Skip to content

section one

In My DNA

Doodle dna

Before and when I was born,

a lot was going on in the world.

DNA DM coco

1925

Chanel and CoCo Culture declare corsets are out, simple is chic, black is the new black and you can never wear too many pearls.

DNA DM 41 Nazi Concentration Camps 7 million dead

1933-1945

Nazi Concentration Camps—7 million die in more than 1,000 camps.

DNA DM 31 The Great Depression

1929

The Great Depression teaches us what it is like to have nothing.

DNA DM 29 Post WWI divided up in a way that shapes conflicts for the next 100 years

1918

Post WWI the world is divided up in a way that leads to WII and creates political conflicts that shape the next 100+ years.

DNA DM 28 Breadlines during the Bolshevik Revolution

1917

The Bolshevik Revolution
Birth of Communist Russia and death for much of my family.

Ex Kx 3p Wg AM8 Fn D

1920

19th Amendment ratified and women get the vote, proving badly behaved women can make history.

DNA DM 16 Daisy Fellows Early IT girl

1920s

Daisy Fellowes—Socialite and It Girl, was often badly behaved and talked about for her jewels and clothes. The designer Schiaparelli created the color Shocking Pink for her.

DNA DM 15 Flappers no waist and lots of fringe

1920s

Flappers—no waist required, just lots of fringe and a reckless, jazzy attitude

Charles Atlas no2

1922

Charles Atlas gives 97-pound weaklings” something to aspire to and spawns fitness culture.

DNA DM 34 Tampax expands opportunity

1936

Tampax debuts, heralding a new day for womanhood.” Everyone in the pool! 

DNA DM 22 Katherine Hepburn wears pants

1933

Katherine Hepburn wears pants, sparks a revolution, liberates generations of women and makes brains sexy.

DNA QUESTION 1 Burden or Joy

Was My Arrival a Burden or Joy?

Was My Arrival a Burden or Joy?

I was a perfectly healthy baby. But this story is bigger than me because the baby my mother had before me, Harriet, wasn’t healthy, and she was the gold standard against which I was measured. 

There is a small section in Old Montefiore Cemetery, in Queens, that you enter through some old rusty gates marked the Bronx Bakers Mutual Aid Association. Toward the back, there is one little stone marker with a baby lamb resting on its top edge. It is not too far from my parents’ graves. It is my sister Harriet’s grave. I never knew her. On October 20, 1943, she was born — a blue baby. She had a heart defect that diminished her heart’s ability to pump oxygenated and unoxygenated blood through her body. My parents spent Harriet’s short life running back and forth between the apartment and the hospital, hoping to save her. They lost that fight and Harriet died on January 25, 1944. She was only four months old. 

DNA 1 Harriets grave

Old Montefiore Cemetary, Queens, NY. Harriet’s name is spelled Reitchick, not Ratchick as it is on my parents’ grave closeby. This is the second time my parents’ name changed. First time, when they came to the U.S., second time, when they had the sign painted over the bakery. The sign painter read the ei” as an a” and we were Ratchick’s.

I was born ten months later. Born out of grief. I was named after my paternal grandfather’s second wife, Rachel, and the meaning of my name is gift of god.” Was I really?

Enter Mrs. Gibson. 

Although my parents didn’t have a lot of money, the price of losing another baby was too high for them. My mother was so panicked that I might die like Harriet that when she went back to work in the bakery she hired Mrs. Gibson, a nurse, to take care of me. Mrs. Gibson, who was very strict, moved into our two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. She took over my parents’ bedroom. I was in there with her, in my crib. My parents slept in the living room. My father wasn’t allowed to hold me until I was six months old. The whole family mourned Harriet, and I wondered, did anyone really want me?

A Little Baby and a Massive Inconvenience. 

Our apartment house was old, with one elevator. But, if Mrs. Gibson wheeled my carriage into the elevator, everyone else had to get out. My teenage sisters, Debby and Renee, were not happy with our living arrangements. They couldn’t have friends over. The house had to be immaculate. No germs. Everything sterile. Even though there was nothing physically wrong with me. 

A Cruel Twist of Fate. Serendipity? 

On the very day I was born, researchers diagnosed the cause of blue baby syndrome. Doctors at Johns Hopkins performed the first successful operation to repair the heart of a baby born with that syndrome. Details of the operation were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1945 and impacted management of blue babies around the world. 

Placeholder blue baby

This picture was taken from the observation gallery overlooking the Halsted Clinic operating room theater at Johns Hopkins as doctors watched the four-and-a-half hour first blue baby” operation.

When I was little, I resented Harriet. She was a beautiful baby. My baby pictures show me with furrowed brow, hair in disarray. I look worried, older than my years and a lot like Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel and undoubtedly a worrier. 

DNA 3 A Golda Mier

One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.” – Golda Meir

DNA 3 B Rochelle at 2 years

Me at age two. A striking resemblance?

I Was Born Worried

Mill

Roots

Julius David Ratchick, My Father. 

Różan, Poland, was founded in the 1300s. About forty-six miles north/northeast of Warsaw, by the early twentieth century, Różan had a population of approximately 4,000, half of them Jews. Many of the town’s stores were Jewish-owned, and Jews were peddlers, grain merchants, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, watchmen, hat makers, locksmiths and shoemakers, and Jews owned a weaving factory, two tanneries and two mills. They lived a comfortable life, which gave rise to resentment and anti-Semitism. One of Różan’s mills, according to what I’ve learned from my cousin Miriam and found online, was owned by my grandparents, Michal and Rachel Monk Rayczyk, and inherited from Michal’s parents, my great-grandparents, Isaac and Braineh Rayczyk. The reportedly red-haired and blue-eyed Michal and Rachel had five children: Kalman, Julius, Genia, Braineh and Issac. And before that, Michal had six other children with his first wife, who then died. My father, Julius David Ratchick (changed by some immigration officer, I assume), was born in 1901. The Rayczyk family were religious and relatively well-to-do. Life was good for them until the Russian Revolution, when the Russian Imperial Army was fortified and garrisoned in Różan and confiscated the family’s mill. Michal, Rachel and their children packed up and moved to Pultusk, Poland, and there my father, his brother Kalman and his sister Genia stayed until they could leave. 

DNA 4 A Young Julius

Young Julius

DNA 4 B Young Beatrice in photostudio dress

Young Beatrice

Beatrice Levy Ratchick, My Mother. 

The territory of modern Ukraine has been inhabited since 32,000 BCE. Before that, Neanderthals roamed the territory for over 10,000 years. For centuries, Ukraine was a powerful, independent Slavic state. In the mid-fourteenth century, that changed. In 1901, Beatrice Levy, my mother, was born, one of four children of a Jewish baker and restauranteur and his wife in a small village in Ukraine somewhere near the Dnieper River. At the height of the Russian Revolution, Levy and his wife and children fled Ukraine. The Jewish community of Różan took them in. Ratchick the miller met Levy the baker, and my mother met my father. These are among the few details my mother shared from her childhood, but she did tell me again and again that it was not a good time to be a Jew. 

The Great Silent

Most of what I know about my father I learned from my mother, and years later I got more background from my cousin Miriam. A few years before my mother died, I did sit her down with a tape recorder and ask her to tell me everything. She told me how she and my father met and married. 

Julius David Ratchick, my father, was one of ten children, born in 1901 to his father’s second wife, and a good boy, my mother said, who went to cheder (school in Yiddish) to learn from the rabbis. He never reminisced with me and my sisters about the old country, and he never bemoaned all he left behind. His feelings and hopes and fears were not topics of conversation in our household. My father was a shy, quiet, old-world guy. A smart, savvy businessman who was detail-oriented, tall, handsome, meticulous in his grooming and a careful decision maker is how I imagine a lot of people who came into his bakery might have described him. My mother, sisters and I called him The Great Silent.

Witness to Terror. 

