What Little Girls Are Made Of

Me and my Cousin Joyce 1944

In the beginning, my mother knew I was very different. When I was 3 or 4 I didn’t want to play with dolls. I don’t know what I played with in the crib, but there were probably mobiles and I was able to just play with those, and my toes. Maybe that’s why I wear a size 11 now.

By the time I was 7 I still didn’t want to play with dolls. Instead I wrote a family newspaper. That was something that really upset my mother. Not the newspaper, just my lack of interest in doll playing. It really upset her around the holidays.

My mother’s boss, Mr. Edward P. Fitzgerald, was the owner of a textile firm that did advertising for fabrics. My mother was the manager. He was an alcoholic and addicted to horses and betting and stuff. Anyway, he and my mother and I went to…I’m not sure if it was Bergdorf’s… or Macy’s… or one of the large department stores…I think it was the higher end, so probably Bergdorf’s. Or Gimbels.

We arrived at the store and there was Mr. Fitzgerald. He was very dapper in a tailored suit and hat. People called him “Dapper Dan the Salesman”. My mother and he said polite hellos and then he stooped over to talk to me. He held my hand and I held my nose. Whiskey’s never been my favorite. He said, “Judy, anything you want in this store is yours. So go and see what you want. When you are ready, just let me know and I’ll go and pay for everything.” And I said, “Fine.” It sounded good to me. My mother quickly whispered, “Say thank you!”. So I did and off we went.

My mother hustled me through the revolving doors. Out of earshot of Mr. Fitzgerald,  my she took me to the side and said, “ Judy, don’t get too much!” She looked at me very sternly. I knew what I wanted. “Don’t worry, Mommy.” I smiled a big phone smile.

In a flash I was gone. Back then in department stores, the lights glimmered on the high up ceilings. Holiday music rang in the air and the smell of perfume wafted over me as I hurried down the busy aisles. I needed directions. I made a bee line for a sales woman behind a perfume counter. Chanel, of course.

I said,” Hi! I’m looking for the book department. Can you tell where it is?” She looked at me and her eyes darted briefly, looking for a parent probably. My mother was somewhere else on the floor shopping.  After a brief pause she said, “It’s on the 3rd floor, honey.”

“Thanks!” I was excited to take an elevator. At home we lived in walk-ups, so an elevator was a treat!  When I arrived in front of the elevator doors, other people were already waiting. Ding! The doors opened and a tall man with a buttoned up uniform seemed to run things. I stepped onto the crowded elevator.

“What floor you going to, little girl?” He looked down at me.

“Three,” I said with confidence and  the door slammed shut. My stomach dropped as we leapt from the lobby upwards.

Ding! “Third floor.” I stepped off and the doors slammed behind me. There before me was rows of books. I was thrilled. A woman standing at a register looked bored.

“Can you tell me where the children’s section is?”  She had a short brown tight perm and a bland face. Her clothes hung on her like she needed a sandwich. She lifted her wimpy arm and pointed, “Over there”.

I ran to the far end of the store.  An empty cart with wheels was against one of the shelves. I planned on getting a lot of books. I looked for the Bobsey Twins and dumped them into the cart. The Girl of the Limber Lost was a book I’d been dying to read. A story about a girl who not only had butterflies, but she began a business catching and selling butterflies.  She was also 7 years old and a young business woman, just like me…or at least I had hopes to be.

My mother cringed when I rounded the corner panting with a cart full of books. Mr. Fitzgerald paid for them and his driver took us home. We sat in silence for a bit and then she smiled at me and said, “Well, you want what you want! Most girls want dolls. My daughter want’s books.” My mother liked to compare me to what other girls in the family were doing. Years later when I was 20, I had appendicitis and she said, “Everyone else daughters are getting married and mine is getting sick!”

She was right. How else was I going to be a business woman?

The next time, about a year later, my mother managed to get my cousin Joyce who is 3 years younger than me included in this deal. And so Mr. Fitzgerald let us both go into the department store and get whatever we wanted.

Immediately my cousin went to the toy department, to get a doll of course!  This time my mother bent over and looked me right in the eye and said, “You WILL get a doll today.”

So I got a doll and a baby carriage, which was the other requirement she had. And then I went to the books. And I got some more books. And I read them all.

My mother knew I was very different because I didn’t go for the dolls. But I did get that one doll and that one carriage, but I never touched it. One day my mother got very upset. So she said, “You’ve never walked the doll!” So just to appease her I walked the doll around the block once, then. And never again did I do it. And she never asked me to do it again.

I think she really realized that I was a strong personality and she could appreciate it because I really took after her. I was more independent and I don’t think she ever wanted to squash that.

The First and Last Tap Dance

mv0IxkEZGaZgcr6Wx9gIsFAWe were in the Catskills again.  My family and I went every summer for two weeks. We stayed at a hotel in what was called “The Borscht Belt” at the time. The Borscht Belt was a string of hotels where a lot of Jewish people vacationed. We stayed in the hotel, but some people stayed in the little cabins peppered around the grounds. They were call Cooch Aleins, which means “cook alone”.

Once a week, on Saturday nights, the hotel had a talent night. The performers were mostly the kids who were staying there with their parents. They were kids with money who took lessons like piano and dance. So they had something to show off in the talent show. At this point I hadn’t taken piano yet, so I really didn’t have  a talent to perform. But my mother didn’t think that was a good excuse. She believed I could do anything I set my mind to. This philosophy served me my whole life, but at this talent show I wasn’t so sure.

“Get up there and tap dance, Judy” My mother looked at me with a matter of fact stare.

“Mom, I don’t know how to tap dance” I couldn’t believe she wanted me to do this. Dancing was never my thing, comedy was. I quickly said,  “I can sing Tanda Wanda Hoy Konica La” I loved Jerry Lewis. She said, “No Judy, I want you to tap dance.” and that was that.

Next, I got up from my seat and walked up to the make-shift platform stage. The nasal sounds of the singer before me were quickly muted by the terrified thumps of my heart. Oscar, the creepy Maitre-D stood by the stage to take names of amateur performers as they nervously approached the stage.

I said, “I’m going to tap dance.” Oscar looked down at me with his shiny bald head.

“What song would you like us to play for you?” I quickly scrolled through the limited list of songs I knew in my 9 years of life experience. I remembered a song we sang at school in the auditorium.

“East Side/West Side, please”

Before I knew it, Oscar whispered something to the piano player and a rumbling introduction began on the piano. Suddenly it was time, and I hopped up on the stage in my special dress and Mary Janes. I looked out to the audience and there was my mother.  As I looked at her sweetly determined face,  just like that I began to dance.

I don’t know how I did, except that I was still alive after this performance and I didn’t win the competition. My mother never mentioned it again.

Speaking of competitions, I attended a beauty contest on the roof of the Educational Alliance.  My cousin, Joyce, who is 3 years younger than I,  had entered the contest. Rather her mother signed her up, my Aunt Frida. I was 6 and she was 3.

My whole family my uncle Jack, my Aunt Blossom, my Uncle Larry, my Aunt Ruth, my Grandmother Lil, my Grandfather Tom, my Auntie Lil (she insisted on the Auntie because as she put my nose to the ground and said she didn’t look like one of those “ants”) was there clapping & stomping for her. So was I.  She won the contest and my Aunt Frida never stopped calling Joyce the beauty of the family. I on the other hand was called the “the John L. Lewis” of the family due to my thick eyebrows. But thats ok, because in my experience, beauty fades but eyebrows just keep growing.