Houston and Larry

I was back in bustling, hectic Houston, but at least this time I could handle the freeways. I found a job at a new French bakery and restaurant. During the week-long orientation on French food and wines, I met Patricia Savant. She was looking for a roommate, and as soon as I got my first paycheck; she had one. I caught a late shift, and she came to the bakery to pick me up from work. I was delayed, and when we returned to the apartment; the beans she left cooking on the stove had burned. The apartment was filled with intense smoke and we were barely able to breathe. Laughing, we laid on the floor beneath the smoke. We became friends despite my thinking she was kooky because she thought I was kookier.

Pat was from Wharton, Texas. On the south Texas coastal plains, Wharton is the epitome of a small Texas town. Amazing enough, Wharton produced the playwright, Horton Foote and Dan Rather, the news anchor. On weekends, we would go down to her parent’s house to be close to the beach. Her dark-haired parents had one son, 14 years younger than Pat, who grew up to be the cutest red head I ever knew. Eventually, we both found other jobs and moved to a two bedroom apartment with two friends of Pat’s.

Hired by Joske’s Department Store in the Galleria, I worked in the stationery department for a lovely lady. She felt obligated to cure my lack of etiquette knowledge. Dealing with society and the elite was her calling card. Her department handled wedding invitations, formal stationery, notes and notions. Notions are miscellaneous, small items such as hair nets, combs, bobby pins, needles, thread, scissors and so forth. One day the lingerie department was short handed, and I was sent over to fill-in as one register is as good as another, right. Much to my surprise, a quite, elderly woman informed me that I had to help her fit her new bra. Going into the dressing room, she disrobed. I held out the bra to her with both hands.

She said, “Well, help me get in it.”

I know everything showed on my face as I looked down at her pendulum breasts hanging down to her waist. Impatiently, she informed me, “ Just fold them up like an accordion and stuff them in.”

I was extremely happy to go back to society dames in the notions and stationery department.

On a Friday afternoon, a grim rumor began to circulate in the store that President Kennedy had been shot and was in a Dallas hospital. For a split second, the world stopped spinning on November 22, 1963, our president had been cut down in his prime. All the television sets in Joske’s were tuned to the tragedy. I was shaken when the news anchor announced President Kennedy’s death in Parkland Hospital. After work, I went over to my parent’s house to see how Daddy was taking the news. He was crushed. Over the weekend our family stayed together. We cried as we watched the events unfold on the television. Watching Vice President Lyndon Johnston on Air Force One take the oath of office with Mrs. Kennedy standing next to him in her pink, blood-stained suit is crystal clear in my mind. The swearing-in of our Vice President was the nation’s confirmation that this charismatic and popular President was indeed gone.

We remained glued to the television as the coverage on the trigger man, Lee Harvey Oswald, began to surface. That weekend, Oswald’s capture and then his untimely assassination were televised. On the Sunday following Kennedy’s assassination, his flag-draped casket was moved to the Capitol for public viewing. Throughout the day and night, tens of thousands lined up to view the military-guarded casket. John-John’s final salute to his father’s casket was a heart-breaking moment for all of us. The sadness of the funeral with the lone, riderless, black horse in the procession following behind the caisson which carried the flag-draped casket of the president personified our grief. Our nation mourned. Until September 11, 2001, our whole nation has not felt such a collective anguish as we did in November, 1963.

The Beatles had come to America on their first tour, and the hysterical madness that accompanied them hit Houston. One day, I looked up and leaning on my register counter was a big guy in a black, Beatles wig, which clashed with his freckles. Realizing he had startled me, he quickly announced that the stereo department upstairs was having a promotion. He was dressed in the Beatles wig for his job. He asked me to go to coffee, and on my next break, I met him upstairs in the dining room. This is how I met Larry Shapiro.

Shortly after Larry and I began to date, my roommates and I moved to a large, two-story, Tudor brick house owned by the University of Houston. The house had been donated by an alumni, and the university leased it to us. We each had a bedroom of our own. Pat knew a guy who needed new roommates. He was living with five other guys in a two bedroom apartment. It was unheard of to have coed roommates in 1963. We rented a small room adjacent to the attic on the top floor to him. Since we were not supposed to have a male living with us, he would go through the attic and drop into the garage to leave. One of us would open the garage door, and he would zoom out on his motorcycle. We were turned in for having a male roommate, and we lost our lease. I moved back home with my parents. Mother was still working for Sacco’s Grocery Stores. Daddy was a sales rep for several, small lines that he sold on the road to small, hardware stores in east Texas.