My father and his family, like my mother, witnessed and were victims of violence at the hands of the Bolsheviks. But, while the Russians and Poles hated Jews, the military had no problem conscripting Jewish men, including my father when he was only a teenager, to fight in Czar Nicholas II’s army. Many years later, in our kitchen in Brooklyn, my mother talked about how handsome her husband was in his uniform.

Finding Freedom and Learning His Trade. 

This is where facts get fuzzy. My mother told me she and my father left Poland, traveled across Europe and spent time in Paris working in a beaded bag factory to raise the money for ship’s passage to the United States. Their ship docked in Cuba, and the U.S. Immigration Service allowed my father to travel to the United States. My mother had a distant cousin, Louis Levy, who owned a bakery in Duryea, Pennsylvania, where my father could work. My mother was detained in Cuba. Why? I don’t know. 

My cousin Miriam had another version. In that telling, my father’s brother Kalman fled to Mexico after beating up a Polish police officer and, according to Miriam, my father joined him there. After some time, he returned to Cuba and brought my mother to the United States, to Duryea, Pennsylvania and Levy’s Bakery. I know with absolute certainty my father’s job at that bakery set the course for the rest of his life. He learned to make bread — delicious bread — and Beatrice and Julius were safe. 

DNA 5 A The levys

My mother’s cousin, Sarah, and her husband, Louis Levy, from Duryea, Pennsylvania.

DNA 5 B Levys Kaiser Roll bag

Sarah and Louis were not the You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” bread people.

Following the Opportunity. 

New York City was where my father wanted to be. He, my mother and my two sisters, Debby and Renee, who were born in Pennsylvania, moved north and he became a partner in a bakery, Somerstein & Ratchick on Watson Avenue in the Bronx. Then I arrived on the scene. The business grew, and my father decided to open his own bakery, Ratchick’s Bakery, at 1419 Avenue J in Flatbush, Brooklyn. For the next few years, he commuted two hours each way by subway in the early morning hours to his Jewish-style, though never kosher, bakery. When I was six, we moved to Brooklyn, and my father’s life was a little bit easier, but not much.

DNA 6 Debby and Renee

Debby and Renee, my older sisters, born in Pennsylvania eighteen months apart.

Creatures of Habit. 

Seven days a week, my father’s alarm went off at two a.m., and he got up and got ready to go to the bakery — a half hour after my mother was out of bed. She rose at one-thirty every morning to squeeze fresh orange juice for him.

Some afternoons after work, he came home early, changed out of his immaculate white bakery uniform and dressed meticulously to go to Aqueduct Racetrack. He loved the horses, something he picked up, I believe, during his service in the Russian army. 

DNA 7 Aqueduct Raceway

The new Aqueduct Race Track, THE BIG A, opened in 1959. Secretariat retired from this track after winning the Triple Crown in 1972.

Daddys Horse.

Julius’s bakery may have been his heart, home and family’s safe place, but he did not live by bread alone. He was also a card player. To the friends at his Monday night card game, Julius was known as the Greener, short for greenhorn,” a newbie. Around the card table sat Damon Runyon characters: Mr. Chocolate, an importer, and Tombstone, you can guess. My father never lost big at cards or the racetrack, and sometimes he won big and shared the profits with those around him and those in need. When the trotters were running, he often took me with him. We stood by the rail, and I would scream, Come on, Daddy’s horse.” Every horse he bet on was Daddy’s horse.

Like Clockwork.

We ate dinner at five p.m. On the days my father went to the track, to make sure he was home in time, he bet on the seventh and eighth races and left the track at four p.m., drove home, sat outside and listened to the race results on the car radio, then came in. After dinner, he sat in his Archie Bunker – style chair in his T‑shirt and boxer shorts (gotkes in Yiddish) silently sipping a cup of tea and watching the wrestling on television. At nine p.m., he crept into bed to get five hours’ sleep before he did it all again.

Heart, Soul and Doing the Right Thing.

Work was my father’s escape, security and identity. Being a talented baker earned him good standing and the money to be a good provider, husband and father. And to be charitable, too. He donated to his causes — was a great supporter of the United Jewish Appeal — and his neighbors, giving credit, money and baked goods so people wouldn’t go hungry. 

Pillar of the Community. 

The trade described Ratchick’s Bakery as the thread that connected today’s tastes and techniques to the traditions of the past for a growing and appreciative community.” A fancy way to say that whatever Julius — with his wife and the good men he taught his trade to over the years — baked, his neighbors and customers loved. Isaac Mizrahi’s mother came in for cakes for her card parties. Isaac dropped in for a snack now and then on his way home from yeshiva. On the holidays, the lines of customers often ran down the block, and people waited patiently to pick up their orders. Yes, the breads and cookies and cakes were delicious, but my father’s true secret to success was that he knew and cared about his customers, and they knew it and were loyal. 

Joy fong chow mein

Joy Fong Restaurant which once stood on the corner of Avenue J and Coney Island Avenue. For Jews of a certain age, this was the quintessential one from column A, one from column B” Chinese restaurant.

The Customer Was Always Right. 

A big night out for my family was dinner at our local and very good Chinese restaurant, Joy Fong. We were regulars. One night, we were enjoying dinner when one of the regular customers from the bakery walked over to our table with her husband. She looked us over and asked, What are you doing here?” Implied in her look and tone was that we didn’t belong. My father, I knew even then as a child, felt diminished.

He Wasn’t a Father Knows Best Dad. He Was the Best Dad.

No warm and fuzzies. No hugging. No hi-honey-how-was-your-day? chitchat. No getting down on the floor to play with his daughters. My father was an old-world patriarch. Like many of the fathers of his generation, he believed his role was to bring home the money to keep a roof over our heads, food on our table, clothes on our backs and to lay down the law. For his generation, that’s what good fathers did. 

Getting a pat on the head from him was a big deal. That was how my father said you were okay. He wanted to be part of the new world, but I know he did not relate so easily to being the father of American girls or the husband to a wife who wanted to go to school to learn to read and write English. She asked. My father said no, and that was the end of it. I never understood why, because back in Poland, my father’s father hired a tutor to school his daughters.

If Debby, Renee or I stepped out of line, my father never yelled or raised his hand to us as I know other fathers did. Deeper and longer silences were our punishment. Please, daddy, please,” I would beg him to talk to me. 

Public Displays of Affection.

When my father really wanted to show his wife and daughters how happy he was with us, he bought us something. He was comfortable with that. After we moved to Brooklyn and business was good, his gifts got better. Debby loved clothes and furniture and wanted riding lessons, easy gifts for my father to buy and give her. 

Things did not mean much to my mother. She was not a material girl. No matter what her husband bought her, she’d ask, What do I need this for?” So, his gift to her and the rest of us was to live simply, plow his profits back into the bakery and buy nice cars. There was a 1956 DeSoto with a push-button transmission and a 1964 Buick Riviera with imitation-wire wheels. Clothes, cars, the horses and his business were my father’s extravagances.

Robin hood

A Regular Robin Hood

DNA 9 pots

Pots for making Cholent, the traditional Jewish stew simmered for twelve hours. It was the meat and potato stew you ate to break the Sabbath.

The families in my mother’s village held true to their Jewish traditions. Every Friday afternoon, the village women would bring the pots of meat they were cooking for their families’ Saturday night Sabbath dinners to our family bakery. Religious laws prohibited cooking on the Sabbath. Pots of meat for the rich families and the poor families were stacked, side-by-side, in my grandfather’s bakery’s ovens. The pots slow-cooked the meat and vegetables, and the food was kept warm until the next night. When no one was looking, my mischievous mother would take some of the meat out of the rich people’s pots and put it in the pots of the poor people.

A Practice Run. 

The 1905 Pre-Bolshevik Revolution, a rehearsal for what was to come in 1917, did not improve life for Jews in what was then the Russian Empire. The attacks and murders of Jews at the hands of the czar’s armies grew more frequent and brutal. Bolshevik soldiers terrorized Jewish communities. When soldiers seized my mother’s father and threatened to cut off his beard, my mother, only a small child, shielded him from attack. 

