MY MOTHER, GOD, AND THE BIG BLUE FORD
by Ben Fine
1. THE BIG BLUE FORD
My mother was thirty-eight year’s old and had never had a driver’s license or a car. This was common for many New Yorkers, Cars were unnecessary given the public transportation system and besides very few people owned autos. Even living during the forties in auto-obsessed Los Angeles she still did not learn how to drive. However in 1953, living in my grandparent’s house in Brighton Beach, working a short distance away in Coney Island Hospital but going to school in Manhattan, she decided that she needed a car. She purchased for herself, an aquamarine Ford sedan. It had cloth seating and no power steering and was quite difficult for her to handle. My grandfather pointed out the major problem. She didn’t have a license.
“A car, Sonny?” my grandfather asked, a look of confusion on his face, “You don’t have a license.”
“Look Pop, I’m living here and going to school in Manhattan. I need a car. Isn’t it nice?”
She pointed at the new big blue Ford sedan that was now parked in front of our house on Brighton Fourth Street. A man from a car dealership had dropped it off.
“You’ll teach me to drive Pop, you have a license.”
“Sonny, I drove a truck over twenty years ago and I haven’t driven since,” my grandfather answered still shaking his head “but if it’s what you want I’ll teach you.”
I was walking alongside the car and looking inside. Shiny and bright sky blue, it had nice red cloth seats and it had a radio. We could go places and not have to always take a trolley or a bus. To a five-year-old, this was one of the coolest things.
My grandfather, who had a license, but never owned a car, and never drove, proceeded to teach her, as best he could, how to drive.
Somehow - she didn’t have the money for bribery – my mother managed to pass her license exam and embarked on a forty-year career of terrible driving. She was certainly within the worst one hundred drivers of her era. Within four months of getting her license, she managed to run over a motorcycle cop. Well, actually not the officer himself but his motorcycle. As with many new older drivers, she went too slowly and was constantly on the lookout for the terrible and aggressive other drivers. Couple this with her difficulty in handling her Ford’s steering made each drive an exercise in terror. Driving defensively and on the lookout for other dangerous drivers she managed to go through a red light and was pulled over by a motorcycle officer. This set her into a panic. She stopped her car in the middle of the street as he signaled her to the side. He then foolishly parked his motorcycle behind her car and walked over to her window.
“What do you think that is,” he yelled at her as he pointed at the traffic light, “a candy apple? Now move to the side lady and shut your car off. Then give me your license and registration.”
My mother, now in complete panic mode, tried to move her car off the road but instead threw the transmission into reverse and with the startled officer looking on, backed over his motorcycle.
“What the hell are you doing?” he shrieked.
My mother managed to stop her car before too much damage was done and sat there waiting for the worst. The officer looking at his bike, wiped his brow, looked at my mother and shook his head. “Just get out of here lady and watch the lights.”
As she gained experience, and she bought cars with power steering, her driving got worse and she became even more of a menace to the general driving population. She now drove with a single pinky on the wheel, still too slow, but constantly chain smoking with the other hand. On one occasion, years later, she was driving with my mother-in-law sitting in the front seat and my wife and her aunt sitting in the back seat of a Buick Skylark. Of course, one pinky on the wheel and a cigarette in the other hand, talking constantly to my mother-in-law and only occasionally looking at the road. Suddenly my mother-in-law said, “Sonny, our exit is over here” and pointed to the right side of the highway.
“Oh thanks, Sylvia.” My mother then proceeded, without looking, to cut across three lanes of Belt Parkway traffic to get to her exit. In the course of this maneuver, she forced another car onto the side roadbed. My wife, the only other driver in the car, ducked her head in fear. Once off the exit, my mother proceeded as if nothing happened. However, the driver of the car forced off the road chased her and drove up alongside her flashing a standard middle finger salute. “You stupid lady driver,” he yelled, “you almost killed me. Where did you buy your license?”
My mother, oblivious to what she had done, turned to my mother-in-law and said calmly, “Sylvia, these men drivers are so aggressive. They’re a menace to the road.”
