Driving Louella — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Thanks to the editors at the Jerusalem Report for permitting me to post this before the current issue reaches subscribers, so that you can read this story before Pesach.

This is the story I tell my family every Seder night.

When I was about two years old, soon after my little brother Saul was born, my mother fell ill and was hospitalized for a time. My father, then covering City Hall for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, couldn’t handle a toddler and a baby on his own.

illustration by Avi Katz
My memories of that time are fuzzy around the edges, pervaded by a soft light like an ambient dawn. But they are real impressions of a time when I was journeying into consciousness, not long after I learned to talk, to turn feelings into words. In them my gaze is always directed upward, for nearly everything is bigger than me. Our modest suburban ranch house thus remains huge in my minds eye, centered on an endless corridor that had to be crossed to get from my bedroom to Mommy’s and Daddy’s, and to be run down to escape into the light of our living room with its wall-sized picture window. A troop of monsters, led by a sour-smelling pig, lived in a cavity in the corridor’s wall. At night they threatened to devour me.

Daddy needed a live-in nanny for us. In the late 1950s, in Cleveland, this meant a black woman from downtown. A series of matrons in long skirts and aprons made an appearance and then vanished. Sally said we were too noisy, Emma that we lived too far out. Cynthia simply stopped coming, without prior notice. In a dream from that time a dozen of them enter and leave the house in a line, like models on a fashion show runway.

Then Louella came and stayed. Dark, broad, taciturn, and creased, she was stern when that was required but smiled easily. She was very old, older than my grandmothers. She had sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes she’d bring one of them, a Joe or a Lloyd, to unplug a pipe or fix a fixture. She told us that her parents had been slaves in the south. She slept in the house’s third bedroom, which served during the day as a playroom for my brother and me.

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Aunt Bernice–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My earliest memory: I am in the kitchen of our ranch house in Euclid, Ohio on a hot summer afternoon. My Aunt Bernice, wearing the largest, warmest, smile in my entire universe, has driven her snazzy scarlet and pearl-white Nash Metropolitan convertible over for a visit. She and my mother look remarkably alike, sitting with their coffee at the round aqua Formica tale. Both are dark-haired, slim, smooth-skinned, and exude the same mixture of intelligence and exuberance. People often mistake them for sisters, even if it’s my father whom Aunt Bernice is sister to.

I must be well under the age of three, because my brother Saul, only a year and a half younger, is not in this scene—he must have still been an infant. It is the Age of Aunts. Aunts are constantly dropping by, fussing over me, having us over. Sometimes they all come at once, not just my own, but also the greats, alluring Aunt Doris, solid and dependable Aunt Mary, wisecracking Aunt Lil, all of them surrogate parents to my mother, whose father died just before she reached adolescence. In the summers they cook up huge, incredible meals that we eat in a back yard bounded by a flowerbed on either side and a row of poplars in the back.

Aunt Bernice is a lot of fun. She takes me and my brother for whirls in her two-seater with the roof down. She lives in an apartment with a turret and a bed that swings down from behind a closet door and owns a bright red wooden babushka apple with another apple inside it and another down to one the size of my fingernail.

She always brings presents. This time she has something new. There’s the rustle of a paper bag from which she draws a thing that looks sort of like one of the trees out back. She holds it from the trunk end and instead of branches and leaves it has a shiny black-and-white surface that refracts the sunrays streaming in through the open back door. She holds it out to me,

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