Food lines were long, and Russian soldiers menaced the hungry crowds. One morning, my four-year-old mother and her older sister were in line. My mother was standing quietly, but not directly, behind the person in front of her. A Russian soldier noticed, picked up his rifle and slammed it into her face. Her nose shattered. From that moment on, she made it her business to become invisible, to disappear herself to save her life. 

I Was Such a Happy Child. 

Never revealing too much, my mother gave me glimpses into her early life. She told me she saw her older sister being brutally beaten and taken away by Russian soldiers. She hated being in school and the rabbi who whipped her and all the other students who didn’t toe the line with a cat-of-nine-tails. I was forever being beaten, always in trouble, because I was a very happy child.” Her words.

By all measures of happiness, my mother’s does not sound like a happy childhood. I think if she’d had better English-language skills, she might have described herself as spirited, antsy, silly, fidgety, anxious, nervous, good-humored, silly or mischievous, but not happy. She was a kid who couldn’t sit still or wait in line, who danced around her family’s bakery and wore out her Sabbath shoes. I don’t know if she ever thought about the consequences of her antics, but she did pay a heavy price. She left school and went to work in her father’s bakery. Her job: hauling water from the community well to the bakery. And she lost her chance to learn to read or write.

People Who Nourished People.

That was my mother’s family. Bakers. Restauranteurs. They were also people who were thrown out of their village three times. Why? Life was cheap and compassion in short supply.

Each time my mother’s family was thrown out of their town, she told me, they foraged, eating raw potatoes and beets. No water to wash them. No fire to bake them. Nearly starving. My mother was eleven years old when they were exiled for the third time. Shortly before, her mother had given birth. Starving, her mother could not make breast milk. The new baby died. In a wilderness littered with the bodies of dead soldiers, my mother watched her parents dig a grave and bury their baby.

DNA 10 Mothers family

My mother and her family somewhere in what is now Belarus — the baker/restauranteur, his wife, three daughters and a son. Only my mother, upper right, made it to America. If you look closely, you can see my mother’s broken nose. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the family. The only person I have a name for is her older sister, Alta. However, I was never sure if that was her name or if she was simply my mother’s older, alte, sister.

Star-Crossed Lovers.

Barely out of their teens, my parents married. For most couples, a wedding marks a new and happy beginning. Not for my mother and father. The Bolshevik Revolution raged, and the newlyweds said goodbye to their families and fled.

DNA Question 2 When you lose your freedom

When you lose your freedom, where do you go?

When you lose your freedom, where do you go?

How Did They Feel Leaving Their Families Behind? 

Without judgement, only confusion, I have struggled to answer this question. Did the grandparents I never knew plead with my parents to go? Did my grandparents promise my mother and father that after they reached safety their families would follow? Did my mother and father ever make peace with their decision to leave? 

Always Prepared for the Worst. 

My mother lived almost sixty years of her life in America with only one goal: to make sure she, her husband, her daughters and everyone she cared about were safe and fed. Her memories of death and war and injustice were always with her, along with her worry that there was no protecting any of us should evil rise up again. 

Four-Alarm Lamb Chops. 

A traditional Jewish cook, my mother made gefilte fish, chopped liver, brisket, kreplach, chicken soup with matzo balls and homemade egg noodles, matzo brie and Bubelah pancakes. And every time she made lamb chops the fire department needed to be called — our unexpected dinner guests.

Growing Up Ratchick.

As a kid, I thought everyone was Jewish, with a few exceptions. Some of the shop owners, mail carriers, tradesmen, policemen, firemen and sanitation workers in our neighborhood weren’t Jewish. Neither were the kids who left school early on Wednesdays for Catechism studies. My world was comfortable. We lived by a predictable calendar of holidays and observances and ate certain foods on certain days, and because my parents owned a bakery, knowing what to eat on what holiday came easily. My parents and their friends donated to a prescribed list of charities and did just about anything to keep the peace. Our lives were predictable and all I thought they should be. Then we got a television — three channels back then — and life got bigger, and when double-features came to our local movie theater, life was huge.

The Ratchick family were not particularly observant Jews. I’m still not, but I try to live my Jewish values, and there are many, like improving the world, inclusion, peace and truth. Most of all, I love the culture and refer to myself as a gastronomic Jew and think of myself as a musical Jew.

DNA 12 early TV set

We were the first in our apartment building to have a television. We had to get up to change the channel, fortunately, there were only three.

Cutlery 01

Julia Inherited the Cooking Gene

My daughter, Julia, is a generous soul, an extraordinary woman and bestselling cookbook author, chef, communicator, agent of positive change and giver of good things to many, many people. She never got to meet my father or mother, but writes about feeling most connected to my grandmother when I cook the things she cooked at home and the things she and my grandfather sold at their bakery…. I always thought of Bubelah as a Yiddish term of endearment. It turns out it also means wonderful pancakes made of whipped eggs and matzo meal. My mom described them, I took notes and then I made them for her. My mom closed her eyes and said, Just like my mom’s.’

During Passover, the Jewish holiday when foods with any type of leavening are customarily avoided, she used to make egg noodles’ out of just eggs. She would make a stack of incredibly thin omelets, almost like egg crepes, roll the stack up like a huge cigar and slice it into thin ribbons…. I particularly love the simplicity of broth and delicate egg noodles.” 

DNA 13 Julia sidebar bubbelah

My baby girl Julia on her cookbook cover.

My Yiddishe Momme

According to 23andMe, I am 100-percent Ashkenazi Southern and Central European Jew, and klezmer music is part of my DNA. Growing up, we had a portable Victrola, and along with the Big Band records my sisters listened to — Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Gil Evans and Sinatra — we collected recordings of cantorial music, including at least three versions of Kol Nidre” (sung the night before Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, this translates in English to all vows”), sung by Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce and Moishe Oysher. The sounds of the violin and the clarinet can still bring me to tears.

Often, when my mother and I sat quietly together, she would sing the first verses of Oyfn Pripetchick,” a Yiddish song that tells the story of a rabbi who teaches the alphabet to small children. Today, you can watch and learn it on YouTube. My mother’s slightly altered version of the song combined part one with a bit of part two. 

Oyfn pripetchick brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub is heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh
Komets-alef-beyz.

On the stove, a small fire is burning,
And in the room, it’s warm,
And the rabbi is teaching small children
The alphabet.

I often wondered about my mother’s love of this song. She never really went to school. Was learning the alphabet one of her unfulfilled wishes? And I’ve often wondered, why do we Jews so often end a story with a question?

When my mother would hum the chorus of My Yiddishe Momme,” I would sing along in English. Those lyrics tell the story of my mother and probably her mother, too. I Googled the song and found it has been recorded by Itzhak Perlman, Connie Francis, Ray Charles, Neil Sedaka and Tom Jones. Charles Aznavour released a French version. I’m thankful to have had my Yiddish momma. 

My yiddishe momme I need her more than ever now
My yiddishe momme I’d like to kiss her wrinkled brow
I long to hold her hands once more as in days gone by
And ask her to forgive me for things I did that made her cry

How few were her pleasures, she never cared for fashion’s styles
Her jewels and treasures, she found them in her baby’s smiles
Oh, I know that I owe what I am today
To that dear little lady so old and gray
To that wonderful yiddishe momme of mine.

I have now become the yiddishe momme. Sometimes, I am comfortable being the old, gray wrinkled woman. I’d prefer to be timeless, not necessarily younger. 

Before and when I was born,

a lot was going on in the world.

Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz scene television program I Love Lucy

1951

I Love Lucy, the series, blurs the lines between real life and television fantasy. We all tune in to Lucy’s red-headed beauty, brains and humor. The first pregnant woman on television and the first female Hollywood powerbroker.

