Tanta not Tonto... and Uncle Jack (Part I)


Although we were four generations of German Americans in the Thatford Avenue house, our mother- tongue faded with each new child speaking more American English than Deutsch.  The only German I heard was from Grandma Rose's friends who sat on kitchen chairs brought down to the front porch.  There, shaded from the damp July heat, they shucked corn, peeled carrots or shelled summer peas without missing a bit of gossip.  My job was to gather the empty pea pods from the big wooden bowl onto a sheet of newspaper.

Even while Grandma laughed along with Mrs. Rosenhaus and Mrs. Berlin, I knew she was as clueless as I was when their stories ended in a stream of guttural German.  There were only a handful of German words we used; schweinhund (pig-dog)- an insult, sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and tanta (aunt).  Of these 3, tanta was usually in the conversation--as well as in our house.

Aunt Bess, called Tanta, was grandma's oldest sister.  By the time I knew the woman who entered our home like a wintry gust bellowing complaints to her younger sister, she was white haired and pale cheeked.  Her bright blue eyes were more startling than alluring as they seemed misplaced in the whiteness of her other features.  After a timid hug and kiss, I escaped to the safety of my neighborhood friends.  Staying home would mean verbal abuse as my great aunt would list my flaws in the abstract: “She still has her baby-fat.  When is she going to lose that belly? Why isn’t she riding a 2 wheeler yet?”  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned she loved me.  

Tanta and Grandma, along with their brothers and baby sister grew up in New York's most impoverished slums, were sent to an orphanage after the death of their father- until rescued by their deaf and mute mother, only to continue their lives in poverty.  The brothers married quietly, raised their families and played by society’s rules.  The sisters preferred life on the wild side, and if memory serves, they collectively had 8 husbands:

Tanta chalked up the most—even without counting the one she called spouse (although there wasn’t any paperwork).  

At weddings and wakes, I’d see Tanta’s first husband; the father of her children.  He’d pat my head, offer a smile and ask for the hundredth time, “You’re Rosie’s oldest grandchild—right?”  It was Tanta’s final husband, my Uncle Jack whom I loved.  We all loved him-he was the most child-friendly, child-safe grown-up I have ever known.

If Tanta’s features could be re-created, it would be in clouds or snowy goose down.  Uncle Jack would need coal dust mixed with barb-wire.  He was as simian as a human could look without being mistaken for a museum Neanderthal, and yet, none of us thought he was ugly.  Muscular from working as a trucker, he knew all the circuitous routes to avoid the city’s toll roads and bridges--making him invaluable before our yearly upstate pilgrimages.  He also provided occasional luxuries that somehow didn’t make their way to their destinations, but instead, “fell off the truck.” 

One frigid December afternoon, Grandma, Mom and I were summoned to Tanta and Uncle Jack’s.  This was a momentous family event, since Tanta preferred glowing floors and plastic jacketed furniture to company. 

We arrived to find their tiny apartment packed with grandchildren from two familiesTogether, we circled a towering cardboard packing box.  Inside were toys; Betsy-Wetsy dolls, Daisy toy rifles, enough stuffed animals to recreate a toy zoo, street skates, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. I dived in along with my cousins (both blood related and not), sampling each before making my choices. 

After the women escaped to the kitchen and the cousins and I found a play space under the dining room table, Uncle Jack returned to the quiet of his favorite front room chair.

I was still an only child then who easily grew antsy in crowds.  I took a least-liked toy back to the cardboard treasure chest. “You don’t like that one?”  Uncle Jack asked as I entered.  “Don’t worry, plenty more.  Take whatever you want.”  After a careful selection of a stuffed pink poodle, I noticed Jack had his wallet opened and was staring intently at a worn photo.  “Want to see a pretty lady?”  He invited.  I climbed up on his lap to share a look at a 1920’s flapper with bobbed black hair and happy smile.  “She was my wife-my first wife.  She died a long time ago.”      

I remember everything about that afternoon-the leaden winter sky outside the windows, the rose and vine pattern on the stuffed chairs, Uncle Jack’s wistful expression, but most of all, I remember being honored.  A grown-up had shared something important with me-just me.

 End of Part I