Monday, April 13, 2009

My Life in 1909

My father's father arrived at Ellis Island in 1906, when he was three years old, and his family moved to the Lower East Side. I do not know exactly where they lived, but whenever I find myself in that neighborhood, which is often over the past few years, I wonder what it must have been like to live there 100 years ago.

When I was a teenager, I read Henry Roth's magnificent Call It Sleep, which gave me a feeling for the teeming ethnicity of the area, and the Tenement Museum has preserved a reasonable facsimile of the crowded apartments there.

I was thrilled yesterday to discover TimesTraveler, a window into the events of a century ago via the pages of the New York Times, and to read about an Easter parade on Grand Street, "the Fifth Avenue of the Lower East Side," in which dresses with hundreds of buttons and green shoes prevailed, and the most dashing headgear was "a cross between a vegetable garden and a fruit salad."

I imagined my grandfather as a little boy, eyes wide, taking it all in. And I wondered who I would have been then - at my age, almost certainly a grandmother, perhaps a shop owner or part of a theatrical family, like the great star Molly Picon. I think I would have been a contemporary of my great-great-grandmother on my mother's side, whose family had lived in Connecticut since the 1860s.

My options in the 20th and 21st centuries have been much vaster than I'd guess hers were. Working-class women like her worked, but in general they didn't have careers; they raised children and cleaned and cooked and sewed, and read the newspapers to keep up with the doings of Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV, who, as it happens, was a party to a scandalous divorce in 1909. (Mr. Astor thereafter married an 18-year-old and then perished on the Titanic, leaving all his money to his son, who eventually married the late Brooke Astor.)

Back then, if they were at all attractive, women were certainly not single, which I have been, at least nominally, for far more of my adult life than not. However, I am glad to have had that choice, and the luxury of worrying about things like Amazon rank rather than where I can find a pushcart vendor who will give me a potato on credit to make soup for my large and hungry family.

(Hester Street in 1901, from New York Architecture.)

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