DNA DM 30 The rise of the middle class eputomized by Father Knows Best

1945

The rise of a middle class and the mass media leads us to unfulfilled expectation that real life should look like what we see on television. Is this the American dream?

DNA DM 39 The Polaroid camera immediate gratification

1948

Polaroid Camera feeds our hunger for instant gratification and validation and drove consumers to buy more and more and more film.

DNA DM 19 Rise of Hitler

1933

Adolph Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, is appointed, not elected, Chancellor of Germany. 1939 Invasion of Poland and WWII begins. 1941 Invasion of Pearl Harbor. U.S. joins the fight with the Allied Forces. 1945 WWII ends in Europe on May 8 in the Pacific on September 2. 

DNA DM 20 Franklin Delano Roosevelt mass media President

1933

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is 32nd President of the United States and leads America out of the Great Depression and through WWII.

DNA DM 23 Clare Mc Cardell American SPORTSWEAR designer

1938

Claire McCardell introduces us to ready-to-wear fashion — body-friendly silhouettes, matching separates, tent dresses and the American look.

MV5 B Yj Uy ZW Zk M2 Ut Mz Yx Yy00 Zm Q3 LW Fm ZT Qt OGE2 Yj Bk Nj A3 YW Zl Xk Ey Xk Fqc Gde QX Vy Nzkw Mj Q5 Nz M V1

1939

I love to hate Gone With The Wind.

DNA DM 24 Dorian Leigh and Suzy Parker Sisters and Supermodels

1944

Dorian Leigh and Suzy Parker—sisters and the first supermodels.

Anne frank promo 00000219900048

1952

The Diary of Anne Frank celebrates the wisdom of youth even while in hiding to escape the Nazis and makes us all ask where are you safe.

DNA DM 51 drops first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki WWII ends

1945

The Enola Gay drops first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders. WWII ends.

DNA DM 3 The Wizard of OZ

1939

The Wizard of Oz always leads us home.”

DNA DM 21 NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia reads to the public

1945

Mayor LaGuardia, while the world is at war and NYC newspapers on strike, reads Little Orphan Annie comic strips on the radio and proves government can have a heart.

DNA DM 33 Cameras are readily available to everyone

1950

The Brownie Camera, the Eastman Kodak mass-produced simple box, easy-to-use camera, hits its peak popularity, and we are all photographers.

DNA DM nylon stockings

1939

Nylon Stockings debut and four million pair sell in one day. WWII creates a black market and desperate women use eyebrow pencil to draw seams up their naked legs.

DNA DM 6 Howdy Doody 1947

1947

The Howdy Doody Show, live daytime television for Baby Boomers, seats us all in The Peanut Gallery” and audience participation is encouraged.

DNA DM 46

1947

Dior’s New Look—rounded shoulders, cinched waists, full skirts and the return of feminization — not beloved by emerging feminists.

DNA DM 4 The Red Shoes

1948

The Red Shoes, the movie, asks us to make choices.

DNA DM 5 The Goldbergs on Television

1949

The Goldberg’s on TV brings Jewish family life to America’s living rooms.

DNA DM jeans

1950s

Blue jeans move beyond their working man’s roots to become the symbol of youthful rebellion and unisex fashion.

DNA DM 47 American Camelot

1960

Post-war craving for a happily ever after” is answered with the election of John F. Kennedy and the creation of Camelot. For a brief and shining moment, we all believe everything is possible and all is right with the world.

Father shoes 01

Uniform Dresser

DNA 14 Parents

Before cameras were easily available to people, my parents went to a studio to have their picture taken. Photos as evidence of their life together. 

Beatrice and Julius were point and counterpoint, yin and yang.

My Even-Tempered Father. 

He was patient and exacting, as bakers must be. He was quiet, five feet eleven inches, very handsome and a sharp dresser — think black shirt and checked trousers, the 1950s look, for the days he went to the racetrack. Every day at the bakery, he wore heavy white cotton pants, a shirt and a white cotton apron tied around his waist as he quietly weighed out and kneaded bread dough. On his diabetic feet, he wore big black shoes, cushioned with thick rubber soles so that he could stand long hours. My father called those shoes his money makers.” The bakery cats, Elizabeth and Kline, diligently licked them spit-shine clean of any fallen flour. My father was immaculate, precise — no chocolate or icing touched his ensemble.

My Anxious Mother. 

On the other hand, my mother had limited patience and rushed everything, was lively, emotional, short and not much interested in style or fashion. At the bakery, she wore a white dress-like uniform made of the same heavy cotton as my father’s, but with an apron that went over her neck and covered most of the front of her body. By the end of the morning, she needed a new apron and a bath. She worked in the back of the bakery, noisily emptying trays and pans of just-baked breads and cakes, walking back and forth between the ovens and the display cases in the front of the store where the goods were sold. She worked feverishly, rushing everything, often removing the baked goods from their trays before they had cooled down. Not such a good idea, because hot cakes can sink, breads can crumble and her fingers would burn. She burnt her fingers so many times over the years that we called them her asbestos fingers. My father showed his frustration with her by rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Often frustrated with the bakery’s counter staff, she’d quit her bakery job regularly, but always return the next day. My mother was forever dancing around our apartment, and when she wanted my father to dance with her, he shooed her away.

Rashomon, Aka My Mother, Beatrice Ratchick (Née Levy), Speaks. 

In Rashomon, the 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa, four people tell four different versions of the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife. The film gave birth to the phrase the Rashomon effect,” referring to an event being described in different ways by the people who were involved in it. My mother was a one-woman Rashomon, particularly when she told me and my sisters the story of how she and my father met. Every time she told the story, it was different. Here’s what she said the last time she told their story:

There was this boy. He is so ridiculous. He doesn’t talk much, but thinks he’s in love with me. That was your father. I used to have to stay home after dinner on the Sabbath to wash the dishes. I didn’t finish with the dishes until nine-thirty at night. Your father asked me for a date and my father tells him he has to have me home by ten. 

I didn’t get home until eleven and both of us were punished, but then your father announced to my father, I love her. I want to marry her.’ But, I had an older, beautiful and well-educated sister, Alta. You can’t marry her because her older sister has to get married first,’ my father said. That’s the way it was in Jewish tradition. 

Your father and I answered that we would elope, which would have gotten us thrown out of our families. Then your father’s father declared he wanted a dowry. My father said no because Alta had to get married first. Finally, Alta married a very educated man, not for love, who worked as an accountant for a lumber mill. Then, we got married.”

Love at First Sight? 

Maybe for my father. On their wedding night, my shy father and his new wife shared a straw mattress, while his mother paced and listened outside their door. The next morning, following tradition, she rushed in to check the newlyweds’ sheets. Their marriage had been consummated. My mother, and most likely my father, were no longer virgins. 

But Did They Kiss? 

I never — despite the five of us living in extremely close quarters — saw my father hug or kiss my mother or overheard anything like sex behind their bedroom door, and I often wondered how my parents’ marriage worked. 

Caution and Control. 

Romantic love may have been everywhere in America — movies, television, magazines — but I didn’t see it in our house. My parents lived their whole lives doing what was expected of them. They married, worked and had children. And they took great responsibility for doing what they needed to do in each of those roles. At night, when my mother woke up screaming, trapped in a memory, my father comforted her and pushed her demons away. Clark Kent to my mother’s Lois Lane.

Grief and the crippling fear that every situation in life, even in their new home in America, brought with it the imminent threat of death bound my parents together. Protecting each other was how they showed their love. It was their romance, a fine romance. 

Born With A Grapefruit Spoon In My Mouth

My father believed that if you ate grapefruit, the acid would burn the fat in the other food you were eating. This was a popular belief at the time. He was in the bakery business — carbs everywhere — and he was vain and watched his weight. We always started every dinner with grapefruit halves. My mother pre-sliced the grapefruit sections so that you could easily separate them from the peel and eat them with a fork.