Besides being a poor driver, she had a nonexistent sense of direction, and was constantly getting lost – fublundged was the term she used. She was not averse to stopping and asking directions but then would get lost off of the directions. A young couple Monroe and Sylvia Miller, who were friendly with my mother and lived across the street from my grandparent’s bungalow, moved to Tuxedo, New York a bit upstate in the Catskill Mountains. My mother arranged to visit them and we set out for their house, just she and I, at nine AM on a Saturday morning. The plan, as I understood it, was to get there mid-morning, have lunch with them, and see their new place. The New York State Thruway was not yet built so we had to take State Route Seventeen, the standard pathway to the Catskill Mountain region. The ride, from Brighton Beach to Tuxedo, even without the Thruway, should have taken no more than two hours. My mother sailed along smoothly and quickly to the George Washington Bridge and then continued without problem following the Palisades Parkway to Route Seventeen. Although everything was a straight drive, somehow my mother made a wrong turn somewhere in Sullivan County. Realizing that she was fublundged she asked at a service station, where the gas station owner set her on a correct path. Forty minutes later, after passing through two adjacent villages and several vacation bungalow colonies we somehow passed the same service station. She calmly went back in to get new directions. I was getting antsy – typical six-year-old stuff – but it was an adventure and I kept asking “Where are we going, next Mom?”
My mother, for her part, never became overly upset – “We’ll get there,” she kept telling me. We visited every Sullivan County town near Tuxedo, most of them I’ve never returned to, saw some nice mountain vistas, called the Millers several times from pay phones, and finally arrived at their house exhausted at 2:30 PM.
On another occasion, she and my aunt Katie, my grandfather’s youngest sister, were going to a party, somewhere on Long Island, and of course got lost. They suddenly realized that they had circled the same corner three times and concluded that they were going incorrectly. It was a deserted street in the middle of a neighborhood that they didn’t know, thirty miles from their home, and only a single car parked on the street. The parked car had two people sitting inside it with smoky windows; an apparent intimate encounter. My mother though, knew she was lost, and needed to ask directions, so on this third time past this parked car she stopped and knocked on the window. The male passenger angrily rolled down his window and my mother looked in shock at a married doctor from Coney Island Hospital, where she worked as the Director of Social Services, together with a single nurse also from the hospital. My mother walked away without getting directions, leaving the perplexed doctor, who thought he had found a perfectly deserted spot for a tryst, to ponder how and why she found him there.
2. NEVER TURN AWAY WHEN YOU’RE NEEDED
That big, blue Ford meant more to me than just a road menace. That car became a special place for my mother and I, and it was driving with her in that car that I learned both my mother’s life and just as importantly her philosophy of life.
Each Saturday I went to see my father. His apartment was on Eighty-Sixth Street and Broadway and when they first divorced he would take the subway to Brighton Beach to pick me up. My mother had friends in Manhattan that she often visited with on the weekends when I was with my father, so after she bought the Ford she volunteered to drive me to my father’s apartment. For most of the week, she was busy with work and school and I was left in the care of my grandparents. That Saturday afternoon drive became our private time together, just my Mom and me. I looked forward to it as much as anything during the week. My friends asked, “How come you’re never around on Sundays?” I just told them that I did stuff with my family.
The drive should have taken forty-five minutes but with my mother’s slow driving and constant talking, it seemed longer. There were no seatbelts and no restriction that children had to sit in the rear so I sat on the cloth front seat and faced her. I listened and she talked on and on. Of course, she told her stories and I learned all about her life; the art school, the marionettes, Michigan and California, but there was more. She had a very personal view of what the world required of all of us and she impressed this on me; her politics, her religion and most of all her conviction that we were put here to help other human beings.
On these personal views, she felt she was one hundred percent correct and there were no questions. She hated right-wingers with a passion, calling them reactionaries, and said plainly, “Benjie you can’t have a heart and vote Republican.” My Uncle Misha was an ardent anti-Communist from his days in the White Army during the Russian Civil War and he leaned slightly to the right politically; to my mother, this meant that he didn’t believe that every Republican was a Nazi. My mother and he would often argue about politics; the more heated they became the less intelligible my Uncle Misha’s heavy Russian accent became. Many times these arguments descended into shouting matches, and then just as quickly turned into laughter.
