In thinking of this sabbatical project, I had a vision of returning to Philadelphia and visiting cemeteries where my grandparents are all buried, where mom is buried. But those were half-hearted thoughts. True, I do actually enjoy walking through cemeteries (as does Gail – she maybe even more than me). There’s a quietude walking among graveyards that makes one – even one with no connection to anyone buried in the premises – feel both at peace with those who have passed and at peace with the concept that time is passing. But in my visits to Philly, I didn’t have any interest in visiting the dead in a graveyard. I’ve never done it, and now writing this post almost two months after the visit, I still don’t feel the need, even the desire. Instead, on a beautiful fall day – October 17, 2012, what would have been mom’s 74th birthday – her brother (our uncle) Abbie, Abbie’s son (our cousin) Michael, Dale, Robin, and I visited the foundational places and spaces, the neighborhoods, houses and schools where – for Dale, Robin and me – our grandparents and our parents were vibrantly alive many, many years ago.
The Trianon apartments on Conshohoken State Road in Bala Cynwyd hasn’t always been there, I know this now. The permanent sign in the front announces “apartments available,” and I wonder if apartments were always available there. Who might be looking for a place in Bala: those new to the area and looking for a place to launch themselves? Newly-married couples just starting out? Middle-age couples years later scaling down? Young adults moving out of their parents’ homes? Husbands fresh from leaving their wives? This looks like any apartment building (albeit well-maintained with fresh flowers donning the sign), but on this spot many years before my great grandparents owned a large home on a farm. We never lived far from this site: growing up, our house on Sorrento Rd. in Philly, and our houses on Upland Rd. in Merion and Grasmere Lane in Bala were all only about a mile away at most. But I only knew of this place hesitatingly, in passing. As a kid, we’d be driving past it, on way to the back entrance of the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center or taking the back road to Philly to avoid City Line, and once, maybe twice, mom would point out. “That’s where my grandparent’s lived and Pop Pop [her father] grew up.” Mom was never at a loss for words, but she never delved into the mystery of the place or talked about memories of it. For me, looking out the passenger-side window, all I saw was a generic apartment building, completely devoid of any meaning, that quickly disappeared in the rear-view as we drove past and moved on.
So happy birthday mom – and today we’re stopping. Abbie drives us in to the parking lot and starts to tell the story of their grandparents. My head was reeling with the narrative and I couldn’t possibly take it all in – in order, with names – so we parked in the rear parking lot, got out, then stood around the car listening while Abbie spins the tale of Leibowitz.
He spoke of his and mom’s grandparents Abraham and Hannah, a young married couple with a young daughter Esther, coming to America from Romania via Ellis Island in 1908. Penniless. Somehow Abraham was able to buy a donkey somewhere in New Jersey, with dreams of heading down what is now US 1 to Florida (he had heard it was a good place to grow grapes, which piqued his interest; he was a winemaker back home in Romania) . How long that trip would have taken – with or without a donkey – in the early 1900s is a mystery. The story goes that the donkey dropped dead in Philadelphia, and Abraham took that as a good a sign as any to make this spot his home.
So this is a living, breathing narrative of my great-grandparents who died before I was born: now in America, the young Romanian couple starts having more kids, and they have a lot, eventually six girls and two boys, one being Henry, my grandfather. Abraham works many jobs, including opening up one of the first gas stations in Philadelphia. This leads to that. Profits from gas stations enable him to buy real estate and he becomes quite successful. And as Abraham establishes himself financially in the 1920s, the lure of grape growing leads him to consider leaving the city for the open space of Bala, right over the city line (but a world away). However, folks back then wouldn’t sell to Jews. Somehow a friend, John Facenda, who would later become a fixture in Philadelphia sports and newscasting, acts as a middleman and buys the farm for my great-grandfather. The family lives and thrives there, Abraham growing grapes on the property which bordered the railroad tracks (still extant and pictured above). What I never knew before our tour was that Henry went to – and graduated from – Lower Merion high school, where I would attend and graduate from many years later. Many of his siblings attended as well, but Abbie is unsure how many stuck around to graduate.