DNA 15 grapefruit with gspoon

Grapefruit was the fad diet food starting in the 1930s. My father was always self-conscious about his weight and a true believer in this miracle food.

My lifelong friend Toby, who I met right after we moved to Brooklyn, lived in our building. One day, I was invited over to her apartment for dinner. The appetizer course was a half grapefruit sprinkled with sugar and a maraschino cherry in the middle. Her mother served each decorated grapefruit half on a small glass plate, and next to the plate was a small, serrated grapefruit spoon. This was my introduction to etiquette. I watched Toby use the serrated edge of the spoon to separate the fruit from the peel. Then I ate the grapefruit carefully so as not to shred my lip.

Around this time, my father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It was my job to give him his insulin shots and, ironically, I learned how to do that by practicing on a grapefruit. I learned a lot from grapefruits. Sadly, they don’t burn fat.

DNA Question 3 Are you superstitious

Are you superstitious?

Are you superstitious?

Just In Case

Superstitions Ruled Our Lives. 

Knock on wood to bring luck; never walk under a ladder; salt over the shoulder when anything was spilled; salt in the pocket for a safe trip; bringing salt, sugar and a loaf of bread to a new home; salt as the all-purpose charm to ward off the evil eye or bubbe meises. Never, never, never put shoes on a table; never open an umbrella in the house; never buy anything for a baby before it’s born. The motto of BABYLAND on the Lower East Side of New York City was We deliver when you deliver.” Never step across a child for fear it will stop growing. Itchy feet, you are going to travel; itchy palm, you are getting money; itchy nose, you’ll be in a fight; itchy ear, someone’s talking about you. Breaking a mirror is dangerous, years of bad luck. If you sneeze while you are talking, you are telling the truth. On and on.

A Little Worry Never Hurt Anyone. 

If my family had a coat of arms, its motto would be Just in case.” In any weather, my tiny mother would stand in our front door, arms out, barring my exit unless I took a sweater with me. When I was out in the world and on my own, I would call my mother from wherever I was and ask, How are you?” Her answer was always I’m alright, now.” Implicit in that statement was that in ten seconds or less, that might not be the case. 

I Learned to Worry and to Take Care of Others from a Pro.

Because I loved her, I can jokingly say that worrying and taking care of those who had no one else to care for them were my mother’s superpowers. She sang and danced around our apartment, but never strayed too far from home or the bakery. She never, not once, left our apartment without cash in her purse and sour-ball candies in her pocket. Being prepared in case she had to flee or met another soul in need was how she neutralized her demons. In our bakery, she made sure her neighbors were fed, whether they had the money to pay for their bread or not. If a customer or one of our bakers hit hard times, my mother put her hand in her pocket and gave what she could to help.

My mother never found freedom from her history or stopped feeling every day was a fight for survival, but in her small acts of kindness she did score a big victory against injustice and was a winner in this life. Yes, when she was a four year old standing on a bread line during the pogroms, that Russian soldier broke her nose, but he did not, could not, break her spirit or sense of what was right and fair.

DNA 16 candies

My mother never left home without emergency hard candies.

Illiterate and Intelligent

Imagine you are seven years old. It is your first day in second grade at a new school in an upwardly mobile neighborhood. You are chubby. Your hair is so curly that your parents braid it and pin it into two buns over your ears. You speak English with a Yiddish accent. All the kids are working on the second level of Learning to Read with Dick and Jane. You cannot read a word of any language. That was me.

There Were No Books Lying Around Our Apartment in Flatbush. 

Read me a story before I go to sleep” are words I never said to my mother. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t read or write, so like my older sisters, I came to reading slowly and felt a lot of shame because I was late to the game. Numbers were my mother’s sweet spot. She did addition in her head. Illiterate, intelligent and very street smart is how I’d define her. 

My Mother Bought Canned Goods by the Pictures on Their Labels. 

She gravitated to the silvery foil cans of Le Sueur peas and the face of Chef Boyardee, as seen on television, on the canned spaghetti sitting on the supermarket shelf. Sometimes in a restaurant, she would hold the menu upside down. Her inability to read and my embarrassment about it motivated me to get good at graphics. I made her a Rolodex of picture cards. There were cards for the bakery, my father, me and my sisters. Each card featured a picture and phone number so she could call any one of us. 

Why Couldn’t She Be Like the Other Mothers? 

I was ashamed of my mother. She didn’t read or write any language. She spoke differently than other mothers. She had a funny nose. She didn’t wear the right clothes. When I got older, after she was gone, I was ashamed about what I had thought of her. As a child, I could feel her caring for me. I needed her, but I didn’t want her. I was spinning, in agony, and I didn’t know to reconcile what I felt about her or myself. Why couldn’t I have a mother who looked like the other American mothers? Why couldn’t I have a perfect television family? If I did, my little kid heart and head told me, I would fit in. I would find my place. I would be thin and pretty and happy.

Years later, many years, I finally realized how courageous my mother was to pick up and move to America, to brave a culture where she had no inroads and to work as hard as she did to succeed. I finally realized I had had the perfect family, just the right family for me. 

Fast Forward Forty Years. 

I was working at Revlon when Jack Stahl, then the CEO, flew a bunch of us down to Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, to stock the store’s shelves. The first thing I learned was that the type on the packaging was too small. The second thing was that a significant percentage of Walmart shoppers didn’t read English or any language, like my mother — intelligent and illiterate. I remembered and was able to put aside my childhood humiliation to empathize with people who had difficulty reading. I redesigned Revlon’s packaging and store displays. A small thing, maybe, but I hope it helped women who wanted to look their best and to navigate this world a little more easily. 

Castro convertible

Castro Convertible Girl

Bakers start work early, very early. (Remember the long-running Dunkin’ Donuts campaign Time to Make the Donuts”?) My father got up for work at two a.m. every morning. My mother woke up at one-thirty a.m. to squeeze him fresh orange juice and send him on his way. Pretending not to hear or see any of this, I would catch a glimpse of him looking back at me as he quietly closed and locked the door. He wasn’t a kisser or a hugger, but in that look I felt loved, and I held onto that feeling. I was privy to my parents’ morning routine because in our small apartment on East Fifth Street off Avenue L, Brooklyn, my parents had one bedroom and my sisters the other, and I slept in the living room on the miraculous, space-saving Castro Convertible. For several minutes at night and early every morning, I was Bernadette Castro, star of television. I felt strong opening and closing the couch and making my bed. I loved to do it, mimicking Bernadette, and I loved my bed. Unfortunately, when family came to visit, they got my parents’ room, my parents got my Castro Convertible and I slept on the couch cushions on the floor. 

DNA Question 4 Are You Your Hair

Are you your hair?

Are you your hair?

Braids

No-Win Hair

When I was a child, my father often braided my hair. My thick curls were braided into two giant challahs on either side of my head — an early Princess Leia. At thirteen, I cut my hair to look like Gale Storm in My Little Margie. My father loved Gale Storm. I liked Gale Storm. I hated my new haircut. On top of my chubby body, I thought I looked like a pinhead. Panicked, I grew my hair back and to straighten it I spent hours under a hair bonnet with enormous, can-sized rollers in my hair to straighten my curls. If I didn’t, my hair would walk into the room before I did.

My hair through the ages, influenced by movies, music and magazines.

Bricks

One of the best lessons I learned from my father was about loyalty. He worked alongside his bakers, and they loved him. I was twelve when my father decided to convert his coal ovens to gas. The new ovens would have rotating shelves so each loaf would bake evenly. 

Everything about coal was messy. It was delivered in big barrels by burly men in coveralls and head coverings, looking scary at best. They rolled the barrels through the front of the store, leaving coal droppings. This always seemed to happen at an inopportune time, like when the store was packed.

DNA 19 Bricks

Sacred ground.

Putting the Money Where My Mouth Is. 

