DATE: Autumn 1972
SETTING: Upper West Side, New York City
SCENE: Martin - film school senior at Columbia - making a weekly visit to his two 80 year old great aunts
"Now Martin.” Aunt Judith folds her hands on her lap. “You just turned twenty-one, which is a wonderful milestone. You've had some time to sow those wild oats…"
I thought we’d covered this topic for today. "Are you giving me a 'birds and bees' talk? Because, I kind of think I'm up to speed on that stuff…"
"Oh, yes," Aunt Meredith says, "we made sure Billy took care of that when you first moved to New York. You know we love your mom to death; but she is kind of a prude and so is her mother. Bless her; we weren't sure she was up to the task."
"Yeah, ok. Uncle Billy was quite clear on all that…education." Talking sex with the Aunties is always a treat. "And you're right, Mom wasn't. What Dad said on that topic was usually slurred, crude and frankly didn't apply to me…anatomically…so much."
Uncle Billy, on the other hand, had taken my 'education' quite seriously when I arrived fresh off the farm. He also supervised my first (and only) drunk and hangover experience.
"You're a long way from Kansas, my dear; or Iowa or whatever wasteland you're from." Aunt Judith sets her teacup on the coffee table. "No, dear. We want to give you your birthday present! But first, there’s a story to tell about our family."
Aunt Meredith takes Aunt Judith's hand and gives it a squeeze.
Aunt Judith continues. "This goes back; way back to when we were about your age. Merrie got married to your grandmother's and my brother, Harrold; and I was so excited to have my best chum as a sister-in-law. Harrold had a friend at the firehouse who seemed pretty good to me, so I married Dwight a year later."
"When was this?" I ask, nibbling another cookie.
"1909 for me," Aunt Meredith answers, "and 1910 for her."
"God that was a long time ago. No offense."
"Yes, it was.” Aunt Judy waggles her eyebrows to demonstrate how cute she still is. “Our husbands had good jobs. Dwight and I lived in the Bronx…"
"Harrold was able to buy this place because he'd been with the firehouse for a few years by then. We moved in just after Sarah was born. It wasn't pricy like it is now. Even then, this place was considered an older home. Now it's an antique!" Aunt Meredith mimes the ‘upper crust’ with a raised pinky and a wink at me.
They both take a deep breath. Again, they squeeze hands. Aunt Judith nods to Meredith.
"So March of 1911 rolled around. I had planted a garden and some grass for Sarah to play on. Life was pretty good. Jude was almost due with Harrold Jr., and I was pregnant with Billy, but I didn't know it then."
“We had both started our families before we were twenty-one, didn’t we?” Judith directs the question to Meredith, but her eye is on me. I shrug and pretend her innuendo is over my head.
Aunt Judith sighs. "Every wife of a police officer or fireman knows that the day could come. The day when the chief comes knocking on your door - still covered in soot and ashes, his crash helmet held down at his belt buckle…"
"I'll never forget how Chief O'Reilly smelled, standing there on the stoop." Aunt Meredith tilts her head towards the front door. "I quit cigarettes that day - couldn't stand the smell of smoke for years."
"The fire…that’s what I'm getting to," said Aunt Judith. "Now don't get all teary-eyed, Marty. I'm not telling you this story to be sad about news a half-century old. You've got a tender heart – I'm sorry. We loved our husbands, but… that was a long time ago."
I knew the family history, of course, but had never heard it told by the Aunties. I wipe my eyes and try to smile. They both smile back at me.
"Go on, Jude, get back to the fire."
"Right. So the fire was at a large shirt manufacturer in Midtown - they didn't call it the Garment District yet. It was the Diamond Shirtwaist Factory. A horrible tragedy. This was back in the days when women, mostly girls, were locked into the sweatshops. They were on the top floors of a ten story building."
Aunt Meredith adds, "Over a hundred and fifty people died. Most of them because they were trapped; some even jumped out the windows. Only a few made it out alive. And our husbands, Dwight and Harrold, did their best to save 'em."
Aunt Judith nods solemnly.
"After the fire, probably two months later, the city had a big ceremony downtown. They had Meredith and me up on the stage with all the mucky-mucks. We were the only firemen widows on that fire, but several men had been injured – we all lined up across the stage.”
I love how the Aunties tell stories and I am visualizing it in Technicolor. In the back of my mind, I’m already writing the movie script.
“We both had babies in arms; everybody was crying - even Chief O'Reilly. They gave the boys awards and honors; pledged to take care of us and the three kids. Which they did, even during the depression!"
"Still do.” Meredith waggles her finger at Judith to get on with the story. Apparently her favorite part is coming up. “Then one of the survivors…"
"Right. An immigrant, Elisa Zoransk – I'll never forget her name… We called her Betty."
"She got up with the senator; made a passionate speech, about how bad the working conditions were while the senator vowed to pass safety laws, which he did before I let him get re-elected!"
Oh, yeah, Aunty Meredith picketed for fair working conditions, too.
"After the official folderol, Betty went around to each and every injured fireman, and Merrie and me, to thank us personally for saving her and the other girls who made it out."
"Now, she was poor, you could see that. She was working in the sweatshop," Aunt Meredith says. "Didn't have two pennies to rub together. But she wanted to give us something…"