Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s grandmother, Freida Sima, who as a young woman came to America on her own in the early 1900s and made her way in a new country. The tenth part (“Freida Sima Reunites the Family”) appeared as the front-page essay in the July 15 issue; part twelve will run in September.
The year 1953 was a momentous one for Freida Sima. Marking the end of an era in her life, it was also the beginning of a new one. In February, she and her beloved Max (whom she always called Mordche) celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with family and friends, at a gala party arranged by their daughter, Shirley.
“Who would have believed we would both still be here, alive and well, after all we went through?” she asked herself as Max gave a speech in Yiddish, thanking everyone for coming. Neither had been young when they got married, and after that came Max’s diabetes diagnosis, the Depression, the war, and an operation she had gone through a year earlier.
Freida Sima’s boardinghouse days ended forever in the spring of 1953 with the death of her last boarder, “Rosie,” whom she nursed through his final illness. Her second trip to Israel that summer strengthened her ties with her European brothers and sister, and was another step toward bringing more of the family to America.
In October Max turned sixty-five and began to collect Social Security – “Roosevelt’s Miracle,” they called it – enabling him to retire from house painting. Although the physical labor had been beneficial for his diabetes, it was becoming increasingly harder for him to carry his ladder, heavy paint cans, and drop cloths throughout the city by public transportation. In November, Freida Sima and Max began making plans for what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, their “golden years,” as retirement was now being called.
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For the first time since their marriage in 1928, they were alone at home. Daughter Shirley had moved out when she married in 1951. The marriage soon ended, but Shirley preferred to retain her Queens apartment rather than move back to the Bronx. Concerned that her parents might be lonely, she surprised them one day with a small dog to keep them company. Watching the puppy’s wobbling walk, she named him Umbriago, similar to the word “drunk” in Italian and Spanish (embriagado).
As the neighborhood was rapidly becoming Hispanic, the name was a cause of confusion and mirth. Freida Sima would let the dog wander the neighborhood alone, and when she called from the ground floor window “Umbriago, you dog, come home already!” half the men on the block would turn around, thinking someone was referring to them.
The changing neighborhood was one reason behind Freida Sima and Max’s decision to move. The other was their mutual love of the ocean – for Max it was swimming, for Freida Sima it was the salt smell and sea breeze.
Now that Max was a man of leisure, they decided to finally indulge in a dream. After looking at affordable possibilities in New York City, they moved in early spring 1954 to a one-bedroom rental in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, not even a block from the boardwalk and barely three minutes from the water’s edge. Max took to swimming almost every morning, while Freida Sima would wait for him in one of the large boardwalk pavilions, enjoying the sea air.
(For the next twenty years their apartment would be a summer haven for family and friends visiting the beach. Many would stop off there to change and end up staying for dinner. Among them were the married daughters – and their husbands –of Fanny and Morris Carlin, the couple who had introduced Freida Sima and Max more than a quarter century earlier. Another circle had closed.)Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz