Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bertha Meisler Helfand - Happy 100th Birthday

Denny, Birdie and Vivian - October 28, 2002

Looking back 10 years ago today...

Ten years ago today we celebrated the 90th Birthday of Bertha Meisler Helfand. I don't remember how many of us gathered to celebrate on that day, but I do remember one very special family friend, Vicki Fingerman, making a toast. As Vicki raised a glass she wished Birdie a Happy 90th and said, hopefully, may we all meet together in 10 years to celebrate "your 100th!" I remember looking around the room at the time and we all drank to the toast, but we wondered silently if Vicki's dream would come true. Sadly, today we are not together to celebrate Birdie's 100th, as we said our final good-bye's to Birdie on December 18, 2011, two days after her passing on December 16, 2011. Thankfully, many of her family were together to celebrate her 99th Birthday...and it was great. Joe Cantor, her nephew and my cousin-in-law, said of this 99th Birthday celebration as he recalled it beautifully in his eulogy for his Aunt Bert:
Above all, she loved her family: her parents and siblings, her husband, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  And her whole extended family.  And if she never knew it before, on her 99th birthday, just 2 months ago, she knew just how much her family loved her.

Getting to know Bertha (Birdie, Bertie, Mom, Grandma, Aunt Bert...)

Bertha Meisler came into this world on October 28, 1912. (Although her passport issued in 1973, displays her birth date as October 29, 1912). She was the first child of Jacob and Rose (Drucker - nee) Meisler, both immigrants from Delatyn, a village in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Before World War I it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; between the World Wars, Poland, after World War II, the U.S.S.R, and today, Ukraine. I have no idea if Bertie was born in a hospital or at home.

For whatever reason, I cannot find a record listing our Bertha Meisler on the 1920 Census**; however, I did find her on the 1930 Census. She was 18 and employed as a bookkeeper. By the 1940 Census she was married to Julius Helfand and lived on Trinity Avenue; she was not employed.

Bertie/Birdie and Julius (Julie) were married on March 5, 1938, and shortly thereafter they sailed to Bermuda for their honeymoon. They returned to New York on March 19, 1938, sailing on the Queen of Bermuda. Their first child, Dennis (my husband) was born in 1942, followed by Harvey in 1945, and finally Vivian in 1949. As Vivian wrote in her eulogy for her Mom:
 I thought of the cold winter days we sat at the window watching my brothers play in the snow, while singing songs together.  I remembered in great anticipation watching her fry chicken for a fun day at Jones Beach with all our cousins, aunts, and uncles.  She instilled in me, and it’s one of her greatest legacies, her immense love of cats which has now been, I’m happy to say, passed down to the next two generations.  I remember vividly doing even the ordinary, mundane activities with her – shopping for weekly groceries and going to Tuckmans for socks.  Why were these the things that I remembered first?  Perhaps they spoke of the essence of a mother - what a mother should be to a daughter.  We did so much together and formed a bond from an early age.  I knew that she would do anything for me; I was special to her and she made me feel loved, as it should be.

Birdie, my mother-in-law

I saw an ad the other day on television. It featured people laughing, almost uncontrollably. It made me think of Birdie. For as many times as we "sighed" together and yes "cried" together...what I remember most fondly was just "laughing" together. I think sometimes we would make each other laugh, just because we knew if we looked too closely at a situation it might just bring tears to our eyes. Birdie liked to write. She wrote poems about and for those she loved. She wrote letters...usually to let you know she really was RIGHT about something. I still have some of those LETTERS, but today I came across one poem that she wrote in 2002 which talked about her childhood:
How well I remember the 1920's
in the ledger of my life I can make many entries.
It was fun and learning time
with parents who taught me values
of caring, sharing, honesty, and respect.
Nothing less would they expect.

My fun with friends was playing
store in the "lot"
where weeds and flowers nested
the bees and flies we had to swat!

For one penny Mr. Gersh the Grocer
provided the crepe paper for our show.
Draped around us we danced to and fro.
Fanny's veil made her a beautiful bride.
My cape encouraged me to dance with pride.

We played games of potsie, immies,
hide-and seek and ball.
It was just a wonderful time for all.

Mom was his morning... 

A day or so after Birdie passed away, Denny was talking to one of his first cousins. I listened to the telephone conversation and quietly Denny said "She was my morning..."  It's true, Birdie/Mom was his morning. Every day for probably more than 20 years Denny would call his Mom, just to say "hi!"  But he had one "strict" rule...he only wanted to hear good news, probably because for the most part there was nothing he could do to impact any of the bad news from 500 - 3000 miles away. So they would have their conversations, they would laugh, share memories, and basically just "check-in" with each other.  I miss those conversations...Denny knows I miss those conversations, because every once in a while he will look at me and say "Gee, I haven't heard from my Mom in a few days!" He smiles, I smile...and we move through the day, sans Birdie!

Here you can see a few of my favorite photos of Birdie...she was a classy lady...(if you click on the album, it will get larger).

A few  of my own memories of Birdie - my mother-in-law...

As I close today, I am thinking of many days spent with Birdie. When I first met Birdie it was on the occasion of my wedding to Denny. In those days she liked to have a drink and a cigarette. She also liked to gamble, just a wee bit. She bought lottery tickets and always assured her grandchildren that she would share her winnings. On more than one occasion I went to Atlantic City with her. She once took me via a gambling one-day bus trip from the Bronx. She sort of liked to travel, but always seemed to book a trip with the delayed plane or even once got all the way to our home with a suitcase that belonged to a complete stranger (well, she said "it looked like mine!") We traveled by train a number of times, but her antics on those trips I will have to save for another post. We were once stuck in her car on the George Washington Bridge for 3-4 hours with Daniel and Aaron (so long that vendors were selling drinks and ice-cream to us). She taught me to cook Jewish dishes. She liked to laugh, but she was also a great worrier...she worried enough for all of us. She comforted me when my Father died in 1979 and when my Mother died in 2006. And once, many years ago she shared a secret about her life (something she had in common with my own father).

Today, I learned she also shared that secret with the 1940 Census taker Leo Terragas.  I am thinking now she shared that secret with Mr. Terragas and many years later with me, because as she said about her parents in the poem about her Childhood - learning time with parents who taught me values of caring, sharing, honesty, and respect.

I am forever grateful that I had 33 years with Birdie, 33 years of caring, sharing, honesty, and respect. Happy 100th Birthday to my friend, Bertha Meisler Helfand. 

Care to share your favorite memory of Birdie?

** (10-29-2012)I searched again for the 1920 Census using only Bertha's first name, with parents' first names of Jacob and Rose living in New York City area. I found them. The spelling of the last name was wrong: MINSLER. That is why I was having trouble. They lived at 843 Crimmins Avenue, Bronx, NY. It was an apartment building. 
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