We learned as kids that there was a world outside our neighborhood because that’s where dad spent most of the time. Dad commuted from our suburban idyll to 42nd St. in New York City where for many years his office was in the Chrysler Building, the heart of the city. We very occasionally visited his office on the 32nd floor, looking down at the tiny taxis in the street, and away to the river or the ocean or whatever was outside in the distance. One time, our visit was part of an adventure to see the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, complete with the Rockettes and the camels. Another time, I went in to work on the train with dad, got to sit in his office and color, and eat lunch at Chock full o’Nuts, his favorite counter service eatery, where the big treat was to have a whole wheat donut for dessert.
Dad traveled a great deal for his work at a paper company. Once I think he missed Christmas, and called us from Japan, while one Easter he called us from somewhere in Europe. One of my sisters was born while he was somewhere else. There is a family story that after he retired, dad added up all the nights he’d been away from home and it totaled nine years. We didn’t usually hear from dad while he was on a business trip, as international calls were expensive, and he wasn’t usually gone long enough to send postcards.
He often brought home small gifts, leading to the well known enthusiastic hug on arrival, and “What’d you bring me?!!” Sometimes he brought home dolls in the national dress of the country he had visited. Those dolls were kept on top of the cornice around our dining area, brought down periodically to be dusted and admired, the Belgian dancers in tall, sequined hats, Dutch dolls in clogs, African ladies in calico dresses, and kimono-clad Japanese dolls all watching over the dinner table.
Starting when we were very young, we had an occasional international visitor related to dad’s work. For many years dad took Berlitz French classes at work, which he must have tried out on his friend Jacques Siraut, an older gentleman who came to dinner occasionally and spoke English with his strange French accent. Mom taught us to sing “Frere Jacques” so that we could sing it for him. One year, M. Siraut brought us a nativity set that is still in the family, a country landscape with tiny hand-painted figurines, not just the Holy Family, but a butcher in his white apron, a baker in a tall hat, a woman with a basket of fish, townspeople, shepherds, and animals.
Dad also talked to us about his trips, especially Japan, where he was impressed by the cleanliness and order in society. He participated in events where all the men changed from their business suits into kimonos, sat at low tables, and ate sushi and tempura. He brought home colorful kites that we flew in the backyard, and he showed us gifts that he was given as a representative of his company.
Dad would tell us about what he saw when he had time between meetings and was able to walk around whatever city he was in. When he went jogging in the mornings he’d tell us about people going to work or opening shops that he ran past. When he visited a factory in Finland, he was served herring and beer for breakfast. He’d insist that most of his travels consisted of walking around airports and staying in hotels, with very little sightseeing, but he did manage to tell us about Notre Dame in Paris, and monuments in downtown London. Late in his career, mom began to travel whenever dad had an international trip. She was even asked to launch a huge ship at a shipyard in Japan. It was one of the most memorable events of her life.
The biggest adventure by far of my young life was going on my first airplane ride. A few times, the family went to the Westchester County airport to see the planes taking off and landing, a popular activity back then. None of us kids had been on a flight until the year Paula was 9 and I was 8, when we went all by ourselves on a flight from the Westchester County airport to Syracuse. We were up in the air for about an hour and a half, very well taken care of by our flight attendant, who let us see the cockpit, help serve orange juice to the other passengers, and gave us little wings to pin on our dresses. There was time to look out the window at the blue sky and white clouds floating over the miniature landscape. Who could have more fun than that? We spent two weeks with relatives, one girl to Grandma Creamer, and one girl to our aunt Catherine Hart, with a switch half-way along.
I don’t remember what we did in Syracuse, but we picked raspberries in Penn Yan. For years, Aunt Catherine worked with other local women in the fields of Homer Fullager, a farmer in the Penn Yan area who grew grapes used for Welch’s grape juice, and berries. In early spring, the ladies tied up grape vines, then picked berries from June to August, and went on to harvest grapes in the early fall. The work was demanding, but they all seemed to enjoy being outdoors, and I doubt any of the women had to live off their earnings, all having husbands with jobs. In the 1950s and 60s, local labor managed the fields, and Catherine made some extra money while chatting with the other ladies. Paula was very good at picking, and made ten dollars and change during her week in the fields. When I found this out, I was ready to plunge in. Then we got to the field, and it turns out that I was a terrible berry picker. I didn’t see all the ripe berries, so my aunt had to go over the bushes I had supposedly picked. Before the week was up, I was sitting in the shade reading. I think I made three dollars from my week. (I lost that contest.) Our trip to Syracuse fueled reading about plane travel, and watching Sky King on TV, but it didn’t lead to more travel for a number of years.
We visited New York with increasing frequency, and by high school, we could navigate the train into New York, and the subway system. I never got as far as Brooklyn or Coney Island, but we managed to get to Little Italy and Chinatown to eat, and to the lower east side to shop. My mother discovered the discount clothing stores there, back when the garment district still existed, and she occasionally took us along. Another big visit was the day we went to buy Paula a cello. New York is the city that has everything, and we went to the district of musical instruments. Back then, it was still practical to drive into the city and possible to park near one’s destination. I remember the smell of wood, and some parts of instruments, as well as a row of cellos. I’m not even sure why I got to go along, but it was an intriguing day, and we put the cello in the back of the car and headed home.
Little by little, I got used to going to different places, seeing different things, and learning that the world included a lot of different customs, and that usually, the polite thing was to go with the flow.