She fell naturally into left-wing politics. Her grandfather Barnett, my grandmother’s father, was a Socialist activist in Europe who after immigrating became one of the leaders in the Clothing Worker’s Union. My mother after high school worked for several years in the garment center and she told me “Benjie things were so bad in the sweatshops, the union had to come into being. There was a big fire at one of these companies and the girls couldn’t get out. They locked the doors so they couldn’t walk out to get a smoke. The girls had to jump and were killed.”
On the front seat of that Ford, I listened with horror and had visions of young girls, and I was thinking classmates, hitting the pavement. She continued, “My grandfather Barnett told me that we had to act – we couldn’t do it by Economic means alone. That’s why I became involved with the Socialist party.”
Economic means meant nothing to me, but the words stuck in my head. It was only years later, that I read about the famous Triangle Shirtwaist fire and understood what she was telling me.
She never officially joined any organization, which was fortunate for her during the McCarthy witch hunt in the early fifties. “Poor Joe Lobel lost his job with the Sanitation Department because his mother had him sign some anti-bomb petition,” she told my grandmother who shook her head in disgust. Others of her friends were harassed during the anti-leftist hysteria. Her job at Coney Island Hospital was a New York City job and she would have lost it if she had any official leftist background. All this political activity and talk swirled around me but most of the concepts were meaningless to a young boy. I just took in what I heard. It was clear that McCarthy was a villain as were those who sold out and testified against others.
As part of the ride to my father’s, we went on the old Gowanus Highway, a narrow stretch of elevated cobblestone highway that passed through the Brooklyn waterfront and led to the Battery Tunnel. The tenements of the area perhaps made famous by Arthur Miller’s play, A View From the Bridge fronted and hung right over the highway. On hot summer days, the people would hang out of their windows as the traffic passed by. My mother looked at the sweating tenants in crumbling buildings and shook her head. “It was all like that during the Depression,” she told me. “No one had anything. There were thousands of people living in tents in the parks. Papa George was out of work for almost three years. Grandma took in sewing but the only way we ate was Papa George went fishing in Sheepshead Bay. These tenements like this is what we were trying to end”. She then pointed at the people looking out at us, men in cutaway tee shirts, women with aprons sitting on fire escapes and continued. “But it’s still all the same, all these poor people just struggling. The New Deal tried to help but everyone protects what they have. Always remember, Benjie, dignity doesn’t have anything to do with money.”
The Civil Rights movement was just beginning to gain momentum and she spoke of race relations. Her words now, to the adult in me, were just platitudes, but she believed them and they were part of her. “Colored people must have the same rights as everyone else, they’re people after all just like us. We knew how bad it was in the South but up here before I went to California we all palled around together, coloreds, whites, Jews and non-Jews. It didn’t mean anything to us. Hitler taught us though that we can’t forget that we’re Jews because the non-Jews never forget,” she lectured me. “And if you think things are better now Benjie just remember it wasn’t that long ago that there were signs that said, No Jews or Dogs.” I again had no idea what she was talking about but the words and finally the sentiments stayed with me.
Surprisingly during the time I was in grade school she was not active politically; no ban the bomb groups, no civil rights marches. Her actions were on a personal level and despite her convictions, she had a stand-offish attitude on many activists. I realize now and realized even then, how busy she was – work and school - but there was more. Once after a political lecture in the blue Ford, I asked her, “Mom, why did you stop doing stuff if things are still so bad?”
She shook her head and her answer betrayed a bit of sadness. “The war changed everything, changed people’s lives and changed people’s views. I never thought much about being Jewish, we weren’t religious after all. I was proud of being Jewish but it wasn’t all that important to me. The Nazis changed all that. It didn’t matter in Germany if you were religious or not, you got killed anyway so I realized it was important. You know Papa George had five other brothers and sisters in Romania and only one of them, Uncle Louis, survived the war. Now he’s stuck with the Communists there.”
The war was something she spoke very little about and it was only later from my father that I learned that her boyfriend had been killed. D-Day was on her birthday in 1944 and she took that as a great sign. She also spoke about all the revelations that the war brought.