Uncle Smitty showed up with his wife, Mary who was the smallest woman I had ever met. They were drunken misfits and drank steadily. I don’t know why they decided to come to Houston. I wonder if Aunt Swint was the one who suggested it. The day they came I was at home. Mother was at work, and she asked me to help them get settled. Uncle Smitty asked if I would do his wash. I had no idea what I had agreed to because I was astounded when I opened their suitcases. I don’t have a clue how long it had been since their clothes had been washed nor where they had stayed. I had never seen anything that filthy. I washed their seedy and worn clothes with plenty of bleach, several times, before putting them in the dryer. They lived in Houston for about a year before Uncle Smitty died.

Larry had previously dated a Catholic girl. When he started to get serious, she dumped him because he was Jewish. He was overly concerned that I would dump him for being Jewish. From later conversations, I realized her parents disliked Larry and made her break-up with him. By then it was too late; we were married. We had been dating for over a year when I was offered a job as an assistant buyer at the downtown Neiman Marcus department store. I had been working for Neimans for about two weeks when Larry met me for lunch. He informed me he had decided to go back in the Army, and we should get married before he enlisted again. I have always been sorry I quit that job. Thinking that Larry came from a settled family and feeling that I needed to marry someone strong, I agreed. Stronger than dog’s breath, I would need an equally strong husband. Behind his charming facade, I didn’t realize his heart was cold.

Only having a couple of weeks before Larry was to leave, we decided to marry at a small, wedding chapel downtown. On the day of the wedding, I went to have my hair done. The hair dresser was delayed in getting to me. On my way home to dress, I caught cross-town traffic. I was almost an hour late arriving at the wedding chapel. On Friday, August 21, 1964, we married with only our immediate families attending. Margaret hosted a small reception for us on Saturday night. All of his family attended and met my family for the first time. My friend, Pat couldn’t come to my wedding. She was desperate for a new roommate and married the same day I did.

When Larry was almost six-years-old, he was adopted by Ida Clare (Tootsie) and Morris Shapiro. Morris owned a men’s clothing and a tailoring shop in downtown Houston. Tootsie and Morris were married 18 years when they adopted Larry. His new parents made little adjustment to their life style and expected him to adapt immediately.

One of his aunts related to me that if he mentioned his real parents, he would throw his little hand over his mouth and say, “Oops, I am not suppose to talk about that.”

His real mother was a dope addict, and his father was an alcoholic. The State of Texas removed him along with several brothers and sisters from their home. They placed them in an orphanage. In 1948, it was highly unusual for small children to be taken from their parents.

When Larry was 12-years-old, the Shapiros bought the house where Larry currently lives. In 1954, his parents paid $17,000 for that house. By the time he was in high school, Larry was more than his parents could handle. Tootsie was prone to having nervous breakdowns and after one such episode, they decided to put Larry in a military academy. He had run away to the orphanage (in the Dallas area) and broke into the office. Thinking if he read his records, he would be able to find his family. Morris promptly enrolled him in Perkins Military Academy in San Antonio. At Perkins, Larry earned so many demerits, it became apparent that he would not graduate. Morris couldn’t pay Perkins Military Academy enough to keep Larry. His father decided to sign him into the military. After completing basic training, Larry went to Germany for the first time. In Germany while on patrol on the border, Larry found a small, black puppy. He brought Fuzz  to Houston when he got out of the Army. His parents had never had a pet and were not initially thrilled with the prospect of having an animal in the house or the yard.

In 1964, Larry rejoined the Army. He was sent to Ft. Polk, Louisiana for an abridged, basic training as he had been previously enlisted. I began taking instruction classes for Judaism while Larry was gone to basic training. Because I was somewhat casual about religion and having been several denominations, I agreed to become Jewish. I didn’t want my children to have their childhood clouded by constant arguments over which church to attend. Larry was very insistent on my being Jewish. Under Jewish law, the mother must be Jewish in order for a child to be considered Jewish. As long as a child’s mother is Jewish, it doesn’t matter if the father isn’t. Larry’s real reason was to appease his parents and to ensure he wasn’t cut out of their will.