As a kid, I was often in trouble because I would stand at the edge of the slicing machine and wait for the heels, or ends, of the bread to fall into my hands and then I would eat them. My father would yell, You’re eating the profits.”

Changing with the Times.

A few years later, investing in the bakery once again meant going a little upmarket, and my father tiled the wall at the front of the store in pink marble. In the middle of his new beautiful wall, he hung a picture of me — me in my perky Gale Storm haircut.

DNA 18 B Hair

My Little Margie look, open-faced, girlish, innocent and cute, not seductive. Easy to like.

I can remember my father standing in front of his pink marble, next to my picture, smiling, so proud of what he had built for his family in America. People frequently asked him, Who’s in the picture?” He’d answer, The president.” He never said, I love you,” but he had my picture hanging in the bakery — his daughter, the president.

Cat

Working Cats

We had two cats at my father’s Brooklyn bakery. Elizabeth was a tabby. Kline was black and white, named after Franz Kline the American painter of the 1950s whose signature work was black and white. I think Elizabeth, who was always coated in flour, was named after Elizabeth Taylor from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The two cats arrived at the bakery, in my arms, a year apart. They traveled home with me to Brooklyn from the Berkshires, late in August, by train and bus, after I had found them at summer camp. They needed winter homes. My parents were not surprised by my bringing home strays. At the end of previous summers, I’d brought home grass-filled shoeboxes with many orange-spotted green salamanders. I think the salamanders ended up in the pet store. Fortunately, the cats made it to the bakery, where they were useful ratters, well fed and loved.

Growing up, we never had a pet living under our roof. I never questioned my parents about it. The apartment was small and/or perhaps they thought they’d have to be prepared to flee at a moment’s notice and lugging a pet to safety would be an added burden and anxiety.

The Quickie

French chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784 – 1833) invented the charlotte russe. It was originally made with stale bread — later ladyfingers — cream and fruit and held together with a red ribbon.

DNA 21 Charlotte Russe

Like an egg cream, charlotte russes are hard to find. Holtermann’s Bakery on Staten Island is one of the last places where you can find one.

The version of the dessert that made its way to Ratchick’s Bakery in Brooklyn was a short frilly cardboard tube filled with a thin round slice of sponge cake at the bottom, whipped cream and a cherry on top. You pushed the bottom of the tube up, like a Push Pop, to enjoy this treat. The charlotte russe was a favorite in New York City during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Then it began to disappear, except from the shelves at Ratchick’s Bakery — and so came my family’s fifteen minutes of fame.

Lights, Cameras, Action. 

In the early 1970s, Rose Ann Scamardella was a local news and features reporter for WABC-TV Eyewitness News. She called and asked to report on the soon-to-be-extinct charlotte russe. On the day of the interview, the bakery was spotless. My mother and sisters were all dolled up. They’d spent the morning at the local beauty salon getting coiffed and made up and looked so chic in their movie-star hair and makeup and immaculate white uniforms. 

Rose Ann put my mother in front of the camera and asked her, Who buys the charlotte russes?” As my sisters moved back and forth behind her, my mother leaned in as if confiding in Rose Ann and answered, To tell you the truth, Rose Ann, when the trains come back from the city, around five or six o’clock, the men, they come off the trains and come into the bakery for a quickie’ charlotte russe before going home.” And there it was. Breaking news. The bump in sales was short-lived, and soon we said goodbye to the charlotte russe.

Lessons In Inventory Management

Merchandising:

Sometimes, I would watch my father stand, in his whites, proudly leaning against the pink marble wall that he installed in his Brooklyn bakery on Avenue J and East Fifteenth Street. He would watch customers to understand what was selling, or not, and think. Was the babka in the right place? Should it sit, front and center, in the window, or on the glass counter shelves? Was a cookie or egg kichel offered to a customer? He understood merchandising, although I doubt that was the word he used. When an item sold out, everyone was happy, except my father. His idea of a good day was when there would be one, just one, of everything left. Then he knew he hadn’t made too little, and he hadn’t disappointed any customers. In publishing, my challenge was making sure we had enough magazines on the newsstands. Like my father, I always wanted one left. One cover front and center on the newsstand for everyone to see helped to build awareness and market to the browsing public, and that was my goal. Waiting for a flight at an airport or my train at Grand Central, I would cruise through the newsstands and move our issues to the front. My competitors did the same.

Take Stock:

During World War II, when my father’s bakery was on Watson Avenue in the Bronx, flour, butter and eggs were hard to come by. He managed, but all of a sudden, he started noticing that he never had the number of eggs he needed. He was always short, and it frustrated him for months. One warm day, as his bakers left to head home, my father saw one of them leave with a large fedora on his head, a hat more suitable to the cooler weather, not summer in New York. The next day when the man put on his fedora and made for the door, my father gave him a pat on the head. The man left with egg on his face, and nothing needed to be said. My father’s lesson to me: you don’t have to shout or even lecture. A simple gesture can be enough.

DNA 22 Eggs

During the Great Depression, eggs were rationed to prevent hoarding.

Never!

A therapist once said to me, You need to get over the bakery.” I couldn’t get over the bakery, and after a lot of trying, I realized I didn’t want to get over the bakery. I valued my experiences there. Many of the things that made me successful in business later in life, I learned in the bakery. So, I got over that therapist.

Swimming In My Gene Pool

My sisters, Debby and Renee, were born eighteen months apart; me, fourteen and twelve and a half years later. I was the next generation. Somehow, I still lived between Tradition, tradition!” and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I was a first-generation American girl straddling the enormous gap between my parents’ old world and the new one. I was an outsider in both worlds, confused and struggling for balance, trapped in Tevye’s curse. 

Before and when I was born,

a lot was going on in the world.

DNA DM 27 Brigitte Bardot in a B Ikini

1952

Bardot, age 17, stars in Manina, The Girl in the Bikini, and women suck- in their tummies and we all navel-gaze.

DNA DM 45 The Rosenberg Execution

1953

The Rosenberg Execution—Julius and Ethel convicted of trading U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets die in the electric chair at Sing-Sing Correctional Facility. Was justice done?

Screen Shot2018 07 21at8 24 58 PM

1954

Brown v. Board of Educationthe unanimous Supreme Court decision rules racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

DNA DM 49 The Polio Vaccine lessens fears

1955

Americans line up for Salk Polio Vaccines. The disease, thanks to global immunizations, is eliminated in most of the world.

MV5 BMT Uz Mj Rm YW Yt Zm M3 YS00 Nz M0 L Thm ZT Qt Mj Vj MT Vm MW Ey Yz U2 Xk Ey Xk Fqc Gde QX Vy Mj Q3 N Dc5 Mz Y V1

1956

Grace Kelly proves Cinderella stories do come true. The classic Hollywood beauty marries Prince Rainer of Monaco and is crowned America’s first princess.

1920s-1950s

Music, Music, Music
Blues, Dixie, Ragtime, Jazz, Folk, Show Tunes, Big Bands, Swing, Movie Scores, Traditional Pop, R&B and Rock n Roll are America’s gift to the world. Different sounds and stars define each generation, dance us through the depression, send men and women off and bring them home from war and get teens screaming for and at their idols.

Magazine

A Page in a Magazine

Glamour was not something you found in our two-bedroom apartment, but my sister Debby was very, very glamourous, very seductive. When I was younger and asked my sister what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, A page in a magazine.” 

Style Was Debbys Passport Out of the Bronx. 

She studied and earned her degree in style and living well — not at any university. Her education started with monthly doses of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country. In their pages, she learned what to wear and how to wear it. Shopping was her extra-credit homework and how she spent her free time. She took meticulous care of her clothes — every bag, every shoe. All her things were always in good repair and each had its place on a shelf. Leather goods were kept in soft bags; hangers were padded. Her clothes, shoes and accessories were badges of achievement and important to her. She treated them with recognition and respect, and they brought her the same. They were her gallery of worthiness. 

