Oh My Papa
"To me he was so wonderful." Remember Eddie Fisher singing that? For most of my life I took my father pretty much for granted. I really believed that he was just like all other fathers and simply doing his job. Now that I am getting on in years and looking back as old folks are wont to do I realize that my father was in fact a gem and most unusual in every way.
He was born in 1888 in Russian city that I think was called Mohliver. He belonged to a group with that name and supposedly all of them had their roots in this same place. Despite all my searching, I have found no information that such a place existed. There are some references to a Rabbi Mohliver but that is all I have been able to find. He did make references to Minsk, so I would guess he was brought up as a child in that area. He came to this country in 1900 and soon went to work for the George James Leather Company in Boston. They would receive the whole cow hide and cut it into small pieces that the shoemaker would use to replace the soles of your shoes. My father was the sorter. He determined what grade the leather was so they could price it accordingly. He only worked there for about 60 years. The family used to kid him about getting a steady job.
I was born after he had been married to my mother Katie, also a gem in a different way, (More on Katie later.) for 25 years. I was not a planned child but the result of some hanky panky on their silver anniversary trip to New York. My mother refused to believe that she was pregnant and thought it was a "milk leg" whatever that was. I heard that she tried every then known method of abortion… lifting heavy objects, washing windows, or just about anything strenuous enough to cause me to abort. I was stubborn even back then and instead came out weighing over twelve and one half pounds. All of my siblings, two brothers and two sisters were all grown up and here comes "Little Jesus" when no one expected him. Of course that was quite a novelty in any family. My father often told of times when he was walking me in my straw carriage when people would come up to him and say "What a lovely grandchild." He took great pride in telling them that I was actually his son.
As I grew up people began to refer to me as his undershirt. I was always with him, wherever he went. He belonged to two Credit unions called aktsyas. They were set up at a time when it was difficult for immigrant Jews to borrow money from regular banks, so people of similar persuasions would pool their money in these aktsyas and borrow at special rates. I bought my first car at the aktsya. One was the Franklin and the other the Mohliver. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, the "undershirt" would accompany his dad to the meetings.
The aktsya wasn't the only place my papa took me to. There wasn't a museum or exhibit that came to Boston that we didn't go to. I doubt that he had an extreme interest in some of these things but he took me everywhere; to the rodeo, Ice-Capades, circus, zoo, aquarium, you name it. I grew up during the war years and there was hardly a time when some WW II ship or submarine was not opened to the public. I went to every one. Perhaps this accounts for my fascination to this day with things relating to that era. As a kid, I naturally took all this as things fathers were supposed to do. It wasn't until many years later that I learned the truth. We had no family automobile back then, so everywhere we went involved taking the streetcar, elevated train or bus. You have no idea how complicated some of these rides were, but nothing would stop my father from exposing me to all that life had to offer the son of a poor Russian immigrant.
During the many hours we spent together we had lots of opportunity to talk. I didn't realize the benefit at the time but I was able to actually relive history with a man that was born in a different century. Oh, had I thought of writing down all he told me or even later recording it. Remember: He was born in 1888. He would tell me excitedly of when they first got electricity in the house by running a wire from a next door neighbor who already had it. He recounted getting one of the first radios with a large horn type loudspeaker and placing it on their front porch so all the neighbors could gather round and hear the Dempsey Tunney fight. Listening to him describe his excitement at seeing his first automobile or describing the wonders of the 1939 Worlds Fair had my young ears perked up for hours. I remember discussing space flight with him. He was certain that the only way we might ever get to the moon was to have a couple on board a space ship bear children who would grow up in time for their arrival there. Remember, it was only short time ago that man had begun to travel over a mile-a-minute! His politics were typical for a Russian immigrant during and just after the great depression. He was active in many socialist causes, and had Communist Party people visiting at our house. My mother had great concerns about this but from his perspective they had the answers. He was an atheist. Tough growing up in a strictly Kosher home with a father who is an atheist. Although Michael Sochin was not a well-educated man... he did get a high-school equivalent diploma at night school... I hardly ever remember him not having a book or newspaper in his hands. He had the most inquiring mind of anyone I had ever met. Sorry to say, I have inherited that same inquisitiveness. It drives people nuts sometimes. He also had simple but honest answers to the questions that a 5 or 6 year old might ask. I remember asking him once back in the 1940's what the difference was between the Democrats and the Republicans. His answer; "The Democrats are for the poor and the Republicans for the rich." I could hardly argue with that today.