I took classes at Temple Beth Yeshurun on Braeswood Blvd by Buffalo Bayou. Rabbi Malev conducted my instruction classes and was helping Tootsie to make arrangements for our second wedding in the synagogue. On the day I got my pedigree, we went to an Orthodox temple where I was to have a mikvah. With Larry’s Aunt Bertha as a spectator, I took the ritual bath for Jewish women. After seven dunks in the ritual bath while praying, the bride-to-be symbolically washes away her identity as a single woman. Naked, holding the prayer-book in one hand and frustrated, I had Larry’s Aunt Bertha shouting at me, “Dunk your head, so the rabbis will know you got in.”

Three rabbis were standing outside, ears to the door, waiting for me to finish. With my long hair streaming wet rivulets down my suit, I had my final interview with the rabbis. Certified, papers signed and sealed, I was given my Jewish name – Nakoma bat Abraham. Larry came home on leave that weekend, and we were married at the temple with his entire family and friends in attendance.

Aunt Bertha sold several lines of women’s clothing for a couple of New York City, wholesale dress firms. Meeting me and seeing my tall, slender build, she informed Larry, “Boy, that is some expensive figure.” Over the years, I had ample opportunity to remind him of that.

Aunt Bertha lived in a modest home, and she took care of her semi-invalid husband, Henry. Uncle Henry had been a prisoner in the concentration camps in Germany. A German SS officer and physician, Joseph Mengele performed many inhumane medical experiments on live, Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Under Dr. Mengele’s direction, the staff stabbed hundreds of needles and surgical knives into Henry’s arms and legs in order for the notorious Dr. Mengele to observe Uncle Henry’s body’s reaction. With his ruined, tortured body, Henry was eventually sent to the United States. How he came to be with Aunt Bertha is unknown, but I can’t forget the tattoo on his arm.

Larry’s parents belonged to the Conservative temple. They kept kosher at home, but would eat in non-kosher restaurants. Kosher is a dietary law from the Torah. Milk and dairy products are never mixed with meat products. Pots, pans, china, silverware and utensils are kept separate, one set for dairy and one for meat. Kosher restaurants and synagogue kitchens observe all these rituals. Some of the taboo foods are pork, which was a carrier of diseases 5000 years ago and most seafood, the scavengers of the ocean floor. Food that is not kosher are commonly referred to as treif. Kosher, slaughter houses must meet rigid, mandatory sanitary conditions, and the animals are to have proper blood letting. The kosher seal shows the product was made in accordance with Jewish law, and is fit for ritual use. It isn’t true that a Rabbi has to bless livestock when slaughtering to certify the meat as Kosher.

Larry was assigned to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, and he left to find us an apartment. He found a small duplex in Radcliff, Kentucky. Radcliff is just outside the gates of Ft. Knox, and it wasn’t much to write home about. Located in northern Kentucky, this little town was incorporated in 1956 and had less than 10,000 residents including military personnel. The duplex was run-down with a shower that was so atrocious, I wouldn’t use it. Coming up with a can of Army-standard-gray paint, Larry painted it for me. The apartment was near a trailer home compound where primarily military families lived, so Larry could catch a ride to the post.

I thought that part of being a good wife was to get up at 5:30 am and to make a hot breakfast for my new husband. On a bitter-cold, dark, October morning while Larry was in the shower, I turned on the oven and turned up the dial on the wall radiator. Coming out of the hot shower, Larry complained about the heat and threw open the kitchen window. I was making a batch of biscuits and the open window not only froze me out; it exposed me to the neighborhood. My asking him to close the window quickly accelerated into a dreadful argument. Seeing that I was going to lose the argument, I heaved the bowl which hit the wall. I got back in my bed. When I got up, I spent over an hour cleaning up the mess I had created. Dried, biscuit dough on a painted, stucco wall requires dynamite to remove.

