The Ladies Auxiliary
My grandmother and the terribly hot summer in Brooklyn.
She turns to me, her blue eyes faded, the petal soft skin of her cheeks, deeply lined. She smells like Oil of Olay lotion, the pink kind. In the overstuffed chair, she is tiny and her shoulders are bent with the weight of the years. The hands that once were busy are idle and tremble with old age. It’s only now, at the end, that she has begun to tell us her stories. So we should know and not forget.
“I ever said for you the story about the Feigenbaums and the air conditioner?” she asks. I shake my head, no.
My grandmother looks far backward in time to when she was a young woman. Her eyes sharpen and for a moment I can see how she was then – busy, purposeful and full of life.
“Well,” she says leaning forward, “we were living in Brooklyn then and it was a hot summer. A terrible, hot summer. And we weren’t rich, not at all, but your Zaidy, he worked hard and we had an air conditioner. One big air conditioner, and in the evenings we’d sit around it, with the boys, to cool off. Those days, there wasn’t no central air, you know.
That summer was the worst. So hot like it should be for the Nazis where they burn. Ptuy!
"Anyway, we had one, but the Feigenbaums, they didn’t. They didn’t have nothing! Well, I shouldn’t say nothing. They did have eight kids squeezed into that little apartment, like sardines, maybe. And poor Mrs. Feigenbaum, she always looked so nervous! I don’t know from what. But anyway, that summer was the worst. So hot like it should be for the Nazis where they burn. Ptuy! So hot, and all of them together in that little house. Their baby, he cried all night. Every night, screaming his head off from the heat. And it hurt me so to hear it! Sometimes I cried along with him, the poor little thing.
"So one night, I couldn’t take it no more. And I said to your Zaidy, 'Willy! Wake up!'
"He jumped up real fast in the bed. 'What? What happened?' he said.
“'I want we should buy for the Feigenbaums an air conditioner.'
“'An air conditioner, so they shouldn’t be so hot.' Then I said it soft, 'Please, Willy.'
"You know he was a mensch, your Zaidy, and always he had a soft heart for the children. So, he worked hard? Nu, so he’d work a little harder. Next day, he said that by Friday he could have for me the money to buy for the Feigenbaums an air conditioner. I was so happy I baked him a dobos torte for supper.
"Finally on Friday, before Shabbos, he comes home, your Zaidy, and he gives me the money. But it’s Friday, before Shabbos and there’s nothing I can do. I have to wait until Sunday for the stores to open. And when Sunday came, I went with Zaidy to old Mr. Katzenstein’s store on 14th Avenue, to buy for the Feigenbaums an air conditioner. Now, Mr. Katzenstein, he knew your Zaidy good, from back home. So he made for him a real deal.
"Let me tell you, by the time we come home, was already late and I wanted I should put the boys to bed. So the air conditioner, it had to wait in its box on the floor. Next morning, after the boys go to school, I shove the air conditioner box to the door and down the steps to the outside. I know. Is hard to believe because now I’m small, but back then I was at least five feet, maybe even five foot one, and I had good, strong arms. So I took a big breath and I push the box over next door, to the house where the Feigenbaums live. Then slowly, I push that farshtinkene box up the stairs. One step. Two. Gott in Himmel, it was heavy! I thought for sure, I should have a heart attack. You should know it was 18 steps up to the second floor! And, halfway up, was maybe the tenth step or maybe 11, all of a sudden I realize: What I’m gonna do when she opens the door, Mrs. Feigenbaum? What am I gonna say for her? I bought for you an air conditioner? Can’t be! She’ll be farshamed and my fault! Oy! I’m a dumkopf. I don’t know what I should do! But I said for myself, Irene, just go up the stairs. You’ll figure for yourself something.
"So, slow, slow, shvitzing and shlepping, I get up the stairs. So much pushing I did, I think I should have a baby! Finally I get to the top and I lean on the box a little to catch my breath, you know? Then I knock on the door, hard.
"Mrs. Feigenbaum calls out, 'Who is it?' and I said, 'It’s me, Irene Moskovitz.' A minute, and she opens the door.
“'Oh, Hello, Mrs. Moskovitz,' she says, and she looks at me and then she looks at the box. So I say, 'Hello, Mrs. Feigenbaum, and congratulations!' Then I smiled at her big. 'I brought for you the air conditioner that you won.'
“'The air conditioner that I won?’ she says, real confused.
“'Yes! The air conditioner that you won!' I said.
“'From who did I win an air conditioner?' she asks.
“'From the Ladies Auxiliary!'”
My grandmother turns to me. “Mamala, do you know who was the Ladies Auxiliary? I was the Ladies Auxiliary!”
Then she leans back in the chair and smiles. I smile too.