Among his other investments, Abraham would own the Elmwood swimming pool in South West Philadelphia, where a young Ruth Langnas would be working as a cashier in the mid to late 1930s. And this was how my maternal grandparents met. Henry would help her out; if Ruth was short he would give her money to make up the difference. She was 16 and attractive, and maybe thought that the owner’s son, four years older, would be a catch. And they sure caught each other: Ruth got pregnant, and, probably early 1938 with Ruth pregnant with my mom, they get married.
They young couple then settles in the paternal home in Bala. It seemed as if all of Henry’s sisters ended back in Bala with their spouses. I can only imagine the constant energy inside the house, with everyone trying to make the space their own. Probably a lot of drama. Ruth gets tired of it all, and maybe before or shortly after my mom was born in 1938, Henry and Ruth moved our of Bala and into an apartment in Strawberry Mansion that was also owned by the family. Other family members ended up moving there as well, all living off of Abraham’s success. Henry, as the sole surviving son, worked for the family business, maintaining many of the properties his father owned. Eventually Ruth, Henry and their baby Carol leave Strawberry Mansion and move Wynnefield.
All my life I’ve seen snapshots taken inside the house on N. 52nd Street. I’ve heard stories. But I have never been there. Or if I had, I was too young. Mom would talk about the past, but she never returned to the scenes. Maybe she was afraid of the neighborhood it had become once white-flight set in and all the Jews fled, settling in Overbrook Park (like her parents did) or the suburbs. Returning to the block circa 10/17/12 was like a homecoming to an area I seemed to know my entire life but had never visited before. Our house was at 1963 (I take complete liberty to use the pronoun “our” to ascribe ownership to a place that I’ve never visited before, yet alone lived). Mom’s best friend Sue was a 30-second walk away (on a perpendicular street. As Abbie tells us, when he and Carol were growing up there were many friends and family members in the immediate neighborhood. Henry was always very generous, helping to buy homes in the neighborhood for his in-laws, Morris and Amelia Langnas, as well other relatives. Henry helped Ruth’s sister Rose procure the house right next door to them.
Back to the present: We walk behind the rowhouses (there was a small cutaway past one of the houses that led you around back) to where the garages are. There is a dirt road connecting all. And a cliff to one side, where if you’re not careful… It looks treacherous now, and Abbie assured us it was treacherous then. You couldn’t drive back here. A retaining wall had given way before Henry and Ruth they moved in, and whose extant remains are still there (see above). Since the rear of the house faced an embankment, with just a wooded area below, Henry would dump all his trash at back down the embankment. Mom and Sue would sneak out and smoke cigarettes by the this retaining wall (which back in the day was hid by bushes, their “secret hangout”). A train trestle nearby (not pictured) would influence Abbie’s love of trains.
Though Henry and Ruth’s life was now centered on N. 52nd St., Henry’s parents and various family members remained in the huge Bala house. Abraham died in the late 1940s (Abbie was named after him). Abraham’s death ushered in a succession of losses: with no one sharing Abraham’s business acumen, the once thriving family business was sold off piecemeal, and a few years after Abraham’s death Hannah succumbed as well. The house, once filled with the vitality of a large family, was left unoccupied and thieves eventually broke in and stole much of the possessions the family had left there. The big house and its farm-like property, was sold about 1960 to a buyer who would tear down the house and dig up the fields to construct the Trianon apartments, completed in 1962. Henry and his siblings received 1.3 million dollars for the sale (split six ways) , which would enable Henry to construct a brand new home a world away (but only a few miles). At this point, mom had not only been married, both Dale and I were born; until she left to get married, mom spent her entire life on N. 52nd St. So while mom was raising her own family, Henry, Ruth and Abbie settled into the new family home on Sherwood Lane in Overbrook Park, still in Philly, only a few miles away from N. 52nd St. But, figuratively, a world away.