Larry returned that night with a kitten for me. It’s hard to resist a kitty, and I named him Velvet. He looked very much like Pywacket (my black cat), except his coat was a deep silvery gray. After a couple of weeks, Larry came home late, and he informed me that he was on orders to Korea and would leave in four days. Astonished, I couldn’t even begin to think of what I would need to do to be gone in four days. Velvet was too small to even get shots, and I had been basically hand feeding him. Unwilling to desert a kitten, I decided to carry him with me on the train.

I left Kentucky on November 3, 1964. I remember the entire day so clearly. It was election day, and that night Lyndon Johnson’s 61%, landslide victory made political history. Kennedy’s presidency had been termed the “New Frontier,” but it was Johnson’s “Great Society” which enabled civil rights legislation to be enacted. Election aside, while boarding the train I watched an Army Honor Guard load a casket onto the train. I read in the paper about a soldier from Houston recently killed in a car wreck. I asked if the casket was going to Houston. Wearing a coat with large, patch pockets on the front, I had the kitten in my coat pocket. I carried a gift-wrapped package in which I had put kitty litter. Scratching the kitten to keep him sleepy, I boarded the train.

When we got to Little Rock, I not only had to change trains, but change train stations, also. Arriving in  Little Rock, the conductor said to me that we were running behind, and I would probably miss my connection. Without blinking an eye, I alleged I was traveling with the casket that had been put aboard in Louisville and didn’t want to get parted. He said they could radio ahead and ask for a taxi to be standing by. When we arrived, I jumped off the train and was met by the cab driver. Rushing over to the other station, I found my connecting train was delayed. A private rail car for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor was still being attached to the train. The Duke was going to the Houston medical center for cancer treatment.

I settled in my seat and put the gift-wrapped, kitty litter box on the seat facing me. A heavyset woman came waddling by my row and looked down at all my stuff. Looking forward, she saw an empty row at the back of the car. She made her way toward the back row, and the conductor informed her that she needed to sit down as the train was departing. Leaning over to put her bags on the seat, she gasped. A very dainty, Black lady was sitting there and being so small, she had been hidden by the seat. Pulling back, the chunky lady was gathering her luggage when the conductor informed her that departure was imminent.

She snapped at him, “I am not sitting next to a Nigger.”

Resigned, he picked up some of her luggage and headed toward me. Throwing my coat and both my feet on the opposite seats, I said, “She will not want to sit with me either, I’m Jewish.”

He escorted her to another car, and the train shook and rattled its way to Houston. Always happy to go to the train station, Daddy met the kitten and me. I am sure he was early so he could watch the trains.

Whenever I left the house, Velvet would sit at the door whining until I returned. One day Billy remarked to me, “I would have a cat if I had one that would love me like that.” I picked him up and handed him to her.

Back in Houston I had to think about what to do next. Within days, I realized I was pregnant. Kay wanted to go to work. She suggested that if I would keep the kids, I could go to Jacksonville, Florida where they were living. I headed for Florida. Kay found a job in a nursing home, and I baby-sat Missy and David. I didn’t buy many maternity clothes, but I did have two maternity swimming suits. Most mornings, the kids and I went to Mayport to the beach. When I was nearing my eighth month, Mother and Dad drove to Florida to pick me up, so the baby could be born in Houston.

I went into Sacco’s Grocery Store to see Mother at work, and the little, Italian produce manager asked me in his broken English, “Whatta you goin’ to name that Jewish baby?”

“Abe.” was my reply as Abraham was the first Jewish name that popped into my head.

Every time I went to the store, everyone would ask, “How is Abe, doing?” They even had an office betting pool to pick the day that he would be born.

Initially, Morris had been a “prick” about my coming home pregnant. He assumed I was comprised when we married and was selfishly, concerned about what his friends would think. Much to his relief, the baby was due on August 20th. In Jewish tradition, children are named after the deceased. It was decided to name the baby after Larry’s Grandmother Rose and Aunt Sarah. I had the two initials, R. and S., and I needed to select a name using the initials. About a week before Robin was born, Larry wrote me he wanted to name the baby Raymond. Raymond just didn’t seem right to me, so I put an international call in for Larry.

When the operator finally made the connection, Larry came on the line, breathless – he shouted excitedly, “ Is it a boy or a girl?”

Sobbing, I cried, “I am never naming a baby Ray.”

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Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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