended Edward B. Shallow, most of her classmates were kids of Jewish or Italian households. Clearly, her teachers would have known. Still, she claimed Dickens was her favorite author.

Unused pages

Forty-two of the pastel-colored pages in this blue leather book, embossed with the name of the school and preprinted with photos of the school and the principal, Mr. O’Mahoney, as well as the signatures of the faculty and staff, remain blank. Five of my mother’s twenty-four very good friends could still have added their John Hancocks. Why didn’t they?

Vanity

My mother kept this autograph book in the drawer of her vanity table, which stood between two armoires in her bedroom. The day she died, in June 2008 at age 87, as my sisters sat in the kitchen in the home that belonged to our family for nearly fifty years, I took possession of the book, fully cognizant that no one else knew it was there.

When o’er this book you look

When o’er this book you frown
Remember the one that spoiled your book
By writing upside down
Your cousin,
Sol Barnett

Both Sol and identical twin brother Ben signed the book. They were three years older than my mother. I’ve never been able to establish how exactly they’re cousins, only that their mother Gussie was my grandfather’s cousin from the Old Country. Gussie introduced my grandfather to my grandmother.

Xenophobia does not exist here

Of a generation born to immigrant Americans, my mother’s classmates represented mostly Ashkenazic Jewish and Italian families, with at least one exception: Adele Safdy. My mother often spoke lovingly and proudly about her, without naming her. Adele came from a Jewish Syrian family. By 1930, she had six siblings and her mother was widowed. I’m sure she appreciated my mother’s friendship. She wrote, “Four lines from a bashful poet,” followed by three blank lines.

Yiddish

I wish you glick
I wish you laben
I wish you all of Rockefellow’s famagen
Your sis grad-u-8
Edna Cohen

I can surmise that Edna, too, was the daughter of immigrants and she’s speaking Yiddish in a Galitzianer dialect. Edna really meant “vermagen,” fortune. “Glick” is luck and “laben” is life. Even without the translation and with the misspellings, we get the gist. This must have been a popular thing to write, because Ettie Orlick used it, too. She also wrote Rockefellow.

But the award goes to Lillian Perevoskin who wrote the same message in actual Yiddish characters. Well, upon closer inspection, Lillian used Hebrew rather than Yiddish. Her vowels are dots and dashes, not letters of the alphabet.

My mother listed Essie (Esther) among her twenty-four best pals in the front of the book. She did not list Edna or Lillian, poor things.

Ziegler, Shirley

Shirley’s name appears on the second page of classmates my mother listed. She lived on 17th Avenue. Her parents were both born in America, but their parents called Galicia, Austria-Hungary home. Shirley and my mother may not have enjoyed as close a friendship as my mother and Miriam, though both women knew my mother in a way I would never know her. This autograph book gives me a glimpse. I think of her in Miss Goat’s class and watch her swing her hips through the hallways with those long gams. She turns every head.

 

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Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A longtime family historian, her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in GravelThe Smart SetThe Manifest-StationJewish Literary JournalKelsey Review, and other publications. She teaches in the English and History departments of New Jersey colleges and universities.