Butterfly Dress

from BOOKBINDERS: FIVE RECOLLECTIONS

[Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997.]

Bookbinder is my mother’s family name. Thus it has become the secret code word when I call up for information on my bank accounts. Even before she married Grandpa Jake, Grandma Ida’s family name was Bookbinder. I was one of those early 20th century European matches of not-too-distant cousins. Grandma’s relations had lots of children, many of them sons, so there were many New York Jewish Bookbinder children and grandchildren to whom I was related. In the 1950s, Bookbinder cousins drifted to Miami and elsewhere. Some went into the restaurant business.

Jacob and Ida had five offspring: Esther, Shirley, Frieda, Sam, and Emma. In this branch of the family, women took over and the Bookbinder name got lost. Esther, my mother, was 29 when I was born just 18 days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. These Bookbinders, her family, made a strong impression on me when I was a young boy, and even later. As you will see, they were characters. Here are some pieces of their stories – and mine.

Butterfly Dress

Aunt Emma, my mother’s youngest sibling, was still a teenager when I was a toddler. She was – and is – my favorite relative from that side of my family. My first babysitter, she was also the person who introduced me to many things that were important to my boyhood. Cheerful and generous, she would invariably wear her smart-looking dress with the butterfly print whenever she took me from our suburban Long Island home into the city for an adventure. In later years, the butterfly dress became a family joke, but when I was a boy it was a field of wings that would carry me to magical places.

As a young woman in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Aunt Emma had a spirit of adventure that infected me. Our “dates” were exciting and romantic. She loved music and musical theater, and she opened my eyes and ears to the wonders of live performances. I can’t thank her enough for these gifts of time and attention, gifts more lasting and vital than any toy or piece of clothing. When I became an adult and wrestled with raising my own children, I thought back and marveled at her patience with me, the oldest of her several nieces and nephews. I think I was special to her then. Though neither of us could know it, she provided those early glimpses of the creative life that years later became part of my way of being.

She took me to the Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Having me go to this series (in 1948-49) was my parents’ idea, as I was a violin student at the time. But I remember that it was Aunt Emma who most often went with me. On at least one occasion, Leopold Stokowski conducted.

She took me to a rodeo and to circuses at Madison Square Garden. She took me to powerhouse revues like Lend an Ear, in which Carol Channing had a part, and New Faces of 1952, a show that helped make Eartha Kitt a major star. She also took me to South Pacific, the original with Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin. From the beginning, I was in on the joke about “Sam and Janet Evening.”

Aunt Emma would negotiate our journey from Oceanside, or my father would take me into town, or I would spend a weekend at Grandma Ida’s (on Fulton Avenue in the Bronx) where Emma still lived. Then, most likely in that butterfly dress, she would be my older sister and older woman and priestess, floating me into enchanted realms where people spoke in music and lights danced. Before or after, we’d sit in elegant Manhattan restaurants where obsequious waiters made me feel very special, no doubt taking their cue from the delightful young woman who was paying the bill.

These were mysterious and thrilling times, especially as I turned 11 and 12. Looking and feeling less like a little kid now, I was teased and petted by Aunt Emma’s girl friends, who sometimes joined us. Their heavy perfumes and the soft hissing of their satiny dresses dazzled me.

In Aunt Emma’s room and on Grandma Ida’s coffee table there were always copies of the magazines, quite popular then, that printed the lyrics of the latest hit tunes. Emma loved to sing and wanted to have the words down cold, and often I’d join her, magazine in hand, through a number that was featured on Your Hit Parade. She seemed like such a free spirit, though life eventually brought her the usual mix of sorrows and joys, with more restraints than flights. But when I was a boy, she was a gay butterfly and we sang duets against the rattle of the elevated train just a few blocks away from Fulton Avenue.

Actually, even while telling this story, I think that something is wrong. The butterfly dress was real. I have photos of her wearing it. But I believe it belonged to an earlier time, before I was ready for Broadway rhythms. Maybe whatever Aunt Emma would wear on those special days when she took me up into the clouds became a butterfly dress. At any rate, that’s how I see her: luminescent wings against the dark, a beautiful spirit self-created in a poor and dingy corner of the city, lifting me up, lighting my way.

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