Drama, Attitude and Seduction, Debby Learned From Hollywood. 

She watched and mimicked movie stars’ looks and moves. I have pictures of my sister striking poses, conscious of the camera on her, showing herself to her best advantage. She swam like Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid, her elegant hands sweeping up, slicing into the water, her body gliding along, all style, no speed. Like Elizabeth Taylor in Black Beauty, Debby understood the cachet of riding a horse, so she bought jodhpurs. First she bought them for the look, and then she learned to ride. Our family — all five of us — lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. We rode the elevated subway. Debby rode a horse. 

Debby striking a pose.

Debby Was a Glamour Girl, Not Cut Out to Be Behind the Counter. 

She and Renee put in their time at the family bakery, serving customers, taking orders, slicing bread, tying cake boxes with the red and white string we pulled down from the spool hanging from the ceiling and snapping the string with our bare hands. Debby stood behind the counter in a starched white uniform, not a smear on her, no flour dust, no chocolate under her manicured fingernails. She dialed the rotary phone with the eraser end of a pencil and dictated orders and we jumped. 

Debby Majored in How to Live on New Yorks Upper East Side,

studying the theater, the ballet and the opera — always from the good seats. She taught herself about art, tutored by her friend Ursula Kalish, and started buying prints: Larry Rivers, Raphael Soyer and the highly symbolic, sexual work of Nicole Eisenman. Then came my sister’s wine classes.

I Was Debbys Living Doll and Toughest Project. 

I got to go along with her on shopping trips, and she made attempts to make me over. I tried so hard not to disappoint her, but I think I did. She was tough on me and later on her daughter, Ivy, and even later on my daughter, Julia. She was serious about fashion and grooming. The three of us, not so much. In small, meaningful ways, her love of the arts and all she aspired to had an impact on us.

I often ask myself, Who would I be without my sister Debby?

Gold-Tipped Cigarettes.

Back before we knew smoking was not our friend, gold-tipped Nat Shermans were sold exclusively at the Fifth Avenue shop. An upmarket tourist destination, the shop was outfitted in dark wood and glass cabinets, a bit like the lounge or library in a men’s club. Cigarettes were organized by color in the display cases. Customers had the option to choose the cigarettes in the color they wanted or buy a tiny gift box of pre-selected gold-tipped smokes — a lot like gourmet chocolates. Nat Shermans did not come in a flip-top box or soft pack. Debby smoked signature Nat Sherman cigarettes — slim pastel pink paper with gold-colored filter tips for that all-important added touch of elegance. 

DNA 24 Nat Sherman Cigarettes

Gold-tipped cigarettes, smoking gets the royal treatment.

Smoking for Debby Was a Glamourous Ritual. 

There was the lifting of the lid of the box, the selecting a cigarette with her manicured fingernails, the tap of the cigarette on the monogramed box top, the intimacy of slipping the cigarette between her long fingers, then her lips and lighting up. If someone lit the cigarette for her, there was the added romance of hands touching and a smoky thank you. With every cigarette, there was drama and sensuality. Debby inhaled and exhaled like she’d seen Gabor, Bacall, Dietrich and Hepburn do it on the big screen. Every exhale was graceful. The smoke seductively snaked along her face, a veiled close up. 

Smoking Nat Shermans Was Also How Debby Maintained Her Weight. 

A lot of women, back in the mid-twentieth century, saw cigarettes as diet aids. I thought smoking gave you attitude, was so Hollywood and filled the pauses in conversations. Smokers connected with other smokers over the inhales and exhales. My father was a cigar smoker. When he was in a group of smokers, he would strike a match and help a lady light up. That was good manners. Oh, I wanted to smoke like Debby, wanted to connect, but, alas, I couldn’t inhale.

Poor Renee

In a family of outsiders, my sister Renee was perhaps the biggest outsider of us all. She was born eighteen months after my sister Debby and twelve and a half years before me.

The Jewel Box Revue,

a troupe of female impersonators, performed regularly at the Mosque Theatre. They were also Renee’s friends, and when I was seven years old she took me to see them. The theater was a straight club that gave the Jewel Box Revue performers a stage. Renee loved the glamour, the star-studded spectacle and drama of the drag shows. I suspect it took her out of our shtetl to a place of freedom, invention and the forbidden. Backstage was packed with Marilyn Monroes and Judy Garlands, and seven-year-old me watched and was awed by their performances. They were so powerful and personal and emotional on stage. In their characters, they were celebrities, wildly applauded and loved by their audiences — performers who could not be ignored. I saw and felt their freedom, and I saw that Renee loved that power. 

Renee Was the Protector. 

She was what is known in Yiddish as a shtarker, strong and also something of a loudmouth. For as long as I can remember, Renee was wild and always seemed to be in trouble, mostly with men and money. There were many stories about her that began with poor Renee,” but she was very smart and rich in her ability to care for people, albeit sometimes including the not-so-good-to-Renee people. When she and Debby were little, if someone made Debby cry, there was Renee. She said she was born to take care of Debby. 

Poor Rich Renee

One of the glass jars Renee kept and hoped to fill with nursing supplies.

DNA 26 Renees Wedding picture

Renee and Larry’s wedding at the Hotel Riverside Plaza, Upper West Side, NYC.

Handsome Larry Was Renees First Husband.

They married when she was twenty years old. His beauty became her beauty, and his cancer, which she knew about before they got married, and subsequent need for a caregiver became her chance to be the nurse she always wanted to be. My parents didn’t hear about Larry’s cancer until Renee had walked down the aisle and exchanged vows. Larry worked installing and repairing air conditioners and lost his job after he had a seizure and couldn’t drive anymore. My father took him on at the bakery as a clerk, and he continued to work there as best he could until he couldn’t. A divide grew between Renee and my father. They couldn’t talk to each other about why my father said no to nursing school or Larry’s illness and the effect on the entire family. 

I Loved Spending Time with Renee. 

When she had her first child, my nephew Alan, she got him a duck as a pet, and the duck lived in Alan’s playpen. The duck, Alan and the playpen required constant cleaning, and Renee climbed into the pen and got down on her knees to get the job done. She liked to clean and tidy up and organize, and she made a game out of folding and rearranging the contents of drawers and closets. 

Food Was Renees Xanax.

She ate and fed her children copious amounts of food. She cooked and cooked and cooked and served up huge portions of everything with plenty of butter, meat, carbs and multiple desserts. For her fiftieth birthday, I gave her fifty plastic containers. It seemed an appropriate gift for my organizing sister, and she put every one of them to good use. After over-cooking for every family meal, she would spoon uneaten mashed potatoes, brisket, cake, etc., etc. into those plastic containers and send us home with ample leftovers.

Strength and Money Were How Renee Measured Her Self-Worth. 

She would protect other people, but not herself. She worked long hours. After high school, it was as a bookkeeper for a leather goods company, and then, after the kids were grown, it was at a stuffed toy manufacturer. And always at our bakery — where, if needed, she used the cash register as her personal piggy bank. Renee sold costume jewelry from her apartment when her kids were little, and her last job was at an African American braiding salon in the basement of her apartment building in Brooklyn. Clem, the Asian-Jamaican master weaver, owner of Clem Lue Yat Interlocking Hair Salon, became her family. She worked as his receptionist, appointment maker and bookkeeper. This job guaranteed that she was always coiffed and manicured. And as in many families, the relationship with Clem ended with a fight about money.

Love Didn’t Sit Comfortably with Renee. 

She couldn’t seem to accept it. Danny, who owned the fruit and vegetable store in our neighborhood, adored her, loved her spirit, but Renee rejected him. She didn’t believe she was deserving of his love, or maybe he didn’t need protection or care. Renee died of pancreatic cancer when she was seventy-two. She died gently, recognizing that the treatments were not curing her, and the most poignant moment at her funeral was when Danny, who never stopped loving her, showed up.