My Bar Mitzvah
Back in 1949 when I was Bar Mitzvah'd at the traditional age of thirteen, females were not given the privilege. As a matter of fact most synagogues did not allow females to sit in the same part of the sanctuary as the men. The only explanation I ever received for this is that it would be too distracting for the men who were concentrating on davening or praying. We were poor people back then although I and most of my peers didn't know it. Compared to the lavish spectacles that today's Bar Mitzvahs have become, mine was small potatoes. It took place in the Young Israel synagogue on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, a suburb of Boston known to the Jews who lived there as the Ghetto.
I took the traditional Bar Mitzvah lessons from a rabbi at the Beth Hillel Hebrew School on Morton Street in Dorchester where I learned to lay tefilin., the little boxes that you wrap around your arm and forehead when you pray each day. Yeah sure! I also learned my haftara, the prayers I would recite during the ceremony. In that era it was expected that the Bar Mitzvah boy would give a speech at the end of the official ceremony. The people in attendance are usually bored stiff by all this nonsense and attend mostly out of respect to the families involved. The other little boy who was Bar Mitzvah'd at the same time that I was delivered his boring speech, I was a "ham" even back then and although I had not prepared an official speech, I asked the rabbi if I could at least say a few words. I thanked every one for attending and wished them all a gut shabbat or good Sabbath holy day. The crowd, expecting another long boring speech immediately applauded, something never done in a shul or temple.
The Bar Mitzvah party was at my house on 25 Bradlee Street, in Dorchester. All of the family and friends in range were invited. The food my mother so carefully laid out was gone with the first rush of guests. One of my older brothers, seeing this horrible but absolutely normal display of bad manners, immediately got drunk and went to bed. My father knowing that he could not afford the huge party that some of our wealthier friends were able to stage decided instead to take me to New York City as a special gift. Believe me, in those days of trolley rides, a trip to New York was like going to another world. I actually got to fly in an airplane, a DC-3, that in itself was a major treat. We stayed at the Edison Hotel, another treat, and began the most exciting three days a young boy could imagine. We went to the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building, rode in the subways of New York and even went to Coney Island. I got to try just about every ride and eat at virtually every food stand that they had there. I still look at the movies that we took and remember the excitement that only a 13-year-old could feel. Many years later, I was able to repeat most of what we did with my own son. I think he enjoyed it almost as much as I did those many years later. At the end of the day he asked permission to go down to the street from my niece's apartment where we were staying, He came back later with a gift for me; A T-shirt with "Super-Dad" written on it. Tears still come to my eyes whenever I think of it. He even told me that he would someday do that with his son. I believe him!
During my growing up years my father never owned an automobile. As I said previously, everywhere that we went was by streetcar or subway. I had heard that my father at one time owned a Model T Ford and later a Model A. The story told is that on one trip with my father traveling along with my his nephew and his car, managed to roll the Model A over. Apparently no one was injured but that ended, for the time being, his driving or owning an automobile. When I was approaching the age of sixteen my dad realized that a boy my age in that era needed a car. One day we went together by bus looking to buy one. We ran across one of the people that worked in the same factory as my dad and he told of a beauty that was for sale nearby. We saw this beautiful 1946 Chrysler Windsor and arranged to buy it. My father had to cash in one of his life insurance policies to pay for it. I didn't even have my driver's license yet. I drove as a learner on my father's license, which he had continued to renew all these years. As it was the only car in the family it was my job to take my parents wherever they needed to go. Of course driving was still enough of a novelty that I didn't mind doing this. Any excuse to get behind the wheel. Eventually that grew old. One evening after I had gone to bed my parents called me to pick them up at a friends house. The buses to our house had stopped running at that late hour. My response; "Take a cab!" I eventually compromised by having them take the streetcar as far as it went and I picked them up from that location. That was one of the few times that I ever remember my father disciplining me. He grounded me…actually took the keys away! He then decided that he was going to begin driving again at age 66. I was with him when he approached his first traffic circle or rotary as they were called in Massachusetts. He panicked and turned the wheel over to me. I became a better person after that and took them wherever they needed to go. When I got out of the service I decided to show off a bit and bought a two-seater Ford Thunderbird. Picture me trying to force my two aging parents into this beautiful little sports car. The guilt eventually got to me and as much as I loved that car, I replaced it with a 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible. Still not the best choice but at least they could fit in the car
When I was about six or seven years old my father came home one night lugging two huge cartons. Now that I look back on that day, I wonder how he managed to drag them through the subway and streetcar that he used to get home and then carry them to the top of this huge hill we lived on; Goodale Road in the Mattapan suburb of Boston.
