If I had my choice of any place on Earth of where to live three seasons of the year, there is no question in my mind it would be New York City. During the summer I would vacation in some of favorite parts of the United States. New York City’s nickname as The Big Apple began in the late 1880’s. To me, that eponym implies slices of one of my favorite fruits. Don’t, for a moment, believe any single story about sources of the various Apple names. All the tales are true.
In August, 1938, my own adventures in the city began when my mother and I followed my father who had escaped earlier that June from the Nazi regime to the New World. Until we arrived, he lived with his Aunt Malvina,
Tante Mali and her husband had arrived in New York in the early twenties. They acquired a large fortune from the manufacture and sale of fine handbags. Before going to meet my great aunt, I had been warned how her close connections to Austrian royalty had inspired her to aspire to be a grande dame in business and in private life. Her goal, as she often told me, was to leave this Earth as a respected and disquieting member of her life circles.
She also, I was told, had no use for young children, including her own. She mourned not being able to inspire them to follow in her footsteps. The first time we met, she walked to the playground where I was enjoying the sandbox under my parents’ watchful eye. After a short introduction, which included kissing her hand kiss and doing the obligatory curtsey on my part, she peremptorily ordered me to leave my parents to come with her to visit her home for tea. I was about four and a half.
“I must give my regrets,” I said in formal German, followed by a curtsey. “My parents brought me here, and if they are not invited, I will not come with you.”
“They have been talking about me, yes?”
I nodded assent.
“Are you so afraid of me, then?”
“No, madame,” I said pleasantly and quietly. “I have been taught to have good manners. My parents and I came here together, and we will visit you together, or I shall not come.” I again curtsied.
In shocked silence, my parents watched.
She glared at the three of us and, a smile appearing on her face, said, “Finally! A Brück with audacity! This child is not namby-pamby like so many of my kin,” glaring at my father, who was shaking, with good reason, in fear. “She has spirit and intelligence.”
The sweet smile remained on her face. Later, my father said he had never seen her smile sweetly in all the years he had known her. “I have heard your two grandmothers have great influence over you. Their goal is to leave this world knowing they have inspired you to follow in their footsteps. I certainly intend to train you. They will approve.” Those were confusing thoughts for a child approaching five, but eventually I did begin to understand and appreciate what they wished to bequeath to me. Thanks to them, I know before I expire, I will have reached innumerable goals and successes fueled by their belief in me as a proud bearer of their combined DNA.
To the day of her death, Tante Mali and I remained great friends, fellow conspirators, and fellow explorers. She avidly encouraged my love of theatrics, music, museums, exploration, and of adventure, which, she boasted, outdid her own. “Liesl is not like my children,” she often gleefully told family members, including her offspring. “She and I are not afraid to speak up or to take risks as we walk on this Earth.” Then she would wink conspiratorially at me, and we would both giggle.
By the way, her children and I remained close until their deaths over the years. Astonishingly enough, they taught me the same lessons as their mother and my own grandmothers.
Our first domicile was a small rental at the intersection of Riverside Drive and 82nd Street, on the banks of the mighty Hudson River some fifty feet below the street. It was a short five-block walk to and from the luxury apartment building in which Tante Mali held court. She and her older daughter Blanche each lived in palatial private residences in an imposing apartment edifice. Blanche, who had married well, actually had outdone her mother by choosing a two story apartment with its own internal elevator. Tante Mali told me privately, “My own residence has two hundred more square feet than Blanche’s. If she hadn’t had the elevator installed, it would be the same size.” Our place had two small bedrooms and definitely could not be described as high end. Baths were taken in a huge iron bathtub sitting majestically in the middle of the kitchen. Mom would heat hot water on the gas stove to add to the cold water she had put in earlier. The order of use, on Saturday night, was my father, then my mother, and finally, me. Emptying the tub was a distasteful chore until my parents bought a garden hose to use as a siphon to the postcard-sized rear garden.
Mom could not afford a baby sitter for me until her employment status eventually improved, and she did not get home from work until after 6 pm. Until we moved to the borough of Queens, TanteMalitook turns with the grandmothers to baby sit after I returned from school. She and I attended concerts, cinema, and stage productions. Children under the age of ten for cinema, and sixteen for the other events, were not permitted in those places in the 1940’s, but she was well-known as a patroness of the arts and I was permitted to accompany her.
We explored neighborhoods throughout the city, visited libraries, monuments, and countless bridges, some of whom we crossed on foot, only to take a cab back to our starting point. We watched the long freight trains running the tracks on the east bank of the Hudson. She introduced me to the shopping streets of Madison, Park, and Fifth Avenues. When I visited with her after accompanying either of my grandmothers on exploratory trips, I was expected to give full and detailed reports over coffee and cakes served by her maid. TanteMalidid not believe in tea. Sometimes we would dress up in her furs and jewels and make imaginary visits to the rich and famous with whom she consorted. She had a huge, exquisitely furnished doll house in her living room. Ten or so years ago, just before her own death, Blanche told me it was three stories high, and four feet by five feet in area. She still kept it in her own home.
A life of exploration keeps the brain from expiring.
Thanks to TanteMali, Oma Mausi, and Oma Feld, I gained the courage to follow their lead. I wouldn’t exchange the past learning experiences for any other. It was my personal Renaissance of culture.
Before I expire, I aspire to add a trip to Iceland, where one may stand on where the tectonic poke out of the sea. I will stand where these slowly moving tectonic plates of the Earth as they spread apart at the rate of several centimeters annually. As I place one foot on the European geologic plate and the other on the North American geologic plate, I will slowly sip a glass of wine or two to celebrate science and its marvelous truths, before I reluctantly return to the real world beyond the volcanic plates.