There’s One In Every Family

If ever there were brothers who were polar opposites, it was my father and his younger brother, Kalman. They didn’t look like brothers. My father was five feet eleven inches and trim. Kalman was five feet seven inches and weighed about as much as his older brother. His nose was flattened to his face, having been broken so many times in wrestling matches and fights that he had lost his sense of smell. Stubby, barrel chested and with huge arms, Kalman looked like Nikita Khrushchev, premier and first secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. He also had the same charming disposition and dress sense. A bulvan—which The Yiddish Dictionary of Fools defines as An ox, with no class” — he was a loud, explosive, hothead.

Man on the Run. 

When the Jews were driven out of Różan, my father and his family moved to Pultusk. The Russians didn’t have a lot of tolerance for the Jews, and there was a curfew. Of course, Kalman couldn’t keep to the curfew. He was out late. A policeman stopped him. Surprise! Kalman picked him up and threw him over a fence. The police showed up at the family home to arrest Kalman. My grandmother, who knew her son wouldn’t survive in jail, bribed the policeman and Kalman was released. Only problem — he couldn’t stay in Poland. He fled to Mexico. 

DNA 27 A

Kalman with wife number one, Etka, and their son Sam.

DNA 27 B Clare

Claire, wife number two, the nightmare.

UDEL Lstones

How do you want to be remembered?

How do you want to be remembered?

Famous In Death

Obsessed with death. That’s what my husband, Doug, says about me. He’s right. I have been reading the New York Times obituaries on a daily basis since I was in my mid-twenties. Each is a spirited little capsule that captures a life, often making evident the essence of someone who did something productive on behalf of others. For the most part, I read obituaries because they are inspiring celebrations and reminders of how a person touched others and made a difference in this world. 

DNA 28 Parents

My parents sitting on a bench outside their Ocean Parkway apartment the winter before my father died.

My father, Julius David Ratchick, was remembered with an obituary. It ran in a trade organization newspaper for specialty bakers. I only recently found it. I had put it away somewhere safe, and we all know how that goes. But finally, it made its way out of that drawer. 

His obituary spoke to his fairness and leadership, but the writer had misspelled his name. My mother, Beatrice Levy Ratchick, never had an obituary written for her. It’s time for my mother to get her own obituary and for my father to be remembered with the right spelling of his proud Ellis Island – edited, Jewish Eastern European name. It’s my time to do the honors and celebrate all they gave me. 

Julius David Ratchick (1901–1965)

Born in Belarus, the son of a miller, renowned Brooklyn baker Julius David Ratchick was a hero by circumstances and by character. While the pogroms raged across Eastern Europe and Russia, Julius, with his wife, Beatrice Levy Ratchick, escaped enslavement and likely death and found safety and opportunity in America. 

Give with a Full Heart and Expect Nothing in Return

was the rule by which Julius Ratchick lived his life. His wife’s cousin took him on at his bakery and opened a door for him, and Julius paid it forward. He gave with his whole heart to the men he worked with, his neighbors and customers and his family. He opened his home to many when they fled repression and possible death. 

Thou Shalt Not Lie.

One of his bakers, Victor Leibowitz, said of him, He taught me all about baking, to love what you do, run an ethical business and give back.” He used to say, The most important thing is to always tell the truth. You’ll never be hurt by telling the truth.” And he lived that truth.

My Father Did Not Pass Gently from This Life.

Late in life, he developed diabetes. He lost a leg, sight in one eye, much of his kidney function, his ability to care for and protect us and his purpose in life. Days were spent in bed, under the care of a nurse, and not in front of his bakery’s beautiful pink marble wall. There was no rushing in to get the bread started so neighbors who counted on him could get their rye or wheat or sourdough loaves. He lingered and hated himself because he lingered. He stayed silent and frustrated by the burden he was putting on our family. Helpless, he watched his bakery falter and gave in to me and my mother giving him his shots and carrying him to the toilet. His humiliation was profound and agony to witness.

Debby would swoop in and give him a big kiss on his cheek. It made him so uncomfortable, yet it was so important for both of them to share. He begged to be gone from this life, and I felt like I was betraying him because I could not help him die. So, we waited, and each of us struggled in our own way with the thought of losing him.

On the day he died, I was in the living room doing my college coursework. My mother was by his side, the nurse close by. My mother stepped out of the room for a minute, and in that instant, my father died. I don’t think he wanted my mother to be there and to carry that memory with her until the end of her life. She had seen enough death, suffered enough loss. He was gone, and after his death, our apartment did not grow quieter, just so empty.

I Didn’t Cry at My Fathers Funeral.

It took me fourteen years to process my father’s death so that I could actually say goodbye to him, and I did it in a dream. The dream: My father and I are on a small old yellow bus traveling down a dusty road in a warm, sunny yet desolate place. The bus stops. I get off; my father doesn’t. I wave as the bus drives away.

DNA 29 Dream (cropped)

Dream bus.

Beatrice Levy Ratchick (1902–1980)

Born somewhere in Ukraine to a baker and restauranteur, Beatrice was her parents’ third child and a giant — the tallest five-foot-one-inch woman you could ever meet. Her family fled to Belarus during the pogroms, and most of them did not survive. It was in Belarus that she met and married the smart and handsome son of a miller, Julius Ratchick, and together, they fled across Europe to America. 

Beatrice Was a Tiny Girl with a Big Heart and Unbeatable Will. 

She was mischievous and tied the sacred fringes of her rabbi’s prayer shawl to his chair and wore out her Sabbath shoes dancing. Fearlessly, she stood in front of and shielded her father when Bolshevik soldiers attempted to cut off his beard. Always prepared, she’d have money in her pocket, a sweater on her back and some candy in her pocket just in case someone needed it or she had to flee.

Home Was Her Oasis, 

and her nightly ritual was enjoying a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, eaten slowly, with a teaspoon that she held with her pinky finger elegantly extended, the very picture of a society lady.

When she suffered a mild heart attack, she was taken to the hospital and told that in the morning the doctors would put in a pacemaker. She had another plan. I went to see Beatrice the night before she was scheduled for surgery, and she was not happy about it. I don’t want to take a shower with a machine,” she said. I sat by her hospital bed and assured her, You’ll be fine,” and said goodnight. Beatrice answered, Goodbye,” then died in the middle of the night.

Epilogue: This Was Love. 

Both my mother and father died quietly, not to cause any trouble” to anyone. That’s the way they wanted it. When it was my parents’ time, they just wanted out. My mother and father were each their own person, and each was the other’s partner. They never raised their voices to each other, that I know of. The most romantic moment I ever saw them share was toward the end of my father’s life. As they both lay still in bed, I saw them holding hands. 

Typo

Deadlines — press dates for publications and on-air dates for advertisers — ruled over me my entire career. On every project, there were always last-minute changes and panicked clients, writers, re-touchers and designers pleading to fix something. I would always try to accommodate and said, If it’s not etched in stone, we can fix it.”

DNA 30 parents grave (cropped)

My parents’ grave.

In the Jewish tradition, a headstone is placed at the head of the grave within a year of someone’s death, and friends and family gather to unveil it. After my mother died, the job of engraving the headstone fell to me, and I handled all the details with the monument maker. The date of the unveiling was set. We gathered at Old Montefiore Cemetery on Springfield Boulevard in Queens.

Everyone who was there to show their respects waited at the entrance gates of the section of the cemetery that belonged to the Bronx Bakers Mutual Aid Association, a burial organization to which my mother had paid ten-dollar-a-month dues to ensure that my parents would have an appropriate final place to rest. They shared the plot with the friends my father played cards with on Monday nights when he wasn’t baking. Following custom, a cloth covered my mother’s headstone. The rabbi opened his prayer book and we began. My sisters cried, the cloth was lifted and the crying stopped. Etched in stone, the date of my mother’s death was wrong. My mistake. My sisters were in a rage. I had given her three extra days.