“In the thirties, we all thought that Socialism was going to save the world and that the Fascists were devils. Yes, Hitler and the Nazis were really pure evil but we learned that Stalin was just as bad, crushed a lot of the Socialist feeling. Then there was this fear with the McCarthy thing and we threw most of our ideas to the side. Remember Bertha and Louie from Los Angeles?”These were close friends of hers that we had visited. I nodded, yes. “They were the biggest Communists. Now Louie owns two nursing homes and lives in Bel-Air.”
The most important thing she spoke about in that big, blue Ford was her philosophy on religion and what it required of us. “God is just the good in all of us, Benjie – all this religious stuff is just that, no more and no less,” but she felt that this “good” required much of us. “What God requires is that you do your best for other human beings. You can never turn away. If someone needs help, you have to help.”
She was the ultimate Good Samaritan. Helping others, both personally and on her job, was her life’s work. She helped on many levels. A neighbor with a son, who had cerebral palsy, before services for the disabled, were provided, came to her for assistance. She found help and education for him. Another friend couldn’t afford a wedding dress so she found a pattern and made one for her.
When I was in fourth grade, she left Coney Island Hospital and went to work for the Federation for the Handicapped. Her job there was to find employment and training for handicapped workers. She worked with her clients much more than the job required and she had many interesting cases. A third-year medical student had cancer and had his arm amputated. Despondent and near suicide having lost his dream of being a surgeon, my mother counseled him into finishing medical school and becoming a psychiatrist. A patient with cerebral palsy had no control of his hands, yet he was brilliant and bilingual in Russian and English. She designed and had built a device where he could type with his feet while looking at an overhead screen.
She had many ideas for the disabled that had she lived during the computer age could have been implemented. If a person has a below elbow amputation of the arm he or she can still use a hook, utilizing the forearm muscles. A hook is extremely useful to an amputee. Unfortunately, at the time there was nothing that could be done with an above elbow amputation so prosthetic arms were solely cosmetic. She designed a prosthetic arm for an above elbow amp that worked a hook off of the shoulder muscles. It was heavy and of limited use, but given the lightweight materials and computer technology of today, it would have been a great innovation.
After four years she left the Federation to go to work for the New York State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation where she eventually rose to the highest civil service position and was director of education programs for the mentally disabled.
She preached a hard code to live by, but it became embedded in me. I was entranced with films about knights, like Ivanhoe and King Arthur and the Round Table and coupled with my mother’s philosophy I began to think of myself as Sir Galahad. As a teen, I gave up Sir Galahad when I realized he was celibate, but over the years, I’ve followed my Mom’s Good Samaritan program more than I’ve ignored it. Sometimes I helped out and I became a hero and sometimes not and I wound up with trouble.
Even for her, it didn’t always work out. One time, I was perhaps eleven; we were walking in Greenwich Village on a shopping trip when in front of a store, there were two policemen harassing an apparently drunk man lying in a fetal position on the sidewalk. “Get up you bum and move on,” one policeman yelled as he poked the man with a nightstick. My mother, her sense of justice invoked, stepped between the cop and the prone man and said: “Officer please stop, he seems to be having some sort of an epileptic seizure.” The other officer pulled her out of the way while the first poked the man again with the nightstick. This time the man stood up and said: “Okay, I won’t sleep here now.” He then stumbled away.
Bio: Dr. Ben Fine is a mathematician and professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut in the United States. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Fairfield University and is the author of thirteen books (eleven in mathematics, one on chess, one a political thriller) as well over 130 research articles, twelve short stories and a novella about Pirates. His story August 18,1969 published in the Green Silk Journal was nominated for a Pushcart prize. His story From the Dambovitsa to Coney Island was an honorable mention winner in the Glimmer Train Literary Contest. He has completed a memoir told in interwoven stories called Tales from Brighton Beach: A Boy Grows in Brooklyn. The stories detail his growing up in Brighton Beach, a seaside neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn, during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Brighton Beach was unique and set apart from the rest of New York City both in character and in time. His latest novel Out of Granada was released in July. His author website is https://benfineauthor.com