When he finally opened the boxes it turned out to be the most magnificent set of American Flyer Electric trains I had ever seen. It had a coal-tender that made the sound of a steam engine, a car that had a ramp that discharged a little armored car if it stopped at a certain place on the tracks, a coal car with miniature coal that also dumped its load on command on a given track, switch tracks and everything a 6 year old could imagine
Those trains created a bond between me and my father that lasted many years. My father would create the scenery and backgrounds and I would do all the electrical wiring necessary for the trains to run and the many accessories to perform. As we moved from house to house and cellar to attic, we would re-do the layout and improve it each time. We spent literally thousands of hours together with these trains. All this time I assumed that all other kids were doing the same. Little did I know. I tried repeating this with my own son, but unfortunately he showed little interest. I learned years later that my daughter would have loved playing with the trains, but who back then thought girls were supposed to like electric trains.
My father encouraged every interest that I had. When I decided to become a great musician he paid for my clarinet lessons. I later took drum lessons on my own. Both were disasters as far as a career in music. I learned this abruptly one time at the Laurels Country Club in upstate New York. I had the great opportunity to sit in for a drummer who didn't show up for work. I was on cloud nine until I heard the bass player behind me say "This guy sucks!" That pretty much ended my musical career. The fact that my dear mother was subjected to my constant banging of the drums in my living room might have contributed also. A little Jewish guilt goes a long way.
Later, at the age of 14, I took an interest in Ham radio. My father went with me by bus and trolley to visit other hams in the area so that I could learn more about this fascinating hobby. He got to know these fellow hams even better than I did although I am sure he understood little of what I was doing. They all seemed to like him. He did buy me the equipment that I needed to pursue this new hobby, which lead to the career in electronics that I have maintained all these years. He built a 'ham shack' in our basement that allowed me privacy, heat in winter, and all the shelves and desk space necessary for all my equipment. What a great place that was!
I didn't really appreciate my gem of a mother until I went into the service. The first time that I tried to put on a clean pair of under-shorts and there weren't any, I panicked. I asked one of my bunkmates what to do and he told me to take my dirty clothes down to where the washing machines were and wash them. I had never used one of these devices before and suddenly realized that all these years my mother had been doing it for me without me so much as noticing. I also had to learn to make a bed; something else I had never done. As these thoughts slowly began to sink in I remembered that for most of my childhood years my mother didn't even have a washing machine and did this all with a washboard over the sink. Even when we finally got a washing machine, the dryer didn't come along until years later. My mother hung all the washed clothes out to dry, regardless of weather or how cold it might be outside. She did this at the same time that she prepared the daily meals which were fresh cooked every single day. People didn't go out to eat several nights a week back then. That was saved for special occasions and holidays; maybe three or four times a year. She went shopping several times a week on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan. There was no such thing as a supermarket at that time. There was instead a butcher shop, fish market, fruit and vegetable stand, bakery etc. She would gather all her supplies and then lug them to the top of the hill that we lived on and then carry them up the three flights of stairs to reach our apartment which was on the first floor. The house was built on the side of a hill. She would then walk all the way to the rear in order to use the back door entrance. For some reason the front door was reserved for company and special occasions. The same went for the living room and dining room. They were closed off except for the Jewish holidays or when we had special company. This saved some cleaning time for my mother as well as some fuel costs as we were able to turn of the steam radiators in those rooms when they were not being used. The choice place for entertaining guests was the kitchen. No, we didn't have a cleaning lady. My mother was it. Food freezers were unheard of in private homes so the shopping routine had to be repeated over and over if we wanted fresh food on the table.
I think that my mother's main goal in life was to see me get married. I was the last of five siblings and she was getting older. We never knew exactly how old she was or her real birthday. Somehow this got lost on the way from Minsk or Pinsk. I do know that she worked in a Fanny Farmer chocolate factory before she met my dad. Funny because years later I worked for a conglomerate that owned Fanny Farmer. Her urgency about my getting married was exemplified when each Thursday she would hand me the Jewish Advocate newspaper and show me the weekly list of Jewish girls that had become engaged. She seemed to think that there was a limited quantity of Jewish girls available and that if I didn't find one soon, I would be out of luck. It didn't help that I dated many non-Jewish girls at the time. On one occasion when my folks were leaving for one of their few Florida vacations that my brother paid for, I got a call from a girl that I was seeing at the time Gail Ferguson. She just had to see me that evening. I took her with me when I drove my folks to the airport. As soon as my mother arrived in Miami, she immediately called my sister who lived upstairs in our two-decker house, to make sure that things weren't getting too serious between us. She tried to put the word out at the local butcher and grocery store that I needed a nice Jewish girl. Of course there weren't too many responses for a nerd who needed his mother to solicit dates for him. I knew that she was getting desperate when she returned from a short hospital stay and told me that she had met a nice girl for me, a nurse at the hospital; Mary McLaughlin. That was it. I decided it was time to seek out a mate. I have been married to her for over 40 years now.
When we got married my mother gave us $200.00 which she had somehow managed to squirrel away in her little jars where she kept her money. We didn't have checking and savings accounts then and $200.00 might just as well have been $200,000 to her. It meant that much to us.
A lesson to be learned:
Prior to getting married I made it a habit to check in with my mother several times a week. Once I became a big shot married man, I no longer felt it necessary. I was brought up short one day when my dear mother called me at work and said "Just because you are married now doesn't mean that I am not still your mother". After some teary-eyed moments, I realized what a jerk I had been. Let that be a lesson to you young folks reading this.
After my first child was born, I think my mother had reached her goals in life and passed away shortly thereafter. I recall visiting her in her hospital bed shortly before she died. She was troubled by the fact that I was visiting her so often because I had to cross over the Mystic River Bridge to get to the hospital and the toll was 10 cents each way. She would keep two dimes on her night table and try to give them to me each time I visited.
I don't think they make mothers like that anymore.
My father passed away a few years later. After being married to this lady for over 60 years, he simply could not adjust to life without her. He would sit by a window in the front of the house all day long smoking his 4-packs-a-day of unfiltered Pall Malls. By this time my family and I had moved to Florida. He came to visit us once and I tried as hard as I could to convince him to stay. He went to a function on Miami Beach with an old friend of his from Boston a Mr., Davis. When I went to pick him up at the function, several old women had latched on to him asking him if he was married etc. I should have such luck when I am 83 years old. He returned to Boston and when I next visited him about a year later I was appalled at what I saw. For whatever reason, those living close to him at the time had totally neglected this fine man. His bed was soiled, as was the chair in his bedroom. The food in the refrigerator was beyond spoiled. He hadn't had a bath in some time and his finger and toe nails had grown to the point that they had begun to curve around his toes and fingers. I was heartbroken. He admitted to me that he was afraid of getting into the tub by himself. I stripped down and carried him into the tub and bathed him. Then I cut his nails and cleaned out the refrigerator, My wife and I went to a store and bought him a new mattress and bedding and discarded the horrible mess that he had been sleeping on. While I was cutting his nails, he asked me quite sincerely why I was doing all this for him. How could I even begin to answer? I reminded him of our trip to New York some thirty years ago. I had to try hard not to cry as I am doing as I write this. That was the last time I actually saw him. The tears are just pouring all over my keyboard as I type
This wonderful man could not understand why I would bother to spend time caring for him after all he had done for me.
Oh my papa; To me he was so wonderful!!!
What they generated.
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