She married when I was 7 years old, breaking my heart. More a mother to me than my mother, she was not only leaving home, but moving with her new husband to Boston--which for me was some vague place as far-away as the moon. She said I would visit her, she said it would be the same, she said we would still be close. But even at the age of 7, I knew better. She would have her own children and a different life. I couldn't stop weeping.
Born in 1894 she was placed with her sisters--my mother, Florence, and Mabel--in The Jewish Orphan Home in Cleveland, Ohio. Florence was 3, Lily 4 and Mabel, 6. Separated from her sisters, she was shorn and scrubbed in a scalding- hot pool, put into a dress that itched summer and winter and assigned a bed in the dormitory. Awakened at 5:45 every morning and called by her row to the washroom, she saw twenty faucets which shot ice cold water. Breakfast was a kind of gruel without milk or sugar, stale coffee, a slice of bread covered lightly with margarine.
She worked in the kitchen, dormitory, and laundry, sweeping, scrubbing, washing, ironing. Carefully prepared along with the other girls to be a wife and mother and, if unmarried, a domestic servant. She was warned against being a stenographer or saleslady where temptation and corruption lurked to lead her astray.
So Aunt Lily not only became a stenographer, she was happily led astray by her boyfriends --or maybe it was the other way around. Although she didn't receive a marriage proposal, it was okay because she was young. But as the years piled up she woke up one morning in 1930 an old maid at the age of 35.
That was until a new manager was hired for the movie theater where she was employed as a stenographer in the upstairs office. New to the city, he didn't know about Aunt Lily's boyfriends, or her age. To my mother's relief, in no time he proposed marriage. The worry was that he was only 25 years old and if he knew Lily was ten years older he might change his mind about marrying her. So it was that before the advent of Social Security it was possible for the young-looking Lily to tell him that she was 25 years old and get away with it.
"Don't tell Sanford Aunt Lily's real age," my mother admonished me before he came over to meet the family. Since I was 7 years old I had no idea how old anyone was and besides it was the least of my worries.
Everyone dressed up for the suitor's visit. My grandmother wore her blue silk; my mother her good tan suit that made her look like my English teacher who I didn't like; Aunt Lily in a prim navy blue with a white collar that my mother made her wear, and me, in my dress and Mary Janes that I wore for the school picture. We were nervous, waiting. My mother fixed tomato juice cocktails in tiny glasses and cheese on fancy crackers.
When he showed up he was so tall he towered over petite Aunt Lily-- standing together they looked mismatched which I passionately wished they were. He had a rather long pointed nose and thin lips. His suit smelled of mothballs. He patted me on the head and said "How's School?". Everyone forgot about the tomato juice cocktails.
So Aunt Lily became the wife and mother she was trained to be, raising two sons, cooking, cleaning, housekeeping. We kept in touch over the years with letters and phone calls. I couldn't tell if she was happy.
She lived in three centuries to the age of 111.
"I never learned to drive," she remarked when I visited her just before she died.
Then she said, "I didn't like my husband."