The suburbs of postwar Long Island silently simmered in a preordained sameness, no more so than in the summer.
Summer days were metered out in predictable beats.
Smoky backyard barbecues were a ho-hum summer staple of mid-century suburban life, but our annual king-sized barbecue for my mother’s birthday had a rhythm and tempo of its own.
It was always clear that the magnitude of this annual summer party ranked somewhere between a large Passover Seder, but not as big as a small Bar Mitzvah.
This was a big operation requiring logistics and tactical maneuvering in order to mobilize the family who were traveling from near and far. The fact that our many guests traveled across great bodies of water, through tunnels and over bridges just to come to Mom’s birthday party heightened the excitement for me.
Unlike our standing Sunday family get-togethers, the genealogy net was cast wider than our immediate family to include “special occasion relatives.”
Not unlike those special little soaps that Mom would put out just for special company that were never to be touched by us ( or anyone else for that matter) so it was these relatives were purely decorative, never functioning in the nitty-gritty of day to day family matters.
The birthday barbecue in 1961 would be the biggest blow out of all.
Not only was Mom turning 35 officially making her middle-aged, but she would also be meeting her future sister in law for the first time.
Dad remarked that the whole affair had taken on the feeling of a UN general assembly.
That summer a new member of the family was being vetted, requiring a high state of diplomacy.
Making her first appearance at a big family function was my Uncle Jay’s fiancé Evelyn.
The Beatnick and the Barbecue
The family’s curiosity was peaked.
Mom knew the basics- the couple had locked eyes while singing along to “Matilda” at a SANE (The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) rally held at Madison Square Garden, to hear Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Belafonte call for an end to the arms race. Dad supposed she was one of those bone fide peace-nicks
But the family knew scarcely little about this daring career girl with her own bachelorette apartment in New York City, who had been dating Mom’s younger brother for nearly a year.
Her self-described bohemian proclivities made her especially repelled by banality and therefore shunned the suburbs; as if bourgeoisie were a communicable disease, she avoided it like the plague.
However, her very practical job as a nurse working the wards of Bellevue precluded her from ever attaining bone-fide beatnik status. Although she professed to be more Simon De Beauvoir than Jacqueline Bouvier it came as a surprise when it was announced that the wedding reception in September would be held at the anything but Bohemian Hotel Carlyle on Manhattans tony upper east side
Behind closed doors the burning question that summer among the core coalition of the family was whether this newcomer would disrupt the delicate balance of family relations.
Bronx born and bred she would bear the distinction of being the sole representative of that most unfamiliar borough. As if this distant northern borough were a third world country there was cause for concern within the family but my brother and I were thrilled at the seemingly exotic locale. She could be our ticket to unlimited Yankee games and visits to Freedomland.
Because Mom firmly believed in peaceful co-existence, in the spirit of family togetherness, differences were always left at the front door like a pair of muddy shoes and there was no reason that day should be any different.
The beat goes on
The Siren Call of Suburbia
Although invitations to meet us had been proffered previously, this was the first one to be accepted.
Feeling a bit snubbed, rumors were rampant among the family that this soon to be new aunt of mine shunned the sub-division world of the suburbs, as if they were Kryptonite and would sap this die-hard urbanite of her vital life force.
For some the suburbs were the Exodus to the promised land; for others, it was an exile.
Now under the hot glare of the summer sun my uncle Jays fiancé had ventured into the cold war world of carpools, cookouts and cream of mushroom casseroles and she was not so sure how friendly these suburban skies really were.
Post War Parade of Prosperity
On the day of the big barbecue, my brother Andy and I set up surveillance on the front lawn sitting on either side of Pancho, our sombrero-wearing Mexican stone lawn ornament, in anticipation of the parade of cars carrying our company that would soon be rolling up our block.
Pancho acted as a buffer. Like Stalin and Truman eyeing each other suspiciously at Potsdam, my bickering brother and I were reluctant allies, but committed to a bigger cause of the big family barbecue.
Like clockwork, the convoy of cars appeared at the top of the block, a gleaming collection of come hither chrome protuberances and sleek tail-fins soaring from fenders, their bomb like tailgates coquettishly beckoning.
It resembled nothing short of the Great White Fleet, a pulse-quickening, punctual pageant of Post War prosperity, each family in his own boat-like car, no two cars alike, no car over two years old.
To amuse ourselves Andy and I would vote on our favorite automobiles and like contestants in a Beauty Contest each car was shinier, more voluptuous than the next, each begging to be looked at, admired, and envied.
First to catch our eye was the sporty 2 toned turquoise Chevy Bel Aire followed by a bulky midnight blue Buick Road Master. Always a crowd-pleaser, heads turned when Uncle Jack pulled up in his jaunty heart-throb drive of the year Thunderbird.
Representing New Rochelle were the Rob and Laura Petrie look-a-likes my Uncle Sandy and Aunt Lois coolly driving the copper-colored Oldsmobile Cutlass. With its fetching grill work it drew our attention away from that tried and true dinosaur soon approaching its demise the old dependable DeSoto.
But the burning question was whether last years run-away–hands-down favorite, the ever-popular Cadillac De Ville, the one with tail fins that wouldn’t stop, the standard by which the worlds motor cars should be judged, driven by our own Nana Sadie, would be bested by the brash newcomer a ‘62 Chrysler.
All the way from Forest Hills, Queens the hot-out-of-the-showroom-too-new-to-be-believed ’62 Chrysler Imperial-the car of choice for the discerning imperialist – handled by Irv Shapiro a car salesman extraordinaire-pulled into our humble driveway.
It was just as the ads said
It was true.
Getting together was even more exciting when you get there in a new car.
With the timing and precision of a well-orchestrated symphony the percussive sound of multiple car doors slamming in unison reverberated up and down the street as shopping bag schlepping relatives from near and far made their way up our walkway.
Turn The Beat Around
Suddenly heads turned to watch as a tiny, queer-shaped automobile maneuvered with remarkable ease into an impossibly small space between two parked Oldsmobiles.
As if on cue, a collective gasp shot through the group as my Uncle Jay and his fiancé exited from this odd, bug-shaped, unadorned, and decidedly un-American vehicle.
But it was not just any foreign car, it was a German car, a chrome-less, austere relic of the Nazi nightmare a car built for the likes of the Autobahn not the bucolic happy-motoring parkways of Robert Moses.
As Evelyn disembarked from the red Volkswagen Beetle, she looked about warily, like the tourist in a foreign location that she was, acutely aware of the disapproving gaze of her future family.
Behind everyone’s fashionable Foster Grant Sunglasses all eyes were on Evelyn. Her close-cropped Jean Seberg inspired pixie cut contrasted with the sea of beehives and bouffant like a smooth buoy bobbing in a sea of teased waves
For years to come, my dear Aunt would never be convinced that the raised eyebrows and collective tongue clucking was in fact not directed at her, but at the fact that they were driving a Volkswagen, Hitlers very own Wagen Fur das Volk, that most forbidden of all cars, so taboo it was practically traif.